Millions of American Christians believe that Jesus will return to Jerusalem during the millennium, and the Apocalypse will be upon the world. But what if that doesn’t happen? Will those disappointed believers react violently against Jews, who play a pivotal role in their cosmic story?
One of the nation’s leading experts on the millennium warned that Jews around the world, and particularly in Israel, must take action now to prevent a backlash by Christian apocalyptists.
"The implications for Israel are very serious here," declared Richard Landes, director for the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University.
"We have fundamentalists who are very favorable to Israel who will also talk about the fact that in the [prophetic] battle of Armageddon, two-thirds of the Jews will be destroyed, and it will make the Holocaust look like a picnic.
"Now obviously that’s not the kind of stuff they say directly to Jews most of the time, but all you have to do is read their books to understand this."
Landes was one of several experts speaking last week at a daylong conference on the potential impact of the second millennium on world Jewry sponsored by the New York Jewish Community Relations Council and its Task Force on Missionaries and Cults.
The panel included cult experts, a psychologist, a Judaic studies professor and perhaps most fascinating, a Christian evangelist from Philadelphia who declared his love for the Jews while demanding their conversion.
In truth, Jewish beliefs are at the source of all this millennium mania, said Lawrence Schiffman, a Judaic studies professor at New York University.
"As Jews we have to admit we helped to create this thing," he said, referring to the messianic motif found in the Hebrew Bible’s book of Daniel.
Jews developed two messianic options during the Second Temple period, Schiffman said: A naturalistic one, where a utopian world is created by man, and a catastrophic "Day of the Lord" in which a bloody war destroys everyone but the righteous.
"When Jesus failed to bring about what the messiah is supposed to bring about in Jewish tradition, those first century ‘Jews for Jesus’ developed an alternative theory of a second coming of Jesus, and this became tied with millennialism." Christians then built on the Jewish model of a great conflagration.
Landes, a professor of medieval history, described a very real danger from a small band of Christians zealots who travel to Jerusalem believing it is their responsibility to trigger the destruction prophesied in the New Testament’s enigmatic and violent Book of Revelations.
These fanatics, who he said are a minority of the millions of Christian pilgrims expected in Israel during the next two years, consider it their holy obligation to start a bloody world war, perhaps by blowing up the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, thereby pitting Muslims against Jews and Christians.
"It is a politically explosive issue," Landes explained.
"If you want to force the end, building the [Jewish] Temple is a great way to go about doing it. And of course if it leads to a mega-war, well that’s part of the apocalyptic scenario."
Landes described most of the millions of Christian pilgrims as "basically very good people going [to Jerusalem] for a profound religious experience."
But he warned of a hard-core of tens of thousands apocalyptic pilgrims who are capable of forcing the end. "This is problematic stuff."
Psychologist Herbert Nieburg advised that people who have a hard time dealing with adversity may be most troublesome. Most religious zealots may just go home and start their lives again, after experiencing a "brief reactive psychosis."
But Arnold Markowitz, director of the Cult Hotline of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services said he feared mass violence from cults whose leaders become despondent over the failure of Jesus’ reappearance.
"I think that’s the danger we’re facing with the coming millennium," he said. Landes warned that American Jews and Israeli leaders may be lulled into a false sense of security by the fervent pro-Zionist political and financial support of American Christian fundamentalists. He said behind the flowery words and piles of cash lies a deep-seated theology that ultimately spells trouble for Jews.
"Very often through history, Christians who expect the imminent end of the world become philo-Judaic," he said. One reason is they are attracted to Judaism’s "far more" egalitarian social structure. But these apocalyptic Christians are convinced that Jews will convert to their new, improved version of Christianity. So, "they will initially be favorable to the Jews."
Add to this mix recent events. In 1948, when Jews returned to their own homeland for the first time in 2000 years, the fundamentalists grew excited.
The scenario seemed to fulfill the biblical prophecy of the ingathering of Jews, ushering in "probably the most philo-Judaic moment in the history of Christianity," said Landes.
Furthering their expectations are such news items as the potential worldwide computer failure in 2000 called Y2K.
But Landes said this sets up false expectations for the Christians.
"There are two problems here. The Jews aren’t going to convert, certainly not in the numbers that make the Christians feel they have accomplished something."
The second involves the Christian figure of the antichrist, a sinful, devil-like being recently described by Evangelist Rev. Jerry Fallwell as being an adult male Jew currently living on the planet.
Landes warned that in past episodes of apocalyptic expectations, Christians determined that those Jews who refused to convert must be minions of the antichrist, "and therefore must be destroyed." As an example, he cited pogroms against Jews following the year 1000.
Landes said today, the difference is "that this time some are saying they don’t want to convert the Jews. My response is, now let’s see you prove it."
The proof will be how such Christian groups not only deal with its own members who proselytize, but also "how they interact with Christian groups who do want to convert Jews."
Landes said Jews are making a mistake to "bask in the warmth" of Christian love for Jews. Rather, Jews should "press for some really hard discussions about the relationship of Judaism to Christianity."