[Paleopsych] NYT: Doomsday: The Latest Word if Not the Last

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Mon Oct 17 02:05:59 UTC 2005

Doomsday: The Latest Word if Not the Last


    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

    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.

    Combined with fears of a global pandemic of avian flu, the calamitous
    flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina and last year's tsunami in
    Asia, the predictions of the end of the world are to be expected,
    religious historians said. After all, Christians have been predicting
    the end of history since the beginning of theirs.

    "The doomsday scenarios are fairly cyclical," said Randall Balmer, a
    professor of American religious history at Barnard College. "The
    theology they are based on is a very linear view of history. They
    believe we are now ramping up to the end of time."

    While these predictions have been around for thousands of years, the
    fixation on the so-called end times may be greater than ever on the
    American religious landscape, said Timothy P. Weber, a church
    historian and the author of "On the Road to Armageddon: How
    Evangelicals Became Israel's Best Friend."

    Fascination with the end of days is seemingly everywhere, in popular
    television ministries (like Pat Robertson's), on best-seller lists
    (the "Left Behind" series) and even on bumper stickers ("In case of
    rapture, this car will be unmanned").

    What could be behind this fascination? Many church leaders and
    theologians, including evangelicals, give little effort to trying to
    interpret natural disasters and other events that might portend the
    end of history. The preoccupation these days stems mainly from the
    outsized influence of a specific, literalistic approach to biblical
    prophecy, called dispensationalism, which only came to occupy a
    dominant place in American evangelicalism relatively recently.

    "Dispensationalists have never had the kind of public exposure and the
    kind of political power that they have now," Mr. Weber said. As a
    whole, evangelical Christians are united in their belief that Jesus
    will come back in human form at some point in history. Where they, as
    well as members of other Christian groups, have differed is precisely
    how this will occur, depending on how each interprets a single verse
    in the 20th chapter of the Book of Revelation and its allusion to a
    1,000-year reign by Christ.

    This difference, in large part, Mr. Weber said, shapes how much they
    are "players in the end-time game."

    Some theologians read the passage and Revelation less literally.
    Drawing on references elsewhere in the Bible, they say the verse means
    that Christian influence will grow in the world until it is completely
    evangelized, leading to a millennial period of universal peace and
    prosperity. Because they believe Christ will return after the
    millennium, they are called post-millennialists.

    Others, called amillennialists, believe that the millennial age is
    unfolding now, through the church, but that evil continues to exist
    and will only be eradicated when Christ returns.

    It is those who read the passage most literally - the so-called
    pre-millennialists - who hold the most pessimistic views. They believe
    history is irrevocably deteriorating, on its way toward a period of
    terrible suffering, called the tribulation, which will only be broken
    when Jesus returns and rules for a thousand years.

    Dispensationalism emerged as an offshoot of this last school, owing
    its spread in large part to the work of a 19th-century British
    evangelist, John Nelson Darby.

    Darby taught that history unfolds in various stages, or dispensations,
    and introduced several innovations to pre-millennialism, most
    prominently, the concept of the Rapture - that before the tribulation,
    true believers will suddenly be whisked away to heaven. This belief is
    the basis for the popular "Left Behind" series of novels.

    Darby also emphasized the role of the nation of Israel in the end of
    history; the Israelites' return to the promised land, he said, was a
    requirement of the Second Coming.

    Until the mid-19th century, most American Christians were actually
    post-millennialists. Their fervor for hastening Jesus' return animated
    many of the era's social movements, like the abolitionist movement.
    But the Civil War and the succeeding waves of industrialization,
    urbanization and immigration - and the social problems that came with
    them - helped cripple post-millenial optimism. Darby, however, won
    some important converts, including the evangelist, Dwight L. Moody,
    and his ideas began to catch on. Dispensationalism's tenets were
    eventually memorialized in the Scofield Reference Bible, which became
    a best-seller. Even as American Christianity changed over time, with
    the ascendance of Billy Graham and a new breed of evangelicals, many
    of dispensationalism's fingerprints remained. And dispensationalism
    came back to the fore in the 1980's and onward, with the rise of the
    religious right and the growing television ministries of many
    dispensationalists, including Jerry Falwell, Jack Van Impe and John

    Today, only about a third of evangelicals are truly
    dispensationalists, estimated Richard Cizik, vice president of
    government affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals,
    although he said he thought most evangelicals are generally
    pre-millennial, harboring a more pessimistic outlook on history.

    But the dispensationalists remain the most vocal segment, Mr. Cizik
    said. Aided by books, television and the Internet, they have shaped a
    fascination in evangelical culture on the end of days, said Craig C.
    Hill, a professor of New Testament theology at Wesley Theological
    Seminar in Washington and the author of "In God's Time: the Bible and
    the Future," about biblical prophecy. Preaching on the end times is an
    obvious way to draw an audience, Mr. Hill said.

    "It's inherently interesting," he said. "If you have a sign out for
    the sermon, 'Our obligation to the poor,' you won't get anybody. If
    you have a sign out for, 'The Internet and the Antichrist,' you'll
    bring them in."

    Dispensationalism offers believers a road map to deal with uncertainty
    in the world at large. "When somebody says there's a pattern here, and
    let me tell you what the pattern means, this is what gets a lot of
    people's attention," said Mr. Weber, the church historian. At this
    point, dispensationalism's tenets have become so popular that many
    evangelicals who are in denominations or churches that might not
    necessarily adhere to dispensationalism have, nevertheless, adopted
    bits and pieces of it.

    But the theology has drawn fire from other evangelicals for its narrow
    reading of the Bible and its tendency to ignore social problems. "It's
    still considered by many theologians to be somewhat ahistorical and
    theologically suspect," said Mr. Cizik, who criticized anyone who
    would interpret the recent calamities as a sign of the end.

    "History has taught us not to predict," he said. "I think it's sheer
    speculation for anyone to place a whole lot of stock in any one
    particular earthquake or pestilence."

    Not that that will stop the prognostications.

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