The reason: the outbreak of violence between Israel and Lebanon.
For most people, the current conflict is a scary foreshadowing of an all-out regional war. But, as the Rapture Index's spike shows, to some Christians the war is also a countdown to the Apocalypse. (Though the index fluctuated some in the days after the start of the war, it was back at 157 as of July 31.)
Events in Israel often spark end-times speculation, but the buzz has been particularly loud and especially long-lasting during this conflict. On RaptureReady.com, current activity on the website's bulletin boards is up 80 percent, says co-founder Todd Strandberg, co-founder of RaptureReady.com.
"Generally, when there is an event, the traffic doubles," Strandberg says, noting spikes in talk after hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters that are also believed to presage the end. But those spikes, he said, drop off not long after the event has passed.
"What's interesting here is that it is ongoing," he says. "The traffic has been sustained. We've been holding at high numbers for the past week."
Christians who believe in a literal interpretation of Bible prophesy have been filling internet bulletin boards and websites with chatter about how the Israeli bombing of Lebanon in an attempt to crush Hezbollah militants heralds the "end times"--the seven years of death and destruction the Bible predicts will ultimately lead to the rapture of righteous Christians and, ultimately, Christ's return.
Such prophesy-believing Christians--called "dispensational pre-millennialists" for their belief that the Bible predicts Christ will return to usher a 1,000 year golden age--always take note when Israel is involved in current events, says Daniel Wojcik, author of "The End of the World as We Know It: Faith, Fatalism and Apocalypse in America" (New York University Press, 1999).
One website, apocalypsesoon.com, calls Israel "God's timepiece."
"For many prophesy enthusiasts, the establishment of the nation of Israel and conflict in the Middle East are crucial fulfillments of apocalyptic prophesy," Wojcik says in an email interview. "For many believers, the establishment of a Jewish nation in the land of Palestine, Israel's taking of Old Jerusalem in 1967, and major conflicts in the Middle East are considered to be foreordained in the Bible, and an acceleration of the 'doomsday clock.'"
To pre-millennialists, Israel is the first domino that will trigger a chain of events leading to the end of the world. They point to numerous Bible verses that require certain events to occur there before Christ can return, including a great war, a massive conversion of the Jews to Christianity and the restoration of the great temple on Jerusalem's Temple Mount.
Wojcik says fascination with the Apocalypse is common when societal events--wars, famine, plagues, lawlessness and the breakdown of values--seem out of control.
"What is the appeal?" he says. "Millenarian worldviews not only offer the promise of salvation, but an end to suffering and evil in the world, and promise the creation of a perfect age of harmony."
Since the first bombings on July 12, posts to RaptureReady.com's bulletin boards have been up 100 percent, according to Christine Peters, the website's bulletin board's administrator. And new threads--chains of chat on a single topic or question about the conflict--are up 150 percent.
The previous record for most posts came in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which generated about 900 posts. "Now, it is in the high 1,600s from last week," she says.
Offline, Christians have been expressing their concern, too. Last week,
3,500 evangelical Christians, led by the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Rev. John Hagee met in Washington, D.C., under the banner "Christians United for Israel" and lobbied members of Congress to back Israel in the crisis. Hagee has long expressed belief in the literal interpretation of biblical end times prophesies. Christian radio, too, has been peppered with end times talk since the first attacks.
There are several prophesies at issue, and their interpretation varies. Baxter is focused on a section of Matthew (24; 15-21) in which Jesus describes a period of terrible upheaval that will come before his return. Jesus says, "Then let those who are in Judea"--which Baxter says is the present-day West Bank--"flee to the mountains."
"Ariel Sharon set this whole thing in motion when he withdrew from Gaza and said that he planned to withdraw from Judea," Baxter says. "In my opinion that withdrawal from the West Bank... will set the condition for the fulfillment of that prophesy, which the Bible calls the great tribulation."
Terry James, one of the people behind RaptureReady.com, is has his eye on several verses in the Book of Daniel which describe a leader--some believe it's the Anti-Christ, though there's little consensus on who that would be in this case--who will bring a "false peace" to Israel that will eventually lead to great destruction.
"The Bible says it [the end times] will be a time when Israel at rest," James says. "It will be 'without walls,' a time when it does not feel it needs protection."
James thinks that could arise out of the current situation if the international diplomatic community--already at work on resolving the conflict--is able to bring a ceasefire to the region. Then, he says, the stage will be set for Israel's enemies, described in the Bible as Gog and Magog, will attack.
"Many people believe that these forces are building," he says.
Seen through such a lens, the crisis in the Middle East has alarmed and excited many Christians who believe Bible prophesy literally--approximately 59 percent of Americans, according to one Time/CNN poll.
But few, if any, have celebrated the shedding of blood. Indeed, several who claim great excitement also describe a deep sadness over the loss of life.
"I am torn between wanting all hell to break loose over there, because it means we are closer to going home, and guilt because of these feelings," a poster on RaptureReady.com named Empyrean writes. "I feel guilty and messed-up, because what Christian would wish war and fighting, which results in many people being hurt and killed?"
Carmen, a poster from South Texas, writes, "I think it's wrong for me to be excited... I might be awed by God's hand as it moves--providing I found the safe time to be thoughtful about it--but not excited over the war even as I knew it was God's will and that He was in control."
So far, more than 400 Lebanese civilians, including women, children and infants, have been killed in the bombings.
As the conflict grows, Baxter plans to devote more air time to matching current events to biblical prophesy.
"Is the interest up? Absolutely," Baxter says. "I get the question, Is this Armageddon? No, it is not. We are at least seven years away from Armageddon. But are things shaping up for Armageddon? You better believe they are."