'End Times' thinking: Do biblical prophecies explain why so many evangelicals back Israel?

Hey journalists, can you say “Premillennial Dispensationalism”?

Believe it or not, the odds are very good that, in most elite newsrooms, some editor or reporter on the political desk knows — or thinks that he or she knows — the meaning of this theological term. Hint: It’s a modern interpretation of apocalyptic passages in the Old and New Testament, producing a kind of “how many Israeli fighter jets can fit on the head of a pin” view of the end of the world.

After all, there are all of those “Left Behind” novels all over the place. Then the books led to several movies that, in some corners of the evangelical subculture, are kind of like the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” They’re so over the top that they have become high-grade camp.

The key is that there are some modern Protestants who can accurately be called “Premillennial Dispensationalists.”

Repeat after me — “some.”

As in, “not all.” As in, not even a majority of conservative evangelicals fit under this doctrinal umbrella. Why does this matter, in political terms? Here is David French of National Review to explain, in this weekend’s think piece. If fact, this is a think piece inside of a think piece. Hold that thought.

It never fails. Whenever a Republican president makes a controversial or contentious move to support Israel — such as moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, or yesterday’s decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights — you’ll see various “explainers” and other stories that purport to inform progressives why the American Evangelical community is so devoted to the nation of Israel.

The explanation goes something like this — Evangelicals believe that the rebirth of Israel is hastening not just the second coming of Christ, but a particular kind of second coming, one that includes fire, fury, and war that will consume the Jewish people.

Keep doing the political math. Once you have accepted this simplistic approach to evangelical Protestant theology, you end up with:

Evangelicals support Israel to hasten the apocalypse, while Israelis (who obviously don’t believe Christian eschatology) are happy to humor the Evangelical community and milk that support for tourist dollars and political power.

But the true narrative of American Christian support for Israel is substantially different. The intellectual and theological roots of Christian Zionism do not rest in end-times prophesies but rather in Old Testament promises. Last month Samuel Goldman at Tablet wrote an outstanding piece explaining the centuries-old history and legacy of Christian support for Jewish claims to the Holy Land. After tracing Christian support for a Jewish Israel to the Reformation, he writes this:

“These arguments were products of the emphases on the plain meaning of Scripture and the theological significance of covenants that characterized Calvinism. Before the Reformation, most Christians read prophecies like Ezekiel’s as allegories for the transformation of the “carnal” Israel descended from the patriarchs into the “spiritual Israel” represented by the Church. Calvin and his followers, by contrast, insisted that allegorical interpretations were permitted only when literal ones made no sense. But why was it nonsensical to believe that the Jews might be reconstituted as a nation and return to their own land?”

Yes, there are scriptures to consider and to try to understand.

French also does not deny — naturally — that Premillennial Dispensationalism exists. He simply notes that this niche doctrine does not explain all the facts.

Here is a crucial summary:

The end result is a community — including a political community — that believes two things with firm conviction. First, God has reserved Israel as the Jewish homeland, and second, that the creation of modern Israel was an act of divine providence. While there are many Christians who believe this act of divine providence may be a prelude to the Second Coming (whenever that may be), that is miles and miles away from the belief that Jews will burn in a fiery apocalypse.

These beliefs are then reinforced by experience and basic morality. It’s difficult to overstate the profound impact that a visit to the Holy Land has on a believing Christian. I’ll never forget my time in Israel. Not only was it moving to stand where Jesus stood and to walk where Jesus walked, other aspects of the visit bring the miracle of Israel’s rebirth into sharp focus. How can you visit the ruins of the fortress of Masada and not grasp the improbability of the journey from total destruction to diaspora to renaissance?

Read it all.

Journalists: Please send a copy over to the political desk.

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