Lloyd Pulley took one look at the images of destruction unfolding on his television set two weeks ago and had no doubt what it portended.
"The fact is, the kingdoms of this world cannot continue much longer," he wrote in a stark message that has since been posted on the home page of a Christian Coalition website. Look at Revelations, Chapter 18, he continued, citing from the scriptures: "In one hour your judgement is come!" One might think it a touch eccentric, or extreme, to view the attacks on New York and Washington as a harbinger of the Apocalypse. But the thought is preoccupying the minds of tens of millions of Americans.
Just look at the books the country is buying. The current top ten bestsellers, as measured by Amazon.com and major retailers such as Borders and Barnes & Noble, include a weighty tome about the dangers of germ warfare, two editions of the millennial prophecies of Nostradamus, andDesecration: Antichrist Takes the Throne, the latest instalment in a series of fundamentalist thrillers about the end of the world.
Such reading material suggests the sort of imagined scenarios that evangelical Christians – and there are an estimated 75 million of them in the United States – have been debating for years. Even before last Tuesday, Nostradamus was believed to have pointed to attack on New York as a portent of doom. Since September 11, his prophecies (as well as countless hoax variants) have been speeding their way around the internet with a very real urgency.
A new film deliberately seized on the apocalyptic gloom in its marketing. "Revelation spoke of mankind's final days. That time has arrived," reads the advert for Megiddo, a sequel to the surprise end-of-the-world hit of 1999, The Omega Code. The movie, made by the fundamentalist Trinity Broadcast Network and starring Michael York, did the briskest business of any US film released at the weekend.
Clearly, in the current climate, one does not have to be a fundamentalist to fear for the future of the planet. At churches up and down the nation, pastors and preachers are reporting considerable angst about how much longer the planet has got, and not all of them are discouraged.
"We are in an age where global issues are lived out in Book of Revelations-type terms," said Scott Bauer, pastor at a vast Pentecostal church in Los Angeles called the Church On The Way. "The Bible teaches us that every generation may be the last one. I don't know if people are afraid of that as such, but there is a sobriety that this is a different crisis from others we have faced." Pastor Bauer was careful in his phraseology, partly because his particular church believes that events can be altered by the power of prayer (and his 10,000-strong congregation has been praying a lot). Partly, too, there is a desire not to alarm people further when they are alarmed enough by facts.
Privately, however, many rank-and-file believers are sure that the End Times are upon us. "I have a couple of relatives who are fundamentalist Christians, and they are convinced this is it, this is the end," said Joel Dyer, an author and journalist specialising in heartland America and its frequently misunderstood view of the world.
If discussion of the Apocalypse has not been more widespread, Mr Dyer says, that is only because the shock of the attacks is still too fresh. "There is an incredible sense of people being just stunned. Wait a bit, though, and it'll be just like the heyday of The Late Great Planet Earth," he said, referring to a surprise bestselling book from the 1970s that first introduced End Times thinking to a mass audience.
The first attack on the World Trade Centre, in 1993, triggered a flurry of interest in Nostradamus. Since then, Osama bin Laden has been alternatively identified as the Antichrist of Revelations or the "little horn" that will bring civilisation to its knees. American fundamentalists are divided broadly into two groups: those who believe the real sign of Armageddon will come when all pure-living Christians are transported directly to Heaven (a moment known as the Rapture), and those who believe the world is in for seven years of indescribable torment first, the period of Tribulation.
Among those who belong to the second, generally more radical group is Pat Robertson, the erstwhile presidential candidate, key right-wing supporter of President Bush and head of the Christian Coalition, which is posting Mr Pulley's statement on its websites. Mr Robertson has not spoken publicly for a week about his views on the day of judgement, but he did host a television programme in which he and his guest, Jerry Falwell, agreed America had been punished for turning away from God.
"We have insulted God at the highest level of our government. Then, we say, 'Why does this happen?'," Mr Robertson said in a subsequent statement. "It is happening because God Almighty is lifting his protection from us."
The comments by Mr Falwell and Mr Robertson provoked a wave of revulsion in the media, forcing them to backtrack somewhat. Their sentiments, however, have been standard fare in the American heartland – Kansas, say, or Oklahoma, or the remoter Pacific Northwest – for years.Reuse content