Rapture: Distress about wars and the world economy feed apocalyptic warnings
For eons, Christians have believed the world is hurling toward oblivion. But with the current economic downturn, the war in Iraq and the likely election of Barack Obama, many think it has picked up speed.
"Economic hardship is the mother's milk of prophetic progression," said Todd Strandberg of Bellevue, Neb. "It always brings about change, and it's what is helping Obama get elected."
Strandberg, founder and editor of raptureready.com, the largest Christian prophecy site on the Internet, spends his days linking current events with biblical passages. He created a Rapture Index, modeled after the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which consists of 45 categories of prophetic indicators from the occult to inflation and the crime rate. Each is assigned a value of one to five depending on the level of activity in that category. The numbers are adjusted weekly, and the higher the number, the faster the world is moving toward its end. Just before the time known as the Great Tribulation, some believe there will be a "Rapture," where Christ takes the righteous to heaven without their tasting death.
In recent weeks, traffic on Rapture Ready site spiked to 50,000 hits a day.
"Any time there are disturbances whether they are natural phenomena like earthquakes or signs in the sky or social and political disasters this is manna from heaven for apocalyptic preachers," says Richard A. Landes, director of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University. "That's how you get people worked up."
The Bible's Book of Revelations is the roadmap for Christian belief about the end-of-the-world and Second Coming of Jesus Christ. In several metaphor-laden chapters, the book describes horrific events that will befall the Earth: deception by a false Messiah, global war, hunger, famine, and disease, earthquakes, the persecution of true believers, and death by the millions.
Believers also will be warned of Christ's imminent return by physical signs, such as the sky turning black, so it's worth watching what's happening in the natural world.
In many eras, Christians have believed they were living in the last days.
One leader around 200 A.D. predicted Jesus was coming the next year so his followers halted all planting, Landes says. About 16 centuries later, a similar prediction meant the Millerites didn't harvest their crops.
Both groups starved, says Landes, editor of The Encyclopedia of Millennialism and Millennial Movements. "It was by and large self-destructive."
Today's presidential season is once again awash in global anxiety.
Some Web sites and conservative Christians have tried to argue that Obama could be the foretold Antichrist. In August, John McCain seemed to tap into evangelical anxiety with his ad, "The One," in which he mocked those who use messianic language to describe Obama.
The Rev. Tim LaHaye, co-author of the millennial Left Behind series, told the Wall Street Journal that he recognized allusions to his work in the ad but comparisons between Obama and the Antichrist were incorrect.
"The Antichrist isn't going to be an American, so it can't possibly be Obama. The Bible makes it clear he will be from an obscure place, like Romania," the 82-year-old author told the paper.
And the Rev. John Cowan, associate pastor at Salt Lake City's Calvary Chapel, likewise scoffed at the suggestion.
"I believe there is and will be an antichrist world leader who is probably alive today, but it's just silly to think Obama is that person," Cowan says. "I have a strong, literal understanding of end times, but that doesn't mean we name someone an antichrist every time we see someone whose stands we don't like."
In his 22 years working on Rapture Ready, Strandberg has seen an "avalanche" of anti-Christ suggestions, including Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Obama doesn't fit the bill, he says, but he could be a type of "anti-Christ," which simply means too many people see him as a replacement for Jesus.
Still, Strandberg believes the end is at hand and Jesus' Second Coming will surprise everyone, coming as "a thief in the night," according to the Bible, but close observers will at least know "the season."
He points to tensions between Israel and Iran, Russia's invasion of Georgia, and the possibility of global depression as some of the top indicators.
"We are one big event from triggering a cascade that will not stop," he says. "There are so many indicators that are active. It's like an overhang of snow on a mountain top. Cracks are forming on the ridge and once the ridge breaks free, it will tumble down the mountain and nothing can stop it."