An Evangelical at Armageddon

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Richard T. Nowitz / Corbis

An early Bronze Age temple complex at Tel Meggido, Israel.

It's quiet at Armageddon, these days, with only the wind racing like invisible war chariots across its grassy plains. But lately, the northern Israeli site — also known as Tel Meggido — designated in the New Testament as the field of the final battle has become a popular tourist destination. Christians arrive by the busload eager to see the battleground where the world as we know it will end. At the souvenir shop, they flock to buy maps of where Jesus walked, and tiny vials of water from the Jordan River. The river may now be mostly a murky rivulet, but thousands of Evangelical Christians insist on being re-baptized in its waters.

Armageddon was a brief stopover a few days ago for a contingent of Christians led by the Texas televangelist Pastor John Hagee, who believes that doomsday is nigh. In his recent book Jerusalem Countdown, which has sold 1.4 million copies, Hagee uses contemporary news events, such as the threat of a nuclear Iran, to describe the lead-up to a war in which the Russian and Arab armies invade Israel and are destroyed by God in a terrible battle on this very spot.

Hagee, whose views on Catholicism caused controversy for the presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain when he endorsed the Arizona Senator, didn't charm many Palestinians, either — not even the Christians among them — when he said that "turning all or part of Jerusalem over to the Palestinians would be tantamount to turning it over to the Taliban." So much for the fate of Jerusalem being on the agenda of the Bush Administration's peace initiative.

Hagee's remarks, however, have certainly endeared him to Israel's hawks. Ex-Premier and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu spoke at Hagee's rally in Jerusalem, calling the American Christian Zionists Israel's best friends.

Other Jews, in Israel and in the U.S., are less comfortable in the embrace of the American Evangelicals. They cite a verse from Revelations claiming that Jesus will return only after two-thirds of the Jews are killed and the rest are converted to Christianity. "They are not supporting us out of love," says one opponent, Rabbi Shalom Dov Lifshitz from the anti-missionary group Yad La'achim, "but because they believe that if we convert out of Judaism to Christianity, it will bring on the Apocalypse." And that, he says, is "a danger to the people of Israel."

One pastor in Jerusalem from a mainstream church expressed skepticism about the motives of the Christian Zionists — and of the cynicism of Israelis who play along. "It's the worst kind of anti-Semitism," says the cleric, who asked to remain anonymous given the sensitivity of the issue. "At the end, these Evangelicals say that all the Jews will be dead except those who become Christians. But in the meantime, the Israelis are happy to fill their hotels with them and use their help to get American weapons."

Shortly before Hagee's tour, American Rabbi Eric Yoffie from the liberal Reform Jewish Movement denounced the friendship between Israel and Christian Evangelicals, not only because Hagee and his like-minded brethren reject the two-state solution (with East Jerusalem as capital of a future Palestinian state) but because they are often at odds with liberal Jews in the U.S. over such incendiary topics as abortion and gay rights.

America's Evangelical movement is vast and diverse, and so are the reasons why Evangelicals rally to Israel. They range from the simple Sunday school teaching — God loves the Jews and abhors their enemies — to a belief that the Jews' return to their ancestral lands, and the "miraculous" victory of the Israelis over the Arabs in the 1967 war, is a harbinger of the Apocalypse and the Messiah's return. In a 2006 poll conducted by Pew Research Center, 35% of all Americans say that the creation of Israel is a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy about Jesus' second coming. And also that Armageddon is just around the corner. But for now, the only legions arriving on the battlefield are those traveling on tour buses.