Syria and the End-Times

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(Image from Political Geography Now)

Before I've had my coffee, this is how I imagine Christians reading the Bible:

Hm, they just mentioned Damascus on the news. Didn't I see that word when I was flipping through the Bible looking for that verse about God giving me all the money. Oh yes, here it is, Isaiah 17:1: "Damascus will no longer be a city but will become a heap of ruins." Hey! The end is here, praise the Lord!"

Such is the impression I get when reading the comments presented in the Huffington Post article this morning, "Isaiah 17:1: Is Syria War Part Of Jesus' Second Coming? Christians And Muslims Quote Scripture."

When I am being more charitable, I recognize that in this world of fear and uncertainty, people want to hear comforting words about the future. Apocalyptic Christianity is characterized primarily by waiting in readiness, and a person can only do that for so long before he cracks.

There are two fundamental problems here, leaving aside the clusterf difficult situation in Syria. First, many Christians read the prophets in a wildly misguided way. Second, we should question why we have allowed such a violent and bloodthirsty imagination to take over the Christian worldview.

Reading the Prophets

The HuffPo article suggests that there are two primary options for interpreting Isaiah 17:1, found in this quote from David Lose:

Some read almost any prophetic utterances as blueprints about the future, rather than as metaphors meant to inspire hope and offer comfort in the present. If that's your lens, then the Bible is full of clues through which to read current events.

I suppose that reading Isaiah 17:1 as a metaphor for the modern day is better than reading it as an end-times prediction, but just barely. In my view, we should understand this text primarily in historical terms. Damascus is actually mentioned 18 times in the prophets, and each of those refers to specific historical situations. In the case of Isaiah, it is probably a reference to the 8th century conflict between Assyria and the regional states of the levant: Aram (Syria), Israel, Judah, etc. There are some apocalyptic, end-time oracles in the Prophets, but this is not one of them.

The article does concede that "Some scholars believe that this prophecy was fulfilled in 732 BC when Assyrians destroyed the city," but that little concession just confuses the issue. The historical interpretation of the Bible is not a matter of "belief," and oh man those crazy scholars with their weird dates and what-not. The article should have said, "here is what the passage is about," and the "here is how certain people transform that plain, literal meaning into flights of fancy."

Also, it should be obvious that one cannot read just one verse by itself. Go ahead and read verses 1-6. Notice that although the passage begins with a reference to Damascus and Aram (Syria), the real purpose of the prophecy is to condemn Israel. (During this time, the Jewish people were divided into two kingdoms. The southern kingdom was called Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem, and the northern kingdom was called Israel, with its capital in Samaria. The nation of Israel is often called "Ephraim" in the prophetic books.)

Um, I'm pretty sure that in End-Time preaching, the destruction of Israel is not usually part of the plan.

Violence in Christian Imagination

The first point is mostly just a pet-peeve of mine because I wish that people could -- and wanted to -- read the Bible better. The second point is more important. By embracing the Apocalyptic speculation of Revelation, and listening to the fear-mongering of ignorant preachers, Christians have transformed the heart of their message from one of love and redemption into a celebration of violence, war, and destruction.

Inserting the expectation of pre-millennial rapture makes it worse. Such a theology says in essence that "terrible things are about to happen to this wicked, wicked world. It needs to burn and God is going to use evil powers to burn it down, but luckily I get to zip to heaven just as the shooting starts." Even Revelation does not go that far. In Revelation, and indeed in the world itself, bad things happen, but God's people are part of the story all the way to the end.

I cannot say this too strongly: this modern apocalyptic theology is hateful, cowardly, destructive, and not Christian. I have no doubt that people suffering in that region feel like the Apocalypse is upon them. Our first response to their plight should be compassion and righteous anger, not gleeful anticipation.