Christians look to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as God’s authoritative revelation of his purposes for humankind. But these sacred texts, written originally for Jewish and Christian audiences thousands of years ago, do not give detailed instructions for church or U.S. policy in the 21st century. They do not identify which governments should be supported and which should be opposed. They do not tell us which peace proposals should be advanced and which should be rejected. These are questions that today’s Christians must decide prudently, as the Holy Spirit enables them to assess current situations and apply biblical principles to them.
Christians get themselves in trouble when they try to wring out of the Scriptures policy prescriptions for matters that the Scriptures do not address. Unfortunately, the temptation to stretch Scripture is powerful—especially among traditional Christians who take a high view of the Bible’s divine inspiration. Such Christians, like those of previous generations, hope and pray for Christ’s return to consummate his kingdom. They naturally look for signs that history is moving toward that end.
The latter half of the 20th century saw an explosion of end-times prophecies centered on the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948. That event was undoubtedly significant, and it generated conflicts that have shaken the entire Middle East and even the world. We may be sure that the God of history has a providential purpose in Israel’s fight for its existence. But what is that purpose?
A series of commentators from the “dispensational” school of theology have been quick to assert God’s purposes for the modern Middle East. The most famous of these is Hal Lindsey, author of the 1970 bestseller The Late, Great Planet Earth and sequels thereto over the following decades. Today’s most prominent exponent of apocalyptic Mideast prophecies is San Antonio megachurch pastor John Hagee. He serves as an example of this line of thinking.
Hagee, like others, claims that the Bible provides a roadmap to what is happening and will happen in the
Middle East. Relying on “my confidential sources in Israel, information from military experts around the world, and electrifying revelations from Bible prophecy,” the Texas pastor proclaims:
The rise of terrorism in our world and the emerging crisis in the Middle East between Israel and Iran are part of a much bigger picture—that of God’s plan for the future of Israel and the entire world. We are going to discover we are facing a countdown in the Middle East—the Jerusalem Countdown, a battle such as the world has never seen or will ever see again. It is a countdown that will usher in the end of the world.1
According to Hagee, the countdown began in 1948: “The rebirth of Israel as a nation was an unmistakable milestone on the prophetic timetable leading to the return of Christ.”2 Hagee assumes that modern Israel is a direct continuation of the ancient Kingdom of David and inherits all the promises given to that kingdom.
Hagee asserts, “The boundaries of the State of Israel are recorded in Scripture.” Based on Genesis 15:18, he presents a map of the “Royal Grant to Abraham” stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Euphrates River.3 To control all this territory, modern Israel would have to conquer land now belonging to Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. Neither modern nor ancient Israel has ever ruled over more than a fraction of this vast area. The eastern portions were not included in the tribal allotments set down in Joshua 1319.
Hagee and his fellow seers are equally confident in identifying other nations. The evil Gog and Magog in Ezekiel 38 is Russia, according to Hagee. And “when Ezekiel speaks of Persia, Ethiopia, and Libya, he is speaking of the Arab states.”4 Hagee interprets “young lions” in Ezekiel 38:13 as England. “In Revelation 13, we have a description of the Antichrist, who will be the head of the European Union.” Reading “kings from the east” in Revelation 16:12, Hagee points to the People’s Republic of China.5 A reference to “a great eagle” in Revelation 12:14 portends the United States, according to Hal Lindsey. Ancient Babylon equals modern Iraq. The pagan Canaanites and Philistines whom the Israelites fought are the modern Palestinians.6
These self-styled prophets, understanding the Bible’s apocalyptic passages as “history prewritten,” believe they foreknow the course of events. “The coming nuclear showdown with Iran is a certainty,” Hagee wrote in 2005. “The war of Ezekiel 38-39 could begin before this book gets published.” He explains that “Ezekiel’s war … will consist of an Arab coalition of nations led by Russia for the purpose of exterminating the Jews of Israel and controlling the city of Jerusalem.” Israel is caught by surprise “because its leaders are trusting in their peace accord with the European Union to guarantee their safety from Russia and the Arab coalition of nations.” Instead, Hagee says, Israel will stand alone and victorious in the Jezreel Valley, which “will one day soon be covered with blood drained from the veins of the armies of the world.”7
All this prophetic certitude—about the identities of the actors, their righteousness or unrighteousness in God’s eyes, and the actions that they must or will take—yields an inflexible set of policies. Apocalypticists such as Hagee tend to give unconditional support to the most extreme elements in Israel. They underwrite and defend Jewish settlements intended to stake a claim of Israeli sovereignty over the Palestinian-populated West Bank, which they call by the ancient names of Judea and Samaria. A major dispensationalist conference in 1985 drew a line in the sand, declaring that “Judea and Samaria (inaccurately termed ‘the West Bank’) are, and by biblical right as well as international law and practice ought to be, a part of Israel.”8
The group that sponsored the conference, the International Christian Embassy-Jerusalem (ICEJ), has also promoted a very provocative movement: a small group of Orthodox Jews who aim to destroy the Muslim shrine of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Their purpose is to build a new Jewish temple on the site, which the ICEJ would welcome as a realization of endtimes prophecy. Apocalypticists like the ICEJ often deny that the Palestinians are a people, or that they have rights as a people, and are slow to criticize Israel when it violates Palestinian rights. 9
The dispensational seers have consistently opposed peace proposals that might have a chance of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They disdain any territorial concessions to the Palestinians as a betrayal of the Jews’ divine right to the entire land. Hagee categorically rejects the current international framework for negotiations: “The Roadmap for Peace is an illconceived document, one that has Israel giving up Gaza, then the West Bank, and then Jerusalem. It clearly violates the Word of God.”10
The San Antonio pastor’s proof for this assertion is Joel 3:2, in which the Hebrew prophet condemned conquerors of ancient Israel for having “divided up my land.” Hagee reads this passage as forbidding any treaty by which modern Israel might freely agree to allow space for Palestinians to rule themselves. He finds another rigid policy directive in Nehemiah 2:20, where the fifth-century B.C. restorer of Jerusalem tells his mixed-race neighbors that they “have no share or claim or historic right in Jerusalem.” Hagee leaps forward two millennia to conclude that today “the nations of the world have no inheritance in Jerusalem.” He thunders the impossibility of any compromise: “Let it be known to all men far and near, the city of Jerusalem is not up for negotiation with anyone at any time for any reason in the future. It has been and shall always be the eternal and undivided capital of the State of Israel.”11 He leaves no room for any accommodation of the Palestinian population living in East Jerusalem.
These modern dispensational prophets are not just opposed to specific peace proposals; they tend to look askance at any effort toward peace. Because they interpret the Bible as predicting a cataclysmic end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they dismiss any possible peace accords as empty promises offering only a delusory hope. At this point, the Christian apocalypticists are more hardline than even the most hawkish Israeli governments. Hagee advises the ruling conservatives in Israel not to trust any commitments by the Arabs, the Europeans, or even the United States. “Israel, desperate for peace, is negotiating itself into the greatest war Israel has ever seen,” he warns.12
The apocalypticists extend their inflexible approach far beyond the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. They would turn this one issue into a global litmus test: Nations that back Israel are righteous and blessed and should be supported by all Christians, they contend; nations that side against Israel are fit only for condemnation. Here is how Hagee states God’s foreign policy:
He has determined to make Jerusalem the decisive issue by which He will deal with the nations of the earth. Those nations who aligned themselves with God’s purposes for Jerusalem will receive His blessing. But those who follow a policy of opposition to God’s purposes will receive the swift and severe judgment of God without limitation.13
The Texas pastor fears that the United States risks its future if it pursues Mideast peace possibilities: “This is not the time to provoke God and defy Him to pour out His judgment on our nation for being a principal force in the division of the land of Israel.”14
An Irresponsible Approach
This attempted use of apocalyptic prophecies to guide Mideast policy is irresponsible—both theologically and politically. It treats speculations as certainties. And on the basis of those pretended certainties, it lays down rigid policy mandates where Christians should be open to all prudent proposals.
The apocalyptic approach turns Scripture passages into a secret code that would have been meaningless to the original audiences, and meaningless to all subsequent generations of Jews and Christians—until suddenly, in the late 20th century, everything supposedly became clear to a few dispensational seers. It haphazardly equates ancient kingdoms and modern nations, skipping over more than two millennia of history as if nothing significant had changed. It never considers the possibility that Bible prophecies might be fulfilled at some time other than the present: either during the period when they were delivered, or in the first coming of Christ, or in a second coming that may be far into an unimaginable future.
Most seriously, this approach neglects the warning of Jesus: “And if anyone says to you at that time, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘Look! There he is!’—do not believe it. False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect.” (Mark 13:21-22)
Jesus advises his followers to focus on doing God’s will and being prepared for any eventuality. He regards speculation about prophetic timetables as a useless diversion: “But about that day or hour [the end] no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” (Mark 13:32-33) Yet where Christ counsels humility, today’s Mideast apocalypticists rush in with reckless speculation.
Double Standards Disqualify Peacemakers
That reckless speculation has a price. It makes those who indulge in it less able to do God’s will as peacemakers. It hardens the lines of conflict, reducing the parties to caricatures of good (Israel) and evil (its neighbors). It fails to take account of the complex issues between Israelis and Palestinians. It reduces the other 440 million Middle Easterners to a mere backdrop—of interest only insofar as their actions affect the 11.5 million Israelis and Palestinians.
The apocalypticists practice a double standard of morality under which Israeli claims to sovereignty and self-determination are championed while parallel Palestinian claims are cast aside. Likewise, Israel is exempted from criticism while Palestinian failings are roundly condemned. This is a mirror reflection of the double standard among pro-Palestinian liberal Christians, who patronize the Palestinians while incessantly denouncing Israel. Both groups, by their bias, disqualify themselves from any role as honest brokers for peace.
The false certainties of the apocalypticists also undermine peace prospects by narrowing the grounds on which agreement might be reached. They predetermine disputed questions—the borders of Israel, the status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees—that ought to be negotiated. These inflexible positions leave little room for the kind of pragmatic compromises that might address the needs of all parties concerned.
Furthermore, the apocalypticists diminish peace prospects through their constant assertions that war is Israel’s destiny. These assertions run the risk of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. Discounting the limited measure of peace that might be achievable, they leave war as the only option. Yet even if war is unavoidable in the end, even a temporary peace that saves lives today may have value. Christians are commanded: “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18).
Indeed, it is broader scriptural commands like these that ought to guide Christians engaging the Middle East. We are to pursue peace where it is possible. We are to show compassion to all who suffer. We are to seek just solutions that respect the rights of all.
Alan F.H. Wisdom is a writer and an elder in the PC(USA). He is also a member of the Theology Matters Board of Directors.
1 John Hagee, Jerusalem Countdown (Lake Mary, FL: FrontLine Press, 2006), vii, 1.
2 John Hagee, In Defense of Israel (Lake Mary, FL: FrontLine Press, 2007), 11.
3 Hagee, Jerusalem Countdown, 195-196.
4 Ibid, 102, 106. Note that of these three modern nations, only Libya is ethnically Arab. None of the three was Arab in ancient times.
5 Ibid, 108, 117.
6 Hal Lindsey, There’s a New World Coming (New York: Vision House, 1973), 185. David Brickner, Future Hope: A Jewish Christian Look at the End of the World (San Francisco: Purple Pomegranate, 1999), 73. quoted in Stephen Sizer, Christian Zionism: Road-map to Armageddon? (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004), 128, 132-133, 244-246.
7 Hagee, Jerusalem Countdown, 17, 107, 119. Note that as of the date this paper’s writing in 2012, the nuclear showdown between Israel, the United States, and Iran that Hagee had predicted for 2006 had not yet occurred.
8 Declaration of the First International Christian Zionist Congress (Jerusalem: International Christian Embassy-Jerusalem, 1985). Quoted in Donald E. Wagner, Anxious for Armageddon (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1995), 101.
9 Sizer, Christian Zionism, 234-236, 244-246.
10 Hagee, Jerusalem Countdown, 25.
11 Ibid, 25, 50.
12 Ibid, 24.
13 Ibid, 54.
14 Ibid, 194.