It’s been a long time since I’ve been immersed in Southern Evangelicalism where a certain brand of interpreting world events looms large. I grew up in the Bible Belt, where Saddam Hussein, Desert Storm, the fall of the USSR, the growing rise of Israeli nationalism, and “slipping societal morals” were all “signs” of the “end times” or “the last days”. I sat through youth group meetings where our senior pastor would talk about how the book of Daniel had coded prophecies about nuclear weapons in space.
(Being in high school, I saw no problem with him making that argument by saying that the book’s “original language” uses the Greek word dynamos from which we get the word “dynamite”; it was only later that it clicked for me that Daniel is written in Hebrew and Aramaic, not Greek.)
Moving to the Northeast, the bastion of mainline Christianity; and attending two different seminaries from traditions very different from this prophecy-interpreting one, I was under the false impression that this whole game of interpreting current events in apocalyptic ways was rightly losing steam.
But then, this past week, the tragedy of ISIS (or the so-called “Islamic State”) beheading 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians happened. I first found out on Facebook, when I saw a procession of ancient Christian articulations of mourning filling my news feed. “Come, Lord, Jesus.” “Lord, have mercy.” “Kyrie Eleison.” I, myself speechless, decided also to lean heavily on old words from our Christian family to find comfort and express lament.
Not everyone went this way, though. After these initial responses, my Facebook and Twitter feeds began to fill with phrases and out-of-context Bible verses that I hadn’t seen in years. People were posting blog posts and verses all of which were trying to say that these deaths amounted to some unique act of “global Christian persecution” that was somehow emblematic of the world’s “last days” or “end times”.
Today I’d like to offer a seven reasons why this is wrong-headed and unhelpful:
1. The biggest victims of ISIS have been Muslims
By now, if you don’t know this fact, then you’re not paying attention. If ISIS is “persecuting” anyone in a unique, wholesale way, it’s other Muslims that disagree with its brand of theology, not Christians. They are more harsh and hate-filled towards Muslims they consider “apostate” than they are “non-believers”. When they overran the ancient Christian city of Mosul, they gave Christians options to leave, pay taxes, or die. And then they let them freely leave. Also, on a side note, even though I understand it, I have to say that something felt a little off about American Christians being so much more mournful over these deaths than the Muslim ones. Again, I understand that we experience it differently when it’s our brothers and sisters in Christ. But still, I think Jesus would be lamenting all the deaths a little more equally.
2. This is not new
Western Christians are well-known for their nearly total ignorance of what is happening to Christians in other parts of the world. Heck, hardly any American Christian could tell you what “Coptic Christian” means (and if they did, I wonder if Evangelicals would be flocking to their plight like they are now). Anyway, what ISIS is doing with Christians is nothing new on the world stage. Millions upon millions of Christians have been being slaughtered every year in other parts of the world, with organizations like Voice of the Martyrs telling their stories. Just because this is the most well-publicized incident in a while doesn’t make it unique.
3. More Christians are being persecuted in other parts of the world
All over the world, but in Africa and Asia especially, the slaughter of Christians is more indiscriminate, systematic, and large-scale than anything ISIS has done. And yet, why have we not paid as much attention to them? Why have these not been “signs of the end of the age”?
4. Other organizations are far more deadly
Boko Haram? The Syrian regime? Russians in Ukraine? There are entities, organizations, and regimes that are far more deadly, brutal, and have a greater effect on the global stage than ISIS. And yes, with the exception of Boko Haram (maybe) the other entities in that list have been thought of as some part of the “end times”, but not to the level of this ISIS thing (at least in a while).
5. This isn’t even primarily a religious persecution
A powerful Atlantic piece recently made the articulate case for not separating the theological and political aspects of ISIS. But not only does that mean that we can’t forget the theological when thinking about the political, it means we can’t do the opposite. Even as we focus on the religious side of the Coptic beheadings, I think a good argument can be made that this was also a political act. ISIS did it on the shore of Libya to emphasize how they’ve “franchised” to other parts of the world. They also rooted this act in the history of the Crusades. These beheadings were an act of political propaganda to show that they have a historical basis more than it was killing Christians simply because they are Christians. This is hardly some “apocalyptic” move.
6. Christians are killing more Muslims elsewhere than ISIS is killing Christians
This is a hard one to admit, but yes, it’s true. In sub-saharan Africa, the Muslim-Christian violence has raged for decades. In its most recent flare-ups, it has been the Christians doing the slaughtering of the Muslims. And yeah, they have killed more Muslims than ISIS has Christians. Lord, have mercy indeed.
7. It’s bad theology. Like really, really bad theology
I don’t have the time to really get into it. I’ll mostly have to rely on the reader going to these Wikipedia links, but I’ll summarize as able. Looking at apocalyptic language in the Bible and trying to match it to historical events has been around since the early days of Christianity, especially picking up during the Reformation. When it was done, though, it interpreted bigger and broader movements of Christianity, not smaller individual historical events. Further, they saw the biblical pictures as very poetic–not at all literal about how things were going to specifically play out. But then, it wasn’t until very recently–like in the past 150 years or so–that other biblical poetic images or references to the past ended up being taken super literally by American Evangelicals, as part of a school of thought called Dispensationalism. And so, these ideas of a “Great Tribulation” and a “Rapture” surrounded by specific political events hidden in the prophecies of the Bible became popular. And today, I guess they still kind of are.
In summary, the mindset that would even consider the possibility that ISIS and their horrific acts are precursors of “the Apocalypse” is a way of thinking that is super young, not the result of serious scholarly and theological thought, almost exclusive to America, and is the extreme minority view of Christians globally and historically.