I have had the dubious privilege of standing in the crosshairs of one of the most divisive issues of our day: Israel and Zionism. Thanks to my many trips to the Middle East and my friendships in the Palestinian church, I have been drawn into conversations that are not casually shared, but vehemently debated. You can lose friends over this one.
Christian Zionism is a political theology with 19th-century roots. It took on its full form following the birth of modern Israel in 1948. It is a political theology because modern Israel, in this view, is not like other countries: it is the outworking of God’s plan foretold in the Scriptures, and therefore modern Israel’s political fortunes have profound theological and spiritual consequences.
The church in America today is awash with this sort of thinking. Books and sermons spin a dramatic picture of how the world is coming to an end, how God has a plan centered on modern Israel, and how God’s promises cannot be stopped despite what the nations think. Some Christians today feel obligated to apply literally to modern Israel God’s words in Genesis 12:3—“I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse”—even though God was talking to Abraham 4,000 years ago about his own life. This interpretation means Christians have a spiritual obligation to pray for modern Israel and petition their governments to protect Israel; failure to support Israel’s political survival will incur divine judgment.
Around the Globe
I have encountered some blend of these themes in Christianity all over the world—in Europe, Africa, Asia, and beyond. Israel has taken on a mythological status. In the U.S., it is often linked with American prosperity, exceptionalism, and patriotism. Students have described to me their home churches where the American flag stands beside the Israeli flag in the sanctuary. Sometimes Christian Zionism can be militant. A high-profile pastor in Texas has even called for violent military action against Israel’s foes as God’s will.
The spiritual root of Christian Zionism is dispensationalism, whose themes have fully permeated many American churches. Dispensationalism was born in the 1800s as an attempt to divide human history into a series of seven biblical categories (or dispensations) of time: the eras of Adam, of Noah, and others. We live in the era of the church, followed by the end of time. Dispensationalism embraced a pessimistic view of history, thinking the world was coming to its end and judgment day was near. As a result, it became sectarian, separating itself from mainstream society, calling sinners to repent and be saved from the impending catastrophe.
As a Reformed theologian, I am at odds with this sort of thinking. Reformed theology has generally understood humanity’s calling to be one of transforming the world, not separating from it, and bringing God’s good things to bear on the things of this world.
In the mid-20th century, countless Christians believed the birth of the State of Israel in 1948 marked the beginning of the end of history. If prophecies are being fulfilled, if history is near its terminus, then Christians are obligated to join in what God is doing. This expression of faith is nowhere clearer than in one’s interpretation of God’s plans for Israel. Pro-Israel zealots today are known as Christian Zionists.
Let’s be clear: This is not a referendum on Israel’s right as a nation to have a place in history and enjoy international legitimacy. Israel has a right to exist in safety. But Christian Zionism is a theological question. Christian Zionism implies that being Christian has a necessary political entailment and that supporting Israel’s nationhood is a spiritual obligation.
Reformed Theology and Christian Zionism
The Reformed tradition has always resisted the call of Christian Zionism, and with today’s pressure to wed your spirituality to your politics, it is increasingly important to know what to believe. Let me outline a few differences between Reformed theology and Christian Zionism.
God’s Promises to Abraham
Christian Zionism takes the land promises of God in Genesis 12, 15, and 17 and applies them to the modern state of Israel. To Christian Zionists, this promise of land inheritance is permanent and unconditional. Therefore, despite Israel’s own declared intention of being a secular state (and despite Israelis’ low religious participation), modern Israel still benefits from a 4,000-year-old promise. For Zionists, the Abrahamic covenant is still active regardless of whether Israelis believe in God or not. In the Christian Zionist view—and this is key—the covenant of Christ does not replace or supplant the Jewish covenants.
Reformed theologians believe something decisive happened in Christ. His covenant affected not simply the covenant of Moses, making a new and timeless form of salvation, but also every other Jewish covenant, including Abraham’s covenant. Christ fulfills the expectations of Jewish covenant life and renews the people of God rooted in the Old Testament and Judaism. Thus, Jesus is the new temple, the new Israel.
In Galatians 3:16, the apostle Paul writes, “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring; it does not say ‘And to offsprings,’ as of many; but it says, ‘And to your offspring,’ that is, to one person, who is Christ” (NRSV). Paul argues from the singular noun in Genesis to show that the promises to Abraham point to Christ. Christ is the locus of the promise of land! The promises to Abraham have been realized in Christ. He holds everything Judaism desired, and knowing him gains access to such promises.
Jesus’ homily in John 15 says the same. The Old Testament image of Israel is that of a vineyard filled with vines rooted in the soil of the Holy Land. You can see this outlined beautifully in Isaiah 5. But Jesus upends this. We see a vineyard again, but now we learn that there is one vine—Christ—and the only concern is not on gaining access to the land but being attached to him.
To think Christianly about land and promise is to think differently than Judaism. The New Testament changes the spiritual geography of God’s people. The kingdom of God is tied to neither an ethnicity nor a place. Because the early Christians understood this, they carried their missionary efforts to the entire world. God loves Ephesus just as much as he loves Jerusalem. Indeed, God loves the entire world and all its people equally.
Reformed theologians are not convinced the promises to Abraham can be used politically today. The work of Christ is definitive. There is one covenant, and it is with Christ. In the zeal to promote and protect modern Israel, has Jesus been demoted?
Still, some might ask if emphasizing the centrality of Christ’s covenant leads to the dismissal of Judaism and its covenants. Would this lead to anti-Judaism in the church?
No. Christ and his church are deeply rooted in Judaism. As Gentiles, we are grafted into the Jewish tree of Abraham (Rom. 11:13-24). Jesus was Jewish, and it is through the Hebrew covenants that we understand our own covenant.
Christ does not replace these covenants; rather, he fulfills them and enables the birth of God’s kingdom, which includes both Jews and Gentiles. Reformed theology does not split Israel and the church; it finds rich continuity between them. Paul did not “become” a Christian; he realized the deepest meaning of his Jewishness when he chose to follow Jesus. This new, category-changing event at the heart of Christ’s work cannot be diminished. It is central to New Testament faith. Some have misused this teaching and promoted a dreadful anti-Semitism. But this misuse does not mean we dismiss what the Scriptures teach. Judaism deserves our respect, and anti-Semitism should be rejected outright as an utter corruption of the gospel.
Israel, Prophecy, and Nationhood
In Christian Zionism, 1948 is not simply a political marker in history. It is a theological marker. Israel has been restored to the land in fulfillment of prophecy, Zionists say. Therefore, the establishment of modern Israel is a theologically ordained event deserving of profound Christian respect and awe.
Reformed theologians also affirm Israel’s right to exist, but they are skeptical about Israel’s theological claim to own the Holy Land. They point to countless times when Christians used ancient prophetic texts to interpret contemporary times with bad results. They also note that any biblical claim to nationhood must also incorporate biblical expectations of nation-building—expectations that aren’t now being met.
The promise of land always comes with covenant expectations for religious life and for justice, themes echoed regularly by the prophets. Modern Israel began as a secular state. It does not reflect ancient Israel’s religious or moral national aspirations as described in Scripture, and it has made choices regarding the Palestinians living within its borders that would inspire harsh criticism from Old Testament prophets such as Amos or Isaiah.
For all these reasons, Reformed theologians do not see commitment to Israel as a spiritual imperative. They are moved more by ethics than eschatology when considering any country, because no one country now enjoys a preferential place in God’s economy.
History Is Coming to Its Close
Christian Zionists think Israel’s national birth is the key prophetic fulfillment in counting down the end of history. They believe Israel’s return fits with what else is happening in the world: moral values are in decline, an ecological crisis is looming with our oil-based economy in peril, and most importantly, there is war in the Middle East, all leading to widespread agreement among Zionists that history is reaching its end. All of this, they claim, was prophesied in Scripture.
Reformed theologians are not so catastrophic, not so sure these pronouncements are true, and they have always called for sober judgment. They worry Christian Zionists have let their zeal for prophecy and history’s end drown out other, more primary Christian values.
Our chief complaint is how a desire for the end times has shaped the ethics of Christian Zionists. Building the kingdom of God has become secondary to building the kingdom of Israel. Passion for seeing Christ’s second coming now comes before a passion for justice and fairness. When presented with the remarkable suffering of 4 million Palestinians living under harsh military occupation, Zionists typically stand unmoved. Negotiations that might return land to Palestinian owners are deemed to be against God’s will. Some Zionist pastors have even written that natural disasters hitting the United States and killing thousands are God’s punishment for political pressure put on Israel. It is this sort of theological confusion that stuns Reformed theologians.
Fidelity to Israel
For Christian Zionists, the first obligation of Christians is to study end-times prophecies and to monitor each nation’s political decisions. One conviction is always held aloft: God blesses those who bless Israel and curses those who curse Israel. Nations will stand or fall based on this one creed.
Reformed theologians hear this and wonder if the message of the gospel has been lost. My first call is fidelity to Christ and his kingdom. And yet this commitment should inspire in me a deep love for Israel and a desire for its people to become what their Scriptures call them to become: a nation of priests, a light to the nations, a people in whom there is such goodness that the nations will see the glory of God and rejoice.
Jesus’ Second Coming
This is the crown jewel of Christian Zionism. The birth of Israel has set the stage for the imminent second coming of Jesus Christ. Therefore, Zionists claim, any national agenda that would impede God’s plan, any peace plan that weakens Israel’s hold on the land, or any decision that stands in the way of this dramatic stage-setting is not a plan blessed by God.
Reformed theologians believe in the second coming too. But the chief difference is that Reformed theologians make profound investments in the world. We are not sectarian. We devote ourselves to promoting Christ’s commitments here and now. We do not despair about the course of the world, and we refuse to abandon it. We still build schools and hospitals and speak to injustice and poverty.
Dwight Moody, the founder of the dispensational Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, once asked why you’d want to polish the brass on a sinking ship. Reformed theologians are not convinced the ship is sinking, and we continue to polish the brass, navigate a course, and make passengers comfortable until we are surprised by Christ’s return—just as the Bible tells us we should be.
This is my ultimate concern: Christian Zionists believe in Jesus, but I wonder if they have lost the gospel. They have uncritically wed our faith to the politics of one nation, and this, as the church has learned so many times, is a prescription for disaster.
- Have you heard of Christian Zionism previously? What did you think it meant?
- Have you observed an unconditional support of the modern state of Israel among some Christians? What is your feeling and/or opinion about that?
- On the other hand, have you observed of anti-semitic or anti-Judaism sentiments among some Christians? How can we better prevent such sentiments?
- Do you view the world as a sinking ship? Why or why not?