Today, though, a growing number of American evangelical Christians reckon they have cracked the code. These End Timers believe that every weird word of Revelation predicts real events. Like a Hollywood sci fi movie they say that any time now the world will end. And when it does, true believers in Christ will be whisked up to heaven in an event called The Rapture while non-believers are left behind on earth to face famine, war, terror and destruction as the forces of good and evil fight to the bitter end.
If this was confined to the personal beliefs of a few fundamentalists it would be of little significance but, says Tony Robinson, the leaders of the End Time movement are rich, well-connected and very powerful. Though the USA constitution enshrines the separation of church and state End Timers are frequent visitors to the White House. No one knows if George W Bush is an End Timer himself, but his policies are at one with those of the evangelical Right and his language is often apocalyptic, such as when he describes the 'war on terror' as 'the epic struggle of good and evil'.
According to the prophecy, Jerusalem is where this final battle is to be played out. No stranger to conflict and violence, this city is the focus of End Timers' dreams of eternal paradise, because, according to their beliefs, this is where Christ will come back to earth. But first, they say, the Jews must return. End Timers believe that the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 was a fulfillment of the biblical prophecy and that since then 'the last days clock has been ticking'.
Many of them interpret the US government's policies on Israel and the Middle East from a biblical point of view. Before the war in Iraq, the USA supported a negotiated settlement in which Israel would return the Occupied Territories to the Palestinians. By 2004, after a torrent of criticism of the Road map to Peace, Bush's position had changed and now there is no call for a large-scale withdrawal from the West Bank.
End Timers parade through the streets of Jerusalem and take large amounts of cash to illegal West Bank settlements to encourage the residents to entrench themselves more deeply on this Palestinian land. In Jerusalem itself, Jews are being bankrolled by Christian fundamentalists to reside in Arab houses. The End Timers think that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke ('was removed from the scene') because he wanted to give back some of the Palestinian land.
Many Israelis are very worried about the kind of 'support' they are being offered. One journalist says that this is not based on Israel's needs and that there is no support for peacemaking. On the contrary, the agenda of the Evangelicals is war, so as to fulfill violent prophecy of Revelation.
Provocatively, some End Timers have joined forces with a fundamentalist Jewish group who want to rebuild the Temple of Solomon – touching on the ancient Jewish yearning for their destroyed Temple. But the place where they plan to build it has deep meaning for the three Abrahamic religions ~ Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Temple Mount, where Islam's 3rd most holy site, Al-Aqsa Mosque, is situated, is the spot where Muslim, Jewish and Christian believers think that God created Adam, Abraham prepared his son Isaac to be sacrificed, and according to his vision, Muhammed was carried on a winged horse.
Mainstream Christians in the locality are appalled. They say attempts to rebuild the Temple are inflammatory and threaten to unleash even more bloodshed in the Middle East.
Predictions of war
Could it be that this is precisely what they are trying to provoke, in order to hasten the end of days? According to End Timers, when the believers are whisked up to heaven those left behind will face the ultimate battle between good and evil. It will take seven years to count the dead, they say ~ the time of Tribulation, a hell on earth. Israel will survive, according to this story, but will have a sudden victory only after a long war. Some say this means nuclear war and they support the war in Iraq because they believe that will bring it closer. Megiddo is the Hebrew name for Armageddon: the town where this carnage will occur.
For some End Timers, all this is big ~ very big ~ business. Tim LaHaye's Christian fiction series, Left Behind, has sold 63 million books, and movies of the books have been made by Cloud Ten Pictures. The internet is awash with websites which tell you how to prepare for The Rapture, and there are American shops to sell you everything you need to survive (for around $3,000) if you're unfortunate enough to be left behind.
The concept of the Antichrist originated in Medieval times, and is not found in the Bible. Nevertheless these evangelical Christians believe that the Antichrist is 'walking among us right now', the incarnation of evil, luring people to his cause with false promises of peace. For End Timers, the United Nations, whose role is to seek and maintain peace across the world, fits this description perfectly.
Now End Time beliefs are now spreading to Africa, with dire consequences. Uganda's President, Yoweri Museveni, is a born again Christian who is lionized by American End Timers. An American preacher in the capital, Kampala, says that the answers to Uganda's problems are not political, economic or educational, but can be found in the Bible, which he describes as 'God's constitution for the planet'.
Newspaper editor Andrew Mwenda is appalled by these Doomsday preachers, who he believes are converting young people and diverting them from fulfilling their potential and pursuing their careers. He says: 'This country is on a highway to hell.'
Uganda was a model in Africa of AIDS education and prevention and the rate of infection was falling. Now Museveni is promoting abstinence rather than safer sex, the number of cases is rising.Teacher Julius Othieno describes children being taken out of school, and not taking medicine when they are ill, in order to hasten their death.
What is the real source of these ideas that so many people attribute to the book of Revelation? Whoever wrote it sheltered in a cave on the Greek island of Patmos, probably a refugee from Roman occupied Palestine. He is also likely to have consumed the local hallucinogenic magic mushrooms. So rather than taking these bizarre visions literally, it might make more sense to try to understand them in their historical context.
There are some 40 apocalyptic books from this era but this was the only one that made it into the Bible. If the author was writing about the hated Roman Empire, it could be that the seven heads of the beast meant the seven emperors. The mark of the beast could be the head of the emperor on the coins. The dreaded 666 very likely represented three letters indicating the Emperor Nero ~ representing letters by numbers was, and is, common in Hebrew. If so, instead of being a description of a world in chaos, it could be seen as a book of morality, optimism and faith.
Let's hope the End Timers start to see it like that before their actions really do bring about the end of the world.