President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal inevitably led to some bizarre shenanigans from the American left. A new staple for the resistance is to find the most tenuous connection possible between evangelicalism and Trump’s latest policy, then use the connection to try to paddle both our naughty bottoms for not being enlightened, kale-eating HuffPosers.
Film director Scott Derrickson tweeted, for example: “The most powerful hidden influence in American politics is the theology of white evangelicals, i.e. Trump’s base. Latest example: withdrawing from the Iran deal. Pop evangelical eschatology (beliefs re Biblical end times prophecy) predicts/requires more Middle East instability.”
The New York Times followed a few days later when Michelle Goldberg characterized the U.S. embassy’s move to Jerusalem as “grotesque.” She writes: “It was a consummation of the cynical alliance between hawkish Jews and Zionist evangelicals who believe that the return of Jews to Israel will usher in the apocalypse and the return of Christ, after which Jews who don’t convert will burn forever.”
That was one of the milder sections from the article. The rest is essentially a coded apology for Hamas, the sort of code that doesn’t require Alan Turing to crack. In response to outrageous statements like these, Ben Shapiro was in rare form during his podcast that week.
His comments on Goldberg’s article were vicious: “She’s writing this in the pages of the most prestigious newspaper in America. Has she ever met a person who believes in Jesus? Has she ever met a person who goes to church? …I talk to thousands of evangelical Christians across the country. I have not heard this used as an excuse for backing Israel by one of them. Not one. …They believe they are supporting Israel because Israel is a moral power in the region. Because Israel has a historical and religious right to be there and because Israel is the root of the western civilized tree. That is why. Not because of all this Revelations-type stuff.”
There’s a lot to like in Ben’s commentary, but the truth is actually far more nuanced than either his or the lefty take. To understand this, we have to deal with some complicated theology, so bear with me.
The End Started With the Beginning
I am an evangelical. NYT elites have always viewed us sort of like zebras: exotic and interesting to look at, but ultimately beyond domestication and therefore not very useful. We’ve always done our own thing, and not as a group. We do our own thing in opposition to each other. And one of our favorite theological topics to debate is eschatology, or the doctrine of the end of the world. This is the really weird stuff in the Bible’s books of Ezekiel, Daniel, and John’s Apocalypse.
Without getting too much into the weeds, evangelical eschatology is all about this thing called the millennium. The millennium is pretty much at the end of the story. That’s why it’s part of the doctrines of last things. So to get to the last things, we need to find out what the first things are.
If you don’t know who Abraham was, then I encourage you to Google him sometime. He’s easily one of the most important people in world history. Christians, Jews, and Muslims all claim him as a religious father. But for our present purposes he’s this guy God calls to leave his country behind so God can do some crazy epic stuff with his life. Then God makes a promise to Abraham that pretty much determines everything else that happens throughout the rest of the Bible.
“The Lord had said to Abram [an early name of Abraham], ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.’”
A couple things to note about this promise. God promises Abraham a land that will be his own possession. That’s very important. Also, at this point Abraham has no children. Even if God blessed him with a kid every year, there’s no way that Abraham is going to become a “great nation” in his lifetime.
So this promise is inherently what we pretentious Christians who like to read obscure German theologians sometimes call proleptic. That’s just a fancy way of saying it’s about something much bigger in the distant future that is having a spiritual effect on the present.
In other words the promise doesn’t have that much to do with Abraham, but rather what God will do with Abraham’s line. But this benefits Abraham spiritually because God has entered into a mystical relationship with him by asking Abraham to trust in this promise, no matter how weird things get. And things get pretty weird for Abraham.
More Promises to Israel of a Land of Their Own
Fast-forward a few centuries, to when Abraham’s children actually have become a nation. But they are not a great nation yet. They’re just slaves in Egypt. But that ends when Moses returns to free them. Then some more crazy epic stuff happens, involving frogs, rivers of blood, armies, and a scary, baby-killing angel of death. After all that, God brings Moses and his newly freed people to Mount Sinai. There he gives them the Torah, or the law. This law sets them apart from the other nations, and marks them as God’s own special people.
Fast-forward again to this guy called King David. Moses is long dead and the nation of Israel has conquered the land God promised to Abraham. They have been living in it with mixed results for a long time. Against God’s wishes, they asked to have a king so they could be like the other nations of the world.
But the whole point of Israel is that they not be like the other nations of the world. God has made them to fulfill the promise he made to Abraham to bless the whole world through his line. But God eventually relents and allows them to have a king. That first king didn’t work out so well, but God makes new promises to his successor, King David.
“The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you: When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with a rod wielded by men, with floggings inflicted by human hands. But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.’”
If you read this in context, it’s pretty clear that God is renewing the promise he made to Abraham. He will establish Israel in the land and destroy all her enemies. But more importantly for present purposes, a solitary figure emerges in this Davidic promise. David will have a successor who will be the final king, an eternal king.
This king will be God’s very son. This king will suffer for sin. But in the end his throne will be established forever. Spoiler alert: This king is Jesus. But we aren’t quite there yet.
It Looks Like Things Are Over, But They’re Not
Fast-forward again. David is dead and gone. The nation of Israel has split into a Northern and Southern kingdom. Then for a variety of complicated moral reasons God becomes very displeased with his special people, so he sends them into exile. Solomon’s temple is destroyed and the nation is pillaged by foreign powers.
In light of the land promises, this is extremely troubling. Israel has really messed up. The people are no longer in the Promised Land. They are being punished, and have become sojourners among foreign nations. But God does not go back on his promises. While Israel is still in exile, he makes a new promise to Israel through the prophet Jeremiah:
“’The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,’ declares the Lord. ‘This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,’ declares the Lord. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,’ declares the Lord. ‘For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.’”
Fast-forward again. God brings exiled Israel back to the land. The temple is rebuilt, they are reestablished. But they are not sovereign anymore. They are part of other empires, and still ruled by foreign nations despite being in the land. This is the geopolitical situation into which Jesus is born, accomplishes his ministry, and establishes the new promises which Jeremiah prophesied.
Jesus preaches about God’s kingdom, heals the sick, forgives sins, atones for sin by his death, and defeats sin through his resurrection. Then, having accomplished all these things, he leaves. The church is established, and that is where the story basically ends for most forms of Christianity.
Of course, they think Jesus is coming back someday to judge the world and resurrect everybody to either eternal life or eternal damnation. But basically the story is over.
Some Evangelicals Think Israel Is about More than Jesus
Except that’s not what many evangelicals think the Bible teaches. Evangelicals like myself think that the fundamental characters in this story are God and Israel. When Jesus came, Israel largely rejected him. As David’s heir, he was supposed to establish an eternal kingdom from Israel, a kingdom that would fulfill the Abrahamic covenant by establishing Israel in the land forever.
Most forms of Christianity think this was spiritually accomplished. But not us. We’re zebras, remember, we can’t be domesticated. We think nothing in the scriptures abrogates God’s land promises and specific claims about the Kingdom of God and its relationship to Israel.
Israel’s corporate rejection of Jesus made room for the Gentiles to come into God’s kingdom, and that’s why the church has not been dominated by Jews since the first century. The church has mostly been made of us gentiles. This is what finally brings us to the millennium, the final age of salvation history.
Back to the End Again
Right before Jesus left the earth, his disciples asked him a very important question: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” His response is telling: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Basically, here evangelicals of my stripe think Jesus is affirming the premise of their question: that the kingdom needs to be restored to Israel. His answer is proleptic. It is both already and not yet. At some point in the future, God has appointed a time for the kingdom to be restored to Israel. Until then, the church will be a public inter-ethnic group spreading Christ’s teaching about forgiveness of sins and the coming of God’s kingdom.
This is what the millennium does. The millennium is the capstone upon the promises given to Abraham. The word comes from the biblical book Revelation in chapter 20, where we are told that the messiah will return and then rule upon the earth for 1,000 years before the final judgment takes place. The messiah will sit upon David’s throne in Jerusalem and bless the whole world through Israel.
Nobody knows when this will happen, so speculation about timing is a ridiculous waste of time. It’s also ridiculous to think that mere mortals can somehow force God to act. And the Middle East has been chaos on and off for centuries. So to think of somehow orchestrating disaster in the Middle East is also foolishness. But until God decides the time is right of his own accord, we evangelicals think that we all live in the premillenial age.
Much, much more could be said about this, but this is the basic outline of the eschatology others have referenced about President Trump dropping the Iran deal. I can’t deny that there are very strange elements to it. But it’s what I believe, and millions of evangelicals believe something similar.
I also believe that the Iran deal was objectively awful and Trump was right to pull out of it for completely secular reasons, that Hamas is evil and does not represent all Palestinians, and that Israel should be supported because they are the most virtuous and stable democracy in the Middle East. Of course Israel should be criticized when she does things that are wrong, but there is no equivalency between Israel and Hamas.
So I agree with Shapiro’s reasons, but I cannot say that premillenial theology does not play any part in this discussion. It almost certainly does, but not in the insidious way that people like Derrickson and Goldberg want to claim.