Friday, April 3, 2015

Shoebat, Islam and the Antichrist

This being the Easter season, I thought it might be an appropriate time to discuss a fascinating mythological conflict that was brought to my attention last winter by a friend on Facebook re: the eschatology or “end times” prophecies of the 3 Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Many religions have some kind of end times prophecy with their own heroes and villains, e.g. the Norse religion predicts Ragnarok, an event when the world will be destroyed in a battle between the gods and the giants, and created anew by the dying and reborn solar deity Baldr.  

What is particularly interesting about the respective prophecies of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is that because these three religions (“People of the Book”) have some scriptures in common, including the Old Testament prophets, their eschatologies overlap and feature some of the same characters.  Judaism, of course, preceded both Christianity and Islam, with their origins found in the Old Testament story of Abraham and his sons Isaac and Ishmael.  Isaac, the son of Sara, was the ancestor of David, the lineage from which Jesus would be born, and Ishmael, the son of Hagar, was the ancestor of Mohammed.  So Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, is the great-grandfather of both religions and they draw upon the Jewish prophecy.

According to the Old Testament prophets, the Jewish Messiah was to be an earthly king from the lineage of David, a great political leader as well as a high priest, who would destroy evildoers, overthrow corrupt governments, reestablish God’s covenant with Israel, and rebuild Jerusalem including the Temple.  With the Messiah on the throne, the entire world would then recognize Judaism as the one true religion and everybody would worship the One God and live in peace, justice and prosperity.

Christianity adopted the Jewish prophecy, proclaiming Jesus to be the prophesied Messiah.  Judaism does not recognize Jesus as Messiah because he did not establish an earthly kingdom the first time around.  Unlike the Jewish Messiah, he said “My kingdom is not of this world,” and instead of overthrowing Rome as expected, he was executed by the Romans.  According to Christianity, Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, but the Jews overlooked the part of the prophecy where the Messiah first comes as “a suffering servant.”  The Christian eschatology postpones the earthly reign of the Messiah to a future time when Jesus, having been resurrected and ascended into heaven, would subsequently return, overthrow evildoers including Rome and the Antichrist, and establish God’s kingdom on earth as per the original Jewish prophecy.

Islam added another twist to the end-times story with the appearance of their hero Imam Mahdi, a descendent of Mohammed.  In the Islamic version of the prophecy, Mahdi rides in on a white horse along with Jesus (“Isa”) and together they overthrow all evil in the world and defeat Dajjal, the Antichrist, the Deceiver who will assert that he is divine and claim to be Jesus Christ and/or the Jewish Messiah and use occult powers to perform “miracles.”  Other Muslim scholars suggest that Dajjal is an atheist/materialist who encourages war in the Middle East, deceiving the People of the Book (Jews, Muslims and Christians) and provoking them against each other for his own political ends.  In any case, Dajjal is defeated by Mahdi and Isa, who then declare Islam as the one true religion and eliminate all false religions and heresies – including the “heresy” that Jesus is divine, because the strictly monotheistic theology shared by Islam and Judaism rejects the Christian belief that God has a son or that any man could be a divine incarnation.  So, Isa will explain that this is an incorrect interpretation of scripture, and together with Mahdi he will establish God’s kingdom on earth, ushering in an age of peace and prosperity.  This, at least, is the mainstream Islamic version of the prophecy.

But, here’s where it gets really interesting:  There is yet another version of the Islamic prophecy described by Walid Shoebat which turns the story completely upside down.  Shoebat, a self-proclaimed former Palestinian terrorist, now convert to Christianity and champion of Israel*, says that in the version of the prophecy which he was taught in the radical Islamic school he attended in his youth, Mahdi is the first of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a conquerer carrying a bow and wearing a crown, riding on a white horse as described in Rev. 6:2.  Although some biblical scholars identify the first Horseman as a prophet like Elijah or John the Baptist preparing the way for the return of Messiah, other Evangelicals identify him as the Antichrist.  Shoebat agrees with the latter interpretation of Antichrist, and says that the Muslim Jesus (Isa) is the False Prophet mentioned in Rev. 19:20.  Moreover, in this version of the story, Dajjal is the false Jewish Messiah who claims to be God – i.e., the Christian Jesus!   While the part about Mahdi is somewhat plausible in that Muslims do refer to the first Horseman as describing that prophet, Jesus as Dajjal is not.  Dajjal is described as a short, fat man with reddish skin, deformed legs and missing one eye and with the word “infidel” written on his forehead, a cruel and violent man who, in the original story, is supposed to be defeated by Jesus and Mahdi.  Shoebat's version of the story would make no sense to mainstream Muslims who hold the Christian Jesus, the son of Mary, in very high regard as a an important prophet as well as end-times hero.  Shoebat’s associate Joel Richardson discusses this alternative eschatology at great length here:  “Will Islam Be Our Future?”  

Shoebat asserts that Islam is fundamentally anti-christian in its nature, a false religion established by Satan from the beginning to deceive people and turn them away from Christianity.  To support this claim he quotes the scripture:  “Who is a liar but he that denies that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denies the Father and the Son.”  (I John 2:22 )  Shoebat says the Antichrist must be a Muslim because he denies the divinity of Jesus.  The obvious problem with this theory is that the same criterion would apply to Judaism, which like Islam also denies the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus on the basis that it would be polytheism.  However, Islam does affirm Jesus as a prophet in the line of the Old Testament prophets and also acknowledges the virgin birth, which Judaism does not, and thus it could be argued that Judaism is more “anti-christian” than Islam.  An atheist Antichrist would also fulfill this scripture perfectly.

Bible scholar Dr. David R. Reagan analyzes Shoebat’s and Richardson’s books in some detail and finds their argument to be unconvincing.

In the popular imagination, the Book of Revelation is seen as a prophecy regarding the End Times, and many Christians throughout history have identified people, nations and events in their own culture as corresponding to the prophecy.  Some evangelicals insist that the book describes the United States, President Obama, and other modern characters, but most Bible scholars say that the Book of Revelation is properly understood as referring to experiences of the first century Christians in Asia Minor, when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans.  With this understanding of scripture, the Antichrist is actually the Roman Emperor Nero.  The author had to write everything in code and allegory to avoid being burned alive by Nero, who enjoyed setting Christians on fire, as Elaine Pagels explains.  

In order to properly interpret scripture, it is important to understand what the writings meant to the people who wrote them and what they were trying to say to the readers in the context of their cultural tradition in the time and place where they lived.  This principle is applicable both when reading our own scriptures as well as those of other religions.  It is especially tricky to avoid imposing our own bias on scriptures which overlap to some extent – but not completely! – with those of our religion, as is the case with the Jewish, Muslim and Christian End Times prophecies.  Therefore the interpretations of these prophecies by Mr. Shoebat and other modern evangelicals who are reading their own agenda into the scriptures ought to be taken with a grain of salt. 

*[It should be noted that Shoebat’s account of his personal history as a Palestinian terrorist who bombed an Israeli bank and spent time in prison has been investigated and thoroughly discredited by the Israeli authorities, which is why he was allowed to remain in the U.S.  This does raise the question whether perhaps the version of Islamic prophecy that he describes is also a fabrication, although it is interesting nonetheless.]

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