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.
Probably the largest pro-Israel organization of its kind is the National Unity Coalition for Israel, which was founded by a Jewish woman who learned how to get dispensationalist support. NUCI opposes "the establishment of a Palestinian state within the borders of Israel." The organization distributes an array of newsletters and "chutzpah action alerts" to keep its members informed and involved and claims that it can mount a "virtual March on the White House" at a moment's notice if necessary.
Bridges for Peace is an educational and charitable organization that is driven by its view of Bible prophecy. In addition to sponsoring a variety of tours and educational opportunities, the organization operates the largest food bank in Israel. Christian Friends of Israeli Communities pairs up individual evangelical congregations in America with Israeli settlements on the West Bank.
Dispensationalists are also strong supporters of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which was founded and is still run by an Orthodox Jewish rabbi named Yechiel Eckstein. The IFCJ sponsors a number of humanitarian projects to help Jews from the former Soviet Union to immigrate to Israel, provides support for Jews in Russia who are destitute and cannot leave, and aids the poor and needy in Jerusalem.
If dispensationalists have been Israel's best friends for the last 30 years, what has such friendship produced? One result has been the emergence of a strong and apparently unwavering supporter for Israel in the United States. The many pro-Israel organizations created by dispensationalists have undoubtedly made a difference. In a political world in which popular pressure counts, Israel is in a stronger position today because of the willingness of American premillennialists to throw their political clout around. The willingness of Christian conservatives to stand up for Israel has helped U.S./Israeli relations stay strong.
There is a downside to the dispensationalist/Israeli friendship. In their commitment to keep Israel strong and moving in directions prophesied by the Bible, dispensationalists are supporting some of the most dangerous elements in Israeli society. They do so because such political and religious elements seem to conform to dispensationalist beliefs about what is coming next for Israel. By lending their support-both financial and spiritual-to such groups, dispensationalists are helping the future they envision come to pass.
Throughout their history, dispensationalists have predicted that before the final events of the End Times can take place, the Temple must be rebuilt in Jerusalem. According to their scenario, half way through the Great Tribulation, Antichrist will enter the restored Temple and declare himself to be God. To outsiders, such predictions always seemed farfetched. But in the Six-Day War Israel gained control of the entire city of Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount. Suddenly all things seemed possible, at least to some people.
Anticipating a Third Temple was nothing new for the dispensationalists. For over a century they had been predicting that once Jews re-gathered in the Holy Land they would eventually build a new Temple on the site of the previous two. Not all dispensationalists agreed on all the details, but in general they saw a rebuilt Temple as indispensable to the completion of God's prophetic program. Of course, there were many practical impediments to the realization of these hopes, not the least of which was the existence of the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque on the site of the future Temple. How could the Temple be built, when the Temple Mount was already "occupied" by Muslim sacred sites? The answer to this question varied.
Dispensationalists could not even agree on where the new Temple would be built. There were three theories about place, based on elaborate archeological study and speculation. According to Asher Kaufman, a professor of physics at Hebrew University, the original two Temples were located on Temple Mount to the north of the Dome of the Rock. He published his findings in the Biblical Archaeological Review in 1983; but his arguments convinced few other archeologists. Kaufman did attract the attention of some leading dispensationalists, however. David Lewis, Hal Lindsey, Chuck Smith, and Chuck Missler pondered the theory with some eagerness.
A Tel Aviv architect named Tuvia Sagiv championed another theory that located past and future Temples between the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque. According to his "southern theory," when Muslims conquered Jerusalem and asked Jewish inhabitants where the Temple of Solomon had stood, the Jews pointed them to the site of Hadrian's Temple of Jupiter. There the unsuspecting conquerors constructed the Dome of the Rock, thus leaving the actual site vacant. Sagiv hoped that his findings would deter radicals who believed that in order to rebuild the Temple they must destroy the Dome of the Rock, which he feared would lead to World War III.
The third theory placed the ancient and future Temple site directly under the Dome of the Rock. Most Israeli archeologists favored this view. The most advanced work in support of the theory for a "central location" was done by Leen Ritmeyer, a Dutch-born Christian archeologist who came to Israel shortly after the Six- Day War. Most dispensationalists agreed with Ritmeyer's location for the Temple.
A few of the Bible teachers speculated about how the problem of the Dome's presence might be solved., In 1982 Louis Goldberg of Moody Bible Institute stated that in some future Arab-Israeli war, a surface to surface missile fired from Jordan or Syria might go off course and destroy the Muslim site. Dispensationalist fiction writers also gave it a try: in Salem Kirban's novel "666," the Antichrist vaporized the mosque with his ruby laser ring; and in Charles Colson's "Kingdoms in Conflict," American prophecy believers financed a plot by Israeli radicals to blow up the Dome.
Still other dispensationalists wanted to avoid, if possible, the awful consequences of an Israeli attack on the Dome and the mosque. Of course, one could always wait on God to remove them. In "Late Great Planet Earth," Lindsey was willing to leave everything to divine initiative.
Of course, any talk about rebuilding the Temple was completely unacceptable to the Muslims who have opposed any Israeli archeological explorations in the area to prove the location of the Second Temple or any activity intended to show the placement of the future Third Temple. Over the years there have been a number of attempts to destroy the Dome and the mosque. Such activities were connected in one way or another to a small but growing movement on the far right of Israeli politics and religion-the Temple Movement. Though most Israelis do not believe in the necessity of a new Temple to secure Israel's future, a minority is convinced that Israel's current problems are due to its failure to occupy the Temple Mount and rebuild the Temple there. Some of these pro-Temple Israelis are committed to doing what they can to make it happen; and some dispensationalists are supporting their efforts.
One of the most interesting was the Temple Mount and Land of Israel Faithful, founded in the late1980s by Gershon Salomon, one of the Israeli soldiers who liberated the Temple Mount during the Six Day War. According to the Temple Mount Faithful's purpose statement, "he has dedicated himself to the vision of consecrating the Temple Mount to the Name of G_d, to removing the Muslim shrines placed there as a symbol of Muslim conquest, to the soon rebuilding of the Third Temple there, and the G_dly redemption of the people of the Land of Israel."
He quickly discovered a new clientele among American dispensationalists who were strongly attracted to his mission, which after all fit nicely with their own prophetic scenario of the Last Days. Dispensationalists saw Salomon as a pious Jew who taught with great conviction that God's plan for the Chosen People in the Last Days included three things: restoration of a new Jewish state, the re-gathering of Jews from around the world, and the reconstruction of the Temple on Temple Mount-all in anticipation of Messiah's coming.
In the 1990s Salomon became a favorite lecturer for evangelical tour groups to Israel. In 1999, he went to a Jerusalem hotel to lecture to an evangelical tour group led by Irvin Baxter, a Pentecostal evangelist who edited his own prophecy newsletter, Endtimes. Salomon and Baxter had become fast friends; and Baxter often let Salomon teach about the coming Temple on his own radio program. Salomon told the tourists exactly what they wanted to hear: "We are the blessed generation which got chosen to be the generation of redemption. . . . In our lifetime will be built the Third Temple." What about the Dome of the Rock? somebody asked. Not to worry, Salomon replied, it will be moved to Mecca. After Salomon had finished his talk, Baxter took a "love offering" for the work of the Temple Mount Faithful.
Some observers of Salomon's organization claim that he has a greater following in the United States among American premillennialists than he does in Israel among Jews. Without financial support from America, the work of the Temple Mount Faithful would not be possible.
A clear example of the Temple Mount Faithful's connection to American dispensationalists is illustrated in the work of Stanley Goldfoot, a South African immigrant to Israel in the 1930s who became a leading terrorist against the British and the U.N. during the fight for Israeli independence. Goldfoot played a major role in the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel and the 1948 murder of U.N. Middle East emissary Count Bernadotte. Unlike Salomon, Goldfoot was a secular Jew with little interest in Bible prophecy. But like many others on Israel's far-right, he believed that Israel needed to gain sovereignty over the Temple Mount.
Despite his past, Goldfoot became popular among a number of leading American dispensationalists who found his support of a third Temple compatible with their own views. In the early-1980s, he and a number of American dispensationalists, including Terry Reisenhoover, James DeLoach, Doug Kreiger, Charles Monroe, and Hilton Sutton, founded the Jerusalem Temple Foundation in Los Angeles, to provide financial support for the Temple Movement in Israel. Reisenhoover, who failed in numerous attempts to find oil in Israel (whose revenues he wanted to use to finance the Temple-building), served as the Foundation's board chair. He appointed Goldfoot as the Foundation's international secretary and sponsored him on numerous speaking tours of American evangelical churches, during which he raised millions of dollars for the cause.
In 1983 Ariel and a number of his yeshiva students and members of IDF devised a plan to tunnel under the Al Aqsa mosque to conduct Passover prayers. Israeli authorities stopped the expedition before it got started. In 1989 Ariel and Joel Lerner of the Sanhedrin Institute did get access to the Temple Mount, where they intended to offer a Passover sacrifice, the first since the Second Temple's destruction in 70 A.D. Again, they were stopped before they could complete the ceremony.
During the mid- and late-1980s, Ariel was the leader of Tzfiyah ("expectation"), a right-wing group organized to support members of the Jewish underground who had been jailed after their attempt to blow up the Dome of the Rock. He argued that "Thou shalt not kill" applied only to killing fellow Jews, not non-Jews. Furthermore, in the Tzfiyah's journal he condemned all Jews who did not support the building of the Third Temple and declared that since Christians and Muslims were idolaters, they should not be allowed to live in Israel.
Ariel's extreme views did not keep dispensationalists from coming to his Institute, however. Over 100,000 visitors a year tour the Institute's displays on the history of the Temple, its implements, and ancient practices. About 60% of visitors are non-Jews. The Institute is a regular stop on many evangelical tour itineraries.
Dispensationalists are thrilled to see what is going on there, since the plan fits well into their own expectations for the End. Dispensationalists find comfort in knowing that under the Institute's auspices, small groups of Israelis are sewing priestly vestments, manufacturing implements for animal sacrifice, and teaching a new generation of Temple priests what will be expected of them. It seems to matter little that the desire for a new Temple has the potential of precipitating holy war.
But do such ideas matter? The vast majority of Israelis and the world's Christians do not take these matters seriously, so many people might be tempted to disregard such notions as irrelevant. But as the long history of the Middle East shows, fervent beliefs held by a few can impact the experience of everyone else. While most of the media found the announcement of the birth of Melody in 1996 as curious and even amusing, a few journalists understood its potential importance.
David Landau of the secular Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz understood the power of such ideas to shape current events. He called the heifer "a four-legged bomb" that had the potential of setting the entire region on fire. Even if only a small number of people believed that God had provided the last missing piece to the prophetic process leading to the building of a third Temple, their numbers were sufficient to make another attempt at clearing the Temple Mount of the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque.
Dispensationalists believe that the Temple is coming too; and their convictions have led them to support the aims and actions of what most Israelis believe are the most dangerous right-wing elements in their society, people whose views make any compromise necessary for lasting peace impossible. Such sentiments do not matter to the believers in Bible prophecy, for whom the outcome of the quarrelsome issue of the Temple Mount has already been determined by God.
Since the end of the Six-Day War, then, dispensationalists have increasingly moved from observers to participant-observers. They have acted consistently with their convictions about the coming Last Days in ways that make their prophecies appear to be self-fulfilling. Given the history of the region, the long-standing ethnic and religious hatreds there, and the attempt of many nations, both Western and Arab, to carry out their own purposes in the Holy Land, it is easy to imagine the current impasse even if dispensationalist views had never existed.
But these views have existed for a long time; and they have had their effects on generations of Bible believers in America and elsewhere. As Paul Boyer has pointed out, dispensationalism has effectively conditioned millions of Americans to be somewhat passive about the future and provided them with lenses through which to understand world events. Thanks to the sometimes changing perspectives of their Bible teachers, dispensationalists are certain that trouble in the Middle East is inevitable, that nations will war against nations, and that the time is coming when millions of people will die as a result of nuclear war, the persecution of Antichrist, or as a result of divine judgment. Striving for peace in the Middle East is a hopeless pursuit with no chance of success.
At the time of this writing, President George W. Bush and allies in the international community have suggested a Road Map to peace in the Middle East. The roadmap includes what many people believe are attainable steps that will lead to the founding of a Palestinian state and a new levels of security for Israel. In the early stages of this peace process, there seemed to be signs of hope that both sides had finally had enough of the cycles of bloodletting that have characterized the region for decades. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim groups voiced support and hope that this peace process might succeed where so many previous ones failed.
Not everyone is pleased with the prospects of peace. Militants on both sides do not accept the terms of the Road Map. Some Israelis are unwilling to turn over land they believe God gave to Abraham and his descendants. Some Palestinians do not want a Jewish state in Palestine and have sworn to keep up fighting until Israel no longer exists.
For the dispensational community, the future is determined. The Bible's prophecies are being fulfilled with amazing accuracy and rapidity. They do not believe that the Road Map will-or should-succeed. According to the prophetic texts, partitioning is not in Israel's future, even if the creation of a Palestinian state is the best chance for peace in the region. Peace is nowhere prophesied for the Middle East, until Jesus comes and brings it himself. The worse thing that the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations can do is force Israel to give up land for a peace that will never materialize this side of the second coming. Anyone who pushes for peace in such a manner is ignoring or defying God's plan for the end of the age.
What dispensationalists are willing to do about the current peace process remains to be seen. Will they decide to oppose Bush, who is probably the most popular president among evangelicals ever; or will they use their considerable political power to stop the process before it begins, if they can? What would happen if dispensationalists decided to follow the command of Jesus to be peacemakers and left the results to God? That last alternative seems to have few advocates at the present time.
The evidence shows that in the last 35 years dispensationalists have decided that faithfulness to God demands that they actively support the plan. Such support has taken many forms, from lobbying the U.S. government to guarantee its pro-Israel policies remain strong, to helping Jews in the former Soviet Union immigrate to the Land of Promise, to traveling to the Holy Land in large numbers and marching in the streets of Jerusalem to show solidarity, to contributing financially and in other ways to Israeli settlements in the so-called occupied territories, to promoting the views considered extreme and dangerous by most Israelis, to using scientific expertise to engineer a perfect red heifer to speed the building of the Temple so Jesus can return.
It seems clear that dispensationalism is on a roll, that its followers feel they are riding the wave of history into the shore of God's final plan. Why should they climb back into the stands when being on the field of play is so much more fun and apparently so beneficial to the game's outcome? As a Bridges for Peace advertisement read, "Don't just read about prophecy when you can be part of it."