What do you watch for, when you are watching the news? Signs that interest rates might be climbing, maybe it's time to refinance. Signs of global warming, maybe forget that new SUV. Signs of new terrorist activity, maybe think twice about that flight to Chicago.
Or signs that the world may be coming to an end, and the last battle between good and evil is about to unfold?
For evangelical Christians with an interest in prophecy, the headlines always come with asterisks pointing to scriptural footnotes. That is how Todd Strandberg reads his paper. By day, he is fixing planes at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Neb. But in his off-hours, he's the webmaster at raptureready.com and the inventor of the Rapture Index, which he calls a "Dow Jones Industrial Average of End Time activity." Instead of stocks, it tracks prophecies: earthquakes, floods, plagues, crime, false prophets and economic measurements like unemployment that add to instability and civil unrest, thereby easing the way for the Antichrist. In other words, how close are we to the end of the world? The index hit an all-time high of 182 on Sept. 24, as the bandwidth nearly melted under the weight of 8 million visitors: any reading over 145, Strandberg says, means "Fasten your seat belt."
It's not the end of the world, our mothers always told us. This was helpful for putting spilled milk in perspective, but it was also our introduction to a basic human reference point. We seem to be born with an instinct that the end is out there somewhere. We have a cultural impulse to imagine it--and keep it at bay. Just as all cultures have their creation stories, so too they have their visions of the end, from the Bible to the Mayan millennial stories. Usually the fables dwell in the back of the mind, or not at all, since we go about our lives conditioned to think that however bad things get, it's not you know what. But there are times in human history when instinct, faith, myth and current events work together to create a perfect storm of preoccupation. Visions of an end point lodge in people's minds in many forms, ranging from entertainment to superstitious fascination to earnest belief. Now seems to be one of those times.
The experience of last fall--the terrorist attacks, the anthrax deaths--not only deepened the interest among Christians fluent in the language of Armageddon and Apocalypse. It broadened it as well, to an audience that had never paid much attention to the predictions of the doomsday prophet Nostradamus, or been worried about an epic battle that marks the end of time, or for that matter, read the Book of Revelation. Since Sept. 11, people from cooler corners of Christianity have begun asking questions about what the Bible has to say about how the world ends, and preachers have answered their questions with sermons they could not have imagined giving a year ago. And even among more secular Americans, there were some who were primed to see an omen in the smoke of the flaming towers--though it had more to do with their beach reading than with their Bible studies.