Sorry, Evangelicals, Syria Will Not Spur the Second Coming

President Obama’s anticipated strikes against Syria have some on the Christian right proclaiming Biblical prophecy and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Easy there, writes scholar Candida Moss.

The Evangelical Christian world is abuzz with the “news” that the end of the world is upon us. One blog proclaims “the long prophesied end days are here.” Christian radio host Carl Gallups told WND that “ancient prophecies are being fulfilled right before our eyes,” and added, “we are the first generation in history to see such dramatic and striking alignments.” These Christians see the Syrian crisis as the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. Isaiah 17:1 reads, “See, Damascus will cease to be a city, and will become a heap of ruins.” Yes, that Damascus.

Some apocalyptically minded Christians read this as a description of current events. The destruction of Damascus is part of a chain of events that leads to the Second Coming of Christ. If it is, then we can expect unstoppable epidemics, economic decline, the breakdown of society, the rise of the Antichrist, the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, a false prophet, widespread persecution, and Armageddon—a war the scale of which the world has never seen. And somewhere in the midst of all of this, true believers will be “raptured” away to heaven by Christ.

If the precise order of events seems convoluted that’s because it’s cobbled together from different books of the Bible, mostly Revelation and Daniel. Isaiah isn’t usually in the lineup, but recent events have pushed his version forward.

But before we drink the good Scotch, cash in our 401ks, and retreat to bunkers in the woods, here are a few reasons to be wary:

1. The conquest of Damascus already happened. At least seven times.

Isaiah lived and wrote in the eighth century BCE and scholars think that the original prophecy referred to the conquest of Damascus by the Assyrians in 732 BCE.

But that’s not the only time Damascus has seen conflict. Since then Damascus has been conquered by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar and by Alexander the Great; it was tossed back and forth between Alexander’s successors, the Seleucids and the Ptolemies; it fell to a Muslim siege led by the general Khalid ibn al-Walid in the seventh century, and to a different Muslim army in the eighth century; it was sacked by the Turco-Mongol armies of Timur around the turn of the 15th century, and conquered by the Ottoman empire in the 16th.

Not every conquest left the city in ruins, but we could be forgiven for thinking that at least one of these occasions would qualify as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. Timur’s massacre of the entire city’s population and erection of a tower of decapitated heads outside the walls seems a good candidate. If that won’t start an apocalypse, what will?

2. There are some problems with the theory.

The belief that the Bible provides a precise timetable of events for the end of the world is a feature of fundamentalist forms of Christianity. Just a few months ago, those groups were labeling Obama the Devil’s henchman for his position on same-sex marriage. Now he’s acting as the arm of God by pulling the trigger on military intervention in Syria.

It’s theologically possible, because Obama might not know he is acting as an instrument of God. But God’s chosen agent is also the Antichrist? Awkward. Especially when, according to the composite timeline, the Antichrist isn’t supposed to start revealing his true nature until after the Temple is rebuilt.

3. Scheduling has never been Christianity’s strong suit.

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Christians have been predicting the Second Coming and end of the world since the Apostle Paul. Hal Lindsey, bestselling author of The Late Great Planet Earth, had to “adjust” his schedule when Jesus failed to return in either 1981 or 1988. Jehovah’s Witnesses prophesied Armageddon no less than nine times in the twentieth century. Most recently, Harold Camping went bust predicting that the Rapture would take place on May 21, 2011. When his quick recalculation to October 21, 2011 didn’t pan out either he faded into obscurity.

If there’s a lesson for the budding prophet to take away here it’s this: when prophesying the end of the world, be vague and use really big numbers.

Strangely, none of these failed predictions have bankrupted the prophetic project. Seventh Day Adventist Ellen White’s failure to accurately chart the course of human destruction inspired social psychologist Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance. His book, When Prophecy Fails, showed that, when faced with incontrovertible proof that their beliefs are wrong, some people walk away from their belief systems. But others will double down. They rationalize away the facts, defend their position, and actually become more fervent.

In the Gospel of Mark Jesus says, “No one knows the day or hour” of his return. Given how many times we’ve been stood up by apocalyptic Jesus, you’d think we’d get the message. But when we’re so good at ignoring our repeated failures to predict that day, there’s no need to heed his words anytime soon.