The Unannounced Reason Behind American Fundamentalism's Support for the State of Israel

With the President meeting this week with Prime Minister Barak of Israel and Yassir Arafat, it may be time to review a topic that is baffling for Jews, annoying to Arabs, and unavoidable for American Congressmen: the unswerving political support for the State of Israel by American fundamentalists.

Vocal support of a pro-Israel American foreign policy is basic for the leaders of American Protestant fundamentalism. This has been true ever since 1948. Pat Robertson and Rev. Jerry Falwell have been pro-Israel throughout their careers, beginning two decades before the arrival of the New Christian Right in the late 1970’s. These men are not aberrations. The Trinity Broadcasting Network is equally supportive. So are the best-selling authors who speak for, and influence heavily, Protestant fundamentalism, most notably Hal Lindsey, author of The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), and Tim LaHaye, the husband of Beverly LaHaye of Concerned Women for America, which says on its Web site that it is “the nation’s largest public policy women’s organization.” Rev. LaHaye and his co-author have each earned some $10 million in royalties for their multi-volume futuristic novel, Left Behind. They have a very large audience.

People may ask themselves, “Why this support?” Fundamentalists earlier in this century were sometimes associated with anti-Semitism. James M. Gray of the Moody Bible Institute in 1927 wrote an editorial favorable to Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent series on Jews. Gray’s editorial appeared in the Moody Bible Institute Monthly. Arno C. Gabelein, a prominent fundamentalist leader, believed that the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion was a legitimate document. Gabelein’s 1933 book, The Conflict of the Ages, would today be regarded as anti-Semitic.

Other fundamentalist leaders of the pre-War era, while not anti-Semitic, attempted to maintain neutrality on the issue of Hitler’s persecution of Jews. In his 1977 book, Armageddon Now!, Christian historian Dwight Wilson cites numerous examples of fundamentalist theologians in the late 1930’s who regarded Hitler’s discriminatory policies against Jews as part of God’s judgment on the Jews. He writes: “Pleas from Europe for assistance for Jewish refugees fell on deaf ears, and ‘Hands Off’ meant no helping hand. So in spite of being theologically more pro-Jewish than any other Christian group, the premillennarians also were apathetic. . . .” [pp. 96-97].

What was it that persuaded almost the entire fundamentalist movement to move from either hostility or neutrality to vocal support of Israel? No single answer will fit every case, but there is a common motivation, one not taken seriously by most people in history: getting out of life alive.

The Not-Quite Last Things

The Christian doctrine of eschatology deals with the last things. Sometimes eschatology deals with the personal: the death of the individual. Usually, however, it has to do with God’s final judgment of mankind.

There have been three main views of eschatology in the history of the church, which theologians classify as premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism. The pre- and post- designations refer to the expected timing of the bodily return of Jesus in the company of angels: before (pre-) the establishment of an earthly kingdom of God, or after (post-) this kingdom has extended its rule across the earth.

The amillennial view is that the kingdom of God is mainly spiritual. This became the dominant view of Christianity for over a millennium after Augustine’s City of God, with its distinction between the city of God, the church (spiritual and permanent) and the political cities of man (rising and falling). Luther held this eschatological view. Most of the Continental Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century held it. But seventeenth-century Scottish Presbyterians were more likely to hold the postmillennial view, and they carried it with them when they emigrated to America. Their postmillennialism rested in part on their belief that God will convert the Jews to Christianity as a prelude to the kingdom’s period of greatest expansion, an idea derived from Paul’s Epistle to the church at Rome, chapter 11. Presbyterians are officially commanded to pray for the conversion of the Jews. [Westminster Larger Catechism (1647), Answer 191.] The first generation of Puritan Congregationalists in New England also held similar postmillennial opinions.

The premillennial view was commonly held in the pre-Augustinian church, although the other views did have defenders. After 1660, premillennialism became increasingly common within American Puritanism. Cotton Mather was a premillennialist. But Jonathan Edwards was postmillennial. In nineteenth-century America, both views were common prior to the Civil War. After the War, premillennialism steadily replaced postmillennialism among fundamentalists. A secularized postmillennialism was adopted by the Social Gospel movement. Non-fundamentalist Protestants from Continental Europe, like the Catholics, remained amillennial. Postmillennialism faded after World War I until the late 1970’s, when it experienced a limited revival.

Basic to the view of both premillennialism and amillennialism is pessimism regarding the efforts of Christians to build a culture-wide kingdom of God on earth. Both positions hold that only by Jesus’ bodily presence among the saints can Christians create an cultural alternative to the competing kingdoms of man. The premillennialist believes that this international kingdom construction task will begin in earnest a thousand years before the final judgment, with Jesus ruling from a literal throne, probably located in Jerusalem. The amillennialist views this universal extension of the kingdom of God into culture as possible only after the resurrection of all humanity at the final judgment, i.e., in a sin-free, death-free, Christians-only world.

Tribulation and Rapture

Just prior to Jesus’ return to set up an earthly kingdom, argue most amillennialists and all premillennialists, there will be a time of persecution, called the Great Tribulation. It is here that the great debate over the Jews begins. Amillennialists believe that Christians will be persecuted by their enemies. A handful of premillennialists, referred to as “historic premillennialists,” also identify Christians as the targets. This version of premillennialism has been insignificant institutionally since the 1870’s. The dominant premillennial view says that Jews will suffer the Great Tribulation. Born-again Christians will have flown the coop — literally. This is the doctrine of the pre-tribulation Rapture.

According to pre-tribulation premillennialists, who are known as dispensationalists, Jesus will come secretly in the clouds and raise deceased Christians — and only Christians — from the dead. Immediately thereafter, every true Christian will be transported bodily into the sky, and from there to heaven: the Rapture event. The passage cited to defend this view is found in Paul’s first letter to the church at Thessolonica: “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up [harpazo] together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord” (I Thes. 4:16-17). Throughout most of church history, this passage was associated with the final judgment, but beginning sometime around 1830 in England, it was linked to the premillennial, pretribulational Rapture — a word that is not found in the Greek text or in any English translation of the New Testament. Its Latin root word is in Jerome’s Vulgate, a translation of the Greek “harpazo” — seize, catch, or pluck.

This outlook on the earthly future became increasingly popular among fundamentalists, beginning in the 1870’s. It was formalized in the footnotes of the Scofield Reference Bible (1909; revised, 1917). In 1930, it became the first Oxford University Press book to reach sales of one million. It has now sold over five million copies.C. I. Scofield’s system has defined fundamentalism for nine decades.

The Rapture-based escape from history is now universally believed by fundamentalists to be imminent. Generations of fundamentalists have believed that they will escape bodily death. They will be transported into the sky, like Elijah, though without benefit of chariots.

But when? That has been the great question. The answer: “Soon.” But why soon? Why not a millennium from now? The psychological answer: Because men do not live that long in this millennium. The main selling point for fundamentalism’s Bible prophecies is to get insight into what is coming soon. In this case, the issue of mortality is central. As the slogan says, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” The doctrine of the imminent Rapture allows Christians to believe seriously that they can go to heaven without dying. Millions of Americans believe this today.

But how can they be so sure? Because of the events of 1948. In that year, the crucial missing piece of the prophetic puzzle — the restoration of the nation of Israel — seemed to come true. Critics of the dispensational system could no longer say, “But where is Israel in all this?” The answer, at long last: “In Palestine, just in time for the Great Tribulation.”

The Grim Fate of Israel

The source of the idea of the Great Tribulation is found in Jesus’ last words regarding Israel, which are recorded in Matthew 24 and Luke 21.

And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh. Then let them which are in Judaea flee to the mountains; and let them which are in the midst of it depart out; and let not them that are in the countries enter thereinto. For these be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled. But woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck, in those days! for there shall be great distress in the land, and wrath upon this people. And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled (Luke 21:20-24).

Throughout most of church history, this prophecy was interpreted as having been fulfilled by the Roman siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. With the rise of dispensationalism, however, the fulfillment of this passage was moved into the future.

Dispensationalism’s critics had long asked: “Where is the nation of Israel? Where are the Jews?” Not in Palestine, surely. So, dispensationalists tended to apply this prophecy of near-destruction to Jews in general — only symbolically residing in Israel — until 1948. This was one reason for their silence on Hitler’s persecution. Hitler was just another rung in the ladder of persecution leading to the inevitable Great Tribulation.

The prophesied agency of the great persecution has shifted over the years. As Wilson shows in Armageddon Now!, from 1917 until 1977, Russia was a prime candidate. But, after 1991, this has become difficult to defend, for obvious reasons. The collapse of the Soviet Union has created a major problem for dispensationalism’s theologians and its popular authors. But there have been no comparable doubts about the intensity of the coming persecution. Here is the opinion of John F. Walvoord, one of dispensationalism’s leading theologians, who served for three decades as the president of Dallas Theological Seminary (founded, 1924), the movement’s main seminary.

The purge of Israel in their time of trouble is described by Zechariah in these words: “And it shall come to pass, that in all the land, saith Jehovah, two parts therein shall be cut off and die; but the third shall be left therein. And I will bring the third part into the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried” (Zechariah 13:8, 9). According to Zechariah’s prophecy, two thirds of the children of Israel in the land will perish, but the one third that are left will be refined and be awaiting the deliverance of God at the second coming of Christ which is described in the next chapter of Zechariah. [John F. Walvoord, Israel in Prophecy (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, [1962] 1988), p. 108.

Nothing can or will be done by Christians to save Israel’s Jews from this disaster, for all of the Christians will have been removed from this world three and a half years prior to the beginning of this 42-month period of tribulation. (The total period of seven years is interpreted as the fulfillment of the seventieth week of Daniel [Dan. 9:27].)

In order for most of today’s Christians to escape physical death, two-thirds of the Jews in Israel must perish, soon. This is the grim prophetic trade-off that fundamentalists rarely discuss publicly, but which is the central motivation in the movement’s support for Israel. It should be clear why they believe that Israel must be defended at all costs by the West. If Israel were militarily removed from history prior to the Rapture, then the strongest case for Christians’ imminent escape from death would have to be abandoned. This would mean the indefinite delay of the Rapture. The fundamentalist movement thrives on the doctrine of the imminent Rapture, not the indefinitely postponed Rapture.

Every time you hear the phrase, “Jesus is coming back soon,” you should mentally add, “and two-thirds of the Jews of Israel will be dead in ‘soon plus 84 months.'” Fundamentalists really do believe that they probably will not die physically, but to secure this faith prophetically, they must defend the doctrine of an inevitable holocaust.

This specific motivation for the support of Israel is never preached from any fundamentalist pulpit. The faithful hear sermons — many, many sermons — on the pretribulation Rapture. On other occasions, they hear sermons on the Great Tribulation. But they do not hear the two themes put together: “We can avoid death, but only because two-thirds of the Jews of Israel will inevitably die in a future holocaust. America must therefore support the nation of Israel in order to keep the Israelis alive until after the Rapture.” Fundamentalist ministers expect their congregations to put two and two together on their own. It would be politically incorrect to add up these figures in public.

The fundamentalists I have known generally say they appreciate Jews. They think Israel is far superior to Arab nations. They believe in a pro-Israel foreign policy as supportive of democracy and America’s interests. They do not dwell upon the prophetic fate of Israel’s Jews except insofar as they want to transfer the threat of the Great Tribulation away from themselves and their families. Nevertheless, this is the bottom line: the prophetic scapegoating of Israel. This scapegoat, not Christians, must be sent into the post-Rapture wilderness.

Evangelism in Israel

Their eschatology has produced a kind of Catch-22 for fundamentalists. What if, as a result of evangelism, the Jews of Israel were converted en masse to Christianity? They would then be Raptured, along with their Gentile brethren, leaving only Arabs behind. This scenario would make the immediate fulfillment of prophecy impossible: no post-Rapture Israelis to persecute. So, fundamentalists have concluded that the vast majority of the Jews of Israel cannot, will not, and must not be converted to Christianity.

This raises an obvious question: Why spend money on evangelizing Israelis? It would be a waste of resources. This is why there are so few active fundamentalist ministries in Israel that target Jews. They target Arabs instead. Eschatologically speaking, the body of an Israeli must be preserved, for he may live long enough to go through the Great Tribulation. But his soul is expendable. This is why fundamentalists vocally support the nation of Israel, but then do very little to preach to Israelis the traditional Protestant doctrine of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. Fundamentalists have a prophetic agenda for Israelis that does not involve at least two-thirds of the Israelis’ souls. Israelis are members of the only group on earth that has an unofficial yet operational King’s X against evangelism by fundamentalists, specifically so that God may preserve Israelis for the sake of the destruction of modern Israel in the Great Tribulation. The presence of Israel validates the hope of fundamentalists that Christians, and Christians alone, will get out of life alive.

July 19, 2000

Gary North is the author of Conspiracy: A Biblical View, which discusses the 20th century’s Anglo-American alliance. Download a free copy at