How ancient beliefs are shaping the modern world
ROBERT SIBLEY concludes his series on the ‘apocalyptic era’ with a look at how religious prophecies affect today’s politics — and the dangers of dismissing them outright.
“Modern politics is a chapter in the history of religion.” — Philosopher John Gray
Nearly five centuries ago, in 1541, the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent was determined to protect his Islamic faith when he sealed off the Golden Gate on the eastern wall of Jerusalem’s Old City below Temple Mount. Officially, he did it for defensive reasons. But were there other motives for the sultan’s tactics?
So it seems. According to the Jewish prophetic tradition, the Golden Gate is the entrance through which the Messiah will enter Jerusalem when he arrives at the End of Days to lead Israel to dominion over the nations of the world and fulfils God’s promise to Abraham. The sultan was thinking apocalyptically: Seal the Golden Gate, prevent the Messiah from entering the city, and you make the prophecy impossible to fulfil.
But Suleiman also put a few more obstacles in the Messiah’s way.
After being informed that Jewish tradition doesn’t allow rabbis to enter cemeteries, the sultan ordered a Muslim-only graveyard to be built in front of the gate. That action was based on what he knew of another Jewish prophecy which says that the prophet Elijah will precede the Messiah and he, too, will enter Jerusalem through the Golden Gate. Thus, Suleiman thought he could kill two prophecies with one obstruction, scuttle the arrival of the End-Times (at least the Jewish version) and, thereby, keep Islam on top and the Jews down. (Never mind that Jewish priests can readily walk through graveyards filled with non-Jews.)
Not much has changed in Jerusalem in the last half-millennium, at least in terms of it remaining “the focal point of the apocalyptic scenarios of Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” as analyst Robert Leonhard observes in relating the anecdote about the sultan. The apocalyptic traditions of all three faiths claim that it is in Jerusalem where the End of Days will take place.
You might be tempted to dismiss these traditions, along with notions like apocalypse, Armageddon, revelation, tribulation and rapture, as nonsense, the scare-story fantasies of a less scientific, less enlightened, less rational age. The problem is that even in our supposedly rationalist era a lot of people — billions in fact — subscribe to apocalyptic scenarios of one sort or another. And that makes apocalyptic thinking a political concern. As Leonhard says: “The story of how these three systems of belief think about the end times and how those visions of apocalypse affect our world underlies much of what occurs in our world today.”
Indeed, much of the worst political turmoil in the world — from the upheavals of the Arab Spring and the endless crisis between Israel and the Palestinians to the war on terrorism and the establishment of Islamist enclaves in the cities of the West — has its origins in religious prophecies that in some cases go back thousands of years. Ancient beliefs about end-times saturate modern politics. In Leonhard’s words: “Believers and their views on prophecies indisputably affect our world.”
Consider some of the evidence. The American president, Barack Obama, says he won’t allow the Iranian theocrats to develop nuclear weapons. In figuring out how to do that you have to wonder whether the president has taken into account Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s claim to “communicate” with the 12th Hidden Imam, a 9th-century Shia cleric, Muhammad al-Mahdi, who, according to believers, is still alive and only waiting for a propitious moment to reveal himself. According to this Islamic tradition, when the Hidden Imam appears, that’s the beginning of the end-times. Those who subscribe to this belief, including Ahmadinejad, hold that in any nuclear war Allah will protect the Muslim faithful. Muslims, in the meantime, must prepare themselves for the apocalypse.
Jihadis certainly think this way, justifying their terrorism and killing — shooting Pakistani and Afghan girls on the way to school, for example — in terms of apocalyptic claims. “Not a few,” says Leonhard, “believe that their acts of aggression against infidels contribute to a sort of ‘jump-starting’ the end-times program.”
For many Muslims, Leonhard notes, the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 in which Israel rapidly destroyed the Arab armies arrayed against it marked the turn toward radicalism within Islam. In the aftermath of the Arab loss many Muslims looked to Islamic prophecy to explain what had happened, and to find a way to reverse the defeat, he says. “A generation of radicals ... (have) composed a seemingly endless stream of exciting, innovative, and compelling narratives about the end times. Most agree that the apocalypse is happening now or in the very near future.” In short, apocalypse has become a “hand-maiden of jihad.”
Indeed, some Muslim writers consider recent wars involving the West (a.k.a. the Byzantines) — the two world wars, the various Gulf Wars, the conflict in Bosnia, and, of course, the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan — as evidence of a vast Jewish conspiracy against Islam, and signs of the impending apocalyptic clash between the two.
“All of these wars were incited by the secret Jewish world government under the leadership of the Antichrist, with the aim of uprooting Islamic societies or even Islamic blocs of peoples in Europe so that they would not have an independent state,” says someone named B. Abdulla in a 2008 collection of Muslim apocalyptic writing. “Since the Kuwaiti war between the Byzantines and the Muslims was the first apocalyptic war, it was one of the signs.”
More recently, events in Syria, along with the Arab Spring and the resurgence of Muslim fundamentalism, are also seen as a sign of the endtimes. “There is huge constituency in the Muslim world that watches closely as events unravel in Syria and consider it to be a sign of the times,” says Hussein Shubokshi, a columnist writing in the panArab daily newspaper, Asharq Al-Awsat. He thinks the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation in the New Testament reveal the deeper dimensions of the downfall of Syria’s Assad regime. “The Doomsday scenario is upon us and in Syria it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
There are those who think similarly of the situation in Israel. As Leonhard points out, what Jews believe about the end-times influences both the domestic and international affairs of the state of Israel. When Israel adopts a hard line attitude on never sharing control of its Jerusalem, it reflects, in part at least, a prophetic tradition that goes back thousands of years to God’s promise to Abraham that Israel will be preeminent among nations and that the Messiah will rule with Jerusalem as His capital.
Every time Israel announces that it is building settlements in the disputed territories, there are inevitably angry responses from Palestinians who claim to have been dispossessed. European leaders, who tend toward silence when Hamas lobs missiles at Israeli citizens, chastise Israel for undermining the peace process. Perhaps, Leonhard observes, they aren’t aware that some Jewish groups see the settlements as hastening the Messiah’s arrival.
Leonhard sums up Israel’s seeming intransigence on the settlements (and many other issues, too) this way: “Problems in the Middle East that have seemed intractable for decades have roots in Jewish eschatology (or, doctrines of end-times). The questions about Jewish settlement in the occupied territories and the fate of Jerusalem hinge upon ancient prophecies and how various sects within Judaism interpret those prophecies.”
Christian eschatology, too, has found political expression in recent years. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, then-president George W. Bush sounded distinctly apocalyptical when he said “our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.” Bush continued this apocalyptic tone in his subsequent State of the Union Address: “Evil is real and it must be opposed.”
Bush had the support of Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals, Leonhard observes, many of whom support Israel’s claim to the ancient Jewish lands of Judea and Samaria — the biblical names of the land now commonly known as the West Bank. They, too, hope to hasten the Second Coming of Christ.
This type of apocalyptic expectation was expressed most famously in Hal Lindsey’s 1970 book The Late, Great Planet Earth, which has sold more than 35 million copies and been translated into more than 50 languages. What Lindsey did, historian Mervyn Bendle argues, was put together the “jigsaw puzzle” of prophetic signs that he thought showed clear evidence that we were in the midst of the end-times. These signs of apocalypse included, among other items, the founding of Israel, the rise of the Soviet Union, the establishment of the United Nations, the European Union and NATO, Israel’s victory against an Arab alliance and its annexation of Jerusalem in the Six Day War in 1967. Never mind the rise of New Age and occult beliefs in the 1960s, which are widely regarded as end-times signals.
“Lindsey came to predict horrendous battles involving hundreds of millions of troops, nuclear war and the death of a third of the world’s population,” says Bendle. He points out that this “politico-apocalyptic thinking” has been influential through figures such as former U.S. president Ronald Reagan — he was heard to remark in 1970 that “everything is in place for the battle of Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ” — as well as evangelicals like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, who wielded a lot of political clout through their extensive Christian organizations. (Robertson once forecast April 29, 2007, as the last day for planet earth.)
“In the postwar period, a key sign of the approach of the end times was believed to be the return of the Jews to Palestine and the founding of the state of Israel in 1948,” writes Bendle. “There have been innumerable other signs identified since, especially during the Cold War, but the situation in Israel remains central (for those) who believe that the great final battle of Armageddon will be fought in Israel. This expectation has been greatly heightened by the 9/11 attacks and the ‘War on Terror.’”
No wonder Leonhard concludes: “In considering the course of human history and the near-term and far-term future, it would be foolish to ignore the great prophetic writings out of a sense of intellectual arrogance, the more so when those visions of apocalypse are so deeply ingrained into the world-view of millions of people.”
That is doubtless the case. Still, the question remains: Why are so many tempted by apocalyptical visions?
Historian Paul Boyer suggests apocalyptical beliefs serve a deep human need for a sense of meaningfulness in the face of a seemingly overwhelming and often incoherent world. “Prophetic belief gives meaning to history. It gives an order and shape to human experience.”
More specifically, belief in apocalypse imposes some intelligibility on world-historical issues that otherwise often seem intractable and incomprehensible — the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians being an obvious example. Apocalypse, in other words, provides a structure of coherence to the events of our times. This structure, says Boyer, provides people with some reassurance that someone is in charge, that it is not all meaningless one-damn-thing-after-another chaos.
This need for things to make sense — even if what is believed is itself delusional — appears fundamental to human experience regardless of the historical era. As Boyer points out, most every period in history has its share of individuals who look at the world around them and conclude that their time is the end-time. “Each generation somehow has found circumstances that are convincing to them that the end times are upon us.”
That underlines the paradoxical nature of apocalyptic beliefs. Apocalypticism is a response to the experience of the world as without meaning or purpose. Yet, strangely enough, it asserts a belief in the intrinsic meaningfulness of history. History has a divinely ordered significance, according to the apocalyptic faithful, and this significance can be discerned through the proper interpretation of sacred books. In theory, a truthful understanding of the Bible, the Torah or the Qur’an reveals not only the pattern of past history, but the pattern of history to come. Of course, what is to come, awful as will be for some, is justice for the righteous. Thus, apocalypticism reflects a longing for a better and more meaningful world.
“The vision of the future that’s embedded in the apocalyptic world view is really a frightening one,” says Boyer. “But yet, combined with the fear, is a sense of meaning, and also the sense that as individuals we can escape the true terrors that lie ahead.”
This desire for history to be meaningful, more than one damn thing after another, highlights another dimension to the apocalyptic mindset — the need for wonder, for the world to be enchanted. This seems particularly relevant to our technological age. As anthropologists Kathleen Steward and Susan Harding observe: “A pervasive apocalyptic sensibility (can be) attributed to the state of unease that comes with the end of an era or a century, or with rapid social and cultural change. Its appeal is often attributed to the seductions of a coherent and comprehensive world view that is at once ordered and charged with drama and urgency.”
Science has taught us that the universe came from nothing and is going nowhere in particular. It is made up of matter with no particular purpose beyond its own existence. And humans are merely the inhabitants of a small obscure planet in an equally obscure solar system circling a ho-hum star on the margins of a galaxy that is one of billions of galaxies. We are insignificant except to ourselves.
This is a hard reality to bear, and humans, as the poet T.S. Eliot once remarked, can’t take too much reality. We need our illusions, including the illusion of our importance in the scheme of things. For all their catastrophic imaginings apocalyptic beliefs insert drama into our otherwise technologically-determined lives, attaching significance to our existence and, thereby, enchant us with a sense of our own importance.
The tragedy of human history is that we too often use our self-importance as a licence for violence against those who don’t share our illusions. As scholar Elana Gomel remarks, “the ‘delirium’ of the approaching cataclysm has motivated some of the most destructive religious and political events in history, from the Crusades and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain to Nazism and Stalinism.”
The only end-times prediction that can be made with any reasonable certainty, at least according to science, is that a few billion years from now the sun will go nova and balloon into a red giant and turn the planet into a cinder. Long before then we, as a species, will either have disappeared through our own folly — surrender to some apocalyptic delusion? — or evolved into entities that will take us home to the stars.
In the meantime, the earth abides and we are granted a short time to abide with it. That is surely a blessing, divine or not.