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It is one thing to become politically active to deploy that Gospel to improve people's lives, another to try to promote a specific religious scenario. Intercessors for America, a 30-year-old prayer ministry, helps keep people politically connected through e-mail alerts and telephone-prayer chains. The June 11 Prayer Alert implored, "Lord, raise up government leaders in Israel, the United States (and worldwide) who will not seek to 'divide the land,' and who would recognize the unique significance of Jerusalem in God's end-time purposes." A refusal to consider Israel's withdrawal from any occupied territory would tend to complicate the peace process: virtually every proposal has involved a land-for-peace swap. Yet at the same time, "if this wave of terrorism continues without a meaningful peace treaty soon," predicts John Hagee, pastor of the 17,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, "the sparks of war will produce a third world war. And that will be the coming of the End Times. That will be the end of the world as we know it."
To the true believers, that seems less a threat than the fulfillment of a promise. "If we keep our eyes on Israel, we will know about the return of Christ," says Oleeta Herrmann, 77, of Xenia, Ohio. "Everything that is happening--wars, rumors of war--in the Middle East is happening according to Scripture." Herrmann is a member of the End-Time Handmaidens and Servants, a group of global missionaries who preach the Gospel with an emphasis on End Times teachings. Sept. 11 is proof of her belief that the Second Coming of Christ is "closer than it ever has been," Herrmann says.
And therein lies the central paradox in this wave of End Times interest. If you believe the end is near, is the reaction hope, or dread? "Even though the Left Behind series has been popular, many people still think of the End Times as negative," wrote Kyle Watson on his prophecy news website, AtlantaChristianWeekly.com He thinks believers should be excited about the end of the world. "Try viewing prophecy and current events [as] how much closer we are to being with Christ in heaven."
That impulse to hope for a good ending is one Cal Thomas, the conservative columnist, sees even in the disciples' questions for Jesus. He cites Bible passages in which the Apostles press Jesus for clues about how the future unfolds. "This is intellectual comfort food, the whole Left Behind phenomenon, because it says to people, in a popularized way, it's all going to pan out in the end," he says. "It assures them, in the midst of a general cultural breakdown and a time of growing danger, that God is going to redeem the time." Evangelicals who had felt somehow left behind in secular terms, by a coarse culture and a fear of general moral decay, welcome arguments that even the most tragic events may be evidence of God's larger plan. In fact, you don't have to be religious to be hoping for that as well.
--With reporting by Amanda Bower/New York, Rita Healy/Denver, Marc Hequet/St. Paul, Tom Morton/Casper, Adam Pitluk/San Antonio, Matt Rees/Jerusalem, Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles, Melissa Sattley/Austin and Daniel Terdiman/San Francisco