The messianic phenomenon
Catalin Negru | Published: December 13, 2016 | 12:34
The Messiah. Every person has a different image in mind when hearing this word. Some see a shinning man dressed in white gloriously descending from heaven surrounded by angels; others see a great human being leading a group of people to victory in a great war, while others might imagine him as a king sitting on a throne. But who or what is the Messiah? Is he a man? A half-god? God himself? What is his purpose? Will he bring the end of the world? Will he fight against the Antichrist or another evil character at the end of times? The answer to all these questions is surprisingly simple and human.
There is a distinction between the concept of “messiah” and the word “messiah.”
First and foremost we must understand that there is a distinction between the concept of “messiah” and the word “messiah.” The word “Messiah” (often written with capital “M”) is a sort of name and it designates a single entity. Nowadays, the word “Messiah” designates the concept of “messiah” because of the spread of the Abrahamic religions and Judaism was the first in line. According to the Jewish scriptures, the word “Messiah” (Romanized Hebrew: mashiah) initially described kings and priests that were anointed with oil (Exodus 30:22-25). So, when did the word “messiah” come to be one and the same with the concept of “messiah” (or the messianic concept) as it is understood today? When did it come to signify a savior, a liberator or an end-time entity?
The messianic concept appeared in Judaism during the Egyptian captivity of the Israelites and the rise of the prophet Moses. Moses prophesied about the coming of the Messiah (Deuteronomy 18:15-21), but, by freeing and leading the Israelites in Canaan (Book of Exodus), he was perceived by his people as a raw model and a precursor of the Messiah he prophesied about. Later, another messianic model rose during the Babylonian captivity of the Israelites: Cyrus the Great, the king of Persia (Isaiah 45). After he conquered the Babylonian Empire in 539 BC, Cyrus freed the Israelites and allowed them to return to Canaan and rebuild Solomon’s Temple, previously destroyed by the Babylonians (Ezra 1:1-4, 2, 4-5; 2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Daniel 9:1-2). Cyrus confirmed and strengthened the messianic image started by Moses. Largely due to Moses and Cyrus the Israelites came to envision the Jewish Messiah as a great divinely inspired leader, a liberator who rises from amongst the people, seizes the political power in dark and troubled times, frees Israel from any foreign domination and brings it to the height of prosperity.
The entire Jewish eschatology1 revolves around one single event: the coming of the Messiah. Jews believe that the coming of the Messiah is a unique future event: his first coming will be the only one. It is not clear if the Messiah will come in times of trouble, when the people of Israel will be in great distress,2 or during times of unprecedented prosperity.3 The Jewish Messiah is destined to establish the Messianic Age (no one knows how) or to take the leadership of the world in a Messianic Age (the Christian equivalent is the Millennium) already installed through historical inertia. In Sefer Zerubbabel (the “Apocalypse of Zerubbabel”), a 7th-century apocryphal text, Armilus is an offspring of Satan and a virgin and a false king who torments the Jewish people at the end of times. He was supposed to be killed by the Messiah in a final battle in 1058 AD, after which the Messianic Age was going to be established.4 But the image of Armilus appeared long after the advent of the Christian religion, possibly as a reaction to the Roman and Christian oppression, and he might be a copy of the Christian Antichrist.5 The Jewish canon rejects the image of Armilus.
Although throughout the Old Testament (the Tanakh) Hebrew prophets detail the future achievements of the Messiah, his image evolved according to the transformations of the Jewish theology and the events surrounding the Jewish people. At the moment, it is believed that the Messiah will serve as an example for the entire world (Isaiah 2:4); he will be a descendant of King David (Isaiah 11:2) and King Solomon (1 Chronicles 22:8-10); he will be an observant Jew with fear of God (Isaiah 11:2); he will turn barren lands into abundant and prosperous ones (Ezekiel 36:29-30); the world will honor the God of Israel (Isaiah 2:17); the knowledge of God will spread across the world (Isaiah 11:9); all the Israelites will come back to their homeland (Isaiah 11:12); death will be eradicated forever and there will be no more famine or disease (Isaiah 25:8); all dead people will be resurrected (Isaiah 26:19); the people of the earth will turn to the Jewish people for spiritual guidance (Zechariah 8:23); the ruined cities of Israel will be rebuilt (Ezekiel 16:55); the Holy Temple will be rebuilt (Ezekiel 40). So, overall, the Jewish Messiah will be a future Jewish king who will embody the divine inspiration of Moses, the military skills of King David and Cyrus and the political and economic ingenuity of King Solomon. He will be anointed with oil and he will rule the Jewish people during the Messianic Age.6
In the first centuries of our era the concept of “messiah” was further developed by Christianity. For Christians, the promise made by God to Adam, Abraham and Moses, that he will send a savior, was fulfilled through the person of Jesus Christ. The main difference between Christianity and the other two major Abrahamic religions (Judaism and Islam) is that Jesus Christ is concurrently the messenger of God and God. He is the key figure of the Bible, in the Old Testament through the prophecies about his coming,7 and in the New Testament through his actions and teachings.
Jesus Christ is the perfect example of the difference between the word “messiah” and the concept of the messiah.
Jesus Christ is the perfect example of the difference between the word “messiah” and the concept of the messiah. Jesus Christ is occasionally called by Christians “Son of God,” “Messiah,” “Savior” or “Lord.” “Jesus” is a Jewish first name, which has the same root as the first names “Joshua” or “Isaiah.” It seems to have the meaning of “Savior” or the “Lord who saves” (Matthew 1:21). On the other hand, “Christ” is a Greek word which means “anointed,” “sent” or “chosen.” When the texts of the New Testament were translated into Greek, the Hebrew word “messiah” was translated as Christós (Romanized Greek). Due to the widespread level of Greek culture, the word “Christ” was adopted much easier than the Hebrew “messiah.” Thus, instead of saying “Jesus the Messiah,” Christians say “Jesus Christ,” or they use phrases such as “Jesus is the Christ,” “Who is the Christ?,” “Here is the Christ.”
According to the New Testament and the Christian precepts, in the past Jesus Christ incarnated, sacrificed himself for the sins of mankind, resurrected after three days and ascended to Heaven with the promise to return in the future and establish the Kingdom of God. In the future Jesus Christ will return by descending from Heaven. He will face the Antichrist (a powerful evil character described in the gospels, various epistles and Revelation 13)8 at the end of times in the great final battle at the place called “Armageddon” (Revelation 16:16), he will kill the Antichrist, he will stop the current world order and he will start a new world order, the Millennium (Revelation 20).9 So, both Christian and Jewish eschatology depict the end of the world as being marked by to the coming of the Messiah.
Unlike Christian and Jewish eschatology, which are populated by a single messianic figure, Islamic eschatology has are two messianic figures with similar roles: Isa (Jesus, the son of Mary) and the Mahdi. In addition, Islam says that the end of the world will be marked by Judgment Day, not by the coming of the messiahs.10
In Islam Isa is believed to be an important prophet, but his mission and teachings only foreshadowed the true teachings received by Muhammad. According to lots of hadiths (writings about the life of Muhammad that complement the Quran), at a moment known only by Allah, Isa will return in a physical and visible way, concurrently with the advent of the eschatological entity the Mahdi and shortly after the rise of al-Dajjal (the Antichrist in Islamic version). Isa will descend to the earth from the clouds of heaven, he will guide the righteous through the power of Allah, he will kill al-Dajjal, he will put an end to all wars and he will establish an era of peace and prosperity. Isa will perform the role of the Messiah (mahdi), but only as an apostle of God.
The second, the Mahdi (or Mehdi – the “Guided One”), will be the savior of Islam and will rise shortly before Judgment Day. He will free the world of error, injustice and oppression together with Jesus. Traditionally, the Mahdi is seen as a direct descendent of Muhammad on the genealogical line of Fatimah (the prophet’s daughter), his name will be “Muhammad” like the great prophet, and his father’s name will be “Abdullah” (which means “God’s servant”) (Sunan Abi Dawud 4279-4290 – Kitab al-Mahdi). He will be simple and handsome, he will restore the original faith, he will fight for the cause of Islam in the world and he will win, he will protect the Muslims from destruction, he will fill the world with justice at a time when there will be oppression and corruption, and he will lead for seven, nine or 19 years.11 At the time of his coming al-Dajjal will gather an army against Muslims. The two forces will confront in a final battle (the battle at Armageddon in Islamic version) (Sunan Abi Dawud 4291-4350 – Kitab al-Malahim). During the battles, Isa will descend from heaven on the wings of two angels, east of Damascus, dressed in yellow clothes and with his head anointed. He will join the forces of the Mahdi and he will kill al-Dajjal. Isa will preach the Islamic teachings and all the people of the book (Christians and Jews) will believe in him. Therefore there will be a single religious community, Islam.12
The messianic concept is not an exclusive feature of the Abrahamic religions.
But the messianic concept is not an exclusive feature of the Abrahamic religions. Almost every religion speaks about a person/entity endowed with special powers that must come to dramatically alter the course of history and to fulfill a divine and global mission. And every religion and culture has shaped the messianic concept according to its own ideological lines. In Buddhism, Maitreya is an illuminated being that will reintroduce the pure dharma (the universal law of nature and the path to illumination) to the world. He will be a successor of the historical Shakyamuni Buddha, the founder of the Buddhist religion, and he will reveal himself at a time of great trial, when the teachings of Buddhism will be about to be abandoned.13
In Hinduism, Kalki (which means the “Destroyer of evil” or the “Annihilator of ignorance”) is the tenth and the last Great Incarnation of Vishnu, the supreme god in the Vaishnavite Hindu tradition. Kalki will come to put an end to the present era of darkness and destruction dominated by the male demon Kali. Kalki is also perceived as a metaphor for the eternity of time, while the end of the world is seen as a depletion of an era and the start of a new one, in an endlessly repeating cycle.14
In Zoroastrianism (Mazdaism), the ancient religion of Persia, Saoshyant (which means the “Benefactor”) is the empowered messenger of Ahura Mazda, the supreme deity. Saoshyant will show himself at the end of times in order to fight with the forces of evil and defeat them. In the final battle the gods Airyman and Atar will lead a “river-like” army, but the righteous will not be touched. Ahura Mazda will triumph through his agent Saoshyant, who will resurrect the dead, will remake their bodies for eternal perfection and their souls will be cleansed and reunited with Ahura Mazda. Time will end and truth, justice and immortality will be forever.15
Not only the messianic concept transcends religions and cultures, but messiahs from all over the world have in common a number of features: they come in times of great trouble and decisive moments for mankind (or a group), they are on the side of the good, they are destined to fight an evil character equal in power in a final legendary battle, they are males, they divide the world into two well-defined sides (us and them, sinners and saints, good and bad), they are endowed with special powers from divinity (which is good), and they are expected to manifest in the present or in the future, never in the past.
Could these common features, part of cultures and religions separated by thousands of miles and hundreds of years, be a proof that the messianic concept has a divine origin? Could this be a proof of the multitude and diverse manifestations of God in the physical world? Or is there a more natural, psychological explanation behind the universal presence of the messianic concept? After all, if God is all-powerful and he has revealed himself to all people, there should be a single religion worldwide, not thousands of religions which contradict each other on crucial aspects.
Four psychological aspects, combined, sit at the basis of the messianic concept.
There are four psychological aspects which, combined, give birth to the messianic concept. The first is the natural division of life forms in social levels. Both in the animal kingdom and in the human kingdom members have roles in the group. The basic (minimal) roles are those of leader and subject. We humans have felt that some people have an inclination to lead and others have an inclination to obey. But for a long time of our existence the best explanation we could bring for this phenomenon was the will of the divinity.
The second psychological root is our view about sexuality and genders. In every culture and religion the Messiah is depicted as a male. Prophets are males as well. Even divinity is generally depicted as a male or as a group of men (the case of the Trinity). Gender equality is a relative new ideology. The male is stronger than the female and this is why human society has been organized alongside brute force, with males having a leading role at all levels of society: family, group and nation. But with power comes responsibility, and the males also have the duty to use the power they possess for protecting their group from dangers (or, in religious terms, from evil).
The third root is our very mind, which cannot process all the information it receives through the senses. So, for the human being to survive, the mind builds patterns, alters and organizes the environment according to our needs. The messianic concept is a form of simplifying the Universe and in a sense the personification of the good. The final battle between the well-defined sides of good and evil simplifies the Universe and allows people to choose a clear side (the good one of course). In the real physical world good and evil are like fluids, nuances and tones, constantly moving through our minds, our bodies and our environment. There are no perfectly good people or perfectly bad people; every human being can be dominated at certain moment by one side or the other. In other words, people and the environment change; they are unpredictable. Unpredictability means chaos, and our mind hates chaos and loves order. Our mind wants predictability and patterns to recognize because these things can assure our existence and increase our chance of survival.
And the fourth is the idea of circularity induced in our minds by natural opposite elements succeeding each other: night – day, draught – rain, hot season – cold season, sleep – conscious and so on. This is why people have thought that a great period of distress and suffering will be followed by a period of prosperity and good.
So, the messianic concept is one of the many examples (pyramidology16 is another such example) that portray how psychological processes, instincts or natural laws have turned into cultural elements. It is an unconscious arrangement of the world of our mind, which wants the environment to be ordered, predictable and controllable. That makes the problem of survival less stressful. By mythologizing instincts and by naming the Messiah or the Antichrist people seek to push back the threat of chaos, restore order, and secure their sense of well-being. We can only understand order and master order.
In theory, the messianic concept is a source of inspiration for doing good. In practice, however, it has brought only suffering and death. History is full of impostors who took advantage of their context and gained power very rapidly by portraying themselves as the Messiah. In all religions, the authentic messianic figure can be only one (or two individuals in the case of the Shiite Islam). Hence, all the other false messianic manifestations are generically called “messianisms,” while their central figures are known as “false messiahs,” “pseudo-messiahs” or simply “messiahs.”
Messiahs challenge both the social and religious order. This is why they build their cult of personality in remote areas or behind closed doors. Frightened people are attracted by eccentric leaders, and this is how apocalyptic expectations can bring remarkable powers to unremarkable people.17 Although they promote a set of ideas that literally calls to intellectual and material slavery, messiahs show how easy and fast someone who satisfies certain expectations of the others may gain a leading position. Messiahs preach the apostolic life and take the image of victims in public, but in private, behind the propagandistic veil, they live largely and behave like tyrants. Some aspects related to their person are easily perceived as miracles by their adepts, while the horrible sins they commit are conveniently absolved by their divine mission. In this way, messiahs permanently have an immaculate image.
Every religion has been infested by messiahs.
Every religion – Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic – has been infested by messiahs because lunatics and greed exist all over the world, without exception. Messiahs manifest in all times, but with a higher frequency during periods of great distress: disasters, wars, famine, pandemics or a so-called apostasy.
Judaism was a fertile ground for the rise of the messiahs especially in the first centuries, during the Roman domination. The Samaritan prophet, Theudas, Judas of Galilee18 or the Egyptian prophet are some of the many who assumed the role of the Messiah and started anti-Roman riots. These charismatic figures fueled the hopes and the euphoria of their fellows in pain, causing at the same time vigorous reactions from the oppressive powers. Even Herod Agrippa the Great gained a messianic aura after he had restored the Holy Temple and had reunited all the territories of his grandfather. The dissolution of the Hebrew people and the destruction of the Holy Temple in 132 AD was the effect of a messianic manifestation as well, that of Simon bar Kokhba (which means “Son of the Stars” in Aramaic).19 After the scattering of the Jews in the 2nd century, tens of messianic manifestations have taken place in random locations across Europe and Asia Minor.20
Christianity was tormented by much more messiahs than Judaism because it has been much more widespread. The spiritual and political decadence of the Catholic Church was a source of disillusion for the Western medieval Europeans and favored the outbreak of a messianic pandemic. Henry de Lausanne, Peter de Bruys, Arnold de Brescia, Tanchelm de Antwerp, Eudo de Stella or Theuda – these are some of the messiahs that populated the centuries between the Great Schism and the Protestant Reformation.21 In America, the Great Awakenings were also fertile grounds for messiahs, the most uncommon example being Ann Lee, the founder of the Shaker Quakers.22
Islam has also been populated by messiahs; the eschatological entity of the Mahdi is vague and tempting for those seeking to quickly achieve political power.23 Claimant Mahdis have been so powerful that they have founded states (the late 19th-century Mahdiyah24 in Sudan), religions and sects (e.g. Bábism founded by Ali Muhammad Shirazi,25 or the Ahmadiyya movement founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad26) or even seized the Grand Mosque (as Juhayman al-Otaibi did in the name of Muhammad bin abd Allah al-Qahtani).27
Saying that technology and mass information is the cure for religious aberrations is partially true. Technology can be a double-edge sword. No matter how advanced our society will be, messiahs will manifest as long as there will be uneducated and disillusioned people. Indeed, most of them practice their failing ideologies together with their adepts in isolated places while waiting for the end of the world. But when they do clash with the society, nowadays, thanks to technology, they are able to do so much damage that they send shock waves across the entire globe. In 1978 Jim Jones, the leader of the People’s Temple, committed the largest mass suicide in history and the greatest loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until the attacks of September 11, 2001. In what Jones called “an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world,”28 over 900 residents of Jonestown, Guyana, of whom 276 children, died shot or poisoned with cyanide.29 In 1993 David Koresh pushed his congregation of almost 100 people into a mini-Armageddon against the American authorities. After 51 days and countless failed negotiations, the group was assaulted with tanks, armored vehicles and helicopters. 76 Davidians, including Koresh, died burned, suffocated by smoke, shot or committed suicide.30 In 1995 the blind messiah Shoko Asahara instructed some elite members of his cult Aum Shinrikyo31 to release sarin gas in a coordinated attack on five lines of the Tokyo subway, killing 12 commuters, seriously injuring 54 and affecting around 1,000.32 And, finally, it is not clear if Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, declared himself to be the Mahdi, but he definitely portrayed himself as a predecessor of the Mahdi.33
When we think at the messianic concept we see it as an inseparable part of religion; we think of it only in its religious form. This is because for most of his history man put everything he did not understand on the behalf of the divine will. But, because the messianic concept is a psychological construct, it took also mythical, political and social forms.
The mythical form of the messianic concept is the hero.
The mythical form of the messianic concept is the hero. Mythical heroes, like the messiahs, came into being in independent cultures and they have similar features. They are models of wisdom, strength, sacrifice, courage, charity, valor, and selflessness. They have a special connection with the divinity (they are often sons of gods), they fulfill missions with profound implications for mankind, they are always on the side of the good, they sacrifice themselves and they carry epic battles with the evil side. They have extraordinary skills and powers and they are credited with great discoveries, innovations, initiating traditions and customs, or founding ruling dynasties. A lot of times the boundaries between religion / myth and messiah / hero are blurry. This is because when one religion supersedes another, the superseded religion turns into myth and their messiahs into heroes.
In Greek mythology Heracles (Hercules in Roman mythology) is the son of Zeus (Jupiter in Roman mythology) and the mortal Alcmene and he subdued and destroyed monsters, bandits, and criminals. Heracles had to endure twelve labors34 as a penance for the fact that he killed his wife and children in a moment of madness. Perseus, the son of the mortal Danae and the god Zeus, was the legendary founder of Mycenae and of the Perseid dynasty of Danaans. He was, alongside Cadmus and Bellerophon, a great Greek hero and a slayer of monsters; he beheaded the Gorgon Medusa and he saved Andromeda from the sea monster Cetus. Achilles was the son of Peleus, king of the Myrmidons, and Thetis, a nymph. Achiles was one of the main characters that participated in the Trojan War and the protagonist of Homer’s epic, the Iliad. Theseus battled and overcame foes that were identified with an archaic religious and social order (the famous slaying of the Minotaur). Theseus was the mythical king of Athens and was the son of Aethra by two fathers: Aegeus and Poseidon.35 In Norse mythology, Thor is a hammer-wielding god associated with thunder, lightning, storms, oak trees, fertility, strength, the protection of mankind, who relentlessly slaughters his foes. He is destined to do battle with the monstrous serpent Jormungandr during the immense mythical war waged at Ragnarok, after which he will succumb to the venom of the beast.36 Beawulf fights with his bare hands with the monstrous Grendel and with Grendel’s mother and kills them in order to save King Hroogar. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, an Akkadian poem, Gilgamesh is a demigod of superhuman strength who builds the city walls of Uruk in order to defend his people and travels to meet the sage Utnapishtim, a survivor of the Great Flood.37 In Hindu mythology, Karna (or Vasusena), one of the central characters in the Hindu epic Mahābhārata, is the king of Anga (present day Bhagalpur and Munger).38 Karna’s Digvijaya Yatra, a campaign in which he conquered all kings in every direction of the world, was instrumental in establishing Duryodhana as the emperor of the world and to conduct the Vaishnava sacrifice.
Myths turned into novels, and novels turned into movies. The entertainment industry evolved and so did the messianic concept. Nowadays Jesus Christ has a lot of competition in the heroes and superheroes vomited by Hollywood. Superman, Batman, Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, Neo, Captain America, Ironman, Flash Gordon – these are the messiahs of the day and their imaginary universe is the new myth. They are on the side of good, they come at times of great trouble for mankind in order to counteract a great evil and restore order. No superhero fights petty criminals, catch beggars or fine prostitutes. Exactly as Jesus Christ descends on the clouds of heaven to fight the Antichrist at Armageddon, superheroes have a grand purpose that is fulfilled through the destruction of a great evil, beyond the capabilities of the average human or mankind as a whole. So, the scenario virtually remained the same, only the performers have changed.
The messianic concept in its political form signals the presence of authoritarianism and demagoguery.
The messianic concept is really damaging in its political form. It signals the presence of authoritarianism and demagoguery. Tyrants built for themselves a cult of personality up to the point when they are compared with the divinity. They induce the idea to the people that their presence and their totalitarian rule preserve order and prevent chaos. Their person in a leading position becomes synonym with the existence of the state. When the masses are brainwashed enough and sincerely believe that their leader is divinely entitled to rule, they are capable to cede their rights and personal freedoms in order for the leader to fulfill his mission (for the greater good). The tyrant, like the religious messiah, allegedly takes the responsibility of the survival of the group in exchange for the life and the rights of his subjects.
Monarchs were the first who used political messianism in their advantage. For thousands of years, from China, to Africa and Europe, kings and queens attempted (and largely managed) to preserve the privileged status of their dynasties by embellishing their leadership with divine legitimacy. The state of the society, divided in elites and plebs, was established by gods themselves through the holy books and it had to be respected. The Bible, for example, shows in the Old Testament that God has the power to overthrow authorities if he wants to (the kings of Israel were often overthrown due to God’s intervention), while Paul states that “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). In other words, God is sovereign, no government would exist if it hadn’t been established by God, and those that are existent must not be contested. Those who contest the current order contest in fact God’s will.
The monarchical system collapsed in the 20th century, but political messianism did not. It only adapted to the new status. And there is a big difference between the political messianism that surrounded, for example, the person of Haile Selassie I,39 and the one that surrounded the person of Adolf Hitler. Hitler was a political messiah who, unlike other political messiahs of the century, truly believed in his divine mission. On the one hand there was the disastrous outcome of World War I for Germany. Impoverished, humiliated, sick with corruption, full of debt, the German nation was expecting a miracle to get it out of the abyss. On the other hand there was Hitler, a German patriot who miraculously survived World War I,40 saw his beloved country plunging into chaos and had the same expectations as his fellow countrymen. When these two elements met, the result was the birth of the German messiah. After he took the power, the many following failed assassination attempts only strengthened his messianic beliefs,41 while the Nazi propaganda machine depicted him as the man destined to save Germany from the international conspiracy of the Jews.42
The depth of political messianism is reflected in the level of totalitarianism. Joseph Stalin did not believe that he had a divine mission, but he used political messianism in order to build for himself a cult of personality. By filtering information and gradually exaggerating the features of the leader until absurd situations, the Soviet propaganda machine transformed Stalin into a demigod. The Stalin presented in public was very different from the Stalin that ruled Russia, both physically and intellectually. The ordinary Russians did not love Stalin the man, but the idea of Stalin, or the tool with which the real Stalin brainwashed them.43 Unfortunately, Stalin has the merit of making political messianism a tradition in Russian politics. Nowadays Vladimir Putin, once again, has induced in the mind of the Russians the idea that his iron fist is the only barrier against the imperialistic ambitions of the West and the complete destruction of Mother Russia.44
North Korea is an eloquent example of political messianism in its state of apogee. Officially, Kim Jong Il is the first and only president of the state. Even now, when he is dead, he is credited with being the president. According to the state’s biographers, his birth in Baekdu Mountain was prophesied by a swallow and heralded with a double rainbow and a new star in the heavens. He was known by more than 50 names, including “Dear Leader,” “Supreme Leader,” “Our Father” or “The General.” He was hailed as a demigod in North Korea while South Korea portrayed him as a vain playboy with a penchant for bouffant hair, jumpsuits and platform shoes designed to make him look taller. His is credited with writing no fewer than 1,500 books in three years and he was also said that he could control the weather with his moods, as if by magic.45
Political messianism has manifested even in the United States of America. But not in the way it manifested in North Korea or other totalitarian countries. Political messianism might be a problem in the United States in the sense that the candidates at the presidency often personify people’s strongly held political beliefs. American presidential candidates are given celebrity status. When the Americans look at them, they see the possible future of America. Their elected are entities endowed with the power to change the world. They can change the politics, the economy, the market, the social system; anything is possible. And Barack Obama is the most recent example. After the disastrous administration of George W. Bush, Obama, the first black president, was expected to repair all the damage made by his political predecessors and to do much more. People treated Obama not just as a politician, but as a guy who would change everything for the better, as a messiah.46
Mass messianism is about the creed of an entire nation
Messiahs, heroes, tyrants, political figures – these are forms of the messianic concept that apply to individuals. But, strangely, the messianic concept can also take a form that applies to large groups of people. This is social or mass messianism. Mass messianism is not about the destiny or the mission of a leader, but about the creed of an entire nation/group. And, while the other forms of messianism reset every time the individuals surrounded by a messianic aura disappear, social messianism resists for hundreds of years by being transmitted from generation to generation inside the group.
The Jews are the best known example of mass messianism. In the Old Testament Yahweh has chosen the Israelites to be his people. This meant that the Israelites, and later the Jews, were supposed to be a model for the rest of the world; and anyone who opposed this idea had to be wiped out. The scriptures depict how the Israelites fought wars with the people around them, killed hundreds of thousands, and isolated themselves ethnically and politically on the reason that Yahweh told them to do so. Even at the moment, Jewish eschatology revolves around one single event: the coming of the Messiah and the establishment of the Messianic Age. When this will happen, the Jews will turn into a priesthood nation and they will act as a spiritual bridge will between the Messiah and the rest of the world.
Social messianism is not only about exceptionalism, but also about imperialism. The Russians, for example, have had their own mass messianism in the theory of the Third Rome. The expression “Third Rome” says that a certain European city or state is the successor of the Roman Empire (the First Rome) and of the Byzantine Empire (the Second Rome). The basis of this concept was put by Constantine the Great when he moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Constantinople became known as the “New Rome” or the “Second Rome” because it preserved the Roman spirit. And after the fall of the Constantinople in 1453 Moscow was nominated as the “Third Rome” or the “New Rome” because Russia was seen as the most representative successor of Christian Orthodoxy. Ivan III married Sophia Palaiologina, a niece of Constantine IX, the last Byzantine emperor, and the Russian monarchs took the title of “tsar,” a derivation of the Latin word caesar. It is true that at first the concept of the “Third Rome” had no imperialistic significance, but only apocalyptic and religious. The purpose was to distinguish Russia as the only country that preserves the purity of Christendom in the great ocean of Catholic heresy. However, in time the religious superiority morphed into a political and social superiority, which materialized in the expansionistic policies of the tsars and the Soviet leaders.47
The national English creed also contains a dose of messianism. Hebraism, which was later rebranded as British Israelism, copied to a certain extent Jewish theology. Only that, instead of Israelites, it supported the exceptionality of the British nations. Hebraism was born in the 16th century as an effect of the failed Protestant Reformation and the rising English colonial empire. Later, the theory of British Israelism said that the English nation is not only the direct descendant of the Israelite nation, but also God’s new chosen nation. The real purpose of British Israelism was to legitimize the British imperialism by providing a religious support and to satisfy some people’s desire of having a glorious ancestral past. And, given its status, it had to colonize and master the world not because it had the right to do that, but because that was its destiny (duty).48
It may sound incredible, but even in the 21st century there is a nation that guides its foreign policies in accordance to its messianic beliefs. And that nation is none other than America.
The United States of America was initially believed to be the new heaven and the new earth described in Revelation.
Not many people know that the United States of America was initially seen both as a land of social and religious experimentation and as the new heaven and the new earth described at the end of the Book of Revelation. Christopher Columbus himself believed that the new continent he discovered had to have an apocalyptic significance.49 In the 17-18th centuries the English Puritans and religious dissidents migrated in the New World primarily for religious freedom, not for material benefits. For them England was unable to get rid of Catholicism and popery, and therefore it failed to fulfill its destiny of becoming the New Israel.50 Those who crossed the Atlantic had the feeling that America, as a pure land untouched by the Papacy, had to be different and exceptional in the sense the world had to adapt to America, not vice versa.
In the summer of 1630 John Winthrop led 11 ships and 700 passengers to Massachusetts Bay. Winthrop wrote the sermon A model of Christian charity, better known as City upon a hill. In it, he described the image of a new society, ideas and plans to keep Puritanism strong, and the challenges of the new continent.51 The name City upon a hill is in fact a phrase from the parable of Jesus about salt and light in (Matthew 5:13-16).52 As Jesus prepared his apostles before sending them in the Old World, Winthrop’s sermon, delivered on the ship Arbella, aimed to spiritually instruct the newcomers before they colonized the New World. And, as the sacred mission of the apostles was to spread the Christian religion, the sacred mission of the colonists was to establish a nation of saints, a model of Christianity and morality for the entire world:
For we must consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken ... we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God ... we shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into Curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land where we are going.53
The feeling of divine mission had both external and internal major effects. Externally, American messianism legitimized the invading Anglo-Saxons to expand across North America in the detriment of the natives. It also boosted the war with Mexico regarding the State of Texas in the 1840s. The concept of “Manifest Destiny” said that the Anglo-Saxon race has the sacred mission to promote and defend democracy in the entire world.54 Internally, American messianism acted as a driving force behind the revolutionary concepts of republicanism – the belief that the sovereignty belongs to the people, and not to a hereditary ruling class – and American exceptionalism – the belief that America and the American people hold a special place in God’s plans for the world.55 The pamphlet Common Sense of Thomas Paine expressed for the first time the idea that America was not an extension of Europe, but a new land, with riches and opportunities that greatly surpass the ones of the Old World. Published for the first time anonymously in January 1776, Paine’s work was an immediate success.56 Compared to the number of settlers at the time, Common Sense has been the best-selling pamphlet in American history. At a moment when the independence was still an undecided issue, Common Sense argued in its favor by exaggerating its importance: “The sun never shone on a cause of greater worth. ‘Tis not the affair of a city, a county, a province, or a kingdom, but of a continent – of at least one eighth part of the habitable globe. ‘Tis not the concern of a day, a year, or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected even to the end of time, by the proceedings now.”57
Since the 16th century American exceptionalism has suffered many transformations; mainly, its religious substance was gradually replaced with a social and political substance. Now America is the Promised Land not because God chose it to be, but because it simply can. America is great because it has the best social system in the world, the best military, the best actors, the best cars, the best roads and so on. People no longer speak about the religious exceptionality of America that really founded America, but only about the military, social and political exceptionality that continues to keep America on top. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) is probably the only group that still promotes the religious exceptionality of America. Ever since their establishment in the 1840s, the Mormons uninterruptedly promoted their religious view regarding America. For example, Joseph Smith Jr., the founder of Mormonism, declared that the Zion of the latter days would be established near Missouri,58 while article 10 in the 13 Articles of Faith states: “We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.”59
Bottom line, it is safe to say that messianism is only a human construct. And, whatever form it takes, messianism never hurts those who practice it and adhere to it, but those who stand in the way. On the one hand, individual messianism always signals that there is something wrong with a society or with the individuals that wait for a messiah. If everything goes well, no one needs a messiah. On the other hand, mass messianism is a propaganda tool for legitimizing imperialism and killings. By conferring a majestic role in God’s general plans to certain groups of people, messianic ideologies conveniently divide the world into two well-defined sides: saved and damned, saints and demons, and ultimately superiors and inferiors.
1. Catalin Negru, History of the Apocalypse (Raleigh: Lulu Press, 2016), 15-9.
2. Isidore Epstein, ed., Hebrew-English Edition of the Babylonian Talmud, vol. 1 (New York: Soncino Press, 1969), 25.
3. Abraham Cohen, The Teachings of Maimonides (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1927), 220-8.
4. Meyer Waxman, History of the Jewish Literature, vol. 6 (Kingsport: Kingsport Press, 1941), 1035; Harris Lenowitz, The Jewish Messiahs: From the Galilee to Crown Heights (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 64, 111, 241; Moncure Daniel Conway, Demonology and Devil-Lore, vol. 2 (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1879), 247.
5. Raphael Patai, The Messiah Texts (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988), 156-64.
6. Louis Jacobs, A Jewish Theology (Springfield: Behrman House, 1973), 292-300.
7. Isaiah’s prophecies were written sometime between 701 and 681 BC: “Behold, my servant, whom I uphold; my chosen, in whom my soul delighteth: I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42:1).
8. Negru, History of the Apocalypse, 27-30.
9. Ibid., 31-3.
10. Ibid, 36-7.
11. Juan Eduardo Campo, Encyclopedia of Islam (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009), 447-8; Moojan Momen, An Introduction to Shi’i Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shi’ism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 166-8.
12. Negru, History of the Apocalypse, 37-40.
13. Charles Upton, Legends of the End: Prophecies of the End Times, Antichrist, Apocalypse, and Messiah from Eight Religious Traditions (Hillsdale: Sophia Perennis, 2004), 29-31.
14. Ibid., 50-4.
15. Ibid., 16-8.
16. Take the similar example of pyramidology. From a historical point of view, the megastructures created by ancient civilizations were a declaration of power and a symbol of the godlike status of the leaders. Height signals dominance. So, by making the subjects feel small and insignificant, large buildings had the purpose of maintaining order and control. But, exactly as the messianic concept, there is a pattern in the ancient ruins: from Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China to Central America, man’s first megastructures are pyramidal in shape. Why? Because the ancient megastructures copied the tallest things on Earth: the mountains. And the mountains are natural pyramids, their shape being dictated by the forces of gravity and friction. Ancient people learned from nature: if you want to defy gravity and build tall, but you have only rudimentary materials and little expertise, then you have to build a mountain-like structure. This is how civilizations, with no direct contact, separated by oceans, continents and sometimes thousands of years, created similar megastructures. Nevertheless, many people have found this explanation unsatisfactory and they have refused to accept that the ancient megastructures were nothing more than a colossal waste of materials, time, lives and toil. Instead, they have preferred to think that there is something more, suprarational or supernatural, related to their shape and their purpose. And this is pyramidology. Indeed, pyramids fascinate, but this happens not because pyramids themselves, of any kind, have something special, but because of the primordial relation between the human species and mountains.
17. Cohen, The Teachings of Maimonides, 228-30.
18. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote about lots of messianic manifestations, but Theudas and Judas of Galilee are also mentioned in the New Testament: “For before these days rose up Theudas, giving himself out to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves: who was slain; and all, as many as obeyed him, were dispersed, and came to nought. After this man rose up Judas of Galilee in the days of the enrolment, and drew away [some of the] people after him: he also perished; and all, as many as obeyed him, were scattered abroad” (Acts 5:36-37).
19. This led to the removal of the Romans from Jerusalem for three years. In retaliation, the Romans under Hadrian slaughtered over half a million insurgents, renamed the province “Palestine” (as Philistia, the traditional enemy of the Israelites), destroyed the Jewish objects of worship and replaced them with pagan ones, executed the priests, banned the Jews from entering Jerusalem and scattered them within the territory of the empire.
20. For details, see Harris Lenowitz, The Jewish Messiahs.
21. It is not clear if these messiahs, who contested the authority of the Papacy and the Catholic Church, truly declared themselves to be the Messiah or they were blamed for doing so, given the fact that the scribes of the events were part of the Catholic Church. We will never know the truth because history is written by the victors and at that time apostates and rebels were often blamed for committing the sin of vanity or self-divinization (as Lucifer).
22. Negru, History of the Apocalypse, 351-6.
23. For details, see Timothy R. Furnish, Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, their Jihads and Osama bin Laden (Westport: Praeger, 2005), 30-72.
24. For details, see Peter Malcolm Holt, The Mahdist State in the Sudan: 1881-1898 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958).
25. Abbas Amanat, “Resurgence of Apocalyptic in Modern Islam,” in Stephen J. Stein, The Encyclopedia of Apocalypticism, vol. III: Apocalypticism in the Modern Period and the Contemporary Age (New York: Continuum, 2000) 237-46.
26. For details, see Simon Ross Valentine, Islam and the Ahmadiyya Jama’at: History, Belief, Practice (London: Hurst & Company, 2008).
27. In 1979 at least 200 militants led by Juhayman al-Otaibi, who had declared his brother-in-law, Muhammad bin abd Allah al-Qahtani, the Mahdi, seized the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia (Yaroslav Trofimov, The Siege of Mecca: The 1979 Uprising at Islam’s Holiest Shrine (New York: Anchor Books, 2007)).
28. John R. Hall, Gone From the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History (New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1978), 255-95; Tim Reiterman and John Jacobs, Raven: The Untold Story of Rev. Jim Jones and His People (New York: Penguin, 2008), 440, 457-65, 511-31; Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, produced and directed by Scott Nelson (2006; Arlington: A Fireflight Media film for American Experience, Public Broadcasting Service, 84:51 minutes length), min. 72-8, accessed March 26, 2011, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/jonestown/.
29. Reiterman and Jacobs, Raven, 71-2, 76-84, 324-44; Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, min. 48.
30. Dick J. Reavis, The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1998), 267-300.
31. Ian Reader, Religious Violence in Contemporary Japan: The Case of Aum Shinrikyo (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000), 203-6.
32. Aum Shinrikyo was a mixture of Christianity, Buddhism, yoga and communism, with promises of spiritual healing, positive thinking, body healing, improving intelligence and even superpowers. Founded by Asahara, the sect numbered 9,000 in Japan and over 40,000 worldwide in 1995. Behind closed doors the members were guinea pigs for experiments and rituals that included the use of hallucinogens, brutal ascetic practices and brainwashing shock therapies. With thousands of supporters and millions of dollars at hand, this blind messiah accused the government of manipulating the elections, said that the United States was the apocalyptic beast that would attack Japan, it would trigger the Third World War and the world would end engulfed in a nuclear Armageddon. The only way to survive was to join the sect, which posterior to the conflagration was supposed to establish the Millennium. From 1989 to 1995 an Aum elite of several hundred people, under Asahara’s guidance and approval, conducted extortions, assassinations and terrorist attacks. Anyone who was seen as a threat became a living target for the fanatic arm of the sect (Robert Jay Lifton, Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2000), 41. James R. Lewis and Jesper Aagaard Petersen, eds., Controversial New Religions (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 166-7).
33. Anne Speckhard, “End Times Brewing: An Apocalyptic View on al-Baghdadi’s Declaration of a Caliphate in Iraq and the Flow of Foreign Fighters Coming from the West,” Huffington Post (UK), accessed February 2, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/anne-speckhard/isis-iraq_b_5541693.html; Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants,” The Atlantic, accessed May 2, 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/.
34. Mythology: Myths, Legends and Fantasies (Cape Town: Struik Publishers, 2007) 121-8.
35. Ibid., 150-61.
36. Christopher R. Fee, Gods, Heroes, & Kings: The Battle for Mythic Britain (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 32.
37. Mythology: Myths, Legends and Fantasies, 324-7.
38. For details, see Kevin McGrath, The Sanskrit Hero: Karṇa in Epic Mahābhārata (Boston: Brill, 2004).
39. Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, was hailed as the messiah incarnate and direct descendant of King Solomon among followers of the Rastafari movement. His official titles are Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah and King of Kings and Elect of God. These notions are perceived by Rastafari as confirmation of the return of the messiah in the prophetic Book of Revelation in the New Testament: King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, and Root of David. (“Rastafarian beliefs,” BBC, accessed November 20, 2016, http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/rastafari/beliefs/beliefs_1.shtml).
40. John Godl, “How a right can make a wrong,” First World War, accessed November 20, 2016, http://www.firstworldwar.com/features/tandey.htm.
41. For details, see Roger Moorhouse, Killing Hitler: The Plots, the Assassins, and the Dictator Who Cheated Death (New York: Bantam Books, 2007).
42. For details, see Ian Kershaw,The ‘Hitler Myth’: Image and Reality in the Third Reich (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).
43. For details, see Stalin: Three faces of evil. Part I: The myth, produced by Peter Adler (2003; ZDF and History Channel, 55 minutes).
44. The terms “Putinism” and “Putinist” are sometimes used with negative connotations in Western media, in reference to the political system of Russia with Vladimir Putin in its center (2000–present). Cassiday and Johnson argue that since taking power in 1999, “Putin has inspired expressions of adulation the likes of which Russia has not seen since the days of Stalin. Tributes to his achievements and personal attributes have flooded every possible media.” (Julie A. Cassiday and Emily D. Johnson, “Putin, Putiniana and the question of a post-Soviet cult of personality,” The Slavonic and East European Review (SEER) 88, no. 4 (2010): 681-707).
45. “50 fascinating facts: Kim Jong-il and North Korea,” The Telegraph, accessed October 11, 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/northkorea/8965694/50-fascinating-facts-Kim-Jong-il-and-North-Korea.html.
46. Timothy Garton Ash, “Obama: messiah or mess?,” Los Angeles Times, accessed October 14, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-oe-garton-ash-obama-assessment-20141015-story.html; Eric Owens, “Remember When Obama Was The Messiah?,” The Daily Caller, accessed October 17, 2016, http://dailycaller.com/2014/11/01/remember-when-obama-was-the-messiah/.
47. Geoffrey A. Hosking, Russia and the Russians: A History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 5, 165-71; Alar Laats, “The Concept of the Third Rome and Its Political Implications,” ENDC Proceedings 12 (2009): 98-113.
48. It was an ideology that sounded fine in the ears of many, but it had no historical or scientific ground. It was founded on legends, speculative associations and a selective and distorted historical interpretation. All the so-called proofs that support the connection between the Jewish people and the Nordic nations are nothing more than speculations. One argument was, allegedly, the Semitic origin of the English language. (Hew B. Colquhoun, Our Descent from Israel Proved by Cumulative Evidence (Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, 2003), 77-97; Nick Greer, The British-Israel Myth – Christian Identity and the Lost Tribes of Israel (2004), 73-84). For example, the sympathizers of British Israelism have excessively cited the 16th-century Reformist William Tyndale, who stated that “the properties of the Hebrew tongue agreeth a thousand times more with the English, than with the Latin. The manner of speaking is both one, so that in a thousand places thou needest not but to translate it into the English, word for word.” (William Tyndale, “The obedience of a Christian Man, and how Christian Rulers ought to Govern,” in The Works of the English and Scottish Reformers, vol. 2, ed. Thomas Russell (London: Ebenezer Palmer, 1828), 188). But Tyndale wrote this phrase in an entirely different context, and in no way did he have in mind the identification of the British people with the Israelites. Another key point of British Israelism was the belief that the English people are similar in appearance with the Jews, due to their common genetic heritage. (Greer, The British-Israel Myth, 63-72). The Bible describes King David as being ruddy (1 Samuel 16:12; 17:42), which can be interpreted that he had either red hair or pink skin – both being Caucasian features (John Wilson, Our Israelitish Origin: Lectures on Ancient Israel, and the Israelitish Origin of the Modern Nations of Europe (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1840), 17-23).
49. Negru, History of the Apocalypse, 329-34.
50. Patricia U. Bonomi, Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 209-17.
51. James G. Moseley, John Winthrop’s World: History as a Story; the Story as History (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1992), 41-4.
52. “Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do [men] light a lamp, and put it under the bushel, but on the stand; and it shineth unto all that are in the house. Even so let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
53. John Winthrop, The Journal of John Winthrop, 1630-1649, eds. Richard S. Dunn and Laetitia Yeandle (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 10.
54. For details, see Frederick Merk, Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History: A Reinterpretation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995).
55. Bernard Bailyn, The ideological origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 249, 273-4, 299-303.
56. Thomas Bender, A Nation among Nations: America’s Place in World History (New York: Hill & Wang, 2006), 86.
57. Thomas Paine, Common Sense: Addressed to the Inhabitants of America (Boston: J. P. Mendum, 1856), 33.
58. Doctrine and Covenants 57:1-2.
59. Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, vol. 2, ed. Herman C. Smith (Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, 2004), 570.
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