TEL MEGIDDO, Israel – Before getting into whether or not the battle of Armageddon will actually take place at this spot, the pastor has a question for participants in his group on this first day of sightseeing together: What brought them on this trip to the Holy Land?
William Ruggles, a young born-again Christian from New Jersey, raises his hand. “God commanded us to bless Israel, and God will bless those who bless Israel,” he says. “So I bless Israel, and you know, that’s why I’m here – to bless the Israeli people.” His response earns him a round of amens and a doting smile from the pastor.
It’s barely a week since U.S. Vice President Mike Pence paid his first state visit to Israel, where he professed his undying love for the Jewish people and the Jewish state. For many Israelis, it was a surprise there were leaders in the world who still felt this way about them. But had they tagged along with an evangelical group like this one, they might not have found it so strange. In fact, they would have realized that the vice president, a born-again Christian himself, was simply giving voice to what many of those who put him and his running mate Donald Trump in power believe.
About 40 individuals – ranging in age from late teens to early seventies – are participating in this eight-day tour of the Holy Land organized by Sar-El Tours & Conferences, a trip provider that specializes in the evangelical market. Led by David Whiting, a pastor from Houston, Texas, this group represents churches along the length of the East Coast, running from Massachusetts down to North Carolina.
In recent years, evangelicals have begun to account for a growing share of incoming tourism to Israel – 13 percent of the total in 2016, the last year for which figures are available. The tours they take focus almost exclusively on biblical hot spots, and most of the participants will never see highlights of modern Israel, such as the city of Tel Aviv.
Many of the participants in this pilgrimage tour are still groggy, having flown in the night before. To push them along, their Israeli guide Mickey Nikoleav resorts to some end-of-days humor. “Let’s head up there,” he says, pointing in the direction of an overlook, “and hopefully we’ll be raptured or left behind – whichever is better.”
Waiting for the rest of the group to catch up, Michael Buonaccorso retrieves a photo from his wallet to show a fellow traveler. It features Mike Pence standing next to a young U.S. naval officer. “That’s my son,” Buonaccorso says proudly. “He’s also met our president.” Now on his second trip to the Holy Land (“I just had to come back,” says Buonaccorso), he says he followed Pence’s visit to the region from back home in upstate New York. “I think it was a very positive step,” he says.
So does Whiting the pastor, who estimates that Israel is “definitely among the top five issues” that concern American evangelicals. Putting his theory to the test, he beckons other sightseers and asks whether they agree. Their hands go up in unison.
According to the Pew Research Center, more than 80 percent of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the last election and were instrumental in swaying the outcome in his favor. Initially, many had reservations about the often foul-mouthed, philandering candidate who didn’t quite exemplify their Christian values. But once Pence was announced as his running mate, the majority came around. Trump’s controversial decision in December to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is widely seen as payback for their support.
Based on a quick survey of this particular group, almost all the participants voted for Trump, and statements he made about Jerusalem and Israel during the campaign, they say, played a key a role in their decision.
“I believe we’ve got to support Israel,” says Sherman Ruggles, William’s father. “Does it make mistakes? Yes, all countries do. But I think our previous president was about as anti-Israel as you could be. I did not like the way he treated the Israeli prime minister. It was embarrassing.”
Some of the younger members of the group, however, say they’ve become disillusioned with Trump. Were it not for his strong support for Israel, they acknowledge, by now they would be having second thoughts about voting for him.
“As far as his position on Israel, I’m couldn’t be happier,” says Ben Phillips, who hails from upstate New York. “But I’m not happy about lots of other things.”
Jimmy Ford, from Lexington, Massachusetts, concurs. “The one reason I still don’t regret voting for him is that it’s nice to have someone pro-Israel in the White House.”
The group has by now gathered at the highest point on the hill, many participants carrying Bibles under their arms. Nikoleav proceeds to explain how Armageddon came to be associated with this ancient biblical city, which is located southeast of Haifa, in northern Israel, and is also of great historical and archaeological significance, dating back some 6,000 years.
“Armageddon is derived from the words ‘Har Megiddo’ – ‘har’ being the Hebrew word for ‘mountain,’” the guide notes.
From their vantage point above the Jezreel Valley – where many evangelicals believe the great end-of-days battle of Armageddon will be fought, heralding the second coming of Jesus – Nikoleav points out other sites of significance. “Can you see those mountains in the haze right in front of us?” he asks. “That’s the Galilee. To the west, a little bit of the Carmel, and that town in the haze out yonder – that’s Nazareth. You might have heard of that place.”
Whiting, the pastor, takes the opportunity to remind the group of their great fortune to be standing in this place. “Isn’t it amazing that the one whose name we claim as Christians grew up right over there?” he asks with genuine wonder. “Isn’t that just unbelievable?”
As if he were about to launch into a sermon, Whiting goes on: “He looked over to this city, even though it wasn’t inhabited at the time – and I wonder, did he come play on these rocks when he was a boy? ”
Ruth Dasilva, a 70 year-old from upstate New York, can hardly contain her excitement. “It just gives me goose bumps standing here where Jesus, my master and savior, walked,” she exclaims.
“How many of you,” the pastor wants to know, “would rank Megiddo in the top five places you want to visit in the Holy Land?”
He counts the hands as they go up.
“And why’s that?” he asks.
“Because this is where the final battle of Armaggedon is gonna take place,” one of the hand-raisers responds.
Just a few yards away, as if on cue, another American evangelical group launches into the chorus of “Battle Hymn of the Republic."
“Glory, Glory, hallelujah!” they sing.
Armaggedon is only mentioned once in the New Testament, in the following context (Revelation 16:16): “Then they gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armaggedon.”
Although the New Testament does not refer to a battle that will take place at the site, as Whiting explains, it’s there in the subtext. “This is definitely end-of-the-world stuff,” he says.
Not all evangelicals, he points out, believe the battle-to-end-all-battles will take place exactly here. Instead, they view Armageddon as a figurative, rather than literal, place. But what about him?
Whiting weighs his response carefully. “Is this going to be the place of a literal future battle?” he mulls the question. “My answer is maybe. When it comes to the Bible, there are many things I would stake my life on, but the location of this battle is not one of them.”
“I do tend to think this is literal, but I’m not sure,” he continues. “But here’s what I do know without apologies – there will definitely be a battle, here or somewhere else, and Jesus is definitely coming back. And when he comes back, he’ll make all things right.”
“Amen, amen,” his fellow sightseers call out in consent.
Whiting wants to know if there is anyone in the group who literally believes the battle of Armageddon will take place right here. Only one hand goes up. In a show of support for the lone voice, a woman standing nearby remarks: “Well, it has to be somewhere, so why not here?”
Born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa, Whiting served as a pastor in various congregations for more than 20 years before transitioning into an executive search consultant for evangelical churches. He has led numerous church groups on tours of the Holy Land. Whiting can’t help but wonder, he confides to the Jews tagging along, about how Israelis perceive evangelicals. “Are they grateful for all the assistance we provide this country?” he asks. “Are they mystified by us, or are they annoyed by our presence?”
His Jewish interlocutors explain that many Israelis are somewhat confused about how evangelicals could love them so passionately, on the one hand, while on the other, consider them worthy of annihilation if they don’t accept Jesus as the messiah at the end of times.
Whiting pauses to consider his response. “There is certainly no greater friend to the nation of Israel than evangelical Christians,” he says, “and yes, we don’t agree about who the messiah is. We recognize that fact. We evangelical Christians do want the people of Israel to embrace Jesus as their messiah, just like the people of Israel would like us to recognize, from their viewpoint, that he is not the messiah.”
But what if the people of Israel, his interlocutors persist, still refuse to accept Jesus in the era of Armageddon?
Whiting pauses to think this one through. “We believe that Jesus did come, he did rise again, and it is only those who believe in him who will be rescued and saved,” he says. “Yes, this may all seem a bit confusing, but the same group of evangelical Christians would also say that God has a future plan for Israel, even though that might not yet be recognized by the people of Israel.”
Concerned he may have caused even greater confusion with this response, Whiting tries to clarify his point before boarding the bus for the next stop on the tour.
“It seems like most nations in the world are not good friends to the nation of Israel,” he says, “but regardless of who our president is, it is important that the Jewish people know they will always have friends in evangelical Christians. We get that there’s something mystifying about us, but I hope this serves as encouragement.”