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Articles - End-Time Prophesie

Crises in the Middle East have some saying the end times are near

By Helen T. Gray
McClatchy Newspapers

John Hagee and Stephen J. Stein are of completely different minds when it comes to predicting whether the world is fast approaching the biblical "last days."

Hagee, an author of 21 books and a San Antonio pastor with a worldwide radio and television ministry, is convinced recent armed conflict in the Middle East and the specter of Iran are proof that the apocalyptic battle of Armageddon - the war to end all wars to be fought in Israel - is not far off.

"The end of the world as we know it is rapidly approaching," Hagee writes in "Jerusalem Countdown," the latest of his six books on the end times.

Stein, on the other hand, is an Indiana University emeritus professor who has made a study of the apocalyptic predictions held by people like Hagee, and to date, he contends, they've all been wrong.

"There have been evangelical preachers in America talking about the end times for more than 2 1/2 centuries," said Stein, author of "The Continuum History of Apocalypticism." And the end has yet to come.

Historically the volume of talk of "end times" prophecies, of the "final days" and of Armageddon increases when armed conflict breaks out in the Middle East, such as the recent war between Israel and Hezbollah. And now, for Hagee in particular, the standoff involving the United States, Israel and Iran is a sign of biblical prophecy.

To arrive at these predictions, conservative Christian pastors like Hagee and the Rev. Jerry Falwell interpret sections of the Old Testament, particularly the books of Ezekiel and Daniel, as prophecy, or predictions, of coming events.

Falwell recently said that "the present-day events in the Holy Land may very well serve as a prelude or forerunner to the future battle of Armageddon and the glorious return of Jesus Christ."

Christians who subscribe to this biblical interpretation generally come from the conservative Protestant wing of Christendom. Other branches of Christianity, such as Roman Catholics and many mainline Protestant denominations, express little interest in end-times discussions. Among those who believe certain world events point back to biblical prophecy, not all agree about how it will come or when.

Is Iran Magog?

Recently, President Bush and Iran's president spoke separately to the United Nations. One issue on which the men disagreed is whether Iran should be allowed to develop its nuclear energy program, with the possibility it could build a nuclear weapon.

Iran plays a major role in how Hagee sees Old Testament prophecy playing out in the present.

"Israel cannot allow Iran to be nuclear," he said in an interview, "and America cannot allow Iran to be nuclear." Stopping Iran could mean some kind of conflict.

"Just before us is a nuclear countdown with Iran," he wrote in "Jerusalem Countdown," which came out earlier this year, "followed by Ezekiel's war (as described in Ezekiel, chapters 38 and 39), and then the final battle - the battle of Armageddon."

To Craig Koester, however, Hagee and others are reading too much into the Bible. That approach, said the author of "Revelation and the End of All Things," "generally involves arranging verses from the Bible in different ways to create scenarios of the future."

"Sometimes," said Koester, who teaches New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., "they try to link specific verses with events happening in the news today."

Hagee, however, is not the only author who sees Iran having a major role in the final days. Best-selling Christian author Joel C. Rosenberg, whose novels deal with Bible prophecies, said the next war on the prophetic timetable will be what Bible scholars call the war of Gog and Magog.

Rosenberg foresees this fight "involving a military alliance between Russia, Iran and a group of other Mideast countries who try to wipe Israel off the map. Russia and Iran have never had a military alliance in the 2,500 years since the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel wrote that prophecy, but they are forming one today."

Armageddon

To the keepers of the Countdown to Armageddon Web site (www.countdown.org), Armageddon is actually a battle "where God finally comes in and takes over the world and rules it the way it should have been ruled all along."

In his book "The Shadow of the Apocalypse," Paul Crouch, co-founder of the conservative Christian-oriented Trinity Broadcast Network, writes, "Jesus Christ ... will rescue Israel, avenge those who have suffered in his name, punish the wicked, redeem the earth, imprison Satan and reign victorious over the earth."

The name Armageddon is found in Revelation 16:16. It is part of a vision of the Apostle John in which kings from the East gather to oppose God. The name in Hebrew means Mount of Megiddo.

"Since Megiddo was a place where various armies were defeated (in history)," Koester said, "the name Armageddon is suitable for the battle at which the forces of evil are defeated at the end of time."

The battle represents the final showdown between the forces of good and evil, said Cathy N. Gutierrez, religion professor at Sweet Briar College in Virginia, who writes on religion topics.

"While all three major monotheisms - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - believe in some version of an ultimate conflict between these forces, the use of the word Armageddon itself usually denotes a Christian understanding of these events," she said.

"The second half of the Book of Daniel (chapters 7-12) is the original Judaic source for an apocalypse, or the final confrontation," she said. "The Book of Revelation in the New Testament relies heavily on the predictions in Daniel, and many people have tried to use the two in conjunction to predict the arrival of the end time."

In addition to Revelation 16:16, the chapters of Isaiah 63, Joel 3 and Zechariah 14 also speak of the final victory of God, Koester said.

"The battle itself is pictured in Revelation 19:11-21, where Christ appears as a rider on a white horse," he said. "Literalistic interpreters generally focus on the devastation of the battle and link it to modern military technology, though they usually have to ignore the fact that the people in the vision are riding on horses.

"Interpreters who read Revelation literalistically will argue that armies will gather at the site of the ancient town of Megiddo," Koester said. "... Other interpreters point out that the Old Testament names used in Revelation frequently have a symbolic meaning."

Signs

During the recent fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, author Rosenberg told CNN that he sees Bible prophecy unfolding bit by bit in the Middle East right now. He has put forth his theories of events leading to the last days in novels such as "The Ezekiel Option" and "The Copper Scroll" and an upcoming nonfiction book, "Epicenter: Why the Current Rumblings in the Middle East Will Change Your Future."

"There's no question that we're living in what the Bible calls the last days," he said.

But Gutierrez said that throughout history the end-times prophecy passages have been interpreted to relate to many different times and events.

"In the 20th century the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union were seen as signs," she said. "With the uncertainty in the world and particularly with any crisis in the Middle East, people reach to the idea of Armageddon in order to explain contemporary suffering and to fit scary events firmly into a divine plan so that history at least does not seem random or out of control."

Stein added, "Some Christians have talked about the re-establishment of the state of Israel, the rebuilding of the temple in Israel, the conversion of the Jews to Christianity, etc., as signs of the times that precede the final struggle," he said. "Others have identified the defeat of secular forces as the result of the battle. Any opponent or enemy can be linked to the evil side."

Koester said he doesn't think the Bible gives a step-by-step description of events that will take place at the end of time.

"Biblical prophecies give Christians the confident hope that God will defeat evil in the end," he said. "... The Scriptures call Christians to put their faith in God rather than in their abilities to know where we are on God's time line."

But Hagee is unwavering in his faith that his assessment that Ezekiel's prophecy is coming to life today.

"Following Ezekiel 38, Russia will give military leadership to the radical Islamics who want to destroy the state of Israel and control Jerusalem," he said. "That is the battle of Gog and Magog. And God himself will destroy the Russian-Arab coalition. The world will see God defending Israel as it hasn't seen since Pharaoh."

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LAST DAYS SURVEY

In February author Joel Rosenberg commissioned a national survey on the last days. Detailed results are published in his new book, "Epicenter: Why the Current Rumblings in the Middle East Will Change Your Future."

Among the findings:

Statement: Events such as the rebirth of the state of Israel, wars and instability in the Middle East, recent earthquakes and the tsunami in Asia are evidence that we are living in what the Bible calls the last days.

Agree: 42 percent

Disagree: 44 percent

Don't know: 14 percent

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© 2006, The Kansas City Star.

Visit The Star Web edition on the World Wide Web at http://www.kcstar.com

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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