Predictions that the end of the world is at hand have come and gone for centuries, and they've always had one thing in common. They've always been wrong.
Yet with the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, experts who monitor doomsday predictions say fresh apocalyptic scenarios are popping up with a new intensity.
''People who are obsessed with end times have never learned from history,'' said Hank Hanegraaff, president of the California-based Christian Research Institute, a conservative evangelical agency that monitors new religious movements.
''They've been 100 percent wrong, 100 percent of the time.''
Hal Lindsey, author of best-selling books on Bible prophecy, envisions more terrorist attacks, setting the stage for the collapse of America.
''The Battle of America has begun!'' Lindsey wrote in the minutes after the strikes on the World Trade Center. ''So be it!''
''I saw without any happiness at all the reality that it's begun,'' Lindsey said in a telephone interview from the Los Angeles area. ''The decline of the United States has begun.''
In San Antonio, Texas, evangelist John Hagee told his congregation, ''You can hear the Four Horsemen riding to Armageddon,'' referring to the harbingers of what many Christians believe is earth's final battle.
Paul Crouch of Trinity Broadcasting Network, a Christian media company, said the attack was the next stage in what Jesus described as ''the beginning of sorrows'' during the end times.
New York minister David Wilkerson said the attacks were a warning of a greater destruction he's already predicted, unless New York City repents.
The messages are extreme, but the audiences for them are in the mainstream, according to polls.
Forty percent of adults and 71 percent of evangelical Protestants, according to a 1999 Newsweek poll, believe the world will end in a battle at Armageddon between Christ and the Antichrist, an evil ruler on earth foretold in the Bible.
Uncertainty caused by catastrophe makes people anxious about tomorrow, said Lindsey, whose 20 books, including ''The Late Great Planet Earth,'' have sold tens of millions of copies.
''I think people see the events going on and they want an answer,'' he said. ''They want an idea where it's going.''
But critics say that people such as Lindsey haven't helped. Church historian Samuele Bacchiocchi, in his book ''Hal Lindsey's Prophetic Jigsaw Puzzle,'' details several of Lindsey's failed predictions. Among them: that Christ would return in 1988 during a colossal nuclear clash between the armies of Europe and Asia.
Still, Bacchiocchi has no doubt that tens of thousands will again heed Lindsey's interpretations of the Sept. 11 attacks.
''Despite the fact that he's been consistently wrong, there are people who believe it and will follow him,'' he said.
The apocalypse-minded aren't deterred by errant predictions, said Richard Landes, director of Boston University's Center for Millennial Studies.
''These people don't give up because they're disappointed,'' he said. ''They're just waiting for a new sign.''
Lindsey said his predictions about the end times will prove accurate in the long run.
''The things I said were said long before I was alive,'' Lindsey said.
The foundation for modern day prophetic interpretation, particularly in the camp known as Dispen-sationalism, is the establishment of Israel as a nation in 1948. Some believe Jesus foretold the event in the New Testament when he said his kingdom would come in the generation when a metaphorical fig tree sprouts leaves (Matthew 24:29-35) -- which some interpret to mean when Israel becomes a nation.
Interpreters debate the meaning and length of a ''generation,'' but writers like Lindsey use 1948 as the starting date and calculate Christ's return sometime in the early 21st century. That gives devastating, global events such as the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington tremendous significance, and leads to quick parallels with biblical texts.
In his remarks, Wilkerson compared New York City with Babylon, a financial center whose destruction is foretold in Revelation 18, 10-11: ''Woe! Woe, O great city, O Babylon, city of power! In one hour your doom has come! The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore.''
Lindsey believes the Old Testament book of Daniel, in Chapters 2 and 7, tells of the re-emergence of the Roman Empire in the earth's final days. That means Europe will become the center of global power, he said.
''It's not the United States,'' he said. ''It shows something has to happen. I think what happened (Sept. 11) was just the beginning.''
Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and many Protestant churches reject such end-times interpretations, saying Revelation and Daniel should not be read literally and citing Jesus' words that no one will know the day and hour of his return (Matthew 24:36).
''At some point, (end times forecasters) are going to be right, sure,'' Said Bob Weldrep of the Texas-based Watchman Fellowship, a Christian group that studies new religions and apocalyptic cults. ''We won't know until after it occurs.''
Hanegraaff thinks Christians who are obsessed with end times ultimately discredit the faith.
''It's what I call 'newspaper theology,' where you try to take passages in Scripture and you try to line them up with current events to pin the tale on the Antichrist,'' he said.
''Every time you make a prediction that doesn't come true, you're looking more and more ridiculous.''
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