Several years ago, I chaperoned a field trip for my son’s Christian school class. Another dad on the trip asked me what I did, and when I mentioned that I taught courses on the Middle East, he said, “So, do you know a lot about Bible prophecy?” His question sounded strange to me. He didn’t ask me if I knew Hebrew, Arabic, or another Middle Eastern language; he asked about prophecy. Yet his question wasn’t strange for an evangelical.
As a glance at the shelves of a Christian bookstore will confirm, evangelical views of the Middle East maintain a peculiar fascination with a literal and imminent Armageddon in the region. My Middle East Politics course at Malone College regularly enrolls a number of students who are well-versed in a Christian Zionist worldview—better versed than I am. I grew up in a Dutch Calvinist subculture that was either amillenial or panmillenial—that is, we either had no view about the end times, or we believed that the end times would all “pan out in the end,” as the old joke has it. Covenant theology was another hallmark of the tradition.
But many evangelicals have a very different view rooted in premillenial and dispensational readings of the Bible: readings that insist Christ’s imminent return will usher in the millennium and that God speaks in different dispensations to Jews and Gentile Christians, rather than one covenant. Stephen Sizer does a wonderful job tracing how these readings of Scripture emerged to create a pro-Israeli political lobby. He helped me better understand where many of my students are coming from. Like many other evangelicals of his generation, Sizer confesses at the outset that he remembers “devouring” Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth and “hearing in person his lectures on eschatology and the book of Revelation.” Sizer writes, “It seemed as if the Bible was literally coming true in our generation” (p. 9).
But Sizer, an Anglican vicar and chairman of the International Bible Society in the United Kingdom, describes a “radical change of perspective” during his first trip to Israel in 1990 that came after meeting a “real-life Christian Palestinian” (p. 10). The present book emerges from his efforts to understand why evangelicals have tended to support Zionist Jews rather than fellow Christians who happen to be Palestinian. Along the way, Sizer wrote a doctoral thesis on Christian involvement in Israeli-Palestinian issues, and he says that the book distills the fruits of his research. Traces of a dissertation remain, but the result is nonetheless engaging and enlightening for those unfamiliar with the worlds of Christian Zionism.
After a short introduction, Sizer devotes a chapter each to historical roots, theological emphases, and political implications. There are many long quotations and hundreds of footnotes in each chapter, but these are part of Sizer’s attempt to document, dissect, and criticize a theology that buttresses strong support for the modern state of Israel. He is especially helpful in documenting the historical and theological tendencies and charting their outgrowths into contemporary Christian groups. Sizer is an excellent critic, quoting Christian Zionist writings extensively and registering his concerns quietly. In an interesting historical account, Sizer credits the real birth of dispensational Bible readings to Scottish pastor Edward Irving (1792-1834), rather than John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), the progenitor usually identified by historians.
From these innovative forebears, today’s Christian Zionists derive six main political stances from their “literal and futurist reading of the Bible,” according to Sizer (p. 252): Because the Jews are still God’s chosen people in this view, Christian Zionists believe that they must support Israel financially;they believe that they must encourage the resettlement of Jews, in the words of one proponent, “even if it takes anti-Semitism in America…to get [God’s] millions back to Israel” (p. 223);they believe that the entire land of biblical Israel must be annexed to the modern state of Israel and that settlements in the West Bank should be expanded;they believe that Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of Israel;they believe that the Dome of the Rock should be destroyed and the Jewish Temple rebuilt in its place on the Temple Mount; andthey believe that “to advocate that Israel compromise with Islam or coexist with Palestinians is to identify with those destined to oppose God and Israel in the imminent battle of Armageddon” (252).
It is hard to imagine an agenda more at odds with U.S. foreign policy and more alarming to those who seek peace, and perhaps that helps to explain its persistence. Precisely because its proponents view themselves as embattled, unpopular modern-day prophets, they maintain their charts and predictions of doomsday scenarios. Doubters beware! They have proof that they are right.
I starting reading Christian Zionism soon after Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, suffered a massive stroke, which led Pat Robertson to say on his 700 Club television show that “He was dividing God’s land, and I would say woe unto any prime minister of Israel who takes a similar course to appease the EU, the United Nations or United States of America.” Interestingly, Sizer quotes Robertson saying the same thing about Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister assassinated in 1995 after signing the Oslo peace accords (p. 251). It is the virtue of this book that it puts such remarks into a context that makes them intelligible as part of a theological tradition—albeit, a tradition that seems to ignore Christ’s command to love all of our neighbors, including the enemy Samaritans in our lives (Luke 10:25-37). I have only one quibble.
I would have liked Sizer to present a more robust alternative reading of biblical texts, rather than referring the reader to other sources on the alternative “covenantal” interpretation. At the end, we are left with a critique of Christian Zionism, but what do we put in its place? Gary Burge’s book, reviewed elsewhere in these pages, helps Christians address this question. But to answer it fully would require a book yet unwritten. I hope Sizer will consider writing it.
Dr Scott Waalkes, Associate Professor of International Politics, Malone College, Canton, Ohio. www.barclaypress.com
In answer to Scott's last question, I wrote Zion's Christian Soldiers
You can purchase copies of Christian Zionism: Roadmap to Armageddon? from IVP or Amazon.