Defining Christian Zionism

Donald Wagner

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. Darby’s 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 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 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 Israel’s 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:

  • 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; 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 superceded 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 an event called the Rapture (I Thess. 4: 13-17; 5: 1-11). At that point Israel the nation will be restored as the primary instrument of God on earth.
  • Christian Zionists claim that Genesis 12:3 ("I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you") should be interpreted literally with the necessary political, economic, moral, and spiritual support for Israel the nation and for the Jewish people in general.
  • Christian Zionists interpret the Bible literally and utilize a predictive and futurist hermeneutic, understanding Apocalyptic texts from the book of Daniel, Zechariah 9-12, Ezekiel 37-8, I Thessalonians 4-5, and the Book of Revelation as having a literal and future fulfillment. To be more precise, the version of premillennialism popularized by Darby, Irving, and Scofield should carry the adjectives "futurist premillennial dispensationalism" so as to set it aside from the historic premillennialsm which was the view of eschatology held by many Church Fathers (Tertullian, Cyril of Jerusalem, Justin Martyr, et. al.)
  • Christian Zionists adopt a dispensationalist approach to history as advanced by John Nelson Darby and popularized by C. I Scofield’s version of the Bible, published by Oxford University Press in 1909. As the "Scofield Bible" was utilized by fundamentalist leaders, clergy, Bible colleges, institutes, and seminaries, it became the most significant transmitter of premillennial dispensationalism and as such prepared the way for Christian Zionism.
  • Christian Zionists and premillennial dispensationalists have a pessimistic view of history as they await in eager anticipation 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. Considerable speculation by leading authorities in Bible prophecy seeks 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 views history with a sense of pessimism, looking for the escalating power and influence of satanic forces aligned to the Antichrist who will do battle with Israel and those aligned with her as the end draws near. Judgment will befall nations and individuals according to how they "bless Israel" (Genesis 12:3).
  • Christian Zionism has a low ecclesiology (doctrine of the church) due in part to its emergence from anti-state church clergy and theologians in England. Today these views find significant support among the charismatic, Pentecostal, and independent Bible churches in Protestant fundamentalism. They often view mainline Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic denominations with hostility and have at times understood 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 Rev. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Franklin Graham (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 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.