Led along the edge of a Libyan beach by Islamic State militants, 21 Egyptian Christians wearing the orange jumpsuits of prisoners received the white robes of martyrs. A gruesome video released in mid-February depicted their captors forcing the men to the ground and beheading them with swift, simultaneous strokes of the blade.
The mass execution sparked international outrage, military retaliation from the Egyptian government, and mournful reflection throughout Christendom.
The fear which had ever so subtly crept into the evangelical conscience when ISIS declared itself a caliphate less than a year earlier now reached an alarming crescendo: Is this how the world will end?
THE LAST HOUR
In late February, The Atlantic published the article “What ISIS Really Wants,” an in-depth look at the goals and aims of the Islamic group and an indictment on the Obama administration for not taking seriously the jihadists’ religious claims. Graeme Wood, contributing editor for The Atlantic, describes ISIS as an Islamic group reviving the violent origins of its religion in an attempt to usher in the apocalypse, or what Muslims call the “last hour.”
ISIS is a Sunni jihadist group that declared itself a caliphate — an Islamic state led by a religious and political leader — in June 2014 after taking control of large portions of Iraq and Syria, a territory now larger than many nations. In March, the group also accepted the pledge of Nigerian-based Boko Haram, an Islamic terrorist group which captured international headlines with the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in April 2014.
The escalation of violence since ISIS rose to prominence is due in part to the rejection from many Muslims. ISIS adheres to a fundamentalist Islamic practice known as takfir, which punishes apostates — Muslims and Christians who do not accept their totalitarian rule — through means of crucifixion, stoning, beheading, or enslavement.
“We are horrified at the inhuman acts of ISIS,” writes Michael Youssef in his recent book, Jesus, Jihad and Peace. “If ISIS and other Islamist groups get their way, they will bring these horrors [to the United States]. They won’t stop at gobbling up Iraq and Syria or the entire Middle East or Europe and Africa. Their goal is to establish a global caliphate.”
Youssef is founding pastor of The Church of the Apostles in Atlanta, Georgia, and president of Leading the Way, a worldwide broadcast ministry to spread the gospel of Jesus in Muslim-majority countries. In an interview with Towers, Youssef said that all Muslims, whether Sunni or Shiite, believe that the chaos arising from the quest to establish a global caliphate will bring about the Mahdi, a messianic figure who will “rule and dominate the world.”
“The interesting characteristic about this Mahdi is that he is going to rule from Jerusalem and people are going to be coming to him from all over the world to pay homage and literally worship him,” Youssef said, elaborating on a claim he made in his book that the Mahdi is “indistinguishable” from the Antichrist in Christian teaching. “With all of the chaotic experiences that we are seeing — from beheading that is so brutal and so savage, the crucifying of babies and so forth — in their mind, this is their way of speeding up the return of the Mahdi.”
Because Islam contains non-canonical texts with eschatological teachings, many Muslims disagree over the precise order of end times events and who exactly is involved. Yet Islam has its own version of the Antichrist, known as the Dajjal, and many Muslims believe that Jesus will return and defeat this end-times villain.
Muhammad Ramadan Almoutem, the imam at The Muslim Community Center of Louisville, fled Syria three years ago before the protests turned violent. A self-described moderate Sunni Muslim, Almoutem denounced ISIS as a “twisted” representation of Islam, but he expressed belief in some of the traditional Islamic beliefs about the last hour, including the major signs of the Mahdi, the Dajjal, and the return of Jesus.
“The most important thing that Muslims believe about the last hour is that Jesus will come back to this world as a Muslim, not as a Christian, and he will spread justice,” Almoutem said in an interview with Towers.
J. Scott Bridger, director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at Southern Seminary, said that Muslims, despite their own disagreements, share a universal belief in the return of Jesus to restore order and judge Christians for worshiping him.
“The traditional Muslim interpretation of the Quran is that Jesus was not crucified and did not die,” Bridger said, “and that Jesus will eventually return and will die when he returns.”
The biblical second coming of Jesus, Bridger said, is a “doorway” for Christians to enter into conversation with Muslims and connect this eschatological hope to the grand narrative of Scripture, establishing the gospel as the only context in which his return makes sense.
THE KINGDOM AND THE CALIPHATE
The quest for many Muslims to establish a caliphate indicates a “realized eschatology,” Bridger said. “It’s very utopian in nature. There’s a sense in which they believe they can achieve their understanding of justice, righteousness, purity, and holiness in the here and now if they’re able to establish political hegemony and implement Shariah law.”
A caliphate is a fusion of religious and political spheres built on the top-down enforcement of Shariah law, a legal system based on the Quran that governs all aspects of Muslim life.
Moderate Muslims like Almoutem, however, no longer seek to implement a totalitarian structure and claim instead to prefer democratic freedom.
“We don’t believe in forcing people, we believe in freedom — this is one of the main objectives of our religion,” said Almoutem, who described the Prophet Muhammad as a “businessman” who spread Islam through persuasion and not force.
This version of Islam is at odds with a history scholars say demonstrates the religion — whose name means “submission” — has spread through violent conquest.
“The spread of Islam in the Middle Ages took place primarily through military conquest, not voluntary conversions,” Youssef writes in his new book. “The history of Islam is one of massacres, enslavement, torture, and brutality.”
Jihad, or “struggle,” usually refers to the duty of Muslims to struggle against all who do not follow Allah.
According to Bridger, the word’s meaning in the Quran and its development in the religion’s history supports its militaristic connotation.
“You cannot walk away from the Quran with a purely spiritual or pacifist understanding of jihad or how to establish Islam in society,” Bridger said. “As Islam has progressed, it’s clearly been through violence.”
Nevertheless, the role of the caliphate in Islamic ideology reflects a pursuit for social justice. Islamic states seek to provide free healthcare, universal employment, and an interest-free economy on the basis of Shariah law. In these societies, poverty and hunger are said to be eliminated.
While Muslims regard this as the historical model for a caliphate, Bridger says conflicts between religious and political spheres in previous caliphates do not support this theory.
“When you start to dig, I don’t think this ever existed in history,” Bridger said. “It’s a myth.”
The quest for global domination remains a priority for many Muslims in both the Sunni and Shiite sects to usher in the last hour. The source of the sectarian divide originated over a disagreement concerning the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad and resulted in two distinct lines of leadership. Sunni Muslims believe in eight legitimate caliphates to date — ISIS dismisses the Ottoman Empire and views itself as the eighth. Shiite Muslims, comprising 10 percent of Muslims in the world, seek to establish imamates, which are divinely appointed as opposed to the political roots of a caliphate. Many Shiites await the return of their 12th imam, Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Mahdi, who they claim went into hiding in the 9th century and will reappear with Christ.
As Islam wages war with itself over the pursuit of utopian justice, Christians can seize an opportunity to proclaim the gospel of God’s kingdom.
“Their hopes and aspirations for justice and peace — establishing righteousness and holiness on the earth — I think are right, though the means through which they are seeking to accomplish this are fundamentally misguided,” Bridger said. “They just need to see that Jesus is the hope, his kingdom that he is bringing is the hope and when he comes, he will establish all that they are aspiring to and hoping for. In the meantime, how you achieve holiness and righteous living is not through the implementation of some ethical system from the top down but it is the cultivation of a life in the Spirit and community in the church.”
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has been outspoken against ISIS and other militant Muslims for their persecution of Christians abroad. In an interview with Towers, he likewise noted the contrast of kingdom and caliphate as a vision of hope for Muslims.
“The kingdom of God is ultimately a global rule as well, but it advances in a different way: not with the sword of steel but with the sword of the Spirit. It advances not through coercion but through persuasion,” Moore said. “The rule itself is not a display of raw sovereignty, but is instead the sort of kingship Jesus displays, that breaks bread at the table and washes feet. Our vision of the final end is of a servant-king who says, ‘I have not called you subjects, I have called you friends.’ That’s a very different vision than one of just blind submission to power.”
The hope of Christian eschatology, therefore, is not challenged by the advance of Islam in the world but rather sees an opportunity for obedience to the Great Commission.
“The advance of Islam ought not to be troubling to any Christian in an eschatological sense. It ought to be troubling to us in a missiological sense, but it ought not to prompt fear that somehow the church is collapsing,” Moore said. “We ought to be concerned in terms of being propelled to the nations, but we shouldn’t be fearful or hopeless.”
THE GREAT COMMISSION
As ISIS executes Christians on a daily basis and destroys historic Christian churches in its militant conquests, Christians have questioned whether to pray for judgment or salvation. The answer, Moore said, is both.
“Paul was a militant persecutor of the church who ended up being the missionary force that brought the gospel to the rest of us,” Moore said. “So we ought to pray that God would be able to change hearts, but we also ought to pray for Romans 13 justice to be done so that this needless suffering doesn’t continue.”
After traveling to the Middle East twice in the past year, Bridger described seeing Muslims profess faith in Christ and demonstrate a renewed receptivity to the gospel.
“I’ve seen a new openness among many Muslims on that side of the world to examine the claims of Christ, read the Bible, and listen to what Christians have to say,” Bridger said, describing how the claims of ISIS as a faithful representation of Islam has caused many Muslims to question their faith.
“Our response as Christians should always be, ‘How do we engage Muslims with the gospel?’ Regardless of what’s going on in certain parts of the world, we still have an obligation to prepare ourselves and others for the Great Commission.”
According to Youssef, the Great Commission is actually the source of and solution to the crisis Christians face with global jihad. A lack of obedience to the missionary call, Youssef said, resulted in the spread of Islam.
“The church needs to repent from apathy and needs to take the commission of our Lord seriously and take the gospel to the very core of the mission world,” said Youssef, who is also a research fellow for the Jenkins Center. “Historically, every time that the church of Jesus Christ is weak, Islam grows. Every time the church of Jesus Christ departs from biblical orthodoxy and the authority of Scripture, Islam expands. It happened in the 7th century, it happened in the 15th century, and it’s happening now.”
Even if some Christians are not called to spread the gospel to Muslims overseas, opportunity abounds in the United States. In Louisville, ministries like Refuge and Highview Baptist Church’s ESL classes can connect Christians to Muslims in the local community. Searching on websites like the North American Mission Board’s PeopleGroups.Info displays the distribution of Muslim communities and mosques in specific neighborhoods.
Bridger recommends that Christians seek resources from places like the Jenkins Center, which provides seminars and workshops for churches, before engaging in gospel conversations with Muslims. It is important to recognize that most Muslims in America are not jihadists, he said, yet Christians must be aware of religious and cultural barriers. Practicing hospitality, learning about their diverse cultural backgrounds, and building relationships are all essential components to sharing the gospel.
A Christian view of the future also shapes faith in the present, especially obedience to the Great Commission. As believers long for the return of Jesus Christ to establish his kingdom in the new heavens and new earth, they ought also to persuade others to place their faith in him. In Revelation 5:9-10, the Apostle John sees a vision of a people from every, tribe, tongue, and nation worshiping King Jesus. This eschatological hope can shape Christian witness to Muslims in the present, as believers devote their time and energy to proclaiming the kingdom of Jesus to those who long for a Mahdi to rule a global caliphate.
May we even see a jihadist trade his executioner’s blade for a plowshare.
S. Craig Sanders is the editor of Towers. You can follow him on Twitter @stepcraig.
Southern Seminary’s Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam opened in February 2013 and is named after donors Bill and Connie Jenkins. For more information about the Jenkins Center and upcoming events, visit jenkins.sbts.edu or email email@example.com. You can also follow the center on Twitter, @SBTSonIslam.