It’s been 10 months of epic disaster. First there was the tsunami that killed some 250,000 people in Southeast Asia. Then came Hurricane Katrina with its devastating toll on the Gulf Coast, followed by an earthquake that took tens of thousands of lives in South Asia. Now, Hurricane Wilma, one of the most powerful storms ever measured in the Atlantic Basin, is stalking the Florida coast, and experts are warning of a deadly avian flu pandemic.
It’s enough to make just about anyone pause to look for meaning in the madness.
For many who await Judgment Day, the writing is on the wall.
So close is the correlation between recent events and the biblical prophecy of the Second Coming, by the reckoning of RaptureReady.com, its "Rapture Index" has been hovering around 160 — the highest levels since just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. According to the Web site, "the higher the number, the faster we're moving towards the ... rapture." When the number is above 145, it advises: "Fasten your seatbelts!"
"There is a resurgence of End Times thinking," says Stephen O'Leary, an expert on apocalyptic thinking and an associate professor at the University of Southern California. Anxiety about doomsday always lurks under the surface and resurfaces periodically, he says. "It's a very traditional way of coming to terms with disaster. In one sense it’s as old as the hills ... but there is a recent uptick of this kind of thinking."
Current events have provided rich fodder for religious groups devoted to watching for the End Times, when the faithful believe that they and nonbelievers will ultimately be judged. Nowhere is this more evident today than on the Internet, where scores of Web sites analyze the news through a biblical lens. While predictions of an apocalypse are part of many religions, including a version in Islam that is very similar to the Christian one, it is evangelical Christians who are sounding alarms in U.S. churches and online.
Among the most commonly cited biblical passages describing the beginning of the end are in Matthew, where Jesus warns that "nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes," and this passage in Luke: "And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring."
The race to interpret the news
Many evangelical Christians believe these events signal the End Times, as spelled out in the Book of Revelation, which go something like this: First there is the Rapture, in which God's loyal followers suddenly disappear from Earth and enter his kingdom. Then comes the Tribulation, a seven-year period of rule by the Antichrist and severe hardship on Earth. During this time, nonbelievers who remain on Earth will have a chance to convert to Christianity but will be hounded by the Antichrist and his minions. Then comes Armageddon, when God comes back to defeat Satan in a devastating battle. Ultimately, there is Judgment Day, when those who are with God live on in Paradise, and others are eternally condemned to Hell.
There are scores of Web sites that interpret current events through the prism of biblical passages, seeing divine signs not only in the weather, but in the war in Iraq and events at the United Nations.
Abbaswatchman.com "explains how virtually everything we are seeing, from hurricanes and tsunamis to tensions with Damascus are fulfilling prophesies." The blog ApocalypseSoon.org strives "to document the final moments of human history as it unfolds and to announce the return of Jesus Christ on earth." The list goes on.
New Orleans warning
Some Web sites serve as a pulpit for those who believe that God sent Katrina to smite New Orleans for its sinning ways and to send a warning to the rest of the nation.
"Although the loss of lives is deeply saddening, this act of God destroyed a wicked city," says conservative anti-gay activist Michael Marcavage on the site RepentAmerica.com. He says New Orleans was punished for a "public celebration" of homosexuality, wanton drunkenness and show of flesh.
Alabama state Sen. Henry E. "Hank" Erwin Jr., a Republican, expressed a similar view in a weekly column he writes for news outlets. "New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast have always been known for gambling, sin and wickedness," he wrote. "It is the kind of behavior that ultimately brings the judgment of God."
Irwin Baxter, founder of End Times Ministries, is among those more focused on how Katrina and the other disasters, combined with key political indicators — including the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip — point to an imminent apocalypse. "With all these converging at the same time, it looks to me we are very close to or just entered the (End Times)," says Baxter.
“People are really apprehensive right now,” he says. But the upside, from his point of view, is that the disasters could help make believers out of doubters. “If we continue seeing event after event of this magnitude ... I think it could really galvanize a lot of people.”
He's given up his regular job as pastor at a Pentecostal church in Richmond, Ind., to devote all his time and energy to End Times Ministries, which includes a magazine that has 30,000 subscribers, a Web site and a radio program broadcast on 30 stations and over the Internet.
To be sure, not all conservative Christians think it's wise to make predictions. "There have been storms throughout history," says Mark Bailey, president of the Dallas Theological Seminary, a conservative evangelical institution. "To say about any of these that 'this is it' is dangerous speculation."
He is also troubled by the view that storms are used to punish a certain group of people. However, he adds, "It's a great time to ask, 'If this was it, would I be ready?'"
Apocalypse on the big screen
The soul-searching, and the speculation in Christian circles is driven in part by a highly successful series of films based on the best-selling book series "Left Behind." The story, a melodrama with a backdrop of End Times prophecy events, focuses on characters who remain on Earth after the believers are swept to heaven in the Rapture. The films, starring former television actor Kirk Cameron, launched on DVD in 2000 and have prompted a wave of other books, movies and spin-offs in the apocalypse genre. The third "Left Behind" movie is set to premiere at churches across the country on Friday.
USC's O'Leary suggests that media coverage of real disasters from Sri Lanka to New Orleans may also be intensifying the belief in impending peril, because the events are delivered instantaneously to American living rooms. "There is a sense of escalation that makes us feel that it's happening more rapidly," says O'Leary.
Religious groups don't have a monopoly on apocalyptic thinking. O'Leary says that even in secular circles, people also embrace apocalyptic thinking when it converges with worrisome scientific or technological developments.
"The prime case was the Y2K scare," he says, referring to fears of a disaster on the eve of the new century. "For awhile it seemed to have a rational technical basis, which seemed to go overboard," creating fears that lingered until the clock struck 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2000, "long after computer programmers said it was going to be OK," he says.
Evidence of global warming fuels fears of impending disaster among those who don't necessarily believe in divine intervention, O'Leary points out. And the emergence of nuclear weapons technology after World War II lent plausibility to belief in a secular version of Armageddon.
"You don’t have to be a religious believer to think that we’re headed for disaster," O'Leary says.