The plot of the Rapture-the word never appears in the Bible although some fantasists insist it is the hidden code to the Book of Revelation-is rather simple, if bizarre. (The British writer George Monbiot recently did a brilliant dissection of it and I am indebted to him for refreshing my own insights.) Once Israel has occupied the rest of its "biblical lands," legions of the Antichrist will attack it, triggering a final showdown in the valley of Armageddon. As the Jews who have not been converted are burned the Messiah will return for the Rapture. True believers will be transported to heaven where, seated at the right hand of God, they will watch their political and religious opponents writhe in the misery of plagues-boils, sores, locusts, and frogs-during the several years of tribulation that follow.

I'm not making this up. Like Monbiot, I read the literature, including "The Rapture Exposed," a recent book by Barbara Rossing, who teaches the New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and "America Right or Wrong," by Anatol Lieven, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. On my weekly broadcast for PBS, we reported on these true believers, following some of them from Texas to the West Bank. They are sincere, serious, and polite as they tell you they feel called to help bring the Rapture on as fulfillment of biblical prophecy. To this end they have declared solidarity with Israel and the Jewish settlements and backed up their support with money and volunteers.

For them the invasion of Iraq was a warm-up act, predicted in the Book of Revelation, where four angels "bound in the great river Euphrates" will be released "to slay the third part of man." A war with Islam in the Middle East is not something to be feared but welcomed-an essential conflagration on the road to redemption. The last time I Googled it, the Rapture Index stood at 144-approaching the critical threshold when the prophecy is fulfilled, the whole thing blows, the Son of God returns, and the righteous enter paradise while sinners will be condemned to eternal hellfire.

What does this mean for public policy and the environment? Listen to John Hagee, pastor of the 17,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, who is quoted in Rossing's book as saying: "Mark it down, take it to heart, and comfort one another with these words. Doomsday is coming for the earth, for the nations, and for individuals, but those who have trusted in Jesus will not be present on earth to witness the dire time of tribulation." Rossing sums up the message in five words that she says are basic Rapture credo: "The world cannot be saved." It leads to "appalling ethics," she reasons, because the faithful are relieved of concern for the environment, violence, and everything else except their personal salvation. The earth suffers the same fate as the unsaved. All are destroyed.


How many true believers are there? It's impossible to pin down. But there is a constituency for the End Times. A "Newsweek" poll found that 36 percent of respondents held the Book of Revelation to be "true prophecy." (A Time/CNN poll reported that one quarter think the Bible predicted the 9/11 attacks.) Drive across the country with your radio tuned to some of the 1,600 Christian radio stations or turn to some of the 250 Christian TV stations and you can hear the Gospel of the Apocalypse in sermon and song. Or go, as "The Toronto Star"'s Tom Harpur did, to the Florida Panhandle, where he came across an all-day conference "at one of the largest Protestant churches I have ever been in," the Village Baptist Church in Destin.

The theme of the day was "Left Behind: A Conference on Biblical Prophecy about End Times" and among the speakers were none other than Tim LaHaye and two other leading voices in the religious right today, Gary Frazier and Ed Hindson. Here is what Harpur wrote for his newspaper:

I have never heard so much venom and dangerous ignorance spouted before an utterly unquestioning, otherwise normal-looking crowd in my life.... There were stunning statements about humans having been only 6,000 years on Earth and other denials of contemporary geology and biology. And we learned that the Rapture, which could happen any second now, but certainly within the next 40 years, will instantly sweep all the "saved" Americans (perhaps one-half the population) to heaven....


But these fantasies were harmless compared with the hatred against Islam that followed. Here are some direct quotes: "Islam is an intolerant religion-and it's clear whose side we should be on in the Middle East." Applause greeted these words: "Allah and Jehovah are not the same God.... Islam is a Satanic religion.... They're going to attack Israel for certain...." Gary Frazier shouted at the top of his lungs: "Wake Up! Wake Up!" And roughly 800 heads (at $25.00 per) nodded approval as he added that the left-wing, anti-Israel media-"for example, CNN"-will never tell the world the truth about Islam. According to these three, and the millions of Americans they lead, Muslims intend ultimately "to impose their religion on us all." It was clear, Harpur wrote: "A terrible, final war in the region is inevitable."