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The end of the world

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"I know people who have sold their houses and lived with relatives because they thought the world would soon come to an end," Currie says. "I know others who've cut their education short because they thought it more important to witness to people than to get their degree."

After becoming a missionary and preaching the rapturist prophecy, Currie eventually came to a very different conclusion - that this teaching was not true, and is not in the Bible.

Premillennialism is not consistent with Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or mainline Protestant teaching - but it has been avidly promoted by televangelists and on Christian radio for decades. And one 2002 poll found that more Americans experience the Christian faith through radio, television, or books than by attending church.

The Left Behind series of novels, which begins with the rapture (with planes and cars crashing as Christians disappear) and carries through the tribulation years to Armageddon and the Second Coming, is a blend of fast-paced violence, catastrophes, miracles, and heartfelt faith.

According to end-times teaching, Bible prophecies in Daniel, Revelation, and elsewhere apply literally to current events (there is much debate over who the Antichrist is) and are the key to understanding world history. Other fundamental points are that the state of Israel is central to God's plan for the end times, and Jesus' return is imminent.

"He could come tomorrow, and that grips my life and changes the way I live," says Mark Hitchcock, pastor of Faith Bible Church in Edmond, Okla. "It encourages holy living and evangelism."

Currie, who has become a Catholic, says thousands of young Catholics have been won over to fundamentalist churches through rapture theology.

Barbara White, a Jewish African-American mortician from Buffalo, N.Y., was "saved" at age 7 by a pastor "who was heavy on the rapture." It shapes her whole life.

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