The conflict in Israel and Palestine is well into its eighth decade and shows little sign of ending any time soon. In recent years, it has become evident that the conflict is perpetuated in large measure due to practically unconditional support from the United States for the State of Israel in its policies and practices. 

Remarks from a panel discussion, February 2014
Revised, November 2015, June 2018

Given that the Jewish population of the United States is only 2.2% of the total population, Jewish support (even were it universal) for the State of Israel and its policies would not be enough to warrant the current U.S. commitment. Clearly, the Jewish population is the main motivator of unconditional U.S. support for Israel.

That support has instead been based on the fact that, in recent decades, numbers of Christians have flocked to Israel’s cause under the name of Christian Zionism, fully supporting Israel’s policies and partnering with organizations like AIPAC and others to further Israel’s interests in the capital of the United States.

And so, in this essay, I would like to look at a critical question that underlies this situation. The question before us is not whether a Christian as an individual political actor should be pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, both, or neither. The sole question before us—and the sole question I wish to address—is this: does Christianity provide a warrant for political Zionism?

A careful examination of Christian theology, Biblical interpretation, ethics, and the health of the Jewish-Christian interreligious relationship, forces us to conclude that the answer is no.


The Jewish people have suffered much over the centuries, particularly at the hands of Christians.  Responsible for much of this suffering was a Christian theology known as supersessionism: a belief that the promises given by God to the Children of Israel had been superseded by the promises given to the Church. Supersessionism has some roots in the New Testament, particularly in the Gospels of Matthew and John, where it reflected the bitter estrangement between the First Century rabbinic Jewish and emerging Christian communities.1See, for example, Matt. 21:43 (“Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” NRSV) and John 8:39–47.

The consequences of that theology were, among others, a sidelining of the Jewish people in the narrative of God’s salvation.  Israel’s place in the redemption of the world would now be occupied by the Church. From this basic idea, it was not a long or complicated chain of events that led from the theological idea that the Jews were outside God’s plan for salvation to the conclusion that the Jews were outside the human family altogether. Indeed, one of the reasons for the emergence of Zionism in the 19th Century was the pervasive Christian persecution of Jews in Europe as a result of this theology that had assumed that God had turned his back on the Jewish people.

Chagall’s White Crucifixion, making identification with the suffering of Christ and that of his people

In the wake of the Holocaust, there has been a re-appraisal of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, long overdue and much needed. There has been a re-embracing of the Jewishness of Jesus (for centuries Christianity and Judaism’s shared “dirty little secret”) as part of the Third Quest of the Historical Jesus. Likewise, there has been an attempt to explore the Jewish tradition in order to grow in understanding about the Christian one. 

In that light, Christian Zionism appears to be one method of Christian accommodation of and repentance for the centuries of hatred, rejection, and violence—but it is not.  For Christian Zionism reflects neither a proper Christian theology nor a respect for the integrity of the Jewish faith.


A. Christian Critique of Christian Zionism

1. Conflation of God’s Reign with a Political System

Christian faith is at its best when it remains true to its core: a faith in the saving grace of Jesus Christ and a trust in that grace to transform the world itself.  As Christians, we are called to witness to that world transforming grace through our acts of mercy, justice, and through the building of communities that reflect the reality of the Kingdom of God.

Christian faith is at its worst when it conflates its own message with the messages of the world: when it imagines that some power or other is the Kingdom of God—the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, The Holy Roman Empire, the British Empire, the American Empire, even the Church itself—or when it conflates a particular political ideology or societal structure with the radical community of the Kingdom of God. In recent years, various groups of Christians have equated all manner of things with the Christian message: capitalism, socialism, American Exceptionalism, the Prosperity Gospel, and so on.  Christian Zionism is one of the latest in a long line of worldly belief systems that attempts to pass itself off as Christian teaching.

The eminent Christian theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes:

The church does not exist to provide an ethos for democracy or any other form of social organization, but stands as a political alternative to every nation, witnessing to the kind of social life possible for those that have been formed by the story of Christ.

—Stanley Hauerwas2J. Philip Wogaman, Christian Perspectives on Politics.

Hauerwas makes a strong case for the separation of the church and the world beyond the church.  And while there is plenty of reason to think critically about the relationship between the church and the world, the point has been made repeatedly throughout our Christian history that the integrity of Christian faith has suffered whenever the Church allies with a particular political belief system. And while it is frequently thought that the danger in blurring the line between church and state is that the state will be corrupted by the church, history has shown, however, that corruption is far more frequently found in the other direction: the state co-opts and corrupts the church. Further, it is not only established political systems that can corrupt the integrity of religion; political ideologies can be just as corrupting when the boundaries between the political and the religious become blurred.

“We have no king but Caesar”—Christ’s trial before Pilate

It is perfectly acceptable for individuals to embrace all manner of political opinions as a consequence of their faith.  One Christian might feel her faith requires her to oppose abortion, another might feel that her faith requires her to ensure that all people have access to medical care, including abortions. And if one likewise wishes to support Zionism, that is one’s right, just as it is to oppose Zionism.  But we run into a dangerous area when we act in a way that equates Christian faith with Zionism.  Making that kind of theological equivalence, affects the integrity of Christian faith as much as equating it with our Civil Religion, or the Prosperity Gospel, or any other socio-political worldview.

As Christians, we are supposed to proclaim fealty only to Christ, but all too often we find ourselves declaring with the High Priests, “We have no king except Caesar.” (John 19:15) In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world”—a clear declaration that there is no political system that commands our loyalty more than our loyalty to the Gospel.  

2. Universalism

And that Gospel is universalist; Christianity is a universalist faith. That is, it sees God as God of every nation.  As St. Peter says in Acts: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34–35 NRSV)

Christianity inherited that universalism from Judaism, where it is found especially strong in the prophetic tradition:

Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? says the Lord. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?

Amos 9:7 NRSV

The Old Testament is replete with examples that show that Judaism itself considered “Israel” to be a much broader category than the ethno-religious community, descendent from the Patriarch Jacob.

There is also an important distinction to draw that often goes overlooked largely because of a quirk of the English language and of American history: the distinction is between the nation and the nation-state. Perhaps it is a function of the United States as a multi-national state that most Americans do not understand the difference between a nation and a nation-state. Thus, when American Christians read the many references in scripture to nations, it is hard to realize that the text is talking about something other than states. 

The scriptures do concern themselves with the welfare of nations, and the welfare of nations is certainly something Christians should be concerned with, as well, but it is important to understand that the scriptural concern for nations is a concern for peoples. It is important to understand that the overwhelming usage of the term “Israel” in the scriptures is not in reference to the unified Kingdom of Israel under Saul, David, and Solomon, or to the Northern Kingdom of Israel after the division of Solomon’s kingdom in two, but to the “Children of Israel,” the descendants of Jacob/Israel, the Israelite people.

We should care about the welfare of the Jewish people, and the Palestinian people, and the Syrian, and Ukrainian, and Burmese, and El Salvadoran people.  We should care very much about the ability of the Jewish people to live in security and safety, to practice their faith without persecution, to engage fully into all aspects of society.  To say that, as Christians, we should support the Jewish people is a very different thing from saying that we should support a particular nation-state.

Never in my life as a Christian have I been asked if I support France, or Spain, or Burundi, or Syria. It would be an exceedingly odd question.  Though the question of whether I supported the French, Spanish, Burundi, or Syrian peoples’ rights is a natural concern for the Christian.  We ought to be concerned with the welfare of “Israel” by which we mean the same thing that Judaism means by that: “the people of Israel.” 

And this brings us back to the point raised earlier: concern for people—which is a high Christian duty, respecting all in whom the image of God dwells—has been conflated with concern for a nation-state, which is a political agenda.

3. Covenantal Theology

Earlier, I discussed the problems of Christian supersessionism, the idea that the Church had replaced Israel as the covenant people of God. Contemporary Christians who reject supersessionism will sometimes speak of the ongoing validity of the Jewish covenant with God, alongside of the Christian covenant through Jesus. But this raises a very important question: Is there one Covenant or two?

Christian Zionism maintains that God has a continuing covenant with Israel separate from the Church. The Jewish covenant is an earthly covenant, including within it the promise of a particular parcel of land. One participates in this covenant by being a part of the Jewish people, possibly by conversion, but generally by birth and bloodlines, and sealed in circumcision.  The Christian covenant, by contrast, has to do with eternal life, salvation, and the redemption of the world through Christ. It is entered into by faith, marked with baptism, and is not dependent on birth, status, nation, race, sex, or any other limiting factor. One is material; the other spiritual. One particular; the other universal. Leaving aside for now the critique of any Christian theology that sees itself as primarily spiritual, the greater problem is that there appear to be two covenantal traditions that exist side by side, but on markedly different terms.

St. Paul

Christianity has, since the days of St. Paul, maintained that there is only one people of God without distinction.3Seegenerally, Romans 9-11. And for Christians, “Israel” means “the people of God” including Jews and Gentiles together. That’s obviously not a Jewish definition, but it is the Christian one. 

To maintain that there are two separate side-by-side covenants, one of which is according to the Law of Moses and the other by faith in Christ, is impermissible for the Christian.  It is, in effect, to say that the saving work of Christ is not universal or applied to all.  It diminishes the importance of what God has done in Christ and merely made it “an option.”

4.     Dispensational Theology

Much of Christian Zionism is built on a recent development in Christian doctrine, centered around the concept of “dispensationalism” and not on the most ancient and historic understandings of Christian theology.

Dispensationalism is a type of religious thought that argues that the history of the world is divided into “dispensations” each of which has unique duties and responsibilities.  This scheme was articulated first in the 1830’s by John Nelson Darby and popularized through the Scofield Reference Bible. Under this scheme there is a huge distinction between the people of Israel and the Church, one being earthly with earthly promises and the other being heavenly with heavenly promises.

John Nelson Darby, mucking things up

Dispensationalists believe that the nation of Israel is distinct from the Christian Church, and that God has yet to fulfill his promises to national Israel. These promises include the land promises, which in the future world to come results in a millennial kingdom and Third Temple where Christ, upon his return, will rule the world from Jerusalem for a thousand years.

Dispensationalism denies the idea of one people of God without distinction, instead affirming to an extreme degree the distinction between Jew and Christian. Darby himself said “The Jewish nation is never to enter the church.” Ryrie, another dispensationalist, affirmed the statement that “the basic promise of Dispensationalism is two purposes of God expressed in the formation of two peoples who maintain their distinction throughout eternity.”4John Gerstner, The Dispensational Distinction Between Israel and the Church. However, as John Gerstner writes:

In contrast, Christian theology has always maintained the essential continuity of Israel and the church. The elect of all the ages are seen as one people, with one Savior, one destiny. This continuity can be shown by examining a few Old Testament prophesies with their fulfillment. Dispensationalists admit that if the church can be shown to be fulfilling promises made to Israel their system is doomed. If the church is fulfilling Israel’s promises as contained in the new covenant or anywhere in the Scriptures, then [dispensational] premillennialism is condemned.

(a)   Hastening the End Times

Much of the current interest in supporting the State of Israel is grounded in the dispensationalist belief that doing so will hasten the End Times. That the in-gathering of the exiles is a necessary precondition to the return of Christ. This idea, which presents serious ethical dilemmas in its treatment of the Jewish people as a means rather than an end (see, B.2, below), also creates a theological problem by imagining that the end times can be hastened by anything that we do, as opposed to simply being patient and watchful, as Jesus instructs, because “no one knows when that day or hour will come.” (Mark 13:32)

5. The Church

The great command of Jesus to the church is found in John’s gospel: 

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

John 13:34–35 NRSV

“Love” in the Biblical context is not an emotion; it is a way of living in right relationship with another person.  In addition, in Semitic languages like Hebrew, “love” and “hate” can mean to “prefer” and “reject.”  And so, the command that Jesus gives the church—to love one another, to live in right relationship with one another, to stand in solidarity with one another—is threatened by the adoption of a political ideology that places the interests of a nation-state over the interests of our fellow Christians.

The most appalling thing about Christian Zionism is that it completely overlooks the desires, aspirations, and needs of the indigenous Christian communities of the Holy Land.  In the New Testament, the Church in Jerusalem is acknowledged as the authoritative center of Christian life.  But Christian Zionism has all but ignored these churches.  

The debate about the relationship of the Church to the Biblical people of Israel is a centuries-long and enduring one.  But the relationship of the Church to its own churches should be an obvious one: to love them as Christ has loved us.  And choosing Zionism—indeed choosing any state loyalty over our brothers and sisters in Christ is fundamentally at odds with this command of Jesus.

B.  A Jewish Critique

Jewish colleagues have expressed concern to me about their Christian Zionist allies.  It’s important to understand that the religious views presented in the film we watched (With God on Our Side) aren’t expected by or even seen as desirable by most Jews. Most Jewish Zionists are uncomfortable with aspects of premillennial dispensationalism.

And indeed, it seems not a little bit paternalistic or presumptuous to insist on a commitment to Zionism that most Jewish Zionists do not maintain.  In Israel itself there is a wide range of opinion including an open embrace of a two-state solution and even those who argue for a bi-national state. (Interestingly, many of the earliest Zionists advocated for a bi-national Jewish and Arab state.) Christian Zionists come dangerously close to speaking for the Jewish Israelis, rather than seeking to honor what they might choose for themselves.

1. Misuse of “Chosen People”

Christian Zionists frequently make use of “Chosen people” ideas in their argument and in so doing misunderstand Judaism and appropriate its concepts for their own aims. However, Jewish understandings of “Chosenness” do not always align with Christian Zionist ones. Take this example from JewFaq (Judaism 101):

Judaism maintains that the righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come. This has been the majority rule since the days of the Talmud. Judaism generally recognizes that Christians and Moslems worship the same G-d that we do and those who follow the tenets of their religions can be considered righteous in the eyes of G-d.

Contrary to popular belief, Judaism does not maintain that Jews are better than other people. Although we refer to ourselves as G-d’s chosen people, we do not believe that G-d chose the Jews because of any inherent superiority. According to the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 2b), G-d offered the Torah to all the nations of the earth, and the Jews were the only ones who accepted it. The story goes on to say that the Jews were offered the Torah last, and accepted it only because G-d held a mountain over their heads! (In Ex. 19:17, the words generally translated as “at the foot of the mountain” literally mean “underneath the mountain”!) Another traditional story suggests that G-d chose the Jewish nation because they were the lowliest of nations, and their success would be attributed to G-d’s might rather than their own ability. Clearly, these are not the ideas of a people who think they are better than other nations.

Because of our acceptance of Torah, Jews have a special status in the eyes of G-d, but we lose that special status when we abandon Torah. Furthermore, the blessings that we received from G-d by accepting the Torah come with a high price: Jews have a greater responsibility than non-Jews. While non-Jews are only obligated to obey the seven commandments given to Noah, Jews are responsible for fulfilling the 613 mitzvot in the Torah, thus G-d will punish Jews for doing things that would not be a sin for non-Jews.

Or this from the Jewish Virtual Library:

Does Judaism believe that chosenness endows Jews with special rights in the way racist ideologies endow those born into the “right race”? Not at all. The most famous verse in the Bible on the subject of chosenness says the precise opposite: “You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth. That is why I call you to account for all your iniquities” (Amos 3:2). Chosenness is so unconnected to any notion of race that Jews believe that the Messiah himself will descend from Ruth, a non­-Jewish woman who converted to Judaism.

2. Using the Jews as a Means not an End

Finally, the role that Jews play in the Christian Zionist narrative is not a favorable one and is ultimately no better than the historic scapegoating of the Jewish people.  Christian Zionism makes use of the Jewish people for a cynical end and does not seek the best for them.

Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock

That there are Christian groups funding the rebuilding of the Temple on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif (destroying the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa in the process) in order that it can then be desecrated and destroyed to bring back Christ, has little to do with interfaith charity and respect for Jewish ancient religious practice (even if we could ignore the necessary destruction of Islam’s holy sites), and more to do with hastening an End Times agenda that is nowhere close to being universally accepted by most Christians.

That is not how we love the Jews.  And it has little to do with respecting the integrity of the Jewish people for their own sake.  And has everything to do with making use of the Jewish people for a Christian end.  And this is supposed to be the preferable option to the traditional theologies about the Jews, such as the ones where we said that the Jews should be unmolested because their presence demonstrates to the world what the consequences are of rejecting Jesus as the Messiah. 

Is it not possible to develop a theology of relationship to our Jewish brothers and sisters that is positive and doesn’t simply see them as something to illustrate a Christian point or a means to a Christian end?

The philosopher Immanuel Kant, in writing of ethics, noted that we ought to “act so as to treat people always as ends in themselves, never as mere means.” The ways that Christian Zionists have appropriated Jewish ideas, made use of Jewish aspirations, and advanced certain interests does not treat Jewish Israelis as an end in themselves, but as a means to a particular Christian end.  That is behavior that is simply unethical.

Because Christian Zionism bases its support for the State of Israel on its supposed role in the End Times, it treats Israelis and Palestinians not as fellow human beings deserving of love and respect, but as “pawns in a cosmic drama of divine vengeance and retribution.” This drama involves the death of all non-Christians—including Jews—through apocalyptic warfare or divine judgment.  It is hard to argue that this provides a model for proper Jewish-Christian relationships, when one party seeks the other to move to Israel and then “convert or die.”


For all of these reasons, then, we must conclude that Christianity cannot, except in a corrupted, inauthentic form, provide any warrant for Christian Zionism. Christians ought better put their energies in justice ministries, peacebuilding, and reconciliation efforts than to forsake the “weightier matters of the law” (Matt. 23:23) in order to support what is essentially a political ideology wrapped up in Christian guise.

[1] See, for example, Matt. 21:43 (“Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” NRSV) and John 8:39–47.

[2] J. Philip Wogaman, Christian Perspectives on Politics.

[3] Seegenerally, Romans 9-11.

[4] John Gerstner, The Dispensational Distinction Between Israel and the Church.

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