Outside the mainstream of Christian and Jewish theology a literalist interpretation of scriptural prophecy is tempting some Americans toward a dangerous fatalism. This interpretation has many variations, as promoted to wide audiences by television evangelists and others. But in essence it links contemporary events to the symbolic depiction of the final battle between good and evil in the apocalyptic passages of the Bible - with no escape except for those who are ''saved.''
New attention has been drawn to the apocalyptic or prophetic movement by exponents who proclaim the current fighting in Lebanon as the fulfilling of prophecy. They see it followed by world conflagration after Israel is engaged by the Soviet Union in the role of the Old Testament ''Magog.''
But, despite failed predictions in the past, the movement had been growing for years before the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Now, aided by electronics and the revival of fundamentalism, it appears to be flourishing as much as or more than similar movements in previous history.
A danger in such superstition is widespread acceptance of the attitude that what will come will come. Measures for self-protection or against ominously interpreted combinations of scriptural numbers appear to be among approved actions for individuals. But there is seen to be no point in trying to forestall Armageddon, which in any event is supposed to be followed by a wonderful reign of peace for the designated survivors. By this logic, such steps as nuclear disarmament negotiations become satanic signs to be expected in the final stages before the holocaust, while calamities can be welcomed as tokens of salvation.
Adherents of what has been dubbed the ''new apocalypticism'' do not seem deterred by the bygone failures in attempting to make literal earthly predictions on the basis of biblical metaphor and allegory. In fashioning their own scenarios for the present day, they not only fly in the face of biblical scholarship. They also risk overlooking spiritual interpretation that promises the most to people in any age. Here the ''great red dragon'' in the Apocalypse is not some kind of code for an enemy of the Western world; it is a profound symbol for the totality of evil - for the basic lie of materialism - which is finally conquered when it is seen for what it is.