Thursday, March 26th, 2009
James Besser in Washington
Reading Gary Rosenblatt’s interesting column about the film Waiting for Armageddon, I was struck by how much we don’t know about the beliefs and motives of the evangelical Christians who ardently support Israel.
The film, to recap, offers a graphic description of the apocalyptic views of some Christians. Their various “end times” scenarios all involve Israel, and in these scenarios nothing good happens to the Jewish state or the Jews, unless you consider a new Holocaust and the conversion of a “remnant” to Christianity good.
Gary makes an important point: isn’t focusing on hard-core millennialists unfair, since they are a minority among evangelical Christians and a tiny minority among Christians in general?
Gary writes: “That’s like making a film about American Jews, many of whom believe in the coming of the Messiah, but only interviewing the fringe minority who believe He is coming tomorrow, or already came.”
That got me to wondering: exactly how critical is “end-times” prophecy to evangelicals? So I emailed University of Akron sociologist John Green, one of the real experts in the field.
John seemed to confirm Gary’s basic point.
While acknowledging he hasn’t seen the film, Green said that it implies most evangelicals are “premillennial dispensationalists” who “have a very specific view of the Second Coming that links together the rapture, Armageddon, Israel, and the return of Jesus.”
Most evangelicals are not in the premillennial dispensationalist camp, although “most” share some ideas with that faction. “But that doesn’t mean that most evangelicals agree with the premillennial dispensationalist synthesis or the conclusions that flow from particular premillennial dispensationalist scenarios,” Green writes. “Many critics of the evangelicals make this mistake. It’s a little like assuming that all Catholics belong to Opus Dei.”
Premillennial dispensationalists make up about 10-17 percent of all white evangelicals, Green estimates.
But I wonder: what about the influence of those who believe in complex and imminent end-of-days scenarios involving Israel and the Jews?
The harrowing “Left Behind” series of novels by evangelist Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, all 16 of them, has sold more than 65 million copies; seven titles in the series reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list,according to Wikipedia.
Some of the most popular radio and TV ministries feature preachers who focus to varying degrees on Bible prophecy and Israel.
And the major “Christian Zionist” groups – evangelical organizations devoted to supporting Israel – are led by preachers who emphasize in their ministries the reality of Bible prophecy in today’s world, although they seem to separate their political and prophetic functions.
Does this mean that while only 10-17 percent of white evangelicals subscribe to premillennial dispensationalist doctrine, the influence of this group and its leaders is much greater, especially when it comes to issues involving modern Israel, the overwhelming focus of most millennial prophecies?
Or do people regard these books, and maybe even the TV preachers, as entertainment, and dismiss or ignore their prophecies about Israel?
We don’t know.
So it sounds to me like Waiting for Armageddon, while possibly being an oversimplification of a maddeningly complex subject, might be a good starting point for a debate and discussion that is important for the Jewish community to have, since evangelical support for Israel is an increasingly visible and controversial element in the pro-Israel movement.
And it might be a good spur for some more extensive research by sociologists of religion like john Green.