Studies in Revelation—Lesson 38
by Reta Halteman Finger
Last winter, when President Trump announced that the U.S. embassy in Israel would be moving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Christian Zionists rejoiced. Never mind that Palestinian hopes for a capital in East Jerusalem were ignored by this action, or that conflict was expected to increase. For Christian Zionists, this move brings the return of Christ another step closer to fulfillment. Trump is an instrument in God’s timeline!
But how does this contemporary political act connect to Revelation or to any other apocalypse written to bring hope to suffering people of God? If you’ve been following these lessons from the beginning, you may well wonder.
In this series of lessons that has now come to a close, we first learned that Revelation is part of a unique genre of apocalyptic writings that emerged a few centuries before the Common Era. Through visions that glimpsed spiritual reality beyond human history, apocalypses sought to explain why God’s people were suffering and enemies were flourishing. Of the many apocalypses written during this time, the two in our canon—Daniel and Revelation—are the only ones that emphasize victory through nonviolence.
Our first task was to understand Revelation in its historical and literary contexts. John’s seven letters in chapters 2 and 3 were written to actual churches in first-century Asia Minor in the Roman Empire. (See Lessons 7, 8, and 9 in this Bible study series.) The visions that followed those letters portray in various ways the ultimate victory of this nonviolent God in the form of a slaughtered Lamb. It’s important to keep in mind that these visions are shaped by the biblical allusions and symbols from the Hebrew Bible and the first-century Mediterranean world. Only then can we make thoughtful connections to contemporary life. (For more comprehensive principles of biblical interpretation, see the first four lessons in my series on “Hermeneutics.”)
What is Christian Zionism?
In contrast to the historical setting just described, the most prominent form of Christian Zionism blends two 19th century concepts: Jewish Zionism and dispensationalism. Theodor Herzl’s experience of anti-Semitism in Europe convinced him that Jews needed a separate land to call their own. Though he died in 1904, by 1948 there was sufficient political pressure (including from fundamentalist Christians) to establish the modern state of Israel.
Dispensationalism was developed by John Nelson Darby, a Plymouth Brethren Bible teacher. Darby divided biblical history into seven “dispensations,” or ages, in which God made seven different covenants with humanity. The age of the church is the sixth dispensation. The KJV Scofield Reference Bible (1909, revised 1919) integrated dispensationalism into its extensive notes so that this theory of interpretation became part of Christian fundamentalism.
How does our interpretive method differ from that of Christian Zionism? For that, Loren L. Johns’s article on “Christian Zionism and Biblical Interpretation” is very helpful.
Fundamentalists assume that they are taking the Bible literally, and other Christians are not. This is not true, asserts Johns, for several reasons. First, they base this belief on their theory of biblical inerrancy, where every word in the original autographs is divinely inspired. They can therefore string verses together without attention to historical or literary context—except to make them fit into their dispensational scheme. (For more on inerrancy, see Lesson 4 in my blog series on “Hermeneutics.”)
Second, fundamentalists view “biblical prophecy” as primarily predictive of the future—our future—rather than seeing prophecies in their various historical contexts. The irony is that fundamentalists do not take the Bible literally. Instead, they de-historicize these texts by applying them to current events instead of to the political contexts of their own day. “The result,” says Johns, “is a human construct that no longer represents the word of God—whether for 2000 years ago or for today” (p. 8). An example of this point is the website, “EndTime Ministries,”, where the opening screen publicizes broadcasts with these titles: “The Antichrist, a Socialist,” “United States Discovered in the Bible,” and “America’s Independence in Prophecy.”
Third, Johns asserts that fundamentalists tend to “reject any Christology that holds Jesus as normative for Christian ethics” (p. 10). In this view, Jesus’s teachings on nonviolent resistance in the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, were for a previous dispensation.
What is not found in Revelation
Both Daniel and Revelation (and parts of Ezekiel) are the primary sources of premillennial dispensational fundamentalists. They are “premillennial” in that they believe Christians will be “raptured” to heaven before a time of tribulation comes upon the earth, followed by Christ’s millennial reign in which they will participate. Revelation does speak of a thousand-year reign of Christ (20:4-7), but nothing about a “Rapture.” (Numbers in apocalypses are always symbolic.)
The term “rapture” is found nowhere in the Bible, but the concept is (mis)interpreted from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Here Paul comforts Christians whose fellow believers have died before the end of the age. He assures them that when Jesus returns, their dead will rise first so that all may together be “caught up” (the Greek word translated into Latin as raptio) to meet Jesus. Paul is alluding to the Roman tradition of people going out to meet their king or general as he returns to his home city after a military victory. But Jesus’s “triumphal entry” will be vertical, so believers will rise to meet him “in the air” (v. 17), bringing him back to reign over the earth. No one flies off to heaven.
The “Antichrist” is commonly associated with end-time prophecy. But the term is never used in apocalyptic writings, only in the epistles of John, where “many antichrists have [already] come” (1 John 2:18).
Premillennial dispensational fundamentalism was widely popularized in the 1970s by Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, although Lindsey has had to revise some predictions because of later world events. The 12-volume Left Behind Series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins portrays in fiction what they imagine will happen during and after the Rapture. Millions of copies have been sold.
Israel’s God at War
Trump’s announcement about moving the United States embassy to Jerusalem was so exciting for Christian Zionists because it fits into Left Behind theology. The ancient concept of “Israel as the people of God” is now applied to the current nation of Israel, even though many Israelis are secular. According to Christian Zionists, after a series of events— including the over-hyped War of Armageddon (Rev. 16:16; see Lesson 27)— God will triumph militarily over all enemies.
Besides Christian Zionism’s disrespect for the original contexts of biblical texts, most disturbing to me are the political aspects of a theology that assumes that we live in a dispensation in which war is God’s will. That is why the Antichrist in the Left Behind Series is portrayed as a pacifist.
Thus, any serious effort to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians is viewed as going against God’s will. Not only are Palestinian Christians totally ignored in this scheme, but global politics are deeply affected as well.
A helpful resource for understanding more fully the issues involved, written in an easy to read question and answer format, is produced by the Mennonite Central Committee and titled “What Does the Bible Say about Palestine and Israel?”
Questions for discussion and reflection
- What exposure have you had to Christian Zionism?
- How would you compare the interpretive principles of dispensationalism to those of this series of lessons on Revelation?
- What are the political implications of embracing Christian Zionism?
Johns, Loren L. “Christian Zionism and Biblical Interpretation.” Peace Office Publication (now renamed as Intersections); Mennonite Central Committee, July-Sept 2005. Pp. 7-10.
__________. The Lamb Christology of the Apocalypse of John. Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003.
Rossing, Barbara R. The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation. NY, NY: Basic Books, 2004. 210 pages.
This very readable paperback also includes a group discussion guide. Rossing minces no words about the theological and political dangers of Christian Zionism.