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Middle East Christians Grapple with Apocalyptic Pandemic

COVID-19 offers eschatology experts opportunity to refine public understanding of what Revelation teaches.
Middle East Christians Grapple with Apocalyptic Pandemic
Image: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Source Images: WikiMedia Commons / Gehad Hamdy / AP Images

Imad Shehadeh sensed an apocalyptic felt need.

As chatter increased in the Arab world over the soaring coronavirus death tallies in China and Iran, the president of Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary (JETS) in Amman began preaching on eschatology in lockdown.

“The coronavirus could qualify as one of the calamities that point to the end times, but could also just be a passing plague,” he said in a widely shared video series posted in March.

“We cannot be dogmatic, but at the very least [these] distresses have resemblance to much more severe events in the future time of tribulation.”

Diligently studying to incorporate aspects of all theological systems, Shehadeh aimed to keep the Cross central within a literal hermeneutic.

“The more we study prophecy,” he said, “the more we can see things in our world that others cannot, like a physician who knows immediately how to treat a wound.”

COVID-19 has left many bleeding.

Shehadeh previously wrote a four-volume commentary on biblical prophecy. It was written in Arabic, he said, to address the gap created by a lack of traditional Catholic and Orthodox focus on eschatology. A gap sometimes mirrored in the older Protestant denominations of the Middle East.

Shehadeh founded JETS in 1991. By contrast, the Near East School of Theology (NEST), the first Protestant seminary in the Middle East, was founded in Beirut in 1932 by pioneering Presbyterian and Congregationalist missionaries.

“Every time there have been wars and pestilences in history, some people have either proclaimed the end or busied themselves with the question of signs,” said George Sabra, president of NEST. “We should not waste time doing the same, but show God’s love and compassion toward the suffering.”

In fact, there is a distinct danger in a dispensational-type approach to eschatology, he said. It often leads to Christian Zionism, which, with its pro-Israel bias Sabra believes is “harmful” to the Christians of the region.

Shehadeh sees harm going both ways.

“We need to shield ourselves from theologies that often lead to a Christianity dominated by a victim mentality, in line with political and religious extremism,” he said, acknowledging that some dispensationalists also fall prey to such extremes.

“But allegorical interpretations deny God the right to express himself through the plain-sense words of Scripture.”

Shehadeh emphasizes his approach is not about any modern political entity but about God’s mercy to all nations. Many Americans, however, put Israel in the forefront.

According to a LifeWay Research survey released in March, 7 in 10 evangelical and black Protestant pastors see the modern state of Israel as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy in advance of the end times.

The “birth pangs of the Messiah” are a shared belief between evangelicals and Orthodox Jews, stated Mitch Glaser, president of Chosen People Ministries, a joint sponsor of the survey.

And a similar survey sponsored by the Joshua Fund suggests Jews—at least in America—are responding at even greater rates. Nearly 2 in 5 (38%) said the pandemic has increased their interest in the Bible’s teachings (including end-times prophecies), compared to 1 in 5 (22%) for non-Christians in general.

It is unwise to guess if these findings hold in Israel, said fund founder Joel Rosenberg, who also co-sponsored the LifeWay survey through the Alliance for Jerusalem.

But while the Hasidic community has been hit hard by the pandemic, Rosenberg believed the return to the Bible—including the New Testament—is driven by the less observant.

“Most Jewish people in Israel, the US, and around the world have either rebelled against or drifted from strict Orthodox Judaism,” he said.

“Whatever the reasons, the rejection of their own religion has left them spiritually empty and searching.”

To address this need, the Joshua Fund published a 12-page fact sheet in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. It summarizes God’s “sovereign purposes” for plagues as either divine judgment, warning of sin, or awakening from spiritual slumber.

Just like Pseudo-Methodius, back in the seventh century.

The original Methodius was a fourth-century church father, a bishop in Olympus. But in northern Syria, an unknown author appropriated his name to write a Syriac apocalyptic text, following the Islamic conquests of Christian territory.

“Islam’s arrival was the punishment for sin,” said Wageeh Mikhail, a Christian-Muslim relations expert for ScholarLeaders, summarizing Pseudo-Methodius. “But even if Islam is dominating now, a later Roman emperor will arise and defeat the enemies of the faith.”

After establishing peace, this emperor would proceed to defeat the armies of Gog and Magog. He would then go to Jerusalem and offer his crown to Christ. The crown would be taken up to heaven along with the spirit of the emperor, at which time the Antichrist would appear and usher in the final battle.

Yet the delay in these eschatological events eventually shifted Middle East Christian literature from apocalypse to apologetics, said Mikhail, formerly the director of the Center for Middle East Christianity at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo.

The shift is witnessed in two 13th-century commentaries on Revelation preserved from the Coptic golden age. One, by Bulus al-Bushi, calculates Muhammad’s name to equal the 666 mark of the beast, wrote Stephen Davis of Yale University in The Harvard Theological Review. The other, by Ibn Katib Qaysar, mentions Bushi but leaves out this detail. Instead, using Quranic terminology it identifies the apostle John, the author of Revelation, in similar reference to Muhammad, as a “messenger.”

Yet Qaysar also revives a literal understanding of the millennium, which church fathers uniformly abandoned by the fourth century.

“Patristic writing did not limit eschatology to future events,” Mikhail said, “but applied it as a present reality after the Incarnation.”

Bishop Gregory Mansour of the Maronite Catholic eparchy of Brooklyn said this approach still influences Lebanon today.

September 14 is the Feast of the Holy Cross, though the Maronite “vibrant understanding of the end times” extends this focus until November. The liturgy emphasizes the need for preparedness through the eschatological passages of Jesus, Paul, and Revelation.

“It is not so much an end-of-time prediction,” Mansour said, “but the world’s resistance and opposition to God, every time he is introduced to society.”

And in this light, the bishop appreciated the approach of Pope Francis, who said the new coronavirus is not necessarily God’s judgment on us, but an opportunity for us to judge ourselves and see where we went wrong.

Sympathetic, Archbishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox diocese of London believes this is a crucial time to refine the message even further.

So far, the Middle East has suffered more than 36,000 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, and more than 3,700 deaths.

Even so, in Egypt, Christians do not tend to be overly worried about the end times, where the government has said the nation is “coexisting” with the virus.

But Angaelos is nevertheless very concerned by talk that emphasizes either God’s wrath or the waywardness of the world.

“People are so troubled and fragile, they need a comforting, empowering word to get them through these days,” he said.

“The COVID-19 pandemic will pass, but the image of God we engrave in their hearts and minds will not.”

Back in Jordan, Shehadeh agrees.

Only 20 percent of Revelation is about judgment, he said in his video series. The rest is about God’s feelings for people tragically led toward sin by Satan.

“Proper eschatology must keep the centrality of the Cross in a message of God’s grace,” Shehadeh said.

“And we prepare for the end times by trusting in the character of God as his witnesses, eager not only to warn of his judgment, but also to share of his love in Christ.”

Additional reporting by Jeremy Weber

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