Prophecy is unfolding in the Middle East. Riots. Killings. War. At its centre is President Donald Trump. And his evangelical supporters are hoping he will bring on Armageddon.
The move of the United States Embassy to Jerusalem was bold.
Its outcome was predictable.
The territorial dispute between the Palestinians and the recently recreated (after some 1875 years) Israel has been erupting sporadically ever since 1948.
Any change to the delicate power balance was sure to topple into violence.
It has shattered hopes of fresh peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine.
It has also damaged the credibility of the US as a Middle East peace broker.
How this has been allowed to happen doesn't make much sense — unless you look at it through the evangelical eyes of some of Trump's top advisers and closest confidantes.
The move was about domestic politics.
Not international diplomacy.
The decision to move the embassy fulfilled a key Trump election campaign promise. It also represented a victory for hard-line pro-Israeli interest groups.
But Trump's most prominent electoral support group — conservative evangelicals — see it all as a biblical drama. At last, their great nation has an embassy in God's own capital city — Jerusalem. And it means cataclysmic events proclaimed by prophecy are about to take place.
Trump himself is at the heart of this prophecy.
His fate is seen as intrinsically tied to that of an ancient Persian king.
The President of the United States is God's right-hand man, many evangelicals believe. Trump is an imperfect tool God is using to create perfect works. This means nothing less than the end of days. And a one-way ticket to heaven.
HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE
President Trump has surrounded himself with outspoken believers who share an end-times theology.
Vice-President Mike Pence is a stoic evangelical. He makes no secret that he devoutly believes that war in the Middle East is God's will. That God wants Israel returned to the Jews. That Armageddon is part of God's plan.
Pence openly maintains ties with Christian Zionist organisations that see this as a desirable fulfilment of biblical prophecy. His own speeches regularly repeat such imagery, with statements such as "a prophecy literally came to pass" with the establishment of a Israel in 1948.
"When we open the American Embassy in Jerusalem, we will in a very real sense end this historic friction, we'll embrace reality," Pence said in an interview with the Christian Broadcast Network.
Former high-profile Trump adviser Steve Bannon has also openly spoken about being a Christian Zionist. It's an evangelical faction that places particular emphasis on supporting Israel in order to ensure God's plan can be carried out.
It's a view based on Genesis 12:3, in which God promises Abraham:"I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on Earth will be blessed through you."
Put simply, you can do no wrong in the eyes of God if you support Israel.
Then there's Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Labor Secretary Alex Acosta and Housing Secretary Ben Carson … they are among 10 members of Trump's Cabinet who are prominent supporters of the Capitol Ministries group.
This is an evangelical lobby group which seeks "to teach God's Word and share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with state legislators, judges, and constitutional officers."
DEFENDER OF THE FAITH
The Rapture cult is diverse and encompasses many Christian denominations. But it's particularly popular among US evangelical groups.
White evangelicals were Trump's most vocal, and active, voting bloc during the 2016 election campaign.
At the heart of it all is a particular interpretation of biblical prophecy — an amalgam of passages from the New Testament book of Revelations, but also the Old Testament's Daniel and Isaiah.And every preacher applies their own particular spin.
Boiled down, they believe in Armageddon — an apocalyptic Middle Eastern war — and the second coming of Jesus Christ. When this happens, 144,000 Christian souls will be granted access to Heaven. The rest will remain on Earth to be punished.
In this context, chaos in the Middle East is interpreted as a good thing. To them, it's a sign that the Second Coming is at hand. Peace efforts are simply postponing God's will.
Oddly enough, it's a belief very similar to the prophecy Islamic State used to inspire its jihadist fighters. Here, the final showdown between Islam and infidels would bring the second coming of the prophet Jesus, which would herald the end of days. One difference is that the final battle will be sited at Dabiq in northern Syria, not Meggido (Armageddon) in northern Israel.
Both religious views are fundamentalist.
Both believe sacred texts must be interpreted literally, in a current context, despite their many confusing contradictions and antique, illustrative prose.
Science is rejected. Evidence holds no weight against the word of a preacher.
CAPITOL HILL CRUSADERS
The Trump presidency makes a big thing of its weekly Bible study group.
It's run by Capitol Ministries.
Its focus is openly apocalyptic.
"Eschatology is the big theological word that encases the study of future events as recorded in the Bible," its newsletter decrees. " It is no secret that noble, Bible-believing Christians hold divergent viewpoints on what the Scriptures teach concerning the specifics surrounding the second coming of Christ.
"One thing, however, that most believers do agree on is that the study of the believer's personal future — as depicted in the Bible — should prove to be highly motivational and directive in the here and now."
This month, Capitol Ministries issued a sermon directly relevant to current administration issues, including Iran, Syria and Israel.
In evangelical world, President Trump has delivered time and time again. Now, with the moves regarding the embassy/Jerusalem he further cements himself as one who is on his way to going down as the most "evangelical friendly" president ever. @POTUS @realDonaldTrump @VP @CBNNews pic.twitter.com/n0jRnXgEM7— David Brody (@TheBrodyFile) December 6, 2017
Titled The Bible on When War Is Justifiable, it argues violence is justifiable because the Apostle Peter ordered all men to submit "to every human institution". It also emphasises that God himself "judges and wages war".
In their perspective, every human institution is the US Administration. And God's agent is President Trump.
Therefore Trump has God's authority to do whatever he wants.
Take the evolving climate-change crisis.
One argument goes something like this: The Bible says Earth was created for man. Man should not be ashamed to exploit it. Therefore, Capitol Ministries insists in its Trump Administration Bible studies group, environmentalism must therefore be a heretical religion. There's nothing to worry about, it argues: God will "continually renew the face of the Earth until He forms a new heaven and a new Earth in the end times."
KNIGHTS OF THE CROSS
President Trump has proclaimed his favourite priest to be First Baptist Dallas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress.
In 2014, Jeffress wrote a book declaring that President Barack Obama was paving the way for the arrival of the Antichrist (if he wasn't the Antichrist himself).
He took a prominent stand for the President during the 2016 election campaign. But their close relationship was made obvious when he conducted a private prayer service with the Trump family on the morning of January 20, 2017 — the day Trump took office.
Jeffress preaches the Rapture to all who will listen. "Islam is wrong. It is a heresy from the pit of hell," he says. "Mormonism is wrong. It is a heresy from the pit of hell." The Catholic Church is led by Satan. All Jews are doomed to Hell. All homosexuals are outcasts.
"Not only do religions like Mormonism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism — not only do they lead people away from the true God, they lead people to an eternity of separation from God in hell," Jeffress said in a 2008 sermon. "Hell is going to be filled with good religious people who have rejected the truth of Christ."
He's ecstatic that his beliefs are being mirrored by the President: "We thank you every day that you have given us a President who boldly stands on the right side of history, and more importantly on the right side of you, oh God, when it comes to Israel."
Allow me to disagree? Jeffress embodies the true significance of moving the embassy to Jerusalem: transforming "pro-Israel" into a wholly owned subsidiary of the "end-of-days" evangelical alt-right.
Cry, the beloved countries - both of them. https://t.co/JdUvvsiKoS— Daniel Seidemann (@DanielSeidemann) May 14, 2018
Jeffress is by no means the first recent prophet of the Rapture. Tele-evangelist Billy Graham embraced the idea. Megachurch founder Pat Robertson has made it central to his sect's appeal. And then there are the many talkback radio and YouTube preachers all vying to grow their followings.
There's also San Antonio megachurch televangelist John Hagee, a founder of Christians United for Israel and major supporter of the Jerusalem embassy move. He's a common sight at high-profile Republican Party events.
When Hurricane Katrina killed 1200 in New Orleans, he proclaimed: "New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they were recipients of the judgment of God for that."
He repeatedly asserts the Second Coming of Jesus Christ is imminent. And Israel is at the heart of it all. "I believe at this point in time, Israel is God's stopwatch for everything that happens to every nation, including America, from now until the Rapture of the church and beyond," he told CBN News.
And when Christ comes, Hagee says, Jews will see the error of their ways and believe: "They will weep as one weeps for his only son for a period of one week."
STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN
President Trump's pastor, Robert Jeffress, didn't hold back during his controversial blessing of the upgrade of the United States Consulate in Jerusalem to that of full embassy.
"Israel has blessed this world by pointing us to you, the one true God, through the message of her prophets, the Scriptures, and the Messiah."
There were uncomfortable glances from the assembled Israeli Jews and nervous grimaces from many international, multidenominational representatives. But most of the US citizens filling the surrounding stands cheered a boisterous"ay-men!" when he concluded the opening prayer with: "In the spirit of Jesus Our Lord. Amen."
Megachurch televangelist John Hagee made the ceremony's closing benediction: "The Messiah will come and establish a kingdom that will never end."
Both preachers praised Trump.
Jeffress said: "[The President] stands on the right side of you, God, when it comes to Israel."
Hagee said: "Let every Islamic terrorist hear this message: 'Israel lives.'"
Robert Jeffress says "you can't be saved by being a Jew" and "Mormonism is a heresy from the pit of hell". He's said the same about Islam. Such a religious bigot should not be giving the prayer that opens the United States Embassy in Jerusalem.— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) May 14, 2018
Their presence was symbolically potent.
That they were there at all is itself cause for controversy: The US has a constitutional separation of Church and State. The opening of the embassy was a civil event. But these two pastors were officially sanctioned to impose their own theology upon it.
The move of the US Embassy — and the acceptance it conferred upon Israel's claim over Jerusalem — has been a long time coming.
Congress voted to make the move in 1995. But successive Republican and Democrat Presidents have delayed the act. They feared its implications. It could lead to violence. It could further destabilise fractious Middle Eastern politics.
Now, it has.
But Jerusalem holds a very special place among believers in the Rapture. Israel is the nation at the hub of world history, they argue. Jerusalem is Israel's heart.
And the battle for the heart of Israel is the obvious ignition for Armageddon.
"Jerusalem has been the object of the affection of both Jews and Christians down through history and the touchstone of prophecy," Jeffress told CNN last year. "But, most importantly, God gave Jerusalem — and the rest of the Holy Land — to the Jewish people."
To Trump's evangelicals, the move to Jerusalem isn't about worldly politics. It's a move that will facilitate prophecy.
According to this world-view, the restoration of Jerusalem as the capital of a Jewish State is a key step towards the end of days. The Jews will get to demolish Islam's Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, and get to build the third incarnation of their sacred temple. (The first was destroyed by the Babylonians, and the second the Romans). This, in turn, will herald Armageddon.
The obsession of the United States with a rapturous apocalypse is deeply knit within its cultural identity. It was a core belief of the English Puritans who fled there in the 16th and 17th centuries. This has since evolved to become an integral part of the evangelical American tradition.
This theology believes God's creation has passed through the eras of "The Law" — between Moses receiving the 10 Tablets and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ — and "The Grace" — the rise and spread of the Christian Church. The final period — or dispensation — is at hand, they say. This will be the "Millennial Kingdom".
"Most evangelicals subscribe to a belief in premillennialism, the belief that the second coming of Christ will begin a 1000-year period where Christ will rule over a peaceful and prosperous Earth," doctor of religious history Neil Young told Newsweek. "Israel is a key part of this story, too, as Christians believe that events there are fundamental to bringing about the end times.
Of all the possible theological dog-whistles to his evangelical base, this is the biggest. Trump is reminding them that he is carrying out God's will to these Last Days.— Diana Butler Bass (@dianabutlerbass) December 6, 2017
"At this point, Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is the only concrete thing that his evangelical supporters can point to as part of fulfilling biblical prophecy to bring about the second coming of Christ."
Precisely how many American evangelicals believe in a version of this vision is uncertain, with polls returning figures ranging from between 48 per cent and 65 per cent. Those classifying themselves as evangelicals make up about 35 per cent of the US electorate.
But this philosophy of supporting Israel brings evangelicals into direct conflict with the Middle East's own Christians — mostly Arab Palestinians — and many other international church groups and their leaders, including Pope Francis.
He swaggers with bravado. He rarely goes to church. He's been married three times. He's embroiled in sex and collusion scandals. He runs casino money tables. He's also keen to remind everyone that he's "somebody that has had material success and knows tremendous numbers of people with great material success — the most material success".
He's even previously declared that he's never asked God for forgiveness.
But that doesn't bother Trump's evangelical backers. Some 81 per cent of those who identify themselves as Christian Evangelicals voted for him.
God can use the unlikeliest of men to enact his will, they argue.
They see Trump as the instrument of God's will. His personal morals and behaviour has nothing to do with it, just so long as he enacts what they see as God's will.
"For his evangelical supporters, there's a sense that Trump's unlikely election to the presidency proves that he has been chosen by God," Young told Newsweek. "He shouldn't have won the election, so the thinking goes, so the fact that he did — and that victory came only via the Electoral College, no less — just demonstrates that only God could make it happen."
The President also has precedent, they believe.
According to the Old Testament, the founder of the original Israel, King David, was an adulterer and murderer. Yet God made him king, and declared him to be "a man after my own heart".
Trump's priest Jeffress has an even more portentous parallel. He paints the controversial President's reign as similar to that of the biblical King Cyrus.
The Old Testament book of Isaiah describes Cyrus as the King of Persia and, as such, one of Israel's greatest enemies. But he was chosen by God to do his work — conquering Babylon and freeing the Jewish people.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of Trump's most vocal international supporters, also embraces the parallel: "We remember the proclamation of the great King Cyrus the Great — Persian King. Twenty-five hundred years ago, he proclaimed that the Jewish exiles in Babylon can come back and rebuild our temple in Jerusalem ... And we remember how a few weeks ago, President Donald J. Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Mr President, this will be remembered by our people throughout the ages."
Naturally many among Netanyahu's powerbase see the prophetic context of it all very differently. But they're happy to go along for the ride, so long as it suits their own agenda.
Many will hope this all ends up with the establishment of their Third Temple.
At least one Jewish Orthodox activist group believes so: The Mikdash Educational Center has produced a "temple coin" that superimposes an image of President Trump over one of King Cyrus.