A few days ago, a Facebook friend posted in all caps, “A MUST SEE!!” The focus of my friend’s enthusiasm was a YouTube video of a prominent evangelical dispensationalist explaining “what’s next” in Israel’s war against Hamas. My friend concluded his post repeating the video presenter’s closing Bible verse from Psalm 121:4: “He who watches over Israel, neither slumbers nor sleeps.”
George Marsden, the premier historian of American evangelicalism, has written extensively about the important role that dispensationalism played in shaping American Protestant fundamentalism, the precursor of contemporary American evangelicalism. Central to dispensational theology is the belief that the 20th century return of Jews to Palestine, and the birth of the modern state of Israel in 1948, was a key prophetic marker pointing to the Second Coming of Christ.
Dispensationalism played no role in the actual creation of the modern nation of Israel. In fact, in 1948 American fundamentalists were cloistered in their era of cultural and political exile that followed battles with theological liberalism earlier in the twentieth century. Nevertheless, fundamentalists and their evangelical heirs welcomed the birth of Israel as confirmation of biblical prophecy. For their part, Israel officials have certainly welcomed evangelical support, as evidenced, for example, by Benjamin Netanyahu’s embrace of dispensationalist John Hagee. Israel’s relationship with American evangelicals is strategic in nature and not rooted in any theological affinities. Relatedly, most American dispensationalists are likely ignorant – or at least unaware – of the secular roots and nature of the Zionist nationalist movement. As far as the Israeli Jewish population is concerned, only 20% of Israelis have a positive view of evangelicals while 75% have no opinion or are neutral in their perspective towards evangelicals. However, it is worth noting that as Orthodox Jews become more influential in Israeli public life Israel may in the future become less hospitable to evangelicals.
While historian Daniel Hummel has recently pointed to the demise of dispensationalism among evangelical theologians, dispensationalism continues to influence the vast majority of evangelicals and profoundly shapes their attitudes towards Israel. A 2022 Pew survey reveals that 86% of white evangelicals have warm views towards Israel, compared to 66% of Americans generally. And 70% of white evangelicals believe that God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people.
It is not surprising, therefore, that many evangelicals are relying on their dispensational theology to decipher current events in Israel. This reality points to an important component of evangelical engagement of public life; namely, the importance of responding in a “Christian” way. Dispensationalism provides a ready-made Christian framework for such a response for many, if not most, evangelicals. However, it is not the only framework. Tracking social media and listening to my evangelical friends, I read and hear other “Christian” responses. For example, some evangelicals seem reluctant to express outright support for Israel fearing that such support will betray the Christian mandate to “love mercy” which presumably includes even Hamas. While some dispensationalist-anchored evangelicals embrace this perspective, it is especially evident among younger evangelicals who, according to most surveys, are much more sympathetic to Palestinians and less supportive of Israel than older evangelical cohorts. There are also evangelicals who assert that since the Christians primary allegiance is to God, any response to the events in Israel and Gaza based on our national identification as Americans is inappropriate.
Finally, in assessing evangelical attitudes towards Israel and the current Israeli-Hamas war, we need to remember that while dispensationalism continues to cast a wide net of influence over evangelical thinking about Israel, not all evangelicals are dispensational. This is especially true among many – though not all – in Reformed and Anglican traditions. I am not aware of polling of among these group, but I suspect that the majority – like their dispensational sisters and brothers – strongly support Israel, but with an important difference. Their support is not grounded in a putatively biblical framework, but rather in prudential considerations. Indeed, there are many prudential reasons for Christians as Citizens to support Israel. Among them, Israel is the only free, democratic nation in the Middle East. Also, Israel is a close ally of the United States, sharing a similar cultural heritage, values, and interests. Lastly is the moral imperative. The meaning of Israel is powerfully captured at Yad Vashem – the Jewish holocaust memorial – located in the hills of West Jerusalem. The existence of Israel is a symbol of a people’s survival of tyranny and their quest for freedom. The United States, therefore, has a moral obligation to ensure that Israel survives into the future.