Another candidate for the position of “The Antichrist” has met his end.
It wasn’t too long ago that Saddam Hussein was considered by some Bible-prophecy students to possibly be the final “man of sin” and global dictator. As late as March of this year, fundamentalist pastor and “end-times” buff Irvin Baxter insisted that Saddam Hussein was Abaddon, or Apollyon, the “Destroyer” spoken of in Revelation 9:11. “Iraq fits like hand in glove,” he claimed, predicting that Saddam’s country would soon become the vortex of supernatural evil. Various prophecy-oriented websites explained in elaborate detail how the Butcher of Baghdad might rise from the ruin of the first Persian Gulf War and lead a jihad against Israel, plunging the world into the final cosmic conflict between good and evil, culminating in the battle of Armageddon.
Historian Paul Boyer, author of When Time Shall Be No More (1992), a seminal study of prophecy belief in America, estimates that close to 40 percent of Americans believe the Bible outlines a detailed sequence of end-times events. For many of them, the 1990-91 conflict between Saddam and Coalition forces was a significant turning point in how they interpreted key passages of Scripture. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, the majority of prophetically minded Christians believed that the Soviet Union would be the leading force in the attempted annihilation of Israel. Hal Lindsey, author of the mega-selling The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), wrote in 1981 that the Soviets were poised to take over Afghanistan and “the entire Middle East,” adding that “all that remains is for the Russians to make their predicted move.”
The predicted move didn’t quite work out, just as the prognostications of most “prophecy experts” tended to not work out. But Lindsey and others did correctly suggest that terrorism was fast becoming a force to be reckoned with. This theme was taken up in Charles Dyer’s 1991 book, The Rise of Babylon: Sign of the End Timeswhich featured Saddam on the cover, and sold several hundred thousand copies. Dyer, however, was less interested in Saddam as a potential Antichrist than as a key builder of the New Babylon, the city that Dyer and many others believe will soon be the capital of a one-world government.
During the late ’80s and the fall of Communism, the popular forms of Bible prophecy launched in the early 1970s by Lindsey and his imitators had suffered a serious lull and loss of momentum. The dramatic coverage of the Persian Gulf War helped restart the prophetic fires–and the sales of apocalyptic literature. John Walvoord, former president of Dallas Theological Seminary and a leading light in Bible-prophecy circles, republished his 1974 book, Armageddon, Oil, and the Middle East Crisis in 1990, and within a year it sold over a million copies. Sales for Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth increased by over 80 percent and a flood of new titles hit the popular market.
Those impressive numbers pale in comparison to the incredible sales achieved by the Left Behind series, still going strong today, with the twelfth book, Glorious Appearing, due out in March 2004. In just nine years the Left Behind novels, co-authored by fundamentalist pastor Tim LaHaye and author Jerry B. Jenkins, have sold close to 60 million copies. They appear regularly atop the New York Times bestseller charts and trail only the Harry Potter books in popularity. A central element in those apocalyptic potboilers is the establishment of New Babylon in Iraq by the Antichrist, Romanian Nicolae Carpathia. Although many readers were thrilled by these seemingly unique works, many major plot lines and leading characters bore a striking resemblance to another end-times novel, titled 666, released in the 1970s by the same publisher.
LaHaye is certain that Saddam has already played a central role in the world’s last days, which he believes are nipping at our historical heels. (“The hoofbeats of the four horseman of the Apocalypse,” he writes, “can now be heard in the distance.”) In Are We Living in the End Times? (1999), a nonfiction companion to the Left Behind series, LaHaye writes, “Long before Saddam Hussein became a household name, he was busy fulfilling Bible prophecy” by starting to rebuild Babylon. He later adds, “As sure as there is a God in heaven who keeps His word, Babylon will live again as ‘the seat of Satan.’ . . . Even now, in our lifetime, Babylon is being prepared for its final appearance on the stage of human history. The ancient prophecies about Babylon are unfolding before us–just like so many other prophecies of the end times.” So, just when the Iraqis think their fortunes have improved, the news worsens.
“End-times analyst” Mark Hitchcock, LaHaye’s colleague at the Left Behind Prophecy Club, takes up this position in breathless but unconvincing fashion in The Second Coming of Babylon (2003). After explaining how Saddam has set the stage for a glimmering New Babylon, Hitchcock argues that “the ouster of Saddam from power actually makes the rebuilding of Babylon much more likely” because now the sanctions on Iraqi oil sales will be lifted, opening the door for a flood of “billions of dollars, euros, and yen.”
Such comments highlight the unrelentingly negative and fatalistic character of popular Bible-prophecy books and authors. You thought Saddam was bad? Wait until you see the next guy. You thought life was going to get better? Wait until you experience the coming Tribulation and the rule of The Antichrist. If conditions improve, it’s only so they can become twice as bad in the very near future. This approach is captured every week in Jack Van Impe’s television program, Jack Van Impe Presents, which features breaking headlines about global disasters compared in rapid-fire fashion with selected passages of Scripture.
And so it goes–and has gone for many decades. Saddam was just the latest of dozens of candidates for The Antichrist who have risen and fallen over the centuries. Dr. Edward Hindson, dean of the Institute of Biblical Studies at Liberty University, recently exhorted fellow end-times watchers that “we must exercise discernment when we deal with the imminence of Christ’s return. Most of us believe that He could come at any moment. While this hope gives the church great comfort and expectation, it often leads to excessive speculation. Think of all the ‘candidates’ for Antichrist that have been proposed in the 20th century alone–Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mikhail Gorbachev, Saddam Hussein, Juan Carlos, Prince Charles, Bill Clinton, and many others.” Leading candidates prior to the twentieth century have included Caligula, Nero, assorted popes, Napoleon, and Kaiser Wilhem.
That’s quite a list. Who’s next?
–Carl E. Olson is the editor of Envoy magazine and author of Will Catholics Be Left Behind? A Catholic Critique of the Rapture and Today’s Prophecy Preachers, recently selected by the Associated Press as one of 2003’s notable religious titles.