Although the site of the battle of Armageddon prophesied in the Bible is in Israel, conservative Christian believers are being warned by their pastors and teachers not to read too much into the current crisis in the Persian Gulf region.
"Is this the countdown to Armageddon? I do believe there is going to be a great battle of Armageddon. But some things have to take place first," said the Rev. Russ Priddy Jr., pastor of Colonial Baptist Church on Old Court Road in the Pikesville area.
In particular, explained the Southern Baptist minister, what must happen before Armageddon -- the final, decisive showdown between good and evil before the day of judgment -- is the rapture, the bodily "taking up" out of this world to divine safety of all born-again Christians. The predicted realignments of nations preceding the rapture -- such as the re-emergence of the old Roman Empire as the European Common Market -- have already taken place, he said.
But while the rapture could happen in the next moments or not for hundreds of years, the Armageddon prophesied in the Old Testament cannot occur, in his view, before the end of a seven-year period of trials and tribulations following the rapture.
Only then, in the belief of Mr. Priddy and many thousands of like-minded believers in literal Bible interpretation, will God's chosen people of Israel find themselves facing the powers of the anti-Christ, the remaining armies of the world, at Megiddo, which is about 20 miles south of Haifa.
Megiddo, or Mageddo, was strategically important in ancient history as a military and commercial stronghold. It dominates a broad plain fringed by forbidding mountains. Armageddon takes its name from the Hebrew for "Mount of Mageddo."
"I'm not a dooms-dayer," Mr. Priddy said. "But I know of no conservative Christians who believe this [the confrontation between the West and Iraq over Kuwait] is Armageddon.
"Most would say that Saddam Hussein is not the anti-Christ. Biblically, he is not in the right area, for one thing [that is, poised for battle to the north of Israel.] What we have today is just more of the continuing turmoil in the Middle East between Jews and Arabs."
Rather, Mr. Priddy said, it is the approach of 2000, the end of this millennium and "an obvious dividing point in history," that prompts many Bible-believing Christians to turn their thoughts to the meaning of Armageddon.
"Many Christian book stores are reporting a lot of interest in books about the end times," he said.
Although the world's rulers "could now be building to that point" of eventual Armageddon, Mr. Priddy said, "how severe is the present crisis in the long view and how close we actually are to the seven years of tribulations, no one should try to say. Only the Lord knows that."
The Rev. John A. Dekker, pastor of Cub Hill Bible Presbyterian Church in northeastern Baltimore County, agreed. Quoting St. Paul, he said, "Of that day and hour no man knoweth. Only God knows. I'm not a date-setter."
However, Mr. Dekker said, he sees current events in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world as possibly the "embryo" of what he believes will be the great, final showdown in Israel -- at Megiddo -- between good and evil. "Every process has to be set in motion," he said.
He also teaches that there will be "a pre-tribulation rapture" and that it must be followed by seven years of testing and suffering before the battle of Armageddon. After that battle, he said, the nations that survive "will be under the rule of Christ himself. God will rule with a rod of iron."
Mr. Dekker, who has a son in the military stationed in Frankfort, Germany, expecting to be moved to Saudi Arabia, said, "I hate to see us [the U.S. troops] where we are. I would like to see us move over to Israel and fortify it. Then God would be on our side."
As for the widespread praying for peace and the opposition to war by many religious groups, he said, "The peaceniks don't represent me. I don't know what they are praying for. Many of these anti-war people are leftists."
The Rev. Harry E. Fletcher, president of Washington Bible College and Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, said he addressed a group in Naples, Fla., Sunday about the Persian Gulf crisis as it related to biblical prophesy. He was invited because of questions raised by Christian believers, he said.
He, too, believes that the rapture "is the next event" but that it may not come for a century or more. "People have made fools of themselves setting dates and waiting on mountains wrapped in sheets," the college president said. The two Lanham institutions have a combined enrollment of about 500, he said.
"I believe that there is a literal place for the battle of Armageddon," explained Dr. Fletcher, who has visited Megiddo seven times, most recently last June. "But the conflict doesn't stop there. Most people speak of Armageddon in symbolic terms."
"Many people in our churches," the conservative religious leader said, "want peace, but not peace at any price. I see [the Mideast crisis] as a great opportunity to talk about the hope we have in Jesus Christ."
Belief in a literal interpretation of Biblical prophesy, and thus the belief in an "ultimate" battle of Armageddon in Israel, is shared by such Christian leaders as the Rev. Billy Graham, the Rev. Jerry Falwell and recent presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention, Dr. Fletcher said.
"We also share in the concern for the families and for the nations caught up in the present Persian Gulf crisis," he said. "There is much prayer for them."
Mr. Priddy cited a 12-hour prayer vigil Saturday at Colonial Baptist Church, where there are four families with relatives in Saudi Arabia.