I’ve been hearing it, in one form or another, ever since I was converted as a teenager – that God has a plan for political Israel, such that the fate of the nation is intricately tied to the fulfilment of other Biblical prophecies and, indeed, to the second coming of Christ!
I can’t remember where I heard it first – whether I first read it in Hal Lindsey’s “Late Great Planet Earth” or whether I heard it earlier from New Zealand’s white Pentecostal evangelist, Barry Smith. Either way, I’ve heard it plenty of times since, and the spiel is always basically the same – that the triumph of Israel over its Middle-Eastern neighbours has been clearly prophesied in the Biblical texts, and that until this happens, the ‘final battle’ (‘Armageddon’) and the ensuing 1000-year reign of peace can’t happen either.
The spiritual thrust of this sort of message is always ‘give yourself to Christ so that you will be ready when he reappears.’ There is an obvious accompanying political message too though – that we should all lend a hand to the state of Israel in her battles with her neighbours, lest the progress of the Biblical prophecies be somehow frustrated, or at least stalled.
‘Christian Zionism’ is the technical term for this reading of the Scriptures. Ironically, it tends to flourish best in areas of the church where there is a strong distinction between the sacred and the secular – between religion and politics. Indeed, most Christian Zionists will tell you that political matters have nothing to do with their faith, which is concerned exclusively with their personal salvation. The only exception is with matters concerning political Israel, which still has a special role to play in God’s plan of salvation.
Beliefs along these lines are widespread amongst Evangelical Christians, particularly in the US, where they translate into an aggressively pro-Israel foreign policy. In recent years, the Christian Zionist lobby has played a significant role in supporting and strengthening the special bond that exists between Israel and the West., and members of the church have been actively courted by Israeli nationalists both in the US and in the state of Israel itself!
OK. Enough about Christian Zionism! If you didn’t know what it is, you do now. Either way, I’d encourage you to give it a wide berth! Why? Because, in my view, Christian Zionism is both wrong and dangerous!
It is wrong because it arises out of a misunderstanding of the Bible. It is dangerous because it sanctions actions that contribute to the supremacy of the state of Israel without regards to their broader consequences, and without any serious evaluation of the moral nature of the actions themselves.
Now … I do believe that I have a simple way of demonstrating to Christian Zionists that they are completely off-track! My argument is simple and decisive, and I have never yet met a Christian Zionist who is able to respond with anything more than a blank look when confronted with this argument.
What’s more, it doesn’t involve disputing any of the so-called prophetic texts. It doesn’t require me to challenge the distinction between sacred and secular. It doesn’t even require me to adopt a political position on the state of Israel. I could be very pro-Zionist and still maintain this point; that Biblical prophecy is never normative!
Biblical prophecy is never normative. In other words, prophecies in the Bible never function as commandments – telling us directly how to determine our relationships with our neighbours. They function to bring us closer to God – generally through repentance. Allow me to flesh this out:
When Amos proclaims God‘s judgement – “For three transgressions of Israel and for four, I will not revoke the punishment” – his purpose is not simply to upset people by telling them that they are about to be destroyed, nor is he giving them an invitation to come and join him in destroying Israel. On the contrary, his purpose is to call his hearers to repentance so that Israel might not be destroyed.
When the prophet Jeremiah rails against the sins of Israel, and predicts that a ‘boiling pot from the north’ will spill over in their direction and destroy everything, this is not designed to shift anybody’s political allegiance from Israel to the northern nation of Babylon (or Assyria).
On the contrary, Jeremiah’s sincere hope always was that the events he prophesied would not come to pass, and when things did take place just as he had predicted, Jeremiah wrote a whole book of Laments, mourning the tragedy of Jerusalem‘s destruction!
Do you see my point? Jeremiah predicted the destruction of Israel, but this does not mean that he endorsed it as a good thing, or wanted to encourage anybody to help make it happen.
Yes, the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC was the fulfilment of the Jeremiah’s prophecy, but it was still a great tragedy that should have been prevented, and, according to Jeremiah, could have been prevented, had the people turned to their creator in repentance and faith.
Biblical prophecy is not normative. Jeremiah’s prophecies did not make the destruction of Jerusalem a morally acceptable act, and if we had been a part of his audience, the correct response would not have been to go and enlist in the Babylonian army so as to join in the looting. No. Such prophecies have a specific spiritual purpose, functioning something like shock therapy. The prophet paints a shocking picture of the judgement that is about to fall with a view to rattling his hearers to the point that they wake up to the fact that something is seriously wrong!
This is what distinguishes Biblical prophecy from both fortune-telling and electioneering. Biblical prophecies are not given for the sake of satisfying anybody’s curiosity about the future, any more than they are designed to help shape 21st century foreign policy. Prophecies are given in order to call people to back to God.
This is where Christian Zionism just gets it plain wrong.
Christian Zionists claim that the Biblical prophecies point to the triumph of 21st Century political Israel over its Middle-Eastern neighbours. I think that their interpretation of the Biblical texts is erroneous, but that is unimportant here. What is important is, even if they were entirely correct, and that a particular Biblical prophet did indeed predict a military victory for modern Israel over, say, Iran, this would not mean that either the prophet or the Bible was endorsing this as a good thing, deserving of our support, any more than the destruction of Jerusalem that Jeremiah foretold was viewed as a good thing, worthy of support. On the contrary, as in the historic example, even if it were ‘prophesied’, the right thing to do, from a Scriptural point of view, might well be to oppose it.
Biblical prophecy has never been normative for people of faith. It is the commandments that are normative. You know the ones – ‘love God and love your neighbour’. These are the Divine commands that inform our actions and tell us how we ought to behave towards our neighbours. And it is only on the basis of these commandments that we can construct a Biblically-based foreign policy – on the basis of love!
Perhaps I shouldn’t be too harsh in judging my Christian Zionist brethren for confusing prophesy and commandment. After all, the prophet Jonah himself was guilty of exactly the same confusion.
You remember Jonah, don’t you? After his adventure with the big fish, he did end up going to Ninevah and delivering his message: “Yet forty days and Ninevah will be destroyed”.
.It was a very simple message, and if ever a Biblical prophesy appeared to be a simple prediction about the future, it was Jonah’s.
If you made it to the end of the book, you know that Jonah, after delivering his message, found a good vantage point outside of the city and sat there, waiting for the fireworks to begin. Much to his own chagrin, they do not begin. His prediction was not fulfilled. Why not? Because his prophecy had been successful. Do you see the distinction?
Jonah’s prophecy was successful, in that it caused people to repent and come back to God. The result was that the city did not need to be destroyed. God is depicted as being very happy about this. Jonah was not.
Read over the last chapter of the book of Jonah sometime if you’ve missed the details. Jonah treated his prophecy as if he were simply informing people of the inevitable. He fully expected the judgement to happen and believed that it was right and fitting. Indeed, I suspect that nothing would have made Jonah happier than if God had given him the privilege of pressing the button to detonate the fire and brimstone attack upon Ninevah. But it was not to be!
Jonah made the mistake of seeing the destruction of Ninevah as a good thing, simply because he had prophesied it! If he’d had any Christian Zionists with him, they might have formed an anti-Ninevah foreign policy on the basis of his prophecy. They might have further concluded that sending arms to Ninevah’s enemies was an appropriate response to Jonah’s prophecy. Thankfully the people of Ninevah knew how to respond to Jonah‘s words. They repented, which was the purpose of the prophecy all along!
Biblical prophecy is not normative! It is the commandments that are normative.
Confusing the two is not simply a mistake. It is dangerous and can be downright wicked, because when you confuse prophecy and commandment, you run the risk of breaking the commandments for the sake of seeing your prophecy fulfilled.
Let’s get specific here:
The oppression of the Palestinian people by the state of Israel in recent years has been horrendous. Between the massacres and assassinations and the daily grind of an apartheid system that treats Israeli Arabs as second class citizens, all the commandments have been broken.
If we look at the situation through the eyes of Jesus – with eyes of compassion and mercy – we cannot but be moved to both pity and anger. Pity for the many who have been victimised – both Palestinians and Jews who have tried to resist the occupation. And anger towards the foreign countries who make the oppression possible – countries that include Australia as well as the US.
And the saddest part, from my point of view, is that much of this oppression takes place in the name of religion, and with the blessing of the many parts of Christ’s church, because it is all seen as being a necessary part of the great end-time drama, as depicted in the Biblical prophecies. How shameful!
Biblical prophecy is never normative!
Jonah prophesied that Ninevah would fall. Thanks be to God, his prophecy was NOT fulfilled.
Jeremiah predicted that Jerusalem would fall. Oh, what a good and godly thing it would have been had we been able to prevent that from happening!
The fact that something has been prophesied does not mean that such an outcome is a good thing. The predicted events may be things that we should oppose. We need to be guided here by the commandments. The commandments inform our actions, not the prophecies themselves.
OK. That’s the spiel. Are you convinced? I hope so. I accept though that many Christian Zionists will not be convinced.
Even amongst those who read and understand what I have said, some will not be convinced, but will continue to believe that the Lord Jesus would have us give unilateral support to the State of Israel, regardless of their record of human rights abuse. I accept that. People are complex, and hold to these types of positions for reasons that are often difficult to understand.
But know this – that the Christian Zionist position is not logical, it’s not moral, and it’s certainly not Biblical, even if its adherents to add ‘because the Bible says’ every time they state their case.
First published as “The final word on the place of modern Israel in Biblical Prophecy” in Feb 2006