What will the end of the world be like? The question has intrigued humankind since, well, the beginning of the world. Evangelical Christians offer a unique and problematic interpretation of the apocalyptic scenario. And that’s exactly what the people behind the documentary Waiting for Armageddon set out to understand. Directors Franco Sacchi, Kate Davis and David Heilbroner capture the apocalypse-obsessed wing of the evangelical Christian community in scenes of plainspoken faith, theological collision, and hubristic tourism.
The film opens with a statistic set to ominous music: Roughly one-sixth of Americans are evangelical Christians. It is less specific about just how many of those evangelicals are anticipating Armageddon. It would be absurd to assume that every sixth person you run into in the grocery store has Rapture on the brain. The filmmakers only say that “many” evangelicals are end-timers. But it’s a financially and politically powerful group, which makes scrutiny of their beliefs a worthwhile exercise.
American evangelical Dr. H. Wayne House performs a baptism in the River Jordan.
Just like any other distinct community, evangelical Christians are victims of stereotypes. Calling on pastors, suburban housewives, a former ghostwriter for televangelist Jerry Falwell, and a reformed atheist, the film breaks down those stereotypes and presents its subjects’ apocalyptic worldviews candidly. Unpleasant as the end times may seem, many evangelicals are mentally and spiritually prepared.
Most of the evangelicals profiled in the film express a sense of urgency—that the apocalypse is right around the corner. “The rapture in my view will happen very, very soon,” Oklahoma-resident Devonna Edwards said. “And do I believe that I’ll hold a grandchild? No. I just don’t think we have that much time left.” Edwards’ children don’t share this same preoccupation. “It could happen . . . I mean, it will happen,” says her daughter Kristen. “But it just may not happen before my birthday.”
Israel's holy city Jerusalem.
The Promised Land
Even more frightening than the apocalypse, the documentary draws links between the American evangelical community and American relations in the Middle East, especially Israel.
Israel is a homing beacon for many evangelicals. The filmmakers follow Dr. H. Wayne House as he leads twenty-some evangelicals on a tour of the Israel and parts of the West Bank. The film portrays House and his tour as a busload of indignant, anti-Muslim and selectively naïve foreigners. On a boat tour of the Sea of Galilee, where Christians believe Jesus walked on water, they fly the American flag and pump “The Star-Spangled Banner” from loud speakers. Standing on the plateau of Megiddo, where the battle of Armageddon is prophesied to take place, House wears a Disney World t-shirt. These religious tourists bumble around like so many Clark Griswolds in hotly disputed religious geography.
Another stop on the tour is the al-Aqsa Mosque, which is situated next to the golden Dome of the Rock, the spot where Muslims believe the Prophet Mohamed ascended to heaven. To Jews it is the Temple Mount, site of the first two Jewish Temples. Regardless of what type of worship house stands there, it is an especially sacred location for Jews and Muslims alike. The site also has potent spiritual significance to evangelical Christians. As author Gershom Gorenberg says in film, the site is a “blasting cap of religious conflict.”
The Dome of the Rock.
The evangelical account of the apocalypse, based on a rigid reading of apocalyptic books of the Bible like Daniel and Revelation, depends upon the continued survival of the state of Israel and its ability to rebuild the Temple. “I don’t know exactly how it is going to be removed, but it is not a part of the end times as far as the Bible or Christianity are concerned, and I don’t think in Judaism either,” said one member of House’s tour. “There’s no place for that mosque. It has to be removed.” At a Pre-Tribulation conference, in which hundreds of evangelicals gather to discuss the state of Israel and the end of days, House proudly shows off a photoshopped image of Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock is missing from the cityscape and an artist’s rendition of the rebuilt Jewish Temple stands in its place. The crowd goes wild.
Justus N. Baird, director of the Center for Multifaith Education at Auburn Theological Seminary, clearly articulates the overarching message of the documentary in one of the DVD’s bonus features, a roundtable discussion from the night of the film screening. “Good theology does not instrumentalize other people,” he said. “And so when Israel, either as a nation or as a people, or Jews as a people, are a pawn in someone else’s theology, then we get into dangerous territory.”
Israel’s hot sands are a long way from the white, evangelical churches of America’s heartland, but that doesn’t mean that evangelicals’ intriguing apocalyptic beliefs are free from global significance. Whether making small donations to the Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry or decrying the ascent of multiculturalism and Islamofascism, as Pastor John Hagee does at the Pre-Tribulation conference, evangelicals are on the front lines of an age-old spiritual conflict.
Images courtesy of First Run Features.