By Stephen Mihm
For most Americans, events in Israel elicit a familiar set of emotions: sadness at the loss of life, particularly innocent civilians; anger, even fury, at one side or another; and fear that the conflict may ultimately engulf the larger region. It’s hard to find a silver lining on the cloud that now hangs over the Middle East.
Unless, of course, you believe that bloodshed in Israel will pave the way for the Second Coming of Christ. Secular voters may find it baffling, but it’s a worldview of a significant number of evangelical Christians and, by extension, a critical portion of the Republican Party.
And while many might be familiar with the affinity that exists between Jews and evangelicals, the religious right’s vitriolic response to the Israel-Hamas war brings to the forefront prophecies that many Christians use to guide their thinking and actions.
Israel first became central to evangelical eschatology four centuries ago, when Protestant theologians, especially those of a millenarian bent, seized upon very specific passages about the end times. For example, in the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah predicted that God “shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the Earth.”
Exegetes took this to mean that the return of Christ would take place once the Jewish diaspora returned to Palestine. Eager to put God’s plan in motion, these Christian Zionists — not an oxymoron — began to push their governments to take active steps to get Jews back to Palestine.
In 1891, the Christian Zionist William Blackstone drafted a petition to President Benjamin Harrison, signed by hundreds of prominent Americans, including J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, Sr. Written against the backdrop of pogroms in Russia, the letter declared: “Let us now restore to [the Jews] the land of which they were so cruelly despoiled by our Roman ancestors.”
Though Harrison didn’t help, the Christian Zionists continued to monitor the news for any sign that God’s plan was in motion. When the British government released the Balfour Declaration in 1917, supporting the creation of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, they did so for geopolitical reasons. Evangelicals, though, interpreted the move as divine dispensation.
The following year, one writer concluded: “If we read Scripture aright, this restoration of the Jews to Palestine is going to hasten that day foretold in both the Old and New Testaments, when the Lord Jesus will manifest Himself again to the sons of men.”
These beliefs remained alive and well throughout the interwar years, and when the modern state of Israel came into being after the horrors of the Holocaust, evangelicals celebrated. The pastor Jerry Falwell would later claim that, outside of the day of Christ’s birth, “the most important date we should remember is May 14, 1948” — the day Israel came into existence.
As the new nation prospered and later triumphed in the Six-Day War in 1967, defeating three of its powerful neighbors and consolidating its borders, evangelicals felt increasingly confident that “God’s timepiece” — Israel itself — was registering the final countdown. All that remained was for Israel to secure a final victory over its enemies and rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem.
And then, if the prophets were right, some pretty unpleasant things would happen: A false messiah known as the Antichrist would take over Jerusalem and install himself as the savior before inaugurating the Tribulation, a seven-year period of death and destruction, with most Jews perishing. Finally, Jesus would return to earth, overthrowing the pretender and inaugurating a thousand-year reign of peace on Earth.
By the 1970s and 1980s, a growing number of prominent evangelicals, including Falwell, made trips to Israel, eager to get in on the ground floor of the coming apocalypse. At first, the Israelis paid them little mind, but Prime Minister Menachem Begin quickly realized that the religious right had become increasingly influential in Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party. Begin and other prominent Israelis now reached out to the evangelicals, attending prayer meetings and other religious events in the US.
By the end of Reagan’s presidency, the two groups had become, as the journalist Victoria Clark quipped, “allies for Armageddon,” united by a shared ambition to see Israel conquer its enemies. Politics makes for odd bedfellows, but this alliance was odder than most. The Israelis had practical aims, hoping that American support would preserve their embattled nation. The evangelicals, by contrast, prayed that aid would trigger the apocalypse and set the stage for the coming of Christ.
In the 1990s, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, an ambitious politician named Benjamin Netanyahu, quickly recognized that the religious right’s vision for Israel matched his own — at least in the short term. When he became prime minister in 1996, he immediately flew a contingent of Christian Zionists to Israel, forging a close connection that has only grown in the intervening years, with evangelicals increasingly steadfast in their support of Israel. It’s a match made in heaven — literally.
For those primed to map current events onto biblical prophecies, the horrific violence is an unpleasant but essential means to an end — the end of the world as we know it.
(Published 26 October 2023, 07:27 IST)