No religious idea has greater potential for shaping global politics in profoundly negative ways than "the new world order," an old idea that has gained fresh currency in the midst of the revolutions in the Middle East.
Its proponents have argued for years that the new world order would bring about a tyrannical, one-world government, crushing freedom, democracy and Christianity throughout the globe.
Over the years, Christians have imagined that the ruler of the new world order would be the anti-Christ, the man of sin, or the beast that conquers the saints in the biblical text of Revelation.
The burning question, of course, was this: to whom do these images point? Who is this anti-Christ who would crush the righteous, exalt the wicked and rule over the earth?
Over the centuries, believers have identified countless political figures as the anti-Christ or the beast. Fifty years ago, many thought the anti-Christ was embodied in the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc of nations with its designs on the rest of the earth.
But today, especially in the aftermath of Sept. 11, many agree that the anti-Christ points to the Islamic faith. The president of the National Association of Evangelicals, for example, reported as early as 2003 that for many conservative Christians, "Muslims have become the modern-day equivalent of the Evil Empire."
And now, in the midst of the revolutions sweeping across the Middle East, pundits and preachers alike find in those revolutions a grand Islamic conspiracy to subdue the west, trash the Jewish and Christian religions and rule the world.
And millions of Americans lap up every word.
No one presents the case for the new world order more forcefully than Fox News commentator Glenn Back. When the Egyptian Revolution was at its height, Beck flatly observed, "You are watching the beginning of a new world order."
Millions of Muslims throughout the world would find this brand of logic insane. Islam for them promotes peace and mutual understanding. Moreover, the revolutions in the Middle East seek to exalt freedom and democracy, not a tyrannical one-world government.
The New World Order and the Christian Faith
But if the "new world order" rhetoric libels the Muslim faith, it libels the Christian faith as well. The truth is this: the "new world order," as defined by people like Glenn Beck, has no basis in the Bible whatsoever. In fact, this idea is not only unbiblical; it is anti-biblical and fundamentally anti-Christian.
There is only one phrase in the New Testament that is even remotely analogous to the kind of "new world order" about which pundits and preachers regularly warn, and that is a phrase that appears in Revelation 21:1: "new heaven and new earth."
But when we examine what that phrase might mean, we quickly discover a meaning exactly opposite of the "new world order" so loudly proclaimed today.
For in that "new heaven and new earth," according to the text, God "will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away" (Rev. 21:4).
A cursory reading of that text suggests that while Glenn Beck's "new world order" inspires fear, panic and despair in the face of the approaching one-world government, the "new heaven and new earth" is something quite different -- an entirely new order that brings hope, peace and comfort in a world without "mourning nor crying nor pain."
So what's going on in the biblical text?
Just this: the author of the book of Revelation -- the book in which the reference to a "new heaven and new earth" appears -- wrote near the end of the first century when Christians suffered torture and persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire. And he wrote this book for one reason only: to counsel Christians to hold fast to their faith, even in the face of the most vicious persecutions.
Chapter 20, verse 4, for example, speaks of "those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus, [who] had not worshiped the beast [read: empire or emperor] or its image."
In the face of those persecutions, chapter 2, verse 10 beautifully summarizes the point of this book: "Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life."
The text continues: God "will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain" in this "new heaven and new earth."
Further, the comforting message of the book of Revelation is consistent with the comforting message of the entire New Testament text. For in that larger text, Jesus proclaims a coming "kingdom of God" that brings justice to the oppressed, food for the hungry, clothing for the naked and comfort to those who mourn.
That kingdom is hardly the threatening "new world order" of which Glenn Beck likes to speak. It is a kingdom, instead, that will turn the conventional political order, whether in ancient Rome or modern America, entirely upside down.
If the kingdoms of this world exalt the rich, the kingdom of God will exalt the poor.
If the kingdoms of this world bring oppression and injustice to the masses, the kingdom of God will bring comfort and solace.
If the kingdoms of this world unjustly imprison their political opponents, the kingdom of God will free them.
And if earthly kingdoms seek to control the world by brandishing the sword, the kingdom of God will bring peace to the world through the power of self-giving love.
These are the promises we must keep in mind if we hope to understand the biblical language that speaks of "a new heaven and a new earth" in which mourning and crying and pain will finally cease.
The New World Order and the End of the World
But there is more. For those who speak most loudly of the coming "new world order" of tyranny and oppression routinely link the birth of that tyranny to the end of the world.
I recently listened, for example, to John Hagee, a prominent Christian pastor who routinely warns of the end of the world and the coming new world order.
Appearing on Glenn Beck's show, Hagee explained to a world-wide listening audience that "the Bible is very specific to the fact that we do live in the end of days."
He based this claim on "10 Bible signs."
But as it turns out, the Bible is hardly specific on this point. In fact, Hagee's "signs," in every instance, turn out to be based on conjecture, pairing obscure and isolated passages with current events in ways that strain the imagination.
But while Hagee and others like him routinely point to their convoluted "signs" that herald, they claim, the "end of days," they also ignore the only biblical teachings regarding the end of time that are impossible to misinterpret or misunderstand.
I have in mind, for example, Matthew, chapter 25, that speaks with precision and clarity of the standards by which all men and women will be measured at the final judgment at "the end of days."
Interestingly, those standards have nothing to do with theories regarding the end of the world or an imagined "new world order." They have everything to do instead with the kind of kingdom Jesus envisioned -- a kingdom that lifts up the fallen, that comforts the oppressed, that feeds the hungry and clothes the naked, and that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the poorest of the poor.
Thus, according to Matthew 25, "The King will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me.'"
And then to those on his left, the king will say, "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me." (Mt. 25:34-35, 41-43)
And when those who stand condemned ask Jesus when they failed to minister to him, he responds, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me."
The message is clear: Just as God will wipe our tears and ease our pain and comfort those who mourn in "the new heaven and the new earth," in the very same way he expects his followers in the here and now to wipe the tears of those who mourn, to ease the pain of those who suffer, and comfort those who are broken in body and in spirit.
This is the meaning of the end of the age and the meaning of the only "new world order" that the Bible knows anything about.
If Christians would spend more time living out this vision and less time speculating about when the end might come, the world would become a better place for us all.
And if Christians would spend more time promoting the values of "the new heaven and the new earth" and less time worrying about "the new world order," we just might help create the kind of world about which every person dreams.
The New World Order and Global Politics
We now must tend to the claim that we made in the beginning of this essay, namely, that no religious idea has greater potential for shaping global politics in profoundly negative ways than "the new world order."
As we have seen, the idea of a "new world order" is foreign to the Bible, but to the extent that it has a religious meaning, it has its roots in theories spun by an itinerant British preacher in the 19th century, John Nelson Darby (1800-1882).
Darby gave to the world something completely novel in Christian history: a complex and detailed vision of violent, cosmic battles that would destroy the world as we know it. And standing at the center of that vision was an international coalition driven by the tyrannical "Antichrist," a coalition later commentators would call the "new world order."
According to Darby, the Antichrist is a satanic figure who would tyrannize the world for seven years, unleashing his fury especially against the Jews and the state of Israel. Darby called that seven-year period "the Tribulation."
Finally, at the end of the seven years of Tribulation, the forces of Antichrist would gather from all corners of the world in one last attempt to destroy the Jewish people in the great, cataclysmic battle of Armageddon.
True Christians, however, would be spared the bloodshed and violence of both the Tribulation and the final battle of Armageddon since Jesus would "rapture" them -- that is, rescue them -- away from the earth to safer heavenly realms.
The noted journalist Bill Moyers has nicely summarized this vision: "Once Israel has occupied the rest of its 'biblical lands,' legions of the Antichrist will attack it, triggering a final showdown in the valley of Armageddon. As the Jews who have not been converted are burned, the Messiah will return for the Rapture. True believers will be transported to heaven where, seated at the right hand of God, they will watch their political and religious opponents writhe in the misery of plagues -- boils, sores, locusts and frogs -- during the several years of the tribulation that follows."
It is true that one can find in the biblical text several of the elements (the terms "Armageddon" and "tribulation," for example) that make up Darby's vision. But to connect those terms to the kind of scenario John Nelson Darby laid out in the 19th century -- and the end-times scenario that millions of American Christians embrace in the 21st century -- simply strains the imagination.
As we noted earlier, the crucial piece of this puzzle is the identity of the Antichrist, the tyrannical figure who both leads and inspires the new world order. And we noted as well that for many years, rapture theologians identified the Soviet Union as the Antichrist. But after Sept. 11, they became quite certain that the Antichrist was closely connected with the Arab world and the Muslim religion.
This means, quite simply, that for rapture theologians, Islam stands at the heart of the tyrannical "new world order."
Precisely here we discover why the idea of a "new world order" has such potential to move global politics in profoundly negative directions, for rapture theologians typically welcome war with the Islamic world. As Bill Moyers wrote of the rapture theologians, "A war with Islam in the Middle East is not something to be feared but welcomed -- an essential conflagration on the road to redemption."
Further, rapture theologians co-opt the United States as a tool in their cosmic vision -- a tool God will use to smite the Antichrist and the enemies of righteousness.
This is why Tim LaHaye, co-author of the best-selling series of end-times books, could lend such strong support to the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. By virtue of that war, LaHaye believed, Iraq would become "a focal point of end-times events."
Even more disturbing is the fact that rapture theologians blissfully open the door to nuclear holocaust.
Rapture theologians have always held that God will destroy his enemies at the end of time in the Great Battle of Armageddon. But since World War II, they have increasingly identified Armageddon with nuclear weaponry, thereby lending biblical inevitability to the prospects of nuclear annihilation.
As one prophecy writer put it, "The holocaust of atomic war would fulfill the prophecies."
In her major study, The Rapture Exposed, noted scholar Barbara Rossing compared rapture theology with the central teachings of the biblical text and concluded that "this theology is not biblical."
The truth is, rapture theology is not only unbiblical; it is anti-biblical. For rapture theologians focus on the hate and violence inspired by the "new world order," all the while ignoring the biblical vision of "a new heaven and a new earth" that brings not hate, but self-giving love; not oppression, but comfort; and not violence, but enduring peace.
But we can also measure rapture theology by the biblical vision of the kingdom of God.
According to the Bible, the kingdom of God exalts the poor at the expense of the rich. But rapture theology exalts only Christians -- and fundamental, born-again Christians at that -- at the expense of everyone else.
According to the Bible, the kingdom of God promises justice for the oppressed. But rapture theology promises greater oppression for those who don't conform to the prophetic timetable the rapture theologians have imposed on the biblical text.
According to the Bible, the kingdom of God resists imperial powers. But rapture theology exalts imperial powers as long as they conform to an imagined prophetic script.
And according to the Bible, the kingdom of God nurtures the paths of peace. But rapture theology celebrates apocalyptic violence.
If American Christians were committed to the biblical vision of "peace on earth, good will toward men," they could contribute immeasurably to the growth of world peace.
But in order for that to happen, they must first abandon their fascination with the "new world order" -- an idea that is alien to the biblical text -- and work instead on behalf of two ideas that are central to the biblical message: "the kingdom of God" and the final realization of that kingdom in "a new heaven and a new earth."
Richard T. Hughes is Distinguished Professor of Religion and Director of the Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies at Messiah College. Parts of this article are excerpted from his book, Christian America and the Kingdom of God (University of Illinois Press, 2009).