The Dangers of an Arrogant and Lazy Approach to Bible Prophecy
If Trump Is the Little Horn, Is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the King of the North?
By Stephen Ferguson | 23 November 2018 |
I was fascinated to read Adventist Today’s recent article, “A New Interpretation of the Little Horn of Daniel 7”. To recap: the article suggested, amongst other matters, “the little horn of Daniel 7 is none other than Donald J. Trump.”
Was the Little Horn Article Even about Donald Trump?
The shock and outrage of many readers seemed misplaced. I didn’t write the article nor do I know who wrote it, but my own personal reading suggested it was not in fact about Donald—at least not directly. It seemed the article was more about historic Adventist approaches to Bible prophecy, approaches which demonized the Pope and all Roman Catholics. This was clear when I reread the article’s first and second-last paragraphs:
“For years, we Seventh-day Adventists have held that the little horn of Daniel 7 was the pope of Rome. Yet we encounter a problem with this interpretation: in modern times no pope has shown an inclination to visit upon God’s people the persecutions that we’ve claimed the Vatican wants to do.
…We do not discount the influence of the Pope of Rome in the modern world, nor deny the Vatican’s possible appearance in prophecy; but in terms of the oppressive might of the little horn, we cannot see that organization matching the figure described in Daniel 7.”
The point, as I read it, is not whether Trump is a good guy. Those readers who thought it was about that possibly missed the point. By Trump’s own admission, he is a flawed being. I have myself publicly written how I respect the President, especially his Christ-like love for his children, while being cognizant of his very human foibles.
Why Do We Feel the Need to Defend President Trump but Not Pope Francis?
The point instead is to ask why many faithful Seventh-day Adventist readers would feel so aggrieved assigning President Trump a negative place in biblical prophecy, while simultaneously feeling comfortable suggesting Pope Francis was actually evil, if not the very Man of Sin himself. Why Adventists would consider an insult to millions of Republican voters so outrageous, while happily ascribing those very same sentiments to a billion Roman Catholics. Why the former issue is not “Sabbath material,” as one letter to Adventist Today’s editors put it, while the latter is something we Adventists pay money to put on roadside billboards.
Is the Capture of the Pope by General Berthier Still Such a Big Deal?
Moreover, in noting the Little Horn story was probably more about the Pope and Catholics, not the President and Republicans, the article highlighted to me something bigger than just comparing these two groups. It seems the deeper problem is how modern Adventists approach Bible prophecy generally.
In particular, why do we feel our particular understanding of prophecy is surely correct, down to the nth degree? This also became apparent when I reread the third-last and final paragraphs of the Little Horn article:
“We feel that our case for Donald Trump’s being the little horn of Daniel 8 is at least as viable as the previous interpretation held by Seventh-day Adventists, but with a contemporaneity that the earlier interpretation couldn’t claim.
“…earlier interpretations of Daniel 7 have persisted even though the passage of time has shown them corresponding to nothing of significance in the contemporary world.”
Our pioneers were keen students of Bible prophecy and its possible application to their own world, as evident in an examination of the so-called “signs of the times”. Our pioneers emphasized notions of “present truth” and “progressive revelation”. Our pioneers were open-minded and anti-creedal explorers of truth. They took nothing for granted and constantly updated their views.
Within that historic paradigm it makes complete sense why they thought, for example, that the fulfillment of the 1260-day prophecy, and the wounding of the Beast of Revelation, was centered around the capture of the Pope in 1798 by Napoleon’s general, Louis-Alexandre Berthier. But why should one accept that 19th century view and not a new 21st century one instead? Why would we not suggest, as an alternative, the wounding of the beast was the appointment of Robert Mueller, while the three-and-a-half year prophecy being the remaining time under Trump’s presidential reign? Why do faithful Adventist readers take the former idea with utmost seriousness but insist the latter one is so certifiably crazy any person promoting it must surely be satirical?
Are Modern Adventist Approaches to Prophecy Arrogant, Lazy and Dangerous?
It seems to me that modern Adventism has shifted in gear from the dynamism of our founders to becoming, or being in danger of becoming, just another ossified creedal-group devoted to defending its own notions of orthodoxy. It seems to me we risk becoming eschatologically lazy and arrogant. In the name of our pioneers’ supposed “historic Adventism”, we have in fact abandoned what they stood for. It seems we have forgotten some pretty foundational principles in interpreting prophecy, such as the following:
- Prophecy is not fortune-telling but in fact often the opposite, focused on looking backwards—not forwards (Matt. 24:33; Mark 13:29; Luke 21:28).
- Even when prophecy looks forward, it is primarily an exhortation to watch (Luke 21:26), to get prepared (Matt 25:2-4) and to take action (Matt. 24:14-16), not map out in exact detail impending events.
- Sometimes a prophecy doesn’t come true, not because it was false, but because as Jonah found, the prophecy was actually a warning, not a declaration of unchangeable fate (Jonah 3:4,10).
- While God remains committed to fulfilling a particular eschatological outcome, there remain many alternative pathways to that exact fulfillment, something Moses discovered when God threatened to wipe out all of Israel and start again through him alone (Ex. 32:10).
- Sometimes a prophecy may not come true because, as the Children of Israel at the edge of the Promised Land discovered, we human beings do affect outcomes—we either hasten or delay events (2 Pet. 3:12).
- Often a prophecy has multiple applications, such as whether the disciples were living in the last generation (Matt. 24:34), or whether the letter of Revelation was written to seven actual churches in Asia Minor or represented seven symbolic periods of history (Rev. 1:11).
- Finally, even when a prophecy is broadly understood, it will often be fulfilled in a way people didn’t expect, such as John the Baptist being the fulfillment of Elijah (Mal. 4:5-6; Matt. 11:13-15).
While all important lessons, I would submit that the greatest danger is with the last one: that is, we risk neutering an otherwise valid prophecy with the burden of unrealistic expectations. This in fact seems the lesson of both Christ’s first coming and the foundation myth of Seventh-day Adventism borne out of the Great Disappointment experience.
Likewise, in ascribing so many precise predictions concerning the Pope, Catholicism, the United States, Sunday Law and a myriad of other matters, we ironically risk disappointing ourselves, and in turn throwing out the eschatological baby with the bathwater. When Pope Francis and Roman Catholics don’t end up placing Seventh-day Adventists in concentration camps, we risk eliminating any legitimate place they may have had within the prophetic story altogether.
If Adventists want to talk about Roman Catholicism, it would be fairer, smarter and healthier to focus on the same sort of concerns Catholics themselves routinely raise. I would argue that talk of Jesuit conspiracies and anti-Catholic roadside billboards is generally unhelpful, and actually counterproductive to the longevity of so-called “historic Adventism”.
Who Remembers Uriah Smith’s Predictions about the Ottoman-Turks?
If we want a good example of all this from within Adventism itself, we need not look to Trump and Republicans, or the Pope and Catholics, but to the now-forgotten view about the Sultan of Istanbul and his Ottoman Empire. In his 1873 book Daniel and Revelation, SDA Pioneer Uriah Smith would claim the fifth trumpet of Revelation 9:1-12, the sixth plague of Revelation 16:12-16 and the “King of the North” of Daniel 11:40-45 were allusions to Ottoman Turkey—then ruling most of the Middle East.
The reason why any of this matters, and mattered deeply to our pioneers is because Daniel 11:40-12:1 says when the King of the North comes to his end, then Michael your Prince (that is Jesus) will stand up and the time of trouble will begin. Thus by the 1880s, “the Ottoman theory had become the unanimous consensus among Seventh-day Adventists.”
The problem, as anyone who knows anything about history, is the Ottoman-Turks were on the losing side of the Great War. Almost exactly one hundred years ago their Empire ceased to exist. As explained by Jeff Boyd, the prophecy:
“did not come true. Rather than move its capital to Jerusalem, ushering in Armageddon and Jesus’ return, the Ottoman Empire dissolved into the present country of Turkey. Stefánsson stated bluntly that ‘World War I did not cause the Turk to leave Istanbul,’ but instead “quickened his departure out of Adventist eschatology.”
The result is Smith’s view is now in the trash can of prophetic ideas. Today, even the General Conference’s own hand-picked scholars, usually the defenders of “historic Adventism”, downplay the whole affair. They now see the identification of both the King of the North and King of the South wholly in symbolic, metaphorical terms—not with any actual historic, geo-political power or individual.
But Was Uriah Smith Right All Along—In a Manner of Speaking?
Over the years I have heard an alternative theory which seeks to revive Uriah Smith’s original view. The theory goes that Smith was wrong in suggesting this prophetic power was that political entity we call the Ottoman Empire, but right insofar as what the prophecy was really talking about at its heart—militant Islam. We should recall that the head of the Ottoman Empire also held, in addition to “Sultan”, the title of “Caliph”. As “Caliph” the Sultan claimed to be the successor of the Prophet Muhammad and the leader of all the world’s Muslims.
In this way, this theory suggests Daniel 11:40-45 is actually talking about Militant-Islam, that power which pitches its tent on the holy mountain (Dan. 11:45), which some see as a reference to the Dome of the Rock mosque sitting atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. When verse 45 says this power will “come to his end”, with “no one to help him,” this might be talking about the destruction of this religious-political movement.
Should We Watch and Pray—or Guess? And Should We Condemn Entire Classes of People with Our Expectations?
Thus, maybe the prophecy was correct, but not in the exact way Uriah Smith and his fellow Adventist pioneers thought at that time. If Trump (or if readers prefer, Pope Francis) is the Little Horn on the head of the Beast, maybe the King of the North is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Caliph of ISIS.
Do I personally believe any of this? Maybe a little, although I have serious doubts. In the event that al-Baghdadi is killed and ISIS collapses, but The End doesn’t come, I will have to recalibrate my expectations. However, I remain open-minded.
The whole point being, I look at ancient prophecies and see possible connections to historic and modern-day events. That is fine and commendable. But I certainly don’t make dogmatic pronouncements about the future.
I don’t pretend to chart out in precise detail everything that is going to happen. I don’t make pronouncements condemning entire classes of people. And I don’t find individuals guilty for future crimes they have not yet even committed.
That is neither a liberal whitewash nor a conservative jumping to conclusions. That is simply watching and praying—not guessing.
- See “Abolition of the Ottoman Sultanate”, Wikipedia. As a practical illustration, note Sultan Mehmed VI’s military was known as the “Army of the Caliphate,” title now sometimes ascribed to the Islamic State. ↑
Stephen is a lawyer from Perth, Western Australia. His legal expertise is in planning, environment, immigration and administrative-government law. He is married to Amy, and has a one child, William. Stephen is a member of the Livingston Seventh-day Adventist Church.