As the threat of a major war in the Persian Gulf has heated up in recent weeks, so have religious predictions of a fiery Armageddon and the end of the world.
The doomsayers--whose prophecy books are selling well in Christian bookstores--see the Middle East crisis as the trigger for a bloody series of events that will lead to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
Meanwhile, the leader of an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish movement is predicting that a cataclysmic clash in Iraq will usher in the first arrival of the Messiah before the end of this year.
Bible-inspired apocalyptic warnings are nothing new. But times of political unrest and socioeconomic hardship feed existing curiosity and fuel the belief that--this time--the end really is at hand.
"In any era when there is a dramatic international event, someone is always ready to link it to the end of the world," said Richard Gorsuch, professor of psychology at Fuller Seminary's Graduate School of Psychology in Pasadena. "Each event can square with some of the prophecy passages; it depends which ones you emphasize."
Last month at an Episcopal church in Kennebunkport, Me., evangelist Billy Graham preached on biblical Babylonia, a part of the Middle East that is now included in Iraq. President Bush--a vestryman in the church--listened as Graham warned that upheavals in the Persian Gulf could have "major spiritual implications."
In an earlier statement, Graham said that "these events are happening in that part of the world where history began, and, the Bible says, where history as we know it, will some day end."
The evangelist said later that he couldn't agree with those who identify Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as the Antichrist: "Historians tell us that people thought Napoleon was the Antichrist, they thought Mussolini was the Antichrist and they thought Hitler was the Antichrist," Graham said.
But some of the nation's estimated 50 million conservative Christians are thumbing their Bibles and paying rapt attention to specific end-times scenarios.
Evangelist Greg Laurie, drawing a crowd of more than 25,000 to a talk on Bible prophecy in the Pacific Amphitheatre in Orange, said recently that Hussein seems to be taking on a role as heir apparent to warrior King Nebuchadnezzar and his ancient Babylonian empire. Hussein is fulfilling prophecies in the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation, leading to the time when all nations will unite in war against Israel, according to Laurie.
And, in a sermon at the Fundamentalist Bible Tabernacle in Los Angeles, the Rev. R. L. Hymers thundered that the Middle East crisis and the West's need for Arab oil "may very well be . . . (what) unites the West under one man that the Bible calls in First John the Antichrist."
According to William Alnor of Philadelphia, a prophecy student who said sales of his book, "Soothsayers of the Second Advent," have picked up recently, Bush is "allowing the Soviet Union to be a full player in the Middle East for the first time ever." This could "foreshadow a military move against Israel that could very well result in the second coming of Christ," he said.
Lubavich movement Rabbi Menachem Schneerson of New York has told his followers, however, that a clash in the Persian Gulf will shake the world, "and then the Messiah will come and proclaim that salvation is at hand."
Schneerson, 88, has excited many within the ultra-Orthodox wing of Judaism in Israel with his interpretation of the Bible.
"The conflict in the gulf is definitely part of the preparation for redemption," Lubavitcher Moshe Schlass of Jerusalem told a Wall Street Journal reporter. "What's going on now is like labor pains. It looks pretty messy. But, in the end, what will come out is a new, living light. The Messiah may be just an eye blink away."
But not everyone expecting the Apocalypse is religiously motivated.
"We don't need God to finish it for us," booms a deep voice on San Francisco's new voice-mail "Hotline of Doom," inaugurated by the Society for Secular Armageddonism. "The coming end will be a strictly do-it-yourself apocalypse."
Callers to (415) 673-DOOM hear warnings about nuclear and chemical weapons proliferation, toxic waste, deforestation, global warming, acid rain, increasing racism, AIDS, overpopulation, complacency and greed.
"Ultimately," writes William F. Allman, senior editor of U.S. News & World Report, "the allure of the Apocalypse may lie in the very human trait of wanting simple solutions to complex problems."