An Orthodox Perspective on Christian Zionism

Father Daniel Swires

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

There is an ancient belief among some people known as “millenarianism” or “chiliasm.” This is the belief that Christ will set up an earthly kingdom and will rule it for a thousand years, usually referred to as the “Millenium.”

This belief actually has its origin in post-exilic Judaism. An anticipation that survived the Babylonian exile was that one day God would restore the kingdom of David under a model anointed king, the Messiah. Even though idealized, this would be an earthly, historical kingdom, and most often its relation to the end-time was not specified.

Another expectation that developed, especially in apocalyptic writings, was that God would directly intervene in the end-time, without any mention of a restoration of the Davidic kingdom.

One way of combining the two expectations was to see two divine interventions: (1) a restoration of an earthly kingdom or period of blissful prosperity to be followed by (2) God’s end-time victory and judgment. Many writers speculated about these two events. They are found in 1st Enoch, in 4th Ezra, in 2nd Baruch, in the Ascension of Isaiah. It is interesting, though, that each of these writers sees a different time frame for these events. It is quite probable, in fact, that most of them never intended to convey exact times. Rather, they were symbolic ways of predicting divine victory over evil forces that are an obstacle to God’s Kingdom or rule.

St. John, then, in writing the Apocalypse, also used the idea of a thousand-year reign of Christ, not to describe a historical, earthly kingdom, but as a way of saying that ultimately, in His own time, God will have the victory. (It is worth reminding ourselves that only one passage in the Apocalypse, consisting of two verses, mentions a thousand-year reign: from this one small passage has come a lot of exaggerated speculation.)

Nevertheless, throughout Christian history some have taken the thousand years quite literally and speculated about it. That belief was held by many in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, even among some that were considered orthodox (Papias, Justin, Tertullian, Hippolytus, etc.). However, the danger that the expectations of abundance and happiness were becoming too sensual and worldly gradually led to a rejection of millenarianism. Origen allegorized the millennium to represent the spiritual kingdom of God on earth; Augustine understood the first resurrection to refer to conversion to Christianity and the death to sin, and the second resurrection to refer to the resurrection of the body at the end of time. Church writers of the 4th century tell us that Apollinarius of Laodicea was a chiliast, and the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (431) condemned his fanciful theories.

But, especially in the Western church, from time to time millennial expectations have been revived in various forms. The Cistercian Joachim of Flora (1130-1202) proclaimed that the millenium or “new era of the Spirit,” represented by monasticism, would come about 1260. Never mind that Christ, Himself, said that no man knows the day nor the hour of our Lord’s return. (Let that be a warning: whenever you hear anyone setting a date, even in general terms, you can immediately write him off as being caught up in error.) Although millenarianism was rejected by the Lutheran Augsburg Confession, some splinter groups, including such famous heretics as (T.) Munzer, and John of Leiden embraced it.

The coming of persecuted Protestants to North America was often accompanied by hopes of establishing a religiously perfect kingdom in the New World. In the United States during the 19th century, millennialist groups proliferated, usually with one foot in the book of Daniel and the other in the Apocalypse of St. John, and always reinforced by so-called “private” revelations. These are exemplified in the followers of Ellen G. White (Seventh-Day Adventists) and Charles T. Russell (Jehovah’s Witnesses).

In some evangelical groups sharp divisions arose between Premillennialists and Postmillennialists. Premillennialists believe that the golden age will come only after the evil present era is destroyed at the Second Coming. Postmillennialists are optimistic liberals and believe that the present age will be gradually transformed into the millennium by natural progress in society and religious reform: never mind that Christ, Himself, told us that in the end times there would be great apostasy and corruption of society, not progress. (We Orthodox must keep in mind that millenarianism was condemned by the Church long ago and that both of these views are heretical.)

I would like to emphasize, here, that the first thing we must have if we are going to be protected from the erroneous teachings that are all around us is a basic knowledge of the teachings of Orthodox Christianity. That is, knowledge of the Holy Scripture, both the Old and New Testaments (as it has been interpreted by the Church for 2000 years); knowledge of the writings of the Church Fathers; knowledge of Church history; and awareness of the different kind of heresies and errors which have attacked the Church’s true understanding of dogma and especially of the end times. If we do not have a grounding in sources such as these, we will find ourselves confused and unprepared. Our Lord tells us to be ready, to be prepared. So, it is imperative that we study Holy Scripture, the writings of the Church Fathers, the Ecumenical Councils, etc., in order to have a basic knowledge and understanding of the teachings of Orthodox Christianity.

In 1970 a book was printed in English which became a tremendous bestseller for a religious book. It sold over ten million copies in America. It’s called The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey, an Evangelical Protestant in Texas. Ten years later he published another bestseller called The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon. In these books he talks about the Millenium and about such strange things as the “Rapture,” when Christians are supposedly gathered up into the heavens before the end of the world, and then watch how the people suffer down below. He talks a great deal about the founding of the modern state of Israel and the perceived necessity of expanding its borders to the ancient borders of the Kingdom of David as the key to the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy and about the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. (By the way, this is why Evangelical Protestants are diehard supporters of a greater Israel, even at the expense of the Palestinian Christians, who they view as being tools of Satan because they are opposed to the expansion of Israel.)

So, where in the world does all this come from? Well, it actually comes from the predominant fundamentalist Protestant form of Premillenialsim known as Dispensationalism.

Let’s look first at the doctrine of the “Rapture.” Actually, the doctrine of a “Rapture” does not originate in the book of the Revelation. The word “rapture” is not actually found anywhere in any English translations of the Bible. It comes from rapere which is found in the expression “caught up” in the Latin translation of 1 Thessalonians 4:17. Let’s read verses 15-18:

  • “For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.”

Now, this is actually a fairly straightforward and very exciting passage of Scripture. The Apostle Paul is talking about the Second Coming of Christ. He says that it will be a glorious event, proclaimed by the voice of an archangel and the blast of a trumpet. You can just picture in your mind what a glorious event this will be! The dead in Christ will be resurrected! Those who are alive will ascend to meet their Lord and shall dwell with Him in eternity! This is our blessed hope being fulfilled! And St. Paul says, “Therefore comfort one another with these words!”

But the idea of an event called the “Rapture” is not actually taught in this passage of Scripture, or anywhere in the Bible, for that matter. Rather, it comes from focusing on those two words “caught up” and interpreting them within the context of Dispensationalism.

Their basic premise is that this passage is not talking about the Second Coming of Christ at all, but rather it is talking about an event that will occur before the Second Coming in which the Church will be “snatched” or “raptured” from the Earth, leaving everyone else behind. Usually this is taught to occur before a period of seven years known as the Great Tribulation, but there are proponents of a mid-Tribulation “rapture” and even a post-Tribulation “rapture.” But, none of this will make sense if we do not know anything about Dispensationalism. So, let’s look briefly at its origins and teachings.

While there have always been groups that worried about such things as a Great Tribulation period and the Anti-Christ, the idea of a “rapture” was pretty rare until the early 1800’s when a man by the name of John Nelson Darby, a member of the Plymouth Brethren, developed the theological system known as Dispensationalism. In fact, much of the thought and attitudes of those who are known as Fundamentalists can be found in the teachings of J. N. Darby.

Mr. Darby was born in London of Irish parents on November 18, 1800. In 1819, at the age of eighteen, Darby graduated from Trinity College Dublin as a lawyer. In 1825 he was ordained a deacon in the Church of England, and the following year, he was elevated to the priesthood and was assigned a parish in Ireland.

After only twenty-seven months as a parish priest and thoroughly dissatisfied, Darby left the Church of England and began meeting with a Bible study group in Dublin during the winter of 1827-28. It was this group which would later become known as the Plymouth Brethren. While Darby was not the founder of this group, he quickly emerged as its spiritual leader and dominant force.

Many other Brethren groups formed in Britain and subsequently in other parts of the world. As a result of his extensive travels, Darby himself was responsible for the spread of Brethren doctrine to other countries. He made several trips to preach and teach in Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy, and Holland. Between 1859 and 1874, Darby made six trips to the United States and Canada where he taught in all the major cities and in some of the smaller ones as well.

Wherever Darby went, he continually expounded his views on the doctrine of the Church and of future things. He saw the saintly remnant, God’s “heavenly people” as completely incompatible with God’s “earthly people”, Israel. This notion has deep and complex roots in his hermeneutics, ecclesiastical context (19th c. Anglican), and probably even his psychology. He was convinced both that the Church was in a state of ruin and that Christ’s return to “rapture” the saints and establish an earthly millennial kingdom was imminent. Probably the most important disciple of J. N. Darby was Dwight L. Moody, the founder of the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.

Darby is called by many the father of modern Dispensationalism which was made popular first by the Scofield Reference Bible and more recently by the Ryrie Study Bible. It is a theological system that has gained wide influence through the publications and educational efforts of institutions like Moody Bible Institute and Dallas Theological Seminary. In fact, Darby is credited with much of the theological content of the Fundamentalist movement.

Another very important dispensationalist was William E. Blackstone (1841-1935). He was born in New York and raised in an evangelical Methodist home. After the Civil War Blackstone settled in Oak Park, Illinois, and established himself as a successful businessman and lay evangelist to the Chicago business community. He became a dispensationalist and a close friend of D. L. Moody. In 1878 he published Jesus is Coming, which went through three editions, was translated into 42 languages, and was dispensationalism’s first bestseller in America.

In 1891 Blackstone drew up a petition advocating the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. In short order, he collected 413 signatures from leading Americans, including the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the speaker of the House, the mayors of Chicago, New York, and Boston, and business leaders such as Cyrus McCormick, John D. Rockefeller, and J. Pierpont Morgan. Blackstone forwarded the petition to President Benjamin Harrison, who ignored it, and later he sent others to Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

Blackstone became good friends with Zionist leaders and regularly sent them the results of his “prophetic” study. In 1918, at a Zionist conference in Philadelphia, organizers hailed Blackstone as a “Father of Zionism;” and in 1956, on the 75th anniversary of his petition to President Harrison, the citizens of Israel dedicated a forest in his honor.

This connection between dispensationalist evangelical Protestants and Zionists continues to this very day. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the Voices United for Israel Conference in Washington, D. C., in April 1998. Most of the 3,000 in attendance were evangelical Protestants, 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.”

The close tie between evangelical Protestants 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 the beliefs of these evangelical Protestants.

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 people 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 the complex system of biblical interpretation know as dispensationalism.

The Scofield Reference Bible was edited by Dr. C. I. Scofield, a lawyer who converted to Protestantism under the teaching of D. L. Moody. He studied many of the Plymouth Brethren writings and put together a huge set of reference notes that were issued as the Scofield Reference Bible. He became the great teacher of dispensationalism to a whole generation of people.

It was Dr. Scofield who provided the Fundamentalist definition of a dispensation. In the first chapter of Genesis he has a note which says, “A dispensation is a period of time during which man is tested in respect to his obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God.” He saw through the course of history seven periods of time in which God was doing different things with men. He called them: (1) The “dispensation of innocence,” which covered the time before the fall when Adam and Eve were in the Garden, in fellowship with God. (2) The “dispensation of conscience,” which followed the fall and extended to the time of Noah, when men lived according to their consciences. (3) The “dispensation of human government,” which came in after the flood and went from Noah’s time until that of Abraham. (4) The “dispensation of promise,” which began when Abraham was given various great promises of God by which men were to live, as Dr. Scofield saw it, until the time when Moses brought the law. The (5th) “dispensation of law” ran on through many centuries until the coming of Jesus Christ, who introduced (6) the “dispensation of grace” in which we all live, and which is yet to be followed by (7) the “dispensation of the kingdom,” or “the millennium,” a thousand years of Christ’s rule on earth in the future. Those are the seven dispensations taught by Fundamentalist Protestants.

It is interesting to note that the “dispensation of grace” is also referred to as the “Times of the Gentiles.” Dispensationalists believe that the “Times of the Gentiles” will end with the end of Daniel’s “Seventieth Week,” which is considered the last “week” of time before the restoration of the earthly kingdom. There have been many attempts to mathematically determine the beginning and ending of the “Seventieth Week,” all of which have failed. But there is a general belief that the turn of the millennium is related to this time.

I remember so well some of the slogans of dispensational teaching. One was, “Rightly dividing the word of truth,” borrowed from 2 Timothy 2:15 where St. Paul exhorts young Bishop Timothy,

  • “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”

To the Dispensationalist mind, that means dividing up history according to these dispensational distinctions, “rightly dividing” it so that you have a clear understanding of the divisions of time.

I have since come to understand that this verse doesn’t refer to that at all. It is really talking about hermeneutical or interpretational principles. One is to handle the Word of truth according to the clear teaching of the Church through the Apostles and their successors, the Bishops, and not go off on a tangent, on doctrinal side tracks, but to “plow a straight course” through the Word of truth. That is literally what the phrase means.

Another of their phrases is “The Great Parenthesis,” which has to do with prophecy. It means that seemingly God has interrupted His program with the nation of Israel, that at the Cross this nation was scattered abroad across the face of the earth, and God introduced the Church. The church age will run its course until the Great Tribulation, and then God will “rapture” it and again deal with the people of Israel and wind up this age with a resurgence of the prominence of the nation of Israel and the restoration of the kingdom of David. The period in between, then, is called “The Great Parenthesis,” the time when God is working with the Church, as opposed to Israel.

The doctrine of the rapture, which is woven into this dispensationalist system, actually has its origin in Darby’s warped ecclesiology. The “heavenly people” must be hermetically sealed off from any divine activity with the “earthly people.” Thus, if Israel’s “clock of prophecy” (another code-word) is to begin keeping time again during the Great Tribulation, then, by definition, God’s heavenly people must be “caught up” and removed from the scene beforehand. So, we have the “rapture.”

Another of their slogans is, “All Scripture is for us but it is not about us.” This means that certain parts of the Scriptures seemingly do not apply to the Church but were addressed only to the Jews.

All of this found its final _expression in the teaching of Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer, who was the successor to Dr. Scofield at the Scofield Memorial Church, in Dallas, Texas, and who founded the Dallas Theological Seminary.

One big problem with Dr. Scofield’s definition of a dispensation is his connecting it with “a period of time.” This word, “dispensation,” is a biblical word. It is found in the King James Version in several places. It comes from a Greek word, oikonomia, from which we get, in English; economy. In the Revised Standard Version it is usually translated “stewardship” or, in some places, “plan.” It appears in Ephesians 1:10 where the apostle Paul speaks of “a plan for the fullness of time.” In Ephesians 3:9, St. Paul speaks of a “dispensation” or “stewardship” which was committed to him, which he calls, in the RSV, “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.” This is the word we are dealing with. Literally, it would mean “the law of the house”. It has to do with the order and regulation of things.

Essentially, though, a dispensation has little to do with a period of time, as such. Let me illustrate. In John 1:17 you have a verse that Dispensationalists often use. John says,

  • “The Law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.”

This has been construed to mean that a “dispensation of law” was introduced by Moses which covered the Old Testament period after the Exodus. And the people of the Old Testament lived primarily under the Law and tried to fulfill the Law. But, in the New Testament, Jesus changed all that, set aside the Law, and introduced grace and truth. And now it is by grace and truth that we live.

But that is very confusing, because it ignores the fact that there was grace and truth running throughout the whole Old Testament. Right in the middle of the struggles of the people of Israel to obey the Law, was God’s provision - given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, -of grace and truth. The entire system of sacrifices was God’s gracious provision for the forgiveness of sins. And it is a picture of the work of Jesus Christ. Therefore, grace and truth were as much available, and as much a part of the life of God’s people, in the Old Testament as they are in the New. Grace and truth didn’t just begin with the Incarnation.

Because of this confusion about time, many Dispensationalists have rejected, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount, the great passage in Matthew 5 through 7 in which our Lord taught such things as the Beatitudes. Many Dispensationalists say, “No, this doesn’t belong to us. This belongs only to Israel. It is to be fulfilled in the future kingdom.” Because that passage incorporates the Lord’s Prayer, many Dispensationalists refuse to pray the Lord’s Prayer. Yet this is the prayer that Christ taught his disciples to pray, and it has great value and meaning for Christians today. Some go even further and apply much of the Gospels to the future kingdom age. Some reject water baptism as being inapplicable today. Or even the Lord’s Supper, they say, doesn’t belong to us but is only to be celebrated in the millennium that is yet to come. And some Dispensationalists set aside all the apostles except Paul. They say that Paul is the apostle to the Church, and that he is the only one we should read, that the rest were Jewish Apostles---James, and Peter, and John---and their words do not have any significance to us, but only to Hebrew Christians.

These distinctions have all been made because of their insistence in linking the idea of a dispensation with distinct divisions in time. But this is misleading.

In Galatians St. Paul says, “The law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ.” But this doesn’t mean that people had to wait for twelve hundred years - the whole time from Moses to Christ before they could come to Christ.

No, the law was leading them to belief in their need for a Savior all during this time. That is what St. Paul means. And the same thing is actually true, today. A single person can, in fact, pass through a number of these so-called “dispensations.”

Take for instance a person living in the jungle, who is an animist and knows nothing of God. He is living, as Dr. Scofield would say, in the “dispensation of conscience,” in which he is responsible only to his conscience for guidance. But then, let us say, some Jews come along, and they get acquainted with him and begin to teach him the Old Testament revelation of God through Judaism, the Law of Moses and the sacrifices, and he becomes a Jew. Well, now he has moved into what Dr. Scofield would call the “dispensation of law.” He understands something of that further revelation. His understanding of God has been greatly increased, but it is still far short of what the New Testament sets forth - all this according to a Dispensationalist’s point of view. Finally some Christians come along, and this person is taught the New Testament and accepts Christ. Now he has moved into the “dispensation of grace”. But he is the same person - just at various stages of knowledge and understanding in his life - moving from one “dispensation” to another.

The last major problem with dispensationalism is its tendency to view people in the past as locked into a pattern of truth that they cannot rise above. That is, dispensationalists often teach that the Old Testament saints did not understand and did not experience God in the same way that we do today, that they lived at a lower level of understanding and experience than we, and they couldn’t come up to ours because ours is based on a fuller and fresher revelation of truth.

But we would have to disagree strongly with that. Take men like David and Abraham and Isaiah and others. When David writes in the Psalms about how he felt in relationship to God, we can only echo what he says. He cries,

  • “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Ps. 27:1).

You can’t beat that. That is what the Lord can be to anyone! When you read Isaiah, you see beautiful descriptions of his understanding of the being, the wisdom, the knowledge, and the character of God, of His grace and His abiding presence. He writes to the people of Israel and says,

  • “Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall, but those who wait on the LORD shall renew their strength; They shall mount up with wings like eagles, They shall run and not be weary, They shall walk and not faint.” (Is. 40:30-31).

You can’t beat that. These people may have lived before Christ, but they certainly had a profound knowledge of God. Abraham is said to be the father of the faithful. That is, everyone who walks by faith walks in the steps of Abraham. He follows him. And Abraham was called the friend of God. He is set forth as the example of those who follow, so that we become children of Abraham, walking as Abraham walked - children of Abraham, by faith in Jesus Christ. Abraham was taught by God and came into communion with God. And the promise that was given to Abraham is promised to us.

So, you see, faith has a way of eclipsing time. Faith is a way of surmounting time, of stepping out of it, if you like. When you live by faith in Christ, you are able, as the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it, to “taste the powers of the age to come.” The age to come hasn’t yet come in time, but you can experience the Kingdom of God now, in your life in the Church. You can know the presence of God, live in the city of God, walk in the midst of the garden, with the river of life flowing through it.

In summary, the whole “dispensationalist” system is flawed to its very core. The idea that God deals with mankind in all these different “dispensations” of time and is soon going to “snatch” or “rapture” the Church off this Earth and leave it populated with unbelievers who will initiate a Great Tribulation upon those who then come to believe in Christ, including a restored nation of Israel, is an innovation that is not taught in Scripture and is certainly incompatible with the teachings of Christ, the Apostles, and the Orthodox Church.

Glory to Jesus Christ!