Christian Zionists, Israel and the
‘ second coming’
Part 2 in a series of 5 articles on Christian
Zionism: Part 1 - Part 2
- Part 3 - Part
4 - Part 5
10/09/03: (Daily Star) The term Christian Zionism is of relatively recent vintage and was rarely used prior to the early 1990s. Self-proclaimed Christian Zionist organizations such as the International Christian Embassy-Jerusalem and the US-based Bridges for Peace, both with offices in Jerusalem, have been operating for 20 years, but were under the radar of most Middle East experts and the mainstream media until after Sept. 11, 2001.
Briefly stated, Christian Zionism is a movement within Protestant fundamentalism that sees the modern state of Israel as the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy and thus deserving of political, financial and religious support. Christian Zionists work closely with the Israeli government, religious and secular Jewish Zionist organizations, and are particularly empowered during periods when the more conservative Likud Party is in control of the Knesset. Both the secular and religious media place Christian Zionism in the Protestant evangelical movement, which claims upward of 100-125 million members in the US. However, one would more accurately categorize it as part of the fundamentalist wing of Protestant Christianity, since the evangelical movement is far larger and more diverse in its theology and historical development.
Christian Zionism grew out of a particular theological system called “premillennial dispensationalism,” which emerged during the early 19th century in England, when there was an outpouring of millennial doctrines. The preaching and writings of a renegade Irish clergyman, John Nelson Darby, and a Scotsman, Edward Irving, emphasized the literal and future fulfillment of such Biblical teachings as “the rapture,” the rise of the Antichrist, the Battle of Armageddon and the central role that a revived nation-state of Israel would play during the latter days.
Premillennialism is a type of Christian theology as old as Christianity itself. It has its roots in Jewish apocalyptic thought and generally holds that Jesus will return to earth before he establishes, literally, a millennial kingdom under his sovereignty. Darby added the distinctive elements of the rapture (or removal to heaven) of true, born-again Christians prior to Jesus’ return, and interpreted all major prophetic texts as having predictive value. He also marked world history according to certain periods called “dispensations,” that served to guide believers in how they should conduct themselves. The fulfillment of prophetic signs became the central task of Christian interpretation.
Darby’s ideas became a central feature in the teachings of many of the great preachers of the 1880-1900 period, including evangelists Dwight L. Moody and Billy Sunday, the major Presbyterian preacher James Brooks, Philadelphia radio preacher Harry B. Ironsides, and Cyrus I. Scofield. When Scofield applied Darby’s eschatology to the Bible, the result was a superimposed outline of premillennial dispensationalist notations on the Biblical text, known as the Scofield Bible. Gradually, the Scofield Bible became the only version used by most evangelical and fundamentalist Christians for the next 95 years.
In developing a working definition of Christian Zionism, one can say it is a 19th and 20th century movement within Protestant fundamentalism that (particularly last century and today) supports the maximalist claims of Jewish political Zionism, including Israel’s sovereignty over all of historic Palestine, including Jerusalem. The modern state of Israel, as a fulfillment of prophetic scriptures, is regarded as a necessary stage prior to the second coming of Jesus. Christian Zionism is marked by the following theological convictions:
l God’s covenant with Israel is eternal, exclusive and will not be abrogated, according to Genesis 12:1-7; 15:4-7; 17:1-8; Leviticus 26:44-45; and Deuteronomy 7:7-8.
There are two distinct and parallel covenants in the Bible, one with Israel that is never revoked and the other with the Church that is superseded by the covenant with Israel. The Church is a “mere parenthesis” in God’s plan, and as such it will be removed from history during the Rapture (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 and 5:1-11). At that point, Israel, as a nation, will be restored as the primary instrument of God on earth.
l Christian Zionists claim that Genesis 12:3 (“I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you”) should be interpreted literally and lead to political, economic, moral and spiritual support for the state of Israel and for the Jewish people in general.
Christian Zionists interpret the Bible literally and have a hermeneutic understanding of Apocalyptic texts the book of Daniel, Zechariah 9-12, Ezekiel 37-8, 1 Thessalonians 4-5 and the Book of Revelations and assume their messages will be fulfilled in the future. To be more precise, the version of premillennialism popularized by Darby, Irving and Scofield should be called “futurist premillennial dispensationalism,” so as to differentiate it from historic premillennialism, the eschatology held by many Church Fathers, such as Tertullian, Cyril of Jerusalem, Justin Martyr and others.
Christian Zionists adopt a dispensationalist approach to history as advanced by Darby and popularized by Scofield’s version of the Bible, published by Oxford University Press in 1909. Because fundamentalist leaders, clergymen, Bible colleges, institutes and seminaries used the Scofield Bible, it became the most significant transmitter of premillennial dispensationalism and, as such, paved the way for Christian Zionism.
Christian Zionists and premillennial dispensationalists have a pessimistic view of history and wait in eager anticipation for the unfolding of a series of wars and tragedies pointing to the return of Jesus. The establishment of the state of Israel, the rebuilding of the Third Temple, the rise of the Antichrist and the buildup of armies poised to attack Israel, are among the signs leading to the final battle and Jesus’ return. Leading Christian Zionist authorities in Bible prophecy seek to interpret political developments according to the prophetic schedule of events that should unfold according to their view of scripture. As an apocalyptic and dualistic type of theology, the movement looks in history for the escalation of power and influence of satanic forces aligned to the Antichrist, who, as the end draws near, will do battle with Israel and those aligned with it. Judgment will befall nations and individuals according to how they “bless Israel” (Genesis 12:3).
Christian Zionism differs from church doctrine, due in part to its being developed by anti-state church clergymen and theologians in England. Today its views find significant support among the charismatic, Pentecostal and independent Bible churches in Protestant fundamentalism. Christian Zionists often view mainline Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic denominations with hostility and have at times considered the World Council of Churches and related bodies to be tools of the Antichrist. In the Holy Land, Christian Zionists have been hostile toward Palestinian Christians and generally detest Muslims as evil forces worshipping another God. Recent comments by Christian Zionists such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham (the son of evangelist Billy Graham) have added to the suspicion with which many Muslims view the Christian West.
Christian Zionism is a growing political and religious movement within the most conservative branches of Protestant fundamentalism, but it can also be found in the broader evangelical branches of Christianity, including the evangelical wings of the mainline Presbyterian, United Methodist, Lutheran and other Protestant churches. It thrives during periods of political and economic unrest such as the present, characterized by international terrorism, global recession and fear of wars in the Middle East. With its pessimistic view of history, Christian Zionism seeks to provide simple and clear answers through a literal and predictive approach to the Bible. Some estimate that 20-25 million American fundamentalist Christians hold these views, and the phenomenon is growing.
Donald Wagner is professor of religion and Middle Eastern studies at North Park University in Chicago and executive director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He wrote this commentary, the second in a series of five on Christian Zionism, for THE DAILY STAR
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