What is Christian Zionism?
Beginnings: The 19th Century
Biblical prophets warn us to establish justice, yet Palestinians in the Holy Land suffer great injustice. This cuts deeply within the hearts of many Christians.
In the 1820s and 1830s, a group of clergymen from the British Isles—including Edward Irving, Lewis Way, Joseph Wolff, and Henry Drummond—held a series of Bible conferences. Named after the British village where Drummond lived, the Albury conferences promoted the idea that Jews should move to Palestine. Other organizations during this time, such as the London Jews’ Society and the Palestine Exploration Fund, shared that goal. Decades later, Austrian Jewish writer and organizer Theodor Herzl spread Zionist ideas with his 1896 book Der Judenstaat and at the First Zionist Congress in Switzerland in 1897.
At this time Palestine was ruled by the Ottoman Turks, and it was a popular destination for Europeans and Americans. Because so many people from Christian nations were visiting Ottoman Palestine, Christian interest in it grew. In the 1880s, many of these travelers were influential preachers. One of them was Rev. DeWitt Talmage, pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle in New York. Upon his return from a pilgrimage to Palestine, he published his Twenty-Five Sermons from the Holy Land. This book painted a romantic picture of a Jewish renaissance in the Holy Land and portrayed “the fingers of providence” pointing to the growth of Jewish life there. In 1891 George Adam Smith wrote his popular book The Historical Geography of the Holy Land, in which he portrayed an empty, Biblical land awaiting the arrival of Judaism.
Christian leaders in Britain urged the British government to encourage Jewish migration to Palestine. These leaders included John Nelson Darby, Charles Simeon, and Charles Spurgeon. Darby taught that God’s giving the land to Abraham meant that the future Israel belonged to the Jewish people. Above all, he proclaimed that the creation of today’s Israel would bring about the End Times.
Darby made eight missionary trips to the United States, but Americans mostly ignored him. When leading American evangelists such as Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday, and Harry Ironside saw how his ideas influenced audiences, however, Darby’s views caught on. In 1881, for instance, Horatio and Anna Spafford and 16 friends opened the American Colony in Jerusalem’s Old City to watch—as they put it—“prophecy being fulfilled.”
In Britain, politicians such as Lord Shaftesbury, Lord Palmerston, David Lloyd George, and Lord Balfour saw the value of a Jewish state in Palestine. The Jewish Zionist movement also grew, largely due to British Christian leaders such as William Hechler. Zionism eventually gained international recognition through the Balfour Declaration, which in 1917 (during World War I) guaranteed a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Growth and Development: The 20th Century
William Blackstone, a Chicago evangelist and a student of Dwight Moody, published Jesus Is Coming in 1878. This best-selling book sold many Americans on Darby’s idea that God gave Israel to the Jewish people. In 1890 Blackstone visited Jewish settlements in the Holy Land and organized conferences in Chicago to transfer Jews to Palestine. He also pressured then-president Harrison to create a Jewish state in Palestine. Because of his partnership with Jewish Zionists, the Zionist Conference of Philadelphia in 1918 called him a “father of Zionism.” In 1956 Israel named a forest in his honor.
In the first half of the 1900s, Christian Zionist teachers organized conferences promoting Christian Zionist ideas. After several devastating global events—the First World War, the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, the Great Depression, and World War II—some evangelicals wanted to see a divine plan of redemption for human misery.
In 1948, when the modern nation-state of Israel was founded, many Christian Zionists believed it was divinely ordained, and the Christian Zionist movement grew significantly. When the Israeli flag was raised on May 14, they were euphoric. They felt confident that the key piece was now in place for even more of their interpretations of prophecy to be fulfilled. Israel’s swift military victory in 1967—hailed by many as a divine miracle—sparked even more zeal, as Israel now had conquered the entire Holy Land.
Christian Zionists such as John Walvoord and Charles Ryrie viewed modern history through this Biblical lens for a new generation. In 1970 Hal Lindsey published the hugely popular The Late Great Planet Earth, which described political events in today’s Israel as Biblically predicted. More recently, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins have sold over 50 million copies of their popular Left Behind books about the End Times.
Christian Zionism Today
Many advocates for Christian Zionism have dropped the early Christian Zionists’ idea that human history is divided into distinct eras by divine decree. But they have retained the Christian Zionist idea of the End Times, and they regard Biblical faithfulness as loyalty to the State of Israel. One widely recognized spokesperson, John Hagee, with his organization Christians United for Israel, aggressively lobbies Congress to shape American foreign policy in the Middle East.
Four themes are generally present in most Christian Zionist thought:
- The end of history. The founding of today’s nation-state of Israel in 1948 marked the final human era.
- God’s plan. The chaos in the Middle East surrounding Israel is part of God’s unfolding plan. There will be a great and final war culminating in the second coming of Christ.
- God’s promises. God’s covenant with Israel is eternal and unconditional. Therefore, the promises of land given to Abraham in Genesis will never be overturned, and the church has not replaced Israel.
- Blessing Israel. The church is obligated to interpret Genesis 12:3 in a specific way regarding today’s nation-state of Israel: “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.” Failing to support Israel’s political dominance today will incur divine judgment.
Some Christian Zionists have developed a different focus in their thinking. Rather than naming the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy as the basis for their loyalty to Israel, they believe instead that loyalty to Israel is simply a moral duty of Christians due to historic and present-day anti-Semitism and the unique place given to Jews in the Scriptures.
Some also believe that loyalty to Israel will help atone for the horrors of the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews died and untold others were brutally mistreated and lost their livelihoods and their possessions. Indeed, it is fitting and necessary that we acknowledge these horrors, that we honor and remember those who suffered this catastrophe, and that we return or pay for Jewish homes and property that were seized during the Nazi era.
At the same time, it is false logic to conclude, as some Christian Zionists do, that seizing and colonizing (via settlements) the land of Palestinian families; destroying their homes, businesses, and schools; and imposing a military occupation that denies fundamental rights is an effective way to honor victims of the Holocaust. After the Holocaust, humanity cried out, “Never again!” Many people – including people of all faith traditions – believe that a more fitting way to honor victims of the Holocaust is to ensure that “Never again!” means that never again will a group of people be denied rights because of their religion or ethnicity.
Theological issues and new testament revelation
Christian Zionism has numerous critics, and their criticism has stirred plenty of controversy. Many theologians wonder if Christian Zionism reduces the importance of Christ’s new covenant. Many Old Testament scholars are troubled by Christian Zionists who ignore the ethical demands of the prophets. Many New Testament scholars contend that the land promises of the Old Testament have been reinterpreted. The promise of the gospel is not tribal or local, but universal and global. And even Jews must step into this new messianic reality. In addition, these scholars reject the idea that modern Israel is the Israel of Biblical times, or that the Jewish people have exclusive claim to the land. They believe that Jerusalem should be shared by all people. (The interpretation of Romans 9–11 is central in these debates.) Many Christian believers and their pastors are worried that the Biblical prophets warn us to establish justice, yet when they visit the Holy Land, they see Palestinians suffering from so much injustice.
Ethicists, both Jewish and Christian, have also been critical of Christian Zionism’s tendency to see a divine purpose in the Israeli government’s controversial and aggressive politics. This, they argue, has led to political exceptionalism for Israel and has muted the church’s ability to promote justice and peacemaking in the Middle East. (Exceptionalism is the belief that one particular group possesses, inherently and inalienably, certain special privileges and a special status that are not available to any other group.)
Palestinian people within the Holy Land
Within the Christian Zionist worldview, Palestinians are regarded as alien residents in today’s State of Israel. Many Christian Zionists are reluctant even to acknowledge Palestinians as a distinct people. They incorrectly claim that Palestinians moved to the State of Israel from surrounding Arab nations after Israel grew prosperous. Some of these ideas come from fear and a deep-seated hatred of Islam, as most Palestinians are Muslim. But many Palestinians are Christian, a fact that many Christian Zionists ignore, even though Arab Christians have worshipped Christ since the earliest days of the church (see Acts 2:11).
Since 2005, researchers have been studying the attitudes of evangelicals, and they are finding a divide between the younger and older generation. Young Christians are following contemporary leaders who say that it is time to be “pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, and pro-peace.” Christian Zionists respond that this language is simply cover for those who oppose evangelical support for Israel.
Christian Zionism will continue to be a hotly debated issue in evangelical churches. It’s driven not only by particular interpretations of the Bible but also by the circumstances of our modern political era.