President Trump recently announced his intention to move the United States embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, thus reaffirming it as the capital of Israel. This raised the collective eyebrows of millions of dispensationalist Evangelical Protestants. Their eyes fixed, as they saw it, on the prophetic markers of scripture (a Jerusalem-centric book) as it has played out in Israel’s recent history from the Balfour Declaration in 1917 to statehood in 1948 to seizing Jerusalem in 1967.
Trump’s bold move brought new life to old murmurings about the possibility of a future Third Temple in Jerusalem. Some sites have even heralded President Trump as a “modern-day Cyrus the Great,” the Persian king who ended the Babylonian captivity and allowed the Jews to build the Second Temple. Overreactions aside, many believe the Bible foretells that the Third Temple will reestablish ancient Levitical worship, but also be the seat of the antichrist. It is the precursor to the End Times, and will provoke the return of Jesus Christ. St. Paul warned the Thessalonians of the antichrist saying, “he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.”
The Second Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., fulfilling Jesus’ words from the Olivet discourse (Mt. 24). In the preterist eschatology, that generation experienced its own apocalypse with the encircling and massacre of Jerusalem by Roman soldiers, and the razing of the Temple. Josephus records their emperor worship too: they “brought their ensigns to the temple and set them over against its eastern gate; and there did they offer sacrifices to them.” This desolating abomination echoes that of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (“God Manifest”), who had similarly desecrated it with a statue to Zeus some 237 years prior. The Church holds these men among the “types” and forerunners of antichrist, who have plagued the Church throughout its history with heresies and persecutions.
In the first century of the Church, the Roman Caesars from Nero to Diocletian became “antichrists,” and Rome was “Babylon.” Even St. Jerome, in his Commentary on the Book of Daniel, expressed this idea, “And so there are many of our viewpoint who think that Domitius Nero was the Antichrist because of his outstanding savagery and depravity.” Yet, centuries later, with the arrival of Muhammad and Islamic jihad, the mythos of antichrist took on a distinctly Muslim flavor.
The firsthand accounts of Christians who encountered the original Muslims in the early seventh and eighth centuries give insight into this viewpoint. St. John of Damascus wrote in his Against Heresies about the “deceptive error of the Ishmaelites, the forerunner of the antichrist.” Such was the mindset of the first encounters. As early as 634 A.D., in The Doctrine of Jacob, a Jewish merchant from Palestine who had converted to Christianity laments over the Arab invasions. In a correspondence with his Jewish cousin Justus, he relates in part:
What can you tell me about the prophet who has appeared with the Saracens? He replied, groaning deeply: “He is false, for the prophets do not come armed with a sword.” Truly they are the works of anarchy being committed today and I fear the first Christ to come, whom the Christians worship, was the one sent by God and we instead are preparing to receive the Antichrist.
Another eyewitness to the initial Arab attacks was Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem. In 634 A.D., Bethlehem had already fallen to the Arab invaders, so he was forced to give his Nativity sermon in Jerusalem. He compared their situation to Adam being barred from paradise though “we do not see the twisting flaming sword, but rather the wild and barbarous Saracen [sword], which is filled with every diabolical savagery.” His most detailed description of the Muslim invasion came in his Epiphany sermon, in probably 636 A.D., a dire moment, as the Arab army had surrounded Jerusalem itself. He spoke of the “God-hating Saracens, the abomination of desolation clearly foretold to us by the prophets.” Jerusalem fell in 637 A.D., and in due course they established Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, meant to forever cement the idea that Islam had supplanted Christianity and Judaism, even in the very heart of the Judeo-Christian world.
Muslim hordes had been attacking and conquering in all directions from Arabia for 900 years. By the time of Martin Luther in the sixteenth century, Constantinople, the great city of Eastern Christendom, had fallen and the Haghia Sophia had become a mosque. The heart of Europe was under constant mortal threat. Islam undoubtedly punctuated Luther’s wholehearted belief that he was living amidst the Last Days. He knew well the threat, comparing “the Turks” to the “divine rod” of justice to punish Christendom for its unfaithfulness. Yet, Luther was an equal opportunity hater, as “the pope is Antichrist, so the Turk is the very devil … both shall go down to hell.”
Luther’s apocalyptic outlook exacerbated his extreme condemnation of the papacy and the Roman Catholic Church as the “Antichrist” and “Whore of Babylon.” Indeed, this was the central conflict of Luther and the reformers of the Protestant Reformation. Protestantism redirected and divided this mythology of the antichrist away from where it had been for centuries. Entire encyclopedias can be written on the effects of the Reformation in theology, politics, and culture, but it was primarily an attack on the authority of Rome. The doctrines of the ministerial priesthood, the sacraments, the Virgin Mary, and the Real Presence, among others, all stand on the authority of the Chair of Peter. Luther’s attacks on the Church stemmed from his indictment of the papacy, and his rabid anti-papist superstition was his primary heirloom to the Protestant mindset. It divided Christendom between a gnostic-esque worldview and those who accept the sacramentality of the world.
Even after this quincentenary, 500 years after the Reformation, the superstition of a papal antichrist and the associated Roman Catholic whore of Babylon are still with us in modern dispensationalism. Hal Lindsey and Tim Lahaye, in their nonfictional and fictional predictions, write of a diabolical European Union and a papal-figure antichrist or false prophet. This is somewhat ironic, as it was Adolf Hitler—a type of European antichrist—who when asked about the origins of the Nazi salute, referenced Luther as his inspiration. German anti-Semitism, nationalism, and militarism of the Third Reich were arguably birthed with Luther, as attested to by William Shirer and others. In the countervailing message of Mit Brennender Sorge, Pope Pius XI alluded to the messianic notions of Hitler as “a prophet of nothingness.” Yet, Hitler contemptuously dismissed the Church saying, “We are witnessing the final somersaults of Christianity. It began with the Lutheran revolution.”
These notions of the antichrist and the Temple have been in the religious mind for millennia. It has varied from era to era depending on the political-cultural landscape of the time. Our day is no different. Birth pangs of the apocalypse are always latent within our news with wars and rumors of wars. Relocating the U.S. embassy does not mean a Third Temple will be built anytime soon, or ever built. It does not herald Armageddon either, but it does carry its dangers. It is perfectly predictable to see the anti-Semitic anger and rage that swirls about Jerusalem and this small, coveted plot of land, as highlighted with the reaction of Erdogan of Turkey, and the United Nations’ condemnatory vote. Jerusalem is the soul of the world, and in this world there is always a struggle for the soul.
In a time now when Christians of all stripes are under mutual threat from within and without, the sad afterglow of the Reformation seems to have finally waned a bit. It is ecumenicalism under duress. Reawakened militant Islamism is attacking Christianity from the outside and militant modernism is undermining Christianity from the inside: our mutual threats are mutually binding. Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants should have a fraternal rapport, even if reunifying under the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic faith remains remote at this point. Even so, Christians are bound in spirit and hope of Jesus’s prayer to the Father “that they may all be one.”