Far from being an irrelevant book written thousands of years ago, the Bible is a book with a great deal to say about today's world. Between a fourth and a third of the Bible is prophecy, much of which is yet to be fulfilled. A great deal has come to pass in recent decades, but much remains ahead.
The book of Daniel reminds us that God "changes the times and the seasons; He removes kings and raises up kings" (Daniel 2:21). God is in charge. His plan is to establish His Kingdom on this earth with Jesus Christ at its head. This gospel—good news—of the Kingdom of God was the message Jesus Christ brought to the world (Mark 1:14).
But before Christ's return, certain events are prophesied to take place. We are now living through events that appear to be building up to the fulfillment of these end-time prophecies.
Major shifts on the world scene
At the end of World War II, the United States and the countries of the British Empire were victorious allies, while the Axis powers of central Europe lay in ruins. The Middle East was largely an unimportant region of little interest except for its oil.
But even in 1945, students of Bible prophecy knew all this had to change for biblical prophecies of the end time to be fulfilled.
The Middle East was set to become a major area of conflict with the birth of the modern Jewish nation of Israel in 1948. Meanwhile, defeated Germany and other countries in Europe were prophesied to unite and form a new superpower. A third development of the postwar world was to be the decline of the English-speaking nations, with the collapse of the British Empire and the relative decline of the United States in relation to other nations.
To varying degrees all three of these developments now engulf us. All are shaping up as major foreign policy challenges confronting the second Bush administration.
The Middle East cauldron
In the Middle East the United States, Britain, Australia and other allies are already fighting a difficult conflict in Iraq. Having removed a ruthless despot, they now face the challenge of replacing him with a democratically elected government in a country that has suffered almost five decades of dictatorship.
The run-up to the election at the end of January is likely to be particularly violent as those opposed to a democratic system try to thwart the whole process.
The United States seems determined to stay the course, with talk of keeping troops in the country for many years to come, hoping to ensure democracy. The Bush administration's fervent hope is that other nations in the region will want to copy Iraq and introduce a democratic system in their own nations.
But Iraq may not be the greatest challenge confronting the United States in today's Middle East. That dubious distinction may well be the seemingly insoluble Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Prior to 1914, when World War I started in Europe, the Middle East "was of only marginal concern . . . The region had become a political backwater . . . Few Europeans of [Winston] Churchill's generation knew or cared what went on in the languid empires of the Ottoman Sultan or the Persian Shah . . .
"There was little in the picture to cause ordinary people living in London, or Paris, or New York to believe that it affected their lives or interests . . . The passions that now drive troops and terrorists to kill and be killed—and that compel global attention—had not yet been aroused" (David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace, 2001, pp. 24-25).
This situation would have to change for Bible prophecy to be fulfilled. And change it has!
When asked by His disciples what would be the sign of the end time and His second coming (Luke 21:7), Jesus Christ showed the importance of Jerusalem in end-time events (verse 20). He then said, "For these are the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled" (verse 22, emphasis added throughout).
Conflict without end?
At the end of World War I, the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, which had dominated the region for centuries, lay in ruins. New nations emerged out of the rubble. Other territories temporarily came under British or French control.
The British for a time had control of Iraq, a responsibility that cost hundreds of British lives. They also had control of Palestine under a League of Nations Mandate, the maintenance of which led to the deaths of many more British soldiers. So in 1947 the British announced that they were pulling out. Then, a few months later, the Jewish state of Israel came into existence following a vote of the United Nations.
The birth of the Israeli state was the beginning of a conflict that still has no end in sight. Yet its existence was not remotely possible until the fall of the Ottoman Empire, which had controlled Jerusalem for four centuries since 1517.
Troops of the British Empire entered the city in December 1917, exactly 400 years later. Jerusalem remained in British hands until divided by the United Nations in 1948. Nineteen years later, Israel captured the Jordanian portion while defending itself against Arab invasion in the 1967 Six-Day War. It remains today a disputed city with the potential for being a major threat to world peace.
Conflict over Jerusalem to the end
Modern "Israel" is not the same as the Israel of the Old Testament. The modern state of Israel is the national home of the Jews, the people of the tribe of Judah, one of the 13 tribes constituting the people of Israel. Judah, after a time of captivity and exile, was prophesied to regain control of the area prior to the second coming of the Messiah.
In the Old Testament prophetic book of Zechariah we note that Judah and Jerusalem are to be at the very center of end-time events: "Behold, I will make Jerusalem a cup of drunkenness to all the surrounding peoples, when they lay siege against Judah and Jerusalem" (Zechariah 12:2).
Another prophecy that speaks of Christ's return makes it plain that this is still to take place in the future: "For I will gather all the nations to battle against Jerusalem . . . Then the LORD will go forth and fight against those nations . . . And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which faces Jerusalem on the east . . ." (Zechariah 14:2-4).
The United States is Israel's main financial and military backer. American support for Israel (Judah) is a major element in the growing divide between the West and Islam. American involvement in the Middle East, including its support for Israel, led directly to the attacks of Sept. 11.
Many are hoping that President Bush will turn his attention to the area and bring about peace. Following the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, hopes have risen that a new Palestinian leader might be able to convince the Palestinian people of Israel's right to exist, thereby opening the door to a possible long-term peace agreement. However, ancient animosities run deep in this bloodstained region.
Iran the next trouble spot?
But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iraq are not the only two problems the United States must deal with in the Middle East. There is also Iran.
For more than a quarter century Iran has been a major thorn in America's side. Before 1979 the shah of Iran was a reliable American ally. His overthrow was a major blow to the United States. Iran's resulting revolutionary and radical Islamic fundamentalist regime has been calling America "the Great Satan" for the past 26 years and has been instrumental in helping to spread turmoil throughout the region.
The country now appears ready to acquire nuclear weapons, which could threaten American interests and U.S. forces all around the Persian Gulf—as well as threatening the very existence of Israel. Iran also stands to gain from Iraqi elections, as Iraq is likely to come under the control of the majority Shia population, leading to increased ties between the two countries.
Added to the problems of Iraq, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are the ongoing challenges of international terrorism, which has its roots in the Middle East. Compounding the difficulties is the fact that the United States, and indeed much of the Western world, is heavily dependent on Mideast oil to fuel their affluent economies.
Also complicating America's problems in the Middle East is the European Union. Nowhere are the two powers more at odds. While the United States backs Israel, the EU is more sympathetic to the Palestinians. Most of the countries in the EU opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and are now anxious to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue before America takes possible action.
The EU's rising power
A recurring theme of the last 1,500 years has been the repeated attempts to unify Europe—in essence reviving the Roman Empire, which collapsed near the end of the fifth century.
In the past, uniting Europe was temporary and always accomplished by force. Today the nations of Europe are coming together voluntarily, forming an ever-closer union as they integrate economically, politically and militarily. The 25-nation EU is now the world's biggest trading bloc, with 450 million people within its borders. Other nations, including Turkey, are trying to join.
While some of these countries remain supportive of the United States, the EU and America often have conflicting interests. This is certainly the case in the Middle East. It is also increasingly true in other parts of the world.
Revelation 17 shows us that a future union of 10 "kings"—today we might call them premiers, prime ministers or presidents—will combine their energies and forces to form a final end-time superpower called "the beast."
"The ten horns . . . are ten kings who have received no kingdom as yet, but they receive authority for one hour as kings with the beast. These are of one mind, and they will give their power and authority to the beast. These will make war with the Lamb [Jesus Christ] . . ." (verses 12-14).
From these verses of the Bible we see that national leaders are going to come together for a short time ("one hour" in John's vision, signifying a brief period) and will fight Jesus Christ at His return.
Revelation 18 further reveals that these nations are going to be at the head of a worldwide economic system called "Babylon," a continuation of the Roman Empire and the other gentile empires that preceded it as foretold in Daniel 2 and 7.
This economic system appears to even now be coming together through the European Union, the world's biggest trading and economic bloc.
The EU accounts for well over half the world's trade. Trade disputes between the United States and the European Union have been increasing in recent months, with America often having to back down in the face of European clout. The EU's currency, the euro, has also been rising at the expense of the U.S. dollar, which has suffered an ongoing crisis of confidence largely due to America's rising trade and budget deficits.
Europe's growing strength has enabled the French and Germans to distance themselves from the United States on the world scene. Rejecting American leadership over Iraq, these two nations have been quite vocal in disagreeing with Washington.
France, a former colonial power, currently leads a UN bloc of third-world nations that oppose and seek to counter American domination of the globe. Many in both France and Germany—and also in other European nations—see the rising EU as a rival to U.S. power, a new superpower in the making.
In May 2004 the 25 leaders of the EU nations signed a new Treaty of Rome set to bring about a federal Europe, uniting politically to revive the ancient dream of a united Europe. Economic unity has already been achieved, political unity is being worked out and military unity is in the first stages.
The coming four years are likely to see the United States forced to come to terms with this new superpower. The increased strength of the euro against the dollar is already adding to the pressure on Washington from Europe.
Declining American power and prestige
In the last three months I've spent time outside of the United States with friends and family in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Ghana and England. Sadly, as an American citizen, I have to report that it's increasingly difficult to find people in any of these countries who could be described as pro-American. Rather, disillusionment with the United States and plain old anti-Americanism are increasingly the order of the day.
This is undoubtedly the biggest foreign policy challenge for the second Bush administration—how to restore America's credibility and prestige.
America is increasingly perceived around the world as a bully. Violent movies coming out of Hollywood have added to this negative impression. In the last decade, satellite television has introduced increasing numbers of people around the world to American culture, further adding to a world perception of America being home to a very violent society.
Once the hope of the world, the country that twice helped liberate Europe from military domination is increasingly seen not as a liberator, but as the greatest threat to world peace. The Bush administration is often described in the world's media as being "out of control." This only adds to fervency for the European Union to act as a counterbalance while others turn to the United Nations.
Views toward United States shift
It's been only a little more than three years since the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11. In the aftermath of those attacks, the United States seemed to have the sympathy and support of the entire world. Today, the world seems increasingly united against America. What has gone wrong?
Iraq is often said to be the main reason for this change. But anti-Americanism goes back a lot further than Sept. 11, 2001.
While Sept. 11 initially shocked and appalled decent people around the world, shortly afterwards it led to a major change in perception. The world had seen—live on television—the world's greatest power humiliated by a handful of terrorists from a comparatively backward part of the world.
Shocking as it may seem to Americans, this gave hundreds of millions of people around the globe hope—hope that the United States could be defeated, brought down as the world's dominant power. As one man in West Africa put it to me: "Muslims feel that Americans are trying to take over the world. They feel that Osama bin Laden will stop them."
It is not only Muslims who feel that way. How else can you explain posters of the world's leading terrorist for sale at the side of the road in non-Islamic third-world countries?
There is a widespread sense that American culture is taking over everywhere. This is made worse through pervasive American television programs, movies and music that promote values alien to most people. Whereas 50 years ago America was respected around the globe, today the reverse is the case. The biblical book of Proverbs contains a timeless truth that sums it up well: "Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people" (Proverbs 14:34).
America now finds itself in a similar position to its predecessor as the world's greatest power, Great Britain.
In 1942 Britain suffered a humiliation in some respects similar to what America experienced 60 years later. It was the fall of Singapore, Britain's biggest naval base outside of the British Isles.
The island fell to the Japanese, then perceived as a backward nation. The fall of Singapore had a ripple effect around the region. It was a major setback for the British Empire. People now realized that the British could be defeated. In a similar way, Sept. 11 has led people to believe that the United States is no longer invulnerable.
Fourteen years later, the British were to suffer a similar defeat when they lost the Suez Canal in 1956. This time they won the war militarily, but then were forced out of Suez by the Eisenhower administration, which applied economic pressure. Could the rest of the world apply similar economic pressure on the United States over Iraq or a future area of conflict involving America?
The United States today needs to borrow $2.5 billion per day to finance its deficit and enable it to carry on as the world's superpower. When Britain reached the point where it had to start borrowing from the United States, its days as the world's policeman were numbered. History shows that this also happened to other nations before it. The same pattern is now being repeated with the United States.
Perhaps one of the greatest challenges for the second Bush administration is to put the nation's finances in order. Without sound finances and a stable currency, American leadership of the world will be increasingly threatened.
These then are some of the major challenges for American foreign policy over the next four years, but by no means are they all. Other areas of the world will also pose challenges, from the rising power of China, India and Japan to the growing threat from a nuclear North Korea. Added to these is the constant threat of another event like Sept. 11.
Whatever happens, the next four years promise to be interesting ones, with the world likely to look quite different when the American electorate next chooses a president. GN