WASHINGTON -- A growing number of Christian and Jewish religious leaders are expressing concern over President Reagan's seeming embrace of 'Armageddon theology' -- a belief held by some fundamentalists that the Bible foretells nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
The leaders point to remarks by Reagan that date back to 1968 and suggest that his more recent labelling of the Soviet Union as an 'evil empire' is reflective of the president's theological belief.
Armageddon is the final battle between good and evil described in the New Testatment book of Revelation and signifies the end of the world.
'The possibility that President Reagan may personally believe that the end of the world is imminent raises a number of chilling questions about his ability to act rationally in a nuclear crisis,' says Andrew Lang of the Christic Institute, a nonprofit Christian-oriented research institute.
A number of Christian and Jewish leaders agree with Lang, including Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, evangelical author and pastor Jim Wallis, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the Rev. William Wipfler, director of the human rights office of the National Council of Churches.
Gumbleton has told reporters that 'Armageddon theology' sets forth 'dangerous religious ideas' because 'it justifies a nation like ours to use nuclear weapons.'
According to researchers at the Christic Institute, there is a growing body of documentation that Reagan believes the ideology.
They cite, for example, Reagan's comments in a 1983 interview with People magazine in which he said: 'Theologians had been studying the ancient prophecies -- what would portend the coming of Armageddon? -- and have said that never, in the time between the prophecies up until now, has there ever been a time in which so many of the prophecies are coming together.'
'There have been times in the past when people thought the end of the world was coming, and so forth, but never anything like this,' the president said.
In an interview with Tom Dine of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, reported in the Jerusalem Post, Reagan said the Bible prophecies on Armageddon might be coming true: 'You know, I turn my back to your ancient prophets in the Old Testament and the signs foretelling Armageddon, and I find myself wondering if -- if we're the generation that's going to see that come about. I don't know if you've noted any of those prophecies lately, but believe me, they certainly describe the times we're going through.'
The Rev. Jerry Falwell, head of the Moral Majority and Reagan's closest religious ally, has written a pamphlet, 'Nuclear War and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.'
In the pamphlet, he identified the Soviet Union with the biblical land of Magog, described in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, and predicts the Soviets will invade Israel, precipating the final nuclear confrontation 'to punish unbelievers' and to 'purge Israel' to make it 'fit for the Master's (Jesus) use.'
Falwell has also been quoted as saying that he believes 'we are part of that terminal generation, that last generation, that shall not pass until our Lord comes.'
Critics, like Lang and Gumbleton, say that while the religious right should be involved in political issues, 'the Bible belongs to everyone and using it to justify nuclear war means that others have the right to say 'no, thats not what we believe the Bible teaches.'
'The Moral Majority claims to speak for a majority of Americans,' Lang said, 'but that isn't true. Falwell and the other 'Armageddon theologians' don't even speak for all fundamentalists or evangelicals.'