Racing Towards Armageddon
First published in 2009
This book explores the power of ideas to both create and change the beliefs that define people and nations. Bad ideas lead to bad outcomes. And as bad outcomes go, the belief in Armageddon is one of the worst.
In the “last times”, said the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, “You’ll be riding along in an automobile... When the trumpet sounds, you and other born-again believers in that automobile will be instantly caught away … the car suddenly crashes.… Other cars on the highways driven by believers will suddenly be out of control and stark pandemonium will occur.”
He was speaking of the Rapture, an integral part of his belief in Armageddon and the return of Christ. He spoke with confidence; did he have any reason to do so?
Around 95 AD a Christian convert called John, exiled by the Roman authorities to the Greek island of Patmos, had a vision of Christ’s return: not the compassionate Christ of the Gospels but a violent one, stained with the blood of his enemies and about to battle against the Antichrist at Armageddon – a site in the Jezreel valley, northern Israel, beneath the brooding ruins of ancient Megiddo.
John wrote a furious and violent text, his Revelation, which after several hundred years was finally included in the New Testament as its final book.
John was certain that the end was coming at any moment. Indeed, he believed that some who had witnessed the crucifixion would still be alive. John was wrong but his apocalyptic prediction of the last days has reverberated through the centuries. Even today there are those who think they will live to witness it.
Fifty-nine percent of all American Christians – according to polls in 2002 – believe that the events described in Revelation will occur in their lifetime; amongst fundamentalist Christians the figure reaches seventy-seven percent. In the last days, they believe, the Messiah – Jesus – will return, win the great battle against Satan (the Antichrist, the Beast) and convert the entire world to Christianity. Thereafter he will rule from Jerusalem.
Of course, fundamentalist Christians have an escape card that they can play: the rapture. It is a very simple concept, if you are on the side of Jesus, then you get whisked away by God before the troubles start. If you are somewhere else in the vast realm of religious aspiration then you don’t.
When you get taken there is no warning that allows you to park your car or finish brushing your teeth. God grabs you and you are gone. Implicit in the story is that those left behind actually deserve whatever happens. They are sinners who must be punished. The Rapture does not “do” compassion.
But curiously the Rapture is not mentioned in Revelation. Neither is there any such teaching in Judaism. Islam too is silent on the subject. Nor does Roman Catholic, Orthodox or mainstream Protestant theology contain its story.
In fact the Rapture is a relatively recent spin on cherry-picked biblical extracts. It has its origins in two sources: the writings of John Nelson Darby (1800–1882), the founder of the Plymouth Brethren and in the commentaries of the Reverend Cyrus Ingerson Scofield (1843–1921) in The Scofield Reference Bible, 1909. But the modern picture of the Rapture with its crashing cars and aeroplanes dates from the 1950s and was first launched to a large public audience by fundamentalist preacher Hal Lindsay in 1970 with his book The Late Great Planet Earth.
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I wrote this book out of a sense of outrage: that the lunatics were openly taking over the asylum and no one seemed to care. I had spent years talking to journalists about the matters explored in this book in an attempt to get them interested in chasing this story. But my many attempts had no effect. For some reason this area was too toxic – perhaps because working in it would probe areas which would reveal limits to our modern liberal desire for tolerance of all diversity, however destructive that might be to our own way of life. Finally, realising that this story would never be written unless I did it myself, I opened my lap-top and began.
I found that an important part of the potential audience for my book were those moderates who felt threatened or perhaps tempted by the aggressive certainty of the extremist fundamentalists of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
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We need to realise that there are some very significant misconceptions about this area; misconceptions which often seemed to me quite deliberately pursued as though it was a good way of avoiding the true effect of the material. The most important and widespread of these misconceptions is that religion is irrelevant to politics; that our so-called democracy in some way insulates us from the effects of religious fervour and that if we could only spread democracy throughout the rest of the world all its ills would vanish in a wave of popular support for universal voting.
This is coupled with another widespread misconception: that politics can solve disputes which are religious at heart. Unfortunately such a system works only in a society where church and state are separated and in our society this has been the result of hundreds of years of bloodletting and discovery from the Italian Renaissance, through the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution and the mass slaughter of two World Wars. We have discovered the importance of tempering religious and ideological fervour through the checks and balances of democratic laws. And it is frightening to discover, as you will in this book, that there are powerful forces within our democracies which want to remove these laws for something more primitive and brutal.
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Politics is the art of the pragmatic; if we are all to live together on this planet then we need a political system which is flexible, compassionate and accommodates differences in people. Political systems which become dominated by hard-line religious principles lose this ability to encompass a wide variety of attitudes. The danger then is that politics ceases to represent the people and instead represent only the leadership driven by a dogmatic certainty about the future. The danger for our democracies is self-evident.
Here it is useful to remember the lesson of the Balkans in the 1990s: our culture is very vulnerable. It can so easily disintegrate and allow a raw savagery emerge. We need to nurture and protect our democratic culture by keeping paramount its flexibility and tolerance.
The extreme fundamentalism which I am writing about in my book is like a destructive virus infecting our culture. We need to stop it. To dismiss the appeal to biblical prophecy made by its leaders
It is self-evident that the trouble with prophecy is that it can become self-fulfilling; if we believe something to be true we may make it happen. There are many extremist Christians and Muslims who believe in a last-days cataclysm. Will this belief create a new reality in the Middle East? This seems entirely plausible.
If those who share these beliefs are serving in an army in the Middle East and think that the ultimate enemy is Satan, what then?
US Lieutenant General William Boykin, in June 2003, during the Iraq war, laid out such an explanation at a church in Oregon.
“We … are in a spiritual battle, not a physical battle … the battle this nation is in is a spiritual battle, it’s a battle for our soul. And the enemy is a guy called Satan.… Satan wants to destroy this nation.”
Boykin was not a lone eccentric: when, in 2004, Lieutenant Colonel Gareth Brandl was leading his men in an assault on Falluja, in mid-Iraq, he inspired them by proclaiming, “The enemy has got a face. He’s called Satan. And we’re going to destroy him.”
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Moderate believers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam - those in the centre - have no great argument with people of other faiths. But at the edges of the three religions there are always some who preach a rigid interpretation of doctrine. Instead of drawing people together they are more interested in focussing upon differences and so drive communities apart.
Today those from the intolerant edge are making a concerted attempt to take over the centre; the fanatics are outflanking the complacent. Moderates of all faiths have reason to worry: do those self-confident, certain and aggressive voices from the edge truly speak for religion? We need to ask a blunt and unwelcome question: how long dare we be tolerant of intolerance?
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Religion is bleeding into mainstream politics. The military actions in the Middle East, for example, are commonly seen in religious terms on all sides. Influential U.S. politicians and military leaders, as I explain in my book, adopt the language of apocalypse, as do powerful leaders of the Sunni and Shia Islamic communities.
In the context of our Judaeo-Christian-Islamic world (perhaps better termed “Abrahamic”) all history is considered to be moving inevitably – by design - towards a final conclusion with the coming of the Messiah (for the Jews); the coming of Jesus the Messiah (for the Christians); the coming of the Mahdi (for the Muslims).
Furthermore, all three have a demonic opponent who must first be defeated – Satan, the Antichrist or the Muslim Dajjal. At the peak of this cataclysmic endgame, according to Christians and Muslims, these opposing forces will meet in a great battle in Israel. Yet it is hard to see how Judaism can avoid a similar disaster if those extremists who wish to destroy the Muslim structures on the Temple Mount and rebuild the Temple get their way.
It is a significant problem that extreme fundamentalists of all three religions claim Jerusalem as their messianic capital from where the world will in future be run as a theocracy. Such an outcome would naturally mean the end of our pragmatic democracy. For that reason alone we should never underestimate the danger posed by these forces now active within Judaism, Christianity and Islam and largely ignored by our national media.
Furthermore, those who believe that the Messiah is coming have little interest in sustainable ecology or long-term economic policies for the earth is there to be plundered; all problems will be solved by the Messiah on his return.
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Before we cross the point of no return we must pose a blunt and difficult question: in this book, I ask, has the era of belief in one anthropomorphic God had its day? For people with only one God are bound to argue which is best.
Is it time perhaps for the ‘Religions of the Book’ to throw away the book and seek spiritual experience rather than settling for mere belief? For belief, based upon a text with all the problems of translation and interpretation, is not knowledge; neither is it wisdom.
We are all human beings living on this world; how can we get along together without feeling the need to blow ourselves up on buses or aeroplanes in the name of religion? Differences are ultimately superficial. Religions have always had an inner and an outer aspect. The problems of extremism arise from an obsession with the outer form of religion; the inner is deliberately ignored - or if not ignored, derided. So long as we find ourselves locked into the outer forms then, I fear, peace and harmony will be elusive.
The most important message for readers is to keep asking questions; especially of all those who express belief systems which make claims of certainty and truth.