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BAHA'IS AND BIBLICAL PROPHECY

The Baha'is claim that Baha'u'llah is the fulfillment of the biblical prophecies of the return of Christ.9 Taken literally, of course, the biblical prophecies of Christ's return do not fit Baha'u'llah. The Bible speaks of Jesus Himself returning in the skies before the entire world in a cataclysmic fashion to judge the living and the dead (e.g., Matt. 24). By contrast, Baha'is recognized as the "Christ" another person (Baha'u'llah) who came into the world in relative obscurity through natural means (i.e., conception and birth).10

How, then, can the Baha'is claim that Bah'u'llah fulfills the biblical prophecies of Christ's return? They can do this only by insisting that the literal meaning is to be ignored. According to Baha'i doctrine, Jesus' description of His second coming in the Bible should be understood spiritually rather than literally. That is, the text of the Bible is said to have some symbolic meaning which is contrary to the ordinary meaning of the words used.

Literal and Symbolic

The Baha'is do not, however, follow this line of interpretation consistently in their reading of the Bible. Whenever they find a biblical passage that clearly states that Jesus will return at the end of the world in a way contrary to Baha'u'llah's arrival, the Baha'is simply assert that we should not take that passage literally. No reason for this assertion is ever produced from the text of the Bible itself. However, on other occasions where a literal interpretation might seem to the Baha'is to support their views (e.g., Dan. 8:13-17),11 they do not consider interpreting the passage nonliterally.

This sort of clip-and-paste view of biblical interpretation proves very little. After all, by the same rationale one could "prove" that any number of different individuals was Christ returned. Accepting as literal only those texts which seem to fit one's doctrinal views while pleading for a nonliteral interpretation for passages which contradict one's position is a favorite tactic of pseudo-Christian groups. For example, this interpretive technique is employed by the Unification Church to show that Sun Myung Moon is the Messiah.12

With this method of interpreting biblical prophecy Baha'is employ circular reasoning (in which the arguer assumes what he or she is trying to prove). Because the Baha'i accepts Baha'u'llah's claim to fulfill Christ's second coming, he (or she) thinks he is justified in interpreting biblical prophecies symbolically which, if taken literally, would disprove Baha'u'llah's claim, but if taken nonliterally can be used to prove it.13 Thus, probably without even realizing it, the Baha'i is assuming the very point that he is trying to prove in his citing of biblical prophecy.

Jews, Christians, and Baha'is

In this article's introductory comments I mentioned Robert Stockman's assertion that just as the Jews were mistaken about Jesus' fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (that is, the Jews as a nation; many individual Jews accepted Jesus), the Christians of today are mistaken about Baha'u'llah's fulfillment of New Testament prophecy. There are two ways of understanding this argument. Perhaps it is meant to be a proof that Baha'u'llah fulfills biblical prophecy, in which case the argument might be stated more formally in the following manner:

1. The Jews thought that Jesus was not the Messiah, and they were wrong.

2. Christians today think that Baha'u'llah was not the Messiah (or Christ returned).

3. Therefore, Christians are wrong to reject Baha'u'llah.

Such an argument, if that is what Robert Stockman intended, would certainly be another case of faulty reasoning. By this reasoning Christians and Baha'is alike would be wrong to reject Jim Jones as a manifestation of God, or Sun Myung Moon as the second coming of Christ. Clearly, the mere fact that the Jewish rejection of Jesus was unjustified does not prove that the Christian rejection of Baha'u'llah is also unjustified.

There is another way of interpreting Robert Stockman's argument, however, that is not so obviously fallacious. Perhaps he is intending to argue only that the Christian rejection of Baha'u'llah is based on the same sort of error that led the Jews to reject Jesus. Baha'is generally argue that in both cases the error that led to the rejection of the "manifestation" was an overly literal interpretation of biblical prophecies. Such an argument would take the following form:

1. The Jews rejected Jesus because they interpreted the Bible too literally.

2. Christians today reject Baha'u'llah because they interpret the Bible too literally.

3. Therefore, Christians are wrong to reject Baha'u'llah on the basis of their literal interpretation of the Bible.

This argument, unlike the one discussed previously, has some logical value. If its premises go unchallenged, they lend strong support to its conclusion. However, both of the premises of this argument do invite challenge.

In the case of the second premise, for Baha'u'llah one could substitute any of the other modern religious leaders claiming to be a manifestation of God or a fulfillment of the Second Coming of Christ. A follower of Sun Myung Moon could argue with equal validity as follows:

1. The Jews rejected Jesus because they interpreted the Bible too literally.

2. Christians today reject Rev. Moon because they interpret the Bible too literally.

3. Therefore, Christians are wrong to reject Rev. Moon on the basis of their literal interpretation of the Bible.

In other words, the second premise is really immaterial. It amounts to saying that if the actual words of the Bible are ignored, anyone at all can be claimed to be a fulfillment of the Bible's "spiritual" or symbolic meaning.

As for the first premise, as a matter of historical fact it is simply false. The fact of the matter is that the Jews rejected Jesus as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy not because they interpreted it too literally, but because they did not interpret it literally enough. The Bible clearly predicted that the Messiah would be God (Ps. 45:6; Isa. 7:14; 9:6), but the Jews found Jesus' claim to be God scandalous and blasphemous in the extreme. The Bible also clearly announced that the Messiah would suffer and be killed as an atonement for Israel's sins (Isa. 53; Dan. 9:26), but the Jews regarded Jesus' crucifixion as proof that He was not the Messiah.

Not every Old Testament passage applied to Jesus in the New Testament was understood by first-century Jews as referring to the Messiah. However, there were a fair number of Old Testament prophecies which Jewish leaders and scholars in the first century did regard as literal predictions concerning the Messiah and which were fulfilled literally by Jesus.14 Since Jesus fulfilled these prophecies, what caused most of His contemporaries not to recognize this?

The answer is that the Jews allowed their assumptions about the Messiah to color and even distort their reading of the biblical text. Specifically, it was their expectation of a conquering political Messiah which led first-century Jews to reject the literal meaning of the text, which presents the Messiah as both suffering and conquering.15 Consequently, they had a concept of the Messiah which Jesus could not fit. Their desire for a political Messiah incited them to ignore or twist biblical passages predicting a suffering Messiah that were literally fulfilled in Jesus.

Similarly, the assumption made by the Baha'is that Baha'u'llah is God's manifestation for this age leads to distortions in their reading of the New Testament. (At least the Jews had some warrant in the biblical text for their view of the Messiah; the Baha'is have none.) They too are forced to ignore or twist biblical passages concerning Christ (in this case those concerning His return), which they do in order to apply them to Baha'u'llah. Ironically, then, it turns out that Robert Stockman's argument actually has things turned around. The truth is that the Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah for much the same sort of reason that Baha'is accept Baha'u'llah (which, in effect, is also rejecting Jesus): in both cases, religious assumptions about the Messiah interfered with a plain reading of the text. Like the Jews in Jesus' day, the Baha'is fail to interpret the Bible literally enough.

Also like the Jews, Baha'is are forced to explain why the Old Testament presents both a suffering and a conquering Messiah. The Baha'i answer is that the Old Testament really predicts two "Messiahs": Jesus was the suffering Messiah and Baha'u'llah the conquering one.16

This interpretation ignores the critical fact that both descriptions of the Messiah can be found within the same passages and are obviously referring to one person. For example, Daniel 9:25 calls the Messiah a "Prince" and 9:26 states that he will be "cut off," that is, killed.17 Jesus fulfilled in detail those prophecies referring to the Messiah's place of birth (Mic. 5:2), time of ministry (Dan. 9:24-27), death (Dan. 9:26; Isa. 53; Ps. 22), and resurrection (Ps. 16:10), as well as a number of others.18 Therefore, we should accept Jesus' claim (e.g., Matt. 24-25) and the teaching of the rest of the New Testament (e.g., Luke 1:33; Acts 1:9-11; 1 Thess. 4:14-17; Rev. 1:7; 22:16-21) that He will personally return to fulfill the remaining prophecies which describe a conquering Messiah.

Certainly there is no reason to accept Baha'u'llah's claim to be that Messiah. He failed to fulfill any of the biblical prophecies concerning Christ's second coming,19 and Baha'i's cannot produce a single text from the Bible that suggests that Jesus will not Himself fulfill those prophecies.

The preceding discussion of the interpretation of biblical prophecy should be understood in the light of a more general appreciation of proper biblical interpretation.20 In contrasting "literal" with "symbolic" interpretations, I am not suggesting that biblical symbolism should not be interpreted as such. Rather, I am simply saying that what is understood as symbolic and what is taken more literally should be based on the text itself (as when Daniel interprets his visions as symbols, or when Jesus interprets His parables as earthly illustrations of spiritual truths). Where the Baha'is go wrong is in reading into the Bible doctrines that are totally foreign to its text and can only be justified by assuming their truth.