One Jew who prefers not to worry is Esther Levens. In 1990 she and Christian friend Allen Mothersill decided to start a pro-Israel, interreligious study group after the Bush administration started making loans to Israel contingent on not allowing new Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Levens was surprised to discover the level of support for Israel among evangelicals, so she decided to network as many evangelical and Jewish organizations as she could find. The result was Voices United for Israel, which currently enrolls two hundred organizations, of which two-thirds are evangelical.
In 1998, the Kansas City-based organization sponsored two conferences in Washington, D.C., at which Netanyahu spoke, and the group's "media committee" has consulted with Israeli government officials in the development of new promotional and educational materials for use in American media markets. The organization faxes information about Israel to anyone who is interested and sponsors a speakers' bureau of heavy hitters from think tanks involved in Middle East policy.
Politically, Voices United for Israel is fairly homogeneous, but religiously, it is diverse. While the Christian contingent is almost all evangelical, the Jewish contingent ranges from Orthodox to Reform. What holds everyone together, says Levens, is their support for Israel and its current government and their willingness not to press religious differences. She knows about the prophetic views of the evangelicals in her organization and chooses not to dwell on them. For her, the important thing is that evangelicals love and support Israel. But still, Levens and her Jewish friends can get a bit mystified. A common joke in their circles is, "When the Messiah finally comes, my first question to him will be whether this visit is his first or second."
Ira Nosenchuk of Brooklyn, who attended the Voices United for Israel Conference in April, summarized the spirit of cooperative compromise well: "When you have people supportive of your beliefs,…you have to go with them…. Sometimes I feel like there are more supporters for Israel among evangelicals than among Jews." Supporting Israel makes the strangest bedfellows.
The evangelical-Israel relationship also raises important theological issues. Despite the widespread influence of their views, dispensationalists have always made up a minority of the entire evangelical family. But their prophetic beliefs raise important questions that all Christians need to think about seriously.
As Christian history makes clear, in the wrong hands the doctrines of providence, divine sovereignty, and eschatology become fatalism; and fatalism takes the significance out of human action. If the future is fixed, people are merely playing out their assigned roles, with no ability to alter the direction or outcome of the divine drama. If one is privy to the process, one can identify the players, evaluate their performance, and make judgments about them. When one knows how the drama is going to end, there are no surprises. At times, then, dispensationalist prophecy can be quite fatalistic.
So why are evangelicals working so hard to keep Israel strong and independent? Why bother when they know how things are going to end up? How do their prophetic views and their political involvement fit together? These are hard questions to answer because evangelical political activists and prophecy teachers rarely if ever reflect on such issues. They do say that Christians must "occupy" until the Lord comes and that supporting Israel is a basic biblical imperative, citing Genesis 12:3 as their proof text: "I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you" (NIV). But neither observation says anything about what constitutes responsible action when historical outcomes are essentially determined.
Obviously, many evangelicals do not want to do anything to put themselves at cross purposes with God over Israel and the end times. The tendency is for many evangelicals to idealize Israel and believe that it can do no wrong. Some evangelicals have demonized the Palestinians: because they are the enemies of the modern State of Israel, they are also the enemies of God and the servants of Satan.
When evangelicals force all the complicated issues in the Middle East through the tight grid of their prophetic views, they can lose the ability to think critically and ethically about what is really going on there. For example, many evangelicals are reluctant even to consider the ethical issues involved in the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and their 1982 invasion and occupation of southern Lebanon. Many Christians—mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, and evangelicals among them—believe that Israel has some hard explaining to do.
While Jews have a right to be secure within their own borders, do they have the right to seize other people's land, occupy their territory, ignore their rights of self-determination, and bulldoze or blow up the homes and businesses of Palestininan families? Certainly the relationship between Jews and Palestinians in Israel poses difficult questions, and people of good will may disagree about what is justifiable when survival is at stake. But for prophetic reasons, many evangelicals seem unable to entertain the possibility that Israel may be at fault in some way for the stalemate in the region. Evangelicals need to consider whether believing in Bible prophecy absolves them of grappling with issues of right and wrong. Does having a handle on the prophetic details allow them to turn a blind eye to injustice? Do the ends justify the means, just because the ends have been prophesied? Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals believes that most evangelicals simply have not thought through the issue of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territories. Maybe it is time they start.
Of course, premillennialists are not the only Christians who struggle with issues of human responsibility and divine providence. These are tough issues and worth thinking through. Answers do not come easily. How do human beings participate with God in unfolding history? Drawing lines on a prophetic chart is easy in comparison to unpacking the complexities of the divine-human relationship within the historical process.
The most serious issue that grows out of the relationship between evangelicals and Israel is whether the connection has helped or hindered the peace process. Because of their prophetic views, evangelicals are often less than optimistic about the prospects for peace. For instance, Jerry Falwell sounded downright scornful of the Camp David peace accords that were brokered by fellow evangelical Jimmy Carter in 1979. "In spite of the rosy and utterly unrealistic expectations by our government, this treaty will not be a lasting treaty…. You and I know that there's not going to be any real peace in the Middle East until the Lord Jesus sits down upon the throne of David in Jerusalem."
Falwell and other evangelicals have a right to be skeptical. Agreements have been fragile. But 20 years is not bad for a Middle East peace treaty. Even so, no one really expects any human peace accord to be "lasting." Most are only temporary. But that does not mean that they are worthless. The pessimistic attitude of many other evangelicals toward peace in the Middle East does not give even a temporary peace much of a chance. And it certainly does not honor Jesus' words "Blessed are the peacemakers." No peace is perfect; no peace lasts forever. But how can anyone be sure that we are so close to the end that peacemaking is a waste of time?
Part of the problem is the overconfidence evangelicals have about their prophetic views. Bible teachers are not inerrant; and they have changed their minds often. The history of prophetic interpretation shows that the Devil is in the details. Premillennialist prophecy pundits have been wrong over and over again about identifying Antichrist, setting dates for the Rapture, and a host of other things. Nobody anticipated the demise of the Soviet empire or most aspects of the Gulf War. When history takes unexpected turns, the experts have to make adjustments, redraw their maps, and come out with new editions. History is still full of surprises—so why make categorical statements about what cannot happen between Israel and her neighbors?
A new generation of dispensationalist scholars has toned down the excesses and sensationalism of its predecessors. "Progressive dispensationalists," though seeing a future for national Israel, are less inclined to engage in map drawing and categorical predictions. When one is teaching or writing for a well-defined religious community, speculating about the future is one thing; but when one is engaging in political advocacy with far-reaching consequences, it is another. The future is in God's hands; in the end, Jesus wins. But getting to that point may be more complicated and full of surprises than many people think. It is time for a strategy of humility and hope.
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