Over the next few weeks, I will be posting a series that I’m calling “Tough Topics.” I will explore several theological hot-button issues that I have wrestled with, or am still wrestling with, in some cases. I don’t pretend to have all the definitive answer to any of these questions, or even to explore them exhaustively. My hope is that this series will help others who are thinking about these topics and expand the thinking of those who have never considered them before.
A Huge Mess
Over the last couple weeks, the seemingly endless conflict in Israel/Palestine has flared up yet again as the United States’ embassy opened in Jerusalem. The decision to move the embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem was known to likely result in outbreaks of violence, and sure enough it did. Palestinians were, naturally, not happy as this very blatantly demonstrated to them the U.S’s unwavering commitment to the Israeli cause. The resulting protests by the Palestinians turned violent and Israel ended up killing over 60 Palestinians.
The whole situation there is really a mess. Israeli forces, understandably, are trying to protect their interests from people whose ruling party, Hamas, is religiously genocidal and regularly utilizes terror tactics such as suicide bombers on civilian targets against Israel while hiding behind its own civilians. However, it is also understandable that many Palestinians support such tactics since being displaced from their lands when the state of Israel was formed 70 years ago. I’m not making a moral judgment about either side, here. I’m simply noting that both sides claim to have their reasons.
The End is Near?
Many American evangelical Christians see the formation of the modern state of Israel as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy signalling that the end times are near. This system of biblical interpretation, called Dispensationalism, claims that the state of Israel needed to be formed so that the antichrist could rebuild the temple, the church can be taken up to heaven, while the world is judged for seven years until Christ returns. Various groups differ on the exact timing and order of the events, but overall that’s a pretty basic picture.
Early versions of this method of biblical interpretation originated in the 1800s by the followers of a preacher named John Nelson Darby, but it really took off in the 20th century among fundamentalist Christians in the United States. Attempts to show how various passages of scripture prophesied modern geo-political events that would result in the second coming of Christ became the subject of many books, videos, “end times charts,” and novels.
This reading of the Bible has resulted in a very significant swath of American evangelicalism offering practically uncritical political support for Israel’s policies and actions in the region. The reason for this draws on the promise God gave Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you, I will curse” (Genesis 12:3). By this logic, what is in the state of Israel’s best interest is in God’s best interest (and by extension, America’s). Every political move thus has theological significance that brings us closer to the rapture, tribulation, and Christ’s second coming.
There are a number of problems with this way of reading Scripture and looking at world events, but the most serious problem with this is that it ends up dividing the world along the Jew-Gentile lines that Bible claims the cross obliterated.
The New Testament is pretty clear that in Christ, the division between Jews and Gentiles has been done away with: “For he (Christ) is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups (Jew and Gentile) into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Ephesians 2:14). Also, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). When Christians begin to view the world through a Jew vs. Palestinian lens, they are putting up walls that the cross has brought down.
A Better Way
When Christians get caught up in trying to figure out how modern nation states will play into the end times, they are repeating the same mistakes of those who wanted Jesus to violently defeat the Romans and restore the Jewish monarchy. Nearly everyone thought that was the way the Messiah would bring the kingdom in the first century.
Even after Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:7). Jesus’ reply was that they were focusing on the wrong things: “He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority, but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth'” (Acts 1:8-9). In other words, leave the political, end times speculation alone and spread the gospel!
That does not mean that we should not be concerned with politics in the middle east nor does it mean being anti-Israel. If we are concerned with seeing a solution in the region that respects basic human rights and freedom of religion, that won’t come if Hamas is in charge. We can maintain that Israel has a right to self-defense.
It simply means we should not base those politics on an end times theology that privileges one ethnic group over the other. We should remember the many Arab/Palestinians who are Christians and we should be advocating for a fair and just outcome for both sides, as much as that is possible.
Who Owns the Land by Stanley Ellison
“Beyond the Nakba: 7 Ways Christians Can Affirm a Positive Future for Palestinians” in Christianity Today
“The Holy Land Today” Sermon by N.T. Wright