The strange, apocalyptic theology of ISIS

By The editors of Leben

Cover of Dabiq magazine
Cover of Dabiq magazine

By Wayne Johnson

“Dabiq” is the name of the Islamic State’s glossy magazine. It is also the name of a small town in Syria where their eschatology predicts the “final battle” will occur at the end of the world. Since Dabiq appears online, as well as in print, it also serves as “clickbait” for the secular journalists of the West that wander through its pages in a mist.

The problem is today’s secular journalists are unlike their predecessors of previous generations. Unlike them, these moderns have little knowledge of history and almost certainly none of theology.

This ignorance has not proved detrimental to them in covering the decaying ramparts of the secular West, but it has left them clueless in understanding precisely why the caliphate was announced, and why it was announced now. The latest issue is a case in point. Issue #15 carries the headline “Break the Cross,” and a glamour shot of the black ISIS flag flying over a jihadist knocking a metal cross from the roof.

As I read through the articles, I was struck by how much of ISIS’s attention was focused on Christianity. I also came to understand why they often have such an easy time recruiting uninstructed Christians. I have spent decades as an elder and catechism teacher, and 15 years as member of the board of governors of a conservative seminary, so I had a ready answer to virtually every rhetorical question that was tossed out; but had I not been through those experiences, I wonder how prepared I would have been.

ISIS also scores points among those frustrated with the extreme individualism of Western secularism by pointing out the chasm between Christian rhetoric and the secularism of the societies in which we live:

Westerners facing the collapse of their so-called “civilizations” through their wicked deeds and the righteous deeds of the mujahidin should be asking themselves several questions, including: How do they claim to love the Lord yet they worship persons and objects besides Him? How do they claim to fear Him yet they adopt the legislations of their whims and desires? How do they claim to revere Him yet they mock the prophets and messengers whom He sent to mankind and the revelation and laws with which they came? How do they claim to be monotheistic and claim to know Him as being the One and Only, the Merciful, the Just and Wise God yet they attribute to Him a mother, a son, a partner, and the Trinity, believe He is unable to forgive mankind for their “original sin” except by having one of His most beloved men unjustly bear their burdens and be crucified on their behalf, and declare that the laws He legislates are cruel, barbaric, and unfit for modern times? Where is your servitude to Him? Where is your respect of what He loves? Where is the residue of sound intellect, which would immediately reject the superstitious beliefs of Trinity and atonement through the crucifixion of Jesus? Where is your humility before the Almighty?

They ask the right question, of course, but their answer is terribly wrong, at least from a Protestant perspective. Evangelical Christianity has occasionally gotten it wrong, and mistaken the imposition of rules for the changing of hearts. That’s getting it backwards, of course. While there is a social and even a political aspect to people embracing Christ, that collective impact comes later, much later.

Birmingham Quran manuscript
Birmingham Quran manuscript

Christians believe the Holy Spirit actually changes the believer, in desires, attitudes and actions through a process we call “sanctification.” Neither legislators nor terrorists can change hearts. Only God does that. For this reason, genuine Christianity is an enigma to the secularists on the one hand, and groups like ISIS on the other.

Clearly, ISIS does not understand what the Christian Gospel is, having reduced it to a series of slogans to be quickly dismissed. Sadly, the Christianity they debunk is as shallow as the sermons at a lot of evangelical churches. I would think any well-catechized 15-year-old in my church could set them straight on why there is no conflict between Trinitarianism and monotheism, for example. They could explain the reality of original sin, and why God sending His Son to take our punishment was an act of incomprehensible divine love. Because these 15-year-olds are neither secularists nor liberals, they could explain that Christianity does, indeed, condemn sexual immorality, immodesty and idolatry that characterize our secular Western societies. And then they would explain how forgiveness and reconciliation to God is the very essence of the Gospel, and changes our hearts to try to win the lost – not to kill them.

In many ways, Dabiq seems almost obsessed with Christianity. There are articles attacking the transmission of the biblical text, taking particular aim at 1 John 5:7 and asserting that without that verse, the Trinitarian argument would fall. Dismissing the Johannine Comma was all the rage in Christian seminaries a few years back (based, in part, on a spurious anecdote concerning Erasmus’s decision to include it in his collation of the text). The point, of course, is not that one side or the other is correct, but that there is a debate – about this and hundreds of other variant readings among the thousands of manuscripts. The point ISIS makes, along with other Muslims, is that the transmission of their text is traceable and unbroken, unlike the thousands of manuscripts of the Christian Bible.

A well-taught catechumen knows about manuscript variants and is at least familiar with the controversy over verses like 1 John 5:7. That catechumen can also know this and still confidently affirm Biblical inerrancy, authority, and inspiration. That catechumen has been taught to think and reason, assisted by the Holy Spirit in understanding. Unfortunately, we may well be living in the worst-instructed generation of Christians in American history.

In my experience, the Fundamentalist Christian pastor has tended to hide the whole issue of biblical criticism from the flock, while liberal theologians use biblical criticism as an excuse not to believe in things they already don’t believe in. Precious few modern churches seriously catechize and teach their children how to defend their faith cogently, reasonably and systematically. The modern church may have a great “youth program” and a bearded youth pastor who looks like he’s wearing his little sister’s jeans, but his group of teens couldn’t define justification by faith if the prize was an iced mocha from the coffee ministry café in the foyer.

Paris attacks at French embassy
Paris attacks at French embassy

The Pugh Foundation has been studying religious trends in America for a number of years, and it is no accident that a large percentage of those who leave the Christian faith do so when they get to college utterly unprepared to handle an issue like evolution, much less sexual immorality. (Those, by the way, are the two most common iterations of the “everybody believes it” and the “everybody does it” they are likely to encounter). Imagine, if you will, Christian parents who will hire tutors and pay for SAT prep courses to assist their children to get into the best colleges, but don’t give a second thought to preparing them for the all-out assault on their faith that they will experience, even at many allegedly “Christian” colleges.

It is among the untaught and the disillusioned that ISIS recruits, and too many churches send children off to college utterly unprepared to defend what they profess to believe. Robbed of the idea that they are created in the image of God, and called to follow Jesus – a calling that means living differently than the materialistic and nihilistic secular world in which they walk daily – these young people may simply fall away from their profession of faith. Others will trade their religion for a mess of pottage, pursuing material wealth, focused on the ideal of joining the 1 percent. Robbed of their moorings, some of these young people will be snared by the siren song of the many cults that abound, offering the security blanket of order and authority.

And yes, some will turn to Islam. Listen to the following rationalization from ISIS that seems very logical to the uninstructed pagan:

Despite the historical debate that revolved around the Trinity, simple logic proves the polytheistic nature of this concept. Since the Trinitarians claim that “the Father is God,” that “the Son is God,” that “the Holy Spirit is God,” and that each is a distinct person, then there are undoubtedly three “gods” in this doctrine. The very definition of polytheism is “the belief in multiple gods;” so, by definition, Trinitarian Christianity is a religion of polytheism. Their rebuttal, that the Trinity is a mystery, is nothing but a copout for someone with no argument for his foolishness. They would have done better to recognize the complete absence of a trinity in pre-Christian Judaism, as well as to consider related theological verses in the Old Testament, as in, “For I the Lord do not change” (Malachi 3:6).

But would it also seduce the untaught Christian who has never been instructed in Trinitarianism? Or worse yet, been subjected to some well-meaning Sunday school teacher’s “The Trinity is like …” That phrase, it is often noted, is almost always followed by a modalist or Sabellian heresy (and if you don’t know what that means, you have some reading to do).

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The cover story for the “Break the Cross” (#15) issue goes to great lengths to raise doubts in the minds of Christians and their Bible. Ironically, in a magazine that is anything but subtle, there is nevertheless this subtlety. ISIS clearly would appeal to those with Christian backgrounds because they repeatedly use biblical references and accept biblical narratives as true. They speak in a matter-of-fact voice when discussing Noah and the Ark, the Creation, and other parts of the biblical narrative. They read those stories through the lens of Islam, and in so doing play a dangerous game.

By seeming to accept one part of the Bible as authentic (which most Muslims do, considering they trace their lineage to Abraham), they gain at least a hearing from those with a nominal Christian upbringing. There is a familiarity which, for the informed reader, is an oddly uneasy familiarity. ISIS adds the caveat that “while quotes from the Bible are mentioned herein, they cannot be accepted as being revelation preserved in its original wording. However, as the Quran has confirmed, Moses did undoubtedly receive the Torah, David the Psalms, and Jesus the Gospel.”

I am sure my frustration must be apparent simply because I see how they are able to do what they do, and recruit the people they recruit. It does surprise me that nominal Christians would not be repulsed by the calls to mass murder and the pictures of heinous atrocities that sit alongside these vaguely familiar “biblical” articles. That it happens is undeniable, and should be a wake-up call for every church that doesn’t teach their young people apologetics.

Are your young people instructed well enough to discern what is truth and what is error in the following passage from ISIS? Or to be more precise, to spot the off-ramps that take us away from the meaning of the text? Will they know to have their guard up when they meet unbelievers that quote Scripture?

The call of Noah, simply reminding those in his time to worship the Lord of Adam, their shared ancestor who had not long passed away, was answered by a mere handful, as the rest were punished with the Flood. Then Abraham, calling his father and clan to the denial of idols and to the worship of the Creator, was rejected and thus set out to pursue the service of his Lord in another land. After Joseph, a son of Israel, brought the grandsons of Isaac into Egypt, wherein they were enslaved by Pharaoh, the Lord sent Moses to rescue them, so that they might devote themselves completely to His worship, unto a land where they would rule by His Law and under His watch. And even after multiple miracles were provided to them, from the plagues sent against the people of Pharaoh to the splitting of the sea and the descent of manna from the heavens, some of those with Moses believed, as others took – at the very same time – created things to worship instead of worshiping the Creator alone. Then, to speak on the corruption of the Jews and to herald his return as the promised Messiah, who will face the Antichrist in the end times, Jesus Son of Mary came to the tribes of Israel, but was met with fierce opposition.

While there are the off-putting Arabic names that sound so unfamiliar to the Western ear, these articles are replete with the familiar, presented – no, marketed – like something out of TBN. Indeed, in much the same way that apocalyptic shock theology has always found a following among the gullible in Christianity, ISIS has seized upon an end-times reading of Islamic texts to go all Harold Camping on us, Islamic style.

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Here is where a little cheat sheet might be helpful to tell the various players apart. We’ll start with the largest group, the Sunnis. Now, don’t get confused about which side the U.S. is supporting or fighting on any given day because (a) our soldiers are probably in harm’s way fighting or allied with both sides of the great Sunni-Shia division on any given day; and (b) American foreign policy experts are no such thing when it comes to understanding religious conflict (something they have proved over and over again in Cypress, Bosnia, Serbo-Croatia, Pakistan, etc.).

Without getting bogged down in the particulars of the theology, suffice it to say that Sunnis are, by far, the most numerous, perhaps, as high as 90 percent. They believe that when Muhammad died in 632 A.D., his father-in-law Abu Bakr was the rightful successor. Shia Muslims, who predominate in Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan and Bahrain, may also be found in large numbers in Pakistan, Kuwait and many other countries, albeit usually a distinct minority. Shias believe Mohammed’s rightful successor was Ali Ibn Abi Talib, a cousin who was also his son-in-law. In other words, they split like backwood Baptists at the first camp meeting, and it’s been separate paths ever since. Shias are also often called “Twelvers,” indicating they follow the first 12 Imams, except some, like the Houthi rebels we’re attacking in Yemen, are “Fivers” even though the Sunnis opposing them say that some of the “Fivers” might really secretly be “Twelvers,” so how can you trust … well, you get the idea.

What Sunnis and Shias agree on is that there is going to be a Redeemer (“Mahdi”) of mankind and, for many Muslims, this Redeemer will be Jesus. For most Shias, his return will signal the end of the world and so America and Israel have to be eliminated because Jesus is not about to come back until these two twin scourges are eliminated. This should settle once and for all the foolish notion that any lasting peace can be negotiated with Sunni ISIS or Shia Iran. Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is only the most prominent of Iran’s leaders to reaffirm the necessity of America and Israel’s destruction as prerequisites for ushering in the end of history.

“Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians” provides documented accounts of attacks on Christians worldwide, and it tells of the perseverance and courage of men and women who suffer abuse because of their faith in Jesus Christ

Still, Khamenei and his ilk are small thinkers when it comes to apocalyptic scenarios. Unlike many of their Sunni brethren, the Islamic State definitely equates the Mahdi with Jesus, only their version of Jesus is not the Son of God of Trinitarian Christianity. ISIS finds the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation scandalous:

This claim that the Virgin Mary gave birth to the Creator of the heavens and the earth is one that every mother knows by her fitrah [inborn nature] to be false. She knows the great amount of lowliness and weakness any child goes through prior to birth and thereafter. He is surrounded by blood, as his nutrition is dependent on his mother’s life. He then leaves her body after 9 months, exiting from the same passage from which he entered, soaked in impure blood. He weeps often, searching for food, having weak vision, not being able to feed except with the aid of his mother. He cannot remain clean except by his mother regularly washing him and cleansing him after each bowel movement or voiding. If not for her, he would be soaking in filth. If he were abandoned, he would die in a matter of days. He feels comfort most when she draws him close to her breast. When he begins walking, he falls over on his face and head, crying for her comfort. When he begins “talking,” he mumbles words having no meaning. When he has a brother or sister, he begins to manifest envy of his younger sibling. This is the child being raised by his mother. Can the Lord of the heavens and earth be such!

The whole notion of Jesus sacrificing Himself as the Lamb of God to take away the sins of fallen men and women is radically at odds with the notion of Islam’s Jesus. Christians believe that He will return at the end of time, conquering sin and death, and casting Satan and his minions into the lake of fire. But he is a man, a chosen one to be sure, who escaped the cross somehow (they speculate Simon the Cyrene actually died in his place), but not God.

How depressing it is to read an ISIS publication that discusses the Trinitarian battles at Nicea (and before) in great detail, that knows who Theodotus of Byzantium is, and Lucian of Antioch and Paul of Samosata are. In the pages of Dibiq, you can get ISIS’s take on the Council of Nicea that not one Christian in 10 can discuss intelligently. They knew who Arius was, and what Athanasius had to say about the whole matter. Should we take note of Theodulus, Eunomius, Paemenius, Euphronius? How about Philostorgius? We can at the very least have an informed opinion of Nestorius. After all, ISIS does. But for the moment, let’s turn to something about which Christians almost certainly should have some knowledge, the Second Coming of the Christ. The ISIS version is as follows:

When the Messiah, Jesus Son of Mary, returns in the end days to battle the Antichrist – the false Messiah – and his army, of the myths he will debunk once and for all are those of his crucifixion and divinity. This will be when he breaks the cross, as was foretold by the Prophet Muhammad, who said, ‘By the One in whose Hand is my soul, very soon shall the Son of Mary descend in your midst, being an equitable judge. He shall break the cross, kill the swine, and put aside the jizyah [a yearly Muslim tax]. Wealth shall flow until no one accepts it, and until a single prostration will be more beloved than the world and all that it contains’.

The texts upon which ISIS places particular emphasis have led them to see the establishment of the final “caliphate” as one of the necessary triggers to bring about the final gathering of armies at the end of the world, in a little town named Dabiq.

How sad it is that we value our children so little that we do not arm them against the world, the flesh and the devil. If we think for a moment that the decadence of modern secularism has an answer for ISIS, we delude ourselves. Christians believe, not in the power of our own strength, but ultimately in the grace of our loving Father God.

There is an authentic preparation to battle with the forces of darkness that do not involve running and hiding, but which does require us to begin living what we say we believe, and then raising up our children in the way they should go. If we do that, the Bible promises that when they are grown “they will not depart from it.”

When the ebb and flow of a culturally conservative and Christian society often protected the uninstructed from calamity, parents may have escaped the consequences of their failure to instruct.

Today, those conditions no longer exist. It remains to be seen whether the current generation of believers will recognize the nature of the battle in which they are engaged, and respond to it by seeking the Lord “while He may be found.”

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