Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted some of America’s most prominent evangelical leaders to raise a provocative question — asking if the world is now in the biblically prophesied “end of days” that might culminate with the apocalypse and the second coming of Christ.
There’s no consensus on the answer, nor on any possible timetable.
Megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, addressing his congregation at First Baptist Dallas, said many Christians are wondering, in the face of carnage in Ukraine, “Why does God permit evil like this to continue? …. Are we near Armageddon and the end of the world?”
“We are living in the last days,” Jeffress said, “We’ve been living in the last days for the last 2000 years. We don’t know, is this the end? Is this the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning?”
The curators of raptureready.com — which shares commentary about “end of days” prophesies – suggest things could move quickly. Their “Rapture Index,” — on which any reading above 160 means “Fasten your seatbelts” — was raised this week to 187, close to its record high of 189 in 2016.
One of the most detailed alerts came from televangelist Pat Robertson, who came out of retirement on Feb. 28 to assert on “The 700 Club” that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “compelled by God” to invade Ukraine as a prelude to an eventual climactic battle in Israel. Robertson said verses of the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel support this scenario.
“You can say, well, Putin’s out of his mind. Yes, maybe so,” Robertson said. “But at the same time, he’s being compelled by God. He went into the Ukraine, but that wasn’t his goal. His goal was to move against Israel, ultimately.”
“It’s all there,” added Robertson, referring to Ezekiel. “And God is getting ready to do something amazing and that will be fulfilled.”
Also evoking Ezekiel – and a possible attack on Israel — was Greg Laurie, senior pastor at a California megachurch whose books and radio programs have a wide following.
“I believe we’re living in the last days. I believe Christ could come back at any moment,” Laurie said in a video posted on YouTube.
Citing the war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic, he said biblical prophesies “are being fulfilled in our lifetime.”
“We are seeing more things happen in real time, closer together, as the scriptures said they would be,” Laurie said. “So what should we do? We should look up. We should remember that God is in control.”
Predictions of an imminent “end of days” have surfaced with regularity over the centuries. Pat Robertson, for example, has inaccurately predicted apocalyptic events on previous occasions.
“One of the characteristics of apocalyptic thinking is that the most recent crisis is surely the worst — this is the one that is going to trip the end times calendar,” said Dartmouth College history professor Randall Balmer.
“Now, admittedly, there may be some evidence for that, especially with Putin mumbling about nuclear weapons,” Balmer added via email. “But I also remember the urgency of the Six Day War and George H. W. Bush’s Persian Gulf War and, of course, 9/11.”
The suggestion that God is somehow using the Russia-Ukraine war to fulfill biblical prophesies troubles some Christian scholars, such as the Rev. Rodney Kennedy, a Baptist pastor in Schenectady, New York, and author of numerous books.
“This evangelical insistence of involving the sovereignty of God in the evil of Putin borders on the absurd,” Kennedy wrote recently in Baptist News.
“Rapture believers fail to understand that if they assist in bringing about world war, there will be no Superman Jesus appearing to ‘snatch’ all true believers into the safety of the clouds,” Kennedy wrote. “The rapture is an illusion; the rupture caused by Putin is a deadly reality.”
Russell Moore, public theologian at the evangelical magazine Christianity Today, said it’s wrong to try to connect world events to end-times prophecy, noting that Jesus himself said his second coming would be unexpected and unconnected with “wars and rumors of wars.”
“It’s not consistent with the Bible and it’s harmful to the witness of the church,” said Moore, noting that the world has outlived many episodes of end-times speculation.
Moore said most Christians he’s talked with are more concerned about Ukraine’s well-being.
“I’m surprised at how little I am finding the idea that these events are direct biblical prophecy,” he said. “I’m just not seeing that in the pews.”
That’s a change from the recent past, he noted, when many evangelicals tried to interpret world events as a road map to the apocalypse – driving sales for hugely successful authors Tim LaHaye (“Left Behind”) and Hal Lindsey (“The Late Great Planet Earth”).
“It’s very rare for me to find someone under the age of 50” preoccupied with such views today, Moore said.
Jeffress said members of his congregation in Dallas are “very troubled by the atrocities being committed against the Ukrainian people and think we should push back forcefully against Putin’s aggression.”
“However, they are not headed toward their bunkers and preparing for Armageddon — yet,” Jeffress said via email. “Most of our members understand that while the Bible prophesies the end of the world and return of Christ one day, no one has a clue when that day will be.”
Laurie, in a written reply to questions from The Associated Press, said his congregation at Harvest Christian Fellowship “isn’t fixated on the ‘end times.’”
“My message for Christians during this time and really all people in general is don’t panic, but pray,” Laurie advised. “Live every day like it may be your last.”
The war in Ukraine has heightened anxieties for some members of Mercy Hill Chapel, said Oleh Zhakunets, lead pastor of the small Southern Baptist church that holds services in Ukrainian and English in Parma, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb.
Several members have close relatives in Ukraine – some in more dangerous zones in eastern Ukraine and others who are welcoming refugees in the west, he said.
“It’s a bag of mixed feelings,” said Zhakunets, citing their worries for loved ones and their hope that God is in control.
Congregation members believe in biblical passages detailing signs of Jesus’ return, he said, but they don’t see Russia’s invasion as fulfilling a specific prophecy.
“A lot of that is just guesswork,” Zhakunets said. “We have hope that he’s coming, but in terms of specifics, we’re not going to give that kind of what we see as a false hope.”
Associated Press reporters Peter Smith, Holly Meyer and Deepa Bharath contributed to this report.
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David Crary, The Associated Press