I’ll assume that you are a member of what passes for polite society. You read a newspaper, you watch mainstream television. You know that reasonable people disagree about intervening in Syria. Maybe it’s a good idea, maybe not. Time will tell.
But vast numbers of Americans see something else entirely. Grounding their “analysis” in two Old Testament verses written over 2,500 years ago, many Christian fundamentalists believe we are confronting the “burden of Damascus” — the moment when the destruction of the Syrian capital triggers a series of End Time events leading to Armageddon.
That’s right; the Rapture people are back.
As if they had ever left.
Just two days ago, author Joel Rosenberg was hyping his recent novel “Damascus Countdown” on Fox News. “This prophecy, as you just pointed out, talks about the complete and utter destruction of Damascus,” Rosenberg told Fox anchor Neil Cavuto. “That’s an End Times or eschatological prophecy . . . It’s a very sobering thought to think that a judgment of a city or a country could happen in which an entire city could be wiped out, but that is, in fact, what the Bible is predicting.”
“Amazing,” Cavuto deadpanned. “It’s in there. It’s worth a read.”
The Old Testament passages in question are Isaiah 17:1 and Jeremiah 49:24. In a discussion of God’s anger with his chosen people, Isaiah says: “Behold, Damascus is about to be removed from being a city and will become a fallen ruin.” Jeremiah more or less concurs: “Damascus has become helpless; she has turned away to flee, and panic has gripped her; distress and pangs have taken hold of her like a woman in childbirth.”
The Rapture Forums website helpfully explains how these ancient prophecies relate to our time: “With the terrorist groups that operate out of Damascus building up arms caches on the border of Israel in anticipation of another war in the near future, it may not be long before this prophecy from Isaiah 17 becomes history.”
Actual Bible scholars point out that words written close to the dawn of recorded time may not speak directly to Bashar Assad’s dirty little civil war. That has in no way daunted the enthusiasm of televangelist Hal Lindsey (1-888-RAPTURE), who has said that he “was again struck by the speed with which events are moving into the scenario the prophets predicted for the end times.”
“I believe we’re there,” Lindsey added. “Folks that wouldn’t go darken the door of a church or pick up a Bible are now very curious. This may be our greatest opportunity — maybe even our last opportunity — to share the gospel of Jesus Christ before we’re silenced by political correctness.”
The End Times have been catnip for American divines, from Pittsfield’s own William Miller, who thought the Second Coming would occur in 1843, to the more successful Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, who referred in 1835 to “the coming of the Lord, which is nigh — even fifty-six years should wind up the scene.”
In our day, such highly visible saints as Billy Graham, Ralph Reed, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Oral Roberts have sworn their undying love for the state of Israel, not out of any particular philo-Semitism, but because they believe Israel vanquishing its enemies is a necessary precondition for the End Times.
According to Deborah Caldwell, writing on the website Beliefnet, “At the time of the Second Coming, these Christians believe, Jesus will descend from heaven, subdue all of Israel’s enemies and take believers to heaven in what is known as the Rapture — literally, they will ascend to the clouds to be in heaven.”
I love the Bible. I can’t think of a book that has influenced my life, and the lives of billions of Jews and Christians more deeply and meaningfully. A blueprint for life, yes. A foreign policy primer, no. Here endeth the lesson.
Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.