George R. Plagenz

Mikhail Gorbachev is making things difficult for the believers in Bible prophecy.

How can the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize be passed off as the bad guy in an end-of-the-world scenario that calls for "Russia's hordes" to mount a massive military attack on Israel?

In the next chapter, the plot calls for the Western powers to annihilate Russia in a nuclear confrontation paving the way for Armageddon - the final great war of human history - that will usher in the millennium. Israel in the end will be saved by God.

This is all in the Bible, according to evangelicals such as Hal Lindsey, author of the best-selling Late Great Planet Earth. The enigmatic symbolism and imagery used by the Old Testament Prophets Daniel and Ezekiel and the writer of the Book of Revelation refers, say the evangelicals, to present-day world powers like Russia and China.

"Ezekiel was speaking of the final restoration of the Jews to Palestine in 1948," writes Lindsey, "When he said, 'For I will take you from among the nations and gather you out of all countries and bring you unto your own land."

And, says Lindsey's book, when Ezekiel spoke of great northern armies invading Israel after the restoration, he meant the Soviet Union.

The scenario played well during the 40 years of the Cold War that pitted Communist Russia against the free world. But the downfall of Communism and the rise of Gorbachev as a champion of world peace (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) have thrown the evangelicals into confusion.

Any uprising in the Middle East is the cue for believers in Bible prophecy to say the world is approaching the "end time" referred to in the Bible. The doomsday cries are being heard again in the wake of the Persian Gulf crisis - except now the pieces don't fit together so neatly. Gorbachev has changed all that.

Can the evangelicals rewrite the script now with new names?

Even if they turn out to be right in their belief that the world's destruction is imminent, it would not necessarily follow that the Bible prophets foresaw a 20th century global cataclysm 2,500 years ago.

Most Bible scholars are sure the prophets were not speaking to us or to our day when they predicted coming events. They were referring to happenings that would take place in the near future - usually within the lifetime of their readers.

The scholars maintain that the book of Revelation was written to be a steadying influence on Christians suffering persecution in the 1st century.

Such repeated expressions as "what soon must take place" and "for the time is near" must stand as warnings, these scholars say, against applying the prophecies in Revelation to later centuries.

The prophecies of Ezekiel and Daniel, according to this view, were intended to bring hope to the Jews of that day who had been dispossessed of their land by foreign invaders.

One Bible scholar finds it "incredible to think the Jews" hopes would have been lifted by the assurance that 2,500 years later they would have their country back. It would be like comforting Americans in 1990, who are concerned over their country's loss of world prestige, with the promise that in the year 4490 the United States will again be pre-eminent in the world."

Among the evangelicals who are counting the hours and minutes until the end comes, you won't find the name of Billy Graham. In 1950, Graham told an audience, "We may have another year, maybe two years. Then I believe it is going to be all over."

The evangelist burned himself badly that time. He is more cautious today when he speaks of the last days. He says, "I do not know the hour, the month or the year. God alone knows. But what we see happening today may well be a preparation for God's intervention in human affairs when Jesus will come and set up a new social order." - Chattanooga, TN News Free Press