Evangelicals & ISIS Feel Fine About the End of the World
What if two mortal enemies both wanted a cataclysmic, world-ending battle, at roughly the same time, in roughly the same place?
Can you say “self-fulfilling prophecy”?
As Americans become better acquainted with the apocalyptic beliefs of the Islamic State, thanks to a spate of recent presentations of them, it’s worth noting that there are end-timers on our side as well: over three-quarters of U.S. evangelicals believe we're living in the End Times right now. And while evangelical millennialists are not calling the military shots at the moment, their prophecies align in potentially terrifying ways with those of our enemy.
ISIS, as Graeme Wood unveiled in The Atlantic recently, is an apocalyptic death cult. It is Aum Shinrikyu and the Branch Davidians, but with machine guns, brutality, and a swath of territory with 8 million people living in it.
(Many have criticized Wood’s article, but only that it does not emphasize enough that there are many other streams of Islam, that ISIS’s brand is on the fringe, and that there are alternatives to Wood’s literalistic reading of the Koran. Which is fine—and says nothing about his analysis of ISIS itself.)
ISIS’s “prophetic methodology” (Wood’s translation) involves not just a revanchist revival of slavery, crucifixion, and excommunication but also the reestablishment of a territorial caliphate that is necessary for the coming of the Mahdi, the messiah. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is said to be the eighth of twelve caliphs—which may mean that Armageddon will not take place for another few decades, or that the caliphs’ reigns may be short.
Wood proposes that ISIS’s military strategy is driven by millenialist zeal. The capture of the Syrian town of Dabiq, for example, was heralded as a great victory not because it is strategically important (it isn’t) but because it is prophesized as the place of the final battle. Just like Megiddo, the plain in Northern Israel that gives Armageddon its name.
Dabiq is also the name of the Islamic State’s newsletter.
The specific prophecy is that the armies of “Rome” (in Islam and Judaism, Rome is a euphemism for Christianity—though some experts say it may be a stand-in for the Byzantine empire, or infidels more generally) will come to Dabiq, and lose in a great battle. Then, the victorious caliphate will expand.
But things will not go smoothly. The dajjal, an Antichrist-like figure, will arise from Persia—conveniently, ISIS’s current nemesis, Iran—and defeat most of the caliphate. The remainder will retreat to, you guessed it, Jerusalem.
And then? Remarkably, the figure who will save the caliphate is none other than Jesus, who will kill the dajjal and enable the caliphate to re-form.
This may sound familiar—because it is. It is very close to the Christian apocalyptic narrative. Indeed, as a student of millennialism for some time (my dissertation was on a false messiah), it was shocking to see the congruence between the Islamic State’s vision of the End Times and that of evangelical Christianity: a large battle somewhere north to northeast of Jerusalem, a final battle in Jerusalem with the near-defeat of the heroic believers by an Antichrist figure, and then Jesus appearing from heaven to win the battle once and for all.
A recent post on one End-Times site, raptureready.com, noticed and endorsed this alignment. It describes the period between the battle of Dabiq and the battle of Jerusalem as “a time of warning,” similar to the Great Tribulation in Christian theology. Dabiq itself is close to Damascus, about which Isaiah 17:1 prophesized, “Behold, Damascus will cease from being a city, and it will be a ruinous heap.” (Especially if ‘Damascus’ is interpreted as a metonym for Syria in general.)
There are many reasons for these alignments. Islam and Christianity have long drawn on one another’s ideas, even when they are superficially antagonistic. There may also be something archetypal about the millennial narrative: the evil forces come close, they are defeated, but then they emerge stronger, until finally supernatural help arrives.
Or, of course, they may be right. I don’t mean that ascetic visionaries in the 3rd or 10th centuries actually predicted the 21st—but if enough people believe that a particular narrative is true, it can become true. Especially if those are the people with the guns.
Evangelical-led Christian Zionism has already had a substantive impact on U.S. policy, and has been driven by theological propositions. Congressman Dan Webster (R-Fla.) said in 2011 that if “we stop helping Israel, we lose God’s hand and we’re in big time trouble.” Christian Zionists point to Genesis 12:3, in which God tells Israel, “I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you.” With Judgment Day nigh, it’s best to be on the right side.
But what “blessing” Israel means has a very specific meaning, and a very specific endgame. Christians United for Israel, led by Pastor John Hagee, has long pushed a hard-right agenda when it comes to Israel. This week, for example, its website features a pop-up saying “Bibi Did His Job. Now We Must Do Ours.”
Hagee has put his money where his mouth is. Since 2001, the John Hagee Foundation has donated over $58 million to hard-right Israeli organizations, including settlements and Im Tirtzu, a extreme nationalist group which has depicted liberal Knesset member Naomi Chazan with horns, helped pass anti-NGO laws in Israel, and led a years-long campaign against the liberal New Israel Fund.
And, of course, Christian Zionists have paid millions of dollars for Jews to immigrate to Israel, on the belief that at least half of world Jewry must be in the Land of Israel for the End Times to proceed. Last October, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the largest evangelical Christian organizational supporter of Israel (annual budget, $111 million) even announced that it would set up its own immigration program, in competition with the Jewish Agency.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told the Jewish Daily Forward that such efforts are “ for their own salvation, not for Jewish salvation, it’s so they will see the second coming of the messiah.” Foxman added, “a campaign of Christians to send Jews to Israel is morally offensive.”
That may be, but it is also a billion-dollar business, and a popular one: over 60 percent of white Evangelicals believe that the State of Israel fulfills a prophecy about the Second Coming. In this view, Jews living in Israel will catalyze the End Times, culminating in a huge battle with the forces of evil—first in Northern Israel or Syria, and then in Jerusalem itself. A very similar goal to that of the Islamic State.
Of course, there the comparisons end. Christians United for Israel cannot be compared with ISIS. They may share a millennial view of the near future, but CUFI is not executing, torturing, beheading, or enslaving anyone. Christian Zionists are not building a theocracy. And while they can boast of many high-level allies in the Republican elite, most of those favoring a stepped-up military campaign with ISIS are foreign policy hawks, not messianic crazies.
But the crazies are out there, not on the fringe, but in CPAC, AIPAC, and the Republican establishment. And they are numerous. Seventy-seven percent of U.S. evangelicals believe we are living in the End Times, as do 40 percent of all Americans. They are avidly proselytizing not just to save the rest of us from sin—but also to save us from the tribulations that are imminent.
That America has twice been at war against Babylon (ancient Babylon’s ruins are adjacent to Saddam Hussein’s former summer palace) added fuel to the fire. Now, we find ourselves on the brink of yet a third war there.
But this time is different. When it comes to apocalyptic warfare, it takes two to tango. And now, apocalyptic Christian Zionists have found their perfect partners: a savage, bloody cult that wants to drag “Rome” into war and is doing everything possible to provoke it. God help us if both sides decide to dance.