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by James M. Wall
Sunday, Oct. 28, 2001 at 2:46 PM
"This is a book on zealotry and the danger it poses to the future of the world. That Halsell chooses not to use the term 'zealot' is indicative of the style and tone of her work. While she seeks to inform a largely unsuspecting public about a dangerous belief system, she does not condemn the passionate mindset of those believers committed to an 'Armageddon theology,' a belief system calling for a world war that will lead to the Rapture, when 'born again' Christians will be lifted into heaven, leaving all others behind to suffer and die."
The Middle East Policy Council
Journal: Middle East Policy
Forcing God's Hand: Why Millions Pray for a Quick Rapture -- and Destruction of Planet Earth, by Grace Halsell. Washington, DC: Crossroads International Publishing, 1999. 132 pages. .95, paperback.
James M. Wall
Senior contributing editor of Christian Century
If there is a single use of the word "zealot" in this book by Grace Halsell, I could not find it. And yet, when I finished reading her study of a sub-culture of religious fanatics, that one word stood out in my mind as the book's central theme. This is a book on zealotry and the danger it poses to the future of the world. That Halsell chooses not to use the term "zealot" is indicative of the style and tone of her work. While she seeks to inform a largely unsuspecting public about a dangerous belief system, she does not condemn the passionate mindset of those believers committed to an "Armageddon theology," a belief system calling for a world war that will lead to the Rapture, when "born again" Christians will be lifted into heaven, leaving all others behind to suffer and die.
I could imagine supporters of dispensationalism actually applauding this book because it cites statistics of their growing strength and quotes leaders of the movement with only an implied judgment of what we could expect if the desires of this belief system become a reality. Since believers want what Halsell describes to become reality, they should not object to her careful spelling out of what they have in mind for the rest of us. Meanwhile those who do not find dispensationalism credible will be shaken by her careful delineation of what believers anticipate as their joyous ending.
Dispensationalism -- the belief that "the signs of the Second Coming of Christ are clearly spelled out in Scripture and can be identified with current international events" -- is the book's central theme. The term comes from the concept that God has divided time into certain defined periods, epochs or dispensations. Halsell draws from interviews with ordinary believers and statements from leaders to carefully describe both the history of the belief in dispensationalism and the passionate support it garners among followers. I strongly recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in Middle Eastern politics and culture, both religious and secular.
Dispensationalism is one of those topics that evangelicals like Halsell learned about as children but largely ignored until they discovered as adults that beliefs have consequences. In my own background as a United Methodist, I knew of dispensationalism and the belief that God would bring about the great battle of Armageddon to destroy the world and transfer Christians who are born again into heaven. But since my more "liberal" Methodist preachers and teachers didn't believe such "nonsense," as some would describe it, I paid little heed. Halsell, on the other hand, is a product of a far more conservative background, and she has had to take this "nonsense" more seriously than the rest of us in order to come to grips with her own past. The result is this carefully documented volume, which serves as a virtual handbook on the significance of an important religious subculture. Halsell takes the reader into the history and potential horror of a mindset that longs for nothing less than the destruction of the world.
Halsell began her journey into understanding this phenomenon by taking two trips to Israel on tours led by Jerry Falwell. Her best sources on these trips are her fellow travelers, staunch believers who explained to her the connection between their literal reading of the Scripture and current events. Using the earnest and deeply held convictions of two of her companions on the trips, Halsell explains the belief system that at least one poll indicates is shared by 31 percent of the American public. Polls will vary in conclusions, depending on the questions asked, but there does appear to be a consistent set of Americans who hold to the conviction, described by Clyde, one of Halsell's lay sources, in these terms:
Before the great, final battle of Armageddon. . .we are destined to fight other wars, among them a Gog-Magog war. You have to distinguish the destruction of Gog from the battle of Armageddon, in which Christ destroys Antichrist's armies. So there's this buildup, terrible years of evil, misery, destruction. You find this in Ezekiel. Ezekiel tells us about the fate of the heathen in the latter days. God is referring not only to Israel's neighbors but more distant enemies as well.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and China served very well as the Gog and Magog of this scenario, but since the end of that convenient pairing, Islam has emerged as the next best example of the enemy that opposes Israel, a notion that plays very well with that state's own sense of insecurity. Indeed, an essential element in the "current events" that are seen as foretold in the Scriptures is the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, an event that has been embraced by dispensationalists, who now anticipate the "destruction of the planet earth" in a war precipitated by the rebuilding of the Temple by true believers on Haram al Sharif, and the destruction of two sacred Muslim sites, the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque.
Ironically, within classical Christian thought, dispensationalism is a fairly recent phenomenon. Its development can be traced to a nineteenth-century minister of the Church of England, John Darby, who became an important influence on both the evangelical and fundamentalist (they are not always the same) movements that flourished between 1875 and 1920. The desire for certitude offered by the belief that God will end his created world at Armageddon had a strong appeal to a limited number of American Christians. A key document of the period was the Scofield Reference Bible, an interpretation of the King James version compiled by Cyrus Scofield in 1910. Scofield's Reference Bible remains the definitive guidebook for dispensationalists today.
As long as such religious beliefs exist only in the realm of hope and theory, they remain private, deeply held by followers and easily dismissed by cynics. But Halsell documents the dangerous emergence of forces determined to rebuild the Temple in order to precipitate Armageddon. She points, for example, to the campaign by a Texas man who believes he has developed a "perfect red heifer," a virginal cow "without spot," the sacrificial animal whose ashes are required for ritual use in the future temple. The Reverend Clyde Lott of Canton, Mississippi, the Pentecostal minister who is developing this "perfect red heifer," was profiled in a 1998 New Yorker essay, introducing the danger of fanaticism for the Jerusalem mosque to a reading audience, many of whom probably had no idea that such beliefs existed.
They do exist, as the Israeli government is well aware. Recently some Christian dispensationalists were arrested and deported from Israel for planning a takeover of the future "site" of the rebuilt Temple. Secular Jews are as horrified as moderate Christians that someone would actually want to use religious beliefs to provoke violence in order to rebuild the Temple. But, as Halsell carefully documents, this horror does not extend to rejecting support for Israel from American fundamentalist Christians, including the so-called Christian Right, whose presence is so influential in the Republican party.
Halsell writes that Nathan Perlmutter of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith provides us with the most clearcut explanation of why U.S. Jews support the Christian Right. First, he says, he feels himself a somewhat typical American Jew, in that he weighs every issue in life by one measure: "Is it good for the Jews? This question satisfied, I proceed to the secondary issues."
This alliance between moderate religious Jews and secular Jews with the extremist community of Christian fundamentalists is defended with the assertion that since non-fundamentalists do not believe in a final destruction at Armageddon, they take the good support they receive for Israel with the bad belief system that presumes the future destruction of all non-believers as a system that can't hurt them because it isn't true. Halsell describes the fallacy in this argument by pointing out that dispensationalism is expecting Christ to come again in the final holocaust and that it would take only a few fanatical believers to start that world-destroying war, an event that believers expect and fully intend to help bring about.
An important sub-theme in this book is political power, the ability to control events and to impose one's beliefs on others. Those who seek to gain short-term benefits in an alliance between supporters of Israel and believers in the eventual destruction of Israel have only to look back at an earlier period when compromises with a distorted belief system were tolerated. Those Germans who supported Hitler with their fingers crossed because they thought he could benefit the nation without destroying it, were so engrossed in their own need for security that they ignored the larger consequences of their compromises. To ignore the dangers that dispensationalism poses today is equally unwise.
Click on the link below for another review of "Forcing God's Hand."
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