For ages, many Christians have tried to work out the details for the apocalypse, right down to the precise arrival time for Jesus Christ's return flight from heaven.
Some of today's best-known end-times experts are convinced, based on verses in Daniel and Revelation, that the saints can count on being air- lifted, or "raptured," out of this terrestrial combat zone just before all hell -- literally -- breaks loose.
"For those of us living in this world today as we approach an age of growing persecution, there's something else to look forward to," according to best-selling author Hal Lindsey. "For God promises that He will take His flock out of this world just before the persecution becomes most unbearable."
This should be comforting news to those seeing their children sold as slaves in the Sudan, their churches burned in Pakistan, their pastors murdered in Iran or their bishops locked up in China, notes Canadian scholar Paul Marshall, with obvious sarcasm. Apparently, today's suffering saints have worse days ahead. Or perhaps martyrs far from America just don't count.
Fascination with "the rapture" might explain why many Christians don't take persecution seriously, said Marshall. They expect to be given a pass.
While this doesn't require Christians to ignore "current persecution, it does in practice seem to lead to a fatalism wherein persecution is simply taken for granted," argues Marshall, who teaches at Toronto's Institute of Christian Studies. "The result is a stunning passivity that calmly accepts such suffering. Perhaps this ... could be justified if we were dealing with our own suffering. But to do this with the suffering of another amounts to theological sadism."
Right now, a spectrum of activists -- from Hollywood liberals to Bible Belt conservatives -- are trying to focus attention on rising global reports of religious persecution. For millions of believers, this will lead up to the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church on Nov. 16. Meanwhile, Capitol Hill debates continue on the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act of 1997, which faces fierce opposition from business groups and the White House.
But in their influential book, "Their Blood Cries Out," Marshall and journalist Lela Gilbert show that another powerful force aiding oppressive governments is the apathy of millions of church-going Americans. There is more to this than theological puzzles such as "the rapture."
* Most Americans show little or no interest in international events. Also, the American church has had no direct experience with persecution -- period.
* Few Americans can identify with the fervor of Third World churches. "The people who are getting persecuted the most are, by definition, those who are out doing the most evangelism," said Marshall. "That's what creates conflicts with the state. Obviously, these people are evangelicals, Pentecostals or conservative Catholics. That's who insists on spreading their faith. Mainline-church leaders and American Catholics just can't identify with that."
* Two other conservative beliefs play a crucial role. Millions of Americans have embraced a "prosperity gospel" that directly links faithfulness and material blessings and it's hard for them to square this belief with reports of persecution overseas. Also, other Christians note that, historically, persecution fans the flames of church growth. Thus, persecution may be good.
* While many pundits view conservative Christianity as a monolithic force, the reality is exactly the opposite, argues Marshall. Evangelicalism is a maze of thousands of independent denominations, ministries and mailing lists. There is fierce competition for dollars and devotion. Turf wars and jealousy are common. Often believers resist calls to aid those who kneel at other altars. Thus, it's almost impossible to steer this staggeringly complex fleet toward one goal.
"The evangelical world is like a big blob," said Marshall. "You push on it and your hand just sinks in. Things never seem to move. ... Evangelicalism is so entrepreneurial. All of these parachurch and missionary groups have to raise money by showing that they are out there having an impact around the world. They have to put themselves and their work front and center. They have to show SUCCESS. Well, it's hard to be upbeat when you're talking about persecution."