Understanding the Evangelical obsession with Israel
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.