Ever since Jesus said that only God knows the hour or day of the Second Coming, preachers and self-appointed doomsayers have been trying to predict when it will happen -- and watching the sun rise on another generation. Even those who chastise date-setters nearly always say, "God's final judgment is coming soon, probably in our lifetime, so get ready."
In recent weeks, the prophetic interpreters have been citing a new reason they believe the end is coming: the impending U.S. war with Iraq. Anxious discussions have arisen on prophecy Web sites, in Bible study groups and churches, and at such gatherings as last month's 20th International Prophecy Conference in Tampa. Its title: "Shaking of Nations: Living in Perilous Times."
Many see evidence of Iraq's significance in end-time scenarios in key passages of the apocalyptic book of Revelation. Chapter 16, which includes the only mention of Armageddon in the Bible, carries a direct reference to the Euphrates River, which runs through modern-day Iraq.
"The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up to prepare the way for the kings from the East," writes John, possibly the apostle, of a container of God's anger emptied on the ancient land of Babylon, now Iraq. The kings will move their armies through the Euphrates valley en route to Har Megiddo (Armageddon) in northern Israel.
The Euphrates appears a second time with one of seven angels whose blaring trumpets warn that the Final Judgment is near. "Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates," a voice commands the sixth angel of God, whose compliance unleashes agents of death who "had been kept ready for this very hour and day and month and year and were released to kill a third of mankind."
Then comes the clincher. In Chapter 9, Verse 11 -- yes, that's 9:11 -- John says the leader of an army of locusts released to fight humankind is named Abaddon in Hebrew, Apollyon in Greek. Both words mean Destroyer, one of several meanings for the name "Saddam."
"Iraq fits like hand in glove," Irvin Baxter Jr., founder of Endtime magazine and pastor of Oak Park Church in Richmond, Ind., said of the role he believes the country will play in world-ending events if U.S.-led forces invade Iraq.
Baxter, a lifelong student of Old and New Testament prophecies, said casualties will be tremendous, not only of combatants in Iraq but of people in neighboring countries hit by retaliatory missiles of mass destruction and Americans who fall victim to terrorists armed with portable nuclear weapons.
And other countries will take the opportunity to pursue their own interests -- China trying to retake Taiwan, or India making an all-out assault on Kashmir -- leading to World War III, he said. The result, Baxter concludes, could be a nuclear holocaust that takes the lives of 2 billion people, the "one-third of mankind" stated in Revelation.
Such talk bothers Craig C. Hill, professor of New Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary in Northwest Washington and one of many biblical scholars who say end-time interpreters distort Scripture to fit their own point of view. Most claim to read the Bible "literally" yet take bits and pieces from books written centuries apart under different circumstances, he said.
Ezekiel, one of the most popular end-time texts, was written in the 6th century B.C. by a Judean priest exiled in Babylon who dreamed of the Jews' return to Israel and the restoration of the temple. Revelation was written 600 years later, about A.D. 95, by an exiled Christian leader encouraging churches in Asia Minor to persevere under the hardships of Roman control.
Yet prophetic interpreters will take verses from each and combine them to create a reading that justifies their point of view, said Hill, author of "In God's Time: The Bible and the Future."
"In trying to create one overarching interpretation, they are not allowing for the complexity of the biblical witness to come through," he said. "The irony is, in their quest for accuracy, biblical literalists are forced to misread the Bible."
More problematic is the fatalistic worldview of apocalyptic thinking, Hill said. Many who obsess about the end of the world fail to enjoy the life they have or reach out to help others in an effort to improve society, he said. They become "morally complacent."
Those criticisms are of little concern to millions of Americans who were caught up in end-time fever long before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the explosion of the shuttle Columbia fueled even greater speculation on how the world might end.
One of the greatest indicators of that interest has been the phenomenal success of the "Left Behind" series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Since 1995, when their first book appeared, LaHaye and Jenkins have sold more than 38 million copies of 10 novels set during the end-time period known as the Great Tribulation. The 11th novel, to be released April 8, is titled "Armageddon" and set partly in Baghdad.
"Readers tell me they're dying to know who survives Armageddon for the Glorious Appearing," Jenkins said in a statement. "And I can't wait to see what they think when they get to the end."
Interest in prophecy increases at times of great instability, said Mark Hitchcock, author of several books on prophecy and pastor of Faith Bible Church in Edmonton, Okla. "People want to know what's going to happen, that there's an end [to the turmoil], that someone's in control."
Hitchcock is a member of a prophecy study group run by LaHaye and generally supports the sequence of events on which the "Left Behind" story is based: the Rapture, the Antichrist's rise to power and the seven years of "hell on Earth," Armageddon, and the return of Jesus in the Glorious Appearing -- all occurring before Jesus's 1,000-year reign on Earth.
He said he and other "pre-trib guys," those who believe Jesus will "rapture" believers before the Great Tribulation, are convinced that the Antichrist will rule the world from a restored Babylon. That's why Hitchcock, too, thinks an invasion of Iraq will be a catalyst for end-time events.
According to biographers and news reports, Saddam Hussein fancies himself a modern Nebuchadnezzar, the 6th-century B.C. king who conquered and enslaved the Israelites and brought great prosperity to the land. And he has begun fulfilling prophecy by rebuilding the ancient city of Babylon, Hitchcock said.
But he won't be around to enjoy it.
"Once the U.S. gets Saddam out of the way," sanctions will be lifted, oil wells will flow again at full capacity and Iraq (Babylon) will regain its power, allowing the Antichrist to mount an army for an assault on Israel, he said. The stage is thus set for the Rapture, Armageddon, the Glorious Appearing and the other stages.
Hitchcock said he supports the war because the world will be a better place without Saddam Hussein, not because -- as some prophecy aficionados have said -- it will be a catalyst for the final days.