In the days since Rev. Jerry Falwell died, much has been written about his influence on politics, but relatively little has been written about his hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia—that is, his "fear of the number 666," a number the Book of Revelation calls "the mark of the beast."
Falwell was one of a small but influential group of ministers who believe that the end times are upon us, and that prophecies in Revelation are being fulfilled today. He said that the Antichrist was likely a Jew already living in Israel, and he predicted that Jesus would probably return in the next 10 years. He predicted that the United Nations would become the basis for one-world government, and he said that God was creating a cashless society so that during the Tribulation, only those with the "mark of the beast" would be allowed to buy or sell things.
Falwell was a close ally of Rev. Tim LaHaye, who is best known as the co-author of "The Left Behind" series, which has sold 70 million books worldwide. LaHaye was a graduate of Bob Jones University who invented the strange mix of politics and religion that have come to dominate the Republican Party. It was LaHaye who prodded Falwell to form the Moral Majority, where he served as one of three founding directors, and LaHaye's Californians for Biblical Morality was instrumental in winning California for Ronald Reagan in 1980.
LaHaye fell from grace in the mid-'80s, when he was widely criticized for his close association with Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who spent 13 months in federal prison for tax evasion and conspiracy. (LaHaye is not the only one to associate with Moon, who has declared himself "Emperor of the Universe." Falwell took $2.5 million from Moon to bail out his university from financial trouble in 1994.)
Through the "Left Behind" series, LaHaye has restored his reputation and his fortune, so much so that he gave $4.5 million to Falwell's university in 2001. The university, in turn, named its "School of Prophecy" after LaHaye, who went on to provide campaign advice to George W. Bush.
"Left Behind" is fiction, but it is fiction LaHaye takes seriously. Like Falwell, he thinks the end times are upon us, and that the survival of Christian civilization is threatened by a conspiracy between the Illuminati, the UN, network television, the NAACP, the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, among many others. He takes Revelation's "Babylon" literally, and believes that the Antichrist will lead Iraq and the other Muslim nations in a war against Israel that will bring on the apocalypse.
His account is similar to the one provided by Rev. John Hagee, who served with Falwell on the executive board of Christians United for Israel. Hagee, who pays himself more than $1 million as director of John Hagee Ministries, has long declared that we are in the end times, and he has argued that support for Israel is "God's foreign policy." His series of end-times books, including "From Daniel to Doomsday," "God's Two-Minute Warning" and "Jerusalem Countdown" map biblical prophecy onto contemporary events. In the latter, Hagee writes that the Third World War has already begun. He believes that Russia and the "Islamic nations" will serve the Antichrist in a war on Israel, and he has been a vocal proponent of pre-emptive air strikes against Iran to hasten the rapture.
In 2005, Seymour Hersh wrote in the New Yorker that special forces troops under the command of Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin had already begun covert missions into Iran to identify targets for air strikes.
Boykin came to public notice in 2003, when he declared that God had chosen Bush to be president to fight our real enemy in the global war on terror. This enemy was not Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Il, but rather "a guy named Satan."
As commander of U.S. forces in Somalia in 1993 during the "Blackhawk down" incident, Boykin described the country as having a "demonic presence" because it had "rejected God."
Boykin spent time with the CIA and was the commanding general of special forces when the Iraq War began. He was allegedly the officer who ordered the general in charge of Abu Ghraib to use interrogation methods the CIA had developed at Guantanamo, with infamous results.
"Satan wants to destroy this nation," Boykin has told church congregations. "He wants to destroy us as a nation, and he wants to destroy us as a Christian army."
Falwell shared Boykin's belief that "God is Pro-war," as Falwell titled a 2004 article explaining our Christian duty to support the war in Iraq. The article is weighted down with scripture from the Old Testament, when God sometimes urged the Israelites to war.
Nowhere does he quote Matthew, when Jesus repudiates the old law: "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also."
His argument, instead, sidesteps what Jesus said in the Gospels and relies heavily on the Book of Revelation: "Many present-day pacifists hold Jesus as their example for unvarying peace. But they ignore the full revelation concerning Jesus pictured in the book of Revelation 19, where he is depicted bearing a 'sharp sword' and smiting nations, ruling them with 'a rod of iron.'"
I know that the same message is coming from pulpits here in Mississippi. I have heard Mississippians describe how contemporary events signal the arrival of the end times. I have heard a minister thunder on local radio about the new Muslim invasion of Europe—which is how he characterized immigration—and how "the fall of Christian Europe" heralds the apocalypse.
The Book of Revelation has always been controversial, and there were several efforts in early Christianity to exclude it from the Bible. Today, the Catholic Church and most protestant denominations caution their followers not to speculate about the book, and it is the only book of the New Testament that Eastern Orthodox priests never read in public. Most Christian scholars believe that Revelation describes events from long ago, when the Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple, and many believe that the "mark of the beast" refers to Emperor Nero, who started the first real purge of Christians when he scapegoated them for a fire that devastated Rome.
But the Book of Revelation, the Greek title of which is "The Apocalypse of John," is so important to men like Falwell because it provides them a means to indulge in dark fantasies of revenge against all the sinners who have doubted them. Revelation allows those men to imagine that Jesus will repudiate his message of peace and return as the vengeful deity in the Old Testament, cloaked in blood and fire. In other words, it allows them to ignore what Jesus actually said.
For men like Falwell, it is almost as if Revelation blots out the central symbol of Christian faith: the cross. The cross symbolizes mercy and forgiveness, not vengeance and apocalypse.
Jesus could have embraced John the Baptist, who preached that a heavenly apocalypse would destroy the Romans, but he did not.
When Jesus was on the cross, he could have called down the heavenly multitude to slay the Romans, but he taught precisely the opposite lesson. That is the mystery at the heart of Christian faith.
Revelation must never become an excuse for skipping over the lessons Jesus taught. The Romans were evil on a scale that dwarfs al Qaeda, but rather than strike them down, Jesus used their violence to transform our understanding of God. Using Revelation to argue that Jesus supports pre-emptive air strikes on western Iran is farcical, and fantasizing about the torments those "left behind" will suffer is un-Christian. As we struggle with an uncertain world of sudden violence and religious intolerance, we must not let visions of the apocalypse tempt us into celebrating violence and death. We must not turn the Prince of Peace into a God of War.
If anyone wants to have a discussion about Jesus and the end times, hop on board the hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia train. In the old days, Kingfish would be on here stirring up trouble and Tom would mildly criticize my inadequate account of exegesis on Revelation, but I know there's gotta be plenty of other folks interested in the topic.
- Brian C Johnson
You know, I don't understand some of these ministers. There is a scripture, from what book of the Bible, I don't know; but, it goes like this: "No man knows the time or the hour......" It seems that a lot of these folks use Revelation to explain away how rotten and wrong certain behaviors are.
There is still another verse that goes: "Thou Shall NOT KILL." Unless missed in the translations, there was not an addendum that read unless they piss you off or you want/need their land/oil.
Great article Brian C. Johnson!
I think I remember Boykin showing a picture he had taken during his "black hawk down" days of cloud cover in the horizon that he said demonstrated "demonic presence". This guy is a nutjob. Although, I do enjoy reading about him.
I know this was a fun article to write, Brian. Good job. Enjoyed it immensely. I shouldn't have stopped my "Reason to hate Falwell Today" blog entries...but, you know, de mortuis nil nisi bonum...
Oh Screw it....Falwell was an old fart who was mean and spent most of his life hating other people.
- Lori G
Thanks jess and Lori. Falwell addresses your admonishment not to kill in his article "God is Pro-war," where he writes:
Finally, some reading this column will surely ask, "Doesn't the sixth commandment say, 'Thou shalt not kill?'"
Actually, no; it says: "Thou shalt not commit murder."
There is a difference between killing and murdering. In fact, many times God commanded capital punishment for those who break the law.
Here is a sample of his Old Testament argument:
Moreover, the Song of Victory in Exodus 15 hails God as a God of war: "… The Lord is a man of war: the Lord is his name." And, as the verses that open this column indicate, there is indeed a time for war.
God actually strengthened individuals for war, including Moses, Joshua and many of the Old Testament judges who demonstrated great faith in battle. And God destroyed many armies challenging the Israelites. I Chronicles 14:15 describes God striking down the Philistines.
God even gives counsel to be wise in war. Proverbs 20:18: "Every purpose is established by counsel: and with good advice make war."
- Brian C Johnson
Falwell shared Boykin’s belief that “God is Pro-war,” as Falwell titled a 2004 article explaining our Christian duty to support the war in Iraq. The article is weighted down with scripture from the Old Testament, when God sometimes urged the Israelites to war.
That's part of the problem. The New Testament does say that all scripture is profitable for doctrine, but I don't think taking things out of context was included. From my understanding, the importance of the Old Testament being included in the Bible was to point out prophecies of the coming of the Messiah and to compare the dispensation of law with the dispensation of grace (e.g. no longer having to give animal sacrifices since Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice, circumcision no longer mandatory, etc.). It's about knowing where you came from to know where you're going, not using the Word to throw your weight around.