The media criticism site Get Religion identifies what it calls “ghosts” in news stories — religious angles that exist but are unseen by journalists, who don’t see them because they don’t, yes, get religion. Walter Russell Mead spies a classic religion ghost in the story of an Israeli cabinet official who called for the building of the Temple. This event — the construction of a Jewish place of worship on the Temple Mount (where a mosque now sits) for the first time since 70 AD — is held by tens of millions of Christians to be a sign of the nearness of the Apocalypse. Writes Mead:
Any sign that the Temple issue is moving to the fore in Israeli politics today will engage the attention of evangelical and Pentecostal Protestants around the world. In Africa, Brazil, the United States and many other places, this news, combined with the stories about unrest in the Arab world, will be read as a sign that the End Times are approaching and that God is at work.
A great many Muslims are also reading this week’s news and seeing signs that the End Times are coming. In Islam as in Christianity, many strains of apocalyptic thinking see the End Times as an era of apostasy and rebellion against God, of the forces of evil assembling themselves for one last battle against God and true religion. The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the bitter war between Sunnis and Shiites that now embraces the entire Fertile Crescent, and what will be seen by many as evidence that Israel is preparing to restore the Temple on a site holy to Islam: these developments will further strengthen apocalyptic, End Times thinking in the Muslim world.
This news will reverberate around the world. In places like Nigeria, where relations between Christians and Muslims (often exacerbated by tribal and economic competition) are poor, news like this helps drive the sense of conflict and nourishes the hotheads on both sides of the conflict.
As Mead points out, it’s a fairly routine story from an Israeli political perspective, though increasingly less so as the influence of far-right Israelis grows in the country’s politics. But that’s not how the news will likely be interpreted by enormous numbers of people, Christian and Muslim both.
Eleven years ago, I wrote about this kind of thing in a National Review piece I did about the reported birth of a flawless red heifer, of the sort required for sacrifice in a rebuilt Temple. Excerpt:
In 1996, thanks in part to a cattle-breeding program set up in Israel with the help of Texas ranchers who are fundamentalist Christians, a red heifer was born. There was immense excitement among messianists of the Israeli religious Right, and their American Christian counterparts. The world media covered it as a joke, but it wasn’t funny to David Landau, columnist for the Israeli daily Haaretz. He called the red heifer “a four-legged bomb” that could “set the entire region on fire.” Muslim leaders worried about the red heifer too, as they would see an attempt by Jews to take over the Temple Mount as a sign of the Islamic apocalypse.
As it turned out, during the three years of waiting for the heifer to reach the ritually mandated age of sacrifice, white hairs popped out on the tip of her tail. This bovine was, alas, not divine. But now there’s a successor, and rabbis who have examined her have declared her ritually acceptable (though she will not be ready for sacrifice for three years). She arrives at a time when Israel is fighting a war for survival with the Palestinians, who are almost entirely Muslim, and a time in which Islam and the West appear to be girding for battle with each other, as Islamic tradition predicts will be the state of the world before the Final Judgment.
“These kinds of circumstances are exactly what people are waiting for,” says Richard Landes, a Boston University history professor and director of its Center for Millenial Studies. “We could be starting a war. If this is a real red heifer, and strict Orthodox rabbis have declared her worthy of sacrifice, then a lot of Jews in Israel will take that as a sign that a new phase of history is about to begin. The Muslims are ready for jihad anyway, so if you have Jews up there doing sacrifices, talk about a red flag in front of a charging bull.”
Landes says there is immense anger among Israelis, both religious and secular, at the ingratitude of Muslims, whom the conquering Israeli army allowed to occupy and control the Temple Mount in 1967. Add to this the fury of a nation under attack by Islamic suicide bombers, and, says Landes, “it’s entirely conceivable that this [red heifer] could trigger a new round of attempts to blow up the Dome of the Rock.”
This is something the Israeli security forces have long been vigilant against. But with their attentions drawn elsewhere by the war with the Palestinians, it’s possible that a radical group could slip the net. And it’s possible that religious extremists elements within the Israeli army could help them.
“This idea is nothing to laugh at,” says novelist Robert Stone, whose novel Damascus Gate centers around a similar conspiracy. “There have been at least four actual plots to clear the space where the Temple had stood. Some of them went surprisingly high into the army and police.”
Timothy Weber, dean of Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Ill., has written extensively about the worldview of apocalypse-minded American Protestants. He tells NRO that “Bible teachers are foaming at the mouth over what’s happening now in Israel.”
“It really does play into the longstanding scenario that dispensationalists have believed would happen in the End: a growing disdain for Israel, Israel’s isolation from the rest of the world, and mounting pressure on the Jewish state,” Weber says. “This all leads up to the emergence of an Antichrist, who will step up and bring peace to the situation, and Israel and the world will welcome him as a solution to an apparently unsolvable problem.”
The unshakable belief in particular prophetic visions — Jewish, Christian, or Islamic — makes the art of political compromise impossible when it comes to Jerusalem. Says Weber: “There’s no way to negotiate these ideas. If you believe that this is in the prophetic cards, that this is history before it happens, that this is how God is going to manipulate events to bring about the final phase of human history, then you cannot negotiate land for peace, or anything else.”
The point? Here:
Put another way: You don’t have to believe that a rust-colored calf could bring about the end of the world — or that 72 black-eyed virgins await the pious Islamic suicide bomber in paradise — but there are many people who do, and are prepared to act on that belief. This is a stubborn reality that eludes many of us in the modern, secular West, particularly those who work in the media, and who are therefore responsible for reporting and explaining the world to the masses.