Pushing the Apocalypse 

How fundamentalists see scripture -- and politics-- on schedule for the end of the world.

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The bus to the church arrives early. From the outside, Anchor Baptist Church is divided into three compound-like structures. The pastor’s office is in the basement.

I am shown to a waiting room decorated like an upscale hotel, with mirror, paintings and plush chairs. On a coffee table is a pamphlet titled “Eternal Victory,” which challenges readers to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior.

After a short wait, I am in with Pastor Thomas Corkish, a charismatic, genteel man of medium build in his early 70s. Dapperly dressed in suit and tie, he holds my attention with charm and conviction. It’s not hard to believe he was once a barroom musician. That, of course, was before he was saved.

Corkish keeps his Bible handy. I take out my King James. Corkish dispenses his knowledge from behind a conference table, a large Spanish-steel sword mounted on a wall behind him. Usually when people consult from behind a desk, they talk about things like mortgages, trusts or insurance. Corkish talks about Armageddon.

“It’s imminent,” he assures me. “We know this because of the Word of God. History has not set the course that makes it imminent, but history sure makes it’s clear what needs to happen. Everything is coming together.”

Corkish believes that the book of Revelation is a literal roadmap for what will happen in the End Times. His conviction reminds me of the rabbis I studied under at the Orthodox Jewish yeshiva in New York. They too clung tenaciously to a black-and-white world-view.

Corkish’s every pronouncement is animated. An agnostic, I am fascinated, if slightly repelled. He tells me about the Tribulation, seven years filled with catastrophes, persecutions and wars. He describes the Antichrist, a man who will lead a vast, one-world government during that time. Next is Armageddon. Armies from around the world will invade Israel, killing so many Jews that their blood will reach up to the bridles of horses for miles around the battle. Finally, when all hope is thought lost, Christ will return, cause an earthquake and save a remnant of the believers.

It’s a fantastic, incredible, epic scenario. The rationalist inside feels momentarily swayed—never mind the surreal plot or the irony in characterizing Christ as the “gentle lamb of God.”

At the end of our interview, my tape recorder off, Corkish asks me if I have accepted Christ. No, I said. Would I say a prayer with him? I acquiesce.

“Dear Lord, thank you for this time. May Zach, although he now subscribes to this thing called agnosticism, soon find You and accept You in his life.” He continues praying for several minutes.

Corkish’s certainty notwithstanding, there is little uniformity over what will happen in the so-called End Times. As set down by John of Patmos in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation, this prophesied era is populated by fantastic beasts and typified by destruction and suffering. Worlds away from Jesus turning the other cheek, this is religious belief on its grandest, most destructive scale.

It also manifests itself on many political and historical levels. The foundation of Israel in 1948, a rotating menu of Antichrists, Israel’s recapture of Jerusalem’s holy places after the 1967 Six-Day War, the proliferation of one-world entities and our imminent war with Iraq—all represent, to believers, sure signs that the end is nearing, and that newspapers reflect hidden truths of the Bible.

End Times theology or, as others sometimes call it, “Dispensational premillennialism,” is also big business. Christian fundamentalist Hal Lindsey set the tone with his sensationalist best-seller The Late, Great Planet Earth, published in the early ’70s. That was just a prelude to the recent premillennial blockbuster Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, novels and even children’s comic books that have sold in the millions. And you thought the millennial craze had passed with the Y2K scare.

Most premillenialist believers have their own personalized timetable for events. But one Christian film produced in the early ’70s, Thief in the Night, laid out the sequence in all its nightmarish possibilities. The central character, a young woman in her early 20s, watches world governments merge into a centralized entity, even as she wonders where all her Christian, Bible-believing friends have disappeared to.

She quickly finds out they disappeared into the heavens as part of the Rapture. That was because they were “saved” believers in Christ. It’s the unbelievers who must suffer through the Tribulation. And soon, the Antichrist, who leads the one-world government, will require that every man and woman be marked with “666,” either on the forehead or hand, if they hope to sell or buy goods. In this brave new world, everything will seem peaceful, even the Middle East. But it’s a ruse to support humanity’s pride—ultimately doomed to failure. It’s a set-up for worldwide war and total destruction that will usher in the Second Coming of Christ—but only after the third Jewish temple is rebuilt in Jerusalem after the Antichrist strikes an historic peace agreement.

As set out in Thief in the Night, all seems fine to our young heroine—until she realizes that it’s all part of a Biblical script. Even worse, those marked with “666” are eternally damned. At film’s end, all she can do to save her soul from hell is throw herself off the edge of the Hoover Dam. Cheery stuff.

Mormons also adhere to an End Times script. In many ways it’s even more aligned with Jewish concerns. But rather than dwell on the nation of Israel, Mormons concentrate on gathering converts into the fold—as members of a different kind of Jewish family. As Dr. Robert Millet, the Robert L. Evans Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University, points out, Mormons consider themselves part of the Jewish race.

“Many Latter-day Saints claim to be from the tribe of Ephraim, son of Joseph. But there are Latter-day Saints who are of Manasseh and Benjamin and Judah. We speak a great deal of the House of Israel. When we say the House of Israel, we don’t just mean the Jews, we mean all the tribes of Israel.”

For Mormons, this is not a spiritual kinship. They believe they are the actual offspring of Abraham.

The Book of Mormon, according to Millet, fits right into the Old Testament because it is about a family of the tribe of Joseph that leaves Jerusalem in 600 B.C. and supposedly travels to America. After reading 2 Kings in the Old Testament, you could begin reading 1 Nephi without skipping a beat.

Mormons have their own take on the End Times as well, as well as a unique itinerary for Jesus when he returns. They believe that we are currently in the Tribulation and that it could continue for some time. Moreover, they believe that before Christ returns in glory at the battle of Armageddon, he will make two preliminary, private appearances in Missouri. The first will be in an LDS Church in Independence, where he will appear to a few church leaders. The second appearance will be at a place called Adam-Ondi-Ahman. There, Christ will meet with a group of Latter-day Saint priests, and he will also be given the keys of the world by Adam, the first man. After Christ establishes his kingdom, he will minister from Independence, Mo., which Mormons believe is the site of the biblical Garden of Eden, and from Jerusalem.

However, LDS Church leaders do not talk much about the End Times. Members of the church are encouraged to “live providently and not live in panic,” according to Millet. “The book of Revelation is an example of apocalyptic literature and is largely symbolic.”

Indeed, most mainstream evangelical pastors shy away from calling anything a sign of the End Times, but do interpret Revelation literally and believe we are near the end. According to Corkish, “We know that 9/11 and Iraq fit into the current era. But it doesn’t mean that it has to bring the Lord back.”

Evangelical Christians believe that the Rapture, Tribulation, the rise of the Antichrist, Christ’s return, the resurrection of the dead, the Thousand Year Kingdom, Satan’s rebellion, and the New Jerusalem are all events that will happen in the not-so-distant future.

Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians, on the other hand, tend toward purely allegorical interpretations of Revelation. The Judeo-Christian fascination with eschatology, a fancy word for the specialized study of End Times, is not new. The Dead Sea Scrolls, found in a series of caves in the Judean desert, were probably an archive compiled by the Essenes, a Jewish sect around the time of Christ that had withdrawn into the desert in an attempt to purify and prepare themselves for the coming battle between the sons of light and the sons of darkness. That doomsaying attitude, where people must be continually prepared for disaster, carried on into the early Christian church. In the fifth century, Christians saw the Goth and Vandal invasions of Rome as marking the end of the world.

Apocalyptic writings in Judaism refer to the War of Gog and Magog, where the Jewish Messiah will lead the Jews to victory over the hordes seeking to destroy them. Sunni Muslims believe that in the end of time, Jesus, fighting on their behalf, will defeat a false Jewish Messiah leading an army of Jews near Jerusalem.

But aside from their psychological appeal, apocalyptic beliefs derived from literal interpretations of ancient texts can be seen as a wall of defense.

“A lot of this has to do with the reliability of the Bible. This kind of thinking emerges at the beginning of the 19th century, much at the same time as when modern science begins to undermine a lot of the Bible’s claims,” said Jon R. Stone, assistant professor of religion and philosophy at California State University in Bakersfield. “This kind of reading into the Bible may seem to fend off scientific critiques which have gradually undermined its authority.”

Stone, who first became interested in End Times theology after he heard high school friends discuss their beliefs, notes that many of these beliefs arise out of an intricate pattern of tracing and matching certain Bible verses. It’s almost an art in itself.

“It’s a hole you fall into, like the rabbit hole Alice falls through into Wonderland, where we see caterpillars with hookahs. I don’t want to critique these people, but you have to accept a lot of things that, on the face of it, sound pretty absurd,” Stone said. “There are a lot of assumptions made one can’t understand unless you fully immerse yourself in it.”

But no matter what your interpretive perspective, surely the birth of the state of Israel in 1948 was miraculous in and of itself. It’s also the cornerstone on which so much End Times theology rests. Before Christ can return, the theology requires, the Jews must have their own state. And the Third Temple must be rebuilt.

Corkish clarifies: “God has left the Jews as a nation, not as individuals. However, they are guaranteed they are going to have their own country. They will survive, and they will produce the Messiah.”

In biblical times, the Jerusalem temple was the holiest site in all Judaism. However, today, the temple site is also the third most sacred site in Islam, after Mecca and Medina, and is home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, also known as the Dome of the Rock. Even attempting to rebuild the temple could trigger a cataclysmic reaction from the Muslim world. But this did not trouble Corkish.

“The Third Temple will be rebuilt, and it will be on that very site, too. But it is no problem, because as you have read here in Revelation, there will be earthquake after earthquake after earthquake. The Muslims won’t be happy with that,” he said.

The continued existence of Israel, then, is crucial for the game plan. It’s no accident that many evangelical Christians are vocal in their support of the Jewish state, if only to fortify their own religious beliefs. These are beliefs that reach all the way up to America’s corridors of power. In the 1984 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan publicly admitted to believing in the apocalypse. In today’s Congress, House Republican whip Tom Delay refers to occupied West Bank and Gaza as biblical Judea and Samaria. Outgoing House Majority Leader Dick Armey was more frank, stating that Palestinians had no title to the West Bank, which belonged to Israel.

Many Israelis, while grateful for American support, are unaware of the theological motivations behind it.

Charles B. Strozier, professor of history at City University of New York, and author of Apocalypse, sees evangelical Christians using the Jewish people as a tool to further the End Times, even if it’s a far cry from the anti-Semitism of the old Church.

“It privileges Jews in special ways. If God says Jews were chosen they must have a special role, therefore that role is to create Israel and usher in the Second Coming. That’s why when Israel was created they saw it as a fulfillment of prophecy,” Strozier said. “But it’s not as genial as it might appear. Fundamentalists love Jews in the abstract, but continue to have questions about them. At the more extreme fringes is the idea that you should welcome anti-Semitism because it will bring them all back to Israel. You can’t have the Second Coming until you have a complete ‘ingathering.’ The theology requires that you have Jews all in one place.”

The theology also requires that a lot of Jews will be killed in End Times battles.

“The instrumentality of Jews makes them dispensable in this theology,” Strozier points out.

A lot of Americans don’t realize just how instrumental some of these beliefs are in the arena of international relations and Middle Eastern affairs. Strozier sees a direct link to the current Republican administration and the recent electoral successes of Israel’s conservative Likud party.

“People imagine that America is so unequivocally pro-Israel because of the sinister version that politicians have Jewish interests in their pockets,” Strozier said. “That’s not it at all. It’s tangential. It’s that you have 67 million Americans who believe that Jesus will come back to Israel according to the ideas of premillenial dispensationalists. It’s an alliance between Likud and the Christian fundamentalists. Israel, and particularly the settlers [in West Bank and Gaza] get to do anything they want, as long as they [American evangelicals] provide support to Republicans politically. That’s had a profound effect on American politics for the past 20 years, including contributing to the election of George W. Bush.”

Other Jews embrace their own version of the End Times, which can work in tandem with the evangelical Christian version. One is Gershon Salomon, chairman of The Temple Mount and Land of Israel Faithful Movement in Jerusalem. Salomon believes that the Third Temple will be rebuilt in the near future, and that Israel is now living in the End Times.

In fact, he would hurry things along if he could. In 1990, during the Jewish harvest festival of Succot, Salomon requested permission from Israeli authorities to lead a group of believers in laying the cornerstone of the future Third Temple. Permission was denied. However the Palestinians, who were in the midst of the Intifada, came to defend Al-Aqsa. On Oct. 8, a crowd of Palestinians began stoning Jewish worshippers at the Wailing Wall. The mood quickly turned deadly and the handful of policemen assigned to the area opened fire, killing many Palestinians. This, in turn, triggered riots in the occupied territories and in Arab towns in Israel. An almost identical chain of events was triggered by Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in September of 2000, an event many credit with triggering the second, and most current, Palestinian Intifada.

Salomon links the events of Sept. 11 directly to the End Times. His winter 2002-03 edition of the online newsletter Voice of the Temple Mount Faithful states that “the terror attack on the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001, which killed thousands of innocent Americans, is no doubt a part of this End Time event.”

Salomon also interprets the current Intifada against the Israelis as “merely a prelude to the war that is to come—the great End Time war which Ezekiel called the Gog and Magog war and which Zechariah called the battle for Jerusalem.”

But it’s the onslaught of a one-world government, led by the Antichrist, that will throw Israel into turmoil, war and eventual destruction. Some believe Muslim nations will invade Israel, followed by the “great power” in the north—usually identified as Russia—which defeats the Muslims. After defeating the Muslims, the Russians will then face off with the Chinese, who will eventually prevail to face the army led by the Antichrist. All this will take place near the ancient hill of northern Israel called Megiddo. Needless to say, there will be a lot of dead Jews, among others. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, however, some End Timers have posited Iraq as the “great power in the north.”

Author Mark Hitchcock, Ph.D. candidate at the Dallas Theological Seminary, has even written a book about the initial phase of all this, The Coming Islamic Invasion of Israel. Stone breaks it down. “In Revelation, there’s a discussion of the fall of Babylon, and Iraq sits in ancient Babylon. So a lot of these preachers say, ‘Aha!’ Babylon fell a long time ago, but still exists in modern Iraq. Most scholars would say that the Biblical reference to Babylon is a reference to seeing Rome destroyed. But in the 20th century, some millennialists are making the same kind of correlations. … If Jews and Muslims can’t get along, then it’s a sign that we’re well on the way to the End Times.”

Corkish doesn’t adhere to a Lindsey-like time-line of the Last Days but nonetheless feels that current events are a sign that the apocalypse is brewing. Sure, war with Iraq and Sept. 11 carry meaning, but Corkish is more concerned with an emerging one world government, the testing ground of which is surely the United Nations. He’s also troubled by the blurring of religious denominations, and shows no love for Islam.

“We are heading toward the period of the Rapture and the Tribulation. Things are in preparation. We have a United Nations, a one-world government,” Corkish said.

For Corkish, the United Nations is a throwback to the biblical Tower of Babel, when there was a one-world government, language and religion. God was displeased with this arrangement, so he confounded their language.

“Today we are working desperately to get a one-world government. We have a one-world court. We have people deciding in New York City whether there should be a war in Iraq, then they will send the United States to fight it,” he said.

Corkish sees the move to promote religious tolerance after Sept. 11 as a move toward ecumenism. “What is happening now, because of Sept. 11, is that kids in school in California have to memorize certain parts of the Koran. They have to come to school on a certain day dressed in Islamic garments, and eat that kind of food. There’s no unity between the God Allah and the God Jehovah. They are not the same God.”

Later in the interview, Wheeler expounded on the same subject. “Ultimately there is God and the devil. Either you believe in God, and everything that falls under that, everything else is the devil. I think Allah is absolutely under the auspices of Satan. Every other false religion and cult are under the control of Satan. There are even some churches with Jesus Christ on their fronts that are really worshipping Satan.”

Wheeler reads more into Iraq and Sept. 11 than does Corkish, cautiously though. “Nine-eleven and the war in Iraq are maybe setting the stage for the seven-year period of Tribulation. As I interpret the events in 2 Timothy, we are living in the Last Days,” Wheeler said.

Then there’s the question of the Antichrist. Who the hell is this guy? The question is almost as old as Christianity. Some early Christians identified him as Roman emperor Nero. Later it was Napoleon, followed by Mussolini, Hitler and even Henry Kissinger. There’s continual debate about whether or not the Antichrist will be Jewish or gentile. Some evangelical Christians postulate that he could at least be identified by year of birth—specifically 1948, the year Israel was founded.

And whoever the Antichrist is, or turns out to be, Israel remains of crucial importance. Stone points to Genesis 12:3 as evidence used by believers to justify Israel’s exalted status. God says to Abraham, “Those who bless you, I will bless. Those who curse you I will curse.”

“They’ll say, if we don’t support Israel, God will curse us. This becomes an unspoken tenet of the church. God was speaking to Abraham individually, but it’s also read as God speaking to Abraham’s descendants,” Stone said. “But the funny thing is that Abraham is also the father of the Arab peoples. If you want to be consistent, you shouldn’t curse the Arabs, either. I know I’m being cheeky.”

Believers don’t necessarily have to wait for all these things to come to pass. They can read a lot about them. Beverly Rykerd, publicist for the Left Behind series published by Tyndale House, said these books satisfy a “spiritual hunger” that people have today.

“Fifty-five million total pieces of Left Behind series merchandise have been sold,” she said with a tone of satisfaction. This includes a children’s line of the books, which have sold 10 million copies. Rykerd credits the series’ popularity with word-of-mouth.

“This is a pew-driven phenomenon. There are pastors who are talking about the series but it is the people in the churches who are getting the word out,” she said.

Consequently, although the books sell briskly throughout the country, in areas like the Northeast that are “not heavily churched”—as Rykerd put it—sales are weakest. The books sell best in the Bible Belt and among southern Baptists.

For others, the End Times occurr on a spiritual and personal plane, and without best-selling apocalyptic tomes.

For Rev. Daniel Webster, communications director for the Episcopal Diocese in Salt Lake City, the Second Coming will probably be spiritual in nature. “It will be a transformation of experience that has more to do with consciousness and less to do with bodies. I think it will be more and more people exercising the greatest gift, as Paul described it, which is love and then we will see a spiritual awakening on this planet like never before. And it could happen without one drop of blood.”

Armageddon might be a Gandhiesque battle where non-violent examples of love triumph over human shortcomings. It’s a mistake to interpret Scripture literally, Webster believes. The context they were written in is far more important.

“They wrote in a time when they thought the earth was flat, when they had no clue of all the wonderful things we have come to know in the last 2000 years. We do an injustice by taking their words out of their culture and out of their language and interpreting them literally in our culture and in our language. That is a grave mistake,” he said.

However, Webster is a realist. He acknowledges human capacity for evil and the danger in interpreting everything as a sign of the End Times. “I am sure that the Holocaust was an Armageddon for the Jews and the Gypsies and the homosexuals and the Poles and for those who were gassed, and we didn’t see Jesus coming out of the clouds then. There have been examples of Armageddon whether it was the Black Plague or human beings killing and torturing each other for centuries, and we are still sitting here desperately looking for simple explanations for the horrors of this life when there are no simple explanations.”

Speaking from his East Coast domain, Strozier said the worst-case scenario of all these diverging, but elementally unified, beliefs is that people will grow to accept them as unavoidable events. The world will end with great battles in the Middle East, and there’s not a thing we can do about it because it’s God’s plan. Fatalism wins.

“Once you lose that center of the possibility of a human future, it can in many ways lead to an embrace of actually doing things to make it happen sooner. It’s what the ancient Jews called ‘forcing the end,’” Strozier said.

A story attributed to Teddy Kolek, former mayor of Jerusalem, at least tries to imbue the events of the end of the world with a little humor. Kolek said he would settle the issue of whether the Messiah had been here once before by asking him, when he appeared in Jerusalem, “Sir, is this your first time here or your second?”

If the Messiah ever comes, after a whole heap of bloodshed and destruction, Kolek’s question will be incredibly moot.

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