It takes all kinds to contemplate the end of the world, those into “End Times” prophecies say.
Take Jacksonville’s Daniel Bauerkemper. He’s 36, an engineer, a Baptist and into a prophecy that God will whisk the faithful away (the rapture) before Satan is unleashed on the Earth (the tribulation).
“You would technically say I believe in a pre-trib rapture,” he said.
There are also “mid-trib” and “post-trib” Christians, Bauerkemper explains, as well as those “who believe we’re all currently in the tribulation.”
But guess what: Experts say fascination with things that have to do with the end is spreading beyond Christians or other religious groups.
“There’s no question that things like that have entered the popular arena,” said the Rev. William Swatos, a sociologist of religion and director of the Religious Research Association.
While prophetic beliefs are nothing new, scholars and polls say Americans have a growing appetite for cosmic drama.
And they have a lot on their plates to choose from. Mega-quakes like the one that struck Haiti, an increasingly defiant and nuclear-bent Iran, escalating military casualties in Afghanistan and environmental disasters like the Gulf oil spill are fostering glum attitudes.
Prognosticator and author John Hagee has a new book out in which he argues that those living today make up “the terminal generation.”
A recent Pew Research Center poll shows Americans see it that way, too: 72 percent anticipate a major world energy crisis; 58 percent see another world war as “definite or probably”; and 53 percent foresee the United States being attacked by terrorists with nuclear weapons – all by 2050.
The poll also found that 41 percent of Americans believe Jesus Christ will return to Earth by that time. Even one in five religiously unaffiliated Americans agreed. A 2004 Time/CNN poll found that 59 percent of Americans believe the prophecies in the Book of Revelation will come to pass.
But the advent of cable TV and the Internet has spread such theologies from traditional bastions in evangelical, charismatic and Pentecostal circles into pockets of denominations that historically eschewed them, Swatos said.
At the same time, a huge market has developed around the prophetic movement, most famously displayed in the best-selling “Left Behind” series of books in the 1990s.
It’s why more and more Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists and Presbyterians are espousing End Times beliefs. It’s also why the worries over the year 2012 – when some say the Mayan calendar predicts global cataclysm – has spread across New Age and secular culture.
“All of these things have been out there … but now they can be communicated so much more globally and so much more quickly,” Swatos said.
The content of that communication is also inspiring an increase in focus on prophecy, said Catherine Wessinger, a religion professor at Loyola University in New Orleans who writes about “millennialism” – the belief that Christ will create a reign of peace on Earth for 1,000 years.
A number of developments in the 20th century – two world wars, the atomic bomb and environmental catastrophes among them – helped fuel a growing interest in biblical predictions about the end of the world.
Perhaps the biggest change was the creation of Israel in 1948, which many in the movement considered a key predictor of Christ’s imminent return.
“Christians who take a literalistic reading of the Bible start looking at current events and interpret those prophesies in light of the things they see,” Wessinger said.
The Rev. Randy Carson is reading those events and sees clear signs the rapture and tribulation are nearing. He also said Christians needn’t worry about the end but should be aware of it to give their ministries a sense of urgency.
But Carson, pastor at First Baptist Church in Nahunta, Ga., said prophetic belief can quickly turn from a healthy awareness of the current age to a preoccupation that can instill fear and interfere with a healthy, balanced spiritual life.
“Even if we have an understanding we are in the last days, we are not given a complete time schedule because the father reserved it for himself,” Carson said.
Any beliefs and teachings on the issue should originate in a church setting so there’s accountability to biblical standards, he added.
“You better handle this subject delicately,” he said, “because it can cause people to lose sound thinking.”