Last year, during the presidential campaign, “Obama is the Antichrist” websites started popping up all over the Internet. My email address must have been poached by one the many “End Times” ministries as I found myself mercilessly spammed by their proselytizers and my email filter had to work overtime to keep up. Eventually this wave of lunacy subsided and the Nigerian 419-scam-mails reclaimed their rightful place as the dominant bandwidth consumer of my Junk Mail Universe.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, another Obama-is-the-Antichrist campaign started up again. This time it came in the form of a viral YouTube video which claims that Jesus was quoted in the Gospel according to Luke to have revealed the name of the Antichrist. This a accomplished with the help of some cryptic association of the president’s first and last name when rendered in Aramaic, combined with bad Hebrew pronunciation, gleamed from a text written in Greek. I will leave it up to Mike Heiser, host of the PaleoBabble blog, Academic Editor for Bible Study Magazine, who is no fan of the President but has expertise in Hebrew and Aramaic to debunk this latest bunk.
The reason I am particularly interested in this recent silliness about our President being the Antichrist is that as a native Chinese speaker, I am familiar with how easy it is to make wild associations with names when transliterated to another language. It is difficult if not impossible to phonetically represent non-Chinese names in Chinese without imparting some unintended meaning to the name. The Chinese language is tonal and monosyllabic and in written form, a single character represents a concept with a unique sound. As an example, a simple name like “Mary” is represented by two Chinese characters with the sound of “Ma” and “Li” (with no “r” sound character, the “l” will have to do.) So “Mary” is transliterated as “Ma-Li.” The best possible outcome for making up names is for the characters with the proper sounds when strung together to make no sense at all or to mean something pleasant or good. That’s not always possible. “Ma” is “horse.” “Li” is “good omen” or “tongue” depending on the character used. So, the name “Mary” in Chinese can mean a “Good omen horse” or “Horse’s tongue.” Now, imagine a multi-syllabic name like “Roosevelt.” The standard Chinese rendering of this presidential name is with three characters: “Lor – See – Fook.” It’s meaningless but with only slight tonal shift, it can mean “Gong Buttocks.” I understand that Chinese newspapers have settled on President Obama’s name as “Oh – Barn – Ma.” In Cantonese the 3 characters used sounds like “Australian Striped Horse or Zebra. Now, go have fun with it! Every kid in Chinese school history classes have enjoyed many giggling fits with historical Western names rendered in Chinese characters – they range from funny to downright vulgar depending on what character is used to get the sound! A quick check with my mom’s Chinese newspapers showed that they have given up on trying to render Nancy Pelosi’s name in Chinese – they just print her name in alphabets. There is just no graceful way to get a Chinese version of “Nancy” without sounding awkward and even awful! Most Chinese political cartoons or jokes involve punning with a politician’s name, substituting a character with another of the same sound but giving the name a whole new meaning. This phonetic mangling of names, intentional or otherwise is ubiquitous. A Vietnamese immigrant family with a last name of “Phuc” is well advised to change it if they don’t want their children to be butt of jokes in school! The reason I have spent so much ink explaining the difficulty of representing a name in a foreign language is to illustrate how disingenuous and desperate the Antichrist crowd is to have to resort to phonetically deconstructing the President’s name in Hebrew, quoted from an Aramaic speaker, recorded in Kione Greek 1,900 years ago!
It comes as no surprise that this particular application of linguistic ignorance to make a bad theological case for whatever suits ones prejudice can get traction so easily in monolingual America. A vast majority of the population have no competence in a foreign language and therefore have little appreciation for subtle linguistic nuances and how barely noticeable tonal variations in pronunciation are not just minor regional accent difference but can change meanings of words and sentences. With the help of a sprinkling of Hebrew numerology, true believers can have fun creating conspiracy theories by quote-mining the Old and New Testaments. So, for the next four (or eight) years, this kind of exercise with gematria, conflation of Hebrew, Aramaic & Greek and mutilation of other Semitic languages will continue in full force to make the case that Barack Hussein Obama is indeed the Antichrist. (Notice the 6 letters in each name – hence 666, the number of the Beast – it’s just too easy! Oh, but wait, “Hussein” has 7 letters! No, it’s only 6 letters when spelled in Greek … and on .. and on .. and on…) Apocalyptic expectation of Armageddon has always been a fixture on the landscape of American culture and politics.
I am old enough to remember reading about the Antichrist and the End Times way back in the 1970s, featuring Hal Lindsey, Jerry Jenkins, Tim LaHaye and hoards of co-religionists cashing in with books, lectures and videos. They were assuring us all, with exactly the same rhetoric and tortured exegesis as today’s apocalypticists that the Antichrist would unify Europe, promise peace, and start the Battle of Armageddon with the help of the USSR. Remember the USSR? And what happened to all of Lindsey’s, LaHaye’s and Jenkins’ predictions? Nothing. The Late Great Planet Earth will end in 1988? Not! How about NASA engineer Edgar Whisenant’s “88 reasons Why the Rapture will be in 1988”? Not! (Just goes to show that being an engineer does not inoculate one from being a looney coo-coo!)
Does the current generation of Antichrist-Is-Already-Here, Rapture-Is-Eminent proselytizers ever read history? Is it possible they did not know of the long list of world leaders who had been branded as the Antichrist over the last 60 years; Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, various popes, Mao Tse-Tung, Anwar Sadat, Saddam Hussein, Sun Myung-Moon, Henry Kissinger to just name a few. Oh, let’s not forget Mikhail Gorbachev, with a birthmark on his head that every eschatologist was so damn sure was the “mark of the beast” mentioned in Revelation. These Apocalypse-Now Chicken Littles deserve to be scorned and mocked for their prediction track record of 100% failure rate. Check out a few webpages for a small sampling. Here’s a list of predictions for 1971-1997 which failed. Here’s a list of predictions for 1998-1999 which failed. And here’s a list of predictions for 2000-2005 which failed. So, why are so many attracted to this Antichrist, Rapture, Armageddon Apocalyptic worldview? And why are they all unabashedly prepared to be wrong again and again?
Occasionally in my more charitable mood, I can convince myself that these true-believers must have taken Martin Luther’s Sola Scriptura directive to heart but are intellectually deficient to understand what they are reading when they try to read the Bible on their own. They lacked the inquisitiveness to acquire the necessarily scholarship on the history and cultural backdrop of a very complex narrative about a region and time so alien to them. They ended up creating a new religion based on misshapen symbolism and misdirected allegories, and in doing so, committed idolatry which the Bible had warned against in the first place. How else can anyone explain Lindsey’s claim that a first century narrative of desert locusts was really a foretelling of helicopter gunships twenty centuries later in a Middle Eastern desert?
When I am less magnanimous I dismiss all these eschatological stuff as having nothing to do with Biblical interpretation. The people involved really don’t think the End Time is near. They enjoy fantasizing about it because they know it’s not true and delight in mentally constructing outrageous improbably scenarios just for the kick of it to see how far out they can push the story. It’s the equivalent of all those letters-to-the-editor sexual escapades in men’s magazines – guys reading them know none of it is true but nevertheless they get a kick out of reading it anyway because they wish it could happen to them. Speculating about who the next Antichrist is and when the Rapture will happen is theological pornography for these believers.
However, a more somber and sober consideration which should not be ignored is that this constant proof-texting and data-mining, backed by twisted and unscholarly hermeneutics to make the case for the appearance of the Antichrist and place the Rapture within our life time may be perpetrated by a bunch of pathological social misfits who cannot comprehend or cope with the modern world. Stuck in a fast-changing world that they can neither fit in nor care to, they take solace in wishing for and fantasizing about the end of that world with the gory and fiery destruction of people they hate. The cynic in me thinks that the modern day Antichrist movement may be invented by a bunch of lazy believers who felt compelled to do God’s work but then found it too demanding, and by believing that the world is going to end soon will make their being Christians easier.
I am not a Biblical scholar and will admit that after reading the Bible from Genesis to Revelation more times than any science geek should admit to, I still don’t know what the Book of Revelation is really about. All I know is that in recent years it’s been adopted as a canon within a canon by the lunatic fringes of the Religious Right and the Anarchic Left (Yes, many “liberation theologians” hate the U.S. and have America labelled as the Antichrist.) It has also acted as magnet for and gives aid and comfort to the deranged such as Jim Jones, and psychotics like David Koresh, and greedy charlatans like Elizabeth Clare Prophet, to make wild apocalyptic pronouncements and to see an Antichrist coming around every corner. I am assured by many friends and relatives who are sincere and devout Christians that they have no need for this End Times stuff in their quest for communion with God.
Promoters of Obama-is-the-Antichrist polemics are not even funny – at least the “birther” are so comically incompetent they are laughable. They may not like the fact that he won the election; they may disagree with his policies and they may hate his Supreme Court appointee but procuring their eschatological viewpoint from reading the Left Behind series and then clamoring to make the case that he’s the Antichrist is asylum-worthy and should disqualify them from the arena of political discourse.
And please don’t get me started on the Mayan Calendar 2012 apocalypse – this bombastic nonsense is not even at the level of bunk to be worth debunking!
For those interested in reading books about the Book of Revelation written by biblical scholars (of which Tim LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins and Hal Lindsey are definitely not,) I recommend the following:
How to Read the Apocalypse by Jean-Pierre Prevost, gives an overview of the symbolism, numbers, historical context of all the important characters and story lines in the Book of Revelation.
Four Views on the Book of Revelation is a book by four different Evangelical authors, each explaining one of the four dominant Evangelical presentation of the Book. It’s a college level text book and definitely not for casual reading.
Paperback Apocalypse is a non-academic book by Robert M. Price, a professor of New Testament and Systemic Theology. With the subtitle “How the Christian Church Was Left Behind,” Prof. Price makes no apologies for that fact that he wrote this book as an antidote to the LaHaye-Jenkins “Left Behind” series.
Arguing the Apocalypse by Stephen O’leary. This book examines and analyzes in detail two specific End Times predictions that failed – The Millerites (predecessors of today’s Seven Day Adventists) of mid-19 Century and the LaHaye-Jenkins phenomenon of the 1970s and 1980.