Christian Zionism: An Historical Analysis and Critique
Rev. Hubers is the Reformed Church in America's Mission Coordinator for the Middle East and South Asia
“Zion’s Christian Soldiers”
On October 6, 2002, the popular American investigative TV program, 60 Minutes, introduced its viewers to Christian Zionism in a segment they entitled: “Zion’s Christian Soldiers.” Outspoken former Moral Majority founder, The Rev. Jerry Falwell, was the primary guest. Correspondent Bob Simon interviewed Falwell, asking his opinion on a variety of subjects related to Middle Eastern affairs. How he replied astonished many, infuriated many more. By week’s end his words would be published and republished in every major news venue around the world, most notably in those countries where Islam is the dominant faith: “I think that Muhammad was a terrorist,” he said. “I’ve read enough of the history of his life, written by Muslims and non Muslims, to say that he was a violent man of war.”
Those who looked beyond the controversy caused by Falwell’s words to the theme of the show itself learned that millions of American Christians – 70 million was the figure Falwell used  – give unqualified support to the modern state of Israel based largely on a belief that it came into existence as the fulfillment of biblical promises which set the stage for the now imminent second coming of Christ.
They learned, too, that Christian Zionists represent a powerful political force in America. Simon noted, as just one example, a letter-writing campaign organized by Falwell and others in April of 2002 which took President Bush to task for asking the Israeli government to withdraw their tanks from the West Bank city of Jenin following one of the most violent weeks of the intifada. Over 100,000 letters and emails flooded the White House. While it can’t be determined for sure whether this is what made the difference, what is sure is that soon after the letters arrived President Bush backed down.  “There’s nothing that brings the wrath of the Christian public in this country down on this government like abandoning or opposing Israel in a critical matter,” noted Falwell.
This program highlighted something that Israel watchers have long known: the political clout of those who call themselves Christian Zionists – even though the numbers aren’t as large as Falwell maintains. A recent poll taken by “Stand for Israel,” (an organization headed by former Christian Coalition director, Ralph Reed) noted that only two thirds of the American evangelical community (those who would claim to be “born again” - the whole of which constitutes the 70 million claimed by Falwell) say that they support measures being taken by the Israeli government against what the poll takers defined as “Palestinian terrorism.” (A question that skewed the results simply by the way it was asked). And not all of these two thirds would necessarily be comfortable with the label “Christian Zionist.” 56% of those who voiced support for Israel put down political reasons for their perspective, while 28% list “end times” (which is often noted as a foundational teaching of Christian Zionists) as a primary motivating factor, The picture is cloudier than “Zion’s Christian Soldiers” would like us to believe.
Whatever the numbers there is no doubt that this is an influential movement whose impact reaches beyond the boundaries of its core constituency. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the majority of American Christians who give uncritical support to Israel today have been influenced in one way or another by the tenets of Christian Zionism, whether they buy the package or not.
A Matter for Concern
This is a concern for us as a denomination for several reasons:
“If one part [of Christ’s Church] suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” (I Corinthians 12:26)
THE HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT OF CHRISTIAN ZIONISM
The development of the Christian Zionist movement can best be understood as a drama unfolding in three acts:
It is important to note as we look at these three “acts” that the actors are not necessarily in full agreement on all points. Dispensational premillennialism provides the foundational theological grounding, but not all who call themselves Christian Zionists accept or even know the classic dispensationalist doctrines. Wheaton college professor, Gary Burge, notes that today’s Christian Zionists “…have shed much of Dispensationalism’s theological program… even though they have largely…kept its eschatology”. Dr. Burge summarizes their foundational beliefs as follows:
This summarizes the current belief system of those who would identify themselves as “Christian Zionists”. How they got to this point can best be understood when we take a brief look at the development of the “three acts.”
Act 1: Early Developments in Britain
Medieval Christian attitudes towards Jews were largely defined by “replacement theology” which relied on a heavily allegorical reading of the Old Testament to give credence to a belief that the Church had “replaced” Israel in God’s salvation plans. In the usual medieval take on this teaching, Jews were considered to be under God’s curse for their failure to accept Christ as their Messiah, and therefore were forever condemned to exile or worse. Christian Zionists (and Jews) are quick to point out the disastrous consequences of this teaching for Jews: there is no doubt that it was at least partly responsible for the long, tragic history of anti-Semitism in Europe.
Dissenting voices appeared, particularly among Calvinists in the 17th century, who rejected allegorical interpretation in favor of a more literal reading of scripture. This made it easier for Protestant Christians, particularly Calvinists, to look at Jews in a more favorable light. Rosemary and Herman Reuther attribute this shift at least partly to the democratization of biblical scholarship during the Reformation:
Bible reading in the vernacular, among Protestants, created a new identification with the people of Hebrew Scripture. The prophets and heroes of Hebrew Scripture replaced the Catholic saints as the figures of Christian story and self-identification. The Promised Land of the Hebrew Bible was understood as the actual historical land of Palestine, not as an allegory for a transcendent realm. Jews came to be seen less as a rival religion and more as another nation vis-à-vis the European nations.
This shift occurred during a time of great anxiety, caused by political upheavals related to the religiously motivated wars of the era. With this anxiety came a new openness to speculative premillennial schemes, which popular religious figures were happy to provide. Numerous “end times” pamphlets and books were produced in Great Britain during the English Civil War by popular Puritan preachers and “prophets”. They were also found to a lesser extent among the writings of Dutch Calvinists, French Huguenots and pietists in Germany and Denmark. One Danish thinker, Holder Paulli, suggested that European Christian nations “should undertake a new crusade to free the biblical land from the Muslims so that it could be given to its rightful owners, the Jews”. He shared his scheme with the Dutch king, William III, who was at the time sitting on the English throne. Paulli indicated that undertaking such a campaign would make King William equal to the Old Testament Persian King Cyrus, whom God anointed to return his people to the Promised Land. William did not take Paulli’s advice.
Despite the proliferation of this kind of predictive premillennial material in the 16th and 17th centuries, no organized movement developed around it. That didn’t happen until the mid 19th century, when an Irish pastor named John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) developed a unique variation (some would say “deviation”) of premillennial teaching that would come to be known as “dispensationalism.”
John Darby’s Dispensationalism
Steven Sizer describes John Darby as “… the most influential figure in the development of… Christian Zionism. This is so not only because of what he taught but the missionary zeal with which he propagated it. Over a long 60 year period of ministry he would take his dispensationalist message to audiences in Great Britain and continental Europe as well as America doing so in such a convincing way that he would convert many key evangelical leaders to his unique twist on biblical interpretation.
Darby was one of a number of conservative evangelical leaders in Britain at the beginning of the 19th century who were challenging what they saw as a liberal drift in biblical scholarship, a leaning away from a more literalist interpretation of scripture. They also rejected the optimism of postmillennialism that had supplanted premillennialism as the preferred outlook of the evangelical community in Britain during the 18th century.
The American and French revolutions combined with the Napoleonic Wars of 1809-15 had caused people to question postmillennial optimism. Darby and his fellow premillennialists picked up the spirit of the times:
After the troublous times of the American Revolution and its aftermath, and especially after the devastating effects of the infidelic French philosophy, men turned again to the Bible for light, especially the prophesies of Daniel and Revelation. They were seeking a satisfying explanation of the prevailing irreligion of the time and to find God’s way out of the situation.
Darby’s contribution to premillennial thought was controversial – then and now. His teaching, says Don Wagner, was an “adaptation of earlier forms of historic premillennial theology with various novel doctrines, including the assertion that:
· the prophetic texts and most of the Bible must be interpreted within a literalist and predictive hermeneutic;
· while there are two separate covenants between God and the “chosen people” (Israel and the Church), the covenant with Israel (and all of its components such as land, nation, etc.) should be interpreted as being eternal and exclusively for Jews;
· “the true Church” (those born again in Jesus Christ) will be raptured (“translated”) out of history when Jesus will return to meet it in the clouds (I Thessalonians 5:1-11). At that point the nation of Israel will become the primary covenantal body in history, but only Jews who accept Christ as Savior will be spared the final battle;
If Darby’s teaching and that of others who shared his perspective had remained simply a topic of debate among Christians over how to interpret the difficult apocalyptic passages of scripture, it would have had little impact on world affairs. As it was, it had great influence: Darby’s teaching came to influence key 19th century British political figures at a time when the British Empire was still in full sail.
The most important of these figures was Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, seventh Earl of Shaftesbury. Lord Shaftesbury was an influential figure among evangelicals of his day. He also had the ear of powerful British politicians including the British foreign minister, Lord Palmerton. Shaftesbury became a tireless advocate for the dispensationalist take on Biblical teaching both in his work with the church and on the political scene. He was, says Donald Wagner, the most influential figure of his age in terms of what he did to advance the Christian Zionist cause:
Through his writings, public speaking, and lobbying efforts, Lord Shaftesbury did more than anyone before him to translate Christian Zionist themes into a political initiative. In addition to influencing British colonial perceptions of the Near East, Shaftesbury also predisposed the next generation of British conservative politicians favorably toward the World Zionist movement, which led eventually to British support of the Jewish state.
Ironically, British Jews met the effort that Shaftsbury made to encourage the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine with a cool reception. Having suffered in the past from forced deportation from other European countries, they suspected this to be yet another attempt to get rid of them. The American Jewish community had a similar reaction to a later attempt on the part of Christian Zionists to convince the then president, Benjamin Harrison, to support Jewish immigration to Palestine. Meeting in Pittsburg in 1885, the conference of Reform Rabbis (who were the dominant voice of American Judaism at that time) said this:
We consider ourselves no longer a nation but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.
This sentiment would gradually change, at least for some, under the influence of a Jewish writer and journalist from Hungary named Theodor Herzl. His book, Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), and the movement it spawned would convince a growing number of Jews in the later part of the 19th and early part of the 20th century that the establishment of a Jewish state was in their best interests.
Herzl was a secularized Jew. His zeal to establish a Jewish nation had nothing to do with the millennial schemes of Christian Zionists or the messianic hopes of religious Jews. It was for him a practical solution to the degradations, humiliations and violence of anti-Semitism that had, in his view, become so endemic in European society that there was no other way to deal with it.
Herzl’s original plans did not necessarily call for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. He was willing to consider other options. A Jewish colony in Uganda was an option to which he gave serious consideration. But the sentiment of the larger Jewish community convinced him that Palestine was the only viable option, even though he recognized the difficulties this would pose with regard to the Arab population currently occupying the land. In a diary entry for January 12, 1895, he would make note of this difficulty and advance a possible “solution” which would anticipate the conflict that continues to bedevil Israeli-Palestinian relations today:
We must expropriate gently the private property on the estates assigned to us. We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the borders by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it any employment in our own country. . . Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discretely and circumspectly.
Herzl was not the first Jewish thinker to propose the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. There were others such as Moses Hess and Leo Pinsker who discussed the issue, as Herzl did, from a secular perspective. And there were those such as Yehudah Alkalai and Zvi Hirsch Kalisher, who made the case from an Orthodox perspective. All had made similar proposals in the early 1880s. But Herzl was the organizing genius who put the idea into motion. In 1897 he brought together over 200 Jewish delegates from primarily Eastern European countries for a meeting in Basel, Switzerland. There they established the World Zionist Organization, which would serve as the foundational body for the realization of Herzl’s dream. The stage was now set for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.
It is not within the scope of this paper to examine developments within Jewish Zionism that would culminate in the establishment of the modern state of Israel. What is important is to note is how Jewish Zionism and Christian Zionism came together to set things in motion. Both were necessary ingredients in advancing the cause.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the formulation of a document that would afford Zionists the political justification they needed to make a Jewish state possible.
In 1905-6, Chaim Weitzman, who had assumed leadership over the World Zionist Organization after Herzl’s death, met in several meetings in with a man who was at the time the leading member of Britain’s Conservative Party, Lord Arthur James Balfour. Weitzman’s aim was to try and persuade Balfour, as he had tried to persuade other British politicians, to throw the weight of the empire behind the Zionist cause. It wasn’t hard in Balfour’s case. He had been raised in an evangelical home where dispensationalism was a defining motif. “He subscribed,” says Wagner, “to a simple, layperson’s version of the premillennial dispensational theology.”
Weitzman had chosen to use his persuasive gifts on the right man. Eleven years later, Lord Balfour, now the British Foreign Secretary, would write the words that would serve as the political green light for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, the Balfour Declaration:
His Majesty’s government views with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country..
It is important not to overstate the case here. Balfour’s declaration had as much to do with British imperialistic designs on the Middle East as it did with Christian Zionist sympathies. The language he uses is that of political diplomacy rather than dispensationalist theology, which is far more absolutist in its claims for Jewish rights to the land. But there is no doubt that a Christian Zionist perspective shaped his, as well as the sympathies of other British politicians, in favor of the Zionist claim.
Act 2: Christian Zionism Comes to America
Darby and his disciples made a number of “missionary journeys” to America in the mid to late 19th century where they were frequent guests at prophesy conferences and evangelical meetings. A key convert to Darby’s dispensationalism during this time was the influential Presbyterian preacher and writer James Brooks, the man whom John Gestner identifies as “the Father of American Dispensationalism.” Brookes met Darby during five visits Darby made to St. Louis in 1864-65. There Brookes also introduced Darby to a young Bible student named C.I. Scofield, who would in turn go on to author the notes for the popular dispensationalist Bible which bears his name.
One of Darby’s disciples, the British evangelist Henry Moorehouse, introduced Darby’s teaching to Dwight Moody, who became a devotee as well. Through his Bible Institute and others modeled on it, dispensationalism became a normative interpretive approach to Bible study in many evangelical circles:
Although not the first of such schools, Moody’s Institute in Chicago became the prototype. Since Moody had imbibed a fair dose of dispensationalism in a rather typical unstructured form, and his colleague and successor R.A. Torrey in a more systematic way, naturally the burgeoning Bible school movement, with a few exceptions, should follow this line of thought. Because many of the theological schools opted for divergent views, the Bible Schools unintentionally became training centers for evangelical ministers and Darby’s prophetic teaching became more widely accepted than ever.
Darby’s influence on a whole body of fundamentalist/evangelical teaching in America during this era and stretching into the 20th century was impressive. Gary Burge notes that “throughout the 20s and for the next 40 years, Dispensationalism tied to Israel and prophecy became the litmus test for evangelical orthodoxy”.
The difference between dispensationalism in America and Britain during this period was the absence of an overtly political agenda. This was due to a number of factors, not least of which was the largely apolitical nature of American fundamentalism. One notable exception was the political advocacy undertaken by a Darby disciple, William Blackstone. Blackstone was the author of the first Dispensationalist best-seller, Jesus is Coming! (1887). Blackstone was also politically well-connected and, like Lord Shaftsbury in Britain, felt he should use those connections to advocate for a Jewish state. In March of 1891, Blackstone collected the signatures of 413 business, church and political leaders, among them the mayor of New York City, several congressmen, a chief justice of the Supreme Court and John D. Rockefeller, on a petition calling for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine which he presented to President Benjamin Harrison and his Secretary of State, James G. Blaine. Among other things, the petition stated:
Why not give Palestine back to them [the Jews] again? According to God’s distribution of nations it is their home, an inalienable possession from which they were expelled by force. Under their cultivation it was a remarkably fruitful land, sustaining millions of Israelites, who industriously tilled its hillsides and valleys. They were agriculturalists and producers as well as a nation of great commercial importance – the centre of civilization and religion. Why shall not the power which under the treaty of Berlin, in 1878, gave Bulgaria to the Bulgarians and Serbia to the Serbians now give Palestine back to the Jews?”
There is no evidence that Harrison paid much attention to this petition. But it set the stage for Act 3 where, in the early 20th century, Christian Zionists in America would find their political voice, much as the Christian Zionists in Britain had at the end of the 19th century.
Act 3: Christian Zionism Revisited
It is interesting and instructive to note that the most vocal and politically active American Christian supporters of a Jewish state in Palestine in the period around the implementation of the 1947 UN Partition Plan were not Christian Zionists, but liberal Protestant theologians and church leaders who had no sympathy for dispensationalist eschatology: The Christian Council on Palestine was established in 1942 by mainstream theological heavy weights Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, Daniel Polling and William Albright, who used it as a vehicle to promote Jewish immigration to Palestine. Their support was primarily based on humanitarian concerns. Given what was being revealed to the world about the horrors of the holocaust and a determined campaign on the part of the World Zionist Organization to promote a Jewish state in Palestine as the only legitimate answer to the anti-Semitism which produced it, their response is no surprise. What is surprising is a statement Niehbuhr made in behalf of this Council to the Anglo American Committee of Inquiry in 1946, betraying a lack of similar humanitarian concern for Palestinian Arabs. What he said would later become a standard Christian Zionist assertion:
The fact that the Arabs have a vast hinterland in the Middle East, and the fact that the Jews have nowhere else to go (due largely to the fact that western countries including the United States restricted Jewish immigration during and after WW II – author’s note) establishes the relative justice of their claims and of their cause . . . Arab sovereignty over a portion of the debated territory must undoubtedly be sacrificed for the sake of establishing a world Jewish homeland.
The Dispensationalist camp in America was amazingly quiet about Israel during the years building up to the partition, despite the fact that the Balfour Declaration and subsequent British mandate had put in place the means necessary to create a Jewish state. Sizer attributes this in part to the fact that conservative Christians in America were preoccupied with the great fundamentalist-liberal theological battles of the early 20th century with heated debates swirling around the nature of biblical inspiration. Whatever the case, this would soon change partly due to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, but even more to what Christian Zionists would call the “miracle” of the Israeli victory over her Arab enemies in the 1967 War, which gave the Jewish people sovereignty over Jerusalem for the first time in over 2,000 years.
It is noteworthy in this respect that a revision of the Scofield Bible was produced in 1967, by a team of American dispensationalists that included a man who would become one of the most prominent voices in “renewed Christian Zionism,” Dallas Seminary’s John F. Walvoord. The revised Scofield Bible drew peoples’ attention back to the Dispensationalist agenda at a time when dispensationalists believed world events were validating one of the key tenets of their belief system.
Billy Graham’s father in law, Nelson Bell, who was at that time editor of Christianity Today, summed up how many dispensationally inclined evangelicals felt at the time:
…that, for the first time in more than 2,000 years Jerusalem is now completely in the hands of the Jews gives a student of the Bible a thrill and a renewed faith in the accuracy and validity of the Bible.
Hal Lindsey and a “Renewed” Christian Zionism
In 1969 an otherwise unknown Dallas Theological Seminary graduate named Hal Lindsey published The Late Great Planet Earth, which spelled out the dispensationalist agenda in a sensational way. His timing couldn’t have been better, not only because of the recent Israeli victory, but also because of what was happening at the time in America.
Social and political unrest in 19th century Britain had created fertile soil for Darby’s teaching. A similar climate prevailed in America when Lindsey’s book appeared. Daily news, with televised images, provided a disturbingly bloody picture of America being brought to her knees by a ragtag guerilla army at the cost of thousands of young American lives. There were urban riots and a cultural revolution on American campuses. Young people were questioning traditional morality and religious faith. All of this produced an unease among Americans that made Lindsey’s end times speculations appear plausible. In particular, Bible-believing Christians found his reasoning hard to resist, though most knew nothing about the dispensationalist theology that informed his thought. All of this helped make The Late Great Planet Earth, the best selling non-fiction book of the decade.
Lindsey’s book was a popular presentation of classic dispensationalist themes, beginning with what it said about Israel:
The same prophets who predicted the worldwide exile and persecution of the Jews also predicted their restoration as a nation. It is surprising that many could not see the obvious: Since the first part of these prophecies came true we should have anticipated that the second part would come true, also.