The Devil and Jerry Falwell
Chatting with the late reverend about Judaism and the Antichrist.
The Rev. Jerry Falwell died Tuesday at age 73; he was pronounced dead shortly after he was found unresponsive in his office at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. Falwell's most enduring legacy is likely to be his role in turning evangelical Christianity into an important part of the political right. But many will also remember him for his curious claim that the Antichrist was a living, male Jew. In 1999, Jeffrey Goldberg—living, male, and Jewish—visited the reverend to ask whether he, Goldberg, might possibly be the Antichrist.
Early one shiny autumn morning, I got in my car and drove to Lynchburg, Va., in order to find out whether or not I am the Antichrist. You know: the Beast, the Worthless Shepherd, the Little Horn, the Abomination, the linchpin of the Diabolical Trinity. That Antichrist.
I had my suspicions. Nowhere on my body could I find the mark of the Beast—666—but I do have a freckle that's shaped like Bermuda. And though I have never been seized by a desire to lead the armies of Satan in a final, bloody confrontation with the forces of God on the plain of Armageddon, I do suffer from aggravated dyspepsia, as well as chronic malaise, conditions that I'm sure afflict the Antichrist.
The surest suspicion I had about my pivotal role in Christian eschatology grew from the fact that I am Jewish, male, and alive. These are the qualifications for the job of Antichrist as specified by Lynchburg's most famous preacher, Jerry Falwell, in a speech he made earlier this year.
I was actually going to see the Rev. Falwell on a different matter, the future of Jerusalem, but I thought I might just slip this question—the one about me maybe being the Antichrist—into the stream of the interview. Falwell, I guessed, wouldn't be happy to discuss his views on the identity of the Antichrist—he had apologized for the remark but took quite a load of grief for it anyway.
As it turned out, though, Falwell was eager to talk about the Antichrist. And, as it also turned out, he didn't really feel bad for saying what he said. In fact, he was more convinced than ever that the Antichrist is a Jew who walks among us.
Let me pause for a moment to give three concise reasons why I'm so curious about the identity of the Antichrist:
1) I think I speak for all the approximately 4.5 million adult male Jews in the world when I say that we get a little antsy when Christians start looking at us like we're the devil. This is on account of Christian behavior over the past 2,000 years, by which I mean blood libels and pogroms and inquisitions, those sorts of things.
2) I've always been possessed by the delusional notion that I am to play a major role in world history, so why not a role in the End of Days? And I don't mean the Schwarzenegger movie.
3) Now that we stand on the lip of the millennium, much of the evangelical Christian world is in the grip of Armageddon fever, and, according to the evangelical interpretation of the books of Daniel and Revelation, the Antichrist will make his appearance before Christ makes his, and his is looking kinda imminent. The Antichrist, in this reading, will be a world leader who strikes a peace deal with Israel, only to betray the Jewish state and make war on it, until Jesus comes to the rescue. The thankful Jews, those who are still alive, will then become Christians and live happily ever after. These beliefs, held by tens of millions of Christians are, journalistically speaking, worthy of note.
The day before my visit with the Rev. Falwell, I had just finished reading a novelistic treatment of these events, Assassins, which is subtitled Assignment: Jerusalem, Target: Antichrist. Assassins is the sixth book in the "Left Behind" series, "left behind" referring to those unfortunate nonevangelical Christians who are not taken up to heaven in the Rapture--the opening act in God's end days plan—and are forced to contend with the Antichrist's evil reign on Earth. The "Left Behind" series, co-written by Tim LaHaye, the prominent right-wing screwball and husband of Beverly LaHaye, the even more prominent right-wing screwball, and Jerry B. Jenkins, who, his biography states, is the author of 130 books, which is a lot of books for one guy to write, is a phenomenon. Ten million copies of the series have sold already—hundreds in my local PriceClub alone. "Left Behind" is the Harry Potter of the Armageddon set.
The notable thing for me about the "Left Behind" series—beside the fact that few in the secular media have noticed that millions of Americans are busy reading books warning about the imminence of one-world government, mass death, and the return of the Messiah, is that all the Jewish characters are Christian. LaHaye and Jenkins are both active participants in the absurd and feverish campaign by some evangelical Christians to redefine Judaism in a way that allows for belief in Jesus.
Jews (and again, I feel comfortable speaking for all of us here) find this sort of Christian imperialism just a wee bit offensive. Just imagine if Jews began an official campaign calling Muhammad irrelevant to Islam—can you imagine the fatwas that would produce?
But evangelical leaders, who are, in my experience, uniformly kind and generous in their personal relations, can also be terribly obnoxious in their relations with Jews.
There is only one road to salvation for Jews, and that road runs through Jesus, LaHaye told me. To his credit, though, LaHaye doesn't believe that the Antichrist will be Jewish. He will be a European gentile, who will kill lots of Jews. "The Jews will be forced to accept the idolatry of the Antichrist or be beheaded," he said. This will take place during the seven-year Tribulation.
Jewish suffering, though, is divinely ordained. Even though the Antichrist will not be Jewish, Jews are still capable of great evil and have often been punished for their evil, LaHaye explained. "Some of the greatest evil in the history of the world was concocted in the Jewish mind," LaHaye told me, for reasons that aren't entirely clear—he knew what the name "Goldberg" generally signifies. "Sigmund Freud, Marx, these were Jewish minds that were infected with atheism."
I asked LaHaye to tell me more about the Jewish mind.
"The Jewish brain also has the capacity for great good," he explained. "God gave the Jews great intelligence. He didn't give them great size or physical power--you don't see too many Jews in the NFL—but he gave them great minds."
Of all the evangelical leaders I have interviewed, LaHaye is capable of some of the most anti-Semitic utterances, which is troublesome, because he is also the most popular author in the evangelical world.
The Rev. Falwell is smoother than LaHaye. He acknowledges "where the sensitivity comes from," though he shows no understanding of the role the myth of the Antichrist played in the history of anti-Semitism, and he refuses to back away from his opinion that somewhere in Great Neck or West L.A. or Shaker Heights is living Satan's agent.
"In my opinion," he told me, "the Antichrist will be a counterfeit of the true Christ, which means that he will be male and Jewish, since Jesus was male and Jewish."
I asked him if he understood that such statements strip Jews of their humanity, which is the first step anti-Semites take before they kill them. He responded, "All the Jewish people we do business with on a daily basis, not one has ever got upset over this." It is not Jews who picked this most recent fight, he said, it is supporters of President Clinton.
"Billy Graham made the same statement a dozen times last year, but there was no comment about that," Falwell said. "But Billy Graham was not calling for the resignation of the president." Falwell, you'll recall, is no fan of Clinton's; he has even peddled a video accusing the president of murder.
Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for the Atlantic and the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.