It is interesting that the dangers secular scholars see as threatening the world or the survival of humanity are remarkably parallel to the dangers Jesus told us to take note of as reminders of his return. They include earthquakes, war, disease and events that could perhaps describe asteroid strikes on earth. The scholars add volcanos, climate change etc. I regularly stress that these events are not to be regarded as signs of Jesus’ imminent return but as reminders that he is coming back. In Jewish tradition they are known as birth pangs of the Messiah.

The 3rd-4th century Jewish scholar Rabbah is asked in the Talmud why he doesn’t want to meet the Messiah. The questioner says: “Shall we say, because of the birth pangs [preceding the advent] of the Messiah? … What must a man do to be spared the pangs of the Messiah? Let him engage in study and benevolence.”

Esther Jungreis, a prominent contemporary Jewish teacher, writes of turbulent global events, natural disasters, war etc., and comments that God is bringing the world closer to a process called “chevlei Mashiach” – “the labor pains of the arrival of Messiah.” She added: “All our [sages] agree…they do not want to be present for the chevlei Mashiach, the birth pangs, because the birth pangs are going to be very painful.”

The “Arab Spring”

The so-called Arab Spring was a remarkable series of events including the following:

December 2010 Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire because the authorities had confiscated his produce. This was the culmination of many years of such maltreatment and it sparked protests in Tunisia and elsewhere, including Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Oman, Syria and Yemen.

January 2011 The Tunisian President fled to Saudi Arabia. A few days later protests in Egypt forced the Egyptian President to resign.

March 2011 Protests against President Assad began in Syria leading to a prolonged war with many atrocities.

October 2011 Lybian President Gaddafi was killed after a 9-month conflict.

February 2012 The President of Yemen resigned after protests.

June 2012 Mohammed Morsi of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood was elected President of Egypt.

July 2013 Millions of Egyptians demonstrated against Morsi forcing his resignation.

May 2014 Former army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi was elected President of Egypt

Many people saw all this as a positive revolution which would establish democracy in the Middle East. But it was not to be. Instead, there were many sinister developments. One early example happened in August 2013 when Muslims set fire to over 70 Christian churches in Egypt. Since then extreme Islamists have come to the fore, especially in Iraq, Syria and Lybia. The most prominent is, of course, the so-called Islamic State (Isis). The removal of dictators has opened the way to far more extreme leadership taking over. This had happened much earlier when the Shah of Persia (Iran) was overthrown in 1979 and replaced by hard-line Islamists. On June 29th 2014 Isis announced that it had re-established the Islamic Caliphate (global Islamic state) led by the Caliph Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi. One Iraqi politician said that the Arab Spring had become an Islamic Spring.

International chaos in the Middle East

Isis seems to be aiming at weakening Arab states and their armies so that it will be able to gain more influence and make it easier to ‘liberate’ the Palestinians from Israeli control. Turkey, Iran and Israel are the only strong states in the Middle East.

Syria and Iraq

Syria and Iraq are, of course, deeply divided and largely ungovernable. They are well on the way to becoming failed states. Isis (which stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is now in control of more than half of Syria and controls all the border crossings between Syria and Iraq. Their intermediate aim is a Middle East Islamic state which includes the territories of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Israel. Syria is crucially important for Isis because they see it as the heart of the Islamic State on the border of Palestine. They see it as the road to Jerusalem. Isis is known to have some chemical weapons but there is fear that they will gain more from Syrian sources. Israel is afraid that Hezbollah, the Islamist group based in Lebanon, also could get hold of Syrian chemical weapons and smuggle them into Lebanon. Some experts are afraid that people could be exposed to biological weapons such as anthrax, plague, and cholera which could cause pandemics that are very difficult to control.

Iraq is divided between a Shia Muslim majority and a more traditional Sunni minority. But Isis (which is Sunni extremist) also holds large areas of the country and at times the Iraqi army has shown it is not up to withstanding it.

Egypt

Egypt initially accepted 300,000 Syrian refugees but since Morsi was deposed has turned against them. President Sisi is authoritarian and there have been unfair trials and an increasing number of executions. Morsi has been sentenced to death and the Muslim Brotherhood has been outlawed.

Militant Islamists have mounted attacks particularly in North Sinai. Hundreds of police and soldiers have been killed. One terrorist group called Sinai Province has links with Isis.

Egypt receives financial support from the Saudis and the Emirates. It is regarded as supporting Israel against Hamas in Gaza which is seen as a terrorist group.

Iran

Iran is an oppressive regime which restricts human rights. It is strongly opposed by the Saudis and the Gulf States. It co-operates with Hezbollah in Lebanon to support President Assad of Syria. The US is, of course, seeking to ensure that Iran cannot develop nuclear weapons. President Obama stated in April 2015 that Iran will accept “the most robust and intrusive inspections and transparency regime ever negotiated for any nuclear programme in history. If Iran cheats, the world will know it. This deal is not based on trust. It’s based on unprecedented verification.” However Israel is very suspicious of the agreement and believes Iran will not keep to it. Clearly the Saudis share this suspicion.

Jordan

Jordan has received 600,000 Syrian refugees. This, together with the surrounding chaos in Iraq and Syria is creating a serious crisis in Jordan and fears that the conflict could spill over into its territory.

Kuwait

Kuwait is an oppressive regime which curtails freedom of speech. David Cohen, Deputy Director of the CIA, once described Kuwait as the “epicentre of fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria” However Kuwait is regarded as an important ally by the West.

Lebanon

Lebanon has suffered by being caught up in battles between countries such as Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia and it fears that the Syrian conflict could spill over into its territory. Fears are also raised by the strong connections between Iran and Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon and is regarded by many as a terrorist group.

It is a country where citizenship is only available to members of one of 18 approved religious groups. Power is shared out between these groups and, especially in the context of a weak state, this leads to an acceptance of compromise.

Lebanon has one million Syrian refugees, the equivalent of one fifth of the Lebanese population. The presence of the pro-Assad Shia group Hezbollah in the country has caused violent reactions from the Sunni community

Libya

Since 2014 there has been civil war in Libya. Central government has collapsed and the numerous militias are out of control. The country is moving towards being a failed state. Libya is very dangerous and journalists tend not to go there. Isis has moved into territory which is not controlled by the state and set up training centres for extremists. It was from there that the recent massacre in Tunisia was mounted.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is dominated by Wahhabism, a very strict version of Sunni Islam. It is repressive and carries out severe punishments, including many beheadings. No political parties are allowed. The Saudis, assisted by Qatar, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates have funded Sunni rebels in Syria and Iraq. However Saudi Arabia has 25% of the world’s oil supplies so western governments want to maintain good relationships with the country despite its bad human rights record. Hence Saudi Arabia has recently hosted a conference on Human Rights run by the UN Human Rights Council. The country is also the British arms industry’s largest customer.

Although the Saudis have funded Islamic fundamentalists around the region, it has now rebounded on them as extremist groups are threatening the Saudi leadership. They are also very threatened by the extensive influence of Iran in the Middle East, especially in Iraq. They have made it clear that if the US is not successful in preventing Iran developing nuclear weapons they will acquire them too. It is thought that the Saudis funded 60% of the development of the Pakistan nuclear weapons on the basis that they would be allowed to obtain some of those weapons if necessary. Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal has said: “Whatever the Iranians have, we will have, too.”

Tunisia

Many Tunisians have joined Isis to fight in Syria and Iraq.

Turkey

Anxieties in Turkey about growing Islamisation and the authoritarianism of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister led to riots and in 2015 Erdogan did not do too well in the election.

Turkey is very concerned to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish state by both Syrian and Turkish Kurds. They are sending troops to fight against the Syrian Kurds. The Turkish Kurds live in SE Turkey.

Turkey has accepted 1.8 million Syrian refugees.

Yemen

There has been an undeclared civil war in Yemen for some time. Iranian-backed rebels gained control of government institutions. The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait is close, not least because about half the Saudi army is of Kuwaiti origin. The Saudis are afraid of the Iranian influence in Yemen and they are also afraid that Kuwait will become a failed state controlled by terrorists. So in 2015 a Sunni Muslim coalition of nine Arab countries plus Pakistan invaded Kuwait.

Summary

Much of the conflict in the Middle East is between the more traditional Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims. They are at war with each other in Iraq, Syria and Kuwait. Isis is an extreme form of Sunni Islam.

Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen are torn by war. They are becoming failed states. Egypt is facing serious division. Saudi Arabia is an oppressive, anti-Christian regime. Jordan and Lebanon feel threatened and Turkey intends to prevent the Kurds establishing a state by violence if necessary.

In March 2015 a joint Arab military force was set up to face the unstable situation in the Middle East. The 22 states involved in the Arab League are to combine forces.

Many refugees have fled to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Other refugees are crossing the Mediterranean to find safety in Europe – causing problems within the EU.

The effects on Christians

One thing that complicates the position of Christians in Muslim countries is military action by western nations which are seen as Christian nations. Consequently, Muslim countries persecute Christians. The Arab Spring and the growth of Isis has led to much greater oppression of Christians in the Middle East.

In Egypt, where there is a long-established Christian community, the removal of President Morsi in 2013 led to the worst persecution of Christians in 1400 years. It was against Coptic Christians and 65 churches, Christian bookshops, schools and convents were burned down, looted or destroyed. There has been some similar persecution since then.

In recent years in Syria over 450,000 Christians have fled and hundreds of thousands are in hiding. Christians and Christian leaders have been abducted, ransomed or executed.

Since the 2003 Gulf War over a million Christians have fled from Iraq. In 2014 when Isis captured Mosul and much of the traditional Christian area around Nineveh 200,000 Christians fled to Kurdistan.

The chaos in Libya has meant that persecution has increased, with Christians being afraid to meet together. The only religious gatherings allowed are Islamic. Isis has executed Christians.

Saudi Arabia officially bans churches and Christian meetings, even amongst ex-pats. Sometimes the authorities take oppressive action to enforce this ban against Christians meeting in homes. Bibles are prohibited. Converts from Islam to Christianity face the death penalty. Nevertheless for economic and political reasons the Saudis are treated as respected allies by western countries.

The Israeli perspective

I write as a friend of Israel but I am a genuine friend who, unlike some Zionist Christians, faces up to her failings as well as defending her when appropriate. She is not treating the Palestinians justly and currently she is becoming increasingly isolated in the world through the unwise leadership of her present government.

However, some of the criticism of Israel is unjust and there is some which is based on thinly veiled anti-Semitism. In fact, some Christians have decided that Israel is in the wrong and don’t wished to be confused by the facts. There is a growing movement to boycott Israeli goods but, as Israel points out, there is no such boycott of other countries deemed to be guilty of injustice – Saudi Arabia, for example. It is essential that we seek to look at the world through Israeli eyes, as well as through Palestinian eyes.

Israel is still affected by centuries of persecution and the trauma of the Holocaust. She also knows that a large number of people dispute her legitimacy and would like to see her destroyed. Against that background she looks at the chaos in the Middle East around her – the extreme Islamism, the wars, the advance of Isis (which is now speaking of taking over from Hamas and ‘liberating’ Palestine), the threat of Iran, which wants Israel destroyed, gaining nuclear weapons after all (which is perceived as possible by the Israelis and others) and the danger the Saudis would follow suit. Yes, Israel should provide justice for the Palestinians but she also needs to protect herself. After all, Isis is getting too close for comfort.

It is all very well for the Christian armchair critics in the West to be calling for justice for the Palestinians. But they must also take the fears of the Israelis seriously. Yes, of course, sometimes politicians over-emphasise threats for political reasons but the fact is that Israel is seriously threatened – and things will get worse.

We need to pray for the countries of the Middle East, for Israel and for Christians in that region facing grave difficulties, persecution and violent death. We should also recognise that the growing persecution of Christians and the increasing threats to Israel are in harmony with the New Testament’s teaching on the End Times.

Sir Jonathan Evans is a former director-general of MI5 and an expert on counter terrorism wrote in the Daily Telegraph:

“The forthcoming Counter-Extremism Bill aims to crack down on extremism but definitions will be crucial, and implementation of the new powers will be fraught with risk. One can imagine already the powers being used against harmless evangelical street preachers or the like, out of misplaced zeal and a desire to demonstrate that they are not directed against one religion alone.”

Quite! We need to pray about this trend towards persecution.

There are some very significant serious things happening in the world today regarding persecution of Christians etc. Persecution is a sign of the End Times:

1. Christians ridiculed and oppressed in modern Britain

Michael Gove, former UK Education Secretary said that British Christians are ‘openly derided’ and ‘coolly dismissed.’ British culture belittles Christianity on a daily basis. He added that “To call yourself a Christian in contemporary Britain is to invite pity, condescension or cool dismissal. In a culture that prizes sophistication, non-judgmentalism, irony and detachment, it is to declare yourself intolerant, naive, superstitious and backward.

“Far from enlarging someone’s sympathy or providing a frame for ethical reflection, Christianity is seen as a mind-narrowing doctrine. Where once politicians who were considering matters of life and death might have been thought to be helped in their decision-making by Christian thinking — by reflecting on the tradition of Augustine and Aquinas, by applying the subtle tests of just-war doctrine — now Christianity means the banal morality of the fairy tale and genuflection before a sky pixie’s simplicities.

“The suspicion was that Christians helped others because they wanted to look good in the eyes of their deity and earn the religious equivalent of Clubcard points securing entry to Heaven. Or they interfered in the lives of the less fortunate because they were moral imperialists — getting off on the thrill and power of controlling someone else’s life and impulses. Or, most disturbingly of all, they were looking to recruit individuals — especially in our schools — to affirm the arid simplicities and narrow certainties of their faith.

“This prejudice that Christian belief demeans the integrity of an action is remarkably pervasive. And on occasion singularly vehement.

“One of the saddest moments during my time as Education Secretary was the day I took a call from a wonderfully generous philanthropist who had devoted limitless time and money to helping educate disadvantaged children in some of the most challenging areas of Britain but who now felt he had no option but to step away from his commitments because his evangelical Christianity meant that he, and his generosity, were under constant attack.

“I suspect that one of the reasons why any suggestion of religious belief — let alone motivation — on the part of people in public life excites suspicion and antipathy is the assumption that those with faith consider their acts somehow sanctified and superior compared with others. ”

Andrew Brown, writing in the Guardian, agrees with Gove and asks why this has happened over Christianity. He puts some blame on militant atheists but adds: “But the real problem is the slow drift of religion into a category separate from the rest of life and thought. Religions that work have nothing to do with faith: they are about habit and practice, and the things that everybody knows. Gove quotes the Book of Common Prayer, which I also was brought up on, and love deeply. But it’s gone now. It will never again be a book of common prayer. The more that any religion becomes distinct from the culture around it, the weaker and weirder it becomes. Of course it can flourish as an embattled and angry sect. But Christianity in England has not been like that for at least 1,000 years. Seventy years ago, TS Eliot could write that dogs and horses were part of English religion, as much as bishops were part of English culture. That’s now very much less true, and it’s hard to imagine a conservatism that could ever bring it back. ”

More recently Victoria Wasteney, a senior NHS occupational therapist, was suspended for nine months for trying to convert a Muslim colleague, Enya Nawaz. Victoria offered to pray for her Enya who spoke of her health problems. Enya agreed and Victoria prayed for her with the laying on of hands. She also gave her a book about a Muslim woman who converted to Christianity. Then Enya complained to their employer. A disciplinary panel accused Victoria of “bullying and harassment.” The case was taken to an employment tribunal which upheld the panel’s verdict.

Don Horrocks, Head of Public Affairs at the Evangelical Alliance, commented on similar cases: “There remains a clear reluctance to tackle infringement of freedom of conscience and the emergent hierarchy of human rights, which has left people of faith firmly at the bottom and often wondering whether in practice religion and belief is a protected right at all. There is a long way to go to achieve parity and equality on a fair playing field with other rights. When rights conflict, the test of equality legislation is whether it results in genuinely fair outcomes for everyone. If one group of protected rights is consistently trumped by others then equality is not working. Equality is important, but unless it is expressed fairly in the context of recognised diversity then it can become oppressive and end up being wielded as a blunt weapon to silence those we disagree with.”

2. The level of persecution of Christians is higher than ever, much of it by Muslims.

There continues to be an increase in the persecution of Christians worldwide and it is becoming more intense in more countries of the world.

According to Open Doors (an international ministry serving persecuted Christians and churches worldwide) “Overwhelmingly the main engine driving persecution of Christians in 36 of the top 50 countries in Open Doors World Watch List is Islamic extremism. The most violent region is the states of the African Sahel belt where a fifth of the world’s Christians meet one seventh of the world’s Muslims in perilous proximity.”

Open Doors continues: “In 80 per cent of the 50 countries in the [Open Doors] World Watch List, Islamic extremism is a key persecution engine. Islamic extremism has two global centres of gravity: one in the Arab Middle East and the other in sub-Saharan Africa.”

We are all aware of the evil activities of extreme Islamists, Isis, Boko Haram etc. But Open Doors makes the following important statement: “The most violent persecutor of Christians in Northern Nigeria in recent years is the Islamic terrorist group, Boko Haram, who have bombed churches and shot pastors. It’s an unsubtle attempt to smash the church. But in fact, for most Christians, the greatest threat comes from a creeping cultural Islamisation which has been stealthily progressing since the 1980’s, until Christians suddenly realise they are second class citizens in a culture that was once hospitable to them, and is now hostile to them. This ‘squeeze’ is as much a denial of freedom of religion and belief but cannot be tracked by monitoring specific incidents.”

Christians have faced increasing levels of persecution in the Muslim world. Muslim nations in which Christian populations have suffered acute discrimination, persecution and in some cases death include the following according to Emily Fuentes, communications director at Open Doors USA:
• Countries with extreme persecution: Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Iran, Pakistan, Eritrea, Nigeria, Maldives.
• Countries with severe persecution: Saudi Arabia, Libya, Yemen, Uzbekistan, Qatar, Kenya, Turkmenistan, Egypt, Djibouti.
• Countries with moderate persecution: Palestine, Brunei, Jordan, Comoros, Tanzania, Algeria, Tunisia, Malaysia, Oman.
• Countries with sparse persecution: Mali, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Bangladesh, Tajikistan, Mauritania, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Morocco, Niger, Bahrain, Chad.

It was disturbing to read a Sky News “British Muslims Poll” dated 20th March 2015 which found that 39.8% of British Muslims (and 46% of women) did not believe it was the responsibility of Muslims to condemn terrorist acts carried out in the name of Islam, while 28% of all Muslims (including 33% of women and 32% of under-35s) said that they had a lot or some sympathy with young Muslims who had left the UK to join fighters in Syria.

In the TV programme “Killing Christians” Nadine, a 13 year old Iraqi girl said very movingly (with obvious depth and sincerity): “The Christian religion is about love and peace. I feel very sad because the devil has taken Islamic State over. I will pray to God to enlighten their minds. Whatever happens, we will not give up our religion. We will not abandon Christianity, never.”

3. Islam is projected to be the largest religion in the world by 2100.

The Pew Research Center, an American think tank which provides information on social issues, public opinion, and demographic trends, has recently published the first formal demographic predictions about “The Future of World Religions.” Together with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, it has gathered data from more than 2,500 censuses, surveys and population registers, which has taken six years to complete.

It reports that, at present rates, Islam will grow faster than any other religion (twice as fast as the world population), partly due to fertility rates, and by 2050 will nearly equal the number of Christians in the world. Muslims, which numbered 1.6 billion in 2010, will then number 2.8 billion, or 30% of the population, and Christians 2.9 billion, or 31% of the population. In Europe, where 5.9% of the population are Muslim currently, 10.2% of the population will be Muslim by 2050. By 2070 the number of Muslims will equal the number of Christians (32% of the world population). By 2100 1% more of the world’s population would be Muslim than would be Christian

Between now and 2050, according to present rates, 40 million will convert to Christianity but 106 million will leave Christianity, most of them joining the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated. For example, in the United States, Christians will decline from more than three-quarters of the population in 2010 to two-thirds in 2050. The population of Europe is projected to decline and the number of Christians is expected to decline from 553 million (three quarters of the population) to 454 million (two thirds of the population).

However elsewhere in the world the number of Christians is expected to grow, although as a percentage of the population the number will decline except in Asia and the Pacific.

So Islam will grow increasingly dominant in the world, doubling in numbers by 2070 and becoming the biggest religious community in the world. Muslims will almost double in number in Europe too. Christianity will continue to grow but a massive 106 million are projected to leave Christianity by 2050. Incidentally, this is hardly the love of most [Christians] growing cold (Matt 24:12) but it is a massive turning away from the faith.

4. We must remember that Islam is an antichrist (alternative Christ) religion.

I know I’m on sensitive ground. I’m not agreeing with those who resent Muslims being here or having equal rights and equal respect. Such attitudes are wrong. I am concerned about the implications of the spiritual dominance of Islam.

I always want to show respect to people of other religions and, where possible, to show respect for what they believe. Nevertheless I do believe it is right to make necessary criticisms of their beliefs too. This is the case with Islam. My most serious criticism of Islam is that it is an antichrist religion (“anti” in the original meaning of “in place of”):
• It has a false view of Jesus (Isa): he is not divine, did not die on the cross and so did not rise from the dead.
• But this Jesus will return to kill the Antichrist (as viewed by Muslims) and to set up a short period of peace and justice before dying.
• This Jesus will be a committed Muslim. Christians and Jews will join him in the Islamic faith. All religion other than Islam will be wiped out.
This Jesus is antichrist, i.e. an “alternative” Christ who ends up opposing the true church.

5. Israel under Netanyahu is likely to provoke very strong reactions from around the world isolating her.

Another significant factor in the current situation is the political situation in Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu has been re-elected as Prime Minister of Israel. Just before the election he stated that if he was elected there would be no Palestinian state. His subsequent attempt to back off from that position is not seen as convincing by many people. He has also seriously upset President Obama and the US government. It seems clear that Israel is going to suffer much more political pressure and to become more isolated in the world. The Palestinians are likely to take Israel to the International Court of justice for alleged war crimes. In view of the bleak prospects over the peace process it is also inevitable that violence from some Muslim sources will erupt. Anti-Semitism is growing. The re-establishment of the State of Israel is itself a sign of the End Times but the prospect, prophesied in Scripture, of the nations eventually turning against Israel is, to say the least, increasingly credible. However, one must be aware that one (but only one) factor is Israel’s current political intransigence over Palestine.

6. Conclusion

So we have a situation where:
• Christians are being ridiculed and oppressed in Britain.
• The worldwide level of persecution of Christians is higher than ever, most of it by Muslims.
• Islam, the fastest growing religion, is projected be the largest and most dominant religion in the world by 2100.
• Islam is an antichrist religion.
• The re-established State of Israel is being increasingly isolated, pressurised and in danger of violent attack.

It seems obvious to me that all this mainly recent news has relevance to what the NT predicts about the Signs of the End.

Is the idea of robots taking over the world just the stuff of fiction? Not according to people like Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates. It is interesting to take notice of what is called Secular Eschatology. Some secular scholars take more notice of the future and its dangers than some Christian scholars. Hawking told the BBC in December 2014: “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” He added: “It would take off on its own, and re-design itself at an ever increasing rate.”

In May 2014 Stephen Hawking with two other Professors of Physics and a Professor of Computer Science wrote an article in which they said: “So, facing possible futures of incalculable benefits and risks, the experts are surely doing everything possible to ensure the best outcome, right? Wrong. If a superior alien civilisation sent us a message saying, ‘We’ll arrive in a few decades,’ would we just reply, ‘OK, call us when you get here – we’ll leave the lights on’? Probably not – but this is more or less what is happening with AI. Although we are facing potentially the best or worst thing to happen to humanity in history, little serious research is devoted to these issues.”

Elon Musk, founder of Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX), said: “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I were to guess like what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that. With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon.”

Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, commented on Artificial Intelligence (AI): “I am in the camp that is concerned about super intelligence. First the machines will do a lot of jobs for us and not be super intelligent. That should be positive if we manage it well. A few decades after that though the intelligence is strong enough to be a concern. I agree with Elon Musk and some others on this and don’t understand why some people are not concerned.”

Hawking, Musk and Gates, alongside hundreds of computer scientists and technologists, signed an Open Letter on “Research Priorities for Robust and Beneficial Artificial Intelligence.” The letter, referring to AI, stated: “The potential benefits are huge, since everything that civilization has to offer is a product of human intelligence; we cannot predict what we might achieve when this intelligence is magnified by the tools AI may provide, but the eradication of disease and poverty are not unfathomable. Because of the great potential of AI, it is important to research how to reap its benefits while avoiding potential pitfalls … We recommend expanded research aimed at ensuring that increasingly capable AI systems are robust and beneficial: our AI systems must do what we want them to do … we believe that research on how to make AI systems robust and beneficial is both important and timely.”

Other scientists take a different line. Professor Mark Bishop says that understanding and consciousness are fundamentally lacking in so-called ‘intelligent’ computers so “a human working in conjunction with any given AI machine will always be more powerful than that AI working on its own.” He believes this will prevent the dangers Hawking and others are warning of.

Dr Dan Handley believes that a computer could not enslave humans unless it had a desire to do so “but computers rely pure on logic, not emotion.” He thinks computers can only be taught to feign emotion, not actually to be emotional.

Professor Alan Winfield believes that the risk of computers bringing about the end of human civilisation “while not impossible, is improbable.”

Maciamo Hay, a researcher in genetics, points out that an AI is a computer which cannot act beyond the digital realm. It could modify its software (computer programmes) but not its hardware (machines). To do the latter without human involvement would require robots which could get raw materials and build machines without human assistance. He added that the computer would need to transfer its data to another machine if it was to avoid slowing down as it got older. Some researchers think it would be possible to achieve such conditions.

The power of computers

What is certain is that computers are becoming more and more powerful. Ramez Naam, Director of Program Management at Microsoft, said “It appears that a super-computer capable of simulating an entire human brain and do so as fast as a human brain should be on the market by roughly 2035 – 2040. And of course, from that point on, speedups in computing should speed up the simulation of the brain, allowing it to run faster than a biological human’s.”

Meanwhile robots are becoming more sophisticated. Kodomoroid, a Japanese android can read the news, recite tongue-twisters, speak multiple languages and interact with people. There are also ‘women’ robots with silicon skin and artificial muscles, which look eerily human.

There are robotic surgical systems. A robotic-assisted surgical platform is being developed. This would assist surgeons in “minimally invasive operations” giving them greater control and accuracy. Experts are working on robotic systems which could highlight blood vessels, nerve cells, tumours, etc., which would be difficult to see otherwise.

Another Japanese robot can understand facial expressions, gestures and tones of voice. The manufacturers claim: “For the first time in human history, we’re giving a robot a heart, emotions.” Another robot can play the violin and football and has opened the New York Stock Exchange. In 1950 Alan Turing said that a computer could be understood to be thinking if it convinced 30% of human interrogators in five-minute text conversations that it was human (the Turing Test). He predicted this would happen in about 50 years and there are controversial claims that this has been achieved.

Conclusion

Obviously the danger from Artificial Intelligence is not mentioned in Scripture. This is Secular Eschatology. Whether it will play a significant part in the future drama is unclear. But it is certainly something we ought to be aware of and to pray about.

The New Testament is quite clear that God has a continuing purpose for the Jewish people in Christ. Paul predicts that “All Israel will be saved.” Scripture also foretells attacks on Israel in the End Times. The continuation and even growth of anti-Semitism is a clear pointer to all this. It is a pointer towards the End Times.

A new anti-Semitism IS growing

The idea that anti-Semitism is growing, including in Europe, is controversial. Some surveys have been criticised as unreliable. What is the truth? I found it helpful to read what Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi says because he is a man of great integrity and intellectual ability. Writing in the Wall Street Journal in October 2014 he said: “This year, Europe’s Jews entered Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, with a degree of apprehension I have not known in my lifetime. Anti-Semitism has returned to Europe within living memory of the Holocaust. Never again has become ever again.”

He instanced a French synagogue congregation being surrounded by “a howling mob claiming to protest Israeli policy;” four people being murdered in a Jewish museum and a synagogue being firebombed in Brussels; a London supermarket feeling forced to remove kosher food from its shelves and a London theatre refusing to stage a Jewish film festival because it had received a small grant from the Israeli embassy.

He added: “More than once during the summer, I heard well-established British Jews saying, ‘For the first time in my life, I feel afraid.’ And Jews are leaving. A survey in 2013 by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights showed that almost a third of Europe’s Jews have considered emigrating because of anti-Semitism, with numbers as high as 46% in France and 48% in Hungary. Quietly, many Jews are asking whether they have a future in Europe.”

Lord Sacks explained that in the Middle Ages Jews were hated for their religion, in the 19th and 20th century for their race and today for their nation state. “Israel, now 66 years old, still finds itself the only country among the 193 in the United Nations whose right to exist is routinely challenged and in many quarters denied. There are 102 nations in the world where Christians predominate, and there are 56 Islamic states. But a single Jewish state is deemed one too many.”

He believes the new anti-Semitism was started at the U.N. Conference against Racism at Durban in 2001 where “Israel was accused of the five cardinal sins against human rights: racism, apartheid, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and attempted genocide.”

Lord Sacks concluded: “Human rights matter, and they matter regardless of the victim or the perpetrator. It is the sheer disproportion of the accusations against Israel that makes Jews feel that humanitarian concern isn’t the prime motive in these cases: More than half of all resolutions adopted by the U.N. Human Rights Council since 2006 (when the Council was established) in criticism of a particular country have been directed at Israel. In 2013, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a total of 21 resolutions singling out Israel for censure, according to U.N. Watch, and only four resolutions to protest the actions of the rest of the world’s states.”

There were a record number of anti-Semitic incidents in the UK in 2014, many of them related to the Israel – Gaza conflict. The Community Security Trust recorded 1168 incidents compared with 535 in 2013. This was the highest number since records began in 1984. Most were verbal abuse but 81 involve physical abuse.

In France synagogues were firebombed and Jewish shops attacked. Gangs roam the streets shouting “Death to Jews.”

In September 2004, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, a part of the Council of Europe, gave examples of anti-Semitic comments on Israel:
• Denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour;
• Applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation;
• Using the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism (e.g. claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis;
• Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
• Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the State of Israel.
Howard Jacobson recently wrote in the Independent: “A calm, responsible view of Israel, which includes understanding the rationale of its existence, might not make you like it or agree with it, but it will make you halt before the malicious caricature of it as a country unlike any other in its blood-thirst and intransigence, a caricature so reminiscent of the medieval figuration of Jews as Christ killers and child murderers that either the medieval imagination had it right and the Jew is indeed uniquely evil, or else the Jew, personified by Israel, is uniquely maligned.”

A 2013 poll of Jewish people for the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) found that 76% thought anti-Semitism had increased over the last five years, and 46% said they worried about being verbally assaulted or harassed in public because they were Jewish. A third were worried about being physically attacked, and 57% said they had heard or seen someone claim over the last year that the Holocaust was a myth or had been exaggerated.

John Mann, chair of the UK’s all-party parliamentary group against anti-Semitism, was shocked by the poll and commented: “It is extraordinary that 75 years after the terrible events of Kristallnacht, Jews are again living in fear. The inaction of the European Commission in combating anti-Semitism is inexcusable.”

Danny Cohen director of television at the BBC has said he has “never felt so uncomfortable as a Jew in the UK” as it was revealed that anti-Semitic incidents in Britain hit record annual levels in 2014. He added that levels of hatred were on the rise across Europe. “You’ve seen the number of attacks rise, you’ve seen murders in France, you’ve seen murders in Belgium.”

The deceptive nature of anti-Semitism

Some anti-Semitism in various right wing political groups is quite deliberate and blatant. But a lot of it is more deceptive. Rabbi Sacks clearly shows how laudable concerns for justice for the Palestinians and legitimate criticisms of some of Israel’s actions can very easily mask or lead to perhaps unwitting anti-Semitism. The problem is that anti-Semitism (“the world’s longest hatred) is an underlying racist attitude and spiritual problem. It is a particularly pernicious and widespread form of racism. I have said before that the only explanation for its prevalence is that it is a demonic influence opposing God’s continuing purpose for the Jewish people. God has an End Time purpose for the Jewish people in Christ. The time will come, says Paul, when “All Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26) and this will have a dynamic influence on the world when Israel recognises her Messiah and proclaims him as such. The devil’s plan is, quite simply, to prevent this happening by destroying the Jewish people.

Consequently, we, especially those of us who, like me, are deeply concerned about justice for the Palestinians and do have legitimate criticisms of some of Israel’s actions, must be very careful not to fall into anti-Semitic attitudes. That does not mean that we should cease criticising Israel when appropriate. (I believe those who are really positive towards Israel will be critical of her at times. Christian Zionists who don’t make fair criticism of Israel are failing her). But it does mean we need to be self-critical so we don’t fall into an unbalanced, unfair criticism of Israel.

We also need to try to enter into the mind-set of Jewish people in general and Israelis in particular. Whereas history is a long time ago for us British Gentiles, the Jewish people are one of those groups who feel history is much ‘closer.’ To put it simply, the Holocaust happened yesterday. Not only that, some 2000 years of persecution preceded it. This ‘closeness’ of history engenders insecurity and in some cases understandable paranoia. Israelis have this insecurity. It’s obviously not altogether to do with history. There are countries and political groups today who are determined to destroy Israel. If we don’t understand this sensitivity we shall not understand Israelis and we won’t communicate effectively with them.

The evil of anti-Semitism is a clear sign of God’s End Time purposes for the Jewish people.

It should go without saying that our prime concern should be to pray for and, where possible, assist those affected by such traumas. It is, of course, a Christian responsibility to love one’s neighbour. This means we must defend and rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed and set them free; oppose injustice; provide food, shelter, clothing for the needy, hungry and oppressed (Psa 82:2-4; Isa 58:6-10). All this includes the foreigner (Zech 7:9-10). See also what Jesus says in Luke 12:33a and 14:13.

However, there is another reaction we should have to these traumas. The disciples asked Jesus: “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matt 24:3). Jesus replied at length but he first of all mentioned wars, famines, earthquakes and pestilences and he called them “the beginning of birth-pains.” This is a technical term meaning the birth pains of the Messiah, i.e. the traumas which will herald his return. He made it clear that they were early signs. Some Christians regard them as irrelevant but Jesus didn’t and, as you will expect, I’m going to agree with Jesus!

Someone will say: “But these things are always happening and have done throughout history. They will get worse just before Jesus returns (Luke 21:25-28) and it’s only at that stage they will be signs.” However, Jesus makes another very significant statement. He urges us all to keep watch – not at some time in the future but now – day by day.

He says: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” (Matt 24:42-44). He goes on to tell the parable of the ten virgins to confirm his command to watch.

Mark reports him as saying: “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: he leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back – whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the cock crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’” (Mark 13:32-37).

How do we keep watch for the Lord’s return? I have noted elsewhere that Jesus wants us to think and live eschatologically. We are to pray regularly “Your kingdom come.” We are to celebrate communion and so “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” We need to live our lives in the light of the coming judgment (a very neglected truth today) and redemption.

Part of this keeping watch is to note the signs “the beginning of birthpains” which Jesus mentions in the immediate context of his command to watch. We must avoid naivety – thinking these very early pointers mean the Lord will come imminently, because many more things need to happen. But we are to see them as reminders of the Lord’s coming. They jog our memory. They help us to keep watch. This would not work if we only think of future signs. The signs will grow in intensity in the future. But we need to notice the lesser signs now.

The Lord’s command to us is to keep watch. Are we doing so, and, if so, how?

Jesus said that one of the signs of the End and of his return would be that “many will turn away from the faith” (Matt 24:10). Is that beginning to happen today?

Religion “does more harm than good”

The majority of UK citizens now believe that religion does more harm than good. The Huffington Post discovered that only 25% of British people think religion is a force for good. Professor Linda Woodhead (Professor of the Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University) commented “This confirms something I’ve found in my own surveys and which leads me to conclude that religion has become a ‘toxic brand’ in the UK.”

Another survey revealed that only 7% of British people included religion as one of their three main personal values. It was in 11th position after respect for human life, human rights, peace, equality, rule of law, individual freedom, democracy, respect for other cultures, tolerance and self-fulfilment. It is interesting that in the European Union as a whole religion came bottom of the list of values. In most EU countries religion was not seen as an important value (with the exception of Malta and the Republic of Cyprus).

British Social Attitudes (BSA) surveys discovered a large increase in the number of British people who say they have no religion: 31.4% in 1983, 36.8% in 1993, 43.4% in 2003 and 50.6% in 2013. BSA also asked people over a period of 13 years about “Attitudes towards whether being Christian is important for being truly British.” Those who thought it was not very important or not at all important formed a majority of 64.5% in 1995, 64.9% in 2003 and 75.1% in 2008. The percentages saying it was very important were 19.1%, 15.6% and 6.2% respectively.

A study recently published by the UCL Institute of Education found that 54% of men said they were atheists or agnostics and 34% of women.

It is interesting to note that America is becoming less Christian with church membership static or declining. Americans born between 1982 and 2000 are the least religious generation in US history and they are becoming less religious as they get older.

Growing ignorance of the Christian Faith

The Bible Society discovered that:
• 25% of children have never read, seen or heard the story of the Nativity.
• 43% of children have yet to hear, see or read about the Crucifixion.
• 29% of children don’t know that the Nativity story is part of the Bible.
• 30% of secondary school children (aged 12-15) did not know the Nativity story appears in the Bible.

On the other hand, this ignorance can show itself in more creative ways. One firm produced a “British Christmas Jumper” which bears Christmas trees plus symbols of Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Sikh, atheism, Chinese philosophy and also the peace sign. The firm commented: “Britain has never been more multicultural, so we thought we’d create a Christmas jumper with a twist. We think everyone should be able to wear a British Christmas Jumper and celebrate the festive season – however they wish, no matter what their colour, creed or culture.”

Church Decline

Dr Peter Brierley recorded in June 2014 that the number of churchmembers in the UK in 2013 was 4.5% fewer than in 2008. Professor David Voas of the University of Essex wrote: “Two non-religious parents successfully transmit their lack of religion. Two religious parents in Britain have a roughly 50/50 chance of passing on the faith. The generation now in middle age has produced children who are only half as likely as they are to attend church, to identify themselves as belonging to a denomination, or to say that belief is important to them. Institutional religion in Britain has a half-life of one generation, to borrow the terminology of radioactive decay.” In the same year another survey discovered that 69% of the UK population do not trust religious institutions. The church came in 7th position after the NHS, police, social services, local authorities, judiciary and government/parliament. It is, of course, highly probable that the scandals about child sex abuse in a church context have contributed to this.

Secularisation

Assemblies

The National Governors’ Association has called for an end to Christian assemblies in state schools because they are “meaningless” for non-Christian children and because staff are “unable or unwilling” to lead them. The NGA claims that schools are “not places of worship but places of education” ignoring the fact that education should surely include experience of Christian worship which is important in itself and vital to an understanding of British history. The Church of England commented that stopping assemblies would “deny children the opportunity to experience something they wouldn’t experience elsewhere in their lives”.

Faith schools

An Opinium poll for the Observer found that 58% of UK residents believed faith schools should lose state funding or be closed down. Matthew Taylor, chair of the Social Integration Commission said that segregation between people of different classes and ethnic groups is being increased because of the increasing numbers of faith schools. He called on governors to publish regular reports on how pupils are mixing with other groups in society. One of the serious trends in society is that policies with laudable aims can easily lead to unintended damaging consequences. Of course, contact between different faith groups is a good thing but it can easily lead to pressure to avoid appropriately expressing important religious views for fear of causing offence to other groups. This leads to an undermining of religion.

The Church of England responded to Taylor by saying that former Chief Rabbi, Dr. Jonathan Sacks, went to Church of England primary and secondary schools and commented: “We Jews were different and a minority. Yet not once was I insulted for my faith.” In Birmingham some Church of England primary schools have an almost 100% school roll from Muslim families, serving children from local communities in the inner city.

Church Establishment

In April 2014 Yasmin Alibhai Brown wrote in the Independent, calling for an end to the establishment of the Church of England: “Religion is a vital part of a decent, civil society. When archbishops speak up for the poor (and irritate Iain Duncan Smith), when rabbis offer support to asylum-seekers, when Sikh priests give food to the hungry in their temples, when Muslim imams encourage charity, when faith leaders oppose state violence, they are the nation’s conscience. But, bit by bit, religions are demanding special rights and dispensations, and with well-honed piety are emasculating human rights, equality and autonomy. (They actually use the concepts of human rights and equality to get their own fiefdoms, segregation and legal adjustments.)”

However, she concluded: “This column is a song for secular democracy – the only fair, safe and universalising governance system. America, hyper-diverse and the most fiercely Christian nation in the West, is a secular state. Yes, we can be, too. And must be.”

Nick Clegg also called for disestablishment. Arun Arora, director of communications for the Archbishops’ Council responded: “Critics of establishment commonly fail to understand the duties of establishment where priests serve all the people in a parish and not simply their congregations. It certainly provides an identity and spiritual dimension for its own many adherents. But also, gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely. Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped to build a better society – more and more in active co-operation for the common good with those of other faiths.”

It is interesting that Anil Bhanot, managing director of the Hindu Council UK, also responded, saying disestablishment would “weaken British democracy” and undermine the voice given to faith groups by policy makers.

Mary Warnock commented: “I would not like to live in a country that was entirely secular. As long as no one is in a position to tell me how to interpret it, or that I must believe in the literal truth of holy writ, then I like there to be an established church, a repository of a long-shared cultural heritage, with a ceremonial function, and a source of genuine belief for many people, of whom I am not one.”

David Cameron’s controversial commitment to “Christian values”

David Cameron (who, of course, has upset the church with some of his reforms) reiterated his commitment to “Christian values” in his 2014 Christmas message. Earlier in the year he had written in the Church Times: “I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives. … Being more confident about our status as a Christian country does not somehow involve doing down other faiths or passing judgement on those with no faith at all. Many people tell me it is easier to be Jewish or Muslim in Britain than in a secular country precisely because the tolerance that Christianity demands of our society provides greater space for other religious faiths, too.”

In response, various well-known humanists wrote to the press objecting to his saying that Britain is a Christian country: “Apart from in the narrow constitutional sense that we continue to have an established Church, Britain is not a ‘Christian country.’ Repeated surveys, polls and studies show that most of us as individuals are not Christian in our beliefs or our religious identities … We are a plural society with citizens with a range of perspectives, and we are a largely non-religious society. Constantly to claim otherwise fosters alienation and division in our society. Although it is right to recognise the contribution made by many Christians to social action, it is wrong to try to exceptionalise their contribution when it is equalled by British people of different beliefs. This needlessly fuels enervating sectarian debates that are by and large absent from the lives of most British people, who do not want religions or religious identities to be actively prioritised by their elected government.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury responded to the secularists’ letter by saying: “Judging by the reaction, anyone would think that [David Cameron] had at the same time suggested the return of the Inquisition (complete with comfy chairs for Monty Python fans), compulsory church going and universal tithes.”

There was also controversy over a backbench bill that will enable local councils to have prayers before its meetings. The National Secular Society had taken Bideford Council to court over the matter. Cameron had appointed Eric Pickles as Faith Minister in August 2014 in succession to Baroness Warsi. His job is to work with religious and community leaders “promote faith, religious tolerance and stronger communities within the UK.” He facilitated the progress of the bill.

The Catholic Bishop of Shrewsbury said: “Christianity is the single most important element in England’s history. From our legal system to our constitution, it is at the very foundations of national identity. There is a danger of airbrushing this from our memory and the intolerant secularism that we are seeing expressed does not allow for acknowledgement of that contribution and its importance to our present life.”

Charles Moore summarised the Christian contribution to Britain: “The United Kingdom has been explicitly Christian for more than a thousand years. Its monarchy, Parliament, morality, law and education; its flag, national anthem, key texts, much of its literature, art and architecture; its health care, many of its charities and endowments, public holidays and festivals, the structure of its week and its place-names – all these and many more are Christian in origin.”

Is Britain still a Christian country?

The historian Simon Schama (himself Jewish) believes Britain is becoming more religious. He said recently: “My generation grew up thinking that religion was completely marginal to British life, which, as for the rest of the world, has been proved more and more wrong. We were arrogantly isolated from that, thinking religion was just an ornamental part of Britishness. Now look at the success of the Alpha Evangelicals, how important Christianity has been to the community of West Indians, the huge place of Islam. Britain is becoming a more religious place, not less.” A poll conducted by OnePoll in April 2014 found that 35% of non-religious people in Britain believe in God and 43% of them pray at times. Also 32% want a religious funeral.

In 2013 the European Social Survey published the results of a 2012 survey on the question: “Regardless of whether you belong to a particular religion, how religious would you say you are?” The results were as follows and show more people regarding themselves as ‘highly religious’ in 2012 than in 2002:

Religiosity score  2002  2004  2006  2008  2010 2012
Low (0-3)              39.7   39.9    46.0    45.9    47.1   44.8
Medium (4-6)       36.1    34.6    31.2     30.5   29.9   29.1
High (7-10)           24.2   25.6    22.9     23.6   22.9   26.2

A 2013 Theos survey reported that:
• 61% of non-religious people believe that “there are things in life that we simply cannot explain through science or any other means.”
• 59% of non-religious people believe in the existence of some kind of spiritual being.
• 52% – think spiritual forces have some influence either in the human world or the natural world.
• 51% believe “prayer works, in the sense that it makes you feel more at peace”.
• 30% believe in God “as a universal life force.”
• 30% believe in spirits.
• 25% believe in angels
• 39% believe in the existence of a soul
• 38% think prayer could heal
• 32% believe in life after death
• 26% believe in heaven
• 16% believe in reincarnation
• 13% believe in hell
• Only 25% of the non-religious – agree with the statement “humans are purely material beings with no spiritual element”.
• 17%) of people said that prayer works “in the sense that it can bring about change for the people or situation you are praying for.”
• 13% of people say they prayed “daily or more often”, 8% say they prayed a few times a week and 34% said they prayed occasionally.
The Report went on to comment: “For all that formalised religious belief and institutionalised religious belonging has declined over recent decades, the British have not become a nation of atheists or materialists. On the contrary, a spiritual current runs as, if not more, powerfully through the nation than it once did.”

It is also a fact that a substantial amount of belief in the supernatural is more superstitious than Christian. A survey conducted by OnePoll on the 27 March 2014 found that belief in the supernatural and superstition ran at 55% against 49% believers in a God. The most popular supernatural beliefs were in ghosts (33%), a sixth sense (32%), UFOs (22%), past lives (19%), telepathy (18%), the ability to predict the future (18%), psychic healing (16%), astrology (10%), the Bermuda Triangle (9%), and demons (8%).

60% of people in the UK think of themselves as Christian, which is more than go to football matches. 23% say they are very or fairly religious. 55% say they believe Britain is a Christian country. 58% say they think Britain should be a Christian country and 50% agreed with David Cameron’s comments on the subject. Also, whereas 39% of people in 2011 agreed that “God created the earth and all life on it”, the percentage in 2014 was 41%.

British Religion in Numbers published a helpful survey of polls ranging back to 1965 over opinions as to whether Britain is a Christian country:

On the question: “Is Britain a Christian country?”

% Agency                      Agree   Disagree   Don’t Know
3/1965 NOP                   80          19                 1
12/1989 Gallup               71           21                8
4/2007 YouGov               39          51                9
12/2007 YouGov             43          57                0
11/2010 ComRes            50          47                3
2/2012 YouGov               56           33               11
4/2014 YouGov               55           33               12
4/2014 ICM                    56           30               14

On the question: “Should Britain be a Christian country?”

% Agency                 Agree   Disagree   Don’t Know
1-2/1968 ORC            81         15                   3
3-4/1984 Harris          67         31                   3
6-7/1987 Insight         69         22                   8
2/2012 YouGov          61          22                 18
4/2014 YouGov          58         23                  19
Linda Woodhead said recently: “In culture and institutions Britain is more Christian than not. What is happening is that people are leaving the churches, not faith.”

The Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, commented: “The evidence is overwhelming that most people in this country by a very substantial margin have religious belief in the supernatural or a deity. To that extent atheism doesn’t appear to have made much progress in this country at all …Our state, its ethics and our society are underpinned by Christian values.” He added: “As I go around and look at the way we make laws, and indeed many of the underlying ethics of society are Christian based and the result of 1,500 years of Christian input into our national life. It is not going to disappear overnight. They (the atheists) are deluding themselves.” He also said that he believed people were hesitant to express their religious beliefs because of the “deep intolerance” of religious extremist in British society.

Lord Williams, the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, said: “A Christian nation can sound like a nation of committed believers, and we are not that. Equally, we are not a nation of dedicated secularists. I think we’re a lot less secular than the most optimistic members of the British Humanist Association would think … A Christian country as a nation of believers? No. A Christian country in the sense of still being very much saturated by this vision of the world and shaped by it? Yes.”

Professor David Voas commented: “There is general agreement that young people increasingly do not regard themselves as belonging to a Christian religion, much less practise it. What is still debated is whether they are prone to ‘believing without belonging,’ in the phrase popularised by the sociologist Grace Davie. Many other scholars echo the view that religiosity is being transformed, not eroded. They point to the persistence of supernatural belief and the relative popularity of ‘spirituality.’ Levels of atheism have not grown a great deal in the past 30 years, and stand at under 20% … people are just less likely to associate with, or relate to, a particular religion.”

Conclusion

The serious decline in church attendance in many places is, of course, a cause of real concern. Although it may seem that there is a massive turning away from the Faith (which will happen in the End Times) the reality is more complicated. It is instructive to keep a sense of history in this matter. An 1851 survey showed only 40% of the population were in church or chapel on any one Sunday. In 1881 another survey showed that only about 33% of the population were attending. So organised religion, although much more important in those days was in decline even then. The Faith will not die out. Spiritual renewal will come. But turning away from the Faith will also happen, as Jesus predicted.

 

Jesus said that wars, famines, earthquakes, pestilences etc., were “the beginning of birth-pains” of the Messiah (Matt 24:6-8), i.e. early reminders that he would return to deal with injustices and suffering of the world. Global warming fits into this category of “the beginning of birth-pains” of the Messiah.

Global warming sceptics

There are, of course, people who deny that global warming is happening, for example Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, many members of the US Republican Party and the Wall Street Journal. Nigel Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation also does so. According to press reports in September 2014 the GWPF is secretly funded by the Institute of Economic Affairs which is itself funded by fossil fuel companies which have a vested interest in denying global warming.

On the other hand, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, which have cast doubt on global warming in the past, have now changed their tune and accept that it is happening and human beings play a role in it.

One argument against global warming is the claim that warming has been on pause in the last 15 years. However scientists point out that, whereas global warming has slowed down, there has still been a rise of 0.2℃ over the last 15 years. They also point out that a reason for the slowdown is that excess heat is being stored in the Atlantic and Southern Oceans and that a natural ocean cycle will cause the temperature to rise in around 15 years’ time. The Pacific may also have a similar role. Trade winds help the oceans to absorb heat into an area 100 -300 metres below the surface. These trade winds are likely to drop in some years’ time (probably soon after 2020) which will facilitate the heat being released. Scientists also point out that volcanic eruptions spread particles into the atmosphere which reflect the sun’s heat back into space, thus acting against global warming.

The fact is that the World Meteorological Organisation has reported that 13 of the 14 warmest years have occurred since 2000 and each of the last three decades has been warmer than the previous one, with 2001-2010 the warmest on record.

The WMO also reported that concentrations of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere increased faster in 2012-13 than at any time since 1984. They were 142% of pre-Industrial Revolution levels. Methane was 253% and Nitrous Oxide 121% of pre-industrial levels, both of them greenhouse gases. The seas are becoming more acidic at a greater rate than for 300 years.

The effects of global warming

It would be a mistake to put all the extreme weather and other disasters (floods, hurricanes, drought, heatwaves, etc) down solely to global warming. The world population has doubled since the 1970s and many expanding cities are either built on the coast or on flood plains. Some scientists are considering declaring 1950 to be the start of a new geological age called the Anthropocene which refers to the human domination of the planet. It has been characterised by dramatic population increase and industrial development leading to great pollution and waste. Pollution is said to cause 1 in 8 human deaths. The so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a floating ‘island’ of rubbish – is said to be twice the size of the United States. Forests have been cut down, oceans over-fished and many species becoming almost or actually extinct. This will all be evident in the sediments which will form the rocks and fossils in the future.

However, climate change is predicted to have serious effects:

Extreme weather: Hotter air holds more moisture which will lead to extreme precipitation, and, of course, water expands as it grows warmer which will lead to flooding. This can be linked with melting ice caps. Also the Amazon rainforest, the “lungs of the earth” is drying out making it vulnerable to massive forest fires. In 2005 and 2010 it became a net producer rather than an absorber of Carbon Dioxide.

Hunger: because of reduction in food production and increasing prices.

Heat-related deaths: The Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health points out that “many countries experience annual heat-related and cold-related deaths associated with current weather patterns.” It added that “heat-related deaths would be expected to rise by around 257% by the 2050s.”

Violence: because of growing poverty and hunger and resulting migration. The 2014 IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Report stated: “Throughout the 21st century, climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hot spots of hunger.” It is also obscene that half of the world’s wealth is owned by 1% of the population. The US Center for Naval Analyses Military Advisory Board, described climate change as a “catalyst for conflict.” It claims that it “will aggravate stressors abroad, such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence” as “massive floods, water shortages and famines … are expected to hit and decimate unstable nations.”

Water shortage and flooding: experts are speaking of the 21st century being characterised by “water in the wrong place” – a lack of drinking water in some places and flooding in others. Water tables are falling in every continent. Arctic ice is disappearing much faster than scientists expected. Flooding in Europe is likely to double by 2050. Dame Julia Slingo, chief scientist at the Meteorological Office, said that in early 2014 the UK had seen the “most exceptional period of rainfall in 248 years.”

Ocean acidification: because of absorption of carbon dioxide. This will lead to a shortage of fish for those dependent on it as a food.

Extinction of species: In 2007 the IPCC suggested that 20 to 30% of plant and animal species faced an increased risk of extinction this century if the planet keeps warming. The wildlife population is less than 50% of what it was 40 years ago and valuable habitats are being destroyed.

John Kerry US Secretary of State said in February 2014: “Climate change can now be considered another weapon of mass destruction, perhaps even the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.”

Attempts to combat global warming

Various methods have been suggested, for example:

Reflecting sunlight back into space: This could be done by spraying sulphate particles high in the atmosphere, whitening low clouds by spraying salt water above the oceans, thinning high cirrus clouds to allow more heat to escape from the earth, whitening the ocean surface to reflect more sunlight by generating microbubbles or covering deserts with shiny material. However a study in November 2014 showed that these methods would cause worse floods and droughts for billions of people.

Extracting Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere: This would require burning many plants and trees in power plants and capturing the Carbon Dioxide from them. It would require the planting of huge numbers of trees. This would be very expensive.

Climate Change talks

At the talks in Lima at the end of 2014 every country committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions. There is, however, much more to be done and commitments are not always worked out in practice.

A call to action

As always, when considering events and trends which fit into the category of “the ‘beginning of birth-pains’ of the Messiah” we should seek to do whatever we can to counteract the harm involved. Desmond Tutu, writing in The Observer in September 2014, said: “Never before in history have human beings been called on to act collectively in defence of the Earth. If we don’t limit global warming to two degrees or less we are doomed to a period of unprecedented instability, insecurity and loss of species. The most devastating effects of climate change – deadly storms, heat waves, droughts, rising food prices and the advent of climate refugees – are being visited on the world’s poor. Those who have no involvement in creating the problem are the most affected, while those with the capacity to arrest the slide dither. Africans, who emit far less carbon than the people of any other continent, will pay the steepest price. It is a deep injustice.”

He then went on to call for a boycott of events, sports teams and media programming sponsored by fossil fuel companies; demand that their advertisements carry health warnings; ask our religious communities to speak out on the issue from their various pulpits, etc.

It remains to be seen if global warming becomes the global nightmare it has the potential to be. In the meantime it fits into this category of “the ‘beginning of birth-pains’ of the Messiah” alongside wars, famines, earthquakes and pestilence.

The Global Peace Index measures peace in 162 countries, covering 99.6% of the world’s population, and has discovered that since 2008, 111 countries have deteriorated in levels of peace which goes against the trend of a reduction in conflict since the Second World War. There are only 11 countries in the world free from conflict. 500 million people live in countries at risk of instability and conflict, 200 million of whom live below the poverty line. Trends in war are shifting from hostility between states, to a rise in the number and intensity of internal conflicts.

The UN Refugee Agency said that in 2013 there were 51.2 million refugees (16.7m), asylum seekers (1.2m) and internally displaced people (33.3m). The figure has exceeded 50 million for the first time since World War II.

The “Islamic” State

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff said of the Islamic State: “This is an organisation that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision which will eventually have to be defeated.”

Theresa May, when Bitish Home Secretary in September 2014, said: “If [Isis] succeed in firmly consolidating their grip on the land they occupy in Syria and Iraq, we will see the world’s first truly terrorist state established within a few hours flying time of our country. We will see terrorists given the space to plot attacks against us, train their men and women, and devise new methods to kill indiscriminately. We will see the risk, often prophesied but thank God not yet fulfilled, that with the capability of a state behind them, the terrorists will acquire chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons to attack us.”

David Cameron commented: “We are in the middle of a generational struggle against the poisonous and extremist ideology that I believe we will be fighting for years and probably decades.”

The Islamic State has captured advanced artillery, armoured cars, battlefield tanks, anti-aircraft guns and American low altitude FIM92 Stinger manpads (man-portable air defence system). It also has three Russian-built MiG jets. In addition it took control of a large chemical weapons facility northwest of Baghdad, which contained remnants of 2,500 degraded chemical rockets filled with the deadly nerve agent sarin and other chemical warfare agents. Bodies have been discovered which have no bullet wounds but only “burns and white spots” which indicate the use of chemical weapons.

ISIS documents have been discovered which show the organisation aims to capture nuclear weapons from Iran.

It is now the case that extreme Islamist organisations control an area the size of Britain in western Iraq and eastern Syria. Then there is Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia. Boko Haram is a similar organisation to ISIS in Nigeria.

Radicalisation

One very disturbing factor is the radicalisation of young Muslims, including from western nations, which leads them to join organisations like ISIS. In June 2014 Richard Barrett, former Head of Counter-terrorism at MI6, warned that some 300 foreign fighters from Syria may now be back in the United Kingdom.

The internet is an important new factor. One jihadist website has a slogan “Half of Jihad is Media.” Fundamentalist Sunni jihadists broadcast their propaganda daily through satellite television stations, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Hence they are never short of money or recruits. Hate preachers have huge followings on YouTube.

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan

One of the problems is that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have encouraged jihadism but they are important allies of the US. Saudi Arabia is a huge market for American arms. Wikileaks released a cable by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton which said: “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan] and other terrorists groups.” The 9/11 Commission Report revealed that Saudi donors were the main financial support for al-Qa’ida but 28 pages of the report relating to Saudi involvement have never been published.

A new Cold War?

Another disturbing factor on the world scene is the growing tension between Russia and the West. This has, of course, been precipitated by the crisis in Ukraine.

Patriarch Filaret, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, without naming him, says that Vladimir Putin (a member of the Orthodox Church) is “under the action of Satan” and is heading for “eternal damnation in hell.” President Obama has pledged $1billion to aid European defence despite warnings from Russia that any build-up of forces in Eastern Europe could lead to an arms race and a new Cold War. Obama responded: “We are interested in good relations with Russia. We are not interested in threatening Russia” but tensions continue.

Nuclear war by accident?

There have been disturbing revelations about the dangers inherent in the possession of nuclear weapons. General Lee Butler, former head of the US strategic air command which controls nuclear weapons and strategy once said that we have survived the nuclear age “by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion.”

This year it was revealed that in January 1961 an American plane carrying two nuclear bombs broke apart in flight dropping the weapons in North Carolina. Both bombs were knocked into ‘armed’ mode as they fell. The second bomb went through six of the seven steps to detonation and only damaged cables prevented that happening.

In 1980 a worker was carrying out routine maintenance on a nuclear missile silo in Arkansas. He dropped a spanner and ruptured the missiles fuel tank. Nine hours later the missile exploded, sending the warhead 50 yards away. Fortunately the safety devices worked.

In 2007 six cruise missiles with live nuclear warheads were flown from North Dakota to Louisiana without authorisation. The loaders confused dummy warheads with the real thing.

The problem is that the accidental detonation of a nuclear missile could cause nuclear conflict. The BBC revealed in September 2014 that in 1983 Russia’s early-warning systems registered a missile strike from the United States, and Russia’s nuclear system went onto the highest-level alert. Fortunately, Stanislav Petrov, the officer on duty, decided to disobey the protocol which required a nuclear retaliation. He was reprimanded.

In 1995, after the Cold War had finished, the Russians mistook a Norwegian research rocket for an American ballistic missile. Boris Yeltsin was two minutes away from launching retaliatory nuclear missiles, when the Norwegian rocket fell into the sea.

The turbulent Middle East

Margaret MacMillan, Professor of International History at Oxford University, has recently said that the Middle East is the modern equivalent of the Balkans where World War I was sparked off. She wrote that “A similar mix of toxic nationalisms threatens to draw in outside powers as the US, Turkey, Russia, and Iran look to protect their interests and clients.” She added that if Iran developed nuclear bombs it “would make for a very dangerous world indeed, which could lead to a recreation of the kind of tinderbox that exploded in the Balkans 100 years ago – only this time with mushroom clouds.” Her warning was: “Now, as then, the march of globalisation has lulled us into a false sense of safety. The 100th anniversary of 1914 should make us reflect anew on our vulnerability to human error, sudden catastrophes, and sheer accident.”

Amoral Robowar

Another disturbing fact is the development of sophisticated killer robots. Robots, of course, do not have any moral revulsion against unnecessary killing and could not be programmed with any means of reconciliation. The Americans have developed the Unmanned Ground Combat Vehicle or UGV which could decide to attack, using a roof-mounted machine gun, without human intervention. They also have drones, which have already killed thousands of people. The South Koreans have developed a robotic sentry which can detect a human up to two miles away and can fire a machine gun or a grenade launcher. Hopefully the United Nations Convention on Conventional Weapons will lead to a global ban on autonomous weapons.

Christians should first and foremost pray and work for peace and care for victims of war. But we should also remember Jesus’ answer to the question “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” War is not a sign of the imminent End of the Age and Return of Christ but it is a reminder of and pointer towards the End. Sadly, war is still very much with us and could become much worse, not least with terrorists obtaining sophisticated weapons.

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See my main writings on Eschatology  (the End Times: the Return of Christ, Judgment, Heaven etc) at http://www.christianteaching.org.uk/eschatology.html for both a Full (more detailed) Version and a Summary Version.