The Final Days Are Here Again

A "new world order' as prelude to "rapture'

Now that the war in the gulf is over, what excites practitioners of Biblical prophecy is what will happen next. For fundamentalists and other Christians who believe the last days are at hand, President Bush's call for a "new world order" is far more portentous than was Saddam Hussein's hapless military threat. As these scriptural soothsayers decode the Bible's apocalyptic passages, the end-times will begin when the major powers form a world-wide coalition that will force a peace settlement on the state of Israel. This will set the stage for the rise of the murderous anti-Christ as a global dictator. Only then will the Biblical Battle of Armageddon take place, followed by the triumphant Second Coming of Christ. "We're on the march to Armageddon," says televangelist Jack Van Impe, a self-styled "Walking Bible" from Detroit. "I just can't believe that I've preached this all my life and that I've lived to see thee things happening."

Jesus, of course, warned that "you know not the day or the hour" of his return. And for orthodox Scripture scholars, treating the Bible like tea leaves is no way to get at the truth. Nonetheless, since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait last August, evangelical Christian publishers have rushed more than a dozen prophecy volumes into print, and at least a dozen more are on the way. One paperback alone--"Armageddon, Oil and the Middle East Crisis," by John F. Walvoord of Dallas Theological Seminary--has sold over a million copies in the last two months, including 300,000 that were given away as premiums by evangelist Billy Graham. Not to be outprofited, television broadcaster Pat Robertson, the movement's Alvin Toffler, is competing with "The New Millennium" (250,000 copies in print), in which he warns that Bush's new world order could turn into a "counterfeit millennium" under a hellish one-world government. Even singer Johnny Cash has jumped on the prophecy bandwagon with "Goin' by the Book," an enthusiastic country ballad linking the gulf crisis to Armageddon.

In Israel, fundamentalist Jews are also interpreting the gulf war as the catalyst that will hasten their own end-times scenario--and their long awaited Messiah. Rabbi Leon Ashkenazi, a Jerusalem-based scholar, points to the war between Iraq and the allies as the fulfillment of "many texts that speak of a conflict between Babylonia and Rome and Greece, and now this has happened." Equally important, says Ashkenazi, is the immigration of Soviet Jews, which is seen as fulfillment of the "ingathering" of the exiles prophesied in Hebrew scriptures. In this view, preparation for the Messiah began with the Balfour Declaration in 1917, followed by the "unification" of Israel in 1967; it will be completed in 1992 with the rebuilding of the Temple.

The self-annointed prophets are gleeful about their gloomy tidings. One reason is theological: their predictions rest on the belief that the Bible is literally true in what it says about the end of the world as well as about its genesis. Thus any event that seems to confirm the fundamentalists' interpretation of the last days is welcomed as proof of Biblical authority. But Christians like Walvoord and Robertson have another reason as well. The next great event on their end-timetable is "the rapture," in which all true believers like themselves will be instantly plucked up into heaven--leaving apostate Christians and other unbelievers to perish at the hands of an avenging Jesus. "We will not be here for Armageddon," boasts a confident Jerry Falwell. And Walvoord, at 80, expects the rapture to occur in his own lifetime. So many people will be suddenly missing, he muses, "I wish I could be around to see how the media explains it." None of the prophets, however, is predicting what will happen to the end-times' major protagonist, George Bush.