Days later, prominent conservative Christian leaders--including Focus on the Family president James Dobson, Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright, and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson-- issued a remarkably similar statement, imploring Americans to "repent" for their sins. Prayer is needed, they said, so that "God will restore the walls of his protection around our nation."
The discussion conjures both excitement and dread. On one hand, these believers seem delighted that a divine plan appears to be unfolding. With this horrific event, they believe, God has shown them the world is so evil that it is closer than ever to the end of human history--which means they will spend eternity with God. Yet they also believe God is punishing Americans for disobeying His commandments, which makes them fearful. That gives rise to their urgent need to stave off destruction through prayer, fasting, scolding, and trying to convert people to Christianity.
"There's a scrambling to interpret these events right now," says Daniel Wojcik, author of The End of the World As We Know It and an English professor at the University of Oregon. "The United States turning away from God in the end times is the standard jeremiad, reprimanding us for not being as religious as we should be. So this kind of tragedy is part of a larger scenario, a larger script. People believe it's part of God's plan for the redemption of the world. Some Christians will make meaning of it that way. They will say that we're just a step closer to the rapture and the battle for the world."
And sure enough, Bible prophecy books are "selling like hotcakes," according to Lynn Garrett, religion editor at Publishers' Weekly. Thomas Nelson books, one of the largest Christian publishers, is re-releasing an April 2001 book by San Antonio mega-pastor and Bible prophecy author John Hagee called The Battle for Jerusalem. Hagee is writing two new chapters, and the book will be re-titled Attack on America: New York, Jerusalem and the Role of Terrorism in the Last Days.
Of course, the thousand-pound gorilla of Bible prophecy books is the immensely popular Left Behind fiction series, which has sold 30 million copies in the six years since it was launched. As of Sept. 28, sales of the first book in the series, Left Behind, were up 100% since the terrorist attack. The ninth volume, Desecration, is set for publication Oct. 30. Jerry Jenkins, co-author of the series with Tim LaHaye, said the events of the last couple weeks confirmed for him that the end could be near.
"Nothing more needs to be fulfilled before the coming of Christ," Jenkins said in an interview with Beliefnet. "The last prophecy that was even debatable was whether the gospel had been preached to all the nations. After the memorial service, in which Billy Graham made plain the gospel, was broadcast to every country in the world, few can doubt that that has been fulfilled."
On the Beliefnet discussion boards, the end times are also getting a thorough airing.
Some members, such as sdfranz, describe what is happening simply as "something big." But others, like SavedByThaBlood1, see a clear religious message: "This is a spiritual warfare, between light and dark, between God and Satan, between Good vs. Evil..This is the enemy, Satan, trying to destroy God's property.. It's time to turn back to God, America...it's time to go back before it's too late."
Member Petie goes even further, putting an evangelical Christian spin on it: "I believe with all my heart that Jesus will return in my lifetime and take believers with him. GOD decides when the time is right for him to come. For things in the world to get progressively worse on a daily basis is only a sign in itself; and a mere hint of what it will be like to 'live' during the Tribulation."
Another member, nanaua, expresses similar beliefs: "Time is rapidly growing short, and things are lining up for the world war that the Bible talks about and the world peace brought about by the Antichrist. For the believer, it is looking forward to the rapture in the air with our Lord before he comes again to the earth to set up his kingdom. I believe that I will be living to see that day, Lord willing, and I believe we don't have much time to wait."
Others, such as Underhill, urge calm. "This certainly could be the fulfillment of prophecy. But Christ said that only the Father knows the time...Maybe what is necessary is for each of us to look within ourselves and to be ready for whatever comes. We could be bombed, crop-dusters flown by terrorists could create a biological disaster, or we could get in a car accident on the way to work. . Why not prepare our hearts now and leave the timing to God?"
In New York, an array of prophets has descended on locations near the ruins of the World Trade Center. One day last week about a half-mile from the disaster site, a group of college-age evangelical missionaries danced and sang a song called "This World Has Nothing For Me," while a man named Michael--a gray-bearded prophet wearing a tattered purple cardigan--preached nearby. Pointing to a verse in the Book of Revelation ("And there was war in heaven, Michael and his angels waging war with the dragon"), the man claimed that a map of the earth reveals the outline of a dragon, with Russia and Afghanistan in its belly and Bosnia in its mouth. A war in that part of the world, he explained, is part of an apocalyptic scenario.
Next to Michael stood Wayne, a National Park Service employee from Massachusetts who was handing out a pamphlet entitled "Where is God in the Midst of Tragedy?" Wayne said that in the days since the attack, he had been listening to radio broadcasts by Hal Lindsey,author of The Late Great Planet Earth, the 1970s apocalyptic classic that sold 20 million copies and propelled the idea of the Second Coming into pop culture.
"God has lifted his veil of protection," said Wayne. "He did it to ancient Israel. When they obeyed, he protected them. When they disobeyed, he said, `You're on your own.' If we thumb our noses at God, what do we expect? But God does give us warnings. I think this was a warning. If the United States doesn't change its ways, it will cease to exist. This is leading us to the end-times."
Well-known Bible scholars of the sort who do, in fact, believe the end is near nevertheless grow frustrated when they hear people casually talking about the World Trade Center attack as a definite "sign" of the Second Coming.
But he added: "Whenever you get the Middle East involved in world conflict, it instantly raises questions on the part of many people about whether this is a kick-off to the end times." And there is little doubt that the terrorist attacks have a Middle East connection.
Bailey's seminary is considered End-Times Central among Bible scholars. For nearly a century, ideas about the Antichrist, the Battle of Armageddon, and the Second Coming have been hatched and perfected there. Students come from all over the world to study and spread the message. Hal Lindsey, of Late, Great Planet fame studied there.
Bailey believes in what is called premillennial dispensational theology. That means he believes that someday--we don't know when--Jesus will leave his throne in heaven and swoop to earth. Dead Christians will be resurrected. Living ones will float to the clouds, meeting Jesus in a moment called the Rapture. Everyone left behind (note those words) will suffer seven years of chaos called the Tribulation, before God's final judgment ends human history forever.
Like Jenkins, Bailey says there are no prophetic events recorded in the Bible that still need to be fulfilled before the Rapture takes place.
Many Bible scholars, however, argue that the Bible's authors never intended their work to be interpreted as literal prophecy. The Antichrist in Revelation, for example, alludes to the Roman emperor Nero, who represented evil to early Christians. The passage predicting Armageddon, scholars say, refers to the final victory of good over evil, not a literal battle. The Rapture, mentioned in the Book of I Thessalonians, is an expression of the apostle Paul's confidence that Christians will spend eternity with Jesus.
Nevertheless, apocalyptic teachings are widely held by average people. And those raised in evangelical faiths are routinely taught versions of the events of the Second Coming.
In June, the pollster George Barna surveyed 1,000 adults on their beliefs about the end times. The survey showed that 40% of all U.S. adults believe the physical world will eventually end as a result of a supernatural intervention. Of that group, 38% believed a religious cause would end the world--and 19% believed the cause would be Jesus physically returning to earth.
The survey also showed that 48% of Americans believe the Middle East will be "heavily involved" in the events surrounding the end of the world. And 40% believe the end of the world will come in their lifetime. To date, there have been no national polls since Sept. 11 on the topic.
Of course, despite the popularity of the idea of an impending apocalypse, some people just can't be bothered--even now.
"End of Times? Again? Didn't we do this a few years ago?" writes Beliefnet member NoGods. "How many End of Times are there?"
Presumably, we will eventually learn the answer.