Christian Zionism, Evangelicals and Israel

Gary M. Burge, Ph.D.

Gary Burge earned his Ph.D. at King's College in Aberdeen, Scotland and is professor of New Testament at Wheaton College & Graduate School in Wheaton, Illinois. He is the author is The Anointed Community: The Holy spirit in the Johannine Tradition (1987), Who Are God's People in the Middle East? (1993), Interpreting the Gospel of John: Guide to New Testament Exegesis, No. 5 (1998), and Whose Land? Whose Promise (2003).

If there ever were doubts about the ongoing presence and influence of Christian Zionism in Israel, you only had to visit Jerusalem earlier this month to witness the Christian Embassy's one week Tabernacles Festival.  On Tuesday the 14th 15,000 people paraded outside Jerusalem's Old Walled City.  The predominant colors for clothes were red, white and blue, and many Americans wore necklaces sporting a Star of David, a Menorah and a Christian fish symbol.  American flags were distributed liberally to cheering parade-watchers.  A delegation from the South wore gallon-sized cowboy hats and steer-horned belt buckles while they carried a large banner, "Oklahoma loves Israel."  The city predicts that the assembly pumped about $10 million into the struggling Israeli tourist economy.

Who are these people and what do they stand for?  And how do they link their religious faith, politics and commitment to Israel?

The Bible and the Romance of Palestine

It would be wrong to think of Christian Zionism as a recent phenomenon invented by Gary Bauer and Tim LeHaye.  Some scholars think that its roots go as far back as the pilgrims who saw their journey as a re-creation of the Israelite pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  They did not apply this to Judaism, however, but took the Biblical story as an allegory for their own pilgrimage.  Nevertheless this created a sympathetic understanding of the religious refugee that is seated deeply in the American psyche and likely shapes many of us even today.

The more important story begins in the 19th century.  Religious interest in Ottoman Palestine grew dramatically during the Victorian era as travelers - romantic travelers - sought adventure by ship, train and horseback.  And they came to Palestine in great numbers.  The 1880s found a number of influential preachers there too.  Rev. DeWitt Talmage pastured the Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York and returned home from such a pilgrimage to publish his Twenty Five Sermons from the Holy Land.  In it he offered a romantic picture of a Jewish renaissance in the country.  He praised philanthropists such as Montifiore and Rothchild for financing the return of Jewish life there.  Here is a sample from one of his sermons:

"[Many who are] large-hearted have paid the passage to Palestine for many of the Israelites, and set apart lands for their culture; and it is only a beginning of the fulfillment of Divine prophecy, when these people shall take possession of the Holy Land. The road from Joppa to Jerusalem, and all the roads leading to Nazareth and Galilee, we saw lined with processions of Jews, going to the sacred places, either on holy pilgrimage, or as settlers. All the fingers of Providence nowadays are pointing toward that resumption of Palestine by the Israelites."

In 1891 George Adam Smith wrote his popular The Historical Geography of the Holy Land and there portrayed an empty, biblical land awaiting the return of Judaism.  Such publications resonated with a growing public interest in Palestine and the Bible, especially in Britain,.  And during WWI when the prospect of the fall of the Ottomans, Jewish Zionist leaders influenced by men such as Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) could capitalize on these British interests.  The little letter of Nov. 2, 1917 from the British foreign office - now called the Balfour Declaration - is likely the final synthesis of this religious vision and politics in Britain.


Among conservative Christians in Britain, this unity of political destiny and religious fulfillment was given its theological form in the hands of an Irish pastor J.N. Darby.  As Herzl was the father of Jewish Zionism, one could argue that Darby was the father of Christian Zionism.  Darby's system - soon called Dispensationalism - taught a literal fulfillment of prophesies in the near-present age.  He used the biblical books of Daniel, Ezekiel, Zechariah and Revelation to weave a consistent picture of the Last Days.  The church is raptured, the anti-Christ arises, Armageddon erupts, and Christ returns to establish his kingdom on earth.  But above all, the revival of Israel is the catalyst of the End Times.

Despite eight missionary trips to America, Darby was greeted here with indifference.  But when leading evangelists such as Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday and Harry Ironsides saw how the drama and fear and hope in this scenario influenced audiences, Darby's views caught on like wildfire.  In 1881, for instance, Horatio and Anna Spafford and 16 friends opened the American Colony in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City to watch - as they put it - "prophesy being fulfilled."

William Blackstone (1841-1935) was a Chicago evangelist and student of Moody.  In 1878 he published Jesus is Coming which was America's first Dispensational best-seller.  The book went through three editions and was translated into 42 languages.  In 1890 Blackstone was visiting Jewish settlements in the Holy Land and organizing conferences in Chicago to restore Jews to Palestine.  Blackstone worked closely with Jewish Zionists and in 1918 was hailed by the Zionist Conference of Philadelphia as a "Father of Zionism."  In 1956 Israel memorialized him by naming a forest in his name.

In 1909 Cyrus Scofield published a popular study bible, the Scofield Reference Bible, and in its footnotes readers throughout America inherited Darby's theological program.  (To date over 2 million of them have been sold.)  In 1917 five weeks after the Balfour Declaration, the Turks handed Jerusalem over to Britain to the amazement of prophesy watchers.  In 1918 dispensationalists organized their first prophesy conferences and they continued for decades.  Before long - throughout the 1920s and for the next 40 years - Dispensationalism tied to Israel and prophesy became the litmus test of evangelical orthodoxy. 

Dispensationalism had a variety of detractors over time and today we cannot think of all evangelicals as dispensationalists.  Nevertheless, while formal Dispensationalism with its complex view of the covenants has lost a large following, what remains is the skeleton of its eschatology.  Technically called pre-tribulation, pre-millennialism it defends Darby's basic outline:  Israel returns to the Holy Land, the church is raptured, a tribulation brings Armageddon, and Christ returns. 

This framework remained prominent for evangelicals but throughout the 1940s dispensationalists began to believe that the birth of Israel was imminent.  When it occurred in 1948, Dispensationalists were euphoric.  The key piece was now in place.  Israel's swift victory in 1967 - hailed by many as a divine miracle - sparked even more zeal for prophesy.  Writers such as Walvoord and Ryrie viewed modern history through this Biblical lens for a new generation.  In 1970 Hal Lindsey then published The Late Great Planet Earth which popularized and dramatized the unfolding of political events in Israel and how the Bible predicted them.  To date, Lindsey's original book has sold 25 million copies.  More recently Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins' popular Left Behind series fictionalizes this eschatology and has sold over 50 million copies in 11 volumes. 

These remarkable numbers of publishing sales are important because they show that among countless Christians in America, there is a residual eschatology at work - and most of them have no idea where it came from.  Just ask someone who goes to church how they think the world will end.  Many will recite Lindsey to you claiming that this is what the Bible teaches.

Christian Zionism

Today a movement called Christian Zionism has harnessed these disparate parts.  Its advocates have shed much of Dispensationalism's theological program but have kept its eschatology.  Christian Zionism weds religion with politics and interprets biblical faithfulness in terms of fidelity to Israel's future.  Its spokespersons are today well-known among those on the Christian Right:  Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed, Pat Robertson, Ed McAteer, Gary Bauer, and Kay Arthur.  Those committed to Christian Zionism share the same five core beliefs:

(1) The Covenant.  God's covenant with Israel is eternal and unconditional.  Therefore the promises of land given to Abraham will never be overturned.  This means that the church has not replaced Israel and that Israel's privileges have never been revoked despite unfaithfulness.
(2) The Church.  God's plan has always been for the redemption of Israel.  Yet when Israel failed to follow Jesus, the church was born as an afterthought or "parenthesis."  Thus at the rapture the church will be removed and Israel will once again become God's primary agent in the world.  We now live in 'the times of the Gentiles' which will conclude soon.  This means that there are two covenants now at work, that given through Moses and the covenant of Christ.  But the new covenant in no way makes the older covenant obsolete.
(3) Blessing Modern Israel.  We must take Gen. 12:3 literally and apply it to modern Israel:  "I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you."  Therefore Christians have a spiritual obligation to bless Israel and "pray for the peace of Jerusalem."  To fail to bless Israel, to fail to support Israel's political survival today, will incur divine judgment.
(4) Prophesy.  The prophetic books of the Bible are describing events of today and do not principally refer to events in Biblical times.  Therefore when we look at, say, Daniel 7, if we possess the right interpretative skills, we can see how modern history is unfolding.  This quest for prophesy has spawned countless books interpreting Middle East history through the Bible.
(5) Modern Israel and Eschatology.  The modern state of Israel is a catalyst for the prophetic countdown.  If these are the last days, then we should expect an unraveling of civilization, the rise of evil, the loss of international peace and equilibrium, a coming antichrist, and tests of faithfulness to Israel.  Above all, political alignments today will determine our position on the fateful day of Armageddon.  Since the crisis of 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it has been easy to persuade the public that history is unraveling precisely as dispensationalism predicted.

It would not be difficult to offer fatal criticisms of this theological framework.  Many biblical scholars have already done so.  For instance, the covenant's promises are conditional and their blessings are revoked when there is faithlessness.  The Babylonian exile is the best example of this.  But in addition the New Testament is making a stunning claim about genuine continuity between the covenants, that Christians are the children of Abraham and heirs of his promises. 

But the most important critique - and here I think we discover the Achilles' heel - is that Christian Zionism is committed to what I term a "territorial religion."  It assumes that God's interests are focused on a land, a locale, a place.  From a NT perspective, the land is holy by reference to what transpired there in history.  But it no longer has an intrinsic part to play in God's program for the world.  This is what Stephen pointed to in his speech in Acts 7.  The land and the temple are now secondary.  God's wishes to reveal himself to the entire world.  And this insight cost Stephen his life.  Such an understanding is a far cry from the views of Christian Zionists like Ed McAteer who recently commented, "Every grain of sand, every grain of sand between the Dead Sea, the Jordan River, and the Mediterranean Sea belongs to the Jews."  Stephen would be alarmed.

Blessing Israel

The theological commitments of Christian Zionism are therefore not new.  But today they are boldly proclaimed and closely linked to a political agenda in America.  And today evangelicals are told that we hold a spiritual obligation to "bless Israel."  When pastors such as John Hagee of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, can deliver $1 million to Israel, a new definition of evangelical missions is at work.  But blessing Israel is not simply a matter of giving money.  It is also found in political advocacy.  For instance, when Israel invaded the West Bank in April, 2002 following the Passover bombings, President Bush urged Ariel Sharon to withdraw from Jenin.  Christian Zionists mobilized an email campaign that produced 100,000 letters for Washington.  And it worked.  Bush never said another word. 

Leaders like Jerry Falwell thus see their mission as protecting Israel politically.  On CBS's 60 Minutes (June 8, 2003) he remarked, "It is my belief that the Bible Belt in America is Israel's only safety belt right now."  Falwell continued, "There is nothing that would bring the wrath of the Christian public in this country down on this government like abandoning or opposing Israel in a critical matter.  And when the chips are down Ariel Sharon can trust George Bush to do the right thing every time."  These words were as much warning to Bush as anything since Bush's political analysts believe that Falwell's "Christian public" is a core constituency.

Today the same strategy is at work. On May 19, 2003, 23 Christian Zionists sent President Bush a letter outlining what was wrong with his Roadmap to Peace and urging him to end it.  Its signatories included Jerry Falwell, Gary Bauer, John Hagee, James Kennedy and others.  In a similar manner Gary Bauer spoke at this year's AIPAC convention.  Even Pat Robertson can rebuke Israel's foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, on his nationally syndicated "700 Club."

In recent days no one has matched House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R, Texas) for his zeal to bless Israel.  Delay is often sought in Washington as a spokesperson for Christian Zionism.  And he is forthright in his commitment even when it contradicts the president.  On July 30 of this year he addressed the Israeli Knesset and his views were so extreme that the Labor Party leader Danny Yatom commented afterwards, "Geez, Likud is nothing compared to him!"  Another legislator commented, "Until I heard him speak, I thought I was the farthest to the right in the Knesset!"

Delay announced that he was an "Israeli at heart" and then upon his return home challenged the Bush's Roadmap openly.  He has appeared at meetings of the influential Christian Coalition with Benny Elon, the leader of the pro-ethnic cleansing Moledet Party arguing that a "transfer" of Palestinians out of Israel could be justified on Biblical authority.  Recently the Los Angeles Times condemned DeLay for using "the considerable power of his office" to "promote his personal apocalyptic views."

But in addition to blessing Israel, Christian Zionists are clear that those who fail to bless will be punished.  Kay Arthur appeared with Falwell on CBS's 60 Minutes and there surprised her audience when she suggested that the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin was linked to his involvement in the Oslo Peace Accord. 

In June CBN (The Christian Broadcasting Network which produces Pat Robertson's 700 Club) published a news item warning America about natural disasters that will be God's punishment on America.  The day after Mahmoud Abbas was sworn in and the Roadmap was set in motion, CBN told us that the next day began the worst month of tornadoes in America's history.  Their best example happened on Oct. 30, 1991, when former President Bush (Sr.) met with Israelis and Palestinians to discuss compromises.  CBN commented, "That same day, thousands of miles away, a powerful storm was brewing off the coast of Nova Scotia.  On October 31, what would be called 'the perfect storm' smashed into New England pummeling the president's Kennebunkport, Main, home with waves 30 feet high.  It was a storm so rare that the weather patterns required to create it only happen once every 100 years."  The deduction was clear:  Bush had angered God in his negotiations and God had sent America punishing weather in response.

As odd as all of this may sound, it is consistent with the theological worldview embraced by Christian Zionists who believe that Christian faith and politics must be wed in Israel.  To deny this synthesis is not only to contradict the Bible, but it is to stand in the way of what God is doing in history, a history foretold millennia ago by the Biblical prophets.