The Syrian conflict continues to escalate, with the U.S. government shooting down a Syrian jet over the weekend. It was an act that sparked a quick reaction from Russia, with officials there pledging, as a result, to view U.S. aircrafts in the area as “targets.”
These latest developments build upon past tensions and events, leading to increased concerns about the future of Syria’s civil war, the state of the humanitarian crisis there and the best political path forward for diffusing the situation.
But in addition to the ongoing chatter about practical and logistical steps countries like America should take to remedy the crisis there has also been an intense theological debate brewing, with Christians debating whether the events unfolding on the ground in Syria could have some sort of connection to the Bible.
Pentagon stands strong in response to Russian threats, stating “we will not hesitate to defend ourselves" pic.twitter.com/3MxzwxCjaS
— FOX & friends (@foxandfriends) June 20, 2017
While some point to the current crisis as evidence of “prophecy” — a biblical prediction of an event that has yet to unfold — others decry this notion as irresponsible and wrong-headed. Either way, it’s an intriguing debate worth discussing.
Let’s start by examining arguments made by author Joel Rosenberg, who has has pointed to Old Testament scriptures like Isaiah 17 and Jeremiah 49 to potentially assess the current events unfolding inside Syria.
“We’re watching Damascus unravel…is that the prelude to the completion of those prophesies?” he rhetorically asked, pointing back to Isaiah and Jeremiah, which both say that the city will be “destroyed.” “We don’t know, but Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city on the planet…so the fact that it is coming apart is quite extraordinary.”
Following Russia’s air strikes targeting rebels in Syria in October 2015, questions began reemerging in evangelical circles about whether events surrounding the country’s ongoing civil war, which began in 2011, were tied in any way to biblical prophecy.
Rosenberg published a blog post in the wake of the air strikes claiming that Russian president Vladimir Putin is “working hand-in- glove with Iran’s government” in formulating operations in Syria. It came the same week as reports that Iran was waging a ground attack, while Russia was carrying out assaults from the air.
“The Hebrew prophet Ezekiel wrote 2,500 years ago that in the ‘last days’ of history, Russia and Iran will form a military alliance to attack Israel from the north,” Rosenberg wrote. “Bible scholars refer to this eschatological conflict, described in Ezekiel 38–39, as the ‘War of Gog & Magog.’” He added, “Are these sudden and dramatic moves by Moscow and Tehran…simply coincidental, or [do they] have prophetic implications?”
Rosenberg’s question is at the center of the very debate surrounding Iran, Syria, and Russia and their perceived involvement in the end times—one that has attracted a great deal of attention both in Christian circles and in media over the years, as I covered in my book “Armageddon Code.”
— Joel C. Rosenberg (@JoelCRosenberg) April 7, 2017
For those who believe Syria will play a role in eschatological (end times) scenarios, Isaiah 17:1–3 is paramount. It reads, “See, Damascus will cease from being a city; it shall be a ruinous heap. The cities of Aroer are forsaken; they shall be for flocks, which shall lie down, and no one shall make them afraid. The fortress also shall cease from Ephraim, and the kingdom from Damascus, and the remnant of Aram; they shall be as the glory of the sons of Israel, says the Lord of Hosts.”
The Syria example is perhaps a perfect paradigm to see how those with divergent theological viewpoints approach the same texts in very different ways. Consider that the first portion about a “ruinous heap” has some wondering if the present Syria crisis was prophesied in the Bible, but some scholars have countered that Damascus was already destroyed and that this verse refers to an attack by the Assyrians that unfolded in 732 BC (we’ll get there in a second).
Specifically noting Isaiah 17:1–3 and Jeremiah 49:23–27, Rosenberg explained in a separate 2013 blog piece that—despite some experts referencing the Assyrian attack—Damascus’s destruction has not yet happened. Jeremiah 49:23–27 pledges judgment upon Damascus, proclaiming that it has “become helpless” and that a fire will be kindled in its walls.
“These prophecies have not yet been fulfilled. Damascus is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth. It has been attacked, besieged, and conquered,” Rosenberg wrote. “But Damascus has never been completely destroyed and left uninhabited.”
Listen to Rosenberg’s recent interview with Faithwire:
But not everyone is on board with the claim that the Old Testament could be describing future—or even current—events that will befall Syria. “Bible Answer Man” Hank Hanegraaff also spoke about supposed biblical prophecies associated with the end times back in 2013 on his radio show. A caller asked about claims that the Book of Isaiah details coming destruction for Damascus, a notion to which Hanegraaff pushed back.
“So, what you’re saying is they’re tying in the passages in Isaiah to what is currently happening in Syria…and this is just a classic example of newspaper eschatology and shame on the pastors that are doing this, because it either is a case of them not knowing the word of God, which seems unlikely to me, or simply wanting to invite sensationalism and sophistry,” he responded. “If you look at what the Bible actually says, it is very clear that the fulfillment comes in the biblical text as well.” And Hanegraaff wasn’t done there.
“This whole notion is fulfilled in biblical history when the king of the Assyria captured and destroyed Damascus…if you look at Isaiah chapter 7, there’s a permutation of this as well…you see the fulfillment in the very next chapter, Isaiah chapter 8,” he continued.
Hanegraaff went on to say that some pastors’ decisions to transport pieces of prophecy to the 21st century are irresponsible. He called the action “embarrassing” and said that those pastors and Bible experts who embrace the idea are “dragging Christ’s name through the mud.” He simply doesn’t believe that, on these matters, the Bible’s writers were looking so fervently into the future, and he contends that they were speaking about prophecy that would unfold in the immediate and that has already come to pass.
Rather than reading the Scriptures for what they are, he believes that some theologians are “reading into the Scriptures their own eschatological views.”
Dr. Candida Moss, a professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, also penned a 2013 article attempting to debunk claims that Damascus may play a role in the end times — and she said that the city has already been repeatedly conquered.
“Isaiah lived and wrote in the eighth century BCE [BC] and scholars think that the original prophecy referred to the conquest of Damascus by the Assyrians in 732 BCE [BC],” she wrote. “But that’s not the only time Damascus has seen conflict.”
Moss went on to list those who had conquered Damascus, including Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar and Alexander the Great. She also explained that, in the 7th century, Damascus was in the middle of a Muslim siege led by General Khalid ibn al-Walid. Later the Turco-Mongol armies of Timur conquered it around the turn of the 15th century, killing the entire population and apparently erecting a tower built with severed heads.
In the end, the debate is fascinating, as both sides—comprised of individuals who agree on central Christian doctrine—couldn’t disagree more about the alleged signs and symbols present within the Bible’s complex text.
This content was adapted from the book, “The Armageddon Code: One Journalist’s Quest for End-Times Answers.” A version of this story was originally published in April 2017.