Recently a Jewish Professor at Baylor University was fired, allegedly for proclaiming that Israel has committed human rights atrocities and that the Palestinians have a right to their own state. As you can imagine, this has garnered a great deal of attention both for and against the action.
Aside from the political and academic implications of this event, which I’m sure are quite complicated, there is this ideology that has emerged as the flashing point: Evangelical Christians must support the actions of modern Israel at all costs. And to go against Israel’s interests is to go against God’s will.
Where did this come from?
What you may not know is that “Christian Zionism” as this is called is a fairly new idea that traces its lineage back to the middle of the 19th century. Enter J. N. Darby, who grew disillusioned with the Irish Anglican Church after studying the book of Acts and noticing that the present day institution failed in many ways when compared to the dynamism and purity of first century believers. He tended toward literalism in understanding the Bible, and his fascination with apocalyptic passages led him to the then fairly novel conclusion that most of this stuff hadn’t happened yet.
As a result, Darby plunged himself into the task of trying to figure out if perhaps all the bad stuff going on in his world was somehow predicted in the Scriptures. He rejected the then popular postmillennialism which assumed that everything would just keep getting better and better in the world until Jesus came back, despite the fact that this view was held by some pretty stalwart theologians like John Cotton, John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards . Ever the contrarian, Darby adopted a rather pessimistic view of this world in which everything must get worse. Just pick up the newspaper, he baited, and you’ll see.
And so he started hanging around with other disgruntled evangelicals in Ireland who loved to get together and gripe. Soon this group captured the attention of a wealthy widow named Theodosia A. Viscountess Powerscourt, or Lady Powerscourt for short, who thought it would be fun to get all these pessimists together at a large conference so that they could hear a succession of speakers complain about how bad things were. Little did she know that she was laying down the foundation for the modern news networks.
Eventually, the group got tired of complaining all the time and so started to talk about what they could do about all the stuff they were complaining about. They concluded that they were far too depraved to be able to do anything (most of them were Calvinists) but that perhaps God might intervene. This is where things get really interesting, because then the speakers started to present their ideas about how God was going to assault all the people that they didn’t like, especially the godless scientists and Catholics.
This made them feel much better.
Soon, J. N. Darby rose to notoriety among these speakers for two reasons: his novel eschatology captured their imagination. And two, Lady Powerscourt wanted Darby to be her boyfriend, and so she made sure he had ample opportunity to speak at the best spots during these prophecy gatherings aptly named, the Powerscourt Conferences. Alas, their love never blossomed, mainly because Darby fancied himself a fighter, not a lover.
Eventually Darby’s insights developed into a grand scheme of understanding all of history known as Premillennial Dispensationalism. It’s so complicated, my spell checker doesn’t even recognize these two terms as actual words. Essentially, Darby divided history into seven dispensations, and explained that today we are in the sixth age of grace also known as the “church age,” characterized as a rather dull period where nothing much happens until we get close to the end, when all hell breaks loose, literally. In a last gasp of desperation, Satan and his forces will unleash a torrent of maelstroms against the church. Signs of this can already be seen in the fact Napoleon III has become ruler of France as the seventh head of the beast. Very soon, the eighth head will reveal itself, and the evil emanating from this person will be even worse.
Crucial to Darby’s eschatology is a novel understanding of the role of the Jews. Whereas historically the Church has been viewed as God’s instrument to usher in the Kingdom, Darby concluded that when the Jews rejected Jesus they interrupted the coming of the Kingdom. This led him to a strict dichotomy where the Jews are given another chance at redemption and the opportunity to reestablish the nation of Israel. In other words, God hasn’t given up on the Jews or His promises of land and glory mentioned in the Old Testament. Even though numerous passages also mention that these promises were contingent upon the Jews being faithful. And other numerous passages suggest that the Jews weren’t so good at being faithful, thus nullifying the promises.
Nevertheless, faithfulness has its rewards, as represented by the Church. And soon Jesus will return in the sky. He will “rapture” the church so that they can join him in heaven and gleefully watch the rest of the world get tortured over a period known as the “tribulation.” This will be a really bad time, like a horror movie, with heavenly creatures playing the role of the guy with the creepy white mask and a knife who inflicts pain and suffering on all the teenagers who dare to lose their virginity before marriage. Only instead of sex being the act that dooms you, it’s the mark of the beast.
Painful sores, skin-crisping fire, panic-inducing darkness, and giant hailstones will be but a few of the maladies experienced. Satan and his followers will fight back, enjoying a few successes of their own. However, after the Yankees win the World Series seven years in a row, Jesus will have had enough, and He will return on a white horse brandishing Excalibur. Satan will be defeated and bound in the Abyss. This is when the promised Kingdom is finally established in Jerusalem, and the 144,000 Jews who refused the mark of the beast during the Tribulation will be allowed to reign for a thousand years.
After the Millennium, Satan is released for one big, high-noon showdown with God called Armageddon. It won’t be much of a fight, however, for after a little sword-rattling, God merely zaps them with fire and tosses the Prince of Darkness, along with his minions, into the lake of fire where they spend an eternity in constant torment along with the rest of the damned (including the New York Yankees).
Now we get to our happy ending where the New Jerusalem is established and everyone runs around and hugs Jesus, sings contemporary Christian worship songs and watches Pixar movies.
For a group of disgruntled Irish evangelicals who were dissatisfied with the Church of England and fearful of a world that seemed to be falling apart, this scheme had a great deal of appeal. Yet, it probably would have remained popular among a limited number had it not been for some British politicians who become fascinated with Darby’s ideas about the Jews. Most prominent among them was Lord Shaftesbury who became convinced of Darby’s interpretations and made it his mission to insure that Darby’s eschatology became political reality. And so Shaftesbury began rallying for an independent Jewish nation, inspiring a following that managed to gain momentum over the next century. Shaftesbury’s slogan proclaimed, “A country without a nation for a nation without a country,” promoting the idea that the Jews were a people without a home, and that Palestine was an empty land without a people.
Meanwhile in America, C. I. Scofield, a Confederate soldier, lawyer, U.S. Attorney General fired under suspicion of embezzlement, convicted forgeror, divorcee, and Dallas pastor published his commentary along with the King James Version of the Bible in a work known as the Scofield Reference Bible. In his commentary on Revelation, Scofield essentially cut-and-pasted Darby’s eschatology with a few minor changes that made it more applicable to the times. For many, his notes were as inspired and inerrant as the biblical text itself. And many pastors found themselves having to defend any of their interpretations at variance with Scofield’s notes, especially on eschatology. T.T. Shields of Toronto once commented that it generally took a believer about three to six months to go from total ignorance to “oracular religious certainty” with the Scofield Bible.
By the time World War II ended, dispensationalism was quite popular both in America and England. And though motivations were complicated and mixed, Christian Zionism played a significant role among the western powers that concluded that the Jews had suffered so much at the hands of the Nazis that they deserved a place of their own. And so they carved out a bit of land in the Middle East around Jerusalem and established the nation of Israel, evicting the inhabitants that didn’t exist. When this happened, as you can imagine, adherence of Premillennial Dispensationalism celebrated as they viewed this event as confirmation that everything they believed about the end times was true.
Since then, new prophets, pastors, political leaders, and Kirk Cameron, have all taken up the banner of J.N. Darby and Lord Shaftesbury, proclaiming that it is the will of God that Israel be supported against her enemies at all costs. By doing so, one hastens the day of the return of Jesus and the rapture of the church.
Now, I’m willing to admit Darby may very well be right about all of this. And it’s fun to talk and debate about eschatology. But as I look at how apocalyptic passages have been interpreted in the past, one thing stands out: the church has a dismal record. Which begs the question, is it really wise to base major decisions about the future based on the complicated interpretations of ambiguous biblical texts?