There is a smoking gun behind American Evangelical support of Israel: Pre-millennial Dispensationalism, which is a theology developed in 1827 by John Nelson Darby, one of the founders of the Plymouth Brethren in Dublin, Ireland. Darby’s view of eschatology (the study of the end times) was that Christians would escape a coming seven-year tribulation period. This perspective became known as the Pre-tribulation Rapture of the Church. Darby faced push- back for his new theology over the issue of Israel. According to Darby, Israel is re- established at the end of days, and a multitude of people living in the land of Israel will suffer during the tribulation. Darby’s critics rejected his notion of an early escape from suffering because of the multitudes of people left behind in Israel. Adding to the criticism was the fact that in 1827, the state of Israel had not yet been born.
Not willing to turn aside from his theory, John Darby had an idea: Christian Zionism. To seal an escape route for Christians and attempt to prove his theology, Darby initiated the Christian Zionist movement to help Jews return to their homeland, thus “proving” his theology that Christians would be raptured and those left behind in Israel would not be Christians but Jews.
Darby’s theology influenced major American Evangelical leaders like D.L. Moody in the late nineteenth century and eventually became the core belief of most Evangelicals. Today, Darby’s claims continue to be widely held within American Evangelicalism.
For American Evangelicals, Darby’s eschatology provides an assurance of immunity from suffering. Yes, American Darby-esq Christian Zionists love Israel, but their motivation seems shallow and lacks authenticity at best and, at worst, smacks of antisemitism. To love one’s neighbor—in this case, Jews—merely out of a need for self-preservation is radically unBiblical in both Judaism and Christianity.
The future forecast of American Evangelical support for Israel is troubling on many levels. First of all, support for Israel within the Evangelical millennial population is plummeting. A recent survey (May 2021) finds support for Israel among US Evangelicals ages 18-29 has been cut in half. Only 33.6% responded positively in support of Israel—an alarming drop from 69% in a similar survey in 2018. This dramatic decline is partly due to the growing narrative of identity politics embraced by many in the millennial age group. Anti-Zionist Evangelical organizations and colleges are framing Israel as a white, colonial, apartheid state, and this narrative is succeeding. If this false narrative remains unchallenged, Evangelicalism as a whole may soon be indifferent to the issue of Israel’s existence.
Secondly, in the last three years, Christian Nationalism has taken root in American Evangelicalism, and rampant within this movement is a concerning Anti-Judaism and antisemitism. A new 2023 PRRI/Brookings survey of more than 6,000 Americans found that 27% of Americans (close to 100 million people) believe the US government should declare America a Christian nation, 44% believe American Jews are more loyal to Israel than to America, and 23% believe Jewish people hold too many positions of power in the US government.
One wonders how an Evangelical leader can, on the one hand, be a Zionist and, on the other, an antisemite. At a recent Christian Nationalist event—Reawaken America—held at Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, former US National Security Adviser Michael Flynn proclaimed to the thousands in attendance, “God Almighty is involved in this country because this is the last place on earth. This is the shining city on the hill. When Matthew mentioned it in the Bible [the city on the hill], he wasn’t talking about the physical ground he was on [Israel]. He was talking about something in the distance [America].” Mr. Flynn then said, “So we must
have . . . one religion under God.” Earlier Biblical references to the concept of a light shining in the darkness were about the Jewish people as a light of God’s salvation to the nations. For Christian Nationalist Michael Flynn, America has replaced Israel, and Christianity must replace Judaism.
Scott McKay, a favorite personality within the Evangelical Christian Nationalist Movement, recently proclaimed, “Hitler was fighting the same people we are trying to take down. These people are so elusive and slippery and cunning that we ended up having WWII . . . the same group of people that has done a very good job at hiding under the religion of Judaism.”
Like McKay, Robert Jeffries, a devout Zionist and pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, has also gone on record demeaning Jews and Judaism. Jeffries delivered a prayer at the US Embassy in Jerusalem opening ceremony in May 2018, yet has claimed that one “can’t be saved being a Jew . . . Not only do religions like . . . Judaism . . . lead people away from the true God; they lead people to an eternity of separation from God in hell. . . . Hell is going to be filled with good religious people [Jews] who have rejected the truth of Christ.” It is a confusing paradox how, in one breath, an Evangelical leader can honor Israel’s right to exist as a nation and, in the next breath, condemn Jews to eternal hell.
Because of an eschatological belief that goes well for Christians but not for Jews and because of growing antisemitism and anti-Judaism within the American Evangelical right and anti- Zionism within the Evangelical left, the forecast for US Evangelical support of Israel is bleak. The well might be drying up. Perhaps it is time for a new Christian Zionism that is not influenced by self-preservation or identity politics. The good news is that forecasts can change —winds can shift. There are positive signs that an authentic love for Israel and the Jewish people is growing slowly within Evangelical Christianity today—a love and honor that does not demand the precondition of an eschatological early escape from suffering.