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.

Conclusions

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!