During my time in the Jesus People as an Evangelical Charismatic Protestant, it was taken for granted that the modern State of Israel, established by the Great Powers in 1948, was the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy and a sign of the End Times. How clever, Biblically-discerning, and prescient we were may be gauged by the fact that we also took it for granted that the Rapture would happen any day and that it would occur by 1988 at the latest. The oracular Hal Lindsey (of Late, Great Planet Earth fame) said so: Jesus must return no later than a generation after the establishment of the State of Israel, and “a Bible generation” was 40 years, so 1948 + 40 = 1988. We were “the terminal generation”. It was all in the Bible. Read it for yourself.
Hal’s predictions are now of course in the ashcan, and his books are (presumably) only read for their nostalgic value by the same sort of people who keep their Pet Rocks (remember those?) But despite the fact that the dated imminence of the Rapture has been proven wrong, some people still cling to elements of the original system, including its center-piece, the Biblical significance of the modern State of Israel.
There is a lot one could say about the modern State of Israel, much of it depressing. Anyone declaiming its excellencies and virtues is invited to read books like Palestine: a Personal History. But here my concern is not with the tortuous and complex politics of the Middle East, but with the more straight-forward theology of the Bible. Those who quickly and easily translate their understanding of Bible prophecy about the End Times into political loyalty and lobbying often go by the label “Christian Zionists”. They differ from normal Zionists in that normal Zionists usually confine themselves to saying that the establishment of the State of Israel was a good thing and that Israel has the right and duty to defend itself from internal enemies (i.e. the Palestinians).
Christian Zionists go further, and say that the establishment of the State of Israel was not simply a good thing, but the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy to regather Israel to the Promised Land, and that this was a necessary event presaging the imminent Second Coming of Christ. Christian Zionists also usually spend lots of time poring over the books of Daniel and Revelation, and believe that the Antichrist must make a covenant with Israel, and then break it and take over the Temple in Jerusalem before the Second Coming can occur. They therefore assert that the Temple will be rebuilt (on the space, no less, where the Dome of the Rock has stood for 1327 years), and some even spend money to make this happen. They expect a mass conversion of Jews to the Christian faith prior to the End, and offer enthusiastic and unambiguous support to the State of Israel in their struggle with the Palestinians. These latter are usually cast in the role of villains and terrorists, despite the fact (possibly unknown to Christian Zionists) that many of those Palestinians are fellow-Christians. One imagines that the Israelis look at the Christian Zionists with a kind of puzzled pleasure: they privately think them crazy, but are happy for the American support and the American dollars.
There is a lot wrong with the Biblical interpretations of the Christian Zionists. Since this is a blog and not a book, I will mention only three of them.
First, the Biblical prophecies about the gathering of Israel to the Promised Land were completely fulfilled in the return of the Israelites to the Promised Land after the Babylonian captivity. One needs to date the scattering of Israel properly to understand the regathering. The northern kingdom of Israel/Ephraim was scattered by the Assyrians in 722 B.C., and then later to the southern kingdom of Judah was scattered by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. This being the case, the prophesied regathering was the one which occurred after the Babylonian captivity, under Cyrus the Persian after 538 B.C. The exiles returned to the Land (in small numbers) and formed a little community in the area around Jerusalem, led by such men as Nehemiah and Ezra. One can see these prophecies of regathering in oracles such as Ezekiel 37:15f, which makes the point that after the regathering the pre-exilic hostility between the northern and southern kingdoms will be overcome “and they shall no longer be two nations and no longer divided into two kingdoms” (v. 22). Obviously this dates prophetic fulfillment to the time immediately after the Babylonian captivity and not to a time after 1948, since prior to 1948 the distinction between the “two kingdoms” of Israel and Judah did not exist.
Secondly, our Lord’s prophecies about the post-exilic further scattering of Israel by the Romans in 70 A.D. contained no such hint of a subsequent divinely commanded regathering. In Matthew 24, He says that those days will be days of tribulation such as had never occurred before (v. 21). In Luke 21 we have a clearer version of the same prophecies (made clearer for a Gentile readership not familiar with such Jewish terms as “the abomination of desolation standing in the holy place”; Matthew 24:15). In this version Christ says, “Great distress shall be upon the earth and wrath upon this people, and they will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations and Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (v. 23-24). Every Jew knew that “the times of the Gentiles” were the times when the Gentiles ruled the earth, and that it would end when the Messiah established His kingdom over all and ended Gentile domination. Then Jerusalem would be free from threat, and all the Gentiles would acknowledge her sovereignty. In other words, Jesus was saying that Jerusalem would be trodden down until the Second Coming and the end of the world. The Book of Revelation refers to “the times of the Gentiles” by the term “the kingdom of the world” (Revelation 11:15). The apostles initially hoped that the time of the Gentiles would soon be over, and the Jerusalem would arise to rule the world (Acts 1:6). They were told to leave such things with God, and to preach the Gospel. The point here is that the prophecies concerning the devastation of the Jewish State in 70 A.D. and afterward contained no hint of divine restoration before the times of the Gentiles had run their course.
Thirdly, all the prophecies of the Old Testament about the blessing and restoration of Israel after the exile find their fulfillment in Christ and His Church. If you doubt this, try this simple experiment: go through the New Testament and find every Old Testament citation and note how the New Testament interprets the Old. You will find that the New Testament writers apply to Christ and His Church the prophecies where God promises to bless Israel in every single instance. It is not that the Church has replaced Israel. It is simpler than that: the Church is Israel. In Romans 11:1-12, Paul makes the point that in the days of Old Testament apostasy such as in the days of Elijah when most of Israel worshipped the Baals, the true Israel consisted of the small remnant who remained faithful to God. Paul says that it is same now in his day with Christ: now that most of Israel has apostasized and rejected Christ, the true Israel consists of the small remnant who remain true to God and Christ. That is why Paul refers to the Church as “the commonwealth of Israel” in Ephesians 2:12 and as “the Israel of God” in Galatians 6:16. The Jews who rejected Christ were not true Israel any more than the worshippers of Baal were. God’s promises to bless His people Israel were fulfilled in the blessing upon the Christians, whether they were Jew or Gentile.
What then about the modern State of Israel? By anyone’s figuring it is a source of tragedy. Even before the creation of the State of Israel, Capt. T.E. Lawrence (i.e. “Lawrence of Arabia”) who knew the situation intimately prophesied, “If a Jewish state is to be created in Palestine, it will have to be done by force of arms and maintained by force of arms amid an overwhelming hostile population”. The Jewish state was indeed created by force of arms, and is indeed maintained by force of arms (i.e. by a perpetual war against the Palestinians), and represents an insoluble problem and deadly conflict in the heart of the Middle East. It was created as a sop to western consciences after the sinful catastrophe that was the Holocaust. Some have said that whether or not the sop was worth it can only be judged by those who suffered in that catastrophe. Maybe and maybe not. What also cannot be known is how the modern State of Israel may be used by God to accomplish His purposes in the future. What can be known is the meaning of the Scriptures. And from the Scriptures it is clear that, whatever its use to God in the days to come, the State of Israel has nothing to do with the prophecies of the Bible. Christian Zionism therefore may take its place among the discredited detritus of history, alongside such classics as The Late, Great Planet Earth.