One Christian interpretation concerning the end times that has gained ground over the last few decades is the “premillennialist” view. Although premillennial theology can be traced back to the British nineteenth century preacher John Darby it has increasingly become the interpretation of choice among American evangelicals since Hall Lindsay's The Late Great Planet Earth became a surprise bestseller in the early 1970s.
It has been given an even wider audience through a set of runaway best selling novels known as The Left Behind series. The first of the twelve books was published in 1995 and when the final instalment was published this year presales had already reached 2 million. Several novels in the series have topped the bestseller lists. According to Newsweek (Gates 2004) there was a run on Desecration, the 2001 instalment, following September 11 and it became the best selling novel of the year. All up the series has sold some 62 million copies.
The Left Behind books are the brainchild of long time evangelical activist and co-founder of the Moral Majority, Tim La Haye, and are co-authored by novelist Jerry Jenkins. They narrate the classic “premillennialist” story that begins with the “rapture” which sees all good Christians taken “to meet the Lord in the air” so that they are saved from the seven years of tribulation which precedes the second coming of Jesus . Meanwhile, wars rage and the Anti-Christ (in La Haye's version, the seemingly benevolent head of the United Nations) increases his world domination. Plagues hit and ultimately the Jewish temple is rebuilt.
The books are potboilers often compared to Tom Clancy or John Grisham novels. They follow the adventures of the “Tribulation force” a self-appointed group led by a TV news journalist who overcome their scepticism and vow to alert the world to the truth behind the catastrophic events. Behind the inevitable move towards Armageddon is the mysterious “council of ten”.
Although La Haye's take on the end times is not accepted by all in the evangelical fraternity, a 2002 survey found that a staggering 59% of American's believed that the events predicted in the book of Revelation will actually occur in the future. (Lampman 2004)
La Haye and many like him see current events in Iraq and the Middle East as very positive signs that Jesus' return is imminent. “Saddam's removal clears the way for rebuilding Babylon,” he wrote recently. When asked in an interview if this meant that President Bush is bringing the second coming closer by rebuilding Iraq? La Haye replied: “Totally inadvertently, yes.” (Shepherdson 2004)
Other premillennial Christians not only believe the government's actions in Iraq and Israel are crucial to God's unfolding plan, they are actively lobbying to ensure that Bush's support for Israel is unwavering.
According to one recent report, when President Bush started to call on Israel to pull back its military forces from the Jenin refugee camp in 2002, evangelicals quickly mobilized 100,000 opposing e-mails to the White House and Bush became suddenly quiet on the issue. (Lampman 2004)
According to an investigation by the Village Voice, Bush administration officials have regular meetings with a premillennialist group called the Apostolic Congress. In a memo of a recent meeting prepared by the Congress and obtained by the Voice, the National Security Council's Near East and North African Affairs director Elliott Abrams attempted to justify the administrations support for a Gazza withdrawal by stating that “the Gaza Strip had no significant Biblical influence such as Joseph's tomb or Rachel's tomb and therefore is a piece of land that can be sacrificed for the cause of peace.” (Perlstein 2004)
Although the premillennialists believe that only 144,000 Jews will be “saved,” the rebuilding of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem - currently the site of The Dome of the Rock, one of Islam's holiest mosques - is a key precursor to Jesus' coming. So although they work hard on behalf of the state of Israel, it seems that it is only because the Jews are pawns in their larger end-game.
As the Voice's Rick Perlstein concludes:
The problem is not that George W. Bush is discussing policy with people who press right-wing solutions to achieve peace in the Middle East, or with devout Christians. It is that he is discussing policy with Christians who might not care about peace at all-at least until the rapture. (Perlstein 2004)