A growing conversation among Christian fundamentalists asks the question that may have been inevitable: is the oil spill in the gulf a sign of the coming apocalypse?
About 60 million white evangelicals live in America, and about one third of them believe that the world will end in their lifetime, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Broadly speaking, these Christians subscribe to a theology called "premillennial dispensationalism." In this world view, they are warriors on the side of God: a cosmic battle—culminating in apocalypse, judgment, and, finally, the reign of Jesus in “a new heaven and a new earth”—will come soon. The most determined of these believers mine the Book of Revelation for signs that the end is near. A text of terrifying and mysterious prophesy, Revelation forecasts the apocalypse in coded language; Christians have spent lifetimes trying to break that code by correlating its verses to current events. (A New York minister named William Miller used Revelation and other sources to predict that the world would end on Oct. 22, 1844. He had previously predicted—wrongly, obviously—that the date would be March 21, 1843. The Millerites, once a powerful and fast-growing sect, quickly became extinct.)
Now blogs on the Christian fringe are abuzz with possibility that the oil spill is the realization of Revelation 8:8–11. “The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain, burning with fire, was thrown into the sea. A third of the sea became blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed … A third of the waters became wormwood, and many died from the water, because it was made bitter.” According to Revelation, in other words, something terrible happens to the world’s water, a punishment to those of insufficient faith. The foul water, according to the New Oxford Annotated Bible, mirrors one of the plagues God called upon Egypt on behalf of his people Israel.
Though maybe it’s Revelation 16:3: “The second angel poured his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing in the sea died.”
Some interpreters are very sure: The oil spill matches biblical prophesy and is another predictor of the end. One commenter at Godlike Productions argues that the redness of the oil seen in pictures can be interpreted as blood. “The water is tinted red from the oil … it ACTUALLY looks like blood. coincidence??? NOT!!!!” On Facebook, at least two discussion groups are devoted to mining the parallels between events in the gulf and those predicted in the bible; and in a heart-rending interview with CBS, a Louisiana minister named Theodore Turner, whose congregation is one third fishermen, said he knew it to be so. “The Bible prophesized hardships,” he said. “If we believe the word of God is true—and we do—we also know that in addition to prophesying hardships he promised to take care of us.”
But there’s a problem. In the place where American religion and politics intersect, signs of the end times have traditionally been interpreted by members of the right as punishment for ungodly behavior by those on the left. And because the values of the religious right have mirrored those of the Republican Party—at least before the last presidential election—the "good guys" in the cosmic battle have tended to look like Republicans on the far-right fringe and the “bad guys” like liberal Democrats. Thus Hurricane Katrina was brought down upon New Orleans because it was, in the words of Christian minister John Hagee, a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah: the city had a gay-pride march planned for the day the storm struck.
And, according to such fringe commentators as this one, President Barack Obama embodies many of qualities of the Antichrist, as described in Revelation 13:5–7: “The beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for 42 months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God … It was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation, and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it.”
Yet through a biblical lens, it’s hard to see the oil spill as anything but God’s punishment for greed and a disrespect of Creation—and both of those sins fall mostly on the shoulders of the Republicans, who have been aggressively lobbying for more offshore drilling, without, obviously, ensuring that appropriate safeguards are in place. (Remember “Drill, baby, drill”? According to OpenSecrets.org, Republicans in the last decade have far outstripped Democrats in donations from big oil, sometimes by a factor of four.) So the question for biblical literalists becomes one of political alliances. Does God wreak apocalyptic wrath on members of one’s own party—or only on the opposition?
Lisa Miller is NEWSWEEK's religion editor and the author of Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife. Become a fan of Lisa on Facebook.