Tom Harpur: 'Rapture awaits in the Florida Panhandle'
Saturday, February 12 @ 08:39:26 EST
By Tom Harpur, Toronto Star
Last month, as we usually do, we motored down U.S. Interstate 75, to the emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the shores of the Florida Panhandle. It's a time to catch up on serious reading, walk the pristine white quartz beaches, watch for pelicans and passing dolphins, and do some research on the ever-fascinating phenomenon of American religion.
The whole coast from Panama City on the east to Pensacola on the west, apart from having the most beautiful beaches in the world, is the focus of some of the most intense conservative evangelical activity in the entire U.S. Superchurches, training schools, and all kinds of crusades abound.
You know you are in a different culture when you enter the U.S. We always enjoy the flagrant billboards along the highway. Shortly after entering Ohio, a large sign trumpets a coming "Gun and Knife Show;" this one was followed shortly by another equally vast board touting "Microsurgery: Vasectomy Reversal a Specialty — Money Back Guarantee!"
In rural Georgia, a rather beat-up Pentecostal Church had a big sign: "Road Rage? How would Jesus drive?" Another advertised a Bible Factory Outlet with drastic savings on both new and used Bibles. Then there was the enormous Wal-mart store with a sign at the customer service counter: "No refunds on guns and ammunition." Guess they meant use them or lose them, but don't bring 'em back.
At first impression, the religious scene in this Bible Belt terrain is upbeat, vigorous, prospering in numbers, properties, and outspoken leadership. There is an agenda both spiritual and political as well as the people and money to make it happen. But, when you pay close attention to the message being driven home by every possible technical medium and skill, you meet some deeply disturbing, even frightening realities.
Let me illustrate by describing an all-day Saturday conference at one of the largest Protestant churches I have ever been in, The Village Baptist Church in Destin, Fla. The facilities there are gleaming, spacious, comfortable.
The theme of the day was Left Behind: A Conference on Biblical Prophecy about End Times, and it featured three of the leading voices in the U.S religious right today: Tim LaHaye, Gary Frazier, and Ed Hindson.
LaHaye was one of the leaders included in Time magazine's Jan.31 story on evangelicals most influential in the presidency of George W.Bush. He appeared, for that reason, a few nights ago along with three other prominent evangelicals on Larry King Live.
LaHaye has written about 50 non-fiction books and is particularly noteworthy because of his multi-million dollar Left Behind series of novels dealing with end-of-the-world themes.
Following the "Rapture" — the supposed moment when Jesus Christ will suddenly appear and all the saved will be "caught up to meet him in the air" — leaving the rest of Earth's billions to plague, pestilence, famine and war, there will be seven years of the "Tribulation."
How the Christian "God of love" treats those "left behind" makes for lurid reading indeed.
[b]To sum up the essence of the three speaker's messages all that long Saturday, I have never heard so much venom and dangerous ignorance spouted before an utterly unquestioning, otherwise normal-looking crowd in my life. For the $25 fee, the 800 devotees certainly got a plateful.
There were stunning statements about humans having been only 6,000 years on Earth and other denials of contemporary geology and biology. And we learned that the Rapture, which could happen any second now, but certainly within the next 40 years, will instantly sweep all the "saved" Americans (perhaps one-half the population) to heaven, leaving the United States as "a Third World country" with the European Union becoming the revived Roman Empire.
But these fantasies were harmless compared with the hatred against Islam that followed. Here are some direct quotes: "Islam is an intolerant religion — and it's clear whose side we should be on in the Middle East." Applause greeted these words: "Allah and Jehovah are not the same God ... Islam is a Satanic religion ...We will never be able to understand their (Muslim) mentality ... They're going to attack Israel for certain. ..."
Gary Frazier shouted at the top of his lungs: "Wake up! Wake up!" And roughly 800 heads nodded approval as he added that the left-wing, anti-Israel media — "for example, CNN" — will never tell the world the truth about Islam. According to these three and the millions of Americans they lead, Muslims intend ultimately "to impose their religion on us all."
The idea of peace in the Middle East was denounced — specially any accord granting any land whatever to the Palestinians.
The two-state concept is unacceptable to American Christians, they argued, because "God gave that land to the Jews through Abraham" long ago. If the Palestinians want a state they must go to Jordan or elsewhere.
A terrible, final war in the region is inevitable.
Frazier, Hindson and LaHaye all teach at Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. They have the ear of the President of the world's sole superpower.
Tom Harpur is a theologian whose focus is on cosmic spirituality. His website is at http://www.tomharpur.com
Reprinted from The Toronto Star: