Walter Russell Mead
The MSM will miss the significance of this story as it misses a lot of stories having to do with religion, but tens of millions of American Christians were jolted this week by the news that a member of the Israeli cabinet has called for the construction of the Third Temple in Jerusalem on Temple Mount.
Political junkies saw this as a disturbing but not hugely significant development. Uri Ariel, the Israeli minister of Housing and Construction, is widely seen as an effective and charismatic figure on the fringe of Israeli politics. His inclusion in the Cabinet was a sign of just how far the balance has tilted in the current Knesset in favor of the settler movement. He’s a political provocateur who enjoys saying controversial things; he objected, for example, to having Chancellor Angela Merkel address the Knesset in German.
For people who follow Israeli politics, Ariel’s call to rebuild the ancient Jewish Temple on a site sacred to Muslims was a troubling indication that some taboos are crumbling as the settler movement moves into the political mainstream. It’s also a marker for any discussions on the future of Jerusalem should US Secretary of State John Kerry actually restart peace negotiations.
From a purely political point of view, then, this was a bad news story but not a big news story.
To the hundreds of millions of people around the world for whom Israel news is religious news as well as political news, it was something else. The Jewish Temple is not just another historical building, and any discussion about rebuilding it isn’t just another political story.
The Jewish Temple is unique in world religious history. It was a very different thing than the synagogues in which Jews pray today. In the Torah, God commanded the Hebrews to build a temple in the land he would give them; this command was carried out, the Bible tells us, by David’s son Solomon (who is revered as a prophet by Muslims). When built, the Temple was the only place where Jews could carry out the sacrifices required by Jewish law; it was the spiritual heart of Judaism in the way no church has ever been the central focus of Christianity, and its role can only be compared to that of Mecca in Islam.
The First Temple was destroyed when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem 587 years before the birth of Christ. The Second Temple was rebuilt on that site by Jews returning from exile and magnificently restored and embellished right around the time of Christ by Herod the Great. Under Greek and Roman rule, the Temple was the scene of great confrontations between the monotheistic Jews and their pagan overlords. The Second Temple was destroyed when the Romans crushed a Jewish revolt, and the site has since been occupied by a pagan temple, a Christian church and is now under the control of an Islamic religious foundation. Muslims revere the site as the place where Abraham offered to sacrifice his son to God, as well as the place from which the Prophet Mohammed left the earth on the Night Journey.
Many Islamists will see Uri Ariel’s announcement as confirming a vision that links the behavior of the Jewish state with a religious and political crisis that will overcome humanity in the years leading up to the last battle between good and evil and the Last Judgement. Many Christians will agree, though of course the details of the two apocalyptic visions are not the same.
Since the 19th century, long before there was a Zionist movement among Jews, evangelical Protestants have been working out interpretations of the Biblical prophecies of the “End Times” based largely on the Book of Revelations at the end of the Christian Bible, and prophecies found in the Jewish scriptures in the books of Ezekiel, Daniel and some others. Roughly speaking, they concluded on the basis of their study of these books that the Jews would return to the Holy Land and establish a new Jewish state there. In time, though surrounded by hostile neighbors and threatened by powers like Russia, this state would rebuild the Temple. Once that was rebuilt, the real apocalyptic countdown would begin and a series of wars and tribulations would sweep the earth before Jesus triumphantly returns for the Last Judgement.
The degree to which the history has conformed to the early stages of these predictions was a powerful factor in the rise of evangelical religion in the United States during the twentieth century, and the impact grew after 1967 when the Israelis stunned the world by capturing the ancient city and Temple Mount from Jordanian forces.
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 a piece of political news in Israel, Uri Ariel’s statement may not have been a big deal. But all over the world, people are pricking up their ears as word spreads. Like it or not, we in the 21st century live in an Age of Apocalypse, when hopes and fears connected to the end of the world play a growing role in world politics. Whether we are looking at greens who think that global warming will kill us off, others who fear nuclear apocalypse, Silicon Valley tech prophets predicting the Singularity, or old fashioned religious teachers predicting the Last Judgement and the End Times, we live in an era in which the end of human history as we know it is on the table.
For hundreds of millions of people all over the world, the end came a little closer this week. In our view, that’s news.