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Jonathan MerrittDecember 11, 2017
The gold-covered Dome of the Rock at the Temple Mount complex is seen in this overview of Jerusalem's Old City, Dec. 6 (CNS photo/Debbie Hill).

Donald Trump isn’t the first president who has promised to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the American embassy there. But he is the only one to keep it.

Trump made his announcement last week claiming, “old challenges require new approaches.” The decision is widely considered to be politically motivated in order to please his evangelical supporters who have reportedly raised the issue in multiple meetings.

Johnnie Moore, the de facto spokesman for the president’s faith advisory council, told CNN, “This issue was—to many—second only to concerns about the judiciary among the president's core evangelical supporters. President Trump has—yet again—demonstrated to his evangelical supporters that he will do what he says he will do.”

But evangelicals’ decades-long obsession with Israel has more to do with prophecy than politics.

When I first heard the news about the president’s announcement, I felt like I was back in college. In 2000, our family minivan pulled into the sleepy town of Lynchburg, Va., where I would attend the evangelical Liberty University. All students were required to take theology classes alongside their major coursework and attend chapel services three times per week, where they would hear sermons that often cited William F. Buckley as much as the Apostle Paul.

On more than one occasion, prominent evangelical speakers from across America would declare in chapel that the end of the world was drawing nigh. As evidence, they would cite the establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948. According to our interpretation of the Bible, this was a prerequisite for the apocalypse.

For evangelicals, the Bible was not just the story of God’s involvement in the past. It also served as a blueprint for the future.

For evangelicals like us, the Bible was not just the story of God’s involvement in the past or a guide for righteous living in the present. It also served as God’s blueprint for the future. We believed that the sacred scriptures, and the book of Revelation in particular, foretold a day when Jesus would return to earth to obliterate evil and offer his followers a prized place in God’s kingdom. We collectively clamored for this day to arrive.

Liberty University was a hotbed for a popular theology among evangelicals called “dispensationalism,” which divides history into distinct ages or dispensations. According to this teaching, when first-century Jews rejected Jesus, a new “church age” began in which Christians would act as “God’s chosen people.” This dispensation will continue until God takes Christians to heaven, leaving the “unchosen” behind for a period of turmoil. This is known as “the rapture.”

While dispensationalism teaches that God is currently focused on the Christian church, believers in this theology assert that when the last days arrive, God will draw the Jewish people back to Israel where they will rebuild the temple and eventually accept Jesus as the rightful Messiah. This will trigger the return and reign of Jesus.

While this theological system may sound kooky to some, proponents claim the Bible teaches it. In Genesis 17, God promises to make Abraham the father of a great nation, which dispensationalists believe is an ongoing covenant. They believe Isaiah 11 and 66 as well as Ezekiel 37 predict the return of Jews to Israel. The prophet Zechariah, they claim, prophesied that Jews wouldreoccupy Jerusalem in opposition to many nations before they finally accept Jesus’ Messianic claims. Dispensationalists also point to Revelation 7 as evidence that God still has specific plans for Israel’s 12 tribes in the last days.

Dispensationalism has a centuries-long history and enjoys widespread acceptance among American Christians.

Dispensationalism has a centuries-long history and enjoys widespread acceptance among American Christians. The 19th century Bible teacher John Nelson Darby is considered to be the father of dispensationalism. His views were codified in and popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible. This theology spread throughout America in the 1800s with the help of evangelists such as Dwight L. Moody, but it was catapulted to new levels of popularity in the mid- to late-20th century.

In the 1970s, Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth argued that the biblical end of the world was fast approaching and sold more than 30 million copies. In the 1990s, the fictional Left Behind series placed several volumes on The New York Timesbestsellers list and spawned two popular films. In addition to Liberty University, institutions such as Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and Dallas Theological Seminary continue to train young Christian leaders in dispensational theology.

It is difficult for pollsters to determine exactly how many American Christians believe in dispensationalism. Many believers don’t know the technical word for what they believe. Since it includes so many facets, framing survey questions to yield definitive results is impossible. Additionally, some Christians who reject dispensationalism as a theology still believe that God wishes to establish and bless Israel as a nation during earth’s last days.

A 2015 poll reported that 60 percent of evangelicals say the nation of Israel was established as a result of biblical prophecy.

A 2015 LifeWay Research poll reported that 60 percent of evangelicals say the nation of Israel was established as a result of biblical prophecy. Seventy percent say “God has a special relationship with the modern nation of Israel,” and 73 percent believe “events in Israel are part of the prophecies in the Book of the Revelation.” So for many evangelicals, Trump’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem was about more than geopolitics.

To be sure, not all evangelical Christians hold these beliefs about Israel and the end times. Some reject the notion that God’s 4,000-year-old promises to Abraham apply to modern Israel.

As biblical scholar Gary M. Burge argues at The Atlantic, not all evangelicals believe that promoting the importance of Jerusalem “is one more building block in the fulfillment of prophecies that sets the stage for the Second Coming of Christ.” Burge and others do not make a connection between the theocratic nation of Israel in antiquity and the modern state. These evangelicals feel Trump’s decision is unnecessarily provocative and undermines the kind of peace Christians should support.

Additionally, recent research indicates that the effects of dispensationalism and related end-times theologies may be fading among the younger faithful. According to a 2017 LifeWay Research study, American evangelicals under 35 are significantly less likely to have a positive view of the nation of Israel than their older counterparts and 66 percent of evangelicals under 35 believe that “Christians should do more to love and care for the Palestinian people.”

For now, those closest to President Trump still hold beliefs about the end times that see the promotion and protection of Israel as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. While the embassy decision is being touted by Washington Republicans as proof that Trump keeps his promises, evangelicals see it as God fulfilling his.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Alfredo S.
6 years 6 months ago

How Catholic Steve Bannon thinks about dispensationalism would be interesting to know. The man is a real puzzle from this Catholic's point of view. God bless him. Please.

Mike McDermott
6 years 6 months ago

I doubt if Steve Bannon has any interest in dispensationalism. His interest is in supporting groups which align with his political viewpoint. Nothing wrong with that. There is nothing un-Catholic about supporting Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Robert Lewis
6 years 6 months ago

But it is VERY "un-Catholic" to support "dispensationalism, " which is among the most virulent of Protestant heresies. And it's not just "un-Catholic"; it's un-Christian, because, at its very heart, it's anti-Semitic, because it proposes to USE the Jewish people in an apocalyptic war and then condemn those of them who remain true to the Torah and the Jewish traditions, rather than accept Christ as their Messiah, to hell.

Tim Donovan
6 years 6 months ago

Although I don't know as a Roman Catholic if God sees the modern state of Israel to be the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, I think it's interesting, even impressive, that many evangelical Christians have a view of Israel that is not based on politics but on the Bible. However, I agree with younger evangelical Christians who believe, in effect, that Palestinians should be shown more concern by the Christian church, and that a two-state solution must be pursued to hopefully bring peace to the Holy Land.

John Eise
6 years 6 months ago

God will destroy the earth and everyone on it and then take his chosen few to heaven? What person in their right mind wishes death upon his neighbor? What made you as an evangelical more worthy of God’s love than everyone else? This is the antithesis of God’s message and the teachings of Jesus.

And you believe God has a plan? That’s convenient. It takes all the responsibility off your shoulders to act in accordance with the example of Jesus’s life and allows you to excuse your own poor behavior and those of others who believe as you do.

It is a sickness that anyone wishes for the destruction of God’s creation just to satisfy a prophecy written and professed by humans. What hubris!

Adeolu Ademoyo
6 years 6 months ago

The debate about "dispensationalism" is an intellectual debate. However dispensationalism or its debate has less to do with Christianity and our faith in God-the Christian God. This is why what is more important and which is at the root of all these is a simple question. That question is: Is Christianity a faith or a culture? It seems to me that by the pronouncements and actions of a section of the American Evangelical "Christians" they wrongly believe that Christianity is a culture. But culture is a human creation while faith is our relationship with God. In that relationship certain things are un-acceptable-e.g slavery and enslavement of fellow human beings, pedophilic acts, sexism, bigotry, anti-semitism, hate, racism, sexual abuse of teenage girls and adults, heresy against the Holy Family (Joseph and Mary) and the Holy Spirit etc. Christianity is faith and NOT culture. It is because a section of the American Evangelical "Christians" take Christianity to be a culture that makes them do the following--(i) defend slavery of American people in the past and in 2017 by claiming that what Made America Great was Slavery of the African Americans (Roy Moore-a state of Alabama candidate to the nation's Senate-openly supported by Donald Trump even when Roy Moore openly made this claim on the connection between Slavery and Making America Great Again). This means what will make America "great" is slavery of the African Americans! Given that Roy Moore was articulating and putting content to Donald Trump's Make America Great Again, it means for this small section of Evangelical "Christians" Donald Trump, Roy Moore and others, part of Making America Great Again is to return our country-the United States of America- to the days of slavery of African Americans. (ii) In defending Roy Moore's alleged pedophile act against a 14 year old when he Moore was allegedly a 31 year old and an attorney, some Evangelical "Christians" committed heresy by likening Roy Moore's alleged pedophilic acts to (a) Joseph and Mary and (b) immaculate conception of Christ and the carrying of baby Jesus by Mary in her womb. So, someone can only call herself/himself "Christian" while defending slavery and committing clear heresy against the Holy Spirit only on the conception that Christianity is a culture and NOT faith. Here I am saying if one commits heresy and still wants to hold on to being a "Christian", then that person can only be a "Christian" by culture and NOT by faith. And the self serving, ethnic serving false view that Christianity is culture is unfounded biblically, and theologically. It is simply impossible on the basis of faith and reason to defend the view that Christianity is culture because Christianity is our personal relationship with God, and Christ our savior. There is nothing cultural about this. This is why "Dispensationalism" being parroted by a section of American Evangelical "Christians" has nothing to do with the Christian faith. It may be good to have an academic, intellectual, scholarly and cultural debate about "dispensationalism" but it has nothing to do with Christianity as faith. "Dispensationalism" is the cultural view of the world as held by some people-full stop. Moreover, theologically speaking, if "dispensationalism" is being falsely conceived as a form of theology, then it is a poor and a bad theology, because this is a "theology" that has nothing to do with the core content of Christ ministry. This is where the politicking and politricking behind Donald Trump's Jerusalem decision come to full play. Donald Trump took the Jerusalem decision to fulfill an electoral promise to a small section of American Evangelical "Christians", a political promise he made to them to get their votes when he needed their electoral votes in the 2016 election. Donald Trump continues to need the votes of this small section of the American Evangelical "Christians" for his own political survival because given the attack on our sovereignty as a country because of the assault the Russians led by Vladimir Putin in conjunction with some fellow Americans against our country, the political and moral legitimacy of Donald Trump's administration is constantly an open question; the moral and political legitimacy of Donald Trump's administration is constantly challenged by the unpatriotic act committed by some of us Americans in collaborating with Vladmir Putin and his Russian spies to assault the sovereignty of our country in the 2016 elections. So given his battle for survival Donald Trump must give this small section of the American Evangelical "Christians" something in return for their continuous support. Trump's decision on moving our embassy to Jerusalem is basically DEAL MAKING. It is the classic case of "I rub your back, you rub my back when I am in political trouble." So this opportunistic Donald Trump's deal making with this small section of the Evangelical "Christians" has nothing to do with the Christian faith and our personal relationship with God and Christ our savior. I challenge any Christian of any denomination to an open debate on the political deal between Donald Trump and this small section of the American Evangelical "Christians". In that debate the genuine faith question will be: what is truly Christian in the political deal making with this small section of American Evangelical "Christians", a political deal (i) that claims that Making America Great Again is returning us to the days of slavery (Roy Moore in print) (ii) that supports pedophiles, sexual harassers, sexual abusers of teenage girls and justifying and enabling pedophiles with the clear analogical heresy of the Holy Family-Joseph/Mary/the Holy Spirit so long as they, the small section of the American Evangelical "Christians" get what they want from Donald Trump. So, nobody, no true Christian should be deceived by Trump's Jerusalem decision and its timing. Hence, the question is: how can a political decision which Trump took (to garner support among the small coterie of American Evangelical "Christians") at a concrete time he is in serious political trouble with respect to the moral and political legitimacy of his administration be about faith? Roy Moore's, "Christianity" Donald Trump's "Christianity" (both of who have allegation of sexual abuse and pedophilic acts hanging over their heads) and the "Christianity" of a section of Evangelical "Christians" who defend slavery by saying the slavery and human exploitation of fellow human beings was what made America Great (Donald Trump's slogan and agenda) , American Evangelical "Christians" who commit heresy against the Holy Spirit and the Holy Family by likening Roy Moore's alleged pedophilic acts, sexual abuse and harassment of under-aged to Joseph/Mary/Holy Spirit cannot be Christianity as our faith in God. Rather it is "Christianity" as a cultural practice as they -the small section of the American Evangelical "Christians" see it. It is this spiritually and religiously dubious and untenable conception of "Christianity" as culture that explains why a section of the American Evangelical "Christians" can reconcile themselves with pedophiles, sexual harassers, sexual abusers and gross immorality, slavery of fellow human beings, racism, bigotry, sexism, anti-semitism, heresy against the Holy Family and the Holy Spirit while claiming to be "Christians". This is the real issue about Christianity and NOT the political decision of moving American embassy to Jerusalem.

Douglas Fang
6 years 6 months ago

Saying that the Jews have the ownership right to Jerusalem is similar to saying that the Native Americans have the ownership right to much of USA! Everyone knows that this is nonsense. The Jews had lost their land thousands of years ago and the Palestinians have been living there for thousands of years.

Claiming that the nation of Israel was established as a result of biblical prophecy is a complete joke to rational people, either Christian or not. The evangelical right is a cancerous disease to Christianity with their support of Creationism, of Climate Change denial, of Trump presidency (white nationalism), and of such despicable candidate like Joy Moore…

Tim O'Leary
6 years 6 months ago

"A cancerous disease"? Not exactly loving your neighbor, Douglas. While I do not support Roy Moore, I don't think he is accused of anything worse than what Bill Clinton actually did. What was the age difference between Bill and Monica Lewinsky? It was 27 years. And then there were the credible charges of rape by Juanita Broaddrick ("women should be believed" ), of groping by Kathleen Willey (1993 - while President!) and unwelcome indecent exposure by Paula Jones. Yet, even last year (yes 2016!), he was given the podium at the DNC convention for 45 mins. The hypocrisy is amazing.

Douglas Fang
6 years 6 months ago

Tim, we had many arguments in the past that led to nowhere, so I believe it is useless to debate with you. Your style of debate is full of distortion, “pick and choose”, omission of key facts, etc. and therefore, it’s not worthy to engage. As I told you before, choosing a political candidate is pretty much choosing the lesser of the 2 evils these days in America. The evil thing in Moore is he did that while claiming to be on the side of God!!!!! (It is no surprise that the number of Nones is increasing, especially among the young’s)

“Loving thy neighbor”, “amazing hypocrisy” – the feeling is mutual and I leave it that way.

Dionys Murphy
6 years 5 months ago

"While I do not support Roy Moore, I don't think he is accused of anything worse" - Pedophilia by force. You should look it up. It doesn't get much worse.

Lisa Weber
6 years 6 months ago

This is certainly an interesting and informative article, but it leaves me thinking that evangelical Christians have stranger beliefs than I would have guessed. I find it peculiar that anyone would vote for a particular political candidate in hopes of bringing about a Biblical prophecy.

Joan Sheridan
6 years 6 months ago

Sometimes it is a relief being Catholic. My son(at the urging of his friend) asked my brother (a priest) why the Catholic Church is not more pro-Israel because of what it says in the Bible about Israel. My brother said "Israel in the Bible has nothing to do with the Israel established in 1948." My brother is no Bilbe expert but he also added that many believe Jerusalem in the Bible prefigures the Church.

Andrew Wolfe
6 years 6 months ago

This article does not document the "obsession" with Israel claimed in the title of this piece. It has no substantive quotes that can be taken as dispensationalism, which the author uses as a blanket criticism of evangelicals. Amazingly the author seems to think it crazy that the Bible is "God's blueprint for the future." The fact that evangelicals think this blueprint is plain and clear rather than figurative and symbolic is how they are wrong; but Jesus told us the future numerous times in the Gospels! Sadly, this is a vacuous bit of starchy rambling with one interesting poll tidbit and no other real information.

Every Christian I know who has been to the Promised Land has been enraptured by it. The Old Testament is compellingly passionate about it. Jerusalem is a great reality of history, and a symbol used both by God (in Scripture) and the Church to tell us about the future City of God. What's wrong with that?

JR Cosgrove
6 years 6 months ago

A couple things

Headlines are written at America to provoke and not by the author and may have little to do with the article. Similarly the photos used in the article. This particular photo is neutral but many are meant to provoke.

Second, if Evangelicals had not backed Trump, this article would never had been written. Everything political in America, the magazine, must be seen in an anti-Trump anti-Republican mind set.

Jay Zamberlin
6 years 6 months ago

Isn't it about time America stops being the "National Enquirer" of the Catholic left. You can't even call these articles serious journalism, (not that that might be upsetting to these publishers) - not with these "begging the question" headlines. I know quite a few Evangelicals. First of all, they deserve respect. Secondly, I know none who are "obsessed" with Israel, save for one cartoonish TV evangelist. What if next week, they put out, in one of their magazines, "Understanding the Obsession with Catholic Priests for Little Boys." Gee, it might get some attention, sell some magazines, but my goodness, this is really YOU America. Please come back from the dark side.

Adrian Shaw
6 years 6 months ago

Jay, you have articulated what others have already brought to the attention of the Editors.

America Magazine is as much capitalism, revenue driven as the National Enquirer. Their headlines are bait/click, their hit pieces bereft of intellectual rigor, the use of Jesus Christ as a marketing tool to build their business evil to the core.

Try Crux Now and Vatican Radio News sites.

Vincent Gaglione
6 years 6 months ago

The article was very interesting from the point of view of explaining what many USA citizens believe vis-à-vis biblical revelation, the State of Israel, and the recognition of Jerusalem as its capital. I certainly do not agree with them. The politico-geographic realities of the modern world are irrelevant to Christian faith issues to my mind and beliefs.

More interesting and fascinating are the comments that have been written here. There is an obvious arrogance of some beliefs among Christians that motivates some of the comments written here. The almost dictatorial nature of what is expressed is quite frightening. Having just returned from a trip where I had the opportunity to meet many non-Western peoples of faiths outside the Judaeo-Christian- Muslim traditions, I was left with more questions than answers about the surety of some specific beliefs of many Christians like those described in the article. Some good old-fashioned Christ-like goodwill in the presence of people of other faiths might be more appropriate!

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