The end of time approaches

Some evangelical Christians believe the latest conflict in the Middle East suggests the Rapture may be near

UC Davis’ Keith Watenpaugh cautions that the end of days has been wrongly predicted in the past.

UC Davis’ Keith Watenpaugh cautions that the end of days has been wrongly predicted in the past.

Photo By Larry Dalton

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Last month, high-profile evangelical Christian minister Jerry Falwell announced that the beginning of the end of the world as we know it likely has begun and that Christians should “proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and prepare for his imminent return.”

If the televangelist’s prediction is accurate, thousands of Sacramentans soon may experience what evangelical Christians call the Rapture: Believers will spontaneously disappear from their homes and workplaces and be carried to heaven, while the remaining population will be left behind to endure trauma and hardships never before experienced by mankind.

The online Rapture Index—a kind of Dow Jones Industrial Average of end-time activity that tracks pre-Rapture conditions that portend the end of days, such as drought, famine and war—is hovering within 20 points of its all-time high.

So, should local believers give away their soon-to-be-useless homes and possessions? Should nonbelievers stockpile toilet paper and guns and prepare for Armageddon on Earth? Not necessarily, according to Del Tarr, an administrator and the designated Rapture authority at the Capital Christian Center, Sacramento’s evangelical mega-church.

“I’m hesitant to say that this is the beginning of the end. I will say that when the end comes, it’s going to look similar to this,” he said. “I would say that in a sense, Falwell is bordering on the truth because those of us who believe that many of the events that we see in the [Bible’s] Revelation of St. John will look something like this.”

Falwell’s ominous prophecy is based primarily on the current conflicts in the Middle East—mainly the recent war between Israel and Hezbollah—which parallel Evangelical beliefs about the final battle between good and evil. Tarr explained that Evangelicals believe that a consortium of forces will attempt to demolish the state of Israel and that that battle will trigger the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, who will come to the aid of the Jews.

“He will fight, and his forces will fight against those who want to annihilate the Jewish people,” he said. The significance of the Second Coming will not be missed by the Jews, Tarr said. “Christ comes back and protects the Jewish nation. For the first time, the Jewish nation is going to recognize that he was the Messiah that came before, and they’re going to accept him as their Messiah.”

Although Falwell implied that the prophesized anti-Israel coalition now can be identified and consists of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, Tarr isn’t so sure. “For people to name the countries, ‘It is going to be Iran and Iraq and Syria, and Russia and China,’ or whatever, I don’t know.

“I’m not going to say, because a lot of people have made a lot of mistakes by wanting to be sensational. I don’t want to be sensational,” Tarr continued. “On the other hand, I don’t want to say that it’s not going to happen. It’s just that I can’t tell you how it’s going to happen.”

Adding further drama to the end-of-the-world scenario is the belief by some Shia Muslims, including Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that Armageddon will trigger the return of their own Messiah, the Hidden Imam. The Hidden Imam then will successfully defend Islam in the final battle between good and evil, before ushering in an era of universal peace.

More than a few secular apocalypse watchers have pointed out that the messianic beliefs of President George W. Bush, an evangelical Christian, and Ahmadinejad have the potential to further complicate the existing tensions between Iran and the United States.

Keith Watenpaugh, an associate professor of religious studies at UC Davis, believes the near-term timeframe for the showdown between good and evil may be exaggerated, especially since the end of days has been wrongly predicted before. Early Muslims, he said, believed they were living in the end times centuries ago, and more than one Christian denomination has predicted the world would end at a specific time.

“Remember that the Jehovah’s Witnesses went through that, where they predicted an actual date, and the time came and went,” Watenpaugh said. “So, I think if you run a religion, you want to avoid being date-specific.”

Watenpaugh does, however, see some unsettling similarities between Bush and Ahmadinejad.

“They’re both lesser intellectual lights in many ways, and they want to appeal to very popular versions of their respective religions,” he said. “I think sometimes both of them have sort of an incomplete understanding of larger theological issues.” Despite their scholarly shortcomings, both leaders are driven to spread their respective belief systems to other countries. “One of the ideas of the Islamic revolution was to spread Islamic governance throughout the world, and George Bush would like to spread American ideology and patterns of belief throughout the world,” he said. As an evangelical Christian, Bush is in fact required by doctrine to do so. “One of the basic beliefs that the evangelicals have is that the Messiah won’t return until everyone has heard the message,” Watenpaugh said.

Watenpaugh expressed concern about the intrusion of these ideas into governmental policy. He worries less, however, about the belief in the Hidden Imam’s return affecting Iranian policy than about how evangelical ideas are shaping U.S. policy.

“[The Iranians] look around, and their allies are winning all over the Islamic world, and that’s something much more real than the Hidden Imam coming back,” he said. “[But] the president has people working for him and helping him with policy who believe the end of times is policy. This is something that they would base immediate decisions upon.

“What you have to be concerned about is when the apocalyptic imagination begins to influence day-to-day policy. It’s like, ‘Hey, let’s run up our credit cards because God is coming back.’ That’s the scary thing.”