Christian Zionism

  • Question from CB, United Kingdom
    I’ve been told that my position on the relationship between Israel and the Church is ‘replacement theology’ and is heretical. I’ve lived in Israel and worked with Jews, Arabs, Messianic Jews and Christians. I am certain that the fulfilment of Jewish faith is faith in Jesus as Messiah. I am uncomfortable with the idea that I should pray for the advancement of Israel as a political and military force to the cost of neighbouring people in order to fulfil biblical promises. What biblical perspectives are there about this?

    In terms of Christian tradition, the idea that the Church, which transcends ethnicity, is the fulfilment of God’s covenant with Abraham is the traditional orthodox belief. However, within the last two hundred years, the belief has grown up, mainly among evangelical North American Christians that the Jews remain the ‘true’ children of the promise and will convert en masse to a belief in Jesus as their messiah during the apocalyptic end of the world. The establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948 is seen as a mark of the ‘end-time prophecies’ coming true.

    This belief is often referred to as Christian Zionism and is driven by modern-day attempts to interpret world events as correlating with the Book of Revelation, and the idea of an imminent rapture of Christians, after which the believing Jews will convert the rest of the world. Despite best-sellers like The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsay and the theology-crudely-dressed-as-fiction Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins giving the Zionist position a large profile in the Christian subculture, there are a number of flaws with it.

    It is chiefly linked with both a selective and literalist reading of Scripture, which, for example, ignores the context of where Revelation was written and the community to whom it was written. Much of Revelation, which is interpreted by the contemporary writers mentioned above as yet to come, is written about events happening to a persecuted community already under the rule of ‘the Beast’, namely the Roman emperor.

    A major problem with taking a literal reading of Revelation and identifying characters such as ‘the Beast’ with key players on the world stage, is that very often such claims go out of date. For years Soviet Russia was going to be a major instigator of Armageddon. Now, the Soviets seem to have dropped out of the picture, with other world powers, like China, branded as the bad guys [compare The Late Great Planet Earth with Lindsay’s later book Planet Earth 2000AD to see how the changes on the world stage lead to reinterpretations].

    Zionism is also inextricably linked with, and dependent upon, the dispensationalist worldview, which was the preserve of edgy sectarian theologians in the nineteenth century, until given massive prominence by C.I. Scofield’s famous Reference Bible, first published in 1909. Scofield believed that history was divided into seven historical eras, based on the way God revealed himself to human beings, with this current era being the sixth one, ‘age of the Church’.

    Interestingly, in his translation of the Bible, Scofield marked out his dispensationalist theology in the text. An example of Scofield’s interference with the text can be found in Isaiah chapter 11 under the heading ‘The Davidic Kingdom Set Up’ where six headings break up the first ten verses to show how it can be read as a dispensational ‘proof-text’. Scofield also had a highly selective attitude towards the Bible, believing that because the gospels dealt with what happened in the fifth dispensation, ‘the age of the law’, they only applied to Jews, not to Christians [Stephen Sizer, Christian Zionism: Road-map to Armageddon?, IVP 2004, p116].

    As a side-note, Scofield’s obsession with dividing the Bible up into ‘dispensations’ is based on some very poor scholarship. In his earlier book Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth, published in 1888, Scofield quotes 2 Timothy chapter two, verse 15 where, in the Authorised Version, Paul instructs Timothy to “rightly divide the word of truth“. Scofield took that to mean that the Bible must have ‘right divisions’, which need to be followed in order to understand the course of human history. However, the Greek verb translated as ‘rightly dividing’ only appears in this verse and while literally it means cutting something straight, figuratively it means to handle something correctly. Paul is using the word to tell Timothy to use ‘the word of truth’ properly. [see Sizer, op cit, pp 116-117]. Even if Scofield’s defective understanding of Paul’s statement was right, it would only apply to the Old Testament anyway. It would be at least two centuries before the whole Bible as we have it now, was considered the Word of God.

    Zionism as a movement has an interesting history and has had some interesting champions over the years, including Napoleon Bonaparte. However, the idea that Jews held an automatic right to the land of Israel only gained momentum when the idea started to gain common credence in Christian circles, mainly through Scofield’s Bible. With the growth in apocalyptic premillennial theology, that sees among other things an epic battle at Armageddon (Mount Megiddo in Israel) as inevitable, Christian Zionist organisations and influential church leaders, mainly in the USA, have actively campaigned on behalf of Israel.

    The key element in Christian Zionism is the belief that the covenant God made with the Jews as his chosen people has not been rendered obsolete by the life, death and resurrection of Christ. As said before, this is in direct contrast with received Christian tradition, which, it must be noted, frequently swung too far in the direction of anti-Semitism and persecution of the Jews.

    The argument made by many Christian Zionists is that through Christ, God has made a new covenant with his heavenly people – the Church – but God’s old covenant with his earthly people – the Jews – still applies. To this end, Zionists believe that by aiding and ‘blessing’ Israel, Christians are actively supporting God’s purposes by upholding his still-relevant covenant. In this theology, God’s purpose for his earthly people is to fulfil promises made to Abraham by ‘restoring’ the nation of Israel, rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem and restarting the observance of the Mosaic Law, complete with ritual sacrifices.

    The big question is whether the promises made to the ancient Kingdom of Israel and the chosen covenant people who inhabited it still apply to the modern state of Israel. There are good theological reasons to reject this idea, but many Christian Zionists would argue that Christians who don’t accept their worldview are ‘spiritualising’ or ‘Christianising’ the Hebrew prophecies. This insistence on literally interpreting passages that refer to Israel as being about Israel, and not about the Church, seems to be consistent. But it does miss that point that the Bible frequently contains figurative language (much of what Jesus tells people in John’s gospel is misunderstood when taken literally, e.g. Nicodemus wondering how he could return to his mother’s womb to be born again in John chapter 3, verse 4).

    One interesting point to be made about this ‘literalism’ is that the interpreters of Scripture who insist that passages referring to Israel must be taken literally, are ‘inconsistent literalists’ – for example, where God’s judgment is referred to as “torrential rains, hailstones, fire and brimstone” in Ezekiel chapter 38, verse 22, Hal Lindsey interprets this to be the use of tactical nuclear weapons [The Late, Great Planet Earth, Zondervan 1970, p. 161. NB: in the New International Version of the Bible ‘fire and brimstone’ is translated as “burning sulphur”]. It would seem that some words in the Bible mean exactly what they say, and some need creative interpretation. This is done at the whim of the translator, which is why ‘literal’ interpreters often disagree on the details.

    However, a more serious theological problem is that by claiming both God’s covenants (with the Jews and the Church) are still active, Christian Zionists are effectively saying there are two forms of salvation available – namely through the Law and through Grace. In fact, one Christian Zionist theologian, John Hagee, has gone as far as saying that if the Jews had accepted Jesus as their messiah “every Gentile would have been forever lost” [quoted in Sizer, op cit, p.140]. The idea that observing the Jewish Law still offers a way of salvation is in direct conflict with most of Christian theology.

    Ironically, Christian Zionists who insist that the old covenant with the Jewish nation still holds do not tend to quote the prophecy that Jeremiah gives about a new covenant. Found in Jeremiah chapter 31, verse 31, the new prophecy is explicitly unlike the covenant made with the Jews following the exodus. The writer of Hebrews comments on Jeremiah’s prophecy, saying that Christ has rendered the old covenant obsolete “and ready to vanish away” (Hebrews chapter 8, verse 13). Added to this, Paul in Galatians chapter 3 notes that the Law could not save people, which is why the covenant made with Moses had to be superseded.

    Where they do quote Scripture and covenantal blessings, Christian Zionists divorce them from their historical contexts, placing them either as contemporary or future promises. Doing this therefore undermines the view of the Hebrew prophets whose oracles are recorded. The prophets usually saw themselves as speaking into their current situation, calling back their contemporaries to the covenant that binds them to their God, not about events to come two and a half thousand years later.

    Similarly, the use of the Old Testament by Jesus and the New Testament writers is ignored when the Church is clearly cited as the focus of the new covenant that supersedes the old. The idea that the two covenants continue in tandem has no support in the New Testament. In fact one of the main metaphors used for the Church is the ‘new Israel’ – “a continuation of [God’s] plan expressed throughout the Old Testament to call a people to himself.” [Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, IVP 1994, p.861].

    In Romans chapter 9, the ‘true’ children of Israel are not those who are physically descended from Abraham (i.e. ethnic Jews), but those who have believed in Christ. In Romans chapter 9, verse 25, a prophecy from Hosea is quoted to justify the Church being regarded as the people God has chosen. The idea of a separate covenant for the ‘original’ chosen people is rejected in Romans 11 – when the ethnic Jews “are saved in large numbers at some time in the future, they will not constitute a separate people of God or be like a separate olive tree, but they will be ‘grafted back into their own olive tree’ (Rom 11:24)”. [Grudem, op cit, p 861]

    The restorationist idea that believes the Temple must be rebuilt in Jerusalem [Hal Lindsey, op cit, p.152] also undermines the saving death of Jesus on the cross. According to Christian theology, Jesus’ death put an end to the sacrificial system focussed on the Temple. “To suggest, therefore, that the temple must be rebuilt and sacrifices reintroduced in a restored Jewish kingdom centred on Jerusalem is to reverse the flow of biblical revelation and to suggest in some sense that the work of Christ was unfinished or incomplete.” [Sizer, op cit, p.205]

    While there are several theological concerns with Christian Zionism, it is a force to be reckoned with in contemporary Christianity. As a theology, some of its keenest followers have a large amount of political influence in North America, encouraging the government to support Israel in every political venture. A practical result of this theology is the belief that war in the Middle East is inevitable, indeed even divinely ordained, which is worrisome as these Christian leaders often have the ear of senior American policy-makers. Given the current state of world events, the fragile and increasingly fractured peace in Israel is probably under threat from those who want to ‘bless’ Israel, but see world events in such a way that they are expecting God’s planned devastating war to occur at any time.

    Thanks for your question about this large and involving topic, CB.

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