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Understanding Christian Zionism



With the recent terrorist attacks against the state of Israel and the shocking manifestation of global antisemitism that followed, it is now more important than ever that the church has an accurate understanding of God’s plan for Israel. Although the topic of Israel is a major theme found throughout the scriptures, it is also one that generates a lot of confusion in the church today. The church has historically fluctuated between two positions when it comes to formulating a theology of Israel and the church. The first is supersessionism which broadly holds that the covenantal promises to Israel have been spiritually fulfilled with the coming of Jesus and through the church. This not only removes any distinctive role for Israel as a national entity but also universalises the specific land promises so that in the New Testament they are interpreted as referring to the whole world. In short, there is no specific role for Israel and no longer any particular land promises to them either. Historically this belief has resulted in varying levels of anti-Judaic behaviour and belief. This is not to say that supersessionism necessarily leads to antisemitism, yet an analysis of historical antisemitism forces one to agree with Vlach, “it is undeniable that anti-Jewish bias has often gone hand in hand with the supersessionist view”.[1]


The other perspective is known as Christian Zionism and its basic tenants are aptly summarised by Schmidt who describes it as a belief that:


“The return of the Jews to the Holy Land and the restoration of a physical Israel is in accordance with biblical prophecy. Furthermore, Christian Zionism is motivated by a biblically based religious conviction that the Jewish people are still God’s chosen people and are entitled to possess the land of Israel for all time."[2] 

This belief was confirmed for many Christians in 1948 when the modern State of Israel was miraculously reborn in her ancient homeland.



However, it would be a mistake to conclude as many critics do, that this event was the cause of this belief, or that Christian Zionism is simply a contemporary political ideology as some claim. There have been Christians who were waiting for the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel long before 1948, and even before the secular Zionist movement of Theodore Herzl in the late nineteenth century. . Herzlian Zionism as represented in his book The Jewish State (1896) argues for a Jewish return to Zion as the only means to escape antisemitism.




Christian Zionism, whilst sharing much with its secular counterpart, is primarily a biblical and theological conviction based upon a reading of the scriptures. Although, the actual term ‘Christian Zionist” only appeared in the late nineteenth century, those who affirmed a Jewish return to the Land and a future role for Israel were referred to as ‘Restorationists’ before this time. This group “pre-dated modern political Zionism, and when political Zionism arose within the Jewish community in the late nineteenth century, many Christian restorationists gave it their enthusiastic support.”[3]


Although much of the discussion surrounding Zionism today is concerned with the political and legal questions that dominate the conversation in the public sphere, the reality is that those who affirm a biblical role for the Jewish people base their arguments first upon the bible and then usually move to offering valid justifications for Israel’s self-determination today.


The Biblical Roots of Christian Zionism


The beliefs of Christian Zionism are primarily rooted in the covenants and promises that God made to Israel. These include the election of Israel as a nation (Deut.7:6, Psa. 135:4), the promise of a land for the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Psa. 105:10-11). That the world would be blessed through them (Gen. 12:3), and their future national redemption at the end of the age (Zech.12:10). Christian Zionists acknowledge that the bible speaks of the nation going through times of dispersion from the land as well as the promise to be regathered back into the land (Ezek.36:24-26). The fact that a majority of the Jewish people do not believe in the Messiah does not forfeit or disqualify them from these covenantal promises, as the apostle Paul states, “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29). God is faithful to keep His promises to both individuals and nations. The nation in unbelief is still beloved for the sake of the fathers (Rom. 11:28). ). The gentiles who share in the spiritual blessings of these covenants should earnestly desire and pray for the salvation of Israel. (Rom. 10:1, 15:27). These original promises find their origin in the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3, 15:18, and 17:1-5.


Now the Lord said to Abram,
“Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father’s house, To the land which I will show you; And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” Genesis 12:1-3

The promises include both personal ones to Abraham and national ones to his descendants – that they would be a great nation and would be given the land of Canaan as an everlasting inheritance. The Abrahamic covenant has been described as the “central theological rubric of the Old Testament”[4] because it contains the roots of redemption to come through a land, a nation, and ultimately universal blessing through a person descended from this nation – the Messiah Jesus. These promises are confirmed and amplified by the Davidic Covenant (2 Sam. 7:12-16) and the New Covenant (Jer. 31:27-33) as well as numerous statements found in the prophets. The New Testament never rescinds these promises and contrary to supersessionist claims, neither does it reinterpret them.


Contemporary Christian Zionism


Christian Zionism in Britain reached its peak in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. A number of factors coincided that led to Christian Zionists having significant cultural and political influence during this century. These included the rise of Victorian evangelicalism and social activism, the beginnings of the political Zionist movement of Herzl, and in the Americas, the second great awakening as it swept across the country, bringing with it a popular evangelical revivalist movement and a more literal approach to biblical interpretation. Many of these staunch Christian Zionists in Britain at this time held title and influence among the political elite of their day. Ultimately, this support would lead to a decisive policy change by the British government in the Balfour Declaration (1917) which committed to providing a national home for the Jews in Israel. In the twentieth century the mantle of Christian Zionism shifted to the United States. Many historians will attribute this to the rise of dispensationalism and its influence in America through Seminaries and Bible conferences. Dispensationalism spread quickly in America in the early twentieth century and it served as a unifying force for American evangelicalism. Dispensationalists had a keen interest in eschatological events and a firm belief in the continued election and importance of Israel.




In addition, Christian Zionism has spread rapidly in the Pentecostal church, particularly in South America and South Korea so that is has become a truly global phenomenon. With this popularity there has also arisen a strong stream of Christian anti-Zionist sentiment among those holding to a supersessionist theology. This particular perspective advocates strongly for the pro-Palestinian narrative and equates any Christian support of Israel to be heretical and complicit in alleged Israeli violence and oppression. A recent letter put out by Palestinian Christians expressed their “horror” at the “unwavering” support many churches have towards Israel.[5]


It is true that a biblical Christian Zionism will not advocate for anything that violates the teaching of the New Testament. This means there is a requirement to show genuine love and concern for the spiritual and physical wellbeing of Palestinians and all inhabitants of the Middle East. This, however, does not prevent Christians from denouncing horrific acts of terrorism for what they are – evil. It is not true that believing in the faithfulness of God to keep His promises to Israel is a heresy and requires a theology that justifies war. Christian Zionists fully affirm that God loves both Jews, Arabs, and all inhabitants of the Middle East and that He sent His beloved Son, Jesus the Messiah, to provide a way for all people to be reconciled to God and to each other. Therefore, Christian Zionists will continue to pray for the peace of Jerusalem and for the Gospel to go forth in that region.


 

[1] Michael J Vlach, Has the Church Replaced Israel? (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2010) Pg.5


[2] David Schmidt. Partners Together in this Great Enterprise: The Role of Christian Zionism in the Foreign Policy of Britain and America in the Twentieth Century (United States: Xulon Press, 2011) P. 20


[3] God’s Unfailing Word: Theological and Practical Perspectives on Christian-Jewish Relations (Church House Publishing: Faith & order Commission, 2019) P.79


[4] Eugene H. Merril. “Israel According to the Torah” in Darrell Bock, Mitch Glaser (ed) The People, The Land, and The Future of Israel: Israel and the Jewish people in the Plan of God (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publication, 2014) Pg. 34


[5] Heather, “Preston. Palestinian Christians urge Western Church to repent of ‘appalling’ Israeli Support”. Premier Christian News 25 October 2023. https://premierchristian.news/en/news/article/palestinians-urge-western-christians-to-repent-of-appalling-israeli-support




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