by Robert Crux | 2 November 2023 |
When Donald Trump decided in 2017 to recognize Jerusalem formally as the capital of Israel by relocating the United States embassy there, this was more than just geopolitics. For American evangelicals and fundamentalists this was a fulfillment of Bible prophecy, and represented progress to those eagerly anticipating the rapture and the end of the world.
This group of dedicated Christians have had a decades-long obsession with Israel that starts with Bible prophecy, but shades over into politics.
Evangelicals assert that when the last days arrive, God will draw the Jewish people back to Israel, where they will rebuild the temple and eventually accept Jesus as the rightful Messiah. This historical and prophetic event will trigger the return of Jesus together with the rapture of true believers. For many evangelical Christians, the success of Israel is the “touchstone of prophecy.”
Christina Maza writing for Newsweek sums up this Jerusalem-centered eschatology:
Jerusalem has a central role as the city of prophecy and the place where the end of times plays out. According to the prophecy, a 1,000-year period of peace must be followed by seven years of tribulation, during which wars, disease, and natural disasters will lay waste to the earth. In the book of Revelation, Israel is described as a nation that exists during the time of tribulation, and Jerusalem’s Jewish temple is resurrected during this period. The last temple was destroyed around A.D. 70 A.D, and today there is a mosque on the Temple Mount where the previous two temples are believed to have stood. Evangelicals believe that a unified Israel with control over Jerusalem will facilitate the construction of a new Jewish temple and set the groundwork for the end of times.
Consequently, understanding evangelical eschatology is essential to understanding American’s relationship with current events in the Middle East.
The Abrahamic Covenant
As part of a series on the Middle East crisis for NPR, Danielle Kurtzleben writes,
…many evangelicals believe in what is called the “Abrahamic Covenant”—the idea that God promised land that is now Israel and the Palestinian territories to Abraham and his descendants.
In other words, the promise of Genesis 12:1-3 that those who bless Israel God will bless in return was not about a now-superseded covenant with Israel (an “Old Covenant,” as Adventists teach), but is in force for all time—which translates into uncritical support for the current state of Israel.
Dr. Richard D. Land in the Christian Post explains this in practical terms:
I believe, as an Evangelical Christian, that the Jewish return to their current homeland in the twentieth century was, and is, a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. I also believe that the twentieth century furnishes vivid and instructive illustration of the truth that God blesses those who bless the Jews and vice versa. Perhaps the three most virulently anti-Semitic countries in the last hundred years have been Germany, Poland, and Russia. All three experienced a terrible and tragic twentieth century compared with the two least anti-Semitic countries in the West, the United States and the United Kingdom, who both experienced a far more blessed twentieth century.”
Land’s view is echoed in a 2022 Pew Research survey, which shows that 70% of white evangelical Protestants agree that “God gave the land that is now Israel to the Jewish people.” This compares with 36% of Black Protestants, 31% of White non-evangelical Protestants and 25% of Catholics. Of those in support of this position, “25% say the best outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be a single country with an Israeli government—well above the 10% of all U.S. adults who favor this outcome.”
John Nelson Darby
As early as the 7th century some religious scholars had interpreted prophetic texts as having a literal, future fulfillment. Some centuries later, in 1621, Sir Henry Finch, a prominent lawyer and member of the British Parliament, wrote a treatise in which he called upon the British people and its government to support Jewish settlement in Palestine to fulfill Bible prophecy.
As the year 1800 approached, several premillennial theologies emerged as a result of the insecurity surrounding the American and French revolutions. Among them were various utopian movements and the Millerites (a group that later became Seventh-day Adventists). During this period John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), a renegade Anglican priest from Ireland, popularized and systematized eschatological themes while simultaneously developing a new school of thought which has been called “futurist premillennialism.”
Wagner says that across Europe and America “Darby converted a generation of evangelical clergy and laity to his views.”
Darby held that biblical prophecies and much of scripture must be interpreted according to a literal and predictive hermeneutic. He believed that the true church will be removed from history through an event called the “rapture” (I Thess. 4:16-17; 5:1-11), and the nation Israel will be restored as God’s primary instrument in history.
In the decades after the establishment of Israel… motivated evangelical and Jewish activists—as well as the Israeli government—worked to stitch together the interfaith relationships, build the institutions and spread the ideas underpinning today’s Christian Zionist movement. These efforts have been remarkably effective in making support for Israel a defining element of many evangelicals’ religious and political identities.
The Scofield Bible
The influential Scofield Reference Bible did more than Darby himself to popularize Darby’s teachings. Cyrus Ingerson Scofield’s was “the first Bible to include a commentary within the same book since the Geneva Bible in 1560,” explains Renald Showers, plus “cross-references to tie together verses with the same themes.” Because of its continuing popularity, premillennialism and a modified form of Darby’s dispensationalism are held by most evangelicals today. Since it was first published in 1909, writes Maidhc Ó Cathail in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
the Scofield Reference Bible has made uncompromising Zionists out of tens of millions of Americans. When John Hagee, the founder of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), said that “50 million evangelical bible-believing Christians unite with five million American Jews standing together on behalf of Israel,” it was the Scofield Bible that he was talking about.
The Oxford University Press Bible explains the meaning of the word “dispensation” in “dispensationalism”:
The “Dispensational” interpretation that the Scofield Bible presents – the doctrine that the relations between God and human beings have undergone changes through time, from the “Dispensation of Innocence” that characterized the life of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to the “Kingdom Age” that will begin with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and the establishment of the Kingdom of God on Earth – has been of immense significance.… It has formed the basis of Biblical instruction in places such as Dallas Theological Seminary and the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, as well as the Philadelphia College of Bible, where Dr. Scofield taught in his final years. This branch of Christian thought has also found expression in popular publications such as Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series of futuristic novels.
The third temple movement
At the conclusion of the Six-Day War in June of 1967, the Israelis found themselves in control of the Old City of Jerusalem for the first time in two millennia. Though the temple mount is still controlled by Muslims, Jewish sovereignty was established over enough of the city that Jews could go to the remains of the western wall that surrounded the earlier temples and pray.
For Christian fundamentalists and evangelical interpreters of the Bible, the 1967 victory was seen as a fulfillment of a Bible prophecy, bringing momentum to the idea of rebuilding a temple in Jerusalem and restoring the temple sacrifices.
Mira Fox writing for Forward Newsletter explains that one of the signs of the imminence with which Jews and some Christians see the building of a new temple is the breeding of a red heifer, whose “ashes are required, according to passages in Numbers, to purify the Temple’s priests and its altar.”
The cows must be pure red, without even two hairs of another color, and without any other form of blemish, and they’re an essential part of sacrificial purity laws. … Before the Third Temple is built, heralding the messianic era long prayed for by both Jews and Christians, a pure red heifer will be sacrificed again… For Evangelical Christians, it would herald the End Times, the return of Jesus to Earth and the Rapture; this belief has long driven Christian Zionism and Christian lobbying on behalf of Israel.
The Israel-Hamas war
In the current turmoil threatening stability in the Middle East, many Bible commentators are speculating that the Jewish temple could be rebuilt in the months and years to come. The construction of the third temple and restoration of temple sacrifices will signal the start of the final events of earth’s history.
For evangelicals and Zionists, it is advantageous for Israel to win the current war, eradicating Hamas and bringing the construction of the third temple closer to reality. Sarah Posner, a columnist for MSNBC reminds us that for these evangelicals, “What happens to the Jews and Palestinians is, to put it very mildly, collateral damage.”
Christian Zionists are anticipating, and hoping for a war to end all wars, and a resulting Christian world that they claim will vanquish evil and bring peace. Only those who accept Jesus as their savior will benefit from these events that Christian Zionists claim the Bible predicts will happen. Nonbelievers—including Jews and Muslims—will not survive them.
It must be understood that hiding behind evangelical support for Israel is an authoritarian Christian nationalist ideology—that God is about to force the whole world to become Christian, and they are leading that charge. God will bless their efforts to Christianize the world, and the Israel-Hamas War is just part of the process.
And sadly, what happens to real people in the real world right now really doesn’t matter very much to them at all.
Robert D. Crux, Ed.S, worked as a teacher, principal, and superintendent of schools over a period of 35 years in Adventist education before retiring in 2016 to Lawton, Michigan, where he enjoys writing, reading, biking, model railroading, and, most of all, his grandchildren.