Timothy Weber: How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend, with Responses (1998)

Timothy Weber: How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend, with Responses (1998)

The close tie between evangelicals and Israel is important: It has shaped popular opinion in America and, to some extent, U.S. foreign policy. To understand how it developed, one must know something about how many evangelicals interpret Bible prophecy and what difference their beliefs have made in the world of politics.


How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend, with Responses

Christianity Today, Vol. 42, No. 11
October 5, 1998


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 In the last 50 years, Israel has needed all the friends it can get, and evangelicals have been loyal and productive supporters.
In its fiftieth anniversary year, the State of Israel has no better friends than American evangelicals. So it seemed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he addressed the Voices United for Israel Conference in Washington, D.C., in April 1998. Most of the 3,000 in attendance were evangelicals, including Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition, Kay Arthur of Precept Ministries, Jane Hanson of Women’s Aglow, and Brandt Gustavson of the National Religious Broadcasters. (Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson supported the conference but did not attend.)
On the day before he met with President Bill Clinton, who urged him to trade West Bank land for peace with the Palestinians, Netanyahu told the conference: “We have no greater friends and allies than the people sitting in this room.”
To many observers, the close relationship between Israel and many American evangelicals seems baffling. Many American evangelicals pledge their love for the State of Israel, support its claims against those of the Palestinians, and resist anything that might undercut Israel’s security. But they also target Jews for evangelism and sometimes blame them for the mess the world is in. Israel eagerly accepts evangelicalism’s public support and aggressively courts its leaders. But many Jews bitterly condemn Christian proselytism and do what they can to restrict the activities of missionaries in Israel. Nevertheless, both sides seem to be getting more than enough out of their relationship.
The close tie between evangelicals and Israel is important: It has shaped popular opinion in America and, to some extent, U.S. foreign policy. To understand how it developed, one must know something about how many evangelicals interpret Bible prophecy and what difference their beliefs have made in the world of politics.
Why do evangelicals care so much about Israel? How did this special relationship develop? What has it produced? On the most basic level, evangelicals love Israel because of the Bible. Many evangelicals have vivid memories of sitting in Sunday school rooms, staring at maps of Bible Lands and listening to Bible stories week after week. Through such experiences, evangelicals came to view the Bible’s story as their own and the land of the Bible as a kind of home away from home. Israel is where the Lord Jesus was born, ministered, was crucified, and rose again. Every year thousands of evangelicals take what amounts to a religious pilgrimage to Israel to “walk where Jesus walked” and see for themselves places they have read about their whole lives.
Evangelicals’ view of the Bible gives them a proprietary interest in Israel. It is the Holy Land, the site of God’s mighty deeds. In a way, they think the Promised Land belongs to them as much as it does to Israelis.
Writing the end-times script
But there is much more to the evangelical-Israel connection: Most of those who gathered in Washington to show their support for Israel believe that the Holy Land will be ground zero for events surrounding the second coming of Jesus Christ. Such evangelicals read the Bible as though it were a huge jigsaw puzzle of prophecies, with Israel in the center. They believe that human history is following a predetermined divine script, and they and Israel are simply playing their assigned roles.

 

These beliefs come out of a complex system of biblical interpretation known as dispensationalism, which is a version of premillennialism (the belief that Christ will return before setting up his millennial kingdom). As the name implies, dispensationalism divides up the Bible and human history into various eras or dispensations, based on how God deals with humanity. Basic to the system was the way it detected two distinct divine plans, one for an “earthly” people (Israel) and the other for a “heavenly” people (the church). According to John Nelson Darby, the Englishman who shaped dispensationalism in the mid-1800s, biblical prophecies for one group do not apply to the other, and God deals with only one group at a time. Thus “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15) means keeping the two peoples and programs completely separate.

The history of prophetic interpretation shows that the Devil is in the details.

God’s dealings with Israel are the key to the dispensational system. Through a series of covenants with Abraham, Moses, and David, God made Israel his chosen people and promised to establish Messiah on David’s throne forever. In Daniel 7-9, nineeenth-century dispensationalists believed, God spelled out the divine plan: because of its sin, Israel will be subjugated by four successive Gentile powers until, finally, the “times of the Gentiles” are complete. On divine cue, one of the Gentile rulers will issue a decree to rebuild Jerusalem’s fallen walls. Sixty-nine weeks later, Messiah will come to the Holy City but be rejected (“cut off”) by his own people. During the Seventieth Week, an evil ruler will try to destroy the Jews, but at week’s end Messiah will return to defeat him and re-establish David’s throne.

These dispensationalists believed that much of Daniel’s prophecy of the Seventy Weeks was literally fulfilled in the history of Israel and the first coming of Jesus Christ. But there was a major problem: why did Messiah not return to finish his work at the end of the Seventieth Week as predicted? To answer this question, those dispensationalists developed a “postponement theory.” When Jews rejected Jesus, as the prophecy said they would, God unexpectedly postponed Jesus’ return, started putting together a new people, the church, and unplugged the prophetic clock. Thus, for its entire history, the church has existed in a prophetic time warp, what dispensationalists call the “great parenthesis.”

A second question then needed answering: When and how will God resume the prophetic countdown? Dispensationalists answer, “At the pretribulation rapture of the church.” Since God had decided to work with only one group at a time, God must remove the church from the earth before focusing attention again on the Jews. After Jesus comes for his saints in the “Rapture” (1 Thess. 4:13-17), the prophetic clock starts ticking again. Once the church is gone, Daniel’s Seventieth Week (the “great tribulation” of Matt. 24, 2 Thess. 2, and Rev.) can begin, after which Jesus will return with his already raptured saints to defeat Antichrist, the great persecutor, and establish his millennial reign.

During the 1870s, Darby made a number of trips to the United States, where his dispensationalism got mixed reviews. Most evangelicals at the time were either postmillennialists (Christ will return after the world is Christianized) or amillennialists (the millennium should be taken figuratively). In an age of optimism, dispensationalism seemed too pessimistic for most evangelicals, some of whom labeled it a “heresy.”

Despite its minority status among evangelicals initially, dispensationalism gained a respectable following through prophetic conferences, Bible institutes, a plethora of magazines and popular books, and a committed clientele for whom it was the key to unlock biblical truth. Every major American revivalist since D. L. Moody has been a premillennialist of some kind; and Pentecostalism has more or less followed the dispensationalist line since its inception in the early twentieth century. The Scofield Reference Bible, whose notes explained biblical texts from a dispensational perspective, was published in 1909 and became an authoritative and effective recruiter for the movement.

By the twenties, many fundamentalists considered dispensationalism a nonnegotiable part of Christian orthodoxy. Since then, the system has been nurtured through an elaborate network of schools, publishing houses, mission agencies, radio and television programming, and the like. Channel surfers on cable TV know that dispensationalists are master communicators.

Dispensationalism’s sensational influence

Clearly, one does not have to be a dispensationalist to be influenced by one. In his recent study of prophecy belief in modern American culture, historian Paul Boyer found that in addition to the relatively small number of committed “experts” who study Bible prophecy and seem to have everything figured out, there are millions of others who are not so well informed but still believe the Bible contains valuable clues about the future. Such people are susceptible to popularizers who “confidently weave Bible passages into highly imaginative end-time scenarios, or who promulgate particular schemes of prophetic interpretation.”

Even secular people who normally ignore the Bible may, during times of crisis, pay attention to someone who uses the Bible to explain what is going on when the world seems to be falling apart. Boyer concludes that dispensational views about Israel and the course of history have influenced popular opinion far beyond the boundaries of the dispensational movement.

What dispensational beliefs have influenced a significant number of evangelicals and the broader American culture? For a hundred and fifty years, dispensationalists have been predicting something like the following:

Some evangelicals have demonized the Palestinians: Because they are the enemies of the modern State of Israel, they are also the enemies of God.

1. After the “times of the Gentiles” are finished and the Jews are regathered in the Holy Land, human civilization will begin to unravel. Morals will decline, families will break apart, crime and anarchy will increase. Wars, political and economic unrest, natural disasters, unstoppable epidemics, shifts in weather patterns, and other calamities will increase suffering and despair. Organized Christianity will experience apostasy; religious leaders will abandon historic beliefs and behavioral standards and openly embrace heresy and immorality. Despite massive efforts to stop civilization’s demise, nothing can stop its downward slide.

2. After the rapture of the church, a charismatic leader will gain a following by promising peace and security. This Antichrist heads up a ten-nation confederacy in western Europe. Unaware of Antichrist’s true identity, Israel will sign a treaty with him to guarantee its security, then rebuild its temple in Jerusalem. After three and a half years, Antichrist will break the treaty, declare himself to be God, and persecute all who refuse to worship him and receive his mark on their foreheads. Antichrist will be helped by a False Prophet, a seductive religious leader, who will use miraculous powers and repressive measures to force compliance. For three and a half years, a remnant of God’s people who were converted after the Rapture (Rev. 7:4) will suffer horrible persecution in the Great Tribulation.

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Jewish Political Studies Review 19:1-2 (Spring 2007)

Dangerous Friends: On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend, by Timothy P. Weber, Baker Academic, 2004, 329 pp.

Reviewed by Sarah Schmidt

Timothy P. Weber, president of Memphis Theological Seminary, has written a detailed, extensively researched account of how, in the last part of the twentieth century, dispensationalist evangelicals became Israel’s best friends. Exhaustively covering the evangelical movement in the United States since it migrated from Great Britain in the early nineteenth century, the book provides an analytic and often critical perspective on the beliefs of millions of Americans and their relationship with Israel. Weber’s derivation of his materials from a range of sources and inclusion of a comprehensive bibliography enhance this work’s value as perhaps the definitive survey of the subject.

The book focuses on dispensationalism, one version of Christian eschatology that since World War I has become nearly synonymous with fundamentalism. Throughout history many Christians have concerned themselves with the ultimate destiny of mankind and have developed a range of theories based on biblical passages that indicate how, after the Second Coming of Christ, He will defeat Satan and establish a kingdom on earth and a golden age of peace.

At the center of dispensationalist faith, however, is the conviction that before the prophesied end-time events can occur, Jews will have to reestablish their own state in the Holy Land. Without a restored Jewish state there can be no Satan or Antichrist, no great tribulation, Battle of Armageddon, and Second Coming. In short, according to Weber, “everything [is] riding on the Jews.”

Before the establishment of Israel and its expansion in 1967, dispensationalists were content to teach their doctrine, look for signs of the Second Coming, and predict future events often in great detail. After Israel reclaimed its place in Palestine, however, dispensationalists moved from being observers to participants, helping to turn their theories into self-fulfilling prophecies. They united with American and Israeli Jews and founded dozens of groups to lobby on Israel’s behalf.

Few Jews, however, understood-or cared-that this support came with a price. Dispensationalists believe that, in the end, before Jesus comes, the Antichrist will try to destroy Israel and all Jews will undergo dire suffering. In other words, before the age of peace, most Jews will have to be destroyed-and as a result, surviving Jews will welcome Jesus as their messiah.

 A Complicated Relationship

All this, though, would be in the future. Dispensationalists’ relationship to living Jews has been complicated and in many ways paradoxical. No group, even in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was more supportive of Zionist aspirations. At the same time, no other Christian group is more dedicated to targeting Jews for conversion, since dispensationalists believe that evangelizing the Jews is of prophetic importance.

Given their understanding of the Jews’ place in God’s end-time program, dispensationalists feel obliged to convert as many Jews as possible and have founded dozens of missionary organizations. Results, though minimal, seem less important than the symbolic value of spreading the gospel among the Jews. According to one Jewish convert who became a missionary, converted Jews are a “pledge of the final salvation of all Israel.”

The emphasis on conversion is linked to dispensationalists’ belief that, before the return of Jesus, Jews are living under the power of Satan. Weber quotes Yaakov Ariel, an Israeli-trained historian now teaching in the United States: “On the one hand they are God’s chosen people…[but] as they have refused to recognize Jesus as their messiah, their character reflects obnoxiousness and rebellion. Their road to glory is paved with suffering and destruction.”

Beginning in the 1920s, various dispensationalist preachers revived The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and in the 1930s such preachers were vulnerable to Nazi propaganda. Once they placed Hitler and the Holocaust within their well-developed prophetic system, dispensationalists were able to feel even more confident that God’s plans were coming to fruition. Weber wonders why they did not suffer from “a severe case of cognitive dissonance”: at the same time they could be both pro-Zionist and anti-Semitic.

 A New Alliance: Organizing to Support Israel

The dispensationalists began building their special relationship with Israel after the Six Day War. Now that Jews had expanded beyond their 1948 borders, dispensationalists became actively committed to keeping them there. After being elected prime minister in 1977, Menachem Begin began urging American evangelicals to come to Israel. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism actively recruited evangelical pastors for free “familiarization” tours.

The strategy-a calculated attempt to win Christian friends for Israel-succeeded, and after 1980 and the founding of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, tourism and political support for Israel against all pressures became linked. The link is especially strong because dispensationalists are convinced that such commitments are rooted in biblical prophecy.

Both sides, however, pay a price for this alliance. Evangelical organizations do not deny that Jews need to be converted; they simply assert that currently their priorities lie elsewhere. Some Jews are critical of the political and religious motives of the Christian Zionists.

Other Jews, however, choose to ignore the “details” and take a pragmatic approach, claiming that Israel needs all the friends it can get. In the words of the Anti-Defamation League’s Nathan Perlmutter: “If the Messiah comes…we’ll consider our options.” Weber points out that, in their desire to keep Israel strong, dispensationalists currently support what most Israelis would consider “the most dangerous elements in Israel”-those who are working toward rebuilding the Third Temple on the Temple Mount, including groups preparing a red heifer for sacrifice and those who have planned to blow up the Dome of the Rock.

Do the dispensationalists make a difference? Certainly their political and financial support, as well as a range of social service projects they sponsor in Israel, have encouraged Christians to learn about Israel and provided a model of interfaith cooperation. Yet what Weber terms “the dark side” matters, too. For those convinced that they are cooperating with God’s purposes in hastening the Second Coming, stopping any peace process that would materialize before that event is an important part of their agenda. In the long run, then, could Israel’s “best friends” also be its worst enemies?

*     *     *

DR. SARAH SCHMIDT is senior lecturer in modern Jewish history and Zionist history at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she also teaches an honors seminar, “The American Jew and the Israeli Jew: A Comparative Analysis.”


ON THE ROAD TO ARMAGEDDON: HOW EVANGELICALS BECAME ISRAEL’S BEST FRIEND

By: Sam Storms

I first became aware of Timothy Weber when I read his excellent book, Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming: American Premillennialism, 1975-1982 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983). Weber is president of Memphis Theological Seminary and has provided us in this volume with the most exhaustive history of American prophetic belief since the publication of Paul Boyer’s equally excellent, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992).

More than anything else, this book is a history of the origin and development of dispensational theology and the foundation it has provided for a virtually unqualified support of modern day Israel and the belief that the latter is the key to the prophetic future. While most of you are already quite familiar with dispensationalism, others may be encountering the word for the first time. If you are among the latter, Weber’s book is an excellent place to begin your study.

Dispensationalists, says Weber, make up ‘about one-third of America’s forty or fifty million evangelical Christians and believe firmly that the nation of Israel will play a central role in the unfolding of end-times events (9). That is actually quite an understatement, as they believe that Israel will play the most central and indispensable role in God’s prophetic purposes. Weber’s purpose is to tell the story of how dispensationalists became Israel’s best friends and their most ardent and influential political support base. He aims to demonstrate not only the theological impact of dispensationalism on American evangelicalism but also the cultural, military, economic, and political influence of those who embrace this perspective.

This is not the place to explain the complexities of dispensational theology or its unique way of reading Scripture. My website will soon provide an introductory study of dispensationalism that will familiarize you with its most basic ideas. But Weber’s book is also an excellent place to begin.

I should point out what Weber’s book is not. He is more historian than theologian (although that’s no criticism). There are several things you should not expect to find in this book. Weber engages in virtually no biblical interpretation. It is not his purpose to explain the biblical text but rather to account for how the dispensationalist’s reading of the text has served to forge this remarkable alliance. There is little theological analysis of either dispensationalism or its eschatological alternatives. Weber nowhere addresses the thorny issue of the relationship of Israel to the Church. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to prove what Weber himself believes about the issue. His work is almost entirely descriptive in nature, although there are enough comments and innuendo scattered throughout the book to leave little doubt that Weber is no fan of dispensational thinking.

Chapter One is a survey of the origins of dispensationalism, especially as found in the person of John Nelson Darby. Weber briefly describes the emergence of the pre-tribulation rapture doctrine and how dispensationalism made its way into the heart of American fundamentalism.

Weber is at his best in Chapter Two and elsewhere when he addresses the uneasy tension between dispensationalism’s tendency toward passivity, on the one hand, and its active involvement in evangelism and foreign missions, on the other. In Chapter Three he explains the interpretation dispensationalism placed on both World War I and II, as well as its attempt to locate Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini in the emerging end-time prophetic scenario. What makes this especially interesting reading is Weber’s discussion of how dispensationalism’s belief in a revived Roman Empire provided its advocates with a fascinating way for explaining the place in contemporary history of everything from the rise of the Soviet Union to the European Common Market.

Chapter Four may be the most important in the book, as Weber explains the relationship between the Jewish people and dispensationalists. He explains with remarkable clarity the history behind the Holy Land, the importance of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 (Britain’s declaration of the need to establish in Palestine a national home for the Jewish people), the emergence of Zionism, and the eventual capture of Jerusalem by the British.

Perhaps no document played a more sinister role in the growing relationship between dispensationalism and Israel than The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which chronicled an alleged series of secret proceedings in which Jews plotted to take over the world. TheProtocols did more to contribute to the spread of anti-Semitism than anything that preceded. Weber does a wonderful job of explaining the ambivalence of early dispensationalists toward this scurrilous document and how it served to reveal a number of theological inconsistencies in the movement.

Chapter Six is Weber’s attempt to explain the founding of the modern state of Israel and the destructive conflict over ownership of the land of Palestine. He does a masterful and accurate job of describing the U.N. recognition of Israel in 1948, the Suez Crisis of 1956, and the Six-Day War of June, 1967.

No discussion of this issue would be complete without an explanation of the monumental impact of Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970). The New York Times declared it the best-selling nonfiction book of the 1970s, although its critics might be more inclined to classify it as fiction. It has been translated into over fifty languages and sold more than thirty-five million copies! Weber devotes considerable space to the impact of Lindsey’s book on American religious culture. Even more influential has been the Left Behind phenomenon of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Weber is at his best when he links these two publishing events to the growing political consensus among dispensational evangelicals of unqualified support for Israel.

In the final two chapters, Weber unpacks in meticulous detail the extent and depth of dispensational support for Israel, citing countless organizations and their overt, and often covert, efforts to bolster American (and global) endorsement of Israel’s right to exist as a nation and possess the land they believe God granted them in Genesis 12. Countless other issues are also addressed: the lack of dispensational interest in the plight of Palestinian Christians (the largest group of believers in Israel and the West Bank), the zeal to see a new temple constructed where the Dome of the Rock now stands, and the almost comical (were it not so tragic) search for the perfect red heifer, which many dispensationalists believe is essential for the sacrificial system that will be reinstituted amidst temple worship (see Numbers 19:2).

Weber’s book is must reading for all Christians, whether dispensationalists or those, like myself, who find dispensationalism to be a seriously flawed system for reading Scripture. This book may not sway the reader in his/her theological convictions, but it will most surely open the eyes of all to the reasons for the widespread support of Israel among so many evangelicals, both in America and around the world.