During the election campaign last year many conservative evangelical Christians saw then-candidate Donald Trump as a man of strength who would make the world ready for a final battle between good and evil.
As the historian Matthew Avery Sutton wrote at the time, they expected him to lead America in “a real-world battle against evangelicals’ enemies and a spiritual battle against the Antichrist.”
His prediction is beginning to come true — with Jerusalem playing a critical role in that apocalyptic drama.
On Dec. 6, President Trump formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Met with concern by almost all corners of the diplomatic world, it was greeted with excitement by a large segment of conservative Christians, especially white evangelicals who are among his staunchest supporters.
As Trump “spiritual adviser” Paula White said, “Evangelicals are ecstatic, for Israel is to us a sacred place and the Jewish people are our dearest friends.” John Hagee, the founder of Christians United for Israel, responded to Trump’s announcement by noting its precise “biblical timing” set out in Leviticus. Michael Evans said that America is “in the middle of prophecy right now” and compared Trump to King Cyrus, a pagan king who nonetheless was an instrument of God and helped Israel. At a rally for the president in Florida, state Sen. Doug Broxson excited the crowd by declaring: “When I heard about Jerusalem — where the King of Kings (applause) where our soon coming King is coming back to Jerusalem, it is because President Trump declared Jerusalem to be capital of Israel.”
Such statements are important because they shift the frame with which listeners are asked to consider what happened. They position Trump’s statement within sacred, rather than secular time. In other words, they show that they think the Jerusalem decision was part of God’s plan for the world, a step on the way to the reunification of the holy city (still considered occupied under international law) and the restoration of the ancient Israelite Temple. In other words, a step on the way toward the apocalypse.
And apocalyptic beliefs are particularly strong in America among white evangelical Christians. In a 2010 Pew Survey, 58 per cent said they believed Jesus would return to earth in the next 40 years.
The immediate roots of end-times thinking in the American context can be traced to Hal Lindsey’s 1970 book The Late, Great Planet Earth, which repackaged and reformulated much older Christian ideas. For Lindsey, the formation of the modern state of Israel was critical because it signalled a step toward the rebuilding of the Temple. These ideas were reintroduced to a new generation by the immensely popular “Left Behind” books (and movies), in which Jerusalem is at the centre of a conflict between the Antichrist and the believers, and between Satan and Jesus.
But so what? These ideas don’t seem, on the face of it, particularly dangerous. Americans by and large express overwhelming support for the state of Israel. And Jerusalem does undeniably play a critical role in end-times scenarios. At the same time, Christian tradition in the West tends to think of sacred history as moving in cycles. Jerusalem was King David’s city, the capital of the kingdom of Israel, and the location for the pivotal moments in Jesus’ ministry, so it seems normal that it would play a critical role in Jesus’ Second Coming. Revelation 21 specifically describes the descent of a New Jerusalem in which the saved will dwell.
The question of who will be saved is also a vexed one. Hagee’s thoughts on it are outlined in his 2005 book Jerusalem Countdown, which predicts that Israel will be covered in “a sea of human blood” and the Jews will survive the final battle long enough to have “the opportunity to receive Messiah, who is a rabbi known to the world as Jesus of Nazareth.”
This is the troubling subtext to this evangelical apocalyptic support for the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. God wants the Temple rebuilt so that the end-times battle between the forces of good and evil can begin. Those who support God’s plan are good, while those who oppose it are evil. Muslims oppose the plan, hence they are evil.
The logic is ripped in almost whole part from ancient texts. For example, the wildly popular 10th-century “On the Antichrist” by the monk Adso of Montier-en-Der includes a section devoted to the so-called Christian “Last Emperor,” who would unite Christians in battle and conquer Jerusalem to begin the events of the final end. Even as late as the 16th century, the work of Martin Luther suggested that the invasions of the Ottomans into the Holy Roman Empire might be a sign of the beginning of the final cosmic war. In all of those sources, Jerusalem plays a central role as the site of that final battle against those they saw as the agents of evil — Muslims.
These traditions are not as distant as we may think. Modern apocalyptic expectation such as that of Lindsey, Hagee, and “Left Behind” series authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, owes a huge debt to its predecessors. In each case, as Stephen O’Leary wrote in his 1998 book, Arguing the Apocalypse, the importance of the moment is framed similarly — now is a critical juncture in God’s plan, because a great evil threatens to destroy us, so we must act.
Not all white conservative evangelicals think the apocalypse is at hand. But in Christian thinking, there is an end to history so those ideas remain always there, sometimes latent, but ready to explode into being if certain conditions in the world seem to have been met. When they do arise, they are potent. Apocalyptic ideas are not value-neutral, nor are they passive. Although they might not spark another crusade like they did a millennium ago, that rhetoric has been making a comeback, and a single spark apocalyptically framed could have devastating consequences.
Gabriele is an associate professor of medieval studies in the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech. Follow him on Twitter at @prof_gabriele