In a nutshell, Christian Zionists believe that we are in the end times and that the second coming of Christ is near. In order for Jesus to return, they hold, certain biblical prophecies must be fulfilled. God will “assemble the outcasts of Israel . . . from the four corners of the earth” (Isaiah 11:12); then the Lord will “suddenly come to his temple” (Malachi 3:1), and the battle of Armageddon (Revelation 16:16) will take place. One-third of the Jews will accept Jesus as Messiah and be saved; the others will reject him and be damned (Zechariah 13:8-9). And so will history end.
End times or not, today’s realities on the ground pose massive obstacles to these prophecies coming to pass. About eight million Jews live outside Israel; Christian Zionists assume their return will force out the 1.7 million Arabs living within Israel (as well as the four million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza). The Romans destroyed Herod’s Temple in AD 70. In its place is now the Dome of the Rock, the third-holiest site in Islam. It would have to be levelled to make way for a new temple. Then there’s the small matter of the conversion of so many Jews and the damning of the rest.
It goes without saying that this theological viewpoint is pernicious, vengeful and politically dangerous. It’s an outrage to Muslims and, as American theologian Gary Burge put it at the conference, it renders Jews “bit players in a Christian drama.” A 2012 United Church report noted “that the occupation [of Palestine by Israel] is being supported financially and politically by Christian Zionist movements. . . . These organizations and churches operate out of a theology that the working group believes to be false.” Both the Canadian Presbyterian and Anglican churches have made similar statements.
In earlier centuries, “Christian restorationism,” rather than Christian Zionism, was the term used to describe the idea of Jews returning to the land of Israel. It began in the 16th century, amid the religious upheaval of the Reformation, when it occurred to certain Protestants that the “Christian” nations of Europe could restore the Jews to Israel — who would, in turn, gratefully convert to Christianity. Restorationism continued as a minority movement within Protestantism, gaining steam in the 19th century when the Ottoman Empire, then ruling Palestine, began to crumble. In 1909, the Scofield Reference Bible, borrowing from the ideas of Anglo-Irish evangelist John Nelson Darby, advocated the destruction of the Dome of the Rock and the rebuilding of the Temple as necessary preludes to the second coming of Christ.
Jewish Zionism began to take shape in 1897 when Austro-Hungarian journalist Theodor Herzl, responding to the persecution of Jews in Russia and elsewhere, organized the first World Zionist Congress in Switzerland. Herzl believed that only in a country of their own would Jews be safe. He used the word “Zionist” because Zion can refer both to the city of Jerusalem and to the Jewish people as a whole (Psalm 48). Though the original Jewish Zionists were mostly secular, both religious Jews and Evangelical Christians would later piggyback on the term to advance their own agendas.
In 1917, Herzl’s successors received support for Jewish settlement in Palestine from British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour. After the First World War, Britain was given a League of Nations mandate to administer Palestine until national structures could be developed for both Jews and Palestinians. In 1947, the United Nations proposed a division of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states side by side, with Jerusalem as an international zone. The Jews accepted this: the plan gave them the greater part of the territory even though there were more Palestinians than Jews living there. The Palestinians rejected it for the same reason. Civil war erupted, expanding into a regional war in May 1948 when Arab states invaded the newly established State of Israel. By early 1949, about 750,000 Palestinians had fled their homes or been expelled by Jewish-Israeli militias. In the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel gained control of the rest of Palestine, including Jerusalem.
And this is where Christian Zionism really took off. With Israel’s victory in 1967, Christian Zionists saw the prophecy in Ezekiel 37 — a vision of God breathing life into the dry bones of the people of Israel and bringing them “back to the land of Israel” — coming true. Now that the end times are really upon us, Christian Zionists reasoned, more must be done to persuade (read: force) Jesus to return.
Leading U.S. Christian Zionist John Hagee, pastor of the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, says there are 50 million Christian Zionists. His organization, Christians United for Israel, boasts over two million members, including 95,000 in Canada. As CUFI states on its website, “We believe that the Jewish people have a right to live in their ancient land of Israel, and that the modern State of Israel is the fulfillment of this historic right.” Hagee and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet frequently and are close allies.
In a 2005 sermon, Hagee said God sent Hitler as a “hunter” in order to “hunt them [the Jews] from every mountain and from every hill and out of the holes of the rocks . . . to get them to come back to the land of Israel” — as he sees it, a fulfillment of prophecy in Jeremiah 16:16.
Hagee also believes that since Palestine was never an independent state, the thousands of Arabs who lived there prior to Israel’s formation have no territorial rights. “Americans need to recognize the historical fact that the Palestinians have absolutely no historical claim to the land of Israel,” he told a Denver audience last October. “There has never been, historically, an autonomous group of Palestinians who ever existed.”
Bizarre though it is, Christian Zionism is a tidy ideology, easily grasped and containing its own internal logic, and easily believed by those with little knowledge of
theology, politics or history. By contrast, mainline churches have no simple, agreed-upon end-times narrative that can match it. In theological terms, we have no functional eschatology. Some would say that the Kingdom (or “Kindom”) of God is now, and that we are simply called to live right here, right now, in justice and love. This is a beautiful response, but it wouldn’t satisfy the scriptural literalism of Christian Zionists.
Back at the conference, participants grappled with a number of hard questions. Does prophecy trump justice? How should mainline Christians respond to Christian Zionists? Do we ignore or interpret the Bible passages that Christian Zionists consider prophecy? And finally, how do we engage in Jewish-Christian dialogue and speak up for justice in Israel and Palestine?
We can study the issues in our congregations. We can also look for Jewish and Muslim partners who are willing to talk with us. And we can — and must — “seek the peace of Jerusalem.” My hunch: we will need a few more such conferences to get a real handle on this challenging issue.
Donald Grayston is an Anglican priest in Vancouver. Since 2006, he has been actively involved in public education and church response in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.