BOOK REVIEW / Playing the endgame for all it's worth: 'When Time Shall be no More' - Paul Boyer: Harvard University Press, 23.95 pounds

APOCALYPTIC belief is as old as history. But the conviction that history needs a little push to reach an apocalyptic conclusion is relatively new, and peculiarly American. According to Paul Boyer, two in three Americans have no doubt that Jesus will come to earth again. Further, a vast proportion of these are convinced that he is due to arrive in a matter of years, if not days, and are willing to speed up the process.

The true believers are ready for the moment when they will meet Jesus and the world will face Armageddon. There are various devices that can help one prepare for the big event. The 'Rapture Watch', marketed by 'Second Coming Mission', for example, serves both as a witness for the coming event and a reminder that 'we are one hour nearer the Lord's return'.

Books such as Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth, which has sold more than 28 million copies, teach one how to read world events in the light of biblical prophecies and play the endgame. For the latest forecasts and an up-to-the-minute countdown, one can tune in to 65 television and 922 radio stations - available all over the planet via communication satellites such as Spacenet and Galaxy. And experts such as Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts and Pat Robertson are available on 24-hour hotlines to take one through the sequence of events that will herald the end of the world.

A great deal in the Armageddon game hinges on identifying the Antichrist, the instrument of apocalypse. In the ninth century, Paul Alvarus read the Book of Daniel and discovered that the Antichrist was the Prophet Muhammed. Later, 'Saladin', 'the Grand Turk' and the Ottoman Empire were each identified as Satan. During the Cold War the epithet was pinned on Russia, and now we are back to Islam: in the Eighties it was Ayatollah Khomeini, but today's candidate is Saddam Hussein.

On his Prophecy Hotline, Hilton Sutton tells his listeners: 'We know from Genesis . . . that Saddam Hussein is a wild man.'

Moreover, Genesis tells us that the Arabs are going to rally around Saddam to attack Jerusalem. Billy Graham points out that the Middle East is 'far more sinister' than Korea and Vietnam because of the 'spiritual forces at work'. 'These events are happening,' he tells his followers, 'in that part of the world where history began and, the Bible says, where history will some day end.'

Unfortunately, Boyer argues, we cannot entirely dismiss Graham, Sutton and other prophets of the apocalypse. They have wielded tremendous power as advisers and consultants to presidents, defence secretaries and Pentagon officials, especially when there was a true believer in the White House. 'Never in history,' President Reagan reflected, after reading Hal Lindsey's Armageddon, Oil and the Middle East Crisis, 'have so many prophecies come true in such a relatively short time.'

Reagan not only believed that 'nuclear war was inevitable' but 'set out to help God bring it about'. So influential were the Armageddonists during the Reagan era that the New York Times wrote editorials warning that they were influencing nuclear policy. A hundred nervous religious leaders petitioned Reagan to denounce the dogma that nuclear holocaust is pre-ordained in the Bible - it could lead to 'historical fatalism' and prove self-fulfilling, they argued.

Evidently, the Armageddonists do not regard their claims as dogma. They provide 'scientific' validation for their prophecies. Newton's Observations upon the prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St John (1733) and Sir Robert Anderson's The Coming Prince (1884) are important parts of their armoury. Anderson offered 'nothing less than a mathematical demonstration' of the accuracy of the Bible's prophecies. Since then, Christian fundamentalists have sought to demonstrate a precise 'fit' between historical reality and biblical prophecies.

When Time Shall Be No More is certainly a spine-chilling document. But in it Boyer leaves the fundamental question unanswered: why has modern American culture provided such fertile ground for the blooming of these prophecies?