Sarah Pulliam Bailey – 11h ago
The war in Ukraine has reignited beliefs among some conservative evangelicals that Russia could help fulfill biblical prophecies about the end of the world.
These evangelicals, particularly charismatic Christians who focus on end-times theories, have long believed that Russia has a special role to play in the end times and are sharing new theories about why the invasion of Ukraine might be part of God’s plan.
Earlier this month, California megachurch pastor Greg Laurie, who was part of President Donald Trump’s inner circle of pastor-advisors, told his followers he saw a “prophetic significance” to what is happening in Ukraine. And Christian Broadcasting Network founder Pat Robertson suggested Russian President Vladimir Putin was “compelled by God” to attack Ukraine. Since then, people who engage in prophecy have been giving their own biblical interpretations to global events, particularly around Russia’s role in triggering the end of the world.
A Rapture Index that tracks what it sees as end-times activity recently increased its index to 187 out of 200. The index hit 182 after Sept. 11, 2001. In its most recent update, it notes climate change, the coronavirus and the rise of oil prices as factors for recent changes.
Conservative Christians have long looked at world events and pointed to biblical references as signs that what is happening in the world could fulfill biblical prophecy, and this time is no different, said Michael Brown, host of the Charlotte-based Christian radio show “The Line of Fire.”
“When you have Christians who already think about how we’re living in the last days and they see the continual moral decline of America, they see the church being marginalized, it doesn’t take much to tip the scales,” he said. “Whenever Russia gets involved, it’s like, ‘Ah here it is, it’s the final conflict.’”
Some evangelicals once believed that Mikhail Gorbachev, the former leader of the Soviet Union, was the Antichrist, in part because he had a birthmark on his forehead that conjured up concerns that it could be “the mark of the beast,” a biblical sign for Satan in the end times.
Perhaps Putin is “an Antichrist of our current time,” said Jeff Kinley, who writes on biblical prophecy and lives in Harrison, Ark., in a recent interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network. However, Brown said he thinks Putin is unlike the Antichrist because most of the world appears hostile to Putin while the Antichrist as described in the Bible will bring the whole world under his sway.
A Feb. 20-24 Washington Post-ABC News poll found that White evangelical Christians were just as negative toward Russia and supportive of sanctions as Americans overall. Among White evangelicals, 47 percent said Russia is an enemy of the United States and another 33 percent said it is unfriendly. Similarly, 68 percent supported sanctions and 51 percent said they would still support them if energy prices went up.
White evangelicals were also much more likely to say they disapprove of the way President Biden has handled the situation with Ukraine (75 percent) than the rest of Americans (47 percent).
Brown said he understands why recent global events, including the pandemic, seem to disturb some conservative evangelicals. Many, he said, are concerned about vaccine mandates and the World Health Organization as possible preparation for a one-world government, or one international leader who will make decisions for the globe.
“We got a sneak preview on a small level for how people can be moved by fear,” Brown said. “It provided an insight into how we could quickly get to a situation where everyone agreed worldwide to certain standards. If you don’t do this, you can’t participate in real life.”
Based on some Christians’ interpretation of Revelation, the New Testament’s final book, Jesus will return to Earth, believers will be raptured to heaven and will leave unbelievers behind.
For many White evangelicals, Russia is part of that narrative, said Matthew Avery Sutton, a Washington State University history professor and author of “American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism.”
Literature from people such as John Nelson Darby after the Civil War, and the Scofield Bible in 1909, have tied Russia to biblical narratives. The Scofield Bible identifies a “kingdom of the north,” described in the Book of Daniel, as Russia. Hal Lindsey’s 1970 bestseller “The Late Great Planet Earth” also popularized the idea that Russia was the land of Magog, the prophesied invader of Israel in the Book of Ezekiel.
In their best-selling 1995 book “Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days,” Jerry B. Jenkins and the late evangelical pastor Tim LaHaye cast Russia as Magog in a modern-day version of the Book of Ezekiel. “Left Behind” opens focusing on Israel but then Russia attacks Israel for a new technology, setting the stage for the end times.
“The apocalyptic obsession ebbs and flows in moments of crisis,” Sutton said. “We’re at another moment where prophecy is invoked to make sense of current events.”
Daniel Hummel, a historian of religion who is working on book about a system that emphasizes a literal reading of the Bible called dispensationalism, said Christians would write in the 1840s and 1850s about Russia using literal connections between the Bible and what would happen in the future. Other Christians tended to see biblical descriptions as more symbolic or allegorical.
Christians using a more literal interpretation draw connections between Russia and biblical prophecy and look to a reference in the Book of Ezekiel where it speaks of the Prince of Rosh, which sounds like Russia. During the Cold War, Christian leaders would apply American understandings of good and evil, viewing Communism as an evil force.
In recent decades, Christians, especially those in Pentecostal or charismatic traditions, have seen global events, such as the modern state of Israel, as a fulfillment of God’s prophecies. Since 9/11, some of these leaders have focused on “Islamic terrorism,” particularly on the role of Iran because of how Persia is described in the Old Testament. And anything involving Israel especially provokes commentary about God’s active role in the world.
“There are a lot of people who are cheaply saying [Russia’s war in Ukraine] is prophetically significant,” Hummel said. “You get some credibility for saying prophetic things are happening, but they lose credibility if they try to specify anything. A lot of these people don’t have a clear sense of what the U.S. should be doing, but they want the credibility of saying they’re on the right side of interpreting these things.”
Recent events have given rise to older narratives about Russia, but they’ve also scrambled them, said Amy Frykholm, a senior editor for the Christian Century magazine and author of “Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America.” Frykholm said recent events have complicated how people see Russia’s role in the end times, including how some right-wing commentators have been more complimentary of Putin’s actions.
Within the past decade, Trump’s rise to power also had some altering prophetic predictions, she said, because he didn’t fit with past narratives about how the world was going to end and Christians would be raptured, and he didn’t also quite represent a theology where conservative Christians seek power themselves.
“For so much of the 20th century, it felt like for a lot of evangelicals everything that happened felt like it fit the prophetic pattern: Israel becoming a nation, the Cold War and the way it was divided in good vs. evil, and the atomic bomb,” Frykholm said. “It was built on reading the news as if it was the Bible and reading the Bible as if it was the news. I’m not sure you can do that with this current situation.”