Prospects for the Impact of Christian Apocalyptic Expectation
on Israeli Politics and Society
A Position Paper by Dr. Richard Landes, Director, Center for Millennial Studies
Background: On Apocalyptic Time and its Denizens
The advent of the second Christian millennium has already occasioned a substantial amount of apocalyptic activity. While the core of this apocalyptic Zeitgeist derives from Christian expectations of the year 2000, there is evidence of a "contact high" phenomenon, in which some Jews, Hindus, New Age "pagans", Muslims, and even purely secular "scientists" have fixated on 2000 or thereabout as a key apocalyptic date, a turning point in human history. The core, however, remains Christian, and the primary focus of Christian apocalyptic faith is now, and has always been, Jerusalem. Not only did the Christian Church begin there (variously dated to the Crucifixion/Resurrection or to the Pentecost), but it will reach its full completion there with Jesus' return at the Second Coming (Parousia) on the Mount of Olives. This tradition, as old as the religion itself, has repeatedly manifested itself at times of intense apocalyptic expectation within Christianity, leading to massive, one-way pilgrimages and even Crusades. This longstanding apocalyptic hope is now linked to Jewish messianic expectations, forging a significant alliance over the status of the Temple Mount. The current belief that the network of tunnels under Har HaBayit will lead either to the Ark, or the ashes of the Red Heifer -- both triggers to the rebuilding of the Third Temple -- suggest a wide range of disastrous scenarios, and may explain some of the heated passion surrounding the opening the tunnel a few months ago.
The approach of the year 2000 should not be considered an exception to the rule: just because the cultural elites in modern and "post-modern" culture are themselves largely secular, and if religious, not of the apocalyptic type, does not mean that large numbers of people, educated and not, are not susceptible to apocalyptic enthusiasms. The best-selling living author is not Stephen King, but Hal Lindsey, author of The Late Great Planet Earth, a book which applies the symbolism of the Book of Revelation to current political and social events, and predicts a series of apocalyptic events for the world, particularly for Israel, starting with the "Rapture" in 2000 and climaxing with the Parousia in 2007.
Apocalyptic believers must not be ignored just because their beliefs seem so ridiculous and superstitious. Right or wrong, people who believe that the end is near, especially a divinely wrought end in which they will triumph over all their foes, are powerful actors -- uninhibited, totally committed, capable of superhuman feats of self-sacrifice and destruction. And what applies to most apocalyptic believers applies all the more sharply to those who believe in a date.
Apocalyptic time is not normal time. The attitudes towards "unbelievers" that characterize people who believe that God's Day of Wrath is at hand differ notably from what one might call their "normal" co-religionists. Indeed, apocalyptic time tends to trigger polar, powerful and interrelated responses: on the one hand, irenic expansiveness (aimed often at conversion), on the other, violent intolerance (aimed at eliminating the enemy). The former response can turn into the latter (far less often vice-versa) as disappointment mingles with impatience and missionizing turns from enthusiasm to coercion. In other words, the urgency of apocalyptic expectation places immense pressure on what one might call "moral eschatology" (saved by how one acts) to become "credal eschatology" (saved by belonging to the right group, whose victory justifies any action).
Everything that can be said generally about apocalyptic believers and their relationship to outsiders applies tenfold to Christian views of Jews. In almost every known case of Christian apocalyptic thought, Jews play a central role: they are both the final converts and the followers of Antichrist, and the advent of apocalyptic time for Christians signals dramatic changes in their perception and treatment of the Jews. In apocalyptic time, none of the "normal" rules (of either tolerance or contempt) apply; and in a paradox that is typical of apocalyptic beliefs, some of the most warmly tolerant and most violently paranoid attitudes of Christians towards Jews spring up in this vortex.
Jews have no choice in these matters: whatever they may think they are doing -- from abandoning/secularizing their messianic hopes, to following a messianic prophet -- they appear on the Christian apocalyptic screen in radically different forms. The great secular messianic project of modern Judaism -- Zionism -- has done more than any single event to trigger the Christian apocalyptic imagination. Both the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the current wave of Zionist fundamentalist Christian support for Israel stem from this strange symbiosis. The former reaction stems from the fact that one of the prevailing Christian myths of Antichrist presents him as a Jewish false messiah, and the end of Jewish exile as the awakening of the Antichrist.
Such beliefs have had a long and profoundly insidious effects on Jewish-Christian relations. Precisely at moments where dialogue begins to offer genuine alternatives in the relationship between the two enemies, it has a tendency to trigger messianic hopes which inevitably call into play the traditional Antichrist activity.
Jerusalem and the Year 2000
Christian apocalyptic expectation focused on the year 2000 poses a serious challenge to Israeli society.
Millions of Pilgrims:
These should emphatically not be considered tourists. They are pilgrims of a special sort, and have a long lineage in Western Christian history.
At this time [i.e., the millennium of the Passion] an innumerable multitude of people from the whole world, greater than any man before could have hoped to see began to travel to the holy sepulcher of the Savior in Jerusalem. Many did not want to return at all, and prayed on the Mount of Olives for Christ to take them up. First the order of the inferior plebes' then those of middling estate, and after these, the great men, that is kings, counts, marchlords and bishops, and eventually, and this was unheard of before, many women, noble and poor, undertook the journey. Many wished to die there before they returned to their own lands... (Rodulfus Glaber [d. 1045], Five Books of Histories, 4.6.18).
If at the last millennium, when the population was small, and the way long, arduous, and rarely traveled, "innumerable" pilgrims went, then in this age of easy travel and a billion Christians world-wide, one can expect a great deal more. Moreover, as at the previous millennium, a substantial number of these pilgrims will be coming with no intention of returning since they believe that Jesus will return and rule over his millennial kingdom from Jerusalem. Already some guided tours suggest that the pilgrims may be in the Holy Land when the Second Coming happens. One can predict with a fair degree of confidence that there will be large numbers camped out around the Mount of Olives, waiting for this Parousia. At the very least, one can expect not merely a greater number of cases of "Jerusalem syndrome" but collective examples of it; it will most likely spill out from the hospital wards into the streets and pilgrim camps, where many of those who are convinced they are Elijah, or Jesus, or the Lord's vessels for humanity's redemption, will find like spirits and audiences on an unprecedented scale.
Missionizing Impulse and Success of Missionizing:
One of the most fundamental and enduring of Christian eschatological beliefs is that at the end of time the Jews will convert to Christianity. This will be the climax of a process of conversion of all peoples which will occur at the end.
The intensity of Christian missions, explicitly targeted to 2000, has been clearly evident throughout this decade (according to the Episcopalians, "the decade of mission"), and in 1996 the Southern Baptists have named the Jews as the prime target for conversion. The recent mass mailing of missionary material to individual Israelis warns of things to come and speaks volumes about the financial support behind such a process. In some of the more violent of the Christian apocalyptic scenarios currently circulating (e.g. Jack Van Impe), the group of Jews who convert play an absolutely crucial role in both bringing violent persecution on the Jews, and defeating Gog and Magog (Russia and allies). One can expect the apocalyptic pilgrims of 2000 to engage -- intentionally or not -- in missionizing activity. For most them to do anything less would be an act of cowardice and weakness in their faith. Only those rare Christian groups who are, to take a term from the Y2K crisis, millennium compliant, and who believe that Jews and other non-Christians can be saved as Jews and non-Christians, can embrace this apocalyptic fervor without striving for conversions.
A surprising number of Jewish (and Muslim) Israelis may be more vulnerable to these Christian efforts at conversion than we imagine. Modern day Israel, with its split between religious and secular culture, with its rapid social and cultural changes, with its long tradition of messianic hope, is fertile ground for the appeal of apocalyptic rhetoric, even Christian rhetoric. Christian apocalyptic appeals have been developing language that is acceptable and attractive to Jews for over a generation now, not without success, especially among secular Jews. In general, the latest stages of modernity have effects on whole populations that closely correspond to the kind of conditions that cults seek to create artificially -- sleep deprivation, information overload, sensory enervation -- in order to break down people's resistance. Given the tensions and crises that beset Israeli society on a regular basis, one cannot anticipate every sector of the culture resisting what, in apocalyptic times, can be most compelling rhetoric and group dynamics. This does not mean mass conversions to Christianity, but enough, especially at the level of teenagers, to create huge uproars within the Jewish community. At the same time, however unacceptable these successes to the Jewish community, the Christians will find them insufficient, and feel deeply disappointed -- once again -- that the Jews did not convert.
Deep-seated Hostility to Jews and Zionism:
These pilgrims have, by and large, a deep seated ambivalence to Jews and to Zion. In their view Zionism, especially secular Zionism, represents at best a momentary element in God's plan, legitimate only insofar as it participates in gathering Israel together and thereby bringing on God's kingdom to earth. But from their perspective, secular Zionism is part of a Godless modernity and Judaism a religion superseded by Christianity; ultimately, therefore, Jews will convert and Zionism will yield to the millennial rule of Jesus. Judaism is, in almost all Christian eschatology, a vehicle to an end which will, by disappearing, lead to that End. As profound and sincere as Christian apocalyptic support for Israel may be now, at another stage of their hopes, the continuance of a secular Zionism and a non-Christian Judaism will register in exactly the opposite way -- an obstacle to God's plan.
Disappointment and Anger:
When, inevitably, these fervent believers begin to realize the failure of their expectations, they will respond by both intensified efforts to convert the Jews (in order to advance the millennial process) and intensified hostility to Jews (for, by refusing to convert, they will have caused the failure). The conflicts that this double-edged, deeply resentful behavior will trigger could easily break out into violence. And, as we know from Jewish history, apocalyptic Zealots are capable of immense and ruthless violence, as well as an unhesitating willingness to commit suicide for the cause.
Alliances with other Religious Movements:
These disturbances may even go beyond the merely Christian. There are strong millennial and apocalyptic currents in Islam today, and it is likely that at least some of the disappointed Christian groups will find a welcome (if temporary) home for their bitterness and hostility among Muslims. It is characteristic of apocalyptic thought that at key moments radical reversals occur: the ally is revealed as the enemy, the enemy as the ally. Such reversals almost always stem from a quickening of the pace, the outbreak of hostilities and violence, the "coming out" of the apocalyptic group onto the public stage.
Nor is this merely a municipal problem, however extensive. If these Christian pilgrims become difficult to manage, if violence breaks out, if Israeli counter-measures backfire, then one can easily imagine a large number of players on the international scene who are just waiting for an opportunity to insist that Israelis cannot handle so complex a religious and social phenomenon as Jerusalem. Obviously Palestinians will have every reason to accentuate the problems; and Christian nations, especially the European ones, who now feel marginalized by the negotiations between Arabs and Israelis, will see this as an opportunity to take their place at the table. Israel will need a great deal of help in 2000: better they should line it up now, rather than need to go to governments and religious groups who do not wish them well, in time of desperation.
A.) Monitor closely the activity of Christian apocalyptic groups; subscribe to their mailings, keep track of their finances, know the key players, be familiar with:
B.) Plan a (large and expandable) shelter near the Mount of Olives and be on the alert for squatters.
C.) Make links with non-apocalyptic Christian groups (with genuinely friendly ties to Israel) and encourage the preparation of pastoral counselors who can deal with pre-apocalyptic enervation and post-apocalyptic depression among these pilgrims.
D.) Prepare police and other agents of public order to deal with these kinds of problems, including possibly the inclusion of Christian counselors on patrols to hot-spots.
E.) Establish before-hand, and quite explicitly, the rules of the game for pilgrimage to Israel, including causes for and methods of expulsion. Have all pilgrims sign a pre-landing agreement.
F.) Prepare a public relations offensive, warning of the anticipated problems, getting the press as much on your side as possible, so that once the problems break out, you will have made clear how many precautions you have taken.
G.) Establish some kind of Jewish-Christian-Muslim committee to deal with the frictions created by proselytizing.
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