Set the dial on the wayback machine to the 1980’s: Reagan was president, Russia was still “the Soviet Union” (which Reagan called “the Evil Empire”), and people lived daily with the fear that the arms race between the U.S. and the Soviets, along with the public-policy known as “M.A.D.” (mutually assured destruction) might one day soon result in all out nuclear annihilation.
Almost twenty five years later, it’s interesting to contemplate the role that fundamentalist Christian apocalyptic eschatology played in the political discourse of the time. Let’s take a look.
Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth
Back in 1970, fundamentalist Christian author Hal Lindsey published a book that earned him world-wide fame and millions of dollars: The Late Great Planet Earth. This book popularized a strain of fundamentalist eschatology that had a long history, but which had never been articulated plainly to a mass audience. Lindsey argued, among other things, that the world would probably end before 1988 (40 years after the foundation of the state of Israel). Lindsey believed that there would be a single government of Europe consisting of 10 states (there are now 27 member states), and that it would be led by the Antichrist, who would initiate World War III. Weaving together a decidedly non-literal interpretation of Iron Age prophecies from Ezekiel 38-39, Zechariah 13, and many other texts, he predicted that final war would begin after the Soviet Union and China invaded Israel. This would force the U.S. to intervene, leading to nuclear war. At last, Jesus Christ himself would appear in military splendor at the valley of Megiddo in Israel (Har Megiddo = Armageddon), where he would wipe out the commie hordes in a spectacular final showdown. By 1978, the book had run through 66 printings (my copy is from 1978). To date, more than 30 million copies of this book, which was reissued in a revised (and updated) version in 1998, have been sold.
Evangelicals and Armageddon in the 1980’s
In 1980 Lindsey published another book called The 1980’s: Countdown to Armageddon. By now, Lindsey was world famous, and he was interviewed by members of the press and received wide publicity for his book in the popular press. (See, for example, a syndicated article on Lindsey by AP religion journalist George W. Cornell, printed in many local papers such as the Klingman Daily Miner, in May 1981).
Fed in part by Lindsey and the media attention he drew, in the 1980’s the fires of fundamentalist eschatology burned brightly in popular evangelicalism in America. People were especially worked up by interpretations that suggested the involvement of the cold-war superpowers and nuclear weapons. It turns out, Americans liked to see that, in His holy word, God himself had already declared victory against the godless communist evil empires. Who wouldn’t?
The U.S. President and the End of the World
But things changed when this politico-theological complex reared its head in the White House. In 1984, while President Ronald Reagan was running for re-election, he admitted during the October presidential debates that he accepted the popular fundamentalist doctrines concerning Armageddon, although he discounted the idea that one could plan political policy around them. This caused a storm of bad publicity and controversy. Liberals attacked the President, while even the evangelicals (at least, the academic ones) publicly backed away from Lindsey and his doctrines (as New York Times journalist Walter Goodman reported at the time). Hand-wringing editorials were printed (such as this one by George Plagenz), and academic Biblical scholars found themselves talking to reporters a bit more frequently than they normally do.
Academic and popular books were written and conferences held, attacking the eschatological beliefs of premillennial dispensationalism. One author charged that American fundamentalists were actually praying for nuclear war. Scholars of popular religion in America now noted with concern the widespread belief in a nuclear Armageddon. Many people feared that a fundamentalist theology could influence public policy in a way that might turn prophecy into self-fulfilling prophecy.
The End (of the Hysteria)
As Lindsey’s predicted deadline for the tribulation approached, the year 1988, many people remained extremely concerned that a fundamentalist mindset was influencing foreign policy. Yet, at the same time, Lindsey’s 18 year old predictions were already looking a bit dated. There was no progress towards a unified Europe led by the Antichrist, no revival of the Roman empire, and no sign of war between the Soviet Union and Israel.
In 1987, Dinesh D’Souza, then a fairly young and little known conservative writer (but now a rather more famous public intellectual), wrote an interesting editorial in which he argued, rather unconvincingly I think, that there was no good reason to fear fundamentalist eschatology in the halls of power. “Evangelicals and fundamentalists realize,” D’Souza wrote, “as most secularists do not, that eschatological prophecies cannot be speeded up or altered to suit human timetables.” He goes on to quote Pat Robertson (remember: he was a presidential candidate in the 1988 campaign season) denying that he had any intention of trying to speed the plow of Armageddon. Whew!
The cold war is over, but Hal Lindsey is still with us, maintaining a website, and writing books. Unchastened by his failure to visualize the future from 1988 to 2010, he has realigned his interpretation of Biblical prophecy to fit the changing political landscape of post 9/11 America. Whereas, in 1970, the Arabs were minor players in his vision of Armageddon, in the past decade Lindsey has embraced Islam as a better and more likely eschatological enemy of the people of God.
How long can one man continue to profit from such willful misreadings and misunderstandings of the Biblical prophetic books?
Russia will play a momentous role, in the last day prophesies. As a matter of fact, Russia is featured in three of the most important prophecies of the players at the battle of Armageddon. Russia is featured in Ezekiel, chapters 38 and 39, Joel chapter 2, verse 20, and Daniel, Chapter 11 verses 40 through 45, which all talk about the beginning of the battle of Armageddon. And it’s Russia, leading a Muslim confederacy, that’s under Iran, that will start the last war of the world, that we call the war of Armageddon. — Hal Lindsey, in the Hal Lindsey Report January 15th, 2010.