As anyone who is familiar with Bible prophecy knows, Russia was the designated end-time bad guy throughout the last century. With the fall of the former Soviet Union, prophetic speculators regrouped to paint a new end-time picture. The takeover of the American Embassy by a group of Islamic extremists during the Carter administration fueled speculation that Islam was an emerging prophetic movement. Some went so far as to maintain that the Islamic nations would align themselves with Russia in an assault on Israel. This scenario allowed them to keep the Russia factor alive without too much revision. With the assault on America on September 11, 2001, Islam is once again taking prophetic center stage.

A new book claims that the antichrist is Islamic. Like the author’s predecessors, he’s reading the Bible through current events. Here’s some of the advertisement copy:

In “The Islamic Antichrist,” Joel Richardson breaks new ground with this devastating account of the possible connection between the Biblical Antichrist and the Islamic Mahdi. The Bible predicts that in the last days a charismatic leader will establish a global following in the name of peace. The Quran also predicts that a man will rise up to lead the nations, pledging to usher in an era of peace. The man in the Quran is called the Mahdi, or Islam’s savior. However, the man in the Bible is the Antichrist. Could it be possible that they are one and the same person?

The problem with this interpretation is that (1) there were many antichrists, (2) they were alive and well in the first century, and (3) they served as a sign that the end was near for that first-century generation (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:2; 2 John 7), hundreds of years before Islam entered the historical scene. Of course, this very specific definition did not stop prophetic speculators from projecting the antichrist and reconfiguring him for their time, similar to the way Joel Richardson has done for his Islamic antichrist view. Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised that there are some similarities between Islam and the biblical antichrist since these similarities exist between Judaism and the biblical antichrist since both reject the divinity of Jesus Christ. In fact, John’s definition of antichrist is most likely a description of Jewish beliefs in his day. Jews who rejected Jesus as the promised Messiah did not “acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh” (2 John 7; see John 8:31-59)

A check of Bible commentators over the centuries will help put the topic in focus. Mr. Richardson is not alone in misapplying the antichrist passages. Both Islam (“the Turk”) and the Roman Catholic Church (“the Papacy”) played major prophetic roles in the way standard commentators interpreted certain biblical prophetic texts. Peter Toon offers a helpful historical summary of the topic:

References to the Turkish Empire appear in virtually every Commentary on the Apocalypse of John which was produced by English Puritans, Independents, Presbyterians and Baptists. Gog and Magog were identified with the armies of Turkey and the Muslim world, descriptions of Turkish military power were seen in the contents of the trumpet (Rev. 9:13–21), and the year 1300 was believed to have great significance for it was at that time that the Turk became a threat to European civilization.

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For the English Puritans, as for many of their fellow Protestants on the Continent of Europe, the fact that the Ottoman Empire had for its religion Islam, the teaching of Mohammed, the ‘false’ prophet of God, was sufficient to label it as an envoy or agent of Satan, seeking to destroy the true Church of Christ. In view of this we cannot be surprised to learn that they believed God had given to John on Patmos a vision of this great enemy of the elect of God, who would one day be destroyed by the power of Christ. ((Peter Toon, “Introduction,” Puritans, the Millennium and the Future of Israel: Puritan Eschatology 1600 to 1660 (London: James Clarke & Co. Ltd., 1970), 19–20.))

It should not surprise us, therefore, that when Christians wrote on the subject of Bible prophecy centuries ago, they would take current events into account. For the historicist interpreter, the Islamic advances could not be ignored. “[D]uring the oppressive conquests of the Saracens ((Saracens was the name Christians had given to Moslems during the time of the Crusades. Moslems who had invaded Spain from Morocco were called Moors. Saracen might be based on a word meaning “easterners.”)) the prophecies concerning Antichrist were searched anew by the monks and priests—in the hope they would yield perhaps an indication that Mohammed or his fierce followers could be meant by the passages referring to Antichrist.” ((LeRoy Froom, Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers: The Historical Development of Prophetic Interpretation, 4 vols. (Washington, DC: Review and Herald, 1950), 1:530.)) Like today, many of the Reformers saw prophecy being fulfilled in their day:

The search for the plain obvious meaning of Scripture when allied with the conviction that God must have spoken in Scripture of the times during which the Reformers lived, which were ‘the last times’, led to a view of Daniel and Revelation as being charters or maps of Church history from the Epiphany [the first coming of Christ] to the Last Judgment. The millennium of Revelation 20 was therefore equated with a thousand years of church history. Yet it was the contents of chapters 13 to 19 of the Apocalypse of John which seemed most to impress the followers of Calvin and Luther. Here they found a clear promise that all the enemies of Jesus Christ would be crushed before the Last Day. The Turks, the papacy and all their supporters would be defeated. ((Toon, “The Latter-Day Glory,” Puritans, the Millennium and the Future of Israel, 25.))

Not every expositor saw Islam as the sign of the end. The prevailing prophetic system at the time was postmillennialism in contrast to premillennialism, the belief that the proclamation of the gospel would have a world-wide evangelical effect. While the Papacy and Islam had prophetic significance, they were not seen as the prelude to the Second Coming.

Protestant Reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546) believed that “the papacy was the antichrist alluded to in the eleventh chapter of Daniel, and the Turk was the small horn that replaced three horns of the beast in the seventh chapter.” ((Mark U. Edwards, Jr., Luther’s Last Battles: Politics and Polemics, 1531–46 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University)) He also identified the Turk as Gog and the papacy as Magog. Luther had a great deal to say about the Turks in history and prophecy. He wrote On War Against the Turks in 1528. His second treatise, Army Sermon Against the Turks, was written at the time of the unsuccessful siege of Vienna by the Turks in 1529. Luther wrote the following in 1532:

I am entirely of the opinion that the papacy is the Antichrist. But if anyone wants to add the turk, then the pope is the spirit of the Antichrist, and the turk is the flesh of Antichrist. They help each other in their murderous work. The latter slaughters bodily and by the sword, the former spiritually and by doctrine. ((Quoted in Ewald M. Plass, What Luther Says: A Practical In-Home Anthology for the Active Christian (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 1959), 33.))

Like today’s prophetic speculators, Luther believed that the end was near, and the presence of the papacy and the Turks was positive proof. “At no other time in his life was he so certain of the imminence of the end, and in the months from late 1529 to the early part of 1530 he worked feverishly to understand and incorporate the event of the Turk into the total scheme of history.” ((John H. Headley, Luther’s View of Church History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1963), 245.)) In a letter to a friend written shortly before his death, Luther wrote, “I believe that we are the last trumpet which prepares for and precedes the advent of Christ.” ((Quoted in Headley, Luther’s View of Church History, 265.)) Luther was not alone in this conviction. ((Katharine R. Firth, The Apocalyptic Tradition in Reformation Britain: 1530–1645 (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1979), 17–19.)) While the end did not come before 1600 like Luther and others thought, Islam still played a major role in prophetic speculation.

Like Martin Luther, John Calvin (1509–1564) did not write a commentary on the Book of Revelation. Even so, he did make a number of important contributions to the topic of eschatology. Although Calvin commented on the rise of Islam, he did not predict that the end was near. Calvin believed that Islam was one of “two horns of antichrist,” with the pope being the other. ((John Calvin, Sermons on Deuteronomy (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, [1555] 1987), 666.)) The demise of antichrist is, in Calvin’s view, no singular apocalyptic act:

[Paul] had foretold the destruction of Antichrist’s reign; he now points out the manner of his destruction—that he will be reduced to nothing by the word of the Lord. It is uncertain, however, whether he speaks of the last appearance of Christ, when he will be manifested from heaven as the Judge. The words, indeed, seem to have this meaning, but Paul does not mean that Christ would accomplish this in one moment. Hence we must understand it in this sense—that Antichrist would be wholly and in every respect destroyed, when the final day of the restoration of all things shall arrive. ((John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, rep. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1957), 335.))

It was Calvin’s position that all the nations would one day embrace the gospel, this includes Roman Catholic and Islamic nations. Calvin did not fall into the newspaper exegesis trap. A full reading of “Calvin’s commentaries give some scholars cause for concluding that he anticipated the spread of the gospel and true religion to the ends of the earth.” ((J. A. DeJong, As the Waters Cover the Sea: Millennial Expectations in the Rise of Anglo-American Missions—1640–1810 (Kampen, Netherlands: J. H. Kok, 1970), 8.))

A Critical Commentary and Paraphrase of the Old and New Testaments, edited by Symon Patrick, was a very popular commentary series published in the early eighteenth century, with a corrected edition appearing in 1822. William Lowth’s comments on Ezekiel 38:15 are representative of the time:

Thou and many people with thee, all of them riding upon horses, &c.] The character here given of this people, may properly be applied to the Turks, the chief strength of whose armies consist of cavalry, and the great numbers of them which they bring into the field, as the writers of the Turkish history observe: compare Rev. ix. 16. which place several interpreters expound of the Turks. ((William Lowth, “A Commentary Upon the Prophet Ezekiel,” A Critical Commentary and Paraphrase of the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha, ed. Symon Patrick, 6 vols. rev. ed. (London: J. F. Dove, 1822), 4:67.))

John Gill (1697–1771) and Thomas Scott (1747–1821) followed a similar interpretive methodology. Gill mentions the Islamic Turks several times in his commentary on Ezekiel 38 by identifying them with “Gog.” ((John Gill, Exposition of the Old Testament, 9 vols. rep. ed. (Paris, AR: The Baptist Standard Bearer, Inc., [1810] 1989), 6:197–200.)) Scott finds “that the Turks, Tartars, or Scythians, from the northern parts of Asia, perhaps uniting with the inhabitants of some more southern regions, will make war upon the Jews, and be cut off in the manner here predicted.” Scott does not offer a timetable for when this might be accomplished. ((Thomas Scott, The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments, 3 vols. (New York: Collins and Hannay, 1832), 2:773.))

Thomas Newton’s Dissertations on The Prophecies, first published in 1755, identifies the fallen star of Revelation 9:1 with Mohammed and the locusts with Arabians:

At the sounding of the fifth trumpet, (ver. 1–3, [of Rev. 9]) a star fallen from heaven, meaning the wicked imposter of Mohammed, “opened the bottomless pit, and there arose a smoke out of the pit, and the sun and the air were darkened” by it; that is, false religion was set up, which filled the world with darkness and error; and swarms of Saracen or Arabian locusts overspread the earth. A false prophet is very fitly typified by a blazing star or meteor.—The Arabians likewise are properly compared to locusts, not only because numerous armies frequently are so, but also because swarms of locusts often arise from Arabia: and also because in the plagues of Egypt, to which constant allusion is made in these trumpets, “the locusts (Exod. x. 13) are brought by an eastwind,” that is from Arabia, which lay eastward of Egypt; and also because in the book of Judges, (vii. 12,) the people of Arabia are compared to locusts or grasshoppers for multitude,” for in the original the word for both is the same. ((Thomas Newton, Dissertations on The Prophecies, Which Have Remarkably Been fulfilled, and at This Time are Fulfilling in the World (London: J. F. Dove, 1755), 481–482.))

Newton sees much of Islamic history predicted in the ninth chapter of Revelation. He states that “the last of their conquests were Candia or the ancient Crete in 1669, and Cameniec in 1672.” ((Newton, Dissertations on the Prophecies, 490.)) Of course, he’s interpreting the Bible after the fact. Did people reading Revelation 9 in the first few centuries after it was written see the rise of Islam? Did they see anything like what the futurists claim is about to happen? The preterist interpretation is based on the time texts of Revelation 1:1 and 1:3. The events were “near” for those who first picked up Revelation to read. All other interpretive systems are guesswork.

James Glasgow, who served as the Irish General Assembly’s Professor of Oriental Languages, writes in his 1872 commentary on Revelation, “I accord with such interpreters as have identified this meteor [in Revelation 9:1] with Mohammed, and the system called by him and his followers Islam.” ((James Glasgow, The Apocalypse Translated and Expounded (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1872), 251.)) Glasgow follows an historicist approach to Revelation similar to that of Luther. The two beast-like powers in Revelation are the Roman Catholic Church and Mohammedanism. Glasgow places the fulfillment of the prophecy in Revelation 9:19 “when the Ottomans in A.D. 1453 took Constantinople, and established in Europe that dominion which ever since has been called Turkey in Europe. . . .” ((Glasgow, The Apocalypse, 270.)) Glasgow’s understanding of Islam is remarkably up to date:

Now the history of the rise and progress of Mohammedanism is a history of the rise and progress of a religious system, and a vast political power inseparably united,—of a religion propagated by the sword, mustering armies compared to swarms of locusts [Rev. 9:3], and making their devastating, plundering, and subjugating assaults on ‘the land,’—the nominally Christian by now corrupted region of palestine, Egypt, Syria, etc. . . . The secret of their bravery lies in Mohammed’s teaching, and can be found in the Qur’an. He had taught them, that if they fell in Battle against kafirs, or infidels, they would be shaheds, or martyrs, and sure of Paradise (Behisht), with its sensual attractions; and that those who would slay infidels were to be called ghazi or heroes, and to enjoy the special favor of God. The natural result was an ardour that carried them over the battle-field, wishing to be slain and to enjoy the dazzling prospects of Paradise. ((Glasgow, The Apocalypse, 254, 257.))

Adam Clarke follows a similar method of interpretation in his exposition of Revelation 9. The description of the “locusts” of verse 7 “appears to be taken from Joel ii.4. The whole of this symbolical description of an overwhelming military force agrees very well with the troops of Mohammed. The Arabs are the most expert horsemen in the world: they live so much on horseback that the horse and his rider seem to make but one animal.” ((Adam Clarke, Clarke’s Commentary, 3 vols. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, [1810] n.d.), 3:1002.)) Keep in mind that with the historicist interpretation, this section of Revelation was considered fulfilled prophecy in 1810 when Clarke published his commentary.

If history has taught us anything, it has taught us that trying to predict the end is an inexact science when the historical context of a given prophecy is ignored. With all the supposed good intentions to bring people closer to the reality of God’s Word, prophetic speculation seems to have the opposite effect. Skeptics often ask, If the Bible is clear on this topic (and it is), then why have so many interpreters been so wrong for so long? It’s a legitimate question that needs to be answered by those making millions of dollars in the name of prophetic certainty.

For further study, see the following books:

Last Days Madness

Is Jesus Coming Soon?

10 Popular Prophecy Myths Exposed and Answered

Why the End of the World is Not in Your Future

The Day and the Hour