Not so long ago, we thought “Could you catch fire during surgery?” was a sensational, scare-mongering title for a television news segment.


And then we saw the following on-screen caption during Monday night’s Paula Zahn Now on CNN: “Developing Story: Is it The End?”


Who’d dare change the channel? (Then again, what are the chances — if it was, truly, “The End” — that Paula Zahn would have that scoop? Anderson Cooper, maybe …)


Zahn teased the related segment thusly: “Next in our ‘Top Story’ coverage, what does the Book of Revelation tell us about what’s happening right now in the Middle East? Are we really approaching the end of the world?”


It shouldn’t have been surprising, we suppose, that CNN convened an “expert panel” Monday night and devoted nearly fifteen minutes to exploring the alarming question of, “Is it The End?” (and seven minutes the next day to revisiting the topic, and seven minutes again Wednesday to re-revisiting it). It had, after all, been 48 long days since CNN last discussed the matter (on the demonic date of 6/6/06 when, to cite just one example, Glenn Beck and a guest discussed, “Could Iran Kick off the Apocalypse?” with Beck noting, “if we don’t hit [Iran], you know Israel will hit them … here we are on 6-6-06. How does this not end in Armageddon?”)


Zahn introduced her “End of the World?” segment Monday night by noting, “some Christians are convinced the latest explosive events in the Middle East fulfill a clear biblical prophecy, that Armageddon, the end of the world is on the way,” and invited viewers to “take a look at the Rapture Index on the World Wide Web” which “assigns numerical values to wars, earthquakes and disasters” and is currently “in the fasten-your-seatbelt category” at 156. “So are we really at the end of the world?” Zahn wondered. “We asked faith and values correspondent Delia Gallagher to do some checking.”


And how, pray tell, does one “check” to see if we’re “really at the end of the world?”


For her part Gallagher paid a visit to a Pentecostal church in Texas where, she reported, the pastor is “tell[ing] his congregation that their salvation is tied to events happening 6,000 miles away” (and on the pastor’s radio show, “the talk is of end time”). Gallagher also noticed that “well-known Reverend Jerry Falwell updated his Falwell Confidential column last week to say ‘it is apparent, in light of the rebirth of the state of Israel, that the present day events in the holy land may very well serve as a prelude or forerunner to the future battle of Armageddon and the glorious return of Jesus Christ.’” And yet, Gallagher also interviewed an Episcopalian clergyman who said, “There is a fiction being created here, like a Stephen King horror movie” and announced that reading the Book of Revelation as correlating “with present day events … is a crock.”


So is it or is it not “The End”? Some Pentecostals in Texas say yes. An Episcopalian priest in New York City says no. Rev. Falwell, an Evangelical, hints that maybe we’re witnessing “the forerunner to the future battle of Armageddon.” (Newsflash: Evangelical Christians, including many Pentecostals, tend to read the Bible literally. Episcopalians, not so much. Not that Gallagher bothered to spell that out for viewers. This report, it seems, was more about retaining viewers than educating them.)


Luckily, Zahn brought in “a panel of religious experts to debate just that, whether we’re covering the start of an even bigger story than we thought, is Armageddon really coming or is the literal interpretation a crock?” Except the “debate” never materialized, because not one of the panelists believed that the latest developments in the Middle East signal that the end is nigh. By the end of the “debate,” Zahn was joking with one of the “experts” (“So I assume you have plans above and beyond the next seven years?” — referring to the seven years of upheaval that some Christians believe will precede “The End”).


The joking continued Tuesday afternoon when Gallagher shared a variation on her report with Live From host Kyra Phillips. Phillips introduced the segment (screen caption, “Apocalypse Now?”) by noting that some people “figure that at least a couple of those four horsemen of the apocalypse are saddling up, as we speak” and wrapped the segment — joining Gallagher in a giggle — by promising “we’ll be monitoring” the online Rapture Index.


And the “Apocalypse Now?” caption survived to run another day — Wednesday, as Phillips interviewed two “apocalyptic novelists,” Jerry Jenkins, who co-authors the Left Behind series, and Joel Rosenberg, author of The Copper Scrolls. Phillips asked such questions as, “Joel, are we living in the last days? Let’s talk about the specific signs to watch. You have written about them. What does the bible say? Are we there?” and, “Joel, do I need to start taking care of unfinished business and telling people that I love them and I’m sorry for the evil things I’ve done?”


This week may be “All Apocalypse All the Time Week” on CNN, but it is not the first time — as we mentioned earlier — that the network has asked these sorts of questions. Some highlights:


Anderson Cooper, April, 2003: “Do recent events in Iraq foretell Armageddon? Some people actually think so. We’re going to talk to an expert on religion when we return.”


Wolf Blitzer, October 2005: “The religious rumblings began when Hurricane Katrina hit, and they’re growing louder after the earthquake in South Asia … Reverend Falwell … do you agree with the Reverend Pat Robertson that we may be at the end of days right now, that there may be some biblical explanation for what’s going on?” Falwell’s response? “Well, Wolf, most evangelicals that I know have believed for a long time that the coming of the Lord is imminent. But it is very wrong to set dates.”


Or, as Falwell told Harry Smith of CBS’ Early Show four days later in a segment titled, “Is God Mad at Us?”:


“Is it the end of the age? Only a fool would say that the Lord’s coming today. No man knows the day or the hour.”


No man, no woman — and, most of all, no television network.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.