In the latest instalment of our Religion in the US series, Dr Elizabeth Phillips of Westcott House in Cambridge writes about American Christian Zionism. Tracing its historical and theological roots, Phillips explains what Christian Zionism is and how it has become a powerful cultural and political force in the United States.
American Christian Zionists can often be found praying for ‘the peace of Jerusalem’, yet they are some of the most vocal opponents of Middle East peace. They teach their children Holocaust awareness and appreciation for Judaism, yet they believe that ultimately Israel will be ruled over by Jesus Christ. If you want to understand this ambivalence of American Christian Zionism, it is important to know a bit about its theological history.
In the broadest terms, Christian Zionism is theologically motivated support of the Jewish state of Israel by Christians. Versions of Christian Zionism have existed in pockets throughout Christian history. A wide variety of theologies, ways of reading the bible, and political ideologies have motivated Christians to anticipate, advocate, and support a restored Jewish homeland in Palestine.
But when we speak of Christian Zionism in America today, we are primarily talking about the influence of a particular kind of Christian eschatology called dispensational premillennialism. Eschatology names the doctrines which Christians hold concerning what will happen at the end of human history, what will be the nature of Jesus’ second coming, and what this means for Christians today who await these events.
Revelation chapter 20 mentions a 1000-year reign of peace on earth, the millennium, and this has been a determining factor in many Christian eschatologies. Some Christians are postmillennial, meaning that Jesus is expected to return at the end of the millennium, while others are premillennial, meaning that Jesus is expected to return at the beginning to establish the millennium himself. Still other Christians are amillennial, meaning they do not take this passage literally or do not think eschatology has primarily to do with a 1000-year earthly reign.
In nineteenth-century Britain there was a significant premillennialist movement which taught that God’s dealings with humanity over the course of history could be described as a series of dispensations, or periods of time, each with its own particular form of divine providence. In each dispensation God used new means by which to reach humanity, giving them another opportunity to respond faithfully, but every time humanity failed the test and were judged by God.
John Nelson Darby’s (1800-1882) particular form of premillennialism included the innovative belief that the Bible contained two distinct messages, one for Israel and one for the church. These two messages are applicable in separate dispensations because Israel and the church play two separate roles in God’s plan for human history. For Darby, the church is in no way the new Israel and none of God’s promises to Israel have been transferred to the church; God’s promises to Israel are still to be fulfilled.
Though Darby’s dispensationalism was influential for only a short time in British premillennialist circles, his eschatology took hold across the Atlantic and became the predominant form of premillennialism in America. Dispensationalism spread across America through Bible Conferences, the establishment of Bible Institutes, and the publication of The Scofield Reference Bible. By the rise of the fundamentalist movement in the twentieth century, dispensational premillennialism was the eschatological plank in the fundamentalist platform.
Dispensational premillennialism teaches that the world is locked in an inexorable downward spiral; as the end times approach there will be more and more immorality, apostasy, poverty, natural disaster, and war. This is because the current dispensation, the final dispensation before the millennium, is coming to an end. According to dispensationalism, we cannot know when this age will end, but it will end suddenly with the rapture, then all the remaining end times prophecies in the Bible will be fulfilled. The Beast and the Antichrist (of Revelation) will emerge as world leaders, Jews will return to the land of Israel, and the Great Tribulation will culminate in the Battle of Armageddon, where Jesus returns as a military conqueror to defeat the evil armies who have come against Israel, and to establish the kingdom on earth with its capitol in Jerusalem where he will reign for the millennium.
For most American dispensationalists before the 1970s, all of this was purely a matter of doctrinal belief and not of political activism. However, when Israel became a state in 1948 and expanded dramatically in 1967, apolitical dispensationalism faded and a new alliance of dispensationalism with emerging evangelical political activism was formed.
During the 1970s, Hal Lindsey’s dispensationalist book The Late Great Planet Earth became an immensely popular best-seller. Dispensationalists forged new partnerships with American and Israeli Jews in support of the state of Israel. Dispensationalists such as Jerry Falwell were central to the rise of the New Christian Right in the 1980s. Beginning in the 1990s, dispensationalism was popularized for another generation through the Left Behind franchise. And for decades while popular novelists, televangelists, and political activists have been the public faces of dispensationalism, there were also dozens of colleges and universities training thousands of dispensationalist pastors, scholars, and lay people.
More recently the most well-known face of dispensationalist Christian Zionism has been Texas pastor John Hagee, founder and director of Christians United for Israel (CUFI). CUFI’s recent rebranding frames their work in terms of ‘combatting anti-Semitism’ and their website has no hints of dispensational premillennialism to the untrained eye. American Christian Zionists today know that their association with dispensationalism damages their wider credibility. But the most cursory glance at John Hagee’s publications tells another story.
The reality is that because of dispensationalist premillennialism, American Christian Zionism is profoundly ambivalent about Jews, Judaism, and peace in the Middle East. On the one hand, Darby’s belief that the bible holds two messages (one for Israel and one for the church) translates into an absolute rejection of supersessionism (the belief that Christianity has taken the place of Israel in God’s plans); and the centrality of Jews, Judaism, and Jerusalem in dispensationalist understandings of the meaning and culmination of human history translates into an absolute rejection of anti-Semitism. On the other hand, dispensationalist beliefs about what happens to Jews during the Great Tribulation, the necessity of all living Jews gathering in Israel, and the ultimate return of Jesus as an irresistible theocratic military and political leader to whom all Jews must convert or perish translates into beliefs and activism in which Jews and Israel are archetypes and pawns more than friends or fellow-believers.
So an American Christian Zionist can, without any sense of dissonance, go to church and pray for the peace of Jerusalem on Sunday and lobby congress in opposition to Middle East peace on Monday. The peace that an American Christian Zionist prays for is the kind of peace only Jesus can bring in the millennium.
Note: This piece gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.