US Christian evangelicals raise the stakes

Millions of Christians in the United States are concerned with the future of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif. Some pray for the day that Christians, Jews, and Muslims can share in peace the site considered holy by all three
religions. Others plan for the day that the Muslim shrines and places of worship on the Haram al Sharif are destroyed and replaced with the third Temple of Solomon that some messianic Jews want to build on the site.

Depending on how studies are done, there are between 45 and 100 million "born again" or evangelical Christians in the United States. In the 2000 presidential election, 32 percent of the votes George W. Bush received came from church-going white evangelicals; and 14 percent of all voters identified themselves as part of the Christian Right movement, where support for an aggressive brand of Zionism is strong.

Evangelicals support Israel for a variety of reasons. The most vociferous are Protestant fundamentalists who read biblical prophecy literally to require Jews to control Jerusalem and rebuild Solomon’s Temple to set the stage for the return of Jesus Christ, their messiah. They believe we live in the apocalyptic "end times" culminating in the epochal battle of Armageddon. For some, this involves a war between godly Christians and evil Muslims–an idea with increasing resonance among Christian evangelicals since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Arno Froese edits Midnight Call, a Christian magazine that predicts the end times are close at hand. Froese applauds political assassinations of pro-Palestinian militants by Israeli forces, and argues more people should be "congratulating Ariel Sharon and his government for eliminating these extremely dangerous murderers." Another apocalyptic author is Hal Lindsey, who accelerated Christian Zionism starting in the 1970s when he launched a series of books claiming that the establishment of the State of Israel started the end times clock ticking. His new book, The Everlasting Hatred: The Roots of Jihad, describes the end times battle as starting with a Muslim and Arab attack on Israel triggered by events at the Temple Mount. There is much disagreement over biblical prophecy, with many scenarios for the end times, the future of the Temple Mount, Solomon’s Temple, and the role of an evil world leader called the Antichrist who is an agent of Satan. These are theological apocalyptic concepts, but for tens of millions of Americans they shape real cultural and political activities.

"Could the Antichrist come from the Middle East?" That’s the August 23 headline on my e-mail message from "The Left Behind Prophecy Club", a "website and newsletter to help you understand how current events may actually relate to End
Times prophecy". The site is part of an end times "Left Behind" fiction book series by authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. The 12 volumes have sold over 62 million copies, and have been translated into dozens of languages. They regularly hit bestseller lists.

This interest in the end times and the prophetic role of Israel has meant tens of millions of dollars of support every year from evangelical Christians in the US. This funds projects in Israel ranging from helping immigrants and planting vines to promoting settlement expansion and decrying any plans for Jerusalem other than unilateral control by Israel.

One activist group, the Jerusalem Prayer Team, mobilizes support for Israel through internet appeals that claim "The return of our Lord and Savior is directly related to Jerusalem", and that most biblical "prophecy points to Jerusalem and the end times; the new Temple being built; the Antichrist; the Battle of Armageddon; 144,000 Evangelists". That last figure is the number of Jews slated to convert to Christianity in the end times. The rest perish in the fiery sulfurous lake of hell. This makes ironic the endorsement of the group’s work by Israeli leaders including Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Powerful Christian Right leaders such as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Tim and Beverly LaHaye, and James Dobson have also endorsed the work, as have influential evangelists such as Billy and Franklin Graham.

In his book, The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount, Gershom Gorenberg details how some Christian evangelicals are directly supporting plans by those Jews who want to rebuild the Temple, including a cattle-breeding program to produce a blemish-free red heifer required for sacrifice before the ground can be sanctified. In this case, one religion’s sanctification would be another religion’s atrocity. Some Jews and Christians have joined with Muslims to warn against promoting any apocalyptic scenario for the small hill in Jerusalem. Yet Gorenberg’s fears that a confrontation between religious fanatics from these faiths could spark wider violence are well grounded. Too many political and religious leaders are playing with fire in this situation. By taunting heaven, they risk an outcome from hell.