Why has Israel been the subject of more UN Resolutions than any other country in the world? And why has the USA vetoed virtually every single one of them? Why is Israel allowed to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons while other Middle East countries denied access to peaceful nuclear technology? Why such a close relationship between Israel and the United States of America? What is the fascination with Israel among Evangelical Christians in America?
There is a simple explanation. At least one in four American Christians surveyed recently by Christianity Today magazine said that they believe it is their biblical responsibility to support the nation of Israel. This view is known as Christian Zionism.
The Pew Research Center put the figure at 63 per cent among white evangelicals. Christian Zionism is therefore pervasive within American evangelical, charismatic and independent denominations including the Assemblies of God, Pentecostals and Southern Baptists, as well as many of the independent mega-churches and among television evangelists.
Christian Zionism is much less prevalent within the historic denominations (Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian), which show a greater respect for the work of the United Nations, support human rights, the rule of international law, empathize with the Palestinians and cooperate with the indigenous Middle East churches.
The Origins of Christian Zionism
The origins of the movement can be traced to the early 19th century when a group of eccentric British Christian leaders began to lobby for Jewish restoration to Palestine as a necessary precondition for the return of Christ. The movement gained traction from the middle of the 19th century when Palestine became strategic to British, French and German colonial interests in the Middle East. The Balfour Declaration secured Britain’s role in supervising the Zionist colonisation of Palestine. Proto-Christian Zionism therefore preceded Jewish Zionism by more than 50 years. Some of Theodore Herzl’s strongest advocates were actually Christian clergy.
For many American evangelicals, the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 came to be seen as the most significant fulfilment of biblical prophecy, and ‘the greatest piece of prophetic news that we have had in the 20th Century.’ The 1967 ‘Six Day War’ marked a further significant watershed for evangelical Christian interest in Israel and Zionism. Billy Graham’s father-in-law Nelson Bell, for example, then editor of Christianity Today, expressed the sentiments of many evangelicals when, in an editorial for the magazine he wrote,
‘for the first time in more than 2,000 years Jerusalem is now completely in the hands of the Jews gives a student of the Bible a thrill and a renewed faith in the accuracy and validity of the Bible.’
Followers of Christian Zionism are convinced that the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 and then the capture of Jerusalem in 1967, as well as the Sinai, Golan Heights and Palestinian West Bank, all in just six days was the miraculous fulfilment of God’s promises made to Abraham that he would establish Israel as a Jewish nation forever.
In 1976 a series of events brought Christian Zionism to the forefront of US mainstream politics. Jimmy Carter was elected as the ‘born again’ President drawing the support of the evangelical right. In 1977, in Israel, Menachem Begin and the right wing Likud Party came to power. A tripartite coalition slowly emerged between the US political Right, evangelicals Christians and the Jewish lobby, facilitated by church leaders such as Jerry Falwell.
For nearly 40 years the Zionist Christian Lobby has helped ensure almost complete bi-partisan support for Israel and antipathy toward Israel’s neighbours, in both the US Congress and Senate.
Burgeoning Christian Zionist organizations such as the International Christian Embassy (ICEJ), Christian Friends of Israel (CFI) and Christians United for Israel (CUFI) wield considerable influence on Capitol Hill, claiming a support base in excess of 50 million true believers.
This means there are now at least ten times as many Christian Zionists as Jewish Zionists. And their European cousins are no less active in the Zionist Hasbarafia, lobbying for Israel, attacking its critics and thwarting the peace process. The United States and Israel are often portrayed as Siamese twins, joined at the heart, sharing common historic, religious and political values.
Pastor John Hagee is one of the leaders of the Christian Zionist movement. He is the Founder and Senior Pastor of Cornerstone Church, a 19,000-member evangelical church in San Antonio, Texas. His weekly programmes are broadcast on 160 TV stations, 50 radio stations and eight networks into an estimated 99 million homes in 200 countries. In 2006 he founded Christians United for Israel admitting,
“For 25 almost 26 years now, I have been pounding the evangelical community over television. The Bible is a very pro-Israel book. If a Christian admits ‘I believe the Bible,’ I can make him a pro-Israel supporter or they will have to denounce their faith. So I have the Christians over a barrel, you might say.”
In March 2007, Hagee spoke at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference. He began by saying:
“The sleeping giant of Christian Zionism has awakened. There are 50 million Christians standing up and applauding the State of Israel…”
As the Jerusalem Post pointed out, his speech did not lack clarity. He went on to warn:
“It is 1938. Iran is Germany, and Ahmadinejad is the new Hitler. We must stop Iran’s nuclear threat and stand boldly with Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East… Think of our potential future together: 50 million evangelicals joining in common cause with 5 million Jewish people in America on behalf of Israel is a match made in heaven.”
The political agenda of Zionist Christians is multifaceted. It is shaped by their ultra-literal and fundamentalist theology and directed by agencies such as AIPAC, the ADL and Zionist Federation:
- The belief that the Jews remain God’s chosen people leads Christian Zionists to seek to bless Israel in material ways. However, this also invariably results in the uncritical endorsement of and justification for Israel’s racist and apartheid policies, in the media, among politicians and through solidarity tours to Israel.
- As God’s chosen people, the final restoration of the Jews to Israel is therefore actively encouraged. The emigration of Jews from Russia is funded and facilitated by Christian Zionist agencies in partnership with the Jewish Agency.
- Eretz Israel, as delineated in the Hebrew scriptures, from the Nile to the Euphrates, belongs exclusively to the Jewish people, therefore the land must be annexed and colonised, Palestinians forcibly removed through home demolitions and land confiscation and the illegal Jewish settlements expanded and consolidated.
- Jerusalem is regarded as the eternal and exclusive capital of the Jews, and cannot be shared with the Palestinians. Therefore Christian Zionists have lobbied the US Administration to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem and thereby ensure that Jerusalem is recognised as the undivided capital of Israel.
- Christian Zionists offer varying degrees of support for organisations such as the Jewish Temple Mount Faithful who are committed to destroying the Dome of the Rock and rebuilding the Jewish Temple on the Haram Al-Sharif (Noble sanctuary of Al-Aqsa).
- Christian Zionists invariably have a pessimistic view of the future, convinced that there will be an apocalyptic war of Armageddon in the imminent future. They are deeply sceptical of the possibility of a lasting peace between Jews and Arabs and therefore oppose the peace process.
John Hagee’s views are representative of the wider Zionist Christian agenda. At a meeting of Christians United for Israel, July 17, 2007, held in Washington, D.C. he insisted,
“We want you to recognize that Iran is a clear and present danger to the United States of America and Israel. And… that it’s time for our country to consider a military preemptive strike against Iran if they will not yield to diplomacy.”
Christian Zionism, therefore, as a modern theological and political movement, embraces the most extreme ideological positions of Zionism. It has become deeply detrimental to a just peace between Palestine and Israel. It propagates a worldview in which the Christian message is reduced to an ideology of empire, colonialism and militarism. In its extreme form, it places an emphasis on apocalyptic events leading to the end of history rather than living Christ’s love and justice today.
Israel is unique in so far as it is the only country in the world that has never defined its borders. There can be only one reason. It wants to expand. While it has signed peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt, Israel has a tense relationship with its other neighbours, notably Iran, Syria and Lebanon. Clearly Israel has no intention of voluntarily giving back the Golan Heights to Syria. Indeed opposition groups in Syria have offered to cede the Golan in exchange for Israeli assistance in defeating the Syrian government.
Given their fixation with Bible prophecy and the End Times, inevitably Christian Zionists interpret contemporary events in the light of the Bible. In the last two years, much of their attention has focussed on the conflict in Syria.
In August last year, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry publicly argued for an American strike on Syria over the nation’s alleged use of chemical weapons on rebel forces among its own people.
With U.S. warships off the coast of Syria, Turkey shooting down Syrian jets, Russia re-supplying Assad’s military and radical jihadist extremists pouring into Syria from Iraq, Libya and even the UK, sponsored by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Damascus has become the epicenter for Zionist prophetic speculation.
“Many students of the Word of God see a major alignment of ancient prophecies regarding the end times being fulfilled right before our eyes,” asserts Carl Gallups, pastor, radio host and author “More importantly, we are the first generation in history to see such dramatic and striking alignments.”
Around 732BC, the prophet Isaiah predicted that the city of Damascus would be completely destroyed — judged by God — and not inhabited again.
“See, Damascus will no longer be a city but will become a heap of ruins. The cities of Aroer will be deserted and left to flocks, which will lie down, with no one to make them afraid. The fortified city will disappear from Ephraim, and royal power from Damascus; the remnant of Aram will be like the glory of the Israelites,” declares the Lord Almighty. (Isaiah 17:1-3)
Zionist Christians tend to be fundamentalist in their literal interpretation of the Bible. They argue that while Damascus has been attached, besieged and conquered, it has never been completely destroyed and left uninhabited.
So confident are some Zionist Christians that this event is about to happen, they have launched a website www.damascusdestruction.com . It has a picture of a nuclear mushroom together with the short, rather presumptuous message,
“This website is under construction ready to send out once Damascus is destroyed by a nuclear blast or an act of God fulfilling the prophecy in Isaiah 17. You have just witnessed the destruction of one of the oldest cities in the world… Damascus. God gave Isaiah visions of what was to come… and now… Isaiah 17 has been fulfilled. You are witnessing end time prophecy.”
Joel Rosenburg, author and broadcaster insists,
“With all of the chaos in Syria continually growing more and more unstable, it is certainly understandable that many students of Scripture are looking to Isaiah 17 and asking if its fulfillment could be imminent,”
“Given the headlines of today’s news and the current Middle East upheaval, as well as Syria being at the epicenter of a major war in the region, I fail to see how any serious student of the Word could not see that these, indeed, are very prophetic times in which we are living.”
Jan Markell, founder and director of Minnesota-based Olive Tree Ministries, says the Syrians’ use of chemical weapons makes her think about Isaiah 17.
“If one Israeli dies from chemicals coming from Syria, Israel is going to take the issue into her own hands… “She would do some real destruction to the city of Damascus. Israel will send a huge message to the rest of the Islamic world [that] this is what happens when you mess with us.”
These views seem to resonate with the majority of Christians in the US. A recent survey by Nashville-based LifeWay Research asked three questions about Syria and the end of the world as part of a telephone survey of 1,001 Americans between Sept. 6 and 10 last year. The survey revealed that nearly one in three Americans believe that Syria’s on going civil war is part of the Bible’s plan for the end times. One in four believe that a possible U.S. attack on Syria could lead to the Battle of Armageddon. And one in five believe the world will end in their lifetime. Those who attend church once or twice a month are more likely to connect Syria’s war to the book of Revelation (51% agree), as are evangelical, born again, and fundamentalist Christians (58% agree), LifeWay said.
LifeWay Research president Ed Stetzer commented,
“U.S. military actions against Afghanistan and Bosnia didn’t get the same reaction… Syria’s geographical proximity to Israel and its mention in the Bible could be a reason behind the linking of Syrian conflict to the end times.”
Zionist Christians who wish to place this prophecy in the future rather than in the past, have a small problem however. Isaiah also predicted the same fate for Ephraim, what is today northern Israel.
Rosenburg warns some are trying too hard to make the events line up, like predicting Israel will use a nuclear bomb to fulfil Isaiah 17′s destruction of Damascus.
“For those sensationalists who are predisposed to believe that Israel is about to hit Damascus with a nuclear bomb,” Richardson writes, “the question must be asked: How wise would it be to drop a nuclear bomb on a city that lies less than 50 miles from your own border?”
Most scholars rightly believe Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled within months when the Assyrian King Tiglath Pileser III invaded and devastated both Syria and Israel.
Dr. Charlie Dyer, professor at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, points out that Damascus was destroyed in the 7th and 8th centuries.
“Isaiah 17 predicted the destruction of the city, along with the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel…Damascus was captured by Assyrians in 732 BC and the northern kingdom of Israel fell when the capital city of Samarai was captured by the Assyrians in 722 BC.”
David Lose of Luther Seminary, author of “Making Sense of Scripture,” explains the problems with literally interpreting prophetic verses,
“Some read almost any prophetic utterances as blueprints about the future, rather than as metaphors meant to inspire hope and offer comfort in the present. If that’s your lens, then the Bible is full of clues through which to read current events.”
And that is why these speculative interpretations of ancient prophecies should not be used as the basis for our response to tragic events in Syria today. How then should we respond?
A Christian Response from the Middle East
In 2006, the leaders of the historic Churches in Jerusalem: the Latin Patriarch, the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate, the Episcopal Bishop and the Evangelical Lutheran Bishop signed the Jerusalem Declaration on Christian Zionism. In it they insisted:
“We categorically reject Christian Zionist doctrines as a false teaching that corrupts the biblical message of love, justice and reconciliation.
We further reject the contemporary alliance of Christian Zionist leaders and organisations with elements in the governments of Israel and the United States that are presently imposing their unilateral pre-emptive borders and domination over Palestine. This inevitably leads to unending cycles of violence that undermine the security of all peoples of the Middle East and the rest of world.
We reject the teachings of Christian Zionism that facilitate and support these policies as they advance racial exclusivity and perpetual war rather than the gospel of universal love, redemption and reconciliation taught by Jesus Christ. Rather than condemn the world to the doom of Armageddon we call upon everyone to liberate themselves from ideologies of militarism and occupation. Instead, let them pursue the healing of the nations!
We call upon Christians in Churches on every continent to pray for the Palestinian and Israeli people, both of whom are suffering as victims of occupation and militarism. These discriminative actions are turning Palestine into impoverished ghettos surrounded by exclusive Israeli settlements. The establishment of the illegal settlements and the construction of the Separation Wall on confiscated Palestinian land undermines the viability of a Palestinian state and peace and security in the entire region.”
The patriarchs concluded, “God demands that justice be done. No enduring peace, security or reconciliation is possible without the foundation of justice. The demands of justice will not disappear. The struggle for justice must be pursued diligently and persistently but non-violently.” The prophet Micah asks, “What does the Lord require of you, to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8).
It is my contention after more than 10 years of postgraduate research that Christian Zionism is the largest, most controversial and most destructive lobby within Christianity. It bears primary responsibility for perpetuating tensions in the Middle East, justifying Israel’s apartheid colonialist agenda and for undermining the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
The closing chapter of the New Testament takes us back to the imagery of the Garden of Eden and the removal of the curse arising from the Fall:
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb… On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (Revelation 22:1-2)
Surely this is what Jesus had in mind when he instructed his followers to act as ambassadors of peace and reconciliation.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9)
Let us pray for the Syrian people. Let us work together as God’s children to bring justice, peace and reconciliation – then God’s kingdom may indeed come on earth as it is in heaven.
A presentation delivered at a conference in Tehran launching the international Peace Pilgrimage to Syria.
7th April 2014
Michael Brown, “Does the Bible Predict the Destruction of Syria?” Charisma News http://www.charismanews.com/opinion/in-the-line-of-fire/40946-does-the-bible-predict-the-destruction-of-syria
J.D. Gallop, “Some see biblical visions of doom in Syria trouble” USA Today,
Chad Groening, “The destruction of Damascus: Syria and biblical prophecy” One News Now http://www.onenewsnow.com/national-security/2013/08/28/the-destruction-of-damascus-syria-and-biblical-prophecy#.Uz68pV45v1p
Yasmine Hafiz, “Isaiah 17:1 Is Syria War Part Of Jesus’ Second Coming? Christians And Muslims Quote Scripture” The Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/29/syria-jesus-second-coming_n_3830214.html
Anugrah Kumar, “1 in 3 Americans Link Syrian Conflict to Bible’s End-Time Prophecy, Survey Finds” Christian Post http://www.christianpost.com/news/1-in-3-americans-link-syrian-conflict-to-bibles-end-time-prophecy-survey-finds-104550/
Joel C. Rosenburg, “Does Bible Prophecy Foretell the Destruction of Damascus?” http://flashtrafficblog.wordpress.com/2012/06/28/does-bible-prophecy-foretell-the-destruction-of-damascus/
Drew Zahn, “Biblical Doom of Damascus ‘Right Before our Eyes’ World Net Daily http://www.wnd.com/2013/08/biblical-doom-of-damascus-right-before-our-eyes/