Why do evangelicals so strongly support Israel?
We believe the Bible teaches that God made a special covenant with his chosen people, the Jews, detailed in the 12th and 17th chapters of the Book of Genesis. The Abrahamic was that Abraham would have unlimited divine blessing, fame, and influence, and that the blessing would extend to his seed, out of whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed. And we believe that is a prophecy concerning the Messiah, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, who was a Jew and of the seed of Abraham. And also that those who blessed Abraham would be blessed and those who cursed Abraham would be cursed and that the land would be given to them forever.
That covenant is fleshed out in Genesis 17:7, where it is established that circumcision would be the sign of the covenant. This is a promise clearly made to Abraham and to his seed through Isaac, because when God made this covenant Abraham tried to get God to give that promise to Ishmael, his son by Hagar, his wife's handmaid. But God said, "Let Ishmael find favor in thy sight and I will make him fruitful and will multiply him exceedingly." And of course there are 300 million Arabs in the world today, descendants of Ishmael.
Evangelicals support Israel for several reasons--number one, because they believe the Bible teaches that God gave [Jews] that land forever and that they are God's chosen people; and number two, that God blesses those that bless the Jews and curses those who curse the Jews. Consequently, we believe America needs to bless the Jews and Israel because if we bless the Jews and support Israel, God blesses us. And if we don't, God curses us. And if you want the negative example of that: I can't think of any countries with more tragic histories in the 20th Century than Germany, Poland, and Russia--three of the most historically anti-Semitic countries in the world. And America has been blessed beyond anything we could have deserved. And many evangelicals, including myself, believe that one of the reasons for that is that we have been the least anti-Semitic country.
But evangelicals also have a long history of anti-Semitism in the South. How have evangelicals gotten past their cultural anti-Semitism?
I keep hearing this, but I grew up in Southern Baptist churches my whole life. And the first time I ever heard an anti-Semitic remark was in a dormitory at Princeton University, by a Northerner, not a Southerner. Of course, the Klan was terribly anti-Semitic, but it is a cultic aberration of Christianity. To me, the most irrational of prejudices is for a Christian to be anti-Semitic because Jesus was a Jew. And to the extent (anti-Semitism among evangelicals) did exist, it's been obliterated in the last half-century by an increased understanding of what the Bible teaches about the Jews. All I can tell you is that every time I talk about this subject I get rousing standing ovations and amens from Southern Baptist congregations.
But what about the recent disclosure of Billy Graham's anti-Semitic statements in the Nixon White House?
I really don't think that's what he believed, and I know it's not what he believes now. I think he was overcome by the aura of the presidency and the Oval Office and wanted to be considered part of the in crowd.
The most dramatic and convincing thing that happened was the Jewish diaspora was reversed. The Jews were in the land. People used to laugh when people who believe the Bible said that before the Lord comes back, the Jews are going to be in the land of Canaan, back in Israel. God promised that land to them and they're going back. Well, lo and behold, in the middle of the 20th Century, they went back. I think that caused a lot of people at mid-century to go back and look at the Abrahamic covenant in a new way. And it was the double whammy of Israel going back into the land and the horror of the Holocaust--those two things dealt a mortal blow to anti-Semitism in churches.
So this relationship between evangelicals and Jews isn't new?
It was an essential part of the churches I grew up in in the 1950s and 60s. The Israeli government has known about it for years and years. W.A. Criswell, perhaps aside from Billy Graham the most famous Southern Baptist, was travelling to Israel and met with David Ben Gurion in the early 1950s and was leading trips over there and was preaching from his Dallas pulpit in the early 1950s that the Jews going back into the land was a fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
In the mid-1970s I was going to Christian-Jewish observances of the Passover. You understand, First Baptist Church of Dallas had about 400 converted Jews in the congregation when I lived there, from 1975-88.
So if God blesses those who bless the Jews, and you are pro-Israel and pro-Jewish, explain Southern Baptists' efforts to convert Jews to Christianity.
We bless the Jews because they are God's chosen people, and God commanded us to, but we also believe that everyone needs to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and we believe that that is true for everyone, including Jews. And for a Jew to come to accept Jesus as Messiah is to come to completion.
I'm often asked this question: shouldn't we respect other religions? Well, we do. But when they say we don't have the right to witness to them, they don't respect our religion because at the foundation of our faith is a command from Jesus Christ to go into all the world and preach the gospel and to seek to make disciples of all nations. If they're going to respect my faith, they have to understand I'm going to, in a non-coercive manner, seek to share my faith in Jesus Christ with them.
The key here is they both come from the way in which the person approaches the text of the scriptures. We take the scriptures to be what they say they are-which is God's word. We don't try to symbolize them away. If they say something, as incredible as it may sound--and it certainly sounded incredible in 1900 for people to preach that before the Lord came back Israel was going to be in the land of Israel--it doesn't seem so incredible today.
That is a "pre-millennial" understanding of prophecy. Premillennialism is a belief that prior to a 1,000-year literal millennial reign of Christ on earth, he is going to come back, judge the world, defeat the anti-Christ, and rule from Jerusalem for 1,000 years. That's when the lions lie down with the lambs and the children play in snake nests and not be hurt. It is the restoration of Eden.
There is also the post-millenial view, which was the dominant view up until World War I, which is that Christians will spread the gospel around the world and set the stage for Christ's return and set up a millennial time, and the Lord will come and take charge. They were far more optimistic about human nature than we have been since 1917.
Then there is the a-millennial view, which is that the millennium is a symbolic reference in scripture and not to be taken literally. So they believe the Lord is going to come back and judge the [living] and the dead, and then you're going to go straight into the new heaven and the new earth. No millennial reign.
People say that because the state of Israel was established, that proves the end-times are coming and that is why keeping the Abrahamic covenant, keeping Israel strong, is so important-because it's a sign of the end-times.
I think it is a sign of the end-times. But that's not the reason to bless Israel. The reason to do it is because God commanded it..Yes, we're one step closer to the end-times than we were before Israel came back into the land, because my understanding of biblical prophecy is that Israel is established in the land at the time that the events of the Second Coming take place. But the Bible tells us no man knows the hour or the day of his coming.
I think the time described in the Book of Revelation were really bad. But that doesn't mean we can't have a Reformation beforehand. After all, there were 19 centuries between the crucifixion and Israel being back in the land. So I don't support Israel because I want to hasten the Lord's return. The Lord is going to return when he's going to come back. It's not my concern to worry about that. My concern is to do what the Bible commands me to do.
What if Israel is destroyed in this latest conflict? What does that mean theologically?
First of all, that's not likely to happen. If all the Arab countries attacked Israel at once, Israel would defeat them. Any competent military official will tell you the Israeli defense forces would defeat them, and rather badly. But if it did happen, then my assumption would be that it means we'll have to wait a while until Israel goes back into the land. That means the Second Coming is coming later than some expected.