Understanding Christian Zionism | thebereancall.org

Wilkinson, Paul Richard

An excerpt from the book by Paul Wilkinson

Christian Zionism is an umbrella term under which many Christians who support Israel have congregated. However, although there is broad agreement among those who acknowledge God’s prophetic purposes for Israel, and who point to 1948 as the fulfilment of prophecy, there is considerable disagreement relating to the interpretation of those scriptures that speak of the Rapture of the church, the identity and role of the Antichrist, the Great Tribulation, and the Second Coming. I believe that Christian Zionism, properly defined, incorporates the following key elements:

  1. A clear, biblical distinction between Israel and the church.
  2. The any moment, pre-tribulation Rapture of the church.
  3. The return of the Jews to the Land.
  4. The rebuilding of the Temple.
  5. The rise of the Antichrist.
  6. A seven-year period known as the Great Tribulation.
  7. The national salvation of the Jews.
  8. The return of Christ to Jerusalem.
  9. The thousand-year reign of Christ on earth.

In presenting this working definition, I have no wish to alienate any Christian friend of Israel. However, such a definition is necessary in order to dispel confusion, correct misunderstanding, and provide a sound, biblical foundation on which to base that “friendship” and support. Consequently, I will, on occasion, quote from those who would not subscribe to my definition, but whose contributions I consider to be of value.

The Zionist Badge

According to Edward Flannery, without Christian Zionism “it is highly unlikely that the present State of Israel would have come into being so rapidly as it did.” The Encyclopaedia of Zionism and Israel also credits Christian Zionism with having had “a direct bearing” on the Zionist movement, while Lawrence Epstein suggests that too few people realise “how much Christians have contributed to the Zionist movement and to the nation of Israel.”

Many Christians have chosen to wear the Zionist badge as a mark of solidarity with the Jewish people and the Jewish State, and as a way of distancing themselves from those within the church who have replaced Israel theologically and opposed her politically. In his book, Standing with Israel: Why Christians Support the Jewish State (2006), Jewish writer David Brog describes Christian Zionists as “the ideological heirs of the righteous Gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust,” and those who today are “putting on the yellow star.”

The term favoured by historians when surveying Christian interest in the return of the Jews to the Land has been “Restorationism,” but this label is too broad and all encompassing and fails to account for theological intricacies. Since Christian Zionism is fundamentally eschatological, any survey that fails to get to grips with this theological vocabulary will be flawed. Although it is not easy to distinguish between the eschatological constellations that at first glance appear identical, care must be taken so that a correct identification of “Christian Zionism” can be made.

The Fundamentals of Christian Zionism

The Christian Zionist badge has been indiscriminately pinned on members of the professing church. This is particularly evident among liberal Protestants who have expressed solidarity with the Jewish State, either on humanitarian grounds, or to atone for crimes committed against the Jewish people in the name of Christianity, or simply as a means of upholding biblical concepts of liberation and social justice. However, the history of this liberal movement is relatively recent compared to its fundamentally biblical, evangelical, and eschatologically driven counterpart, and its impact marginal by comparison. One only has to consider the success of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, which sold 28 million copies during the 1970s, and the remarkable phenomenon of the Left Behind series of Rapture novels, which have frequently topped best-seller lists and “blown the lid off previous publishing records,” to appreciate the scale of a Christian Zionist tradition concerned, first and foremost, with pursuing a biblical “Road-map to peace.” Liberal Protestant theologians and sympathisers of Zionism, such as Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, may have hung their solidarity on scriptures concerned with social justice and liberation, but Christian Zionism as outlined in this book begins and ends with the Bible, and, more specifically, with a consistently literal interpretation of biblical prophecy. As Elishua Davidson summarises, “the whole prophetic biblical word is a blueprint for the future of Israel, the nations, and the world.” Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and particularly the Christadelphians have often been included in historical surveys of Restorationism and Christian Zionism, but this simply muddies the waters. Owing to their heterodoxy, these movements must be treated separately and their theology distinguished from that which is fundamentally Protestant and evangelical.

As the Encyclopaedia of Zionism and Israel has rightly stated, Christian Zionism is “a purely Christian affair” whose goals have “remained theological.” Far from being a contradiction in terms, it is the most appropriate label for distinguishing a fundamentally biblical, evangelical, and eschatological interest in Israel’s restoration from other expressions of pro-Israel sentiment.

The Church and Israel

Christian Zionists make a clear distinction between Israel and the church, insisting that the church is neither the “New,” “true,” nor “spiritual Israel.” According to Lewis Sperry Chafer, founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, “Israel has never been the Church, is not the Church now, nor will she ever be the Church.” According to Ramon Bennett, “When we speak of Israel’s God, or the God of Israel, we speak of the God of the physical nation of Israel—the Jewish people, not the Church. Israel is not a synonym for the Church.” Rob Richards, former UK director of the Church’s Ministry among Jewish People (CMJ), is even more succinct: “Israel is Israel is Israel.”

Christian Zionists believe that God is working out uniquely separate, albeit interrelated, purposes with Israel and the church. This distinction is rooted in the Abrahamic Covenant, which has been described as “the basis of the entire covenant program,” “the fountainhead of Bible prophecy,” and “absolutely pivotal in the entire structure of prophetic truth.” Thus although the church is comprised of “Abraham’s seed” (Galatians:3:29), it does not fulfil “the yet unfulfilled provisions of that covenant” that pertain to the nation of Israel, and which the prophets spoke so much about. Consequently, Paul’s statement that “all Israel will be saved” (Romans:11:26), described by Skevington Wood as “a crux exegetica in prophetic interpretation,” speaks not only of the salvation of individual Jews prior to Christ’s Second Coming but also of the future, national salvation of Israel when He returns to reign in Jerusalem. Israel thus exists as a nation outside the church, “with all of God’s promises and plans for her remaining in full force.” Christian Zionists make a further important distinction by insisting that the salvation of both the nation and the individual is mediated through the New Covenant in Christ. As Steve Maltz writes, “There’s no fast track to paradise for the chosen people,” since “Jews are not saved through Judaism, but through Jesus, like everyone else.”

The church has consistently spiritualised Israel’s blessings while interpreting her judgments literally. Basilea Schlink considers the transfer of one without the other to be “untruthful and impossible.” To paraphrase Michael Brown, one could no more convince the Jews in exile that God’s promise of restoration was figurative than one could convince them that their captivity was to be understood figuratively also. Consistency in interpretation demands that the “literality of the promised restoration would have to be just as real as the literality of the threatened judgment.” As the Lord Himself declared, “Just as I have brought all this great calamity on this people, so I will bring on them all the good that I have promised them” (Jeremiah:32:42).

The Land of Israel

Despite centuries of Diaspora wandering, the Jewish people have maintained a “Holy Land-centred faith,” their hearts longing for the promised return to Zion. Christian Zionists insist that the Land of Israel, the Jewish people, and the city of Jerusalem are “inextricably bonded together in a covenant relationship.” As Moishe Rosen points out, “God promised Abraham more than a nation of descendants. He promised a land.” This interrelationship between the people and the Land is said to be “the key which unlocks many prophetic secrets.” Johann Kurtz, in his History of the Old Covenant (1859), expressed it this way: “As the body is adapted and destined for the soul, and the soul for the body; so is Israel for that country and that country for Israel.”

Although many Jews have now returned to the Land, and the State of Israel has been re-established, Christian Zionists insist that Israel’s present territory is only a fraction of what was promised to Abraham (Genesis:15:18) and confirmed to Moses and Joshua (Numbers:34:3-12; Joshua:1:4). As Carment Urquhart wrote in 1945, “Palestine will never belong, by any real right of possession, to any people but the Jews…. When the Jews repent and accept the Lord Jesus they will be given not only Palestine but also all the rest of the great Land of Promise, and will be a blessing in the midst of the whole earth.” So central is the Land to their theology that Christian Zionists have described it as “the most important piece of real estate on earth,” “God’s geographical centre,” “the geographical platform on which the story of the Bible is staged,” “the focal point of the universe—for the outworking of the purposes of God,” “the centre of Divine dealings with nations,” “the spiritual navel of the world,” “the epicenter of human history,” and “ground zero for the end times.” In a similar vein, Jerusalem has been depicted as “a miraculous entity,” the only city on earth “not up for negotiation with anyone at any time for any reason,” and “ground zero for the future activities of the Antichrist” and for “God’s gracious redemption.” In his address to the Israeli Knesset on 5 December 1949, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion declared that “Jewish Jerusalem is an organic and inseparable part of the State of Israel, as it is an inseparable part of the history and religion of Israel and of the soul of our people.” Christian Zionists agree, although they assert that Jerusalem’s importance rests ultimately in the fact that it is “the city where God’s Son died for the sins of the world.” It therefore follows eschatologically that the Second Coming of Christ cannot be divorced from the place to which He will return, nor from the people to whom He will return. As Sydney Watson writes, “the Jewish question is infinitely more closely enwrapped with the fact of our Lord’s near return, than many speakers and writers give prominence to.”

The Abrahamic Covenant

Christian Zionists cite the Abrahamic Covenant as the basis of Israel’s right to possess the Land, claiming that God’s promises to Abraham were “quite specific and unambiguous,” having been sealed by an unconditional and everlasting covenant (Genesis:12:1-7; 15:18-21; 17:6-8; 26:3; 28:13-15; Hebrews:6:13-17). Murray Dixon notes that “God was the sole signatory” to this covenant, since only He passed through the animal pieces (Genesis:15:12-21). The inference drawn from Ancient Near Eastern custom is that in so doing, God invoked a curse upon Himself, should He ever break His promise. Tatford adds that “No provision was made for its revocation, and it was not subject to amendment or annulment.” Christian Zionists insist that this unconditional covenant, unlike the “conditional contract” of Sinai, has not been abrogated or superseded by the New Covenant. Whereas occupation of the Land was conditional upon obedience to the law of Moses, ownership was eternally guaranteed on the basis of God’s unilateral oath. Therefore despite periods of protracted exile, the relationship between the Jewish people and the Land was only “interrupted” and not “severed,” the return from exile being dependent entirely on God’s faithfulness to His covenant with Abraham. As the psalmist declared, God “remembers His covenant for ever, the word He commanded, for a thousand generations, the covenant He made with Abraham, the oath He swore to Isaac” (Psalm:105:8-9cf. Luke:1:54-55, 68-73). Paul confirms this in his letter to the Galatians when he writes:

…the law, which was four hundred and thirty years later, cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed before by God in Christ, that it should make the promise of no effect. For if the inheritance is of the law, it is no longer of promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise. (Galatians:3:17-18)

Although Christian Zionists cast those who deny Israel’s future restoration in the role of the “stay-at-home son” (Luke:15:11-32), they insist that it is not on the basis of merit that God is restoring Israel “but because He is a covenant-keeping Sovereign who has regard for His own reputation.” In the words of Dave Hunt, “God’s integrity is tied to Israel.” This inextricable link between the honour of God’s Name and the restoration of the Jews to the Land is highlighted in the following biblical prophecy:

Therefore say to the house of Israel, “Thus says the Lord GOD: I do not do this for your sake, O house of Israel, but for My holy name’s sake, which you have profaned among the nations wherever you went. And I will sanctify My great name, which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst; and the nations shall know that I am the LORD,” says the Lord GOD, “when I am hallowed in you before their eyes.” (Ezekiel:36:22-23)

If, as supersessionists believe, the Abrahamic Covenant was conditional, then, according to George Peters, “everything else is conditional; then the foundations of Christian hope crumble away beneath us, and nothing stable remains.” In other words, if Israel has been rejected by God and replaced by the church because of her failures, “can it not be equally argued that the Church has miserably failed God also?”