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America's Apocalyptic Cheerleaders
As violence grips the Middle East, evangelical Christians root for Armageddon from the cheap seats
“One of the things I think about a lot—for self-preservation reasons—is how a particularly odious swath of evangelicals in this country are Real Weird About the Jews. I mean … Real Weird. I mean … twist-yourself-into-pretzels, crazy-eyes, run-infomercials-about-Israel weird. And it’s all, in the end, about the apocalypse.”
Talia wrote these words in October of last year, when the intersection of evangelical Christianity, Zionism, and rising antisemitism had led to “a time of throbbing temples amongst America’s Jewish population.” A lot can happen in a year, and as the tragedy in Israel and Gaza continues to play out, Talia’s year-old column is more prescient now than ever. To help make sense of the current situation, and understand why so many Americans seem eager for more bloodshed, we’re returning to the well. Talia’s current thoughts are below, and I’ve assembled a selection of articles on the subject going back fifty years.
The end of the world has been just around the corner for as long as we’ve had religion. But in fundamentalist Christian eschatology, the conditions of the Second Coming are predicated on the return of the Holy Land to Jewish dominion…and the ultimate destruction of the Jewish people. That’s a prospect that has a frightening number of Americans giddy with anticipation. It’s no wonder that, for the Jewish people, this is a time of throbbing temples. It often is.
Evangelical “love” of Israel is the love of the consumer towards the consumed, a hungry man for bread. Their fantasy is ultimately one of destruction: the annihilation of the Jewish faith through death, save an elect of 144,000 who convert to Christianity — a number derived from the Book of Revelations. It is a necropolitical fantasy, one that views the tribulation with, as a post from Calvary Chapel—the church to whom Rep. Brian Mast, who has appeared in Congress this week in an IDF uniform, belongs, put it—“excitement, anticipation, and glee”; the end of the world is “the highly anticipated kingdom.” The apocalypse demands the agony of all but the elect; to the elect it is ecstasy. It is rapture.
The conversion and annihilation of the Jews must be preceded by their return to and absolute control of Israel; therefore the lives of Palestinians are worthless and forfeit from the start, a road-bump in this violent fantasy that was never accounted for in the Revelations map. They are an inconvenience to be disposed of, pawns to be knocked off the board so other pawns can be positioned to set up the moment of Christ's return, the end of history in blood. Palestinians are less than human in this vision; inconveniences at best, instruments of the Antichrist at worst. Either way, their annihilation is necessary. There have been many predictions of the apocalypse and many preludes. In this moment of death and displacement, there is joy for Christian observers from afar, the ecstatic terror of deliverance.
What it amounts to is cheering on Armageddon from the cheap seats—and directing funds to ensure it occurs. It's a grotesquerie of geopolitics and religion, and it carries undue weight in American foreign policy, thanks to the merger of the Christian Right and the Republican Party. A game of chess with eternity at stake.
Often, Christian Zionism—the fanatic belief that animates tens of millions of evangelical Christians in the US, many of whom have disproportionate power on the Christian right and by extension the Republican Party—redounds on Jews. The eschatological fantasy for which Israel is prime fodder requires our exploitation. Nonetheless, the “I stand with Israel” message that Christian-right congressmen, church leaders and governors proudly declare is viewed as another piece of evidence that Jews have unnatural and pernicious influence over American foreign policy.
It's worth noting that among Christian Republicans, and politicians who wish to appease the extremely politically active evangelical base, the fanatic support for American aid for Israel—particularly military aid, which makes apocalyptic conflict so much more tangible—comes from a dark well of faith, as well of prophecy and tribulation, of mass conversion and mass death, the highly anticipated kingdom at the end of the world. This support for Israel is both absolute and also predatory: it is a maneuvering towards the end. As David Jeremiah, author and head of Turning Point Ministries, put it on October 10, three days after Hamas' initial massacre of civilian Israelis: “As Christians we recognize God's purpose for Israel, and we must stand with her.”
Religion: Is the End Near?
Time, January 8, 1973
Jerusalem has been recaptured by the Jews. Soviet power threatens the Mideast. Communist China is working on an H-bomb delivery system. Nine nations are now in the Common Market. To growing thousands of U.S. Christians, these political facts are portents of doom, part of a detailed scenario for the Apocalypse. While most Christians were concentrating last week on the First Coming—Jesus' nativity at Bethlehem—these believers were concerned with Christ's Second Coming at the end of time, which they are convinced is at hand.
Waiting for the End
By William Martin
The Atlantic, June 1982
Though its growth has occurred mostly within the past two decades, this movement, based on biblical prophecy, had its roots in the nineteenth century. The French Revolution and its aftermath had kindled interest in prophecy, as biblical students saw the destruction of papal power, the secularization of the state, and the rise of a religion of reason as being remarkably similar to events described in Daniel and Revelation. A number of societies and conferences, primarily in Great Britain, developed an approach to these texts contending that they foretold, in explicit detail, the restoration of the Jews to Palestine, a cataclysmic end to the present age, the Second Coming of Christ, and the Millennium—a thousand years of unearthly bliss. Further, those able to break the code of these books not only could understand what was happening all about them but could face the end of the age with a joy born of the certain knowledge of eventual triumph.
Religious Debate Fueled by Politics
By Walter Goodman
New York Times, October 28, 1984
“And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Ar-ma-ged-don.” That sentence from the Book of Revelation (16:16), the only mention of Armageddon in the Bible, has become the focus of an unusual political controversy.
On a number of occasions over the years, President Reagan has referred to Armageddon, the place where, according to some religious teachings, the last, decisive battle between the forces of good and evil is to be fought before the Day of Judgment.
Representatives of mainstream religions charged last week that such references lent support to the idea that the United States and the Soviet Union were destined for a nuclear showdown. In the Presidential debate last week, Mr. Reagan characterized his comments as “just some philosophical discussions.”
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Armageddon and the End Times
By Richard N. Ostling
Time, November 5, 1984
Dispensationalists' versions of how these biblical prophecies will be fulfilled vary wildly and, to mainstream Protestants, seem forced and fanciful. Many contemporary “signs of the times” (famines, wars, earthquakes), say critical commentators, have existed in almost all historical periods. But the prophetic movement can point to the fulfillment of what they see as a major biblical prediction. Two generations before Zionism emerged, dispensationalists insisted that one prologue to the End Times would be the return of the Jewish people to the Holy Land. Thus when Israel was founded in 1948, says Hal Lindsey, “the prophetic countdown began!” Israel's capture of Old Jerusalem in 1967 was equally portentous, since it seemed to fulfill Jesus' words in Luke 4:24 and made theoretically possible the rebuilding of the Temple on its original site, a long-established requirement of many dispensationalists. According to some, the Antichrist will make his headquarters there prior to Jesus' last coming.
Sanctifying the Evangelical Vote
By James Ridgeway
Village Voice, June 17, 1986
Behind the politics of the Christian right lies the powerful engine of Armageddon theology, which lends an emotional intensity to the movement. Numerous fundamentalist leaders—Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to name but two—preach the doctrine of “premillennialism,” which holds that the world is entering a period of indescribable devastation and suffering. Its climax will be the battle of Armageddon and the return of Christ.
Premillennialists have been wrong in prophesying Armageddon at various points in history. Under President Reagan such prophecies have gained new currency. The president himself speculated on the subject in a 1981 interview with People magazine: “Never, in the time between the ancient prophecies up until now has there been a time in which so many of the prophecies are coming together. There have been times in the past when people thought the end of the world was coming, and so forth, but never like this.”
The Battle For The Temple Mount
By Robert I. Friedman
Mother Jones, August-September 1987
The driving force in the United States behind efforts to rebuild the temple has come from within the 45.5 million strong Christian evangelical community. By one estimate, there are as many as 250 American Christian evangelical groups operating in the United States whose main purpose is to support Israel. Fundamentalist evangelicals, who interpret the Bible literally, believe the Jews' return to Israel and the restoration of the temple will precede the Second Coming of Christ—at which point the Jews will be forcibly converted. Zionist fundamentalists accept the Christians' patronage because they are convinced the Messiah will be a Jew. The alliance between Jewish and Christian fundamentalists is perhaps the ultimate marriage of convenience, with the two groups united to bring on the Messiah and each side convinced the Messiah will be its Own
Mideast Crisis Sparks Talk of Armageddon
By Michael Hirsley and Jorge Casuso
Chicago Tribune, October 14, 1990
Predictions of Armageddon and the Second Coming are nothing new in American history. Rev. William Miller raised anxiety and expectation that Christ would come in the 1840s. Although his preparations did not yield the Second Coming, they did spawn the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, which continues today.
Another Christian movement with 19th Century roots and abiding interest in the end of the world called “dispensationalism.” Its mentor, Englishman John Nelson Darby, taught that the end-time would be marked by enemies invading the land of the Israelites, who would be saved by God's intervention and converted to Christ in the process, said Alan Johnson, professor of biblical studies at Wheaton College.
Dispensationalists call Armageddon the conquest of forces attacking Israel and place the battle at the Hill of Megiddo, an actual site in northern Israel, Johnson said.
Faith Rooted in the Past—and Prophecy
By Gayle White
The Atlanta Journal, January 2, 1999
The names on a map of modern Israel ring with biblical significance in the ears of American Christians. The ancient cities and towns, mountains and rivers are the settings of the events of the life of Jesus Christ and his Old Testament predecessors.
For many conservative Christians, this identification has translated into strong support for Israel, even while they feel obligated to convert Jews to Christianity. Sometimes enthusiasm for Israel comes at the expense of their fellow Christians of Palestinian heritage.
“We are very pro-Jewish, pro-Israel,” said the Rev. Jerry Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., and founder of Liberty University. “I would say evangelicals are the very best friends Israelis have in the whole world outside their own family. Evangelicals are more committed to Israel than some of the American Jewish community.”
In Search of the Apocalyptic Red Cow
By Lawrence Wright
New Yorker, July 12, 1998
The motives behind the modern embrace of Israel by the Christian right are not always clear. In Genesis 15:18, God gives the land of Israel to the Jews, and for most fundamentalist Christians that settles the matter. But Jews also play a tragic role in Evangelical eschatology. When Jews speak of their Messiah, Evangelicals interpret that to mean the false Messiah, or the Antichrist. It is the Antichrist, Evangelicals believe, who will occupy the Third Temple. The Prophet Jeremiah foretold the tribulation, or “time of Jacob’s trouble,” by which he meant the devastation of Israel. The nation will be finished off in the apocalyptic meeting between Christ and the Antichrist at Armageddon, which is also known as Megiddo, an archeological ruin in northern Israel. Those Jews who survive this catastrophe—only a hundred and forty-four thousand, according to some interpretations of the Scripture—will finally turn to Jesus as the true Messiah. Such refrains are frequently heard in Evangelical churches and on religious television channels, where Temple fever burns.
By Nancy Gibbs
Time, July 1, 2002
“If we keep our eyes on Israel, we will know about the return of Christ,” says Oleeta Herrmann, 77, of Xenia, Ohio. “Everything that is happening—wars, rumors of war—in the Middle East is happening according to Scripture.” Herrmann is a member of the End-Time Handmaidens and Servants, a group of global missionaries who preach the Gospel with an emphasis on End Times teachings. September 11 is proof of her belief that the Second Coming of Christ is “closer than it ever has been,” Herrmann says.
And therein lies the central paradox in this wave of End Times interest. If you believe the end is near, is the reaction hope, or dread? “Even though the Left Behind series has been popular, many people still think of the End Times as negative,” wrote Kyle Watson on his prophecy news website, AtlantaChristianWeekly.com He thinks believers should be excited about the end of the world. “Try viewing prophecy and current events [as] how much closer we are to being with Christ in heaven.”
Doomsday: The Latest Word if Not the Last
By Michael Luo
New York Times, October 16, 2005
Word spread quickly in some conservative Christian circles when Israeli troops captured the Old City of Jerusalem from Arab forces in June 1967. This was it: Jesus was coming.
But Jesus did not return that day, and the world did not end with the culmination of that Arab-Israeli war.
Neither did it end in 1260, when Joachim of Fiore, an influential 12th-century Italian monk calculated it would, nor in February 1420, as predicted by the Taborites of Bohemia, nor in 1988, 40 years after the formation of Israel, nor after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
But after last week's devastating earthquake in Pakistan, coming as it did after a succession of recent disasters, the apocalyptic speculation, bubbled up again with impressive fervor on many Christian blogs, in some pews and among some evangelical Christian leaders.
By Craig Unger
Vanity Fair, December, 2005
[Tim] LaHaye was entranced with Rapturist theology, which was popularized in the U.S. in the 19th century by a renegade Irish Anglican preacher named John Nelson Darby. A proponent of a prophetic branch of theology known as premillennial dispensationalism, Darby asserted that a series of signs—including wars, immorality, and the return of the Jews to Israel—signal the End of Days. Once the end is nigh, all true believers will be raptured to meet Christ. After that, Darby taught, the world will enter a horrifying seven-year period of Tribulation, during which a charismatic Antichrist will seize power. But in the end, he prophesied, the Antichrist will be vanquished by Christ at Armageddon, and Christ's 1,000-year reign of peace and justice will begin.
‘Obama the Antichrist’ and End-times Doctrine
By Sarah Posner
The Guardian, November 18, 2011
The idea that Obama might be the Antichrist (or that President Clinton before him, or any unnamed president of the European Union) is a durable one in the evangelical imagination. As the historian Matthew Avery Sutton has noted, such apocalyptism “was fringe among conservatives 150 years ago” but “is now mainstream. It's just the air they breathe.”
The Antichrist, as depicted in the end-times imaginings of prominent American evangelists, is the demonic figure who deceives the world with false promises of peace, but instead, installs a “one-world government”, “one-world economy”, and a “one-world religion”, captivating the planets' inhabitants before Jesus returns with the Truth and vanquishes the Antichrist at Armageddon.
For American Evangelicals Who Back Israel, ‘Neutrality Isn’t an Option’
By Ruth Graham and Anna Betts
New York Times, October 14, 2023
American evangelicals are among Israel’s most ardent advocates, compelled in part by their interpretation of scripture that says God’s ancient promise to the Jewish people designating the region as their homeland is unbreakable. Some evangelicals also see Israel’s existence connected to biblical prophecy about the last days of the world before a divine theocratic kingdom can be established on earth.
Now, one week after at least 1,300 people in Israel were killed in Hamas attacks, and as the number of dead in Gaza soared past 2,400 in Israeli airstrikes, evangelical leaders across the United States are voicing that support in sermons, public statements and calls to action.