November 23, 2001
By KEVIN SACK
ATLANTA, Nov. 21 - Aaron M. Hopper, a 23-year-old
middle-school teacher, was scanning the bookshelves of the
Family Christian Store in Gainesville, Ga., today when a
new paperback caught his attention.
It was "Attack on America: New York, Jerusalem and the Role
of Terrorism in the Last Days," by John C. Hagee, a San
Antonio evangelist who writes about biblical prophecy and
"I said, `I've got to have this,' " Mr. Hopper said. "I'm
settled on the fact that this happened for a reason, that
God was trying to get our attention. The Bible says there
will be great sorrow before the end times, and what
happened on Sept. 11 is just an example."
Mr. Hopper is far from alone in his interest. As with the
approach of the year 2000, the Sept. 11 attacks have
invigorated the apocalyptic brand of theology embraced by
many Christian evangelicals and fundamentalists, who view
the collapse of the World Trade Center towers as the latest
harbinger of the end times.
At Christian bookstores across the nation, titles on
biblical prophecy, both fiction and nonfiction, have flown
off the shelves in the last two months. Christian Web sites
and bulletin boards are chock-full of commentary and
interpretation on the meaning of the attacks and their
place in the prophetic timeline. Pastors have taken to
their pulpits to predict that the second coming is near,
with some going so far as to speculate that they could be
preaching their final sermons.
"There's a heightened interest, no doubt about it," said
the Rev. Russ G. Shinpoch, pastor of Wildwood Baptist
Church in Acworth, Ga., northwest of Atlanta. "God got
America's attention. And in my opinion, the window's going
to be brief."
Like many of his conservative counterparts, Mr. Shinpoch
says he believes that Jesus could return within two or
three years. "As far as we know, there's no more prophecy
to be fulfilled," he said. "It literally could be any day."
That, of course, is not necessarily the view within the
mainstream of Christianity. Hank Hanegraaff, president of
the Christian Research Institute, a California group that
studies what it considers to be aberrant Christian
theology, said the prophetic strain of the faith had always
suffered from an overly literal interpretation - and often
misinterpretation - of the Scriptures. Mr. Hanegraaff said
the leaders of the prophecy movement, beneficiaries of a
multimillion-dollar industry, were always looking for
cataclysmic events to validate their doomsday scenarios and
paper over previously failed forecasts.
"There are always these events that the prophecy teachers
seize upon and say, `See, I told you so,' " Mr. Hanegraaff
said. "A lot of these people are desperate, because how
many times can you be wrong."
Nonetheless, there is little question that Sept. 11 had a
profound impact on those who subscribe to end-times
theology. A recent survey of 500 bookstores by the
Evangelical Christian Publishers Association found that the
number of nonfiction books about prophecy sold in the eight
weeks after Sept. 11 had increased by 71 percent compared
with the previous eight weeks.
The country's top-selling hardcover fiction book,
meanwhile, is "Desecration" (Tyndale House) by Tim LaHaye
and Jerry B. Jenkins, the ninth volume in the enormously
popular "Left Behind" series, which depicts a global battle
between the forces of good and evil after the Rapture of
the saved. The book, which made its debut atop The New York
Times best-seller list last week and remains there this
week, had an initial printing of 2.97 million copies, more
than any other fiction book this year, according to
Publishers Weekly. Another 100,000 copies will be printed
in time for Christmas.
Because the "Left Behind" series has such a devoted
following, "Desecration" presumably would have sold well
even had it not been published on Oct. 30. But sales thus
far are more robust than for the eighth book in the series,
which was published last year, and officials at Tyndale
believe that the terrorist attacks spurred demand.
"People who have read the `Left Behind' series felt they
were seeing something right out of the books," said Daniel
J. Balow, director of business development for the
publisher. "And people who had never read the series have
been pushed to consider what the future brings."
Doug R. Ross, president of the Evangelical Christian
Publishers Association, predicted that Christian retailers
would enjoy an increase of 5 percent to 7 percent in sales
for the Christmas season. "That, of course, is contrary to
what you see in the general trade," Mr. Ross said. "And I
think one of the reasons is certainly in response to the
times we live in. A cataclysmic event like Sept. 11 and the
unsettledness in the Middle East cause people to say, 'Is
this the war to end all wars?' "
Web sites trading in apocalyptic material have also been
popular. Orders tripled in September and October for
Armageddon Books, a concern in North Carolina that sells
600 prophecy-related items over the Web, said Broderick D.
Shepherd, the company's owner.
"The worse the news was for America, the better our
business was," Mr. Shepherd said.
Another Web site features a "Rapture index" that describes
itself as "a Dow Jones Industrial Average of end-time
activity." By assigning numerical values in 45 prophetic
categories, it ostensibly measures the velocity of movement
toward the Rapture, when Christians supposedly will vanish
before a seven-year apocalypse led by the anti-Christ. The
total score of 182 recorded on Sept. 24 was the highest
ever. Any score over 145, according to the index, suggests
you should "fasten your seat belt."
Those who embrace biblical prophecy have linked the
terrorist attacks to both complicated interpretations of
Scripture and to a number of specific biblical references,
from Isaiah 30:25 ("in the day of great slaughter, when the
towers fall") to Revelation 18:10 ("thou mighty city,
Babylon! In one hour has thy judgment come.")
Many pastors have used such predictions to encourage their
parishioners to get right with God. But some authorities
say that such an emphasis misstates Jesus' intent.
"I worry that this apocalyptic fixation leads to a kind of
otherworldliness on the part of many Christians," said
Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history
at Barnard College. "Rather than looking to improve or
reform the world, they simply are opting out and predicting
judgment. They talk about individual regeneration rather
than social amelioration, and to emphasize one at the price
of the other is a distortion of the gospel."