Who Are Evangelical Christians and Why Do They Support Israel?
Tricia Miller, Ph.D.
Evangelical Christians make up the single largest segment of Christendom in the world today and the vast majority of them stand with the Jewish people and support the Jewish State. However, in spite of the fact that significant progress has been made in the last 30-40 years in Jewish-Christian relations, there is still a lack of understanding in much of the Jewish community as to who Evangelicals are and why they stand with Israel. This article has been written to answer the who and why questions in order to address valid concerns Jews have concerning the motivation for Evangelical support for Israel in the hope that Jewish-Christian relations and cooperation for the sake of Zion will be encouraged and strengthened.
In light of the horrible history of Christian persecution of Jews for most of the last two millenia – persecution that, at times, included forced conversions – it is perfectly reasonable for Jews to wonder: Do Evangelicals only profess to love and support Israel and the Jewish people as a cover for an underlying agenda, such as the desire to convert Jews to Christianity?
And because of the popularization of particular beliefs concerning the End Times in recent decades, it is also logical for Jews to ask: Are Christian Zionists only excited about the restoration of the State of Israel because of a particular belief concerning the End Times, which says that the regathering of the Jews to their ancient homeland is a necessary prerequisite for the return of the Christian Messiah?
The following discussion will answer these two questions by demonstrating that the vast majority of Evangelical Christian Zionists love and support Israel and the Jewish people for legitimate theological and historical reasons.
Who are Evangelicals?
The vast majority of Evangelicals are Protestants, which means they belong to the part of Christendom that separated from the Roman Catholic Church through protest beginning with the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Hence, the name Protestants. However, while almost all Evangelicals are Protestants, not all Protestants are Evangelicals. Traditional Protestants, such as Presbyterians, Methodists and Lutherans don’t necessarily identify as Evangelicals, although some do.
Evangelicals are a worldwide, trans denominational movement that is distinguished from traditional historic Protestantism in several ways. One of these is the fact that Evangelicals – in general – tend to interpret Scripture more literally, rather than allegorically, than many of today’s traditional Protestants. This is obviously a generalization, with notable exceptions among Evangelicals and traditional Protestants, but it is an important distinction to note because a literal versus allegorical method of biblical interpretation has direct consequences in relation to how Evangelicals view Israel vis-a-vis how many traditional Protestants look at the Jewish State.
Because of their more literal interpretation of what the Bible has to say about a future for Israel and the Jewish people, Evangelicals have historically supported the reestablishment of the State of Israel in the ancient homeland of the Jewish people. And for the vast majority of Evangelicals, their support of Israel includes a love and respect for the Jewish people and faith that is rooted in an understanding of what the Bible says about the eternal covenant between God and Israel.
Why do Evangelicals Support Israel?
One of the most common questions many in the Jewish community have concerning why Evangelicals support Israel is phrased something like this:
Do Evangelicals only profess to love and support Israel and the Jewish people as a cover for an underlying agenda, such as the desire to convert Jews to Christianity?
This concern is somewhat justified because there is no denying the fact that, in general, Evangelicals believe it is part of their calling to share their faith with all peoples. However, while there are certainly some Evangelicals for whom the desire to convert Jews to Christianity is the motivating force behind their support for Israel, the vast majority love and support the Jewish people and State for biblical reasons that will be discussed below.
The exemplary long-time track records of significant Evangelical organizations demonstrate that Evangelicals support the existence of Israel for legitimate theological and historical reasons, not as a cover for proselytization. Indeed, ministries such as the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, Eagles’ Wings and Christians United for Israel intentionally avoid efforts to proselytize Jews, existing instead to minister to the needs of people in the Holy Land, and to strengthen Christian support for Israel and the Jewish people.
The second most common question many in the Jewish community have about Evangelical support for Israel is usually worded something like this:
Are Christian Zionists only excited about the restoration of the State of Israel because of a particular belief concerning the End Times, which says that the regathering of the Jews to their ancient homeland is a necessary prerequisite for the return of the Christian Messiah?
This question is frequently accompanied by the concern that Christian Zionists could care less about what happens to Jews during the fulfillment of End Time events. This uneasiness is somewhat justified due to particular beliefs that have been popularized in recent decades. However, these relatively recent interpretations do not account for two millennia of biblically based Christian belief in the eventual restoration of the Jewish people to the land of Israel.
Non-Zionist Protestants and Replacement Theology
Interestingly enough, Jewish apprehension about a particular interpretation of End Time events being the motivation behind Christian support for Israel is actually quite similar to a common criticism leveled at Christian Zionism by Protestants who are not Zionists.
The difference in belief between non-Zionist Protestants and Christian Zionists in relation to Jews and the Jewish State is the result of an allegorical method of biblical interpretation versus a more literal one. An allegorical reading of Scripture ignores or reinterprets the biblical emphasis on an eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people and contributes to a false theology known as replacement theology. This interpretation stands in stark contrast to the understanding of what the Scriptures say about a future for Israel and the Jewish people that comes from a more literal reading of the text.
Many biblical scholars will acknowledge that the primary focus of the Hebrew Bible has to do with a covenant between God and a particular people and land – specifically, the Jewish people and the land of Israel. However, they will often ignore the eternal aspect of that covenant and insist that the Christian Testament drops the focus on a particular land and people and replaces it with a universal vision for all peoples. This contributes to the non-Zionist Protestant belief that there is nothing theologically or historically significant about the restoration of the Jewish State in its ancient homeland.
As a result of allegorical interpretation, references to Eretz Yisrael, the literal land of Israel, are often replaced in the Christian Testament with a Greek word that is usually translated as the whole earth, and wherever the word Israel appears, it is interpreted as a reference to the Church. Similarly, references to Jews as the people of God are interpreted to mean Christians.
These erroneous conclusions form the foundation of replacement theology, which is a fallacious belief system that concludes that Christians and the Church have replaced Jews and Israel in the purposes of God.
According to those who adhere to this false theology, the only ones who believe that the New Testament recognizes the particular land and people of Israel are those who also adhere to a certain interpretation of End Time events, in which all Jews will return to Israel in preparation for a final epic battle in the Valley of Megiddo that must transpire in order for Messiah to come.
This interpretation – similar to the source of Jewish apprehension about Evangelical support for Israel – leads to false conclusions that one: Evangelicals are only interested in the restoration of Israel because it is a necessary step in the End Times scenario, and two: that Evangelicals do not care about all the Jews who will be killed in the battle of Armageddon.
In response to this understandable and justified concern, it is important to note two things. The first is that it would be very difficult to find Evangelicals who do not genuinely care about the future of the Jewish people. Second, adherence to a particular End Times belief as the motivating force behind Evangelical support for the reestablishment of the Jewish State would also be rare. Indeed, while the beliefs that cause apprehension have been popularized in recent decades, they are not representative of the underpinnings of Evangelical support for Israel, which is deeply rooted in a biblical foundation that goes back to the beginning of Christianity.
The Biblical Foundation of Historic Christian Zionism
The bedrock of Christian Zionism is the Hebrew Bible, in which the berit olam – the eternal covenant between God and Israel – is the central story throughout, and the promise of a particular land is at the heart of that covenant. The history begins in Genesis 12, where God took the initiative to take a certain people to himself, and then give that people a specific land. Centuries later, when the Jewish people were in exile, the Hebrew prophets declared that the land was still theirs.
Even the most virulent anti-Zionists will usually acknowledge that the people of Israel are front and center in the Hebrew Bible. However, they reinterpret the centrality of the land in those Scriptures. But, as the Bible scholar, Gerhard von Rad, said, “Of all the promises made to the patriarchs, it was that of the land that was the most prominent and decisive.”
The recognition of the emphasis the Hebrew Bible places on a particular land, and the promise of the return of the Jewish people to that land, is a significant part of the foundation of historic Christian Zionism. And, it is one of the most compelling reasons modern Evangelicals are Christian Zionists.
By way of contrast, rather than recognize that the Hebrew prophets’ vision of the return of the Jewish people to the land is being fulfilled today, some modern Bible scholars suggest that the prophecies of return were fulfilled in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah when some of the Babylonian exiles returned to rebuild Jerusalem. However, the Christian Testament, written centuries after the end of the Babylonian exile, reveals that Jesus, his apostles and the biblical authors expected a still-future return of the Jewish people and the restoration of Israel as a sovereign nation.
Testimony from the Christian Testament
The Jewish authors who wrote the Christian Testament held on to the Hebrew prophets’ promises that the Jewish people would one day return to that land from the four corners of the earth and reestablish their nation.
The apostle Mark, in chapter 11, verse 17 of the Gospel that bears his name, recorded Jesus’ quote of Isaiah’s prediction that the Temple would become “a house of prayer for all nations.” By quoting the prophet, Jesus validated Isaiah’s vision in Is. 56:7-8 of a restored Jerusalem where foreigners would come to God’s holy mountain to join the “outcasts of Israel” whom God has “gathered.” The “outcasts of Israel” who were to be “gathered” is a clear reference to the return of Jewish exiles.
In Acts 1:6, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” When he answered this question, Jesus did not challenge their assumption that one day the kingdom would be restored to physical Israel. He simply replied that the Father had set the date, and they did not need to know it. In other words, there was no question that the kingdom would be restored. The only question is when.
The apostle Peter referred to the return of Jews to Israel as the restoration promised by the Hebrew prophets when, in Acts 3:21, he spoke about “the times of restoration of all things which God spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from ancient time.”
Revelation 21:1-2 describes the future new heaven and new earth, which will be centered in Jerusalem. And according to 21:12, the new Jerusalem will have twelve gates named after the twelve tribes of the children of Israel.
Thus, it is clear from the beginning to end of the Christian Testament that Jesus, his apostles and the biblical authors expected a future return of the Jewish people and the restoration of Israel as a sovereign nation. Everything comes to completion in the final book of Revelation in which Zion, Jerusalem and the twelve tribes of Israel are at the center of End Time events.
Early Church Fathers – Replacement Theology – Palestinian Agenda
The Christian Testament’s affirmation of the promise of a particular land for a particular people found throughout the Hebrew Bible did not end with the biblical writers. According to Dr. Gerald McDermott, a leading authority on the history of Christian Zionism, the expectation of a future return of the Jewish people to the land and the restoration of the nation of Israel continued to be fairly common in the early Church.
However, beginning in the third century, some church fathers began to spiritualize the promises of a specific land for a specific people, and interpreted the prophecies of a restored nation of Israel as predictions of the Christian church. The practice of appropriating biblical references to Israel and the Jewish people as references to the Church and Christians was used by some early church leaders to delegitimize Judaism for the purpose of promoting Christianity.
This method of interpretation results in the belief system known as replacement theology, which as has been said, maintains that Christians and the Church have replaced Jews and Israel in the purposes of God. This doctrine was employed throughout church history to justify persecution of Jews, and continues to be used today by those in the Christian world who delegitimize the Jewish State’s right to exist and defend itself against those who intend to murder its citizens.
There is a Palestinian Christian version of replacement theology, specifically adapted to support the Palestinian political agenda. It includes the claim that Jesus and the early Christians were all Palestinians, because according to their rewritten, false version of history, Palestinians – not Jews – were the indigenous people of the land.
The assertion that Jesus was a Palestinian is based on the lie that the Jews who are in Israel now are actually of European descent and only appeared in the land beginning in the 19th century. Since – according to this narrative – there were no Jews in the land when Jesus was born, Jesus must have been a Palestinian. Of course, in order to believe this outrageous claim, one has to ignore all ancient textual documentation and all archaeological evidence that attest to the history of Jews in the land. But the promoters of a Palestinian Jesus don’t let written or physical proof get in the way of their agenda – which is to delegitimize Israel’s right to exist and demonize Jews as illegal occupiers of the land.
One example of how Palestinian Christians delegitimize the Jewish State is demonstrated through a quote from Mitri Raheb, the former pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem.
Speaking at a Christian conference in Bethlehem in 2010, he said:
Israel represents Rome of the Bible, not the people of the land. And this is not only because I’m a Palestinian. I’m sure if we were to do a DNA test between David, who was a Bethlehemite, and Jesus, born in Bethlehem, and Mitri, born just across the street from where Jesus was born, I’m sure the DNA will show that there is a trace. While, if you put King David, Jesus, and Netanyahu, you will get nothing, because Netanyahu comes from an East European tribe who converted to Judaism in the Middle Ages.
There are many more examples of how Palestinian Christians rewrite and falsify history, and use erroneous theology to promote the Palestinian political agenda, but at this point, it is necessary to return to the discussion of the history of Christian Zionism.
Middle Ages through the Seventeenth Century
There were some medieval theologians who believed in a return of the Jewish people to their land. So, even in the Middle Ages – a time period considered to be somewhat of a dark age for the church – there were Christians who continued to recognize the unique identity of the Jewish people and the land now known as Israel.
In Europe, during the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, a renewed vision for a future Israel gained momentum. Even Martin Luther acknowledged the possibility that the Jewish people would be regathered to their historic homeland. Most notably, in this same time period, a new kind of Zionism was developing and the stimulus for it came primarily from Britain.
The Bible had become “the national epic of Britain” by the sixteenth century, and the English identified very closely with the ancient Israelites in their national story. As a result, a renewed vision for a future Israel that greatly resembled Zionism gained momentum in England. Beginning in the 17th century, English Puritan leaders promoted beliefs such as: the Jews were still “God’s chosen nation,” Christians “must acknowledge ourselves debters to the Jews,” and “the dispersed Jews would be restored into their own country, and would rebuild Jerusalem.”
The Puritans who came to North America strongly identified with the Jews’ exodus from Egypt as they made their way to the shores of the New World. This identification continued into the eighteenth century, when the founding fathers of the United States of America even considered making Hebrew the national language.
As the Puritans laid the bedrock for the future United States of America – a foundation based on Judeo-Christian values – they maintained their belief in a future return of the Jews to their land. John Cotton of the Massachusetts Bay Colony wrote in his 1642 commentary on the Song of Solomon that the Gentiles needed to prove their faithfulness by actively helping Jews return to Palestine. He said, they should be willing “to convey the Jews into their own country, with chariots, and horses, and dromedaries.” In other words, Gentiles should provide the means of transportation.
We see this prophetic work happening today through the work of Christian organizations such as the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem (ICEJ), which has been active in funding flights to Israel for Ethiopian, Ukranian, Kaifeng and Bnei Menashe Jews since its founding in 1980. The ICEJ not only funds the flights, but helps the new olim make the transition into Israeli society.
Another Puritan contribution to Christian Zionism came in the form of Increase Mather’s The Mystery of Israel’s Salvation, written in 1669. This was the most comprehensive work on the restoration of Israel published in this period. Writing from Boston’s Bay Colony, Mather wrote that “the Israelites shall again possess…the Land promised unto their Father Abraham.”
Eighteenth Century to Early Nineteenth Century
At the turn of the eighteenth century the Dutch Reformed theologian Wilhelmus à Brakel published a four-volume systematic theology that argued the Church was not the New Israel. This voluminous work represented an important refutation of the erroneous doctrine of replacement theology, which had been entrenched in the church since the time of the early Church fathers.
à Brakel also wrote that the apostle Paul’s writings about Israel in his letter to the Romans in the Christian Testament are all about the Jews as a people with a distinct future. Romans chapter 11 begins with these words: “I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! God did not reject his people.” Further on in chapter 11, Paul uses the analogy of an olive tree to illustrate for the Gentile recipients of his letter what their relationship is to the Jewish people. He explains that Israel is the root of the tree and the Jewish people are the natural branches of the tree. Gentiles have been grafted into the tree of Israel through belief in Jesus, but according to Paul, the Gentiles are wild branches. Paul goes on to admonish his readers to not be arrogant and consider themselves superior to the natural branches – the Jews – because they – the wild branches – do not support the root. Rather, the root, which is Israel, supports them.
Any survey of church history since the time of Paul reveals that the majority of the church has not heeded his warnings, and has not understood his teaching concerning the dependence of the Christian faith on its Jewish roots. However, in contrast to much of the traditional church, Evangelicals have historically understood the inseparable relationship between the teachings of Jesus and Paul and their Jewish foundation and context, and have heeded Paul’s warning to not be arrogant against the Jews. The Dutch theologian, à Brakel, also reflected this understanding in his systematic theology when he warned Gentiles to not “despise the Jewish nation,” and expressed his strong belief that Jews would return to their historic land.
Jonathan Edwards, who lived from 1703 - 1758, agreed with à Brakel and wrote extensively about the theological continuity between the Jewish Bible and the New Testament. For Edwards, the two covenants – the Mosaic covenant and the Christian covenant – were two phases or ways of performing the same covenant. Regardless of whether the reader agrees or disagrees with Edwards theologically, his belief in the continuity between the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Testament is a strong statement against the erroneous belief that Christians have replaced Jews in the purposes of God.
In addition to advocating a theological position that soundly refutes replacement theology, Edwards believed that the Jews would return to their homeland in fulfillment of the biblical prophecies, and that the Holy Land would once again be the spiritual center of the world. He wrote that Israel would again be a distinct nation, and Christians would have free access to Jerusalem because Jews would look on Christians as their brethren.
It is quite striking that what Edwards wrote in the early eighteenth century is being fulfilled today! Indeed, because of the freedom of religion provided by the modern State of Israel, Christians have free access to Jerusalem. And in the past few decades, we have seen such unprecedented progress in Jewish-Christian relations that Jews and Christians involved in these relationships do in fact consider each other brothers and sisters.
Not long after the time of Jonathan Edwards, two of the early presidents of the United States made significant statements about Jews and the restoration of the nation of Israel. John Adams, the second president, wrote to Thomas Jefferson the following: “I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize man than any other nation."
In 1819, in a letter to Major Mordecai Noah – the son of a Revolutionary War veteran who contributed a significant amount of money to the cause – Adams said: "I could find it in my heart to wish that you had been at the head of a hundred thousand Israelites ... and marching with them into Judea and making a conquest of that country and restoring your nation to the dominion of it. For I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation.” The sixth president of the US, John Quincy Adams, wrote to this same man, saying: “I believe in the rebuilding of Judea as an independent nation.”
Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Christian Zionism
By the nineteenth century, the Evangelical movement within Christianity was quite strong and Evangelicals saw philosemitism as what made them distinct from other Christians who had persecuted Jews throughout the long history of Christianity. Furthermore, they maintained that their faith went back to biblical Israel itself – a belief that is very similar to that of modern Evangelicals, who understand the Jewish roots of Christianity.
Evangelical Christian Zionists have often been leaders, able to influence nations in favor of supporting the Jewish people. In nineteenth century England, the most famous and powerful philo-Semite was Lord Ashley, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury (1801-85). He became the leading proponent of Christian Zionism of his time and his advocacy for a Jewish homeland was critical to the intellectual development behind the Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which Lord Arthur Balfour spelled out British support for the restoration of a Jewish homeland through the Declaration that bears his name.
It said in part:
“His Majesty's government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.”
Other well-known British leaders, motivated by their Christian belief that the Jews would return to the land, put their faith into action and supported the establishment of a Jewish homeland. Colonel John Patterson, who commanded the Jewish Legion during World War I, was a lifelong Christian Zionist. General Orde Wingate, a British officer who spoke out passionately for the Jews in the 1930's, believed in the establishment of a Jewish homeland on religious, political and moral grounds. He initiated a plan to create small unites of elite volunteers to combat the Arab attacks against Jews in the 1930’s and his military strategy shaped the fighting tradition of the Haganah and the IDF.
US President Harry Truman became an advocate for the Jewish people and a Zionist as a result of his own reading of the Bible. In 1943, in the midst of the Holocaust, then Senator Truman addressed a rally in Chicago “to demand rescue of doomed Jews.” He said:
Today—not tomorrow—we must do all that is humanly possible to provide a haven and place of safety for all those who can be grasped from the hands of the Nazi butchers. Free lands must be opened to them. Their present oppressors must know that they will be held directly accountable for their bloody deeds. To do all of this, we must draw deeply on our tradition of aid to the oppressed, and to our great national generosity. This is not a Jewish problem. It is an American problem—and we must and we will face it squarely and honorably.
In 1945, just two years after his speech in Chicago, Truman was sworn in as Vice President. Less than three months later, he was sworn in as President of the United States following the death of President Franklin Roosevelt. In 1947, he opposed his own State Department and put his reelection at risk by supporting the American-led United Nations resolution to establish the State of Israel. And in May 1948, President Truman declared American recognition of the newly established State within minutes of its formation.
He later said, “I had faith in Israel even before it was established. I knew it was based on the love of freedom, which has been the guiding star of the Jewish people since the days of Moses. I believe it has a glorious future before it, not just as a sovereign nation but as an embodiment of the great ideals of our civilization.”
The examples set by those who have gone before are followed to this day by numerous Evangelical leaders and organizations in multiple countries, all committed to educating others about Israel and insuring that their nations support the existence and safety of the only Jewish State.
There is a 2000 year history of Christian belief in the restoration of Israel that is based on an understanding of the centrality of the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people – and the promise of a particular land at the heart of that covenant – throughout the Hebrew Bible and Christian Testament. What we now call Christian Zionism, or Evangelical support for Israel, is simply the modern version of that historic belief, built on a theological foundation as old as Christianity itself.
The vast majority of Christian Zionists support Israel and the Jewish people for theological and historical reasons that do not include attempts to convert Jews, or the desire to see Jews gathered in Israel in fulfillment of a particular interpretation of End Times events. Rather, modern Christian support for the State of Israel is rooted in the historic Christian belief that Jews would some day return to their ancient homeland, an understanding of the historical and spiritual connection of the Jewish people to that land, and agreement with the right of Jews to self-determination in their own land.
In light of these realities and the tumultuous times in which we live, Jewish-Christian relations and inter-faith cooperation for the sake of Zion is more crucial now than ever. It is vital that we focus on what Jews and Christians have in common and make our shared values the foundation upon which to build and strengthen the very necessary relationship between Jews, Christians and Israel. Let us fight united for Israel’s right to exist and defend itself against those who seek its annihilation!