In academic settings, Christian Zionism gets a bad rap. At best, it’s considered a gross misreading of the Bible, self-indulgent theology on the part of Christians. Worse, Christian Zionism is said to ignore the plight of Palestinians and uncritically support Israel and its politics.
But a new conference, being held today in Washington, proposes a different view.
A Palestinian leader who lives in Israel describes how a Jewish state can indeed protect his rights. An attorney probes the charge that Israel violates international law. A Christian ethicist considers the proposition that no Christian should give allegiance to an earthly state, much less a Jewish one. An expert in church disputes unpacks the arguments made against Israel.
These scholars suggest we can support Jews’ return to Israel, according to the promises of Scripture, with sound, responsible theology… and without needing to adhere to the premillennial dispensationalism often associated with Christian Zionism.
The traditional dispensationalist version of Christian Zionism attaches Israel and the church to an elaborate schedule of End Times events dominated by the Great Tribulation and a rapture of the church that leaves Jews and the rest of the world behind. Originating in the 19th century, this school of thought was popularized through the notes of the Scofield version of the King James Bible, then further developed by Hal Lindsey’s Late, Great Planet Earth and the best-selling Left Behind series.
While some of the speakers hold to a new “progressive dispensationalism” that differs from the Scofield version, the majority propose a Christian Zionism without any version of dispensationalism at all. For us, Christian Zionism begins with the belief that Jews need and deserve a homeland in Israel. Period. The Bible as a whole proclaims that God is saving the world through Israel, its people (including Jesus), and its land. This was true in ancient times, as it is today and will be in the future. Its presence isn’t to displace others, but to develop the country given to them by the United Nations in 1948 and to fulfill a special history going back at least 3,000 years.
We look to the legacy of Christian Zionists before the rise of dispensationalism, and to more recent thinkers such as Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, Catholic Old Testament scholar Gary Anderson, and political leaders like President Harry Truman. And we look to the Bible itself: three papers presented at the conference examine New Testament authors, presenting the distinct future they saw for the people of Israel and the land of Israel.
For example, when Jesus quotes Isaiah’s prediction that the temple would become “a house of prayer for all nations” (Mark 11:17), he seems to concur, as Richard Hays suggests, with Isaiah’s vision of “an eschatologically restored Jerusalem.” Hays adds that John’s figural reading of Jesus’ body as the new temple (John 2:21) “should be read neither as flatly supersessionist [the Church replacing Israel] nor as hostile to continuity with Israel.” (The apostles saw the temple as both God’s continuing house and a figure for Jesus’ body, as shown by their participation in temple liturgies in Acts).
Christians can support the return of Jews to Israel without declaring the country perfect, or even believing that it’s the last Jewish community we will see. We don’t claim to know the particular timetable or political schema that will come in the final days.
It is time for Christians, not just Jews, to make a case for the people and the land. Support for the Jewish people and the state of Israel has eroded worldwide. Mainline Protestants have withdrawn their support, and evangelicals are starting to do the same, voicing opposition to Israel’s “illegal occupation” of the West Bank. (I describe this attack on Zionism in a 2011 review of the documentary With God on Our Side.)
Our goal, however, is not to simply make a prudential argument for the present state of Israel, which provides a shelter for its covenant people. Instead, we hope to engage current political, legal, and moral concerns to undergird a new theology for Christian Zionism. We see a 21st-century reality where the people of Israel and their land continue to be critical for God’s providential purposes.
Recently an evangelical scholar reviewed a book by Gary Burge, a leading critic of Zionism. The scholar wrote, “Though I do see biblical significance in the modern state of Israel, I am far from a Christian Zionist” because he’d felt the need to criticize Israel and its treatment of Palestinians.
A new view of Christian Zionism welcomes people like this scholar. Together, we can call for justice in the land by Israelis and Palestinians. Without knowing how the end will play out, we can still hold firm in belief that the people and land of Israel are theologically significant today, and will have special roles to play in the redemption to come.
Gerald McDermott is Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College.
People of the Land: A Twenty-First Century Case for Christian Zionism was hosted by by The Institute on Religion and Democracy. Video of the conference will be available next week at http://christiansandisrael.org and www.theird.org.