Defining Christian Zionism
Rev. Dr. Donald Wagner, an ordained Presybterian minister, is associate professor of Religion and Middle Eastern Studies, and executive director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at North Park University. He served from 1980-89 as National Director of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign. He is the author of Anxious for Armageddon, (1995), and Dying in the Land of Promise: Palestine and Palestinian Christianity from Pentecost to 2000 (revised edition, 2003).
The term Christian Zionism is a relatively recent category, rarely utilized prior to the early 1990s. Self -proclaimed Christian Zionist organizations such as the International Christian Embassy-Jerusalem and the U.S. based Bridges for Peace, both with offices in Jerusalem, have been operating for twenty years but have been under the radar of most Middle East experts and the mainstream media until the post-September 11, 2001 era.
Briefly stated, Christian Zionism is a movement within Protestant fundamentalism that understands the modern state of the country-region 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 Zionists within the larger Protestant evangelical movement, which claims upwards of 100-125 million supporters in the United States. To be more precise, Christian Zionism should be placed within the fundamentalist wing of Protestant Christianity, as the evangelical movement is far larger and more diverse in its theology and historical development.
Christian Zionism grows out of a particular theological system called premillennial dispensationalism. Its doctrines became clear during the early nineteenth century in England when there was an outpouring of millennial doctrines following the year 1800. The preaching and writings of the renegade Irish clergy, John Nelson Darby and Scotsman, Edward Irving, emphasized the literal and future fulfillment of such teachings as the rapture, the rise of the Antichrist, the Battle of Armageddon, and the central role of a revived nation state Israel, during the latter days. Darbys teachings became a central feature for many of the great preachers of the 1880s-1900 period, including the evangelists Dwight L. Moody and Billy Sunday; major Presbyterian preachers such as Rev. James Brooks; Philadelphia radio preacher Harry B. Ironsides; and Cyrus I. Scofield. When Scofield applied Darbys 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 ninety-five years.
Premillennialism is a type of Christian theology that is as old as Christianity itself. It has its roots in Jewish apocalyptic thought and generally believes that Jesus will return to earth before he establishes a literal millennial kingdom under his sovereignty. Darby added the distinctive elements of the "rapture" of true, born-again Christians prior to the return of Jesus, and he interpreted all major prophetic texts with a future predictive understanding. Darby also marked world history according to certain periods called "Dispensations," that served to guide believers as to how they should conduct themselves. In this regard, the fulfillment of prophetic signs became the central tasks of Christian interpretation.
As for a working definition, Christian Zionism is a nineteenth and twentieth century movement within Protestant fundamentalism that supports the maximalist claims of Jewish political Zionism, including Israels sovereignty over the entirety of historic Palestine including Jerusalem. The modern state of Israel is viewed as a fulfillment of the prophetic scriptures and is one of the necessary stages prior to the second coming of Jesus. Christian Zionism is marked by the following theological convictions:
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 Protestant churches (Presbyterian, United Methodist, Lutheran, etc.) It thrives during periods of political and economic unrest, such as the present time, with the rise of international terrorism, global recession, and fear of a series of wars in the Middle East. With its pessimistic view of history, Christian Zionism seeks to provide simple and clear answers from its literal and predictive approach to the Bible. Some estimate that these views are held by 20-25 million U.S. fundamentalist Christians, however, due to its increased interest and the uncertainty of the times, it is a growing phenomenon.