Politics

Why Growing Parts of the Christian Right Are Convinced It’s the Apocalypse

Even after Dobbs, the end times are dominating bestseller lists.

An apocalyptic explosion on the ocean with fire, a burning American flag, and hands folded on top of a bible.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Shangwei Fang Photography/Moment, SilverV/iStock/Getty Images Plus and ChristianChan/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

If you peruse the list of recent releases in Christian publishing, you’ll get the sense that “the end times” are upon us. This summer saw the release of survival guides, books about current events, and prayer manuals all oriented around a rapture, a second coming of Christ, or an otherwise cataclysmic event at the hands of God. (Subtitles included 12 Megaclues That Jesus’ Return Is Nearer Than Ever; An End Times Guide to Survival; Do Current Events Point to the Antichrist and His Worldwide Empire?; and Prayer Strategies That Unlock the End-Time Armory of God.)

Advertisement

According to Publishers Weekly, this spate of end-times books is being printed to meet demand. It’s what the readers want. (At least some of them; editors at the imprint Harvest Prophecy, which was founded last year, told Publishers Weekly they had seen “a strong surge of interest because there is so much happening in today’s world that parallels End-Times signs given in the Bible.”)

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

There’s no denying that the apocalypse is currently having a moment, culturally and politically. It could be driven partly by the pandemic and fears of climate change. Those are actual, frightening apocalyptic scourges. Russia’s war has also set off alarm bells for certain evangelicals, as there was a Cold War tradition of identifying the country, variably, with Gog or Magog.

Advertisement
Advertisement

But it seems an odd time for doomsday fervor, given the ascendancy of the religious right in American politics and the current makeup of the Supreme Court. Why, at this moment, when the Christian right should be feeling more empowered, would the end of the world be so trendy?

Tommy Ice, a retired theology professor and the executive director of the Pre-Trib Research Center, hosts an annual conference discussing the pretribulational rapture, which refers to a rapture—or disappearance of—the faithful, an event that in his belief will occur before a seven-year period of hellish events on earth. Ice is an evangelical and personally believes in a coming rapture, but he isn’t as eager as many other Christians to read the signs of its work in motion. Ice believes we live in unholy times and looks forward to the Second Coming. We are living in the last days of the “church age,” he believes, but are not yet in the time of tribulation. Others, though, are eager to believe that Bible prophecies are already being fulfilled. As someone who hosts the major annual conference debating these apocalyptic prophecies, he understands their perspective. It’s a dark time, in his mind. But he said the pandemic had nothing to do with these beliefs.

Advertisement
Advertisement

“The reason it’s happening is the totalitarianism in the United States,” he said of the rising interest in end times. “It’s because of the seemingly overnight decline of America, from our perspective. It’s a huge shift, the stealing of an election. When has that ever happened in the United States?”

Advertisement
Advertisement

For him, the “stolen presidential election”—along with, he believes, stolen elections in the two 2020 Senate races in Georgia—clarified the depths of the nation’s degeneracy. (All of the election fraud claims that Ice cited as signs of totalitarianism have been thoroughly debunked.) That, he said, was “lining up with what it is going to be like after the rapture of the church, where you have the Antichrist coming from Europe, who’s going to be the world ruler.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

Ice, like many evangelicals (and Pentecostals), subscribes to the belief that after a set of foretold omens and a seven-year tribulation period of nightmarish calamities, Christ will return to rule on earth for a 1,000-year period. This particular view—known as the “premillennial dispensationalist” interpretation of the events of Revelation, Ezekiel, and Daniel—is not popular among Catholics or mainline Protestants, who see the references in the Bible to a thousand-year reign of Jesus as largely metaphorical. (Indeed, many Christians see the time we are in currently as being a time of Christ’s rule, having been blessed by his sacrifice.)

Advertisement
Advertisement

There are variations to eschatological beliefs, depending on sect and individual belief. Some believe the rapture will occur before the tribulation, some after, and some not at all. Many think the Antichrist will appear; some don’t. Some believe more specifically that the forces of evil will attempt to gather the countries into one world government, or alternatively, one world economy, and then will cede humanity’s power to the Antichrist. But in general, most evangelicals believe in the broad idea that as evil ascends, the end times draw closer.

Advertisement

As Ice sees it, the Holy Spirit dwells in each Christian believer and acts as a “restrainer” that prevents “evil from reaching upper limits,” which would, when reached, trigger the beginning events of the end times. So, the growing secularism of the world, in his view, erodes that protective barrier.

Advertisement

He described the U.S. as the “the only country that was founded with specific Christian, Protestant principals” and noted that it was the major remaining nation to be a “big Christian center” spreading the faith. “Even until the mid-1800s, almost everything was run by Protestant Christians,” he said. “Many state constitutions, until the 1830s—you had to believe in the Trinity to run for office. Christianity, in that sense, is dead in this country.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

Secularism within the government and in public life, he said, has led to anarchy—and the “stolen” 2020 elections are the proof.

Matthew Avery Sutton, a history professor at Washington State University and author of American Apocalypse, noted that Donald Trump, knowingly or not, tapped into a century of end-times beliefs by quarreling with NATO and criticizing the FBI and the “deep state.” In the Left Behind book series, which was published in the ’90s and early 2000s and which has had an enormous impact on how many Christians conceptualize the apocalypse, the Antichrist turns out to be a politically savvy secretary-general of the United Nations, which is then converted into a single world government. Trump didn’t frame his isolationist America First policies or his anti-FBI rants as a fight against the Antichrist, but his distrust of European governments and of his own intelligence and security agencies maps onto these cultural tropes and other long-held evangelical suspicions about the threat of satanic forces. “It’s all about fighting one world government and the coming dominance of the Antichrist so we can stand against evil,” Sutton said.

Advertisement

When Trump spoke of an election rigged by a powerful and evil “deep state,” he might not have known just how primed his evangelical audience was to believe in a powerful, organized, and satanic opposition. For those who believe deeply in the devious powers of the Antichrist, stealing an election looks like a simple first step in an even larger plan.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Several academics who study apocalyptic thinking agreed that the audience for end times “prophecy” books has grown because of partisan politics more than anything to do with COVID or climate change. (The term “prophecy,” in this context, refers to events depicted in the Bible’s books of Revelation, Ezekiel, and Daniel that are read by some Christians as guides to the future apocalypse. “Prophecy” as a category in this sense does not include predictions outside of the Bible, such as those made by a large number of contemporary Christian prophets who happily predict Trump’s return to power.)

Advertisement

White evangelicals, the demographic most interested in rapture content, are overwhelmingly Trump supporters. And their positioning of Donald Trump as a messianic figure has supercharged some of the language around spiritual—and earthly—conflict.

“That whole dynamic has been increasingly portrayed as this battle between light and dark,” said Zack Hunt, a Christian nonfiction writer and the author of Unraptured: How End Times Gets Theology Wrong, of MAGA politics. “That has always been the context of end-times theology: Jesus will come back to defeat evil once and for all. So from Nov. 4, 2020, that battle has intensified. The language you hear coming out of right-wing media is it’s a battle of good versus evil. That’s a ripe and fertile ground for end-times theology.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

It’s hard to ignore how aligned this framing is with QAnon conspiracy theories, which place Trump and good Christians at odds with the blood-drinking, child-trafficking, Satan-worshiping elites running the country. The QAnon theories often showcase a messianic figure (Trump) assembling an army of brave Christian followers to take on scheming demonic forces and ultimately win in one great triumphant battle (“the Storm”). These theories are similar to premillennial dispensationalist beliefs that portend Jesus facing off against the forces of Satan in the final battle. (One of the books coming out in October is an updated edition of As It Was in the Days of Noah: Warnings From Bible Prophecy About the Coming Global Storm from 2014.) According to Paul Djupe, a political scientist at Denison University, evangelicals were primed to buy into QAnon’s theories because they drew on the pattern of end-times theologizing they were used to. This narrative tradition has had a cultural impact on more than just evangelicals, though. Even beyond the corners of the evangelical world obsessed with apocalyptic sign-reading, mainstream white Christians have come to start looking at current events for portents of evil.

Advertisement
Advertisement

That sense of doom remains prevalent among those in the religious right despite its many recent victories. The rapture and Second Coming seem like frightening concepts to nonbelievers, but to many evangelicals and Pentecostals, they are a positive eventuality—and provide reassurance that dark times are simply part of God’s plan. An increasingly corrupt world simply brings us closer to paradise on earth. Like QAnon’s coming “Storm,” the apocalypse offers a promise of justice, and of being on the correct, and ultimately winning, side of things. Not that everyone is looking forward to doomsday, exactly. Many see their job as Christians as delaying judgment, in part to save more souls. (Such a stance allows Christian nationalists to smooth out the dissonance between their political ambitions and their apocalyptic beliefs.)

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

End-times ideas, then, often surge when evangelicals feel disempowered and anxious.

After Dobbs, the Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe, Hunt said he observed a momentary euphoria, but no significant impact on the end-times anxiety. “If you’re in the world of conservative, fundamentalist evangelicals, things are getting progressively worse,” he said. “If you have the belief that the world is getting worse but something good happens, it makes for an awkward tension, because it doesn’t quite line up with the map. So, I don’t think it relieves tension. It’s a nice aberration from the plan. It’s great, they’re excited, but there’s still work to do, and we’re still in the end times.”

Advertisement

Ice’s response supported this explanation: When asked if the Supreme Court’s favoring of the Christian right with regard to abortion bans, prayer in public schools, and the state funding of Christian education did anything to mitigate this dread, Ice said it did not. There were still those who would fight to block these wins at the local and state level, he said.

Advertisement

Several of the recent and upcoming prophecy books match Ice’s pessimism for humanity. In Foreshadows, published by Harvest House in May, some signs of the apocalypse’s imminence are the “trends toward a one-world government,” the proliferation of surveillance technology, “descent into moral and spiritual corruption,” and “assault on truth.” Another, Global Reset, promises to “open readers’ eyes and alert them to how world leaders are using the ‘Great Reset’ agenda to seize pandemics, natural disasters and catastrophes, civil disorder, political unrest, and other current events to reshape every facet of life—all pointing toward the universal economy and godless global government of the Antichrist.”

Advertisement

But some experts argued that the growing popularity of apocalypse chatter showed something else: a mainstreaming of the end-times obsessions. The old style of crafting complex theological arguments from single passing references in Scripture is growing less popular, Djupe said. Instead, many evangelicals are more commonly drawing on themes. “They will ban your bible, strip your religious freedom,” he said. “The theological specifics seem to be fading. They don’t need to dig deep and find specific passages.”

This isn’t the first time an apocalyptic fervor has swept up America’s book buyers. Previous prophetic bestsellers include The Late Great Planet Earth, a book from 1970 that mapped the current events onto the prophecies of the Bible—and predicted that the 1980s would bring about the Antichrist and the rapture of Christians. By 1990, it had sold 28 million copies; the New York Times declared it the bestselling “nonfiction” book of the 1970s. Its gestalt was slightly different than prophecy books of today; it was very focused on esoteric signals and secret messaging. It set off a craze for biblical code-cracking and shaped the thinking of a generation of evangelicals.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Then, in the fiction category, there was Left Behind, the megahit series of 16 novels, the first of which was published in 1995. Capitalizing on the Y2K panic, Left Behind presented a Tom Clancy–style, action-packed version of the biblical apocalypse, featuring a “Tribulation Force” fighting the agents of the Antichrist. (Recall that in the books, that’s the U.N. secretary-general.) Left Behind punched out of the constraints of an evangelical audience; Nicolas Cage starred in one of the several floundering attempts to bring it to the big screen.

Advertisement
Advertisement

“They want to catch lightning in a bottle,” said Bruce Forbes, a former professor and co-editor of a book about the Left Behind series, of the modern publishers. “They’re trying to do Left Behind again.”

Advertisement

Forbes was skeptical that such a gamble would work. But his skepticism was not rooted in doubts over the timing. “I would think that considering everything today—the pandemic, climate change, Ukraine, the Middle East, polarization in the U.S. so that each side thinks the end of the world will happen if the other side takes over, general pessimism about the future—this would be ripe for a breakout again. And I don’t see it. I think there’s a bump. Wouldn’t you guess there would be more than a bump?”

It’s true that there is no single breakout hit, but Publishers Weekly reported that prophecy books are often among the bestsellers on the Christian charts. There’s a strong audience for this. Some 37 percent of Americans believe in prophecy—including a huge portion of the white evangelicals who carried Trump into office.

Advertisement

There’s another consideration here: Assuming that this spate of prophecy books was conceived a couple of years ago, the authors would have begun writing in the wake of the 2020 election, steeped in the anxiety of that time, and would have been still a year-plus away from the Supreme Court term that handed the Christian right so many victories. So it’s possible this is more of a supply side–driven bump than a purely organic demand-side one.

“The thing about end-times theology is that it’s the gift that keeps giving, for those peddling it as a way to make money,” said Hunt, the Unraptured author.

Hunt said he had seen a consistent amount of enthusiasm for and belief in the end times, but less of the studious, numerological type that was big in the 1970s. “If you look at your generic evangelicalism, you’ll see folks who affirm they believe in the Second Coming, in rapture—but fewer who would identify specific signs of the times,” he said. “The market is ripe, even if you don’t believe the specifics. It’s more of a cultural stew of fearmongering that’s leading to this.”

Advertisement