Evangelicals see signs of apocalypse in Mideast

Trends

August 13, 2006|By ALEXANDRA ALTER | ALEXANDRA ALTER,THE MIAMI HERALD

The Rapture Index - a popular evangelical Christian Web posting that calculates a global rise in natural disasters, war and inflation - bills itself as "a Dow Jones industrial average of end-time activity." An index below 85 signifies a week of "slow prophetic activity." Anything above 145 signals the apocalypse is near.

The Rapture Index last week: 158. The spike reflects many U.S. evangelicals' view that growing conflict in the Middle East signals the start of a global struggle leading to Christ's return.

"We believe 100 percent what the Scripture has to say about this," said Jack Heintz, a South Florida businessman and president of the Christian group Peace for Israel, who recruited 23 evangelical Christians to join a July telephone fundraising event for Israel. "There's going to be a total battle, the battle of Armageddon, and I believe that's very close to happening."

Some have ratcheted up support for Israel in its current battle in Lebanon with Hezbollah out of belief that a raging war - perhaps even a nuclear confrontation - marks a prelude to the apocalypse. Christian groups are sending millions of dollars to Israeli communities and shelters, hosting pro-Israel rallies and urging U.S. politicians to back Israeli military action.

Evangelicals have issued dire warnings about a conflagration in the Middle East for decades, said Clyde Wilcox, a professor of government at Georgetown University, who studies evangelicals and politics. Many evangelicals regard such calls with skepticism, he said.

"Every time there's been a war in the Middle East, this comes up," Wilcox said. "Most evangelicals would not interpret this as saying that Christ is coming back in the next couple of years."

Since the current crisis erupted July 12, interest in the Rapture Index has mushroomed, said Todd Strandberg, a Christian from Nebraska who updates the index on his Web site, raptureready.com. The site had a quarter-million unique visitors in July, up from 180,000 the previous month, Strandberg said.

Evangelicals' financial support for Israel has increasingly been supplemented by political action, Christian and Jewish leaders say.

At a July 18-19 pro-Israel rally in Washington, Christians lobbied politicians to back Israel's military campaign in Lebanon. The Rev. John Hagee, pastor of a mega-church in San Antonio and founder of Christians United for Israel, organized the convention in hopes of launching a pro-Israel political network in 50 states.

Several high-profile Christian leaders have warned about instability in the region leading to apocalypse. In a July 22 commentary, the Rev. Jerry Falwell predicted present-day conflict in the Middle East will "serve as a prelude or forerunner to the future Battle of Armageddon and the glorious return of Jesus Christ." Pat Robertson has shied away from declaring Armageddon but has warned "God himself" will fight for Israel. Robertson visited Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem last week.

While a number of Jewish leaders have courted evangelicals' support for the Jewish homeland, others are troubled by its theological underpinnings, said Rabbi James Rudin, senior interreligious adviser at the America Jewish Committee in New York. Jewish leaders have long been wary of evangelicals' effort to convert Jews to Christianity through messianic groups such as Jews for Jesus and the Chosen People Ministries.

"Is the motivation to stand up for Israel, or convert the Jewish people and bring on the end of days?" said Rabbi Solomon Schiff, vice president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami.

Other Jewish leaders say evangelicals have toned down the religious aspects of their pro-Israel mission in recent years, particularly their insistence that Jews convert.

Alter is a writer for The Miami Herald.

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