With the summer of violence in the holy land, it dawned on me that these are the times when the rubber really hits the road in terms of theology and exegesis. We are no longer talking about things of the past or what I believe, but about war and people actually dying- and I think theology (specifically Christian theology) plays an important part in this. Do I believe that the Jewish people were promised and given that land by God? Do I believe that the people of God are only those who are in Christ? Do I think all this is part of the unfolding of prophecy in the Bible? Or is it just political circumstances?
These are not easy questions to answer, especially at a time like this. It is also hard, I think, in the branch of academia where Jewish and Christian scholars work together, learn from each other, and deeply respect one another. Yet, in matters such as these, there comes a clear dividing line – Christians believe the NT is scripture and Jewish people do not. Some Christians (Zionists) would understand the scriptures, particularly the OT, in the same manner as many conservative Jewish theologians: that God has promised the land of Israel to the descendants of Israel and the promise will be fulfilled at some point. Other Christians would not deny the Jewish people's right to exist or to be a nation that deserves to live in peace, but argue that Christ is the end/fulfillment (telos) of the law (Rom 10:4; 2 Cor 1:20; Heb 8:13), thus the OT cannot be used as any sort of support for the modern secular state of Israel (this does not mean we do not support that state of Israel on other grounds). And, even if we were to grant this sort of dispensational reading of the text, it is hard to ignore the OT teaching that fulfillment of God's covenant promises was conditional on the people's covenant obedience (read Deuteronomy).
Let me lay my cards on the table: I am really dismayed at the Christian Zionist movement that has supported Israel at any cost out of what I believe is improper interpretation of the text resulting in bad eschatology (please note again - this does not mean I don't think Israel should be supported). I can’t remember the exact figure, but millions of dollars have gone to Israel. Not to help their economy or aid the poor–but to help them build the temple again! (Heb 9:12, Heb 10:1-10) And why? Because it is a necessary precursor to the Tribulation – the Temple must be re-established for the End Times scenario to be played out (think Left Behind series). And all the while we have practically turned our backs on the Palestinian Christians. There are dozens of ministries, centered mostly in the States, whose sole aim is to aid Jewish people to get back to ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼Israel, to pressure the government in the US to help Israel, and to send money for the re-establishment of the temple. Meanwhile, almost none of these Christian organizations discuss evangelism to the Jewish people. I’ve even read a piece in one of these newsletters that condemned evangelism to the Jewish people, because “God deals with them differently.” Do these Christians really follow the same Lord Jesus that I do? The one who said "no one comes to the father except through me." (John 14:6)
Now if you start to get the wrong impression, I’m not necessarily against political lobbying, nor am I averse to helping desperate and destitute people move to Israel. I think this stuff does need to be done for Israel as well as other people groups. We should be agents for peace. The problem is the goal of these Christian Zionist organizations. They do it because they believe that the OT prophets' words about returning to the land is for our future (though it is plain in the OT that the fulfillment happened already, Neh 9:23). They also misunderstand God's promise to the land and the fact that it was conditional (Lev 26:33, 42; Ezek 33:25-29). But above all, they do it because they think they are helping to fulfill prophecy to bring Jesus back quicker. It is this religious motivation that ends up blinding them- they forget about the other human beings, specifically Palestinians. Rather than actively seeking peace, some Christian Zionists are actually happy about wars and fighting! These tribulations in the Middle East, whichever decade you choose, simply excites them. Instead of seeing it as suffering and death and responding in love and with aid, many Christians just watch it happen passively, since it has been foretold.
Why is Christian Zionism Attractive?
What makes these people tick? I have wondered this for the past little while, and I have a bit of a unique view in that I used to belong to a Plymouth Brethren church and was nurtured in that context for some time (fyi, the Scofield Bible, from which so much of Dispensational pre-millenialism finds its origin, is one of the heroes of the Plymouth Brethren). I read Hal Lindsay, Grant Jeffrey, Dave Hunt, Rob Lindstead, Jack van Impe, and the Left Behind series. And I believed it all too. As I look back at my spiritual upbringing, I'm so grateful for many things, and I can't help at think at how much healthier today's church would be if evangelicals knew their bible as well as Brethren do. But classic dispensationalism is one of those things that I needed to unlearn. I would label myself as an amillenialist now. But, what made me want to buy into this back then? Reflecting on it, here are some things that made me tick:
- The thought that the book that I held in my hand (the Bible, and specifically Daniel, Revelation, and Jesus' teaching in Mark 13, Luke 21, and Matt 24–25) predicted exactly what was happening around me was exhilarating. I could not understand Daniel and Revelation back then, and these Christian Zionist authors made (some) sense from the mysterious texts. The mark of the beast is a little microchip in Visa! The locusts in Revelation are actually blackhawk helicopters! etc., etc. This brought the Bible into the world around me.
- It made my faith in Jesus real. He wasn’t just a guy who lived 2,000 years ago, he will be back any minute! I'm witnessing the stuff that will happen right before he arrives!
- It made sense of the OT for me. As a new Christian, I did not know how to incorporate the OT (especially the prophets and the wars in the deuteronomic history) into my worldview. Dispensational premillenialism misreads the text, but at least they incorporated them into their worldview.
- It legitimated violence - wars were normal, especially for that area of the world. Premillenialism normalized the wars of the OT as a regular cycle of history for that area of the world and in fact made it part of God's grand design for the future.
- It gave you a foretaste of the fantastic in our seemingly mundane world. I don’t see miracles, and fantastic powers being displayed at my church. I just hear them preached about (and the occasional report from the mission field). The idea that I will finally be part of this miraculous disappearance of millions of people, and the coming of the two witnesses, and Jesus returning in the sky, connected me with the miraculous that I read and hear about during my devotions and from the pulpit.
- I felt that I had stumbled into some specialized and secret knowledge that only a few knew or understood. I was absolutely tickled pink when someone would ask me to explain the end times to them. I would rattle it all off, complete with accompanying proof texts, timelines, and charts. (I still can!)
- While we all want God's blessing, Christian Zionism locks onto God's promise in Gen 12:3 that he will bless those who bless Abraham, and by extension his descendants. (fyi, If we want to be blessed as Christians, look to the Beatitudes)
I have since grown in my faith and understanding of God's Word and recognize the errors of my old way of thinking. I recognize my previously bad exegesis. The reality is that it’s a lot easier to bring the Bible to my world in that manner. It is not as easy to bring Jesus’ message of radical love, to be a sacrificial giver, or to apply Sermon on the Mount ethics to my life. Christian Zionism provides a simple route to make the Bible applicable to life today — It's right in the news! This reality makes it that much easier to not let it affect my own way of living.
As scholars and pastors and teachers, I think we have a responsibility to continue to speak out against Christian Zionism. This theology should have fizzled out and died a while ago, but it seems to be as strong as ever. (this does NOT mean that I think Israel should not exist as a country. On the contrary, I believe Israel has a right to exist as a secular state and a right to defend itself). Hopefully, this post will do its part in the fight against erroneous eschatology. Talk to those people in your church or classroom that believe these things. Suggest books to read. Don’t support these types of ministries in your church. Unsubscribe from the Zionist magazines. Get the Left Behind series out of your church library. Pray for peace and be active peacemakers. And instead of looking at the headlines to see the Bible lived out, start actively working to live and love like Jesus in your own context.
If you are interested in reading more on this topic, here are a few great options:
- Burge, Gary M. Jesus and the land : the New Testament challenge to “Holy Land” theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2010.
- Sizer, Stephen. Christian Zionism: Roap-map to Armageddon? Downers Grove: IVP, 2006.
- Hanegraaff, Hank. The apocalypse code: find out what the Bible really says about the end times-- and why it matters today. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007.
- Edwards, Sean. The End of Days: The Shocking Truth About The Times In Which We Live. Edwards Publishing House, 2012.
photo credit: Jonas Hansel via photopin cc