RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–The sky is falling -– again.
“Is this how Armageddon begins?” one worried pundit asked about the rapid escalation of combat between Israel and Hezbollah forces in Lebanon.
The same question arises with every major flare-up in the Middle East because of the region’s volatility and its role in biblical prophecy about the end times. It was asked in 1948, 1967 and 1973 when Israel fought wars for survival with the wider Arab world, and in 1982 when Israel invaded and occupied southern Lebanon.
The current Israeli-Hezbollah conflict appears more limited, despite its heartbreaking human toll and its potential to draw in other regional powers. Intensive efforts to end the fighting quickly –- either by military action, diplomatic means or both -– have begun.
Yet a sense is growing among some uneasy observers that events in the wider Middle East and beyond are spinning out of control.
Among the alarms and warnings from various quarters:
— Hezbollah wants to draw Israel into a long, costly ground war in Lebanon, military analysts say. They predict such a war could become an Iraq-style insurgency, sapping Israeli strength and increasing the regional influence of Hezbollah militants (and their sponsors in Iran and Syria).
— The “peace process” between Israelis and Palestinians, long on life support, appears dead. Negotiations, withdrawals, even democratic elections seem only to have strengthened the hand of Palestinian militants. Democracy doesn’t seem to be doing very well elsewhere in the region, either.
— The Iraq conflict, some contend, has become a civil war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that will continue until one side or the other prevails -– or the nation is partitioned.
— The Taliban, apparently alive and kicking in Afghanistan, has embarked on a new offensive and promises to battle Western forces until all foreigners are driven out.
— Civilian deaths in these conflicts are radicalizing Muslims in once-moderate societies, giving new footholds to jihadist groups inspired by Al Qaeda.
— Iran appears determined to develop nuclear weapons.
“One has to wonder sometimes whether a kind of death wish will eventually prevail in the Middle East over the more rational desire for peace and survival,” Southern Baptist scholar David P. Gushee, of Union University, writes in a commentary for ChristianityToday.com.
“It is often said that ‘everyone’ really wants peace, and that if diplomacy is skillful enough and statesmen are wise enough, then peace will prevail,” Gushee writes. “I think it is more accurate to say that the desire for peace, while God-given, competes in the human heart with the desire for destruction -– at least, the destruction of one’s enemies.”
Destruction seems to be winning at the moment. But there have been many such moments in the history of the Middle East.
It may sound too glib to say that God is working to bring hope to the hurting –- and glory to His name — amid seemingly hopeless situations. But He is, just as He has throughout history.
Many Christians are caught in the current Middle East crossfire -– some literally, such as the Lebanese and Israeli believers now dodging bullets and rockets. Some figuratively, such as the believers in many lands who are persecuted or accused of joining (or failing to join) one side or another in the region’s cauldron of religious and ethnic conflicts.
Despite their own sufferings, however, Christians are weeping with those who weep, binding the wounds of the hurting, feeding the hungry –- and proclaiming the mercy of Christ to those who need it most. Lebanese Baptists and other Christians are doing that right now in and around Beirut as terrified refugees flee the fighting. Iraqi, Iranian and Afghan believers are doing the same day after day under very difficult circumstances.
And the Gospel goes forth “amid the storm.” That’s been the painful but victorious story of church history through the ages — particularly over the last century as the Good News has spread in Asia, Africa and throughout the Muslim world.
Armageddon? It will come one day, but Jesus Himself said that something else must happen first: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14, NIV).
We have a lot of preaching to do among the nations before that day comes.
Erich Bridges is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board whose column appears twice each month in Baptist Press.