By Wissam al-Saliby
Earlier this year, I was flipping through the radio channels as I was driving from Houston to Dallas. I fell upon a talk show where, to my surprise, I heard the interviewee mentioning “Hezbollah and Iran.” I focused my attention on the conversation to better understand how our region’s politics are perceived in Texas. However, within a few minutes, Jimmy DeYoung moved from recent political developments in the Middle East to Biblical prophecy to forecasting that Arab nations will unite and attack Israel – a claim that I have heard so many times in the US, but that sounds incredulous, almost impossible, to a Lebanese who is seeing an ever increasing Arab dis-unity. The radio show and the connected website are called Prophecy Today. It concluded with a prayer for the Peace of Jerusalem, a peace that is interpreted in light of the preceding political and theological analysis.
Prophecy Today (DeYoung) and other similar initiatives, usually run by one man, such as EndTime Ministries (Irvin Baxter), Rapture Ready (Todd Strandberg), and Restored Church of God (David C. Pack) all demonstrate similar geopolitical analyses of events that happens to be “always in line” with what the prophecies say. This “prophecy industry” manifests itself in websites, books, radio and TV shows, conferences, church pulpits, YouTube channels, and Internet advertisements.
When I visit and share with churches in the US in my capacity as ABTS Development and Partner Relations Manager, I regularly answer questions that arise from underlying assumptions which have been shaped by the “end-times prophecy” industry. But here’s the catch: these assumptions don’t match reality. In my view, this popular and prevalent “end-times” version of dispensationalism is mis-reading the signs of the times in the Middle East.
In his sermon titled “Arab World in Prophecy,” United Church of God pastor David Dobson states that “Jesus taught His disciples to watch the events that will lead to His return. One highly important area to continue to watch is the Arab world.” His analysis of prophecy fulfillment, however, is everything wrong happening in the Arab world: death and destruction, the evil of ISIS and jihad. He calls his listeners to a particular understanding of “the historical roots of the conflict between Islam and the Western World.” The sermon positions the June 2014 ISIS declaration of the caliphate within the Daniel 11 prophecy of an end-time king of the south who will attack the king of the north.
So what’s missing in his analysis, and that of others?
In response to prophetic outlets, Abdu Murray, a Lebanese-American follower of Christ from Muslim background, wrote in his 2009 book Apocalypse Later: Why the Gospel of Peace Must Trump the Politics of Prophecy in the Middle East the following:
But what was crystal clear to me was that leading evangelicals’ preoccupation with using the continuous tragedies in the Middle East to put details to their end-times theories was pushing more and more Arabs, Muslims and Jews away from Christ rather than attracting them. The cries of both Arabs and Jews were practically deafening, but the church was not listening because it was too busy shouting about Armageddon.
Indeed, from our vantage point at ABTS, we hear the people of the Arab world thirstily seeking God, including – or should I say especially – in conflict affected areas and among refugees. And we see God’s mission unfolding in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
In the past 10 years, the Church in the Arab world and Iran has witnessed a harvest that is bigger than the previous 100 years. In this reflection on OM’s work in the Near East, the author says “this (Syrian) exodus, birthed from desperation, has allowed Syrians Muslims to hear the gospel, many for the first time.” Author Tom Doyle, in his book Dreams and Visions: Is Jesus Awakening the Muslim World? (2012) reiterates what many are saying, that Iran has the fastest growing church in the world and that God is working in unprecedented ways in the Middle East and North Africa. In this article on his visit to Algeria, Canadian Baptist Ministries leader Terry Smith shares, “we were able to witness the stunning growth of the church there, which has increased from an estimated 200 Christians in 1991 to more than 100,000 Christians today.”
At ABTS, I’ve met in the past several years with students and ministers from over 10 Arab countries, all the way from Morocco to Yemen. And they relayed to me similar stories of God’s work across the nations and of people seeking Him.
By reading the signs of the times through a narrowly negative lens, the “prophecy industry” is redirecting much needed resources and prayer away from God’s mission in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Instead of creating bridges between the various members of the Body of Christ, end-times prophecy obscures the existence and role of the Arab Church, and results in withdrawal of the Western church from the church in the MENA region during a time when more engagement is needed.
Furthermore, I have seen in recent years churches and ministry leaders in our region working on peacebuilding and justice as a response to the political instability, violence and war. IMES expanded in 2016 its Peacebuilding Initiatives in Lebanon. In April 2017, 6 ABTS faculty and staff took part in Amman, Jordan, in the Forum for Evangelical Theology in the Arab World themed on peacebuilding. Ministries in Israel/Palestine are striving towards reconciliation and justice, to build a lasting peace. ABTS graduate and pastor of the Baghdad Baptist Church, Ara Badalian, took part earlier this year in a large gathering of minority groups in Baghdad with the theme “Enhancing Religious Diversity and Peacebuilding in Iraq.” Bethlehem Bible College is running every two years Christ At The Checkpoint, a “platform for Evangelical Christians to learn about and become engaged in working towards Christ-led solutions for peace.” Through such initiatives, the Church in the Arab world is answering God’s call to be salt and light in a deeply troubled region, and exploring what it means to be faithful witnesses to Christ as peacebuilders.
There’s an obvious misalignment between the readings of end-times outlets and what the churches and ministries in the Arab world feel called to. And what does this misalignment lead to? The late Kenneth Bailey described in his book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes (2008), the impact of “voices announcing that the end of all things is upon us,” in the following words:
Such speculation provides a convenient escape valve from responsibilities in the present. If the end of the world is imminent, then there is no need to speak truth to power! Efforts to create a just society are pointless. Why work for peace and reconciliation? All things will soon be over. Energy spent to protect and preserve the natural world is in vain. The prayer, “Thy kingdom come on earth” needs no commitment or response because the earth itself will soon pass away.
If the churches in the Arab world were to believe in what the “end-timers” were “prophesying,” we would not see the revival, hope and witness that we are seeing today.
How can we bridge this gap between what is really happening and what is being “shouted” in the US and elsewhere?
Visiting Lebanon and our region, and meeting with Arab Christians, are a must, especially for theologians relaying to the US what they perceive is happening in the Middle East. We’ve seen firsthand how churches and ministries in the US gain a better, clearer and deeper understanding of the signs of the times and of God’s plans for our region when they visit ministries in Lebanon.
I also invite you to consider the prayer requests in ABTS’s monthly newsletter, as well as the prayer requests on PrayerCast ministry by local ministry leaders in the Arab world, some of whom I have the pleasure of knowing personally. In a recent interview, Palestinian theologian Mitri Raheb said that “How we pray” is an important platform for education, adding: “Do we pray for Christians, Muslims and Jews? Do we pray only for Peace? Or also for justice and reconciliation?”
God is at work bringing redemption and restoration in the hearts of people in our region. He is able to reconcile Christians, Muslims and Jews to Himself and to each other, through Christ. Join us in making that your prayer focus.
*Initially posted on http://acts211.org.