Explosions, plumes of smoke, rising body counts, wars and rumors of wars—for those given to wondering about the Apocalypse, news reports from the Middle East might be evidence that the end is nigh. As tensions rise, so does speculation among many Christians about whether current events are the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Some frequently asked questions:
Some Christians believe that the conflicts in the Middle East are a sign of the end of the world. Why?
Two reasons. First, when Jesus’ disciples asked him for signs of “the end of the age,” he replied in part that there would be “wars and rumors of wars,” and that “[n]ation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom” (NIV). For evangelical Christians who embrace End Times teaching, major geopolitical conflict is a harbinger of the latter days.
Second, Middle Eastern countries loom large in eschatology (end times thinking) because some Christians believe that the End Times calendar is tied closely to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Select verses in prophetic Bible books such as Ezekiel and Zephaniah are believed to predict a “regathering” of Jews in their homeland that would precede the Last Days. Hal Lindsey, author of the best-selling The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), famously predicted that the end would come within a generation of Israel’s statehood. Last week, the Rev. Jerry Falwell wrote in his column, “It is apparent, in light of the rebirth of the State of Israel, that the present day events in the Holy Land may very well serve as a prelude or forerunner to the future Battle of Armageddon and the glorious return of Jesus Christ.”
Does that mean that, for these Christians, the war is good news?
Despite the tragedy, there’s genuine excitement among some people that Jesus’ return might be near. But as Dr. Tim LaHaye, co-author of the best-selling apocalyptic Left Behind novels, said, “I’m praying that this whole thing will die down and that as many lives as possible will be saved.” Some End Times theorists note if Israel were to be wiped out, it would be a step in the wrong direction, since the establishment of Israel is a precondition for the Second Coming.
What’s so important about Israel?
It depends on who you ask. Evangelical Christians believe that the Jews are God’s chosen people, but not all are sold on Israel’s role in the Last Days. Evangelical support for the state of Israel has as much to do with its role as a Middle East democracy and United States ally as it does with eschatology. Evangelicals also support Israel because the Bible tells them to. As Southern Baptist leader Dr. Richard Land told Beliefnet in a 2002 interview, "God blesses those that bless the Jews and curses those who curse the Jews. Consequently, we believe America needs to bless the Jews and Israel, because if we bless the Jews and support Israel, God blesses us. And if we don't, God curses us."
A popular strand of eschatology holds that during the End of Days, Israel will regain her homeland (check), rebuild the Temple (not yet), suffer a series of wars (check), and eventually be the scene of a final battle, Armageddon. Some theorists also think that a great number of Jews will accept Jesus as the Messiah during these events.
Does that mean Christians need to convert the Jews in order for the end to come?
Among End Times thinkers, one school of thought does hold that Jews in Israel will come to faith in Christ during the last days. For that reason, some Christian ministries are devoted to evangelizing Jews. But many evangelicals emphasize that the end will only come when the gospel has spread all around the world, not just in Israel. They point to the Great Commission of Jesus (“Go and make disciples of all nations”) and also Matthew 24:14, which says that “the end shall come” only after the good news of Jesus is preached “unto all nations.”
At what point in all this does Jesus come back?
Christians who follow the End Times debate this ad infinitum. Some think that Jesus will return and gather his believers and the world will suffer a period of Tribulation before a 1,000-year time of peace. Others believe Jesus will come after the Tribulation, then establish the peaceful millennium. Still others believe Jesus will return in the middle of the Tribulation. Even the boldest speculators often defer to Jesus’ words: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
How many people believe this?
It’s hard to say. Book popularity is not the best indication of what people believe, but End Times books have long been hot. Lindsey’s Planet Earth was one of the top-selling non-fiction books of the 1970s; the Left Behind series has sold 63 million total, including children’s books and prequels. There has been widespread speculation that evangelical eschatology has helped shape the Bush Administration’s policy toward the Middle East. But Christians are not monolithic in their views, and End Times beliefs are varied, disparate, and in flux.