As soon as “Russia” and “war” are mentioned in the same sentence, all the premillennial, rapture, tribulation, Armageddon believers are on high alert.
The Rapture Index (yes, there is such a thing) is at 186. The all-time high for the index is 188. The index tracks 45 categories. One of those categories is Gog.
In the code language of the rapture believers, “Gog” is Russia. Most mainline Christians roll their eyes at the mention of the rapture and the prophecies of the end of the world. This is a categorical mistake, because almost half the members of Congress are end-time rapture believers.
“Their constituency’s cherished beliefs may lead to the most dangerous and destructive self-fulfilling prophecy of all time,” according to Glen Scherer in “The Godly Must Be Crazy.” Estimates of the number of rapture believers in the United States vary from 60 million to 100 million. From his now eternal vantage point, Scherer may see that the godly have flown over “the cuckoo’s nest.”
Dispensationalism and Pat Robertson
As background, consider a summary of what the rapture believers are preaching: Dispensationalism is an end-times doctrine invented in the 19th century by the Irish-Anglo theologian John Nelson Darby. Dispensationalists offer a “literal” interpretation of the Bible that offers a detailed chronology of the impending end of the world. Any war that includes Russia, dispensationalists say, offers signs of the rapture. While the rest of the world witnesses Russia’s attempt to rupture world peace, excited evangelicals think it is the beginning of the end and the rapture.
Televangelist Pat Robertson, a fading voice from yesteryear, claims God has directed Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine to use the country as a “staging ground” to launch an attack on Israel and bring about the end times.
Robertson is one of those evangelicals who credit God with offering strategy to vicious autocrats like Putin in order to accomplish God’s goal. While Robertson admits Putin is out of his mind, he still believes Putin is listening to and being directed by God. In Robertson’s “captured by rapture delusions” mind, Putin is not really going after Ukraine. His real target is Israel.
Robertson insists that Putin will soon invade Israel, Iran, Turkey and Bulgaria. Then he jumps to the conclusion that always energizes rapture believers. He insists that Ezekiel 38 and 39 contain everything people need to know about what will soon happen. Robertson draws a straight line from Ukraine to Israel.
“While Robertson admits Putin is out of his mind, he still believes Putin is listening to and being directed by God.”
The televangelist insists, “All of that area is going to be mobilized against Israel in the latter days, and God says, ‘I am going to deal with it.’ So, you can look at your map and read your newspapers, you can listen to your news, but know of a fact that God is bringing to pass what he prophesied years ago through his servant, Ezekiel.”
An excited Robertson declares, “It’ all there. It’s going to happen. So I just say, that’s what’s coming up.”
Robertson wraps up his argument with a summary: “Is Putin crazy? Is he mad? Well, perhaps. But God says, ‘I’m going to put hooks in your jaw and I’m gonna draw you into this battle whether you like it or not.’ And he’s being compelled after the move into the Ukraine. He’s being compelled to move again, to get land bridge and across the Dardanelles with Turkey. And watch what’s going to happen next. You read your Bible because it’s coming to pass.”
Hal Lindsey chimes in
Another old-time faithful rapture preacher, Hal Lindsey, also has weighed in on Putin’s invasion of Russia. His chief concern is the economic hardship that will afflict Americans as a result of the Putin war. In what is a subdued response for Lindsey, he asks about the change in Putin.
“What happened? Romans One happened. Putin suppressed the truth in unrighteousness (verse 18). He exchanged the truth of God for a lie (verse 25). He did not see fit to acknowledge God (verse 28). Therefore, God gave him over to a depraved mind (verse 28). A ‘depraved mind’ — or as the King James Version says, ‘a reprobate mind’ — means in part, a mind that can no longer think in its own best interest.”
Robert Jeffress offers some uncharacteristic nuance
Robert Jeffress, an icon of the rapture movement and a graduate of the pantheon of rapture teaching — Dallas Theological Seminary — offered an almost balanced account of Putin’s invasion. Jeffress has previously written, “I am more convinced than ever that we are living in the period the Bible calls ‘the last days. … We may be the generation that sees the Second Coming of Christ.”
Jeffress believes Jesus will return soon, but his current remarks on Putin and the Ukraine invasion are more nuanced than usual. In his online commentary, “How Christians Should Respond to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine,” Jeffress appeals to the sovereignty of God.
“Nothing catches God by surprise or thwarts his plans,” he says. “The evil designs of dictators like Vladimir Putin are, in some mysterious way, turned and used by God to accomplish his greatest purpose in the world: ‘The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will’” (Proverbs 21:1).
Then in a surprising shift, Jeffress claims, “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an awful display of needless aggression by a glory-hungry dictator. But these events probably do not herald the end of the world.” Jeffress has stepped back from the apocalyptic fervor that has animated his entire career and suggests the end is probably not now.
What is inconceivable is Jeffress insisting that God is directing Putin, God is pulling the strings with Putin to accomplish a greater purpose. This evangelical insistence of involving the sovereignty of God in the evil of Putin borders on the absurd. Rapture believers fail to understand that if they assist in bringing about world war, there will be no Superman Jesus appearing to “snatch” all true believers into the safety of the clouds. The rapture is an illusion; the rupture caused by Putin is a deadly reality.
A wise word from Rowan Williams
Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury, offers a more solid theological explanation than Jeffress: “God’s mysterious ways are appealed to when we can’t understand things (especially painful and shocking things) and we are encouraged to think about the vast gulf that separates us from God. But the Bible strongly suggests that this sort of religion is what we have to grow out of.”
God’s purposes are not tied to the machinations of dictators, human rights abusers and murdering terrorists and serial liars. God’s purpose, according to Williams in Tokens of Trust, is peace and praise: “This and this alone is God’s agenda: the world he has made is designed to become a reconciled world, a world in which diverse human communities come to share a life together because they share the conviction that God has acted to set them free from fear and guilt.”
God doesn’t work with the tools of the devil
God doesn’t choose to do God’s work with the tools of the devil, and Putin, is a “tool” of the devil, a cipher in the tragedy of corrupt power alienated from the eternal purposes of God. Robertson, Lindsey and Jeffress engage in a “theodical project,” not in theology.
In The Evils of Theodicy, Terrence Tilley argues that those who engage in the theodical project “participate in the practice of legitimating the coercive and marginalizing ecclesio-political structure which is the heritage of Constantinian Christianity.” Theodicy attempts to justify that the way things are is the way things are meant to be. The problem this creates is an awful alliance of God with the purposes of dictators, a merging of the strange idea that God does God’s work using the means of the devil.
I struggle to remain patient at the disquisitions on the purposes of God that link God to the killing of civilians and the unjustified use of war to acquire secular, political objectives. It seems odd that so many assume that Christians never have wrestled with the problem of evil or the reality of suffering and death. I am suspicious of evasive theodicies that seek to dismember God’s omnipotence and turns God into little more than the fatalistic adoration of a celestial despot or universal genocidal divinity.
I offer heart-felt, biblical rebuke to those who treat Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as a means to a greater end. The merciless pragmatism of many evangelicals, already emboldened to forsake Christian character, virtue and compassion for the price of winning the culture war, really goes off the rails with Putin.
“The merciless pragmatism of many evangelicals, already emboldened to forsake Christian character, virtue and compassion for the price of winning the culture war, really goes off the rails with Putin.”
In The Doors of the Sea David Bentley Hart argues: “Unless one can see the beginning and end of all things, one can draw no conclusions from finite experience regarding the coincidence in God of omnipotence and perfect goodness.” If the only way to protect the omnipotence of God is to align God with Putin’s terroristic goals, then let God be something other than omnipotent. The death of one Ukrainian is enough to thwart this line of argument.
A better theological undestanding
There are so many implausible misstatements of Christian teaching in reference to Putin that they are hard to ignore. As historian David Blight insists, “Disinformation has to be fought with good information,” but it must also be fought with better theological explanation.
If we wish to stand on a more solid theological ground, we will dismiss the bellowing of Robertson attributing the invasion to God’s greater purposes. It seems like an exulting in the spectacle of God’s divine cruelty. We also should sweep aside any suggestion that God sent Putin into Ukraine because of the invaluable lessons it will teach us all and the scary reminder that our economic stability may be undone. The softball arguments of these evangelical preachers are “merely unsophisticated in logic and pompous in air of didactic solemnity,” to quote Hart.
The rhetoric of these arguments is often eloquent even when it is silly. The claims of these preachers are all over the map and often disagree with one another. The invasion of Ukraine as a direct expression of God’s will, the insistence that it would be wrong of us to attempt to penetrate the “mystery” of God’s will, the stark literal interpretations of prophecy in Ezekiel and Daniel, and the incomprehensible idea that the suffering and death of Ukrainians and Russian troops possess an “epistemic significance” for us because they reveal divine attributes that might not otherwise be known or displayed — all of these need consignment to the theological wastebin.
Every preacher wishes to believe there is a divine plan in all the randomness, all the violence, all the evil of the world. In this way, they account for every loss of life in Ukraine in a sort of total sum as the will of God.
I will ask what Ivan Karamazov asks: If you could bring about a universal and final beatitude for all beings by torturing one small creature to death, would you think the price acceptable? Ivan chooses to return his ticket of entrance into heaven rather than allow that God is involved in the death of a single child.
Rodney W. Kennedy currently serves as interim pastor of Emmanuel Freiden Federated Church in Schenectady, N.Y., and as preaching instructor Palmer Theological Seminary. He is the author of nine books, including the newly released The Immaculate Mistake, about how evangelical Christians gave birth to Donald Trump.
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