The day after Russia started dropping missiles on Ukraine, pastor Greg Laurie took to Facebook with a message for his flock. To much of the world, current events may look like the unhinged machinations of a megalomaniacal authoritarian intent on worldwide disruption, but to Christians of a certain ilk, Laurie argued that the war could be viewed as something else entirely: a sign of the second coming of Christ. “Is there any prophetic significance to what is happening in Ukraine right now?” the heading of the post posed. “The answer is…Yes!”
For millennia, end times Christians have tried to shoehorn current events into proof of Jesus’ imminent return, taking cryptic language from the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, Matthew, and Revelation to come up with various theories as to how the world will end. In most of these theories — embraced by conservative evangelical or fundamentalist branches of the faith — an entity referred to as Gog and Magog descends from the “far north” upon a peaceful, reconstituted Israel, whose people had been “brought out from the nations, and all now dwell securely,” as it is described in Ezekiel. The resulting war that follows allows a Messiah to swoop in and come to Israel’s rescue. It also ushers in the end of the world as we know it and the establishment of a new and better kingdom of God on earth.
Certain members of every generation since antiquity have found ways to convince themselves that they lived in the end times. “One of the beauties of end times theology is that it’s protean,” says Randall Balmer, a professor of American religion at Dartmouth College. “That is, it can be shaped and shifted to comply with particular circumstances, and it allows those who subscribe to it to claim to have a command of history, that they know how it’s all going to come out eventually.”
Over the centuries, the Gog and Magog label has been applied to Babylon, to the Roman Empire, and to the Vikings, among others. It wasn’t until the Cold War that Russia entered the narrative, as many American Christians cast the U.S. as the “new Israel,” the USSR as Gog and Magog (it’s a land in the “far north,” after all), and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev as the Antichrist (he even bore what many considered to be the “sign of the beast” on his forehead). In addition to the apocalyptic threat of nuclear war, the formation of the modern state of Israel in 1948 was seen as proof that prophecy was being fulfilled and that the end times were upon us.
From a biblical standpoint, none of this is particularly sound. “The biblical authors are not trying to do fortune-telling and say ‘Russia is going to invade X, Y, or Z country’ or ‘There’s this Putin guy, and you can just discern the signs,’” says Zack Hunt, author of Unraptured: How End Times Theology Gets It Wrong. “What was important to these writers was just this message of hope: ‘There’s this enemy, and God is going to deliver us.’”
It was a message of hope for some; for others, it was a message of death and destruction. End times Christians are not just inclined to view what’s happening around them through an apocalyptic lens; they are also disaster artists, recasting the tragedies of mankind — climate change, pestilence, disease, conflict — into a narrative in which each event is not a crisis that needs attention so much as an inevitable fulfillment of God’s divine will. “Let’s go to Matthew 24,” Laurie intoned in his Facebook video. “What did Jesus say? ‘In the last days, there will be wars and rumors of wars.’” There will also be plagues (“If the coronavirus is not a plague, I don’t know what it is”) and an escalation of such catastrophes as the moment of Jesus’ return draws near. In other words, the worse things get, the sooner the Second Coming.
The war in Ukraine is incredibly horrific, and Russia’s leading role — coupled with the end times fortune-telling that’s currently in fashion — makes it a dog whistle moment for the 41 percent of Americans who believe that Jesus will definitely (23 percent) or probably (18 percent) return to Earth by 2050. “Their senses are tuned in to the news to look out for these things because they’ve been trained to look out for these things at church,” says Hunt. “They’ve been disciplined into doing that. They’ve been conditioned to do that. They’re constantly looking out for anything that they can grab onto to say, ‘Hey, that’s biblical prophecy.’ If you’re in that world, it’s exciting — as perverse as that sounds — because it means Jesus is coming back.”
On Feb. 28, raptureready.com upped its “Rapture Index” to 186. The record high is 189, and anything above 160 means “fasten your seatbelts” for the apocalypse. Two days before the large-scale invasion of Ukraine, Joel Rosenberg, founder of the Joshua Fund, whose website describes its objective “to bless Israel and Her Neighbors in the name of Jesus,” went on his podcast to lay out exactly why the impending invasion was significant in a kingdom-come sense. Never mind that Ukraine is not Israel: So central is this biblical War of Gog and Magog to end times theology that the mere idea of Russia mobilizing to this extent against any country was enough to send some evangelical and pentacostal end timers into a flutter. “We’ve never, ever seen the convergence of all the major pieces of this prophecy ever come into this alignment until right now,” Rosenberg argued before the war was even officially launched. “And that’s why we should be watching this thing really closely.”
Pat Roberston — who can always be counted on to connect the dots between current events and crazy — even came out of retirement this week to argue that the world’s most famous tyrant was actually just a hapless pawn in the plans of the Almighty. “I think you can say, ‘Well, Putin’s out of his mind.’ Yes, maybe so. But at the same time, he’s being compelled by God,” Robertson proffered, alluding to Ezekiel directly. “God says, ‘I’m going to put hooks in your jaws and I’m going to draw you into this battle, whether you like it or not.’”
In this framing, each act of aggression, each expansion of Putin’s power, draws end times Christians closer to the moment of physical reunification with their Lord. And that, according to Hunt, is what the rest of us should be paying attention to. “‘Wars and rumors of wars’ become this perverse source of excitement,” he says. “In an individual person, that might not be problematic, but when you have organizations or lobbying groups leveraging or pressuring politicians to be more aggressive against Putin, that [has] a real-world impact. Biden is not going to listen to Pat Robertson egging him on, but there’s something really perverse about hoping for nuclear holocaust. It’s a bloodlust, is what it is.”
It’s also a reframing of Christianity from a source of compassion into a source of vengeance. “What you have is this kickass, superhero Jesus who comes back to fix the passive, humble Jesus who didn’t get things right the first time,” Hunt continues. “This superhero Jesus who is going to beat up the bad guys and stomp on their enemies and crush everything under His heel. Then you find yourself in a place where you essentially have to cheer on violence. You have to cheer on calamity, because you’ve already decided that it’s a sign of the times.”
Roberston certainly has. “You read your Bibles,” he admonished this week. “Because it’s coming to pass.”
From Rolling Stone US