How Evangelicals Became Israel's Best Friend
By Timothy P. Weber, from Christianity Today 10/5/98
In its fiftieth anniversary year, the State of Israel has no better friends than American evangelicals. So it seemed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he addressed the Voices United for Israel Conference in Washington, D.C., in April 1998. Most of the 3,000 in attendance were evangelicals, including Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition, Kay Arthur of Precept Ministries, Jane Hanson of Women's Aglow, and Brandt Gustavson of the National Religious Broadcasters. (Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson supported the conference but did not attend.)
On the day before he met with President Bill Clinton, who urged him to trade West Bank land for peace with the Palestinians, Netanyahu told the conference: "We have no greater friends and allies than the people sitting in this room."
To many observers, the close relationship between Israel and many American evangelicals seems baffling. Many American evangelicals pledge their love for the State of Israel, support its claims against those of the Palestinians, and resist anything that might undercut Israel's security. But they also target Jews for evangelism and sometimes blame them for the mess the world is in. Israel eagerly accepts evangelicalism's public support and aggressively courts its leaders. But many Jews bitterly condemn Christian proselytism and do what they can to restrict the activities of missionaries in Israel. Nevertheless, both sides seem to be getting more than enough out of their relationship.
The close tie between evangelicals and Israel is important: It has shaped popular opinion in America and, to some extent, U.S. foreign policy. To understand how it developed, one must know something about how many evangelicals interpret Bible prophecy and what difference their beliefs have made in the world of politics.
Why do evangelicals care so much about Israel? How did this special relationship develop? What has it produced? On the most basic level, evangelicals love Israel because of the Bible. Many evangelicals have vivid memories of sitting in Sunday school rooms, staring at maps of Bible Lands and listening to Bible stories week after week. Through such experiences, evangelicals came to view the Bible's story as their own and the land of the Bible as a kind of home away from home. Israel is where the Lord Jesus was born, ministered, was crucified, and rose again. Every year thousands of evangelicals take what amounts to a religious pilgrimage to Israel to "walk where Jesus walked" and see for themselves places they have read about their whole lives.
Evangelicals' view of the Bible gives them a proprietary interest in Israel. It is the Holy Land, the site of God's mighty deeds. In a way, they think the Promised Land belongs to them as much as it does to Israelis.
Writing the end-times script
But there is much more to the evangelical-Israel connection: Most of those who gathered in Washington to show their support for Israel believe that the Holy Land will be ground zero for events surrounding the second coming of Jesus Christ. Such evangelicals read the Bible as though it were a huge jigsaw puzzle of prophecies, with Israel in the center. They believe that human history is following a predetermined divine script, and they and Israel are simply playing their assigned roles.
These beliefs come out of a complex system of biblical interpretation known as dispensationalism, which is a version of premillennialism (the belief that Christ will return before setting up his millennial kingdom). As the name implies, dispensationalism divides up the Bible and human history into various eras or dispensations, based on how God deals with humanity. Basic to the system was the way it detected two distinct divine plans, one for an "earthly" people (Israel) and the other for a "heavenly" people (the church). According to John Nelson Darby, the Englishman who shaped dispensationalism in the mid-1800s, biblical prophecies for one group do not apply to the other, and God deals with only one group at a time. Thus "rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15) means keeping the two peoples and programs completely separate.
God's dealings with Israel are the key to the dispensational system. Through a series of covenants with Abraham, Moses, and David, God made Israel his chosen people and promised to establish Messiah on David's throne forever. In Daniel 7-9, nineeenth-century dispensationalists believed, God spelled out the divine plan: because of its sin, Israel will be subjugated by four successive Gentile powers until, finally, the "times of the Gentiles" are complete. On divine cue, one of the Gentile rulers will issue a decree to rebuild Jerusalem's fallen walls. Sixty-nine weeks later, Messiah will come to the Holy City but be rejected ("cut off") by his own people. During the Seventieth Week, an evil ruler will try to destroy the Jews, but at week's end Messiah will return to defeat him and re-establish David's throne.
These dispensationalists believed that much of Daniel's prophecy of the Seventy Weeks was literally fulfilled in the history of Israel and the first coming of Jesus Christ. But there was a major problem: why did Messiah not return to finish his work at the end of the Seventieth Week as predicted? To answer this question, those dispensationalists developed a "postponement theory." When Jews rejected Jesus, as the prophecy said they would, God unexpectedly postponed Jesus' return, started putting together a new people, the church, and unplugged the prophetic clock. Thus, for its entire history, the church has existed in a prophetic time warp, what dispensationalists call the "great parenthesis."
A second question then needed answering: When and how will God resume the prophetic countdown? Dispensationalists answer, "At the pretribulation rapture of the church." Since God had decided to work with only one group at a time, God must remove the church from the earth before focusing attention again on the Jews. After Jesus comes for his saints in the "Rapture" (1 Thess. 4:13-17), the prophetic clock starts ticking again. Once the church is gone, Daniel's Seventieth Week (the "great tribulation" of Matt. 24, 2 Thess. 2, and Rev.) can begin, after which Jesus will return with his already raptured saints to defeat Antichrist, the great persecutor, and establish his millennial reign.
During the 1870s, Darby made a number of trips to the United States, where his dispensationalism got mixed reviews. Most evangelicals at the time were either postmillennialists (Christ will return after the world is Christianized) or amillennialists (the millennium should be taken figuratively). In an age of optimism, dispensationalism seemed too pessimistic for most evangelicals, some of whom labeled it a "heresy."
Despite its minority status among evangelicals initially, dispensationalism gained a respectable following through prophetic conferences, Bible institutes, a plethora of magazines and popular books, and a committed clientele for whom it was the key to unlock biblical truth. Every major American revivalist since D. L. Moody has been a premillennialist of some kind; and Pentecostalism has more or less followed the dispensationalist line since its inception in the early twentieth century. The Scofield Reference Bible, whose notes explained biblical texts from a dispensational perspective, was published in 1909 and became an authoritative and effective recruiter for the movement.
By the twenties, many fundamentalists considered dispensationalism a nonnegotiable part of Christian orthodoxy. Since then, the system has been nurtured through an elaborate network of schools, publishing houses, mission agencies, radio and television programming, and the like. Channel surfers on cable tv know that dispensationalists are master communicators.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Timothy Weber is professor of church history and dean at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, Lombard, Illinois.
October 5, 1998 Vol. 42, No. 11, Page 38
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