April 20, 2010 -- It's one thing to read in the Bible about fire and brimstone, but it's another entirely to see it on TV.
In recent weeks we've been inundated by images that can only be described as apocalyptic. A volcano in Iceland isn't spewing metaphorical "fire and brimstone" but the real stuff, and the resulting cloud of ash has made air travel hellacious, stranding thousands of travelers in airport purgatory.
The volcano follows a spate of deadly earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, Mexico and most recently China. In each place, as the Bible would say, the "earth opened up its mouth and swallowed" people and buildings, leaving thousands dead.
Scientists say the number of earthquakes this year is no more than average, but since the tremors have hit highly-populated areas and been widely reported, there is a sense that something unusual is happening.
For some people, these events are not random, but acts of God, delivered as retribution for our sins.
The eruption of Eyjafjallajokull, the consequence of ancient tectonic plates rubbing on each other thousands of feet under the Earth's surface, has been explained in considerably less scientific terms by people from different faiths with differing agendas.
For many Christians, the images playing out on television bear an eerie resemblance to the events that precede the Apocalypse, the end of days predicted in the New Testament when man is judged and sinners punished.
"The very fact that these phenomena are increasing means something strange is happening. Volcanoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, ever terrorism, these things are frightening and are much like the things predicted to happen during the Apocalypse," said Tim LaHane, the evangelical minister and best-selling author of the "Left Behind" series of books.
Volcano, Earthquakes: End of Days?
Christianity is not the only religion that looks to the heavens to explain activity occurring deep underground. Muslims also have an apocalyptic tradition, and some believe the recent natural disasters are a result of divine retribution.
One Iranian cleric last week blamed the series of earthquakes on a rather earthly distraction – scantily clad women.
"Many women who do not dress modestly ... lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes," Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi, a senior cleric, told worshippers last Friday in Tehran, according to Salon.com.
In January, televangelist Pat Robertson took heat for blaming the earthquake that devastated Haiti on a "pact with the Devil" islanders made in the nineteenth century.
"They were under the heel of the French, you know Napoleon the third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said 'We will serve you if you will get us free from the prince.' True story. And so the devil said, 'Ok it's a deal.' And they kicked the French out. The Haitians revolted and got something themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another," Robertson said during a broadcast of his program. "The 700 Club."
2012 is Coming
Fear of a coming apocalypse has long been at the core of some of the world's great religions, but it's also been tool for cultists to lure new members with promises of salvation from the coming destruction.
Yisrayl "Buffalo Bill" Hawkins, the founder of the House of Yahweh religious sect, has been incorrectly predicting Doomsday for years. His group has a 44-acre compound outside Abilene, Texas. His most recent wrong prediction was in June 2008.
Some groups believe in a misinterpreted bit of Mayan archaeology, which they interpret to believe that the earth will come to an end in 2012.
With every slew of seemingly out-of-the-ordinary disasters come some who claim the pattern reveals signs of the coming Apocalypse. With each cycle people forget the calamities that befell the planet years or sometimes just before.
In 2008, a disastrous cyclone in Burma followed by a deadly earthquake in China and floods in the United States led people around the world to wonder if the end was nigh.
Iceland Volcano: Sign from Above?
"Only wild-eyed fundamentalists would think that recent weather phenomena have any theological significance," said John P. Meier, a New Testament scholar and professor at Notre Dame in Indiana told ABCNews.com. "The Earth has seen and will see much worse in recorded history."
While few people believe the End of Days is at hand because a few thousand travelers were stranded in Europe, many do believe that natural disasters are God's will.
"As you look at the Bible, God has used natural disasters as agents of judgment. Look at the Flood in the time of Noah," said evangelical minister Robert Jeffers of the First Baptist Church of Dallas. "Not all disasters are the result of divine retribution. But they are all the result of God's will. They all mean God wants us to take note of something."
There are other views. On Friday, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh blamed the volcano and consequent ash cloud on Barack Obama's health care plan.
"You know, a couple of days after the health care bill had been signed into law Obama ran around all over the country saying, 'Hey, you know, I'm looking around. The earth hadn't opened up. No Armageddon out there. The birds are still chirping.' I think the earth has opened up. God may have replied," Limbaugh told his listeners. "This volcano in Iceland has grounded more airplanes — airspace is more affected — than even after 9/11 because of this plume, because of this ash cloud over Northern and Western Europe. ... It's got everybody just in a shutdown. Earth has opened up. I don't know whether it's a rebirth or Armageddon."