MISSILES AND rockets are falling all over the Galilee. A bomb even hit Nazareth, where it killed two small Muslim kids (Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, commander of the Religion of Peace, Hezbollah branch, apologized for the mistake; he had been aiming at Jews). But through it all, peace and tranquillity have reigned over Kibbutz Megiddo. This is bad news if you're one of those people who happen to be looking forward to the end of the world.
To the untrained eye, Megiddo is just another Israeli farm community attached to an archeological dig and tourist gift shop. But tens of millions of evangelical Christians know it as Armageddon, the biblical battleground for the coming war between Jesus and the anti-Christ.
Is the fighting that now rages between Israel and Hezbollah a sign that the final battle is nigh? I asked Connie Wilson, when I reached her on her cellphone.
"I don't know if this is the time or not," said Pastor Wilson, an American-born Pentecostal who lives in Jerusalem and specializes in keeping an eye on the End of Days. "But you can feel the breath of God from the Book of Ezekiel."
"Amen," I said, my usual response when I don't know what she's talking about.
Exactly a year ago, she and her husband, Bill, a retired brigadier general in the Georgia National Guard, took me on a tour of Armageddon. Connie read aloud obscure biblical prophecies about the apocalypse, taken from the Old Testament books of Ezekiel and Daniel and the New Testament's Book of Revelation. Later, Bill pointed out the military terrain in the Jezreel Valley, where he expects 2 billion enemy soldiers to gather against the forces of good. He wasn't sure what God's strategy would be, but applying military principles, he envisioned something like Sherman's capture of Atlanta, or so it seemed to me.
Secular liberals find this scenario preposterous. On the other hand, many of these same scoffers profoundly believe that high-octane gasoline and the profligate use of electric home appliances will heat planet Earth to a doomsday temperature last experienced 420,000 years ago (when, presumably, gas was a dime a gallon and it was OK to leave the TV on all night).
For true believers of any apocalyptic religion, the issue isn't merely how the world will end, but when? Here, even the most devout generally take an agnostic view. Jerry Falwell, for example, is a pre-millennialist Christian of the greatest piety, but that hasn't stopped him from launching a long-term building program at his Liberty University, where Tim LaHaye, author of the Book of Revelation-based "Left Behind" series of novels, recently donated millions of dollars for a hockey rink. With similar optimism, Al Gore is apparently thinking about a presidential run in 2008, regardless of global warming.
"We know end times are coming," Connie Wilson said. "We just don't know when. So we live our lives the way we imagine God wants them lived."
For millions of American evangelical voters, living right includes supporting Israel. Last week, Pentecostal televangelist Rev. John Hagee of San Antonio, one of the rising forces in American Christian Zionism, convened a meeting in Washington of Christians Unified for Israel. Hagee sees the newly formed group as an evangelical American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, dedicated to lobbying on Israel's behalf, especially in states where Jews are few and far between. Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas attended Hagee's rally. So did Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Rick Santorum (who is running for his political life). Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman was there. So was the Israeli ambassador, Daniel Ayalon.
Jewish Democrats often decry Republican evangelical support on the grounds that these Christians only want to missionize Jews (and if they do, so what? It's a free country) or use them as cannon fodder at Armageddon (which matters only if you believe in Armageddon in the first place).
In fact, the main motive for Christian Zionism is not devious. As Hagee said, paraphrasing the Book of Genesis, Chapter 12:3, "God will bless those who bless the Jewish people."
Now, if you don't believe in the literal truth of the Bible, this probably sounds like a Christian Hallmark card sentiment. But if you do, it's a marching order.
The idea of militant evangelicals mobilizing for Israel frightens those who believe fundamentalists are trying to push the United States into a war to hasten Armageddon. But they miss the point. One of the central attributes of conservative evangelical Christianity is its eschatological passivity. End times will come when God is ready, and there is nothing anyone can do -- not give your old clothes to the maid, join the Sierra Club or even go on a Nation magazine Caribbean cruise -- that will hasten Paradise.