Geo-Prophecy and the Antichrist
by Jason Dittmer
The other day I was emailed by a friend: “Did you know that Gabrielle Giffords may be the Antichrist?” My eyes widened in surprise. Despite all the media attention in the wake of the Congresswoman’s January shooting, both connected to her remarkable recovery and to the subsequent debate over blood libel, targets, etcetera, it had not occurred to me to step outside my own perspective and consider it through the lens of Biblical prophecy. Sure enough, a quick Google search proved my friend (who has also researched the political geography of American evangelicalism) correct; there was indeed a thriving debate among posters on prophecy-oriented websites.
In Mapping the End Times: American Evangelical Geopolitics and Apocalyptic Visions, my colleague Tristan Sturm and I pulled together a series of essays from geographers, historians, and political scientists that collectively interrogate the spatializing elements of American evangelicalism. By this, I mean that the essays examine how American evangelicals produce alternative geographies through textual interpretation and embodied action.
For instance, a number of essays in our volume examine the ways that the prophetic books of the Bible, usually Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation, are understood to foretell the end of our present epoch. For those who adhere to an eschatology called dispensational premillennialism, a range of place names, some familiar (e.g., Persia, Libya, Israel) and some opaque (e.g., Gomer, Magog, Meshech, Tubal), are emplotted within an apocalyptic timeline in which war, disease, and famine wipe out a majority of the world’s population in the ‘end times’. Among prophecy-watching evangelicals (a small portion of the American evangelical population, and an even smaller portion of the global total), there is great ambivalence to these disasters because while they feel for their ‘unsaved’ family and friends who will bear the brunt of God’s plan, the disasters are understood to immediately precede the second coming of Jesus Christ, who will establish a 1000-year kingdom of peace, an event to which believers obviously look forward. Knowing where Magog and Tubal are in the present-day world therefore becomes important as they provide a lens through which to understand current events, and therefore our proximity to Jesus’s return.
Part of this theme of ‘geo-prophecy’ in the book is my research on the Antichrist, an apocryphal figure that is understood to rise to political prominence from obscurity, produce a global government, and create an ecumenical global religion. After promising world peace, he (the Antichrist is usually assumed to be male, Gabrielle Giffords notwithstanding) becomes increasingly oppressive and eventually betrays Israel with a surprise invasion. The only thing that ends the Antichrist’s reign is the return of Jesus with his army of Raptured believers after seven years of turmoil.
Over the past two thousand years, ‘Antichrist-spotting’ has been a popular parlor game among the prophecy-minded. Meeting some of the apocryphal criteria is a must for consideration; meeting many will make the Internet light up with your name. Geography is one such criterion; usually it is assumed that the Antichrist will be from Europe, which makes potential American Antichrists so unusual. Giffords was flagged as a possibility because she was shot through the head, declared dead (at least by the news media), and recovered. The Antichrist is expected to be assassinated and then (seemingly) resurrected; it is this event that marks this individual as the dark mirror image of Jesus. That Giffords does not meet many of the other criteria means she will probably be cast into the dustbin of (the end of) history, along with King Juan Carlos I of Spain and Prince Charles of England. Unfortunately, Barack Obama does not get off so easily; he promises peace (and prematurely receives a Nobel Peace Prize, to boot), rose rapidly to prominence based on his charisma, and is assumed by many prophecy-watchers to be a Muslim Manchurian Candidate. To top it off, the lottery numbers in his home state of Illinois (November 5) came up 6-6-6 the day after his election as president.
While the United States is not directly mentioned in Biblical prophecy for obvious reasons, the embedding of many prophecy-watchers in the American context means that what happens in the United States has an undue influence on their readings of current events. Consider, for example, the Rapture Index, a website that quantifies the imminence of end times events based on forty-five variables. At the time of writing, low Federal Reserve rates, high U.S. unemployment rates, the declining value of the U.S. dollar, the U.S. mortgage bailout, and the leniency of U.S. state marijuana laws were all cited as evidence of end times activity. The fall of the Democratic House of Representatives in the 2010 elections was, contrarily, seen as a sign that American morality is not in decline and the end may not yet be nigh. To be fair, many of the other variables are connected to either distant places (like Gog or Persia) or to global events (like earthquakes and droughts). But the desire to tie the American experience (escalating rudeness on the street, state lottery numbers, federal election results) to events of cosmic significance is clear and ultimately understandable; we all privilege our own experiences (first-hand or mediated) as we struggle to make sense of a complex world.
Another geography produced through the spatializing practices of American evangelicals is that of missionary work. Postmillennialists believe that the eventual evangelization of the entire earth will lead to a millennium of peace, without all the Armageddon that concerns the premillennialists. This shifts their spatial focus from prophecy to the emergence of a spatial strategy for evangelizing. Judy Han, another scholar in our book, has written about the 10/40 window and its use in the evangelizing practices of South Koreans and Korean-Americans. This is a region constructed by evangelical leaders as a special zone to be targeted for conversion. It spans from 10 degrees to 40 degrees north latitude, from Mauritania in the west to China in the east. This region is home to most of the world’s Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, and the region’s endemic poverty is understood to be partially caused by its dearth of Christianity.
Related to this type of territorial evangelism is the quasi-scientific enumeration of ‘unreached people groups’ by the Joshua Project. Drawing inspiration from Matthew 24:14, “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come,” this project produces geographic information to be used in strategic planning by missionaries to speed Jesus’s return to earth. Both the Joshua Project and the 10/40 window can be understood as contemporary twists on colonial practices of region formation (e.g., both ‘Iraq’ and the ‘Middle East’) and the construction of ethnic difference. Recall, for example, the Belgian imposition of Hutu and Tutsi identities on their colonial subjects.
These are of course only two types of geography produced through the active spatializing practices of evangelicals. Some of these geographies are relational, such as the links between distant places (such as Moscow and Jerusalem) produced through their mutual emplotment in prophetic narrative, while some of them involve territorialization, such as the sedimenting of regions (e.g., the 10/40 window) and ethnicities (e.g., the Joshua Project). In all their forms, evangelical geographies offer opportunities for both dangerous geopolitical animosity and productive, powerful peace-building and the development of an ethics of care for the distant other. Neither emerges automatically. If we prefer the latter, then such an ethic requires careful nurturing and the ongoing production of ever more ethical geographies. It also requires that we imagine the world as others see it; we are all living in the same world, but we experience it according to our own geographies.
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