Note: In light of the recent violence in Palestine, I’ve decided to upload my master’s thesis from Perkins School of Theology. It’s a bit lengthy for a blog post, but I think it’s vital that all Christians understand why Christian Zionism is a dangerous heresy.
From an early age, I have been fascinated by the two topics that one should not speak about (at least not with strangers) – religion and politics. So I suppose it should come as no surprise to anyone that I am particularly interested in a topic that mixes politics and religion – Christian Zionism. This topic is a particularly volatile mixture of politics and religion. For decades, Arabs and Jews have killed each other over the broader issue of Zionism. The Zionist movement initially worked toward the establishment of a sovereign state for the Jewish people in the region of Palestine. Once that goal was accomplished after the Second World War, the Zionist movement worked to support the state of Israel – work that continues to the present day.
But what does Zionism have to do with Christianity? As one who was raised in a fundamentalist, evangelical Protestant tradition, I am familiar with Christianity’s link to Zionism. Christian Zionist thought was thoroughly ingrained in the school I attended from the 6th Grade until I graduated and went on to college. It was taught in sermons during the chapel services we had on Wednesdays and in the classroom as well. We were taught to believe that we were living in the “last days” and the establishment of the state of Israel – a sovereign nation for the Jewish people to return to – would play a major role in bringing about The End. For my classmates, and me, this “knowledge” about Israel was simply another part of the core Christian faith. That is to say, we assumed these were ideas held by all Christians.
We were misinformed, to put it generously. I certainly had no idea that a substantial number of Christians still resided in the Holy Land, much less that not all Christians in the United States (or around the world) shared our eschatological views. But perhaps the worst aspect of what we were taught was the hostility it engendered toward the Arab population in the Holy Land. Given what I was taught in school and what I saw in the media of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (I remember mostly hearing about Muslim suicide bombers and rocket attacks – hardly a word about how the native Arab population was suffering), it is no surprise that I felt an overwhelming bias in favor of the Israeli people and outright hostility towards the Arabs. So my classmates and I were not given the whole story, so to speak. It was not until I had spent a few years in college, studying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on my own, that I realized I had been gravely mistaken.
My story is hardly unique. Many American Christians subscribe to the ideas put forward by Christian Zionism and these people have a significant impact on American politics and American foreign policy. In fact, Christian Zionists make up a significant portion of one of the most influential lobbying groups in American politics – the Israel Lobby. Whether they know it or not, these Christians in America are helping to bring about an immense amount of suffering in the Palestinian territory. Adding to this already tragic situation, these Zionist Christians in America are bringing about prolonged suffering to fellow Christians in the name of Christ. Their thought is, if the conditions are right in the Holy Land, then Christ will return as Zionist interpretations of Scripture have foretold.
So when and where did Zionist thought originate in Christianity? As I mentioned earlier, if someone had asked me that question when I was in high school, I would have likely replied that Zionism has always been a core belief of all Christians since the very origins of the faith. I had assumed that a Zionist interpretation of Scripture was only natural. What I did not know was that Christian Zionism is actually a recent development within Christianity. In fact, Christian Zionist thought (as we know it today) comes from the Dispensationalist school of thought that originated in the 19th century, but there is evidence that Christian Zionism began to emerge earlier than that (even earlier than Jewish Zionism). In fact, the entire Zionist movement as we know it today also has its origins in modern Europe. Had I learned this information in my high school days, I must admit that I would have been utterly shocked.
This paper is my humble attempt to gain perspective on my former Christian Zionist views and move towards a new theological position regarding the Zionist movement. The topic of Christian Zionism is incredibly vast – one could easily write a small library’s worth of material in investigating the many questions that are related to it. For example, one might choose to investigate the moral, political, sociological, or historical aspects within this broad subject. But for my purposes here, I will focus on Christian Zionist interpretations of Scripture. In the time that I have taken an interest in the Israel-Palestine conflict and the involvement of Christian Zionists, I have found that most of their justifications for their unconditional and unrelenting support of the state of Israel revolve around their particular interpretations of the Bible.
I will use the space here to make an argument that Christian Zionists are making some serious mistakes in their interpretations of Scripture. They are most certainly mistaken in their idea that the Jewish people in general and the modern state of Israel in particular have a specific, crucial role in bringing about the Parousia (the return of Christ). Christian Zionists often rail against their opponents as being “Replacement theologians” – that the Church has replaced Israel in God’s grand design for the world. I would argue that Christian Zionist views on Scripture – most often under the school of Dispensationalist theology – actually serve to limit God in how he works in the world. Moreover, even if looking at the world through the covenants of Scripture were the proper lens, the Christian Zionist emphasis on living in the Old Testament and the old Abrahamic covenant would still be incorrect. As Archbishop Lazar Puhalo has said, in so emphasizing the old covenant, they are guilty of making an idol of this modern state of Israel and look upon a covenant sealed with the blood of bulls more favorably than they do the new covenant that has been sealed by the blood of Jesus Christ.
In this paper, I will expound upon five critiques of Christian Zionist interpretations of Scripture. In doing so, I hope to illustrate how arguing against Dispensationalism does not necessarily mean that one wishes to replace Israel with the Church. Rather, I hope that through these critiques, it will become clear that opponents of Christian Zionism could more accurately be described as “Expansionist theologians,” as God’s promise of blessing and redemption to Israel was not taken over by the Church. Through God’s consistent love and grace throughout the ages and through the work of Jesus Christ, the hope for redemption has been expanded to all people.
Old Testament Israel, Modern Israel, and Zionism as New Christian Teaching
I will flesh out my first critique here. First, it is important to note that Christian Zionists say that Zionist thought is a critical component of the Christian faith – I disagree. Christian Zionism did not develop into a major school of thought until the 19th century – it is not found in the canonical material of the early church. Second, there is a particular passage of Scripture used (or misused) by Christian Zionists to support their position: “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Christian Zionists interpret this as meaning that if Israel is not blessed, then only harm can come as a result. It is important to note here that Christian Zionists interpret this through the lens of Genesis 22, in which God promises to Abraham: “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” Christian Zionists see these promises referring to Abraham’s physical descendants inheriting a specific, physical territory. They see Abraham as the beginning of the nation of Israel – a nation that extends through the Old Testament, though history after the coming of Christ and the canonization of the New Testament, and on into the present day.
The question of how Christianity and Jews are related is not a new one. St. Paul, writing to the Galatians, addressed this very issue. According to St. Paul, it is very clear that believers in Christ are to see Jesus as the seed (singular) of Abraham. He says in verse 16 of chapter 3: “Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as referring to many, but rather to one, ‘And to your seed,’ that is, Christ.” Being a Pharisee, St. Paul knew the content of God’s promise to Abraham very well and, having seen the Risen Lord, knew that he had to interpret the Scripture through the arrival of God the Son into our world. St. Paul understood that in making a promise about Abraham’s seed, God was referring to Christ. The Lord was not only concerned with the fate of Abraham and his physical descendants – God was concerned with the fate of every person on the planet and the coming of Jesus Christ into our world verified this for St. Paul.
It is also important to think about the idea of Israel as a nation with a continual presence throughout history. Is the modern state of Israel the Israel of the Old Testament? Historical criticism does not allow this theory to hold up. According to Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, Israel (as a united kingdom in the Old Testament) was a “short lived” kingdom in the Promised Land, as they lasted only a few generations until the Assyrians invaded and destroyed them – all that remained were two of the twelve tribes. Israel was gone. What was left was broken apart even further after the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. From that point on, the remainder of the Jewish people spread across the world into a vast diaspora. During this time, it is logical to assume that a good portion of Jews across the diaspora intermarried with the natives of their new countries, so it is difficult to imagine how the Jews across the world remained racially “pure”. So if the Lord’s promise to Abraham in Genesis was really about Abraham’s physical descendants – the Jewish people – how can Zionists account for the fact that Israel did not last once they arrived in the Promised Land and how do they account for the mixing of Semitic blood with that of other races? Are some people with Jewish heritage more entitled to the land in Palestine than others?
As I said earlier, I was more or less historically illiterate when I was taught the ideology of Christian Zionism. Assuming it has always been a core part of Christian doctrine was a serious error on my part and I am definitely not alone in having made this mistake – thousands upon thousands of Christians adhere to Christian Zionism and donate liberally to (illegal) Jewish settlements in Palestine or other Zionist causes. But if Christian Zionism did not develop as a major teaching until over 1800 years after Christ’s ministry and the establishment of the Church at Pentecost, can one honestly believe that it should be taken seriously as a core component of the Christian faith? I say unequivocally, “no.” The core, canonical teachings of the faith – the Incarnation, Virgin Birth, ministry, death, and Resurrection of Christ – were preserved by the early church in various forms (including the creation of a canonical set of books that later became the New Testament). Dispensational theology and Christian Zionism is simply not a part of the early canonical material. While Scripture tells us that Christ will return one day, there is no emphasis on restoring the Jewish diaspora to Palestine. The late development of these ideas and that it has no basis in the early canons of the Church is one of many reasons why I cannot subscribe to the ideology of Christian Zionism. A brief examination of its historical development, in proper context, will help explain why this is the case.
Zionism, again, is still a relatively new school of thought. In fact, the move to create the state of Israel – the modern Zionist movement – did not begin until the 19th century; although there were a few earlier, scattered Protestants who could be seen as Zionists, no serious progress was made until the 1800’s. It was Theodor Herzl, motivated in part by the persecution of Jews in Europe (especially in Eastern Europe) and also in part by the growing sense of nationalism spreading across the continent, who set out to help create a modern state for the Jewish people. This is a critical point. For Herzl, there was no serious religious or theological motive behind his desire to establish a Jewish state. Alex Awad emphasizes the point that Herzl’s “aspirations were not based on the Biblical conception of a promised land.”
Looking beyond his motives, the task of rallying the Jewish people to Palestine was daunting for Herzl. At this point in time, the Jews in Europe were scattered. They were separated along cultural, linguistic, and geographic lines. Awad provides some insight into what the reaction to Herzl’s ideas was like amongst the Jews living in Europe. Ironically, most of Herzl’s opposition within the Jewish population came from Western Europe – Germany in particular. Jews had become successful, integrated, loyal to their particular nations, and debates began to develop in regards to the nature of Judaism – was it a religion or an ethnicity or a nation? So there was a good deal of controversy on this matter – even in the face of a clear opportunity to return to the “promised land” of Palestine.
There were, of course, some Jews who decided to take up Herzl’s idea, but the real shift in momentum did not come about until after the Second World War. It was at this point – after the horrific and beyond tragic events of the Holocaust – when Jewish (and indeed global) perspectives began to shift toward ideas more in line with the Zionist cause. In 1948, the United Nations officially recognized the new Jewish state – Israel. The Zionist movement had reached a crucial turning point.
With the goal of establishing a state for the Jewish people accomplished, the movement set its sights on further advancing the agenda of establishing a 100% Jewish state that extended across the whole of Palestine and beyond. In order to accomplish this larger goal, the Zionists would have to do two things. First, they would need to displace the native Arab population. Second, they would need to work as unconditional advocates for the state of Israel across the international community in order to gain the political capital needed to carry out their policy of colonialism. These points will be touched on in the next section.
With a picture of the origins of Zionism in mind, I will now turn to the historical development of Christian Zionism. Although Christian Zionism is a flourishing ideology now (particularly amongst fundamentalist evangelicals in the United States), its origins are actually very recent and very humble. Given the strength and prevalence of Christian Zionism, one who is uninformed of its origins (as I was) would most likely never assume that it was not well received in its early days.
Christian Zionism is typically identified as a critical component of Dispensationalism, which was developed by a man named John Nelson Darby in the mid-19th century. Darby was the founder of the Plymouth Brethren movement in Dublin, which was composed of a group of dissenting Anglicans. David Brog, Executive Director for Christians United for Israel (CUFI) and author of Standing With Israel, explains the basic development of Darby’s theological positions. It was Darby and his Plymouth Brethren that truly gave rise to Dispensationalism and, ultimately, Christian Zionism as we know it. Brog writes, “The Brethren rejected replacement theology and instead embraced a theology that held that the Jews were still the ‘Israel’ to which so much is promised in the Bible.” Summing up the point quite nicely, Brog states, “The Christian Zionist movement was built on a foundation of Plymouth Brethren theology.”
Darby’s “Plymouth Brethren theology” provided the basic tenets of Christian Zionism. Using a literal reading of the Bible, Darby argued that the true Israel is properly defined as the physical descendants of Abraham; therefore, the Jewish people belonged in the physical land promised to Abraham in the Old Testament. Moreover, Darby put forward the idea that since the Creation of the universe, God had “two completely different plans for humanity.” That is to say, God’s original plan revolved around the physical descendants of Abraham and “Plan B” was centered on a spiritual people (the Church). It was Darby’s contention that God used the Jewish race to work in the world up until the time of Christ, but when the Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah, God had to resort to his secondary option. So instead of faith as the basis for God’s work in redeeming the world, God originally intended to base his plans on ethnicity. The key point here for Christian Zionism is even though the Jews rejected Christ, God still intends to fulfill his promises to the Jewish people (promises made through Abraham). This is the basis for Dispensationalist theology.
The Dispensationalists claim to resolve a serious error made by those who would replace the Jewish people with the Church in God’s design for the world (hence the term, “Replacement theologians”). Brog explains, “Dispensationalism restored to the Jews the divine mission and divine love that replacement theology had stripped away.” A good deal of Dispensationalist thought tends to revolve around the idea that Zionist Christians act as a force to counter anti-Semitism, which is a notion that was emphasized regularly in my early education. In fact, I recall several occasions when we were urged to embrace Jewish culture and practices – we were encouraged to celebrate Passover, for example. Indeed, looking back on those lessons, it is difficult to distinguish whether my instructors were Baptists or Messianic Jews. It is quite ironic, knowing what I know now, that although Christian Zionists claim to be struggling against anti-Semitism, their theories actually serve to do more harm than good to the Jewish people. This will be touched on at a later point in this paper.
What about the term “Dispensationalism”, though? Where did it come from? John Nelson Darby originally called his ideas “premillennial dispensationalism”, which was later shortened to “Dispensationalism.” Essentially, the idea is that God deals with humanity in specific periods of time in specific way and each period is a time when God attempts to move through humanity in a certain way. David Brog uses the word “test” to describe humanity’s experiences during these periods – so each period of time is a certain test that God puts the human race through to see how they will respond. Of course, the main constant throughout these periods or “dispensations” is that humanity fails each test. So the rejection of Christ by the Jews, for example, would be the end of one dispensation and the beginning of another – namely, the period when God decided to use the Church. What is interesting about this idea is that it does not leave room for the Church to fail. Every other period left room for human error – given the pattern, one might say that humans were bound to fail at each dispensation, but not the dispensation of the Church. According to Dispensationalists, Christ will return at the end of this period and the Church will “disappear.”
At this point, a quick word on the “premillennial” portion of the original term “premillennial dispensationalism” is in order. The “millennial reign” of Christ is an absolutely critical component of Dispensationalist eschatology, which comes from the literal reading of the Bible – the book of Revelation in this case. Now, there is a good deal of debate within Christianity (and even within Dispensationalist circles) as to what is meant by the thousand-year reign of Jesus in Revelation. John Nelson Darby (and many Dispensationalists today) hold a “premillennial” view of the “Millennial kingdom”, which means that the literal thousand-year period will begin after Christ makes his return. Often, teachings of the “Rapture” and “Tribulation” are incorporated into this theory, which is consistent with a literal reading of the Bible. This kind of thinking was very prominent in my high school education – my classmates and I were taught the premillennial perspective, which most likely contributed to the popularity of the “Left Behind” book series in my school and church.
While John Nelson Darby and his Plymouth Brethren are responsible for distilling the basics of Dispensationalism, they were not alone in their Christian Zionist beliefs and they were certainly not the first to touch on the subject. It is important to remember that Darby’s beliefs (as well as the beliefs of other Christian Zionists) were set in a specific historical context that allowed them to take root. That is to say, one should understand that Christian Zionism in general, and Dispensationalism in particular, came about in a time when fundamentalism was becoming increasingly popular. Evangelicals in Britain and elsewhere in the English-speaking world were latching onto a literal view of Scripture and were not content with the established Protestant views of their day. This was also a time when ideas of the “nation-state” were on the rise – there was a steadily increasing nationalist sentiment coursing throughout Europe.
Donald M. Lewis provides some insight into the prevailing atmosphere of this period by examining the life and times of Anthony Ashley Cooper (Lord Shaftesbury). In his book The Origins of Christian Zionism: Lord Shaftesbury and Evangelical Support for a Jewish Homeland, Lewis describes a culture in Victorian-era Britain that was heavily influenced by Protestant evangelicals; and therefore, Christian Zionists. Lewis writes, “Victorian England was overwhelmingly both Christian and Protestant, and most deeply influenced by that expression of Protestantism known as ‘evangelicalism,’ which greatly valued the study of the Bible by the individual Christian.”
Quoting Eitan Bar-Yosef, Lewis describes what can be called a “vernacular biblical culture.” Due to an increased literacy rate, the growth in Sunday school training, and the steadily spreading shared evangelical culture, Christian Zionism eventually rose to great heights in Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact, since its scattered and relatively weak beginning in 17th century Calvinist thought (especially prevalent among English Puritans), Christian Zionism reached the highest levels of government in one of the most powerful empires the world has ever known. Two prominent Zionists, David Lloyd George and Arthur James Balfour, are extremely important figures in the history of Christian Zionism. Both were very powerful men, and by the end of the First World War, George and Balfour became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, respectively. Both men were in office when the famous Balfour Declaration was signed, which was a short document that committed the United Kingdom to work towards the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.
One last thing on the history of Christian Zionism worthy of note for the purposes of this paper also has to do with the prevailing culture of the 19th century. As previously stated, nationalist sentiments were building steam and the nation-state was truly coming into its own. The interesting thing to point out is the sharp contrast between Christian Zionist and Jewish perspectives on what it meant to be Jewish. In keeping with the times, Christian Zionists constantly referred to Jews as a separate nation. Indeed, Donald M. Lewis quotes Balfour and George as repeatedly referring to Jews as “the Jewish nation,” “the Jewish people,” and spoke of a “Jewish national home.” However, if one were to ask the actual Jewish people of the day, they would most likely disagree with the Zionist position. This issue was addressed in the Great Sanhedrin of 1806, “which had affirmed that the Jews were no longer a polity and had ceased to have a ‘national’ identity.’” The Jews in 19th century Britain would have seen this language of a “Jewish nation” as a “dangerous heresy.”
One can imagine why the Jewish people would have been uneasy with such nationalistic language. After all, the Jewish people of Europe (certainly including Britain) had taken great pains to be accepted and integrated into their respective countries – using nationalistic language to describe Jews as a separate people would have been a setback because it would have only perpetuated the notion that Jews are different from Gentiles. Over time, Jewish people had settled into Europe and made homes for themselves. As I mentioned earlier in this section, there was a great deal of hesitation across Western Europe when a fellow Jew made the call for a return to Palestine – one can only dream about what it must have felt like for Jews across Britain when their leaders consistently singled them out from the rest of the British population. For all their claims to be the friends of Jewish people everywhere, it is a very strange kind of friendship that the Christian Zionists are offering. What kind of “friend” constantly works to point out differences and bring about further separation between Jew and Gentile?
So what does this brief look into the past provide? While a glance at the history behind Christian Zionism may not discredit the movement outright, one can see how an honest assessment might bring up some doubt. It is true that Christian Zionism has grown and evolved over time, developed a powerful base of support (especially in the United States) and produced numerous theologians who have developed highly complex arguments. But no matter how powerful the Christian Zionist movement may become, the fact remains that it is an extremely new development in Christian theology – one closely tied to politics and the prevailing culture of the global hegemon of the 19th century. If the establishment of a Jewish homeland were truly a core part of Christian theology and eschatology, wouldn’t this have been more developed throughout the history of the Church? Are we to believe that Christians had it all wrong for over one and a half millennia? Were the 17th century Calvinists and John Nelson Darby inspired where the early Fathers of the Church were not? It is unlikely that this is the case.
Although the late development of Christian Zionism does not automatically invalidate it, the system is riddled with inconsistencies and puzzling questions. The basic notion of God dealing with the world in “dispensations” – testing humanity to see how they would react, begs some significant theological questions. Does God know how humanity will react to these tests? If he knows humanity will fail, then why bother with coming up with new tests? In that case, humanity has been set up for failure time and again by an omniscient, yet cruel and manipulative God. On the other hand, if God does not know how humans will react to each dispensation, then Christian Zionists will have to do some mental gymnastics around the traditional idea of God as omniscient. Ultimately, one might ask just how sovereign God can be if mere creatures can make God scramble for a “Plan B”. In that case, Dispensationalism portrays God as almost fumbling around the cosmos, always searching for a way to adjust for the problems and circumstances that humanity must deal with in each new dispensation.
Another consideration to bear in mind is that Christian Zionism originated just as much in politics as it did in theology. In fact, Christian Zionism as we know it today would not have come about if it were not for the politics of Britain and Western Europe – even church politics played a role in its creation. The Plymouth Brethren were, after all, a group that splintered from the Anglican Church, as many other groups did during that period. Europe was absolutely saturated with nationalist ideas – the British evangelicals could not escape it. Ultimately, Christian Zionists in the United Kingdom became the advocates for the creation of a Jewish nation that the Jews themselves did not want or believe in. Instead of continuing on the path toward integration and unity, Jews were made to be separate from the rest of the British people.
So the development of Dispensationalism and Christian Zionism as a real force in the world created a tangled and confused mess that has its origins just as much (if not more) in politics than theology. This emphasis on politics within Christian Zionism did not fade away as the Jewish state was established in Palestine. On the contrary, the political battles had just begun. Today, the Zionist movement’s main arena is that of political advocacy for the state of Israel and the Christian Zionists are an indispensable part of this lobby. Because Christian Zionists are so fully engaged in the political process, the issue of ethics naturally arises. What are the moral costs, if any, for this utterly unrestricted support for Israel by Christian Zionists? To this question, I will now turn my attention.
A Fundamentally Politically Oriented Ideology and Its Ethically Questionable Political Objectives
In the last section, I made the point that Christian Zionism is tightly intertwined with politics – inseparably so. Because Zionism is so intermingled with politics, it is especially difficult to stay away from the ethical and theological implications of these political motives that come about from a peculiar interpretation of Scripture. Within an ideology that is so focused on Scripture, not much thought is given to the extent that Christian Zionism is tied to politics and what that means for those who use Scripture to justify their Dispensationalist views.
The implication behind Dispensationalist thought is that the Bible is a record of God’s relationship with humankind and it is also a record of prophecies given to humanity regarding the future of the world. Unfortunately, Dispensationalists tend to view the Bible (and events in the world) through the lens of the Old Testament instead of the New – they fail to understand the soteriological purpose behind Scripture and the record of reconciliation, redemption, and healing found throughout the Bible when one uses the life and teachings of Jesus Christ as the proper lens. In gaining this proper perspective, I was able to change my Zionist beliefs and see, for the first time, the political and ethical implications that were so closely tied to my old ideology.
For Christian Zionists (and all Zionists, really), their goal is simple – create a 100% Jewish homeland in Palestine. The problem is that in the single-minded drive to make this vision become a reality, hardly any questions are raised in regards to the moral costs of establishing this homeland for the Jews. When I was in high school, I never thought twice about the moral consequences of Israeli and American policies – the Jews were the “good guys”, the Arabs were the “bad guys” and that was the end of it. Teachers and ministers consistently decried the “cowardly” attacks and atrocities carried out against the brave Israelis, who were only trying to live in the land that is their birthright as Jews. We did not learn about the actual origins of the conflict and we certainly never viewed the Palestinians as human beings with a story of their own. The Israelis, we were taught, “are just like Americans” – virtually incapable of doing any wrong, and if anyone says anything to the contrary, then they are guilty of sympathizing with the enemy and therefore lose all credibility.
Looking back now, this kind of thinking is absurd. Of course Israelis have done horrible things and to automatically dismiss the Arab perspective merely because they are Arabs is as unwise as it is unfair. Both sides – Israeli and Palestinian – have committed horrific crimes against the other. Neither side is completely innocent. It is tragic, however, that the Palestinian side is not typically heard in fundamentalist Christian schools and congregations. What makes this even more tragic is the fact that many of the Arabs that Christian Zionists are so quick to make into villains are, in fact, Christians. I did not have the faintest idea that the Zionist cause I had so eagerly supported was actually bringing about a great deal of pain, suffering, and death to my brothers and sisters in Christ. I cannot help but wonder: if I had known then what I know now, would it have made any difference? Would I have cared? I want to say “yes”, but over many discussions with Christian Zionist friends and acquaintances over the last few years, I am beginning to doubt that there would have been a difference in my attitude – and that is a chilling thought.
Many Christians living in the Holy Land today are Orthodox Christians. There are some Catholics and a number of Protestants of various denominations, but the majority is Orthodox. Here is the major moral problem: Christians are commanded to love one another, yet Christian Zionists are all too eager to support policies that harm fellow Christians. How can this kind of behavior be justified? The simple answer is that there is a combination of ignorance, denial, and callousness on the part of Christian Zionists. Much of the problem stems from ignorance – Christian Zionists (particularly those in America) are unaware of the fact that many Arabs living in Palestine are Christians, as I have mentioned before. But if one makes an attempt to inform a Christian Zionist of this fact, the reaction in my experience is often flat out denial – their belief is that Orthodox Christians are merely glorified pagans (this is what I was taught as I was growing up). If one manages to get past the denial, then the reaction usually reveals a calloused heart. Christian Zionists believe that they have the truth about how the world will end – it has been revealed to them and they have openly shared it with everyone (including Christians living in Palestine). Therefore, anyone who gets in the way of God’s design for a Jewish homeland essentially “gets what’s coming to them.” The design for a 100% Jewish state is all that matters – the end justifies whatever means may be necessary.
So what is it that Christian Zionists are missing? Whether the information changes the hearts and minds of Zionists or not, the Arabs of Palestine have a story to tell and it is worth hearing. One should remember that Zionism became a force to reckon with only in the last two centuries. Between the Christian Zionist work in Great Britain and Theodor Herzl’s work on the European continent, Jewish settlers slowly began immigrating to Palestine. The major flux would not come about until after World War Two, when the United Nations agreed to recognize Israel as an independent nation. Until that point, scattered Jewish settlers arrived in Palestine legally and illegally.
There was, however, one small problem with the Zionist plan to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine – there were already people inhabiting the land. Population estimates vary, but by the time Herzl got his movement underway, Jews made up only about 5% of the native population in Palestine. If the Zionist plans were to succeed, the native population would have to go. Not wanting to simply abandon the homes they had known for generations, the Arabs resisted and the conflict began. The incoming Jews from abroad had to adopt the same tactic that most other colonial powers had used in the past – violent displacement. Over the next decades, Jewish settlers would forcibly remove Palestinians from their homes and in the process, committed several atrocities (this is a practice that is still very much in use today).
In order to justify their violent behavior, Zionist leaders and historians have employed a set of myths that have been used by colonial powers for centuries. Norman Finkelstein, a Jewish-American scholar and critic of Israeli and American policy, has written extensively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and explained some of the myths employed by the Israelis in their efforts to re-write history in his book Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict.
Finkelstein argues that one myth employed by the Israelis and the Zionist lobby is the “virgin land or wilderness” myth. Used extensively by the United States in its westward push against the Native American nations (as well as the Nazi conquest of Eastern Europe, ironically enough), the Israelis have made the claim that Palestine was sparsely populated and hardly anything more than barren desert before they came to settle the land. This is a very pervasive myth amongst today’s Zionists. The basic claim is that there was nothing but barren desert when the Jews arrived – perhaps a few scattered Arab settlers, but no major agricultural work or settlements. Once the Jews cultivated the land and brought forth beautiful orchards, though, the Arabs began raiding the Jewish settlements. The similarities between this story and the “Old West” in America is uncanny.
Another myth commonly employed by the Israelis is the “self-defense” myth. The claim here is that in fighting the Arabs, the Jewish settlers were only fighting to defend themselves from the aggressive and violent Palestinians. The American settlers also used this myth as they encroached on native lands and the French colonial activities in Algeria can also be seen as an instance when this myth was employed by an aggressive colonist power.
Closely related to the second myth is yet another deceptive tool – the myth of “purity of arms.” This is perhaps the most commonly used myth in Zionist propaganda and it was strongly ingrained in my mind as I grew up in a fundamentalist school. This myth is fairly self-explanatory – when the Israelis fight, they consistently abide by traditional just war principles (as opposed to their “barbaric” Arab opponents, who are incapable of fighting in a “fair” manner). When one examines the historical record, however, a different story emerges. Instead of seeing people who always hate to resort to violence and, when they do, conduct themselves in an almost blameless manner, one sees that the Israelis are just as guilty of committing atrocities as any other colonial power. According to Finkelstein, there are dozens of large-scale and an even greater number of smaller-scale massacres that have been largely ignored by historians who wish to buy into this awful myth.
The Jewish settlers had no qualms with using savage tactics from the beginning of the conflict (the killing and brutalizing of innocent Arabs continues to the present day). The massacre at Tantura in 1948 provides a clear example of the brutality exhibited by the Jewish settlers in the earliest days of the conflict. As Israel was being established, Jewish soldiers entered the village of Tantura, rounded up innocent civilians, and murdered them in front of their neighbors.
This myth has been utilized in covering up recent events as well. Perhaps the best (or worst) example of this myth being put into practice in more recent years is the late 2008 – early 2009 so-called “Gaza War”. Dubbed “Operation Cast Lead” by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the “war” was actually more of a massacre – the results of these events were recorded by numerous human rights organizations as well as the United Nations. The United Nations observers put together a report on the events in Gaza, which came to be known as the “Goldstone Report”, as it was headed by the world-renowned jurist and admitted Zionist, Richard Goldstone. After an enormous outcry from the Israeli government and the Zionist lobby in America, Goldstone retracted the report – an unprecedented event. Whatever the reason(s) for the retraction might be, the facts within the report itself still stand. There were numerous accounts created by human rights organizations who were monitoring the events and several Israeli soldiers have come forward to confess crimes committed against the Palestinians via Breaking the Silence – a human rights organization committed to publishing first-hand accounts of Israeli soldiers who can no longer stand to be silent about the crimes committed against defenseless Arabs.
In the now infamous United Nations report, there is a large amount of evidence of Israeli war crimes in Gaza. The report documents instances of the IDF intentionally bombing Arab hospitals with white phosphorous shells (an illegal form of artillery ammunition that burns at white-hot temperatures when the shell explodes), deliberately targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure during the attack, and attacking a mosque during prayer. In short, the IDF “were systematically reckless in determining its use [of heavy force] in built-up areas.” Traditional just war theory emphasizes the need to discriminate between enemy and civilian targets and the use of proportionate force in order to minimize innocent casualties and unnecessary damage – the Israelis observed neither of those points. In regards to the point of proportionate force, in the “Gaza War,” the United Nations reported between 1,387 and 1,444 Palestinians killed and 13 Israelis killed (3 were civilians killed by the initial, isolated rocket attack that sparked the fight and 4 soldiers were killed by friendly fire). That leaves 6 Israelis killed in action in this “war.” Given these numbers, I think it is fair to say that there was no war in Gaza – it was a massacre.
Given the evidence, the Israeli image of fighting in a just manner is nothing more than a myth – a myth used not only by the Israeli government, but also by Christian Zionists in America. There is a denial of history in the Christian Zionist narrative – it is no wonder that the ethics of supporting a Jewish homeland are hardly ever questioned. The Zionist movement is one of colonialism – it developed only recently in history and required a substantial number of Jews to leave their homes and make the move to Palestine, which was overwhelmingly populated by Arabs at the time. The Zionist movement is necessarily one of violent displacement – if the Jews are to make Palestine completely Jewish, then the native population must be removed.
One of the biggest problems that Christian Zionists have is the question of how to justify supporting a movement that is necessarily based on colonialism and violent displacement of a native population. That many of the natives are Christians makes this even more challenging. It seems that those who subscribe to Christian Zionism, when faced with evidence that counters their narrative, are faced with a choice between their own interpretation of Scripture and the clear commandment left to us by Christ himself: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Are we to believe that ignoring the suffering of our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land is the loving thing to do? Is this how we should carry out Christ’s commandment? What are Christian Zionists to say when our Lord said, this: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” I wonder what a Christian Zionist living in the American “Bible Belt” would say if a representative from the United Nations came to his house and told him that he had to leave the home his family had known for generations because the land was promised to someone else thousands of years ago.
This provides a small glimpse into the moral question of unconditional support for the state of Israel and the Zionist movement in general. On one hand, those who hold to Christian Zionist thought firmly believe that they are carrying out the will of God. They see a 100% Jewish homeland in Palestine as indispensible to their literal reading of the Bible and the eschatology that emerges from such a reading. Once their goal is accomplished, they believe the conditions will be set for Christ’s Second Coming. On the other hand, serious questions arise from this single-minded focus on the establishment and preservation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This conflict in one way or another has affected millions of people and as the conflict continues to be waged, I cannot help but think of what Jesus taught us. As I have studied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Scripture over the last few years, I am convinced that Christ’s commandments to love one another (this includes our fellow Christians and our neighbors as well as our enemies) supersedes a certain interpretation of Scripture concocted by fringe groups of Protestants living over a thousand years after Pentecost and the foundation of the Church.
The Christian Zionist interpretation of Scripture through the lens of Dispensational theology is oriented more toward politics than it is to carrying out Christ’s commandments. It must, by necessity, be oriented this way because they see a specific set of conditions that must be fulfilled if Christ is to return. Therefore, they carry out morally dubious policies – policies that harm their Arab brothers and sisters in Christ. For Christian Zionists, the means justify the end – no matter how horrifying the means (or even the end) may be.
This interpretation of Scripture is fundamentally flawed, as it can easily lead to the hardening of one’s heart. In focusing so single-mindedly on the goal of establishing a 100% Jewish homeland, one must attempt to justify an ideology that has been the source of an immense amount of pain, suffering, and death. In doing so, part of the God-given ability to empathize with fellow human beings becomes degraded. It is no wonder that Christian Zionism has produced figures such as John Hagee – founder of Christian United for Israel.
As a small example of the kind of thinking produced within this school of thought, I will note what Hagee said in his post-September 11 book Attack on America: New York, Jerusalem, and the Role of Terrorism in the Last Days. In regards to why the United States was attacked on that day, Hagee wrote: “America has committed every sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, and just as God’s judgment came to Sodom and Gomorrah, it is now being poured out upon America. Without a national day of repentance, the judgment will not be over by any stretch of the imagination.” Believing that Hagee is correct – that thousands of innocents died as the result of American depravity and wickedness – truly requires one to stretch the imagination. Hagee wrote, “America has mocked God” and embraced paganism, all the while worshiping money and claiming to be a Christian nation. The ignorance and irony coming from Hagee is shocking.
There was no consideration of the role of American foreign policy in discussing why America was attacked on that day. The cause could not possibly be the occupation of Muslim land, meddling in the internal affairs of Muslim nations, or decades of supporting oppressive regimes – it was clearly because Americans were watching pornography, tolerating homosexuals, and worshipping at the altar of the all-mighty dollar. That last bit about money is especially ironic – given Hagee’s inclination toward the “prosperity gospel.” Perhaps Mr. Hagee should have been more careful when he used language about “mocking God.” This kind of language might be expected from an average, uneducated proponent of Christian Zionism, but Hagee is one of the major figures of the movement. Hagee’s writing is a clear example of the kind of callous, poisonous thoughts that are a product of the Christian Zionist interpretation of Scripture.
I have a final thought for this section, inspired by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo. If those like Mr. Hagee are so concerned with idolatry in America, perhaps they should look to their own ideology, which is guilty of making an idol of the modern state of Israel. Like Mr. Hagee, Christian Zionists, in carrying out their policies in the name of God and the nation of Israel, do not see that they have become the oppressor instead of following Christ’s example of co-suffering love for all.
An Inconsistent God?
Now, with two critiques of Christian Zionist thought in mind, I will move on to my third major point. As I begin, it is important to remember that there are some essential ideas and non-essential ideas within Dispensationalist thought, and there is not necessarily a canon of essential ideas. Some Dispensationalist theologians find some ideas essential where others do not. Regardless of how a Dispensationalist might use Scripture to justify certain ideas within Dispensational theology, however, the resulting characteristics give the impression of a God who is utterly inconsistent in his dealings with the human race.
There are some general characteristics to bear in mind here – Larry V. Crutchfield provides a good evaluation of what these characteristics are. According to Crutchfield, there are three “primary” characteristics of each dispensation (or period of history in which God deals with humanity in a new, specific way): administration, responsibility, and revelation. There are also three other “secondary” characteristics: test, failure, and judgment.
Essentially, all three of the primary characteristics flow into one another. By “administration”, all that is meant is that God governs humanity in a specific way during each dispensation. God does this by placing a new, specific responsibility on humanity through a unique revelation, which begins the new period of administration. Interestingly enough, in explaining the characteristic of revelation, Crutchfield makes the claim that God does not hold humanity responsible for something that was not revealed to them. In other words, God does not hold humanity “accountable for something that did not exist.”
This poses a bit of a problem, though. If God reveals his requirements for humanity in specific instances and does not hold anyone accountable for something required in a future dispensation, then how can Dispensationalists deal with the problem of sin in the Old Testament – Genesis in particular, before the 10 Commandments were given or “revealed” to Moses? Are we to believe that God did not hold people accountable for violating the tenets of the Commandments before they were revealed? Scripture simply cannot support this idea – of course people were held accountable for their actions. All one has to do is look at the story of Cain and Abel – Cain was responsible for the murder of his brother even before the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” was explicitly given or “revealed.” The Dispensationalist approach paints a picture of a God who is only consistent in his inconsistent treatment of and requirements for humanity.
The secondary characteristics (test, failure, judgment) also require some further exploration. The test is “essentially the same as the responsibility.” In each dispensation, God gives humans a new set of responsibilities and then waits to see if they will live up to them. The second characteristic, failure, means exactly what one would imagine – humanity has failed every test set in front of us by God. We failed to live up to our responsibilities. Finally, there is the secondary characteristic of judgment. This is also fairly straightforward. Once humanity fails to live up to their responsibility, God decides to judge humanity in a unique way at the end of each period of administration. For example, the Flood can be seen as a particular judgment that ended a unique period of administration.
This leaves room for one to wonder if there is some inconsistency in the cosmic pattern of Dispensationalist thought. After all, in each period of time, human beings were always free to obey or disobey God – humanity could choose whether or not to live up to the responsibility set up by God at the beginning of each dispensation. At each dispensation, though, humanity failed in some way – there was always a failure to live up to the divine responsibility. When that happened, God adjusted his plan and acted in the world in another way.
Even if one were to allow the idea that God works in the world in this pattern of dispensations, there seems to be a problem in our present dispensation. In each previous dispensation, humanity was given a certain responsibility from God, who then took more or less of a “wait and see” approach to the events of the world and the fate of humanity. The destiny of those with whom God was working was essentially in their own hands – they could choose to obey God and live or they could fail and face the consequences. According to Crutchfield, humanity is currently in the “Dispensation of Grace”, which began with the establishment of the Church and will ultimately lead to the End for this world.
The very term “Dispensation of Grace” shows some inconsistency on God’s part in Dispensationalist thought. If we are now living under a period of grace, where we are saved through faith in Jesus Christ, then the implication is that grace is something new for God – this is God’s new way of dealing with the world. The term implies that grace was not part of who God was in the past – it was not how he operated in the world. Instead of being a part of God’s eternal and uncreated energies and nature, grace is something that God decided to extend to his creatures at the proverbial last minute. It is almost as if, after seeing humanity fail test after test, he decided to finally step in and handle things himself.
Moreover, under this new (and present) dispensation, human beings seem to have less freedom than our predecessors. In the previous dispensations, humans were free to fail and then God would judge them and create a new set of rules for the world. With this dispensation, on the other hand, things seem much more determined – there is no room for failure or redemption on the part of humanity. There is simply the time we have in this dispensation – no more, no less. I wonder, though, if God is really in control of this period and if nothing human beings choose to do (or not do) can alter it, then why would Christian Zionists be so focused on creating the right set of circumstances for Christ to return? Would it not be more sensible to step back, let God take control, and try to love and help as many people as possible before the terrible and final End?
It makes more sense to interpret the Scriptures in the following way, through the lens of the New Testament and the teachings of God the Son: God is consistently full of love and mercy and has always required love and mercy from his beloved creatures that were created in his image– from Beginning to End. After all, Christians should know that God does not change (Hebrews 13:8 and James 1:17). This is why God said, “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” The Lord reiterated this point during his time on earth, as we can see in Matthew 12:7-8. In fact, much of Christ’s ministerial work involved the clarification of his requirements for humanity, as the message had become distorted over time through the Law. Jesus said many times, “You have heard that it was said… but I say to you…” Christ was able to speak with this kind of authority because he was there before the foundations of the world and therefore knew what has always been required of humanity.
If one reads the Old Testament from the perspective of the New, then one can finally see what the Old Testament is trying to teach us. The story of Israel is ultimately the story of all humanity. While humanity has fallen, God has always been trying to call us back home – he has always been looking to redeem us; not judge and punish us. Time and again, Israel violated her relationship with God and each time God called Israel back to himself. All of the ancient prophecies and promises were made in anticipation of the day when the Word would finally come into this world to fulfill God’s promise to Abraham – redeeming the world once and for all. This is the God of Abraham and Jacob – the loving Father, the Ancient of Days – who is always working to bring his children home. The Lord has always been consistent in his relationship to humanity, though one might not know it from the confusing theories put forward by Dispensationalist theologians.
Does God Know Us?
If the Dispensationalist reading of Scripture as a record of human history is taken seriously, then I think one can easily get the impression that God does not know his creation very well – he is detached from his creatures. The Zionists put forth a pattern of administrations being broken down into a given responsibility, human failure, and divine judgment repeats several times throughout the Bible, but Christian Zionists fail to account for the logical conclusion of this pattern: God does not understand the creatures he made in his own image. A brief look at the first few dispensations will illustrate this point quite well.
The first dispensation – life in the Garden of Eden before the Fall – was an administrative period in which humanity was responsible for upholding one thing. All Adam and Eve had to do was take care of the Garden and make sure that they did not eat from the forbidden tree. As we know, Adam and Eve failed to live up to the divinely appointed responsibility and they were judged accordingly – the death sentence was applied to Adam and Eve and all of their offspring. This was the divine judgment for failure in the first dispensation – death. So God then had to decide what to do next.
Until the Promise to Abraham, God’s requirements were relatively ambiguous as far as dispensations are concerned. Crutchfield breaks the next dispensations down into one of “Conscience” and another of “Human Government” found in Genesis 4:1 – Genesis 11:26. Since humanity had failed to keep one simple rule and now had knowledge of what was good and what was evil, humanity was now required to abide by conscience. During this time, God also began requiring the sacrifice of animals – if the right kind of animal was butchered in the right way at the right time, then God would be satisfied. But if a person violated his or her conscience and failed to make the right sacrifices, then judgment would be inevitable. Aside from the general depravity and disobedience found in these dispensations, there were some major failures recorded; here, we see the murder of Abel, the Great Flood, and the Tower of Babel – all great failures that carried great judgments.
Humanity, through the Israelites, later received the Ten Commandments (which were broken, literally and figuratively, almost immediately) and the Mosaic Law. So humanity could not obey one command in the Garden, could not follow conscience, could not keep ten explicit commandments, and certainly could not keep the Law. At each failure, God deals out harsh judgment and then decides to give humanity even more responsibility – multiplying the number of requirements many times over. This pattern continued until a new dispensation began – one centered on Grace. Are we to believe that God thought we were capable of holding to these new, ever-greater requirements? If humans could not obey one simple command – do not eat from one, specific tree – then how could he expect us to live up to ten or more? The pattern gives the impression that God did not understand that humans were prone to failure and it’s not as if humans were not really expected to live up to these laws. Eating from the tree, engaging in idolatry, failure to sacrifice correctly, failure to follow conscience – all of these things carried very real and very harsh consequences.
There is another reading of this pattern, as I have mentioned earlier and I think this reading is something that is adding fuel to the fire for a new generation of atheists who are intent on bringing religion to a swift and decisive end. This new breed of atheist thinkers, like the late Christopher Hitchens, consistently argue for humanity’s need to be free from a God who they see as a force for evil in this world – although they say this God, thankfully, does not really exist. He is simply a force for evil through the imaginations of deluded and possibly mentally ill people.
Why would someone want to be free from this God? The answer lies, in no small measure, in readings of the Bible that run along the lines of Dispensationalist thought. One can read the Dispensationalist interpretation of Scripture as revealing an evil God. This is a God who, knowing that humans will fail each test set before them, waits until the right time and then delivers crushing judgments. In each administrative period, God knows full well that humans will fail and he knows how they will do it – yet he goes through with his designs for each period all the same. One might say that he set humanity up for failure and then waited to deal out the horrific punishment that he deemed appropriate for the dispensation – God is more or less toying with his creatures. Unless Christian Zionists are prepared to revise their views on the omniscience of God, then these are issues that they must deal with.
Throughout the Old Testament, one can find many descriptions of God. God is seen as merciful, just, loving, a shield, a guide through the wilderness, the origin of all things, and the great “I Am.” On the other hand, there are words used to describe God that are more often reserved for the more negative aspects of human nature. For example, “The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath.” In Exodus 20:5, God is also portrayed as being “jealous” and is one who has no qualms about “punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” Many other passages in the Old Testament attest to God’s wrath, anger, desire for revenge, and the punishment of his enemies. So which is it – is God merciful, just, forgiving, and the Father and guardian of humanity or is he vengeful, spiteful, angry, and jealous? Is God schizophrenic?
One of the key, universal aspects of Christian Zionist interpretations of Scripture is the use of a literal interpretation of the Bible. If one follows this hermeneutical principal, then one must own up to the negative aspects of God as much as the good. Dispensationalists cannot get away from these negative portrayals of God. They must either attempt to justify the anger, jealousy, and even genocide attributed to God in the Old Testament or they have make the move that God’s nature is a mysterious paradox beyond human comprehension. They tend to say that these emotions and traits are seen as bad or evil in humans does not matter – because God exhibits these traits, they become a “holy” or “righteous” anger or jealousy or genocide. This move is exactly why atheist thinkers such as Hitchens are gaining such a large following – they are simply pointing out the flaws that are inherent in interpretations of Scripture along the lines of Dispensationalism.
It is no wonder that they wish to be free from the God of Christian Zionists – if God was actually like what the Dispensationalists have in mind, I would want to be free from him, too. Who, in their right mind, would wish to worship a petty and jealous God who cannot handle some finite creatures who choose to disobey his arbitrary rules? What is worse, this jealous God has proven that he will go to extraordinary measures to deal out devastating punishments for those who become his enemies (which accounts for the vast majority of human beings who ever lived according to the Christian Zionist interpretation, by the way). I think Rob Bell said it best: “Often times when I meet atheists and we talk about the god they don’t believe in, we quickly discover that I don’t believe in that god either.”
Thankfully, the Dispensationalist approach is not the only option available to Christians. Instead of an approach that can all too easily lead to seeing God as disconnected or cruel, one can read the Bible in a way that shows God as intimately involved in the life of humanity and full of love and grace. In order to put this approach together, one must understand that God is the same now as he was in the Old Testament. This divine attribute – the immutability of God – can be found in the Old and New Testaments. Malachi 3:6 says, “I the Lord do not change” and we see in James 1:17 that all good gifts are “from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” Those are comforting passages – especially when one begins to think about how to treat passages in the Old Testament that seem to cast doubt on the immutable goodness and transcendence of God.
I mentioned before that one must interpret the Old Testament in light of the New. So when we see passages in the Old Testament that seem to run contrary to what has been revealed to us about God in and through Jesus Christ, we must realize that the New Testament and the life and teachings of Jesus take precedence. Because we know that God is unchanging, it stands to reason that God the Son, as an eternal Person of the Triune God, would have been the same during the time of the Old Testament as he was during his ministry on earth.
What we see in the life of Jesus Christ is a life centered on healing. Everywhere Jesus went, he worked to heal people in any way that was required – he healed people physically, emotionally, and spiritually. His concern was to reach out to those who needed him the most – this often meant spending time with people who were largely written off by society and the Law as irredeemable “sinners” or outcasts in one way or another. The Lord was focused on relentlessly pursuing the “lost sheep,” which was illustrated perfectly in Luke 15:3-7. Jesus did not come to judge and punish – people living in sin or those who were marginalized were in enough pain already – Jesus came to heal and rescue.
The Gospel is “good news” because anyone who listens and hears will understand that God – the one who was there before the foundations of the world – is truly a God of love and mercy. He is a Father who loves and pursues his children – especially the lost ones. What could be better news than hearing about how Jesus Christ – the eternally begotten Son of the Father – came to the world to show us what God is really like and what he requires of us? And instead of judgment and condemnation, the Lord came in a spirit of co-suffering love. That is why the Gospel is called “good news.” In addition to the promises and prophecies in the Old Testament that point toward the coming Messiah (which illustrate how God truly understood the fallen nature of humanity and the need for healing and restoration), the very fact that God put on flesh and experienced life as a human being is a powerful piece of evidence that God does understand us and is intimately involved in the life and ultimate fate of humanity.
It is also important to keep in mind that because we have a true picture of what God is like from what was revealed to us in Christ, we can have a better grasp on the ultimate meaning and nature of the Old Testament. In examining the life of Christ, it is clear enough that God is not full of wrath or jealousy or vengefulness. On the contrary, God is full of grace and mercy and always has been (because we know that God does not change). So how is one to interpret these passages in the Old Testament where God seems petty or jealous? Quite simply, the Old Testament should be read as a set of books that are just as much about humanity’s tendency to fall into idolatry and selfishness and project human passions onto God as it is a record containing prophecy, promises, and historical data. In reading the Old Testament this way, one can avoid the pitfalls of Dispensationalism and see a new, more consistent pattern to God’s work in the world – work centered on the same thing that Christ focused on in his ministry: redemption.
While Dispensationalist theologians look back to the Old Testament and focus on the fate of one tribe amongst the innumerable people who have lived in this world, a better reading that takes all of the Bible and God’s unfailing and unchangingly loving and merciful nature into account would focus on something even grander – the redemption of all people. To quote Rob Bell: “God has a purpose. A desire. A goal. And God never stops pursuing it.” God’s desire ultimately concerns the redemption of the world – not just one race and then a select few who chose to believe and follow Jesus.
Does God Have Limits?
The final critique of Christian Zionist readings of Scripture has to do with one characteristic of Dispensationalism that is universal across Dispensationalist writings – the distinction between Israel and the Church. Generally speaking, Christian Zionists make a clear distinction between the nation of Israel, the Church, and then the coming kingdom of God in which Christ will reign and fulfill all Old Testament prophecy.
To be clear about what is meant by this major piece of Dispensational theology, I think it will be helpful to flesh out some details on this distinction between Israel and the Church. Dale S. DeWitt does an exceptional job of unpacking a very complicated subject within Dispensational theology. DeWitt points out, first, that many critics of Dispensationalism tend to focus on the Dispensationalist emphasis on a physical, earthly kingdom of a restored Israel from which Christ will reign over the world. While the physical aspect is certainly there for Dispensationalists and it is heavily emphasized, DeWitt claims that Dispensationalists do not forget the spiritual side of the kingdom of God – he calls it an “integrative” way of looking at Israel’s role in the coming kingdom. While Dispensationalists look to the future of a fully realized Davidic kingdom, they also acknowledge the presence of the spiritual reality of the kingdom of God in the present day.
I do not count myself among those who would accuse Dispensationalists as being solely focused on the physical aspect of God’s kingdom. Having been raised in a school where Dispensationalism was the norm, I am familiar with the idea of a coming “integrated” spiritual and physical kingdom. I will critique, however, the strange and myopic nature of this coming earthly kingdom. Even if one grants the spiritual side of the Dispensationalist’s vision of God’s future kingdom, I find it odd that God would be so focused on a particular tract of land that was promised to a small nomadic tribe thousands of years ago. I will elaborate on this point shortly. For now, I will finish clearing up what is meant by the distinction between Israel and the Church and how it limits what God has done in Jesus Christ – indeed, what God has been doing throughout human history.
While it is true that the ancient nation of Israel is not the Church, the Dispensationalist reading of this distinction can be troubling. For instance, some Dispensationalists teach that there are two distinct paths to salvation or two apostolic gospels, and some have proposed the idea of two distinct covenants that must be carried out. Although DeWitt acknowledges the fact that these theories within Dispensationalism are extreme, he cannot deny that they are parts of that school of thought – and these are serious heresies. They deny the universal scope of the work of Jesus Christ; they deny the value of the blood he shed at his death on the Cross, and the universal significance of his resurrection. Even in examining Christ’s life and ministry, the focus for Dispensationalists is Israel – the idea is that Jesus was “fixing his ministry on Israel.”
This mistake can be corrected rather easily – even a cursory look at the life of Jesus reveals that he was not concerned with Israel per se (even if one were to grant the idea that Israel existed as a nation in its full form during Christ’s ministry, which is not accurate). In John 4, we see Jesus deliberately sitting and speaking with a Samaritan woman and in so doing, reaching out to her in love. In Matthew 8: 5-13, Jesus commended a Gentile – a Roman centurion, no less, for his great faith. The parable of the Good Samaritan is also instructive – in Luke 10: 25-37, Jesus upholds the Samaritan as the righteous one for everyone to emulate. In all these stories, we see instances where Jesus shows that he is not limited by using race as any sort of criterion to judge a person. He is not concerned with lineage or ethnicity – he is looking at the faith of each individual.
Finally, Dispensationalism is limiting to God because of its strange fixation on a small piece of land in the Middle East. Even in their conception of a “millennial kingdom” where Jesus rules a restored Israel from the throne of David, the kingdom itself is limited in scope. That is to say, while Israel is restored to its full promised boundaries and is in full communion with God, the actual kingdom that Jesus reigns over is limited to the piece of land promised to Israel in the Old Testament. While that kingdom will have great influence and power, the kingdom itself does not extend over a fully transfigured world.
In their obsession with a stretch of desert, I think charges of idolatry are justified when discussing Dispensationalists. The whole fixation on a relatively small territory promised to a small, nomadic tribe that was scattered thousands of years ago is very strange indeed. Even if the nation of Israel still existed in a relatively intact form, the fact that this tribe remained together and ethnically pure still would not matter in the end for this discussion because ethnicity never really mattered – and neither did the land.
Leviticus 19:33-34 is very clear: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” The opportunity to a part of Israel was open to everyone – the emphasis on lineage or race was simply not there. If someone wished to join the Israelites and be a part of their relationship with God, then they were welcome and were to be treated as equals. Ultimately, what mattered was the Israelites relationship with God and other human beings.
In fact, the Apostle Paul has further clarified this issue in Romans 4 and Galatians 3:6-9, explaining that Abraham was justified by faith and those who have faith are the real children of Abraham. Indeed, in Galatians 3:28, St. Paul explains that there is no distinction between Jew or Gentile. In Romans 4:10-12, St. Paul says that God was interested in finding a man of faith – not someone with a certain ethnicity of set of physical traits or even religious practices. The Bible is very clear – God is not interested in race or lineage, he is interested in faith! Faith, we see, is not something that was reserved for those in the present dispensation.
Moreover, grace is not a new characteristic of the current dispensation either. Romans 5:8 shows us that God demonstrates his love for humanity in this way: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” In other words, even before the Dispensation of Grace began, God was still merciful and graceful towards us in coming to the earth through the mystery of the Incarnation. Moreover, was Abraham worthy of God’s grace toward him? After all, Abraham had to be justified by faith just as we do. Before Abraham had done anything, even before he believed, God was merciful and graceful toward him. The Lord is indeed always the same – in Abraham’s day as well as today.
So to say that God is or ever was fixated or even mostly concerned with a specific people in a specific part of the world does not do him justice. Saying that the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of the world has picked one race – one people as “special” – out of the thousands upon thousands of tribes and nations that have exited in this world is simply not doing justice to the universal lordship of God over all people. While there is a distinction between the old Israel and the Church, to distinguish between them in a way that puts God in a kingdom centered on a patch of desert with one people and a select few Gentiles who believed during the Church Age is incredibly limiting to God. Would the Ancient of Days really be so concerned with people of a certain lineage inhabiting a small stretch of land at a specific time in order to return? While God’s essence is beyond human comprehension, we do know something of God’s nature because of what we learned from the Son of God when he lived amongst his creatures. We know that he is interested in forgiveness, redemption, love, grace, mercy, and healing for all people – our Lord Jesus Christ, being present before all ages, had a much broader outlook than what Christian Zionists give him credit for.
The five critiques of Christian Zionist interpretations of Scripture that I have provided here are hardly exhaustive. This has been my attempt, as a former Christian Zionist, to step back and examine some of the flaws of my old beliefs. There are many other points that I could have raised, but I thought the five points here provided a good summary of the major problems that I see in Christian Zionist interpretations of Scripture.
Frankly, I think Christian Zionism is dead in the water from the beginning. The entire school of thought is, first, based on the distinction between the ancient nation of Israel and the Church – and they do it in such a way that assumes that a modern state of Israel would necessarily be the equivalent of the ancient nation of Israel seen in the Bible. The problem is that the nation of Israel in the Old Testament was scattered and lost – the Jewish diaspora over the centuries has also further diluted the Semitic lineage from that original people. Moreover, one should not take Zionism to be a core part of Christian teaching. It is difficult to make the argument from Scripture and even more difficult to make an argument from the teaching of the primitive Church. An idea that took form only two centuries ago should not be considered to be a core part of Christianity.
Along these lines, Christian Zionism (indeed, Zionism in general) got its start in a highly politically charged culture – nationalism was at a fever pitch throughout Europe and a few evangelical Christians thought it only appropriate for the Jews living amongst them to have their own nation (an idea that most Jews resisted at the time). Christian Zionism was just as much a political innovation as it was theological. Indeed, it is necessarily political, as the idea revolves around the idea of the establishment of a 100% Jewish state in Palestine.
This also brings up another problem with this particular interpretation of the Bible – the ethical considerations (or lack thereof on the part of Christian Zionists). Because of the political nature of Christian Zionism, political decisions must be made and there are ethical consequences to those decisions. Once the move to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine was made, it was effectively a death sentence for tens of thousands (or more) native Arabs – Zionism is, at its core, a colonial movement and it has exhibited all the brutality that we have seen from colonial movements in the past. The Christian Zionist interpretation of Scripture is destructive and it harms fellow Christians as much as it does Muslim Arabs. So in order to carry out the political implications of this view of the Bible, Christian Zionists must ignore a command given by Christ – that his disciples are to love one another. Christ’s commandment to treat others, as we would wish to be treated, is also ignored.
Christian Zionism, through the Dispensationalist school, also portrays God as being utterly inconsistent. How free are human beings under the Dispensationalist view? Moreover, why does God operate through grace for only a short period? After all, if God is consistent or immutable, then he should be the same throughout all times. A better reading of Scripture reveals that God is indeed consistent – he is consistently graceful and merciful.
The Dispensationalist interpretation of Scripture also conjures up an image of God as disconnected at best – or quite possibly even cruel. God either has no idea what his creatures will do under ever-increasing responsibilities and then fumbles around for a new way of dealing with the world, or God knows exactly what human beings will do and then gives these laws knowing that failure is inevitable – and then deals out horrific punishments at the appointed moment. A proper reading of Scripture, on the other hand, shows that God is intimately involved with humanity – even to the point of taking on human flesh and human nature so that he might identify with us, teach us his ways, and ultimately redeem the human race.
Finally, Christian Zionism is simply a way of thinking that portrays a limited God. The argument is that God must fulfill his promise to Abraham and fully restore Israel and they see the modern state of Israel as the means by which God is fulfilling this promise as we near the End. Would “I Am,” the eternal and Triune God really be so fixated on one people and one stretch of land? I don’t think this is even remotely plausible. Reading the old covenant through the lens of the New Testament gives us a clear understanding – that God has always been interested in faithfulness, not a certain race or nation. The real covenant is one of faith – it was given to humanity from the beginning and reached its fullness in the work of Jesus Christ, who expanded this promise to all people. Even if there were two covenants – one dealing with a promise to Abraham and sealed with circumcision and the blood of animals according to the Law, and another covenant of faith sealed with the blood of Jesus Christ, why would anyone wish to look back instead of looking to the Cross of Jesus?
Even if one subscribes to the hermeneutic of a literal interpretation of Scripture as the overwhelming majority of Christian Zionists do, then their view of the two covenants simply do not hold up from a Christian perspective. A Dispensationalist view can, as we have seen, lead to the idea that there are two separate paths to salvation – being a part of the old covenant (Israel) or the new covenant (Church). The problem here centers directly on the Cross of Jesus. If Jesus’ blood acted as the seal of the new covenant, then would his blood not supersede the blood of lambs and bulls? Is the blood of Jesus not enough to cover Israel? If one is a Christian, then the answer should be “of course it is enough!” The blood of Jesus was shed for Jew and Gentile alike – that we would all become one under Christ.
I will finish here in saying that I understand the Dispensationalist concern for those who subscribe to Replacement theology. From a linguistic standpoint, “replacement” means that the latter takes the place of the former, and the former is discarded. I would not dream of saying that the Jews have been cast away from God. I do think, however, that the principle behind Replacement theology is correct – the blood of Jesus takes precedence over the blood of animals and specific ethnic ties. The Son and his work in this world, goes beyond all boundaries – he demonstrated that he is full of love and mercy and requires that those faithful to him be merciful and loving. He was not concerned with race – he wanted to show mercy to those in need, regardless of what background they came from. The coming of Jesus Christ into this world shows us that the real covenant was always one of faith and it has been extended to all people – Jew and Gentile alike.
Amnesty International, “Gaza Blockade – Humanitarian Crisis” under “Israel and the
Occupied Palestinian Territories – Amnesty International Report 2010.” http://www.amnesty.org/en/region/israel-occupied-palestinian-territories/report-2010.
Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, “Old Testament Christians”, allsaintsmonastery youtube
channel, uploaded September 16, 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wkebgg46HQ4.
Awad, Alex. Palestinian Memories: The Story of a Palestinian Mother and Her People.
Jerusalem: Bethlehem Bible College, 2008.
Bell, Rob. Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who
Ever Lived. New York: HarperOne, 2011.
Breaking the Silence, Soldiers’ Testimonies from Operation Cast Lead, Gaza 2009.
Brog, David. Standing with Israel: Why Christians Support the Jewish State.
Lake Mary, FL: Front Line, 2006.
Crutchfield, Larry V. The Origins of Dispensationalism: The Darby Factor. Lanham,
MD: University Press of America, Inc., 1992.
DeWitt, Dale S. Dispensational Theology in America During the Twentieth Century: Theological Development and Cultural Context. Grand Rapid, MI: Grace Bible College Publications, 2002.
Finkelstein, Norman G. Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict. New York:
Hagee, John. Attack on America: New York, Jerusalem, and the Role of Terrorism in the
Last Days. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001.
Khoury, Maria C. “Taybeh’s Plea for the Last Christians of the Holy Land.” Road To
Emmaus 11, no. 4 (September 1, 2010): 3-43.
Lewis, Donald M. The Origins of Christian Zionism: Lord Shaftesbury and Evangelical
Support for a Jewish Homeland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
Mearsheimer, John J., and Walt, Stephen M. The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.
New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007.
Pappe, Ilan. The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2008.
United Nations. Human Rights Council. A/HRC/12/48. Human Rights in Palestine
and Other Occupied Arab Territories: Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, 2009.
 See The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt. Maria C. Khoury also expounds upon the influence of American Christians in the Lobby in the article “Taybeh’s Plea for the Last Christians of the Holy Land” in Road to Emmaus Vol. XI, No. 4 (#43) (Fall 2010).
 Amnesty International has described the Israeli measures against the Palestinians as a “flagrant violation of international law” in the report: “Gaza Blockade – Humanitarian Crisis” under “Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories – Amnesty International Report 2010”, http://www.amnesty.org/en/region/israel-occupied-palestinian-territories/report-2010.
 Genesis 12:3 (New International Version).
 Genesis 22:18 (New American Standard Bible).
 Alex Awad, Palestinian Memories: The Story of a Palestinian Mother and Her People (Jerusalem: Bethlehem Bible College, 2008), 96.
 Alex Awad, Palestinian Memories. 96-97.
 Maria C. Khoury, “Taybeh’s Plea”, 6 and Alex Awad, Palestinian Memories. 96-97.
 David Brog, Standing With Israel: Why Christians Support the Jewish State (Lake Mary, FL: FrontLine, 2006), 42.
 Ibid, 43.
 Ibid, 44.
 Ibid, 45.
 Donald M. Lewis, The Origins of Christian Zionism: Lord Shaftesbury and Evangelical Support for a Jewish Homeland (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 7.
 Ibid, 7-8.
 Ibid, 1-3.
 Ibid, 4.
 Alex Awad, Palestinian Memories, 96-97.
 Norman G. Finkelstein, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (New York: Verso, 2001), 89-92.
 Ibid, 98-107.
 Ibid, 110.
 Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2008), 133-135.
 Breaking the Silence, Soldiers’ Testimonies from Operation Cast Lead, Gaza 2009,
 United Nations Human Rights Council, A/HRC/12/48, Human Rights in Palestine and Other Occupied Arab Territories: Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, 2009, 14.
 Ibid, 15.
 Ibid, 16-17.
 Ibid, 10.
 John 13:34-35.
 Matthew 7:12.
 John Hagee, Attack on America: New York, Jerusalem, and the Role of Terrorism in the Last Days (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001), 11.
 Ibid, 8.
 Ibid, 10.
 Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, “Old Testament Christians”, allsaintsmonastery youtube channel.
 Larry V. Crutchfield, The Origins of Dispensationalism: The Darby Factor (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc., 1992), 26-27.
 Ibid, 26.
 Ibid, 27.
 Ibid, 38.
 Hosea 6:6 (NIV).
 Ibid, 35-36.
 Nahum 1:2a (NIV).
 Ibid, 31.
 Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 9.
 Rob Bell, Love Wins, 101.
 Dale S. DeWitt, Dispensational Theology in America During the Twentieth Century: Theological Development and Cultural Context (Grand Rapid, MI: Grace Bible College Publications, 2002), 63-64.
 Ibid, 65.
 Ibid, 65-66.
 Ibid, 67.
 Ibid, 66-67.