The Rev. Jerry Falwell may be good friends with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but he also believes that an apocalyptic whirlwind is about to descend on the world — and that the ultimate villain in these events will be a Jew.
He also believes the Jewish state he supports will be taken over, lock, stock and Temple, by Jesus Christ, who will then reign from Jerusalem.
Rev. Falwell, the founder of the Moral Majority, chancellor of Liberty University and a leading Bibi booster, rocked the Jewish world last week when he laid out his “last days” theology at a pastors’ conference in Kingsport, Tenn.
He expressed the view, controversial in Evangelical circles, that the antichrist — an almost superhuman villain who will deceive the world before the
ultimate redemption of mankind — may be alive today, and that he must be a Jew.
Rev. Falwell told The Jewish Week in an exclusive interview that there is nothing anti-Semitic in that theology, but he conceded that it could be misunderstood by some Christians and Jews.
“I can certainly understand that someone who is not knowledgeable about Evangelical theology might misinterpret what we believe about the antichrist,” said Rev. Falwell, who maintains that he does not know who the antichrist is — but that he must be Jewish because Christ was a Jew.
Rev. Falwell vigorously denied that his assertion would spawn anti-Semitism.
Jewish leaders were not reassured by his explanation.
“None of that gives me solace,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “The whole concept — that evil is Jewish — is fraught with anti-Semitic ideas.”
The antichrist, he said, is an ultimate symbol of evil in the world. By positing this prophetic figure as a Jew, he said, Rev. Falwell is reinforcing a host of age-old anti-Semitic canards.
Rev. Falwell laid out a prophetic timeline whose details are hotly debated in the Christian world, although many core concepts, including the torment of the Jews and their ultimate conversion to Christianity, are almost universally accepted.
“The antichrist will appear during what we call the ‘Tribulation Period,’ ” he said. “The Christian church will no longer be on the earth at that time, having been raptured out at the beginning of the tribulation. The antichrist will wage war against Jews and others on the earth at that time, not Christians. Therefore, no Evangelical feels the antichrist or any Jewish influence to be in any way hostile to our faith or to our goals.”
He added that the antichrist “will present himself to be Christ. He will perform miracles; he will assume authority and ultimately deceive and hurt. And at the end of the Tribulation Period, Christ will come. At the Battle of Armageddon, he will destroy the antichrist and his forces, simultaneously establishing the 1,000-year reign of Christ on earth.”
So what happens to the Jews, and to the Jewish state Rev. Falwell has been out front in supporting?
“It is our conviction that the Jewish nation will be converted in totality, that they will oppose the antichrist and enter the kingdom of Christ,” he said. “The Jewish nation will be established for eternity — and Christ will reign from Jerusalem.”
He termed that belief “orthodox Christian theology,” and said that the fact that the antichrist will wage war against the Jews proves that the concept of this ultimate villain is not anti-Semitic.
Foxman said that mainstream Christian leaders have made great strides in understanding Jewish concerns about the literal interpretation of passages in the Christian Bible that have traditionally fueled anti-Semitism. But he warned that that progress could come undone as the new millennium approaches and apocalyptic expectations intensify.
“When the Christian world begins celebrating the birth of Christ, what’s surfacing with it is a lot of the ugliness that accompanied the growth of Christianity for 2,000 years,” the ADL leader said. “Falwell’s comments remind us that we haven’t made as much progress in sensitizing Christian leaders as we thought.”
In Israel, officials who once encouraged a tidal wave of millennial visitors now worry that some may be bent on mass suicide or on inciting Jewish-Palestinian violence to nudge the apocalypse along.
In this country, the soaring interest in millennial theology and the growing focus on the role of the Jews has sparked worries of a new wave of anti-Semitism.
“Millennial madness makes this a real problem for American Jews,” said Rabbi James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee.
“For many Jews, these prophecies are meaningless, but as we get closer to the millennium, millions and millions of our neighbors will take this very seriously. For someone of Falwell’s influence to identify the antichrist is very disturbing. It plays into latent anti-Semitism and the idea that Jews are the personification of evil. It’s radioactive — it’s very dangerous material.”
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews and a leading advocate of Jewish-Evangelical dialogue, said that Rev. Falwell’s intent was not anti-Semitic, but worried that his pronouncement “can have a very serious detrimental impact on Jews in the light of the history of such concepts.”
Rabbi Eckstein rejected Rev. Falwell’s contention that the view that the antichrist must be a Jew reflects orthodox Christian theology.
“The concept is not a theological necessity,” he said. “Lots of people thought Hitler was the antichrist, or [former Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev. So the view that it must be a Jew is not widely agreed on. If it was, we’d have a much more difficult situation.”
Rev. Falwell’s stature and his worldwide audience, Rabbi Eckstein said, mean that his comments could have an impact on millions of Christians who expect dramatic events in 11 months.
“He is a leader, and he can shape opinions,” he said. “That kind of view could have a dangerous impact on Jews and Israel as the year 2000 draws closer.”
Rev. Falwell, for his part, said he will be more cautious in the future when he speaks about what Evangelicals call the “Last Days.”
“I suppose the Achilles heel in all this is the apparent wrong assumption that this doctrine is understood in the Jewish community,” he said. “To me, this has been a caution that when we preach on eschatological matters, we must always fill in the blanks and explain what we mean.”