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The end of the world

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When David got home from school, the third grader looked everywhere for his mom and sisters. They couldn't be found in the house or the yard. Suddenly the youngster panicked. What he'd been taught in church must have happened - they'd disappeared in the "rapture," and he'd been "left behind."

For children raised in a fundamentalist Protestant background, "that wasn't an uncommon experience," says David Currie of his frantic moments years ago. They were taught Jesus could come at any moment to whisk believers to heaven and leave others to face seven years of "the great tribulation." Only after that period of suffering, violence, and disasters on Earth would Christ return in the Second Coming.

Today, as belief in this end-times prophecy sees a resurgence among Americans - partly because of the phenomenal success of the "Left Behind" series of novels (58 million sold) and the disturbing "signs" of terrorism and war - Mr. Currie and others are seeking to refute the apocalyptic theology.

Fundamentalists represent a minority of Christians - an estimated 25 million - but the interest in end-times prophecy has spread beyond their circles, and is not only shaping people's lives, but, say supporters and critics, even influencing US foreign policy.

A 2002 survey showed that 59 percent of Americans believe that the events in the Bible book of Revelation will occur in the future.

The theology behind end-time prophecy - premillennial dispensationalism (from the idea that God has divided history into ages, or dispensations) - emerged in 19th-century England. It was brought to America by missionary John Nelson Darby and spread at evangelistic conferences.

While believers say it spurs righteous living and helps discern God's plan for the world, others see it as fostering a skewed sense of history and of what Christianity is about.

Rather than the single Second Coming of Christ expected by other Christians, it presents a two-stage return of Jesus, with the plagues and catastrophes depicted in Revelation literally to take place on Earth in between. The current "church age" will end with the rapture, when Jesus will take true Christians to heaven, and the rest of humanity will face the outpouring of God's wrath, designed to turn them to Him. Many insist it will occur within a generation.

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