Will Vladimir Putin revive American evangelicals’ faith that Jesus is coming soon? He just might.
Over the past 150 years, evangelicals have used global chaos to propel their movement forward. Lining up world events with ancient biblical prophecies, they have offered adherents secret knowledge of the past, the present and the future. Evangelicals know how to make their beliefs relevant to the day’s headlines in a way that no other American religious group has matched.
Putin offers fresh ammunition for evangelicals’ apocalyptic views. The more unpredictable and aggressive the Russian leader becomes, the more passionately some evangelicals will preach Jesus’s imminent return. His mix of daring ambition and overtures of peace in Ukraine while hinting that he might arm Iran remind the faithful that the world is careening towards the apocalypse predicted in the book of Revelation. After all, the Apostle Paul predicted that when God’s enemies claimed peace, “sudden destruction would cometh.”
Russia has long been a prime target of evangelical scrutiny. Shortly after the Civil War, an Irish preacher named John Nelson Darby reintroduced Americans to a Christian apocalyptic tradition that had long been dormant. Darby taught that at the end of time, a series of wars would culminate in the battle of Armageddon. There, Jesus Christ would face off against Satan’s early representative, a global political leader called the Antichrist. But in order for the Antichrist to achieve world domination, he would have to defeat competing devilish empires.
The most powerful one, according to Darby, was Russia.
In 1909, Oxford University Press first published what has become the press’s bestselling book in North America, the “Scofield Reference Bible.” The book’s editor, a scoundrel-turned-fundamentalist named C. I. Scofield, popularized Darby’s view. Scofield instructed millions of readers that Russia would be the great last-days empire predicted in the book of Ezekiel.
The Bolshevik Revolution and the rise of Stalin reinforced these views. So did the Cold War. It is no coincidence that evangelical apocalypticists like Billy Graham were some of the U.S.’s most strident Cold Warriors. They believed that the Bible had foretold the coming of Russia’s descent into “godless communism” — a horror that would only be surpassed by that of the Antichrist.
When Ronald Reagan, a student of evangelical biblical prophecy even if not a true believer, called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” before the National Association of Evangelicals, he knew exactly what he was doing. The president wanted evangelical support for his aggressive nuclear arms policy and he recognized that evangelicals had long believed that Russia would be an evil empire.
For evangelicals from Darby to Graham, comparing the day’s headlines with well-read Bibles was about far more than simply using the scriptures as a crystal ball. Like players in a football game with the clock winding down, they recognized that they had much to do and very little time in which to do it. Jesus was coming soon to separate the sheep from the goats, and they had better be ready.
Evangelicals’ use of the Bible to make sense of the chaos they witnessed around them offered a powerful salve and a means of attracting countless men and women to the faith. It gave them authoritative knowledge of the causes of global chaos and provided a framework for understanding some of the world’s most tragic and perplexing events.
It also gave them a sense of relentless urgency. They had no time or regard for incremental change, or for reasoning with those who differed with them, or for mediation, or for gradual reform. They called for drastic and instantaneous solutions to the problems they saw around them. With time running out, evangelicals intended to shake the world. They sought instant redemption, immediate transformation.
With the fall of the USSR and the end of the Cold War, it looked to evangelicals that perhaps they had misread their Bibles. During the George W. Bush presidency, evangelicals began to invest more time and energy into working in this world rather than in preparing for the next.
For many, interest in biblical prophecy waned. Many evangelical megachurch pastors, like Rick Warren, T. D. Jakes and Joel Osteen, rarely preach on the end times.
And then came Putin. It appears that the former KGB agent may well be helping to lead a revival of apocalyptic thinking among some evangelicals. Best-selling evangelical author Joel Rosenberg, megachurch pastor John Hagee and television prophecy expert Jack Van Impe and many others have recently connected the Russian leader to Old Testament prophecy.
Despite the diversity of modern evangelical views on the Bible’s apocalyptic books, polls demonstrate that many of the faithful believe the time is nigh. A 2006 Pew poll revealed that 79 percent of American Christians believed in the second coming; and 20 percent expected it to happen in their lifetime. A 2010 Pew poll revealed that 41 percent of all Americans (well over 100 million people) and 58 percent of white evangelicals believed that Jesus is “definitely” or “probably” going to return by 2050. Finally, the recent 2014 “Bible in American Life” revealed that of the 50 percent of all Americans who had read the Bible at all in the previous year, over one-third claimed that they did so “to learn about the future.”
Even if Putin does not actually do battle in the end times with the Antichrist, he serves as a reminder to millions of American evangelicals that the Bible is the best guide to the future. Although Jesus may not be coming today, he is coming soon. And as they keep a wary eye on peace promises coming out of Ukraine, that is all they need to know.
Matthew Avery Sutton is the author of “American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism” (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014).