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In Aftermath of Attacks, Talk of 'End Days' Soars

* Many who await the apocalypse find fresh evidence that the turmoil prophesied in the Bible is upon us. But scholars urge caution.

September 22, 2001|WILLIAM LOBDELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For those evangelical Christians who believe the end is near, last week's terrorist attacks offered fresh evidence that the ultimate confrontation between good and evil will soon be played out.

They are also finding a fresh audience for their message.

Chuck Smith, the founder of the nationwide Calvary Chapel movement, warned overflow church crowds in Santa Ana to come forward and accept Jesus Christ as their savior "because it might be your last opportunity to do so."

A Web site devoted to ruminations on the world's final days has received 6 million hits since the attacks, with chat-room visitors debating whether New York City is the Babylon referred to in the Bible's book of Revelation. Sales have quadrupled at North Carolina-based Armageddon Books, which carries such titles as "Apocalypse Pretty Soon."

Noted evangelists such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson garnered national attention--and harsh backlash--with their assertions that the attacks in New York and at the Pentagon signaled a new era of divine punishment for a sinful nation. Falwell later apologized for his comments.

Experts on doomsday prophecy have labored for decades as a small, passionate and often mocked niche in the Christian world. Up to now, many Americans' images of such predictions have been limited to cartoon depictions of men wearing sandwich boards advertising that the world would end tomorrow.

It has been a sore point for years with scholars of the subject who winced with embarrassment over Y2K Armageddon predictions and warily view the apocalyptic calls rising in the aftermath of the attack.

"We want to avoid putting everything into a neatly wrapped package and timeline," says R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

Still, students of prophecy have dived into the Bible since the attack to find strains that appear to describe current events. North Carolina Pastor Rick Joyner came out with an e-mail bulletin days after the strike that hailed a prophetic message from Isaiah (30:25) referring to "the day of the great slaughter, when the towers fall."

Others see more indirect links to biblical prophecies of doom.

"The Bible makes it very clear that God is going to send wars and rumors of war, escalating into a tornado of violence until people seek him," said San Antonio Pastor John Hagee, author of "Beginning of the End." "I believe World War III actually began Sept. 11, 2001."

Five months ago, Hal Lindsey, the godfather of the modern prophecy movement, released a video called "Where America Fits in Prophecy," in which he predicted that the U.S. was soon going to experience "something catastrophic."

He says now: "My first impression is that it has started."

In recent days, millions have tuned in to such messages as they seek divine meaning in the attacks.

A month's supply of Lindsey's video was sold in two days at Armageddon Books' Web site, and Lindsey says the two phone lines at his Southern California headquarters have been ringing 24 hours a day since the attacks. His own Web site has received 6 million hits since the attack, a 500% increase.

Such Predictions Have Long History

Predicting the end of the world is nothing new. Since just after Jesus' death, many Christians have believed they were living in the final days. Much more recent events--the Gulf War and the Oklahoma City bombing, for example--have given brief boosts to the popularity of such prophecy.

The Scriptures are filled with prophecies that tell of the prelude to when God and man will live together in a heavenly state. Many Christians, using Hebrew and New Testament writings, believe that Christ is coming again but not before social upheaval, famine, earthquakes and war occur.

Scholars of eschatology, or the study of end times, agree on little else. The Bible offers only broad outlines of what's to come. Even Jesus warned, "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven." But he did counsel his disciples to look for certain signs that his return was near.

So debates rage over even basic elements of the Second Coming, including if and when the "rapture"--the bodily ascent of Christians into heaven--will take place. Scripture verses that refer to the rapture are vague enough to invite a variety of interpretations.

The theological confusion results in wildly different Judgment Day scenarios. But one of the more popular goes like this: Russia and Arab countries launch a war against Israel. A seven-year period of tribulation begins and is marked by one government, one religion and one currency ruled over by the antichrist. During this period there will be increasing famine, earthquakes and war. And then, after the battle of Armageddon, Christ will return to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem to rule for 1,000 years.

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