Is the Iran crisis a sign that the Apocalypse is upon us?
Smoke and flames have turned Australia's skies blood-red, and wildfires still rage. Dozens of people died in recent floods in Indonesia, and Puerto Rico was hit with a series of earthquakes.
The torrent of troubling news swelled in the early days of 2020, as tensions with Iran flared after the United States killed Iran's Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in an airstrike in Baghdad. Late Tuesday, President Donald Trump sought to ease Americans' fears by tweeting, "All is well!"
But as conflict in the Middle East intensified and natural disasters struck, some voices are taking the opportunity to offer biblical interpretations. Religious teachers and authors, especially some conservative Christians, often draw on these kinds of current events as examples of how various predictions and descriptions in the Bible could be coming true.
Many of these religious leaders view actions in Iran, a Muslim-majority country, as playing a special role in these predictions, which usually focus on the apocalypse, or the end of days.
California-based prophecy writer Bill Salus told viewers this week on the show "Prophecy Watchers" that "Iran is the elephant in the room in the Middle East . . . he's the bully." Salus suggested on the show that God is angry with the current Iranian leadership and that Christians should watch recent events as likely to fulfill biblical prophecies.
"I really do believe this is going to lead to other things," Salus said. "This is number one on my radar."
Christian novelist Joel Rosenberg, who in recent years has led trips of evangelical leaders to meet with leaders in the Middle East, said that while he is cautious about saying that prophecies from the Bible are unfolding right now, he takes those forecasts from the Bible seriously.
He interprets biblical texts, such as Ezekiel 38, which describes a forthcoming war, as meaning that Iran will ally with Russia and attack Israel. And he says that Jeremiah 49, which describes the destruction of a nation, promises God's judgment, as well as his eventual blessing, specifically on the nation of Iran. But, he says, Christians should not look at every flare-up as biblically significant.
"Unfortunately, there are a lot of prophecy nuts," said Rosenberg, who attended McLean Bible Church in Virginia for two decades and now lives in Jerusalem. "These are people who have websites in capital letters, 90 exclamation marks, and it's like: 'Have some decaf, it's going to be okay.' "
Hormoz Shariat, an Iranian-born Christian teacher who moved to the United States in 1979, teaches Iranians via a satellite channel. Through his Dallas-based ministry, Iran Alive Ministries, he says, he tells them about the biblical prophecies that include Iran.
"It prepares people to see a meaning in suffering that is now and wars in the future. It gives them hope that God will save Iran," he said. "We could be in the end times. There are prophecies left to be fulfilled. I say: 'I don't know. It could be very close.' "
While some leaders are offering specific predictions about the end of days, others are sounding less apocalyptic in their teaching under Trump's administration than they did in the past. That's because many of them are pleased by his presidency, according to James Beverley, a research professor at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto and author of the forthcoming book "God's Man in the White House: Donald Trump in Modern Christian Prophecy." Trump has "eased the prophetic anxieties of his evangelical defenders" by advancing their religious liberties and granting some of their leaders access to the Oval Office, Beverley said.
The religious leaders who favour Trump, Beverley said, see him as the one chosen by God to restore Israel, resist globalism - as in his slogan "Make America great again" - and reverse what they see as the moral decay of America, particularly through policies to restrict abortion and crack down on illegal immigration.
But, Beverley wrote in an email, "even pro-Trump evangelicals can envision how Trump's volatile nature could factor into the chaos envisioned in various apocalyptic scenarios." He added: "The recent killing of the Iranian military leader led to a spike in prophetic chatter."
On the website "Rapture Ready," prophecy writer Matt Ward hints that the United States could be facing a world war moment with Iran.
"I have been watching the Middle East intently for 25 years now, and this is one of the most frightening set of circumstances I have ever seen," he wrote.
Predictions about the end of the world tend to be more common among conservative Christians known as charismatics, who believe God uses signs and miracles in the modern world.
The widely read Charisma magazine recently published a piece comparing the recent events to Daniel 5, in which an ancient king is confronted with writing on wall that suggests his kingdom will be destroyed.
Date-setting and specific predictions about the end of days fueled sales of many books in previous decades, especially as the end of the second millennium was approaching.
Hal Lindsey's "The Late Great Planet Earth" from 1970 and the "Left Behind" series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins each sold tens of millions of copies. But as those dates came and went, many evangelical leaders learned to be cautious, Beverley said.
Still, many conservative Christians continue to show deep interest in end-time prophecy.
"What is alarming this year (the Australian fires, for example) fills the slot of the alarms of earlier times (the Y2K debacle or the creation of the bar code)," Beverley wrote.
Beverley said that some of the most popular prophetic teachers right now include David Jeremiah, Jim Bakker and Jack Van Impe, as well as Jonathan Cahn, a New Jersey-based author who uses fiction to spread his ideas, including last year's "The Oracle," which puts Trump at the center of God's prophetic will.
Americans have different ideas about how the world will end, from nuclear war to zombies. Online pollster YouGov found in 2015 that 28% of Americans think the world will end in a nuclear war, 16% think it will end as a result of climate change, and another 16 percent think it will end with a judgment day.
In some circles, climate change has stirred end-times fears, and Australia's raging fires have prompted some observers to use apocalyptic language on the subject of climate change.
Republicans (20%) are much more likely than Democrats (12%) to believe that the world will end in a judgment day, according to the poll. Twenty-seven percent of Democrats said climate change will cause the world to end, compared with 5% of Republicans.
The apocalypse or dystopian futures have been popular tropes in mass media and fiction in recent years, in shows such as "Game of Thrones" and "The Walking Dead," but the conversation has especially escalated since we entered the nuclear age, said Robert Joustra, an associate professor of international studies at Redeemer University College in Toronto and co-author of the book "How to Survive the Apocalypse."
" 'Apocalypse' holds up the hope for there being meaning and judgment for many people," he said. "We reach for those concepts because they help organize our understanding of suffering and tragedy."