On the Road to Armageddon
How evangelicals became Israel's best friend.
BY: Timothy P. Weber
In a recent Time/CNN poll, more than one-third of Americans said that since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, they have been thinking more about how current events might be leading to the end of the world.
While only 36 percent of all Americans believe that the Bible is God's Word and should be taken literally, 59 percent say they believe that events predicted in the Book of Revelation will come to pass. Almost one out of four Americans believes that 9/11 was predicted in the Bible, and nearly one in five believes that he or she will live long enough to see the end of the world. Even more significant for this study, over one-third of those Americans who support Israel report that they do so because they believe the Bible teaches that the Jews must possess their own country in the Holy Land before Jesus can return.
Millions of Americans believe that the Bible predicts the future and that we are living in the last days. Their beliefs are rooted in dispensationalism, a particular way of understanding the Bible's prophetic passages, especially those in Daniel and Ezekiel in the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. They make up about one-third of America's 40 or 50 million evangelical Christians and believe that the nation of Israel will play a central role in the unfolding of end-times events. In the last part of the 20th century, dispensationalist evangelicals become Israel's best friends-an alliance that has made a serious geopolitical difference.
During times of turmoil and world crisis, many people who ordinarily do not pay the Bible any mind are attentive to Bible teachers who use "signs of the times" to explain where history is headed.
Though dispensationalists fine-tuned their prophetic interpretations as needed over time, they retained their core belief about the role of Jews in the last days. For over 100 years, their insistence on the restoration of the Jewish state in the Holy Land seemed far-fetched. But after the founding of Israel in 1948 and its expansion after the Six-Day War, dispensationalists promoted their ideas with the confidence that Bible prophecy was being fulfilled for all to see. Starting in the 1970s, dispensationalists broke into the popular culture with runaway best-sellers, and a well-networked political campaign to promote and protect the interests of Israel. Since the mid-1990s, tens of millions of people who have never seen a prophetic chart or listened to a sermon on the second coming have read one or more novels in the Left Behind series, which has become the most effective disseminator of dispensationalist ideas ever.
Before the founding and expansion of Israel, dispensationalists were more or less content to teach their doctrine, look for signs of the times, and predict in sometimes great detail what was going to happen in the future. They believed that they would be raptured before most end-times events actually took place, but they expected to be here long enough to see history moving decisively in a predetermined direction. In essence, they sat high in the bleachers on history's 50-yard line, watching as various teams took their positions on the playing field below and explaining how the game was going to end.
But all that changed after Israel reclaimed its place in Palestine and expanded its borders. For the first time, dispensationalists believed that it was necessary to leave the bleachers and get onto the playing field to make sure the game ended according to the divine script. The biggest story in the years following the Six-Day War was how dispensationalists organized to support Israel in the face of the forces arrayed against it. Now that Jews were "home" in the Land of Israel and had expanded beyond its 1948 borders, dspensationalists became committed to keeping them there.
During the early 1980s the Israeli Ministry of Tourism recruited evangelical religious leaders for free "familiarization" tours. In time, hundreds of evangelical pastors got free trips to the Holy Land. The purpose of such promotional tours was to enable people of even limited influence to experience Israel for themselves and be shown how they might bring their own tour group to Israel. The Ministry of Tourism was interested in more than tourist dollars: here was a way of building a solid corps of non-Jewish supporters for Israel in the United States by bringing large numbers of evangelicals to hear and see Israel's story for themselves. The strategy caught on.
Getting American evangelicals to travel to Israel was only half of the Israeli strategy. The other half was to create a politically-engaged, pro-Israel force among conservative American Christians in the United States. Shortly after the Six-Day War, elements within the Israeli government saw the potential power of the evangelical subculture and began to mobilize it as a base of support that could influence American foreign policy. The Israeli government sent Yona Malachy of its Department of Religious Affairs to the United States to study American fundamentalism and its potential as an ally of Israel. Malachy was warmly received by fundamentalists and was able to influence some of them to issue strong pro-Israeli manifestos. By the mid-1980s, there was a discernible shift in the Israeli political strategy. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Jewish state's major lobbying group in Washington, D.C., started re-aligning itself with the American political right-wing, including Christian conservatives. Israel's timing was perfect. It began working seriously with American dispensationalists at the precise moment that American fundamentalists and evangelicals were discovering their political voice.