Dueling Prophecies in the Middle East
The Middle East is home turf to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The history of
each faith is deeply rooted in the region; and all three have prophetic traditions
that point to the future. Are such prophecies adding to the present turmoil?
First the disclaimer: none of these religions possesses only one view of the future.
All three contain multiple perspectives. Nevertheless, some prophetic views are better
known than others and may serve as examples for comparison.
Among American evangelicals, for example, probably the best known school of prophecy
is dispensationalism. First developed in Great Britain in the 1830s by John Nelson
Darby, it came to America after the Civil War and by World War I had won over many
self-identified fundamentalists and Pentecostals. Though dispensationalism is held
by only about one-third of contemporary American evangelicals, it is by far the best
known of the evangelical prophetic alternatives, thanks to best sellers (Hal Lindsey’s
The Late Great Planet Earth, Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series, and the Scofield Reference
Bible) and the many pro-Israel organizations that they have founded since the 1980s.
Dispensationalists believe that the Bible contains a detailed scenario of the Last
Days. At the center of their expectations is the restored State of Israel, whose
founding they had been predicting since the early 19th century. Before Israel’s final
destiny can be carried out, however, God must rapture the church, both living and
dead, to heaven.
Based on their interpretation of Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation, dispensationalists
believe that Israel will be surrounded by hostile neighbors, which eventually culminates
in an invasion from the north and south by Russia and her Arab allies. But God destroys
them before they can destroy Israel. Shaken to its core, Israel then turns to a charismatic
European leader to ensure its future security. This protector is really the Antichrist
in disguise. After a period of peace, the Antichrist betrays the Jews: he defiles
the newly rebuilt Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, declares himself to be God, and demands
to be worshipped. Against all who refuse he unleashes the Great Tribulation that
makes Hitler’s holocaust look tame in comparison.
Most Jews are killed during Antichrist’s onslaught. Those who survive pray for the
Messiah to rescue them. Just as Antichrist’s forces gather at the Battle of Armageddon
(a valley northeast of Jerusalem) for a final assault on the Jews, Jesus arrives
with his raptured saints. He destroys Antichrist’s army and is hailed as the Messiah
by the Jewish remnant. Jesus then assumes David’s throne in Jerusalem, animal sacrifices
resume in the Temple, Satan is bound, and the millennial kingdom begins. At the end
of this period, Satan is let loose and tries one more time to overthrow God’s plan,
but is easily defeated, just in time for the last resurrection and the judgment.
(Timothy P. Weber, On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best
Jews have a prophetic tradition too, though most Jews today pay it little mind. Israeli
Jews are mostly secular; and American Jews are divided into a number of groups in
which prophetic study is rare. Among those who still study the prophecies in the
Hebrew Bible are the Orthodox who look for the coming of Messiah and the so-called
Religious Zionists who see prophetic significance in the founding of Israel in 1948
and promote the building of a Third Temple in Jerusalem.
In Israel such people can be found in a variety of organizations called the Temple
Movement, which is considered provocative and dangerous by most Israelis. People
in this movement want to rebuild the Temple by removing the Muslim holy places on
the Temple Mount. These views and occasional demonstrations often precipitate violent
clashes with local Muslims. They believe that God re-established the State of Israel
so that the Messiah can come and the nation can be redeemed. To succeed, God’s plan
requires Jewish hegemony in the Holy Land and the expulsion of Islamic influence
in Jerusalem and the rest of Israel.
Islam also has a prophetic tradition. The Qur’an and the Hadith (a collection of
the Prophet’s sayings and experiences) contain prophetic teachings which mainly focus
on the fate of Islam and its opponents during and shortly after Muhammad’s lifetime.
From these sources there arose a classical Muslim prophetic tradition that has been
studied for centuries.
Such studies have not been fruitful in explaining current events or addressing issues
following the Six Day War of 1967. Consequently, a new wave of prophetic teachers
has emerged that have supplemented the classical prophetic tradition with new sources
of information, including the Old and New Testaments and insights from dispensationalist
Bible teachers! Though the classical scholars reject this approach, the new school
of Muslim apocalyptists are extremely popular and are shaping Muslim expectations
about the End Times, especially among the Sunnis, who make up about 90% of Muslims.
(David Cook, Contemporary Muslim Apocalyptic Literature)
Not surprisingly, such teachers find it hard to agree on prophetic details, but major
themes are detectable that include three main prophetic figures. The first is the
Mahdi, the Muslims’ messianic hero of the Last Days. He will appear on the scene
to restore Islam’s fortunes and re-establish the Caliphate, the Muslim Empire under
Shari’a law. As the Mahdi expands the Caliphate, he faces fierce opposition, first
by resistant fellow Muslims and then by the forces of the Antichrist who leads hostile
Jews and Christians against Islam. A series of apocalyptic wars ensue, including
the Battle of Armageddon, where the Western powers attempt to save Israel from the
advancing armies of the Mahdi. Over time the Western powers are decimated (often
by nuclear weapons); and the Jews are destroyed. Finally in a decisive battle between
the Mahdi and what remains of Antichrist’s forces around Jerusalem, the second coming
of Jesus occurs. Jesus kills the Antichrist, orders Christians to convert to Islam
(and kills all those who refuse), and assists the Mahdi in securing the final victory
of Islam around the world. After 40 years, Jesus dies and is buried next to Muhammad
to await the resurrection and judgment.
A variation of this prophetic scenario is taught by the Shi’ites (who make up 10%
of Muslims). They trace themselves from Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, who
was killed in a dispute over selecting the Prophet’s successor. The followers of
Ali believed that there would be only twelve Imams (leaders of the Islamic community)
before the End. When the 11th Imam died in the late 9th century, his son and successor
suddenly disappeared. Shi’ites believe that Allah hid the 12th Imam (in a state they
call “occultation”) until it is time to reveal him as the Mahdi.
The leaders of the Iranian Revolution fully embrace this scenario and believe that
Iran will play a central role in the unfolding of Allah’s plan. Iran’s task is to
establish a political and religious system suitable for the Mahdi’s program. Iranians
expect to pay a heavy price for doing so. Antichrist (the Western powers) will launch
attacks against them which will result in many Iranian martyrs. Such losses are inevitable
and should be welcomed, since they lead to the complete destruction of Israel. Like
the Sunnis, the Shi’ites predict the second coming of Jesus to defeat Antichrist,
affirm Islam, and help the Mahdi establish the Caliphate around the world.
It is striking how the Christian and Muslim prophecies contain common themes—the
Antichrist, the Battle of Armageddon, and the Second Coming of Christ, though they
are defined in very different terms and contribute to very different ends.
Probably the most striking difference between the two concerns the role of Israel
in the Last Days.
- For dispensationalists, the unfolding of end-time prophecy cannot occur until Israel
is restored to the Holy Land and stays there.
- For Muslims, the coming of the End is impossible without the utter destruction of
It would be difficult to imagine more diametrically opposed perspectives than these.
President Ahmadinejad of Iran believes in the coming of the 12th Imam and has said
so at the UN and other international venues. The attempt of Iran to secure nuclear
weapons is especially ominous when seen in relation to this view of the future.
The other prophetic scenarios have political implications as well. Politically-engaged
dispensationalists lobby hard to ensure that the USA supports Israel “no matter what”
and opposes any concessions to the Palestinians or a two-state solution. Religious
Zionists in Israel are not afraid to incite Muslims in order to carry out their prophetic
Where does that leave Christians who do not accept a dispensationalist interpretation
of the future—and that includes most of them? Is it possible to seek a just solution
in the Middle East or are such efforts hopeless? Are those who seek peace actually
opposing God’s plan?