A new book by Christian scholars makes a theological case for Christians to support Israel while distancing itself from the "crazy" pop-apocalyptic end-time scenarios that sometimes animate such support in contemporary politics.
Born out of a 2015 conference in Washington D.C. sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Democracy, The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land compiles biblical, historical, and Christian political thought on the topic. Contributors include prominent theologians and geopolitical thinkers who write on an issue often characterized by sweeping generalizations and contentious politics.
In light of the Dec. 23 resolution against Israel at the United Nations and likely changes coming to U.S. policy regarding the Jewish state with a new presidential administration, the book is proving to be a prescient resource, one that examines in great depth why support for the Jews and the state of Israel runs so deep in the Christian faith.
The volume's editor Gerald McDermott, who is the Anglican Chair of Divinity at Samford University's Beeson Divinity School in Alabama, told The Christian Post in a recent interview that it is time for Christian Zionism to be discussed in new way. Readers will quickly discover that Christianity's devotion to Zion, despite unfortunate chapters of anti-semitism in its history, is actually not so new.
"All too often [Christian Zionism] is dismissed as a dispensationalist project with crazy end-times scenarios," McDermott said.
Dispensationalism is a relatively modern interpretive approach to the Bible that views Biblical history as divided intentionally by God into clear-cut ages to each of which He has prescribed specific administrative principles; this theology was popularized by Anglo-Irish Bible teacher and Plymouth Brethren leader John Nelson Darby in the 1800s.
McDermott noted that while the book does not disparage anyone who holds those theological views, the larger point is that "the church needs to realize the importance of Israel as a people and a land to the whole Bible — not just the Old Testament." Also, the brand of Christian Zionism the authors espouse "is not attached to any particular plan for the End Times."
Yet they do recognize the massive ingathering of millions of Jews to their historic homeland in the past several decades and the formation of a modern nation-state as an act of God "because it is the biggest fulfillment of biblical promises concerning Israel since the closure of the New Testament," signaling a major turn in His plan for the ages, he said.
"We also wanted to show that we are Zionists who do not regard today's Israel as a perfect state. We are willing to criticize it when we think it makes mistakes. At the same time, we believe that it is a light of freedom and democracy in the vast darkness of Middle Eastern tyranny and oppression," McDermott said.
Darrell Bock, senior research professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, who contributed a chapter to The New Christian Zionism and gave a lecture at last year's IRD conference outlining the way forward for Christian Zionists, believes that Christians supportive of Israel must emphasize the hope of reconciliation found in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
"All Christian Zionism means is that Israel has a right to live in the land, and has a right to live in the land in peace," Bock said in a recent phone interview with CP.
"And the problem of course is that they are surrounded by many neighbors, not necessarily nation-states but many neighbors who don't think she has the right to exist and will do anything they can and disrupt her presence .... Anyone who has wrestled at all with terrorism we face globally these days, whether you're thinking about in Europe or here in the United States, just put that on steroids. And that's Israel's problem."
But there is also a flip side, he noted.
Such dangers "can produce in some cases an overreaction and a defensiveness which at one level is understandable, but can also lead to an over-counter reaction" Bock said. "And it is in Israel's best interest to have that impulse checked as much as realistically possible."
"And so the Christians are looking after Israel's best interest, sometimes when they are critical of her in those overreactions, because that overreaction produces a bitter taste in people's mouth, particularly people who already dislike the nation of Israel for one reason or another. And it gives them an excuse not to take Israel's rights seriously," he added.
Christians Zionists, "must never forget that the goal of the gospel in all of this is to build a bridge toward reconciliation, that in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile but the possibility of removing those things that create barriers between people," Bock reiterated.
The book argues against supercessionism, also called replacement theology, which is the view that Church of Jesus Christ has superseded or replaced Israel. This perspective holds that God no longer has a covenant with the people of Israel and no longer cares about the land except as a historical artifact.
McDermott told CP he considers this theology dangerous and contrary to the gospel because it detaches the Church from Israel and suggests that God was a liar when He promised repeatedly in the Old Testament than the Jews would return to the land.
"Jesus said that 'salvation is from the Jews' (John 4:22), and Paul said that we are saved only by becoming sons and daughters of Abraham (Gal 3:29)," McDermott said, "If we are disconnected from Israel, we not only refuse to see our roots in the olive tree of Israel (Rom 11:18) but become arrogant and proud, risking being 'cut off' (Rom 11:20-22)."
"Paul said, thirty or so years after Jesus' resurrection, that Jews who rejected Jesus were still 'beloved' to God, and His covenant with them was still in place (Rom 11:28-29). One day, he predicted, 'all Israel will be saved' (Rom 11:26). The Jews as a separate people, then, have a distinct future in God's plan. God's covenant with them continues," he added.
Even apart from the biblical rationale for Christian support for Israel, mere prudential reasons abound, McDermott contended.
"Israel is an island of democracy and freedom in a sea of authoritarian and despotic regimes. It needs friends as anti-semitism rises precipitously around the world," McDermott said.
"But Christians also need to know that there are strong theological reasons to believe that the people of Israel continue to be significant for the history of redemption, and that the land of Israel continues to be important to God's providential purposes," he concluded.
For more on The New Christian Zionism and its contributing authors, click here.