Should We Worry About an Apocalypse in Jerusalem?

Published February 8th, 2018 - 11:33 GMT
Temple of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Israel. The inner courtyard of the Temple (Shutterstock)
Temple of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Israel. The inner courtyard of the Temple (Shutterstock)

by Eleanor Beevor 

It isn’t just the political ramifications of Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital that have captured the world’s attention. Media fascination has erupted over what this means for those who believe that this is a sign of the coming of the Apocalypse.

This has prompted more speculation than nuanced answers, about what effect apocalyptic thought will have on an already volatile region. To have talk of the End of Days flavoring political commentary is undeniably titillating, even exotic. But it is unrestrained excitement that risks turning apocalyptic thinking, a widespread and often benign feature of religious belief, into something much more dangerous.

Apocalypse is a feature of all the Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and Jerusalem features in the apocalyptic writings of all three. Most of the attention after Trump’s announcement fell on the responses of evangelical Christian communities in America. Not all evangelicals believe the Apocalypse is imminent, but among those who do, Trump’s announcement has been ecstatically received.

“To understand the religious tensions over Jerusalem, we must recognize the emotional power of those expectations. For those who take the eschatological stories literally, (some believers take them as of symbolic significance only), the issue of who controls Jerusalem is one of the greatest imaginable.  The culmination of human history depends on it”, said Dr Scott Segrest, a political scientist at The Citadel College, South Carolina.

In evangelical Christianity and in certain schools of Jewish theology, Jews must retake control of the city of Jerusalem and construct the Third Temple on the Temple Mount before the Messiah comes at the end of the world. (For evangelicals, it is Jesus Christ who will return, and Jews will convert en masse to Christianity).

The Temple Mount is where the Temple of Solomon (957 BC to 586 BC) stood, until it was destroyed and later replaced by the Second Temple (515 BC to 70 AD), before that was also demolished during the Siege of Jerusalem by the Roman General Titus. The Temple Mount is also a sacred site in Islam, known as Haram al Sharif, and where the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque currently stand.

The Temple Mount has been under Muslim control since the end of the Six-Day War in 1967. However, Jewish activists have vigorously campaigned to allow Jews to pray on the Temple Mount, or even to re-establish Jewish control of the site, to allow them to begin building the Third Temple.

That temple would have to be built on the site of the previous two, which some archaeologists believe is where the Dome of the Rock, sacred in Islam, now stands. In emphatically dismissing Palestinian claims to Jerusalem, those who wish to see the Third Temple built now feel that the time is ripe.

“Many evangelicals see this announcement as proof that Trump is God's chosen leader because he is playing a key part in fulfilling biblical prophecy of the end of days and hastening the second coming of Christ”, said Neil J. Young, a religious historian. Odd though that may sound for a President who does not exactly embody piety or humility before God, Trump and American Evangelicals have made a relationship of convenience. Trump’s unabashed use of culture wars as a campaign tactic put him on the same side as Evangelicals on numerous positions, from Israel to Planned Parenthood. Evangelicals have, for the most part, been prepared to overlook the President’s personal failings, often referring to him as a modern day Cyrus, the pagan Persian king who ended up serving God’s purpose.

Now, more than ever, they have reason to see Trump as a blunt but radically effective instrument of God. John Hagee, an evangelical pastor and the Chairman of Christians United for Israel, lauded Trump’s decision, and said “Israel is God's stopwatch for everything that happens to every nation, including America, from now until the rapture of the church and beyond”. (The rapture is when, upon the second coming, all Christians, living and dead, will rise to heaven to join Jesus.)

The decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, not Palestine’s, has already had explosive political consequences. Yet it is extremely tricky to establish where the role of apocalyptic thought starts and ends in current Israeli-Palestinian politics. Trump’s announcement was evidently a gift to his evangelist voters, but evangelical support for Israel is not only based on apocalyptic fervour. Belief in an imminent apocalypse has been a feature of religious life in every period of history. And whilst such beliefs have had shocking, even violent consequences on many occasions, it is relatively rare that they have an impact outside of religious circles.

Excited talk of apocalypse among religious communities, and taking action to make it happen are different things. Still, there are fascinating examples of believers trying to take things into their own hands to bring forward the Apocalypse in Jerusalem. The controversial Israeli campaign group The Temple Institute, which aims to create conditions for the building of the Third Temple, has an IndieGoGo campaign to fund the breeding of a red heifer.

The red heifer is the cow described in the Book of Numbers that is to be sacrificed in order to ensure a state of ritual purity known as taharah, necessary to begin the construction of the Third Temple. The heifer has previously been the target of a breeding program in Mississippi. The cattle breeder was an Evangelical preacher named Clyde Lott, who partnered with The Temple Institute in an attempt to raise the necessary number of cattle to eventually breed the blemish-free animal described in the scriptures, for eventual transportation to Israel.

Whilst such inflammatory moves could be a recipe for disaster, they are relatively few. Moreover, there are sharp differences within and between religions over these matters. The story of the heifer is but one example of the sometimes supportive, but also antagonistic relations between Evangelical Christianity and pre-millennial Jews.

Dr Julie Ingersoll, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Florida, said: “While contemporary evangelicals “support Israel,” Jews are often ambivalent about and uncomfortable with the framework that drives the support. On the one hand, many Jews welcome the alliance insofar as it helps Israel, but many also recognize that deeply rooted in the support is the idea that people who don’t embrace Jesus, including Jews, are headed for Hell.”

Apocalypse means revelation, or unveiling, which implies that it is an event for God to reveal rather than for man to instigate. Many religious scholars frown on the hubris of those who decide to advance it.

Amongst Orthodox Jews, there are deep disagreements about whether it should be permissible for Jews to visit the Temple Mount, as some sects see doing so as attempting to speed up the redemption, (another name for the end of days). Meanwhile, Middle Eastern Christian groups who see Israel-Palestine as a political rather than theological problem fear that they will bear the brunt of any violent backlash against American Christian support for Israel.

But at what point does apocalyptic theology, a presence in the religious beliefs of millions, translate into an ideology that is dangerous in itself? And, if analysts are also seeking signs of danger, what should they look for? The answer is when the believers decide that they have an enemy. J.M. Berger, a researcher on religious extremism, commented: “Eschatological beliefs and excitement can persist at lower levels for long periods of time. To make real trouble among extremists, portents of the apocalypse typically have to be connected to a threat from an enemy group.”

A recurrent theme in eschatological texts is one of a great battle, in which the enemies of the believers will be defeated by the righteous, who will then enjoy an eternal paradise. When a living group of people is identified as an enemy, it is often associated with the purveyors of evil found in religious texts. ISIS is one group that has done this. Their view of the apocalypse as imminent justifies, in their eyes, the killing of those who do not share their doctrine of what Islam is, and anyone who might stand in their way in the final battle. In this sense, they embody Berger’s definition of extremism, which is when a group believes their own success and survival necessitates the defeat of another group.

This is the tipping point at which belief in the eventual end of history becomes a danger in itself. Berger does not believe that apocalyptic fervor around the Jerusalem decision has reached that point yet.

“While the move of the embassy has ignited some apocalyptic zeal, particularly among certain American evangelical Christians, my impression is that most of them see this as a scene-setting development rather than a sign of imminence. What I would worry about would be something more dramatic or disturbing, more directly linked to violence or the idea of violence, were to happen in a similar time frame to the move.”

 

 

For the time being, discussions of impending violence have mercifully not been a feature of the theological response to Trump’s Jerusalem announcement. However, talk of the “clash of civilizations” has made a worrying comeback in certain circles, not least among the more radical members of the Trump administration, who believe that the “Judeo-Christian West” is headed for war with, in former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s words, “jihadist Islamic fascism”.

Even a brief glance at the divisions within Judaism and Christianity over the Jerusalem affair should go to show the flaws in trite ideas of a monolithic Judeo-Christian “civilization” going to war. To see all Muslims as the enemy is equally absurd, and yet again members of the Trump team have gone out of their way to paint Islam as a whole as a source of danger.

When believers in an impending apocalypse identify a mortal enemy, the consequences are devastating because that enemy’s defeat becomes justified by any means necessary, such is the urgency of holy war.

These are the signs that all those with influence in this conflict must watch for, and must do all they can to counter them. Enmity and violence in the Holy Land is sadly nothing new.

Apocalyptic prophecies have always been with us and always will be. But the incorporation of the two must be avoided at all costs in the next phase of Israel and Palestine’s tumultuous history.

 

This article has been adapted from its original source 

 


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