Islam, End Times, and the Imago Dei
Written by Rhett Burns on May 23, 2018
Last week was crazy. The United States moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Hamas greeted the move in their usual manner, which means with bombs and human shields. Major media outlets portrayed Hamas in their usual manner, which means referring to them as “protestors,” ignoring the bombs and the children sent into a war zone to ensure kid casualties. Meanwhile, some Christians took the embassy to be a fulfillment of biblical prophecy—a clear example of the Bible saying Yanny and dispensationalists hearing Laurel. Also last week, Muslims began fasting for their holy month of Ramadan, while, in unrelated news, President Trump said MS-13 gang members were not people, but animals. These things conspire to make me want to say a few things about Islam, end times, and the imago Dei.
The Imago Dei
Let me begin with the latter. If we take President Trump’s “animal” remarks literally, they go against our theology and anthropology. All people, even those who trade in the despicable arts of gang violence, are created in the image of God. This can either be glorious or terrifying, depending on how one uses his humanity. But the fact cannot be changed. It may be cathartic to resort to name-calling, but downgrading MS-13 gang members from man to beast makes light of their crimes and gives them the undeserved gift of absolving their culpability. After all, who gets morally indignant when a dog bites someone? Nature is red in tooth and claw, and sometimes life is more riot than dance. You might put the dog down, but it would be for general safety, not because he violated the law of God. We must insist on their humanity to do justice for their crimes.
What if Trump spoke metaphorically? As a metaphor, calling MS-13 members animals may honor the imago Dei by calling attention to the vast discrepancy between who they are as created human beings and their violent behavior (e.g. MS-13 members lured a man to a park, stabbed him 100 times, decapitated him, and ripped out his heart). Of course, these men and women are not animals, but their vicious behavior is animal-like. They are not living up to the imago Dei they bear, and so the metaphor works. At least one MS-13 member understood this, as he goes by the nickname “animal.” Further, the Bible is replete with examples of this metaphor, much to the chagrin of anti-Trump evangelicals who wanted to take another ride on the Trump Outrage Mechanical Bull.
“But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction…”—2 Peter 2:12
“Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true.—Titus 1:12-13
“I fought with beasts at Ephesus…”—1 Cor. 15:32
“But I am a worm and not a man…”—Ps. 22:6
“You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil?”—Matt. 12:34
Moving from one violent group to another, I recently finished listening to The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright’s excellent account of Al-Qaeda’s beginning and its development through 9-11. Like MS-13, Al-Qaeda sparks fury in the American spirit for its savage terrorist attacks. Also, like MS-13, Al-Qaeda members are humans, created in the image of God. This stands out in Wright’s book as he recounts Osama Bin Laden’s various financial woes, insecurities, wives, children with illnesses, aspirations, grievances, and health struggles. Bin Laden was malevolent, but he was undeniably human. This is something Christians must reckon with as we seek to love our neighbors, yea, even our enemies. Terrorists, thugs, militant LGBTQ activists, abortionists, and Deep State operatives are all unquestionably human. No matter how much they have trampled or mocked it, they still bear the imago Dei, and that requires something of us in our dealings with them. Dignity, respect, and mercy are a good start, but in and of themselves, they will never restore the evildoer. The image of God in others requires us to offer redemption. This is why we preach the Gospel.
Ramadan began last week, and this month reminds us of a great swath of image-bearers in need of redemption. We must make distinctions between ordinary Muslims and Islamic terrorists, between Islamic governments and Muslim peoples. This is basic charity. But Islam teaches, and radical Islamic jihad exemplifies, a counterfeit missionary vision, a pretend postmillennialism. They envision a world in submission to the radical oneness of Allah where we see the world submitted to King Jesus. Jihadists fight to bring the world to their knees by the sword—or suicide bombs. But Christ rules the world with a rod of iron and He conquers the nations with a two-edged sword, which is the preaching of the word of Christ. What the terrorists hope to win by shedding blood, Jesus has already won by shedding His own blood.
This brings us back to the U.S embassy in Jerusalem. Contrary to popular eschatology, this event will not usher an apocalyptic war to end the world, like in some bad Left Behind book. How very Muslim. Moving the embassy, while (hopefully) a wise geopolitical move, carries no eschatological significance. That significance lies with the New Jerusalem, the church of God, looking outside her walls on a vast array of neighbors and enemies and offering restoration for the marred imago Dei. Offering mercy to the everyday sinner and the violent offender. Offering redemption. Offering Christ, the Hope of nations.