More than 100 religious leaders--Roman Catholic, evangelical and mainstream Protestant and Jewish -- yesterday called on presidential candidates to repudiate the increasingly popular theory that a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, leading to the Day of Judgment, is foretold in the Bible.
The religious leaders said they fear the political implications of the theory that is prevalent among much of the Christian right wing. If carried to its logical conclusion, arms negotiations would be pointless because nuclear war with the Soviet Union is seen as inevitable.
The nuclear Armageddon theory is a "perversion of Holy Scripture and a danger to the security of our republic," the religious leaders said in a statement released at a news conference here yesterday.
The Rev. Jim Wallis, editor of the evangelical Sojourner magazine, called the Armageddon theory "heresy," as Christian right sympathizers tried to shout him down.
"How can you say that?" shouted the Right Rev. Albion Knight, a bishop of a group that has split from the Episcopal Church. Later, a Catholic priest accused the group conducting the news conference of sympathy with communist causes.
But church leaders who called the news conference warned, "A religious doctrine, the ideology of nuclear Armageddon, has entered our nation's political arena. The ideology of nuclear Armageddon identifies our nation's enemies with the enemies of God. Because the religious leaders who promote this ideology believe that the destruction of these enemies is decreed in Scripture, they conclude that reconciliation with America's adversaries is ultimately futile."
President Reagan's interest in the theology of Armageddon has been a growing concern among mainstream religious leaders and others. Asked about it in last Sunday's debate, the president played down his beliefs as "just some philosophical discussions with people who are interested in the same things, and that is the prophecies down through the years, the biblical prophecies of what would portend the coming of Armageddon . . . .
"But no one knows whether . . . those prophecies mean that Armageddon is 1,000 years away or the day after tomorrow. So I have never seriously warned and said we must plan according to Armageddon."
In 1980, however, appearing during his first presidential campaign on Jim Bakker's PTL religious television network, Reagan said: "We may be the generation that sees Armageddon."
And a year ago, in a conversation with Thomas Dine, executive director of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the president said: "You know, I turn back to your ancient prophets in the Old Testament and the signs foretelling Armageddon, and I find myself wondering if -- if we're the generation that's going to see that come about . . . . Those prophecies . . . certainly describe the times we're going through."
Religious leaders at yesterday's news conference, who say they fear that belief in nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union as foretold in the Scriptures could encourage a trigger-happy attitude toward national defense, were not satisfied with Reagan's disavowal.
Rabbi Balfour Brickner of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York said the president "on nine separate occasions has talked about Armageddon."
Brickner added that, "if the president really believes in some facet of this Armageddon idea, it's a very scary business. Even if he doesn't believe in it, to refer to it constantly is to promote and give credence to a doctrine that's very dangerous."
In condemning contemporary talk of the end of the world, Wallis said: "The Bible has been used and twisted to justify some of the worst sins in history . . . . Slavery was justified by the Bible. Racism was justified by a misuse of Scriptures. So has anti-Semitism, apartheid in South Africa, oppression of women. And now nuclear war is being justified from the Bible."
Signers of the statement include officials of the National Council of Churches, several Roman Catholic bishops and heads of Catholic religious orders, the heads of two Protestant denominations -- the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Churches, U.S.A. -- several rabbis and assorted clergy and lay leaders.
The Christic Institute, an independent ecumenical policy center with liberal leanings, coordinated yesterday's news conference and the collection of signatures on the statement.
The Old Testament's Book of Daniel and the New Testament's Book of Revelation deal most fully with the Day of Judgment and the events leading up to it.
Revelation 16:16 speaks of the final battle at "the place . . . called Armageddon," generally described as the Hill of Megiddo in Israel, between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean. It is the ultimate battle: "The cities of the nations fell . . . and every island fled away and the mountains were not found."
The book speaks of Christ's return and, after the Day of Judgment, of the "New Jerusalem . . . a new heaven and a new earth" with God dwelling among His people where "He will wipe every tear from their eyes."
Contemporary biblical scholars view such passages as mystical poetry, or allegory, rather than as "a crystal ball for predicting the future," Wallis said at yesterday's news conference.
Within the last decade or so, interest in the "end times" has accelerated -- some attribute it to the approaching turn of the century -- and a doomsday industry has emerged. A "Doomsday Catalogue," patterned after the Whole Earth Catalog; several periodicals devoted to discussions of Armageddon and reams of articles in more general religious journals have appeared, as well as countless books on the subject.
Hal Lindsey's "The Late Great Planet Earth," which has sold 18 million copies since its publication in 1976, set the basic scenario: Israel as site for the battle of Armageddon and the Soviet Union as "the beast" of Revelation.
"Nobody in his right mind can accept the Bible as truth in fact, without exception," Brickner said, adding hastily, "Of course, if they want to that's their own business."