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America's Apocalypse: Armageddon in Jerusalem

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Nineteenth-century America invented a new kind of Millennialism. Ancient interpretations had looked forward to the thousand-year reign of the saints with Christ as a joyful vindication. America's reading made the Revelation of John into a chronological map of catastrophe, from which believers could only be saved by the "rapture." This concept, unrelated to the Millennium (Revelation 20:4-5), is absent from the Revelation of John. "The rapture" appears in its own setting in one of Paul's letters, yet it has governed how many Americans, and now many Jews and Muslims, see the apocalyptic future.

Paul promises that living believers will be united with those who have died to meet the risen Jesus (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17): "the dead in Christ will arise first, then we who are alive, remaining, will be snatched up together with them in clouds to meet the Lord." Paul was speaking of the resurrection of the dead, but Puritan interpreters conceived of the "rapture" (as the reference in 1 Thessalonians came to be called), the Millennium of the Revelation, and the Second Coming of Christ as all combined.

Putting different passages together in this way produced a view that the Second Coming would come before the Millennium. "Premillennialism," as it is called, contradicts another view popular in America during the nineteenth century: the conviction that progressive revelation leads humanity forward to greater civilization and an ultimate encounter with Christ at the end of time.

The tug of war between Premillennialism and progressivism shifted in 1909. That was when Cyrus Scofield first published his Reference Bible; the book consisted of the King James Version with Premillennialist notes. (He later included a chronology dating creation to 4004 BCE). Seismic events in the history of the twentieth century favored the rise of Premillennialism. World War I gave the lie to the idea of the steady progress of Western civilization, and particularly to idealistic views of the efficacy of government. Scofield scoffed at the idea of progressive evolution; most people would be left behind in apocalyptic chaos while only true believers were raptured.

Scofield predicted the Jews' return to Palestine, and portrayed the apocalyptic "Gog" (Revelation 20:8) as Russia. At the dawn of the twentieth century, these seemed distant references to most observers. But then came the aftermath of the Second World War, with the establishment of the State of Israel and the start of the Cold War -- in which the Soviet Union emerged as the major antagonist of the United States. These events became irresistible signs for some of God's impending intervention in the rapture and the Millennium. The stage was set for a fusion of Premillennialism with American patriotism.

Books such as Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth (1970) encouraged the expectation of an imminent, Premillennial return of Christ and the start of a new Millennium very, very soon. The welter of competing apocalypses has increased to the point where academics and journalists who make it their business to cover modern millenarian timetables have had trouble keeping track of them all.

Mikhail Gorbachev's birthmark, for example, seemed incontrovertibly to be the mark of the beast (Revelation 14:9-10). With Gorbachev's removal from power and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Premillennialism hit a snag. Since then, those in search of signs of the coming rapture have shifted their gaze to Jerusalem. Predictions center on the imminent rebuilding of its ancient Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, and feed into one of the most volatile confrontations of our time.

The best-known Premillenialist predictions about the Temple in recent times have come from an author of apocalyptic fiction, Tim LaHaye. Creator of the best-selling "Left Behind" series of the 1990s and 2000s, LaHaye portrays the Revelation of John as a forecast of how a new Temple must be built in Jerusalem in order to provoke a war that will bring human civilization to an end prior to Jesus' return in glory.

The elaborate scenario imagined by LaHaye resolves a long-standing problem for those who hold literally to apocalyptic readings of the New Testament. In the Gospels Jesus appears to predict the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and his subsequent Second Coming (Matthew 24-25; Mark 13; Luke 21). But while the Romans indeed burned down Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 CE, no cosmic judgment followed. Why did the judgment not come if Scripture is infallible and if Jesus' prophecy is valid? LaHaye contends that Jesus actually referred to the destruction of a different Temple to be built in the future. When that Temple is destroyed, the end will be truly upon us, for in the apocalyptic new Jerusalem there is no sacrificial temple left at all according to the Revelation of John.

Apocalyptic predictions about Jerusalem attracted a small following in the first decades after the establishment of the State of Israel. But the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israel wrested control of the area of the Temple Mount from Jordan, changed everything. Premillennialist thinking fueled a Christian Zionist desire to see the Temple built again. LaHaye also shifted the identity of the antichrist from a Soviet leader to the secretary-general of the United Nations. In a post-rapture world, the UN oppresses the Christians left behind, a scenario that has fed some of the Tea Party's conspiracy theories. World government and globalization are aligned with Satan in this Premillennialist expectation, and Israel's progress toward building a Temple becomes a sign that the end is near.

Some Israelis also believed that their victory must have been the result of supernatural intervention. Jewish expectations concerning the Temple have become influential, although unlike their Christian counterparts, Jewish apocalyptists do not see the new Temple as temporary. A self-styled "Jewish Underground" conspired unsuccessfully to blow up the mosques on top of the Temple Mount in 1984. An organization founded in 1987 developed a program dealing comprehensively with practical matters involved in establishing a new Temple: questions of how to purify workers on the site with the ashes of a red heifer, regular and repeated sacrificial practice, the clothing of priests, the correct design of utensils, and methods of purification. This is a program for a permanent, hegemonic Israel to which all Jews return and the nations offer obedience.

Even as this Israeli Jewish movement for a new Temple exacerbated tensions with local Muslims, it attracted the support of some Christians, especially in the United States. Cooperation between these Jewish and Christian Zionist groups has been extensive, and includes fund-raising and the efforts of a Pentecostal minister and cattle breeder to the produce red heifers, which are necessary for purification within any new Temple. Premillennialists support the new Temple as an edifice whose destruction will bring the end, while Jews who see the Temple as permanent nonetheless invoke the Revelation's Armageddon as the pivotal moment of all history.

Not surprisingly, support for the erection of this Temple does not extend to Muslims. What Judaism calls the Temple Mount is for Muslims al-Harim al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, which their religious authorities should regulate. According to Islamic tradition, in 621 CE the Prophet traveled by night during a miraculous journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, and then journeyed into heaven. Jewish activity on the Temple Mount that appears supportive of the new Temple project has repeatedly led to violence; in 2000 came the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, when Ariel Sharon, then a candidate for prime minister, made a campaign visit to the Temple Mount with an armed escort.

This is not to say, however, that Muslims reject millenarianism. The Quran includes a strongly eschatological dimension, and elements from the Revelation of John have featured in Muslim eschatology. Even Gog and Magog (Revelation 20:8) find their way into the Quran in a way that shows the influence of the Apocalypse. The Surah Al-Kahf, "The Cave," identifies Gog and Magog as the ultimate enemies of believers; they are kept out provisionally by a wall of supernatural power, but are ready to erupt at the last judgment (18:94-102). In a recent pamphlet Shaykh Shafar al-Hawali attacked American leaders as if they were Gog and Magog. Armageddon entered the vocabulary of militant Islam after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, enabled by Arabic-language publishers such as the Cairo-based Dar al-Kitab al-Arabi.

Readings of the Apocalypse that predict millennial catastrophe prompted a counter-reaction. Secular intellectuals have dismissed the whole book. Mainline churches today incorporate only brief passages of the Revelation within their worship, usually laundering them of their apocalyptic dimension. But attempting to ignore the visions in this book has brought bad results: it is better to confront them for what they are than to permit them to be manipulated into scenarios of desperate vengeance and self-vindication. The Armageddon that Jerusalem faces derives less from the Revelation of John than from forces of human history so insistent that they have forced that book into their own designs.