The title of this essay appears on first reading to be a joke — an attempt, perhaps, at satire or maybe irony. It is neither. It is not a joke. It is quite real. I am deadly serious about the 20 million would-be immortals.
An immortal is someone who does not die. There are approximately 20 million people in the United States who devoutly believe that there is a very real possibility that they will not die. Their belief rests entirely on the existence of the State of Israel. This is why they regard current affairs in the Middle East as a life-and-no-death matter.
I am speaking of American fundamentalists. More specifically, I am speaking of those fundamentalists who are users of the Scofield Reference Bible (Oxford University Press, 1909, 1917) and who have read Hal Lindsey’s 1971 best seller, The Late, Great Planet Earth, which at latest count — depending on who is doing the counting — has sold between 28 million and 35 million copies. (Mr. Lindsey continues to weave his eschatological tapestry on the improbably named Web site, www.hallindseyoracle.com.)
There is some vague awareness within the community of journalism that the support that the government of Israel receives from American fundamentalists has something to do with what is called eschatology: “the last times.” But the details of this eschatology are a blur for investigators who have not spent many hours reading the publications, past and present, of fundamentalist leaders, a task not on most columnists’ top-priority list. I offer this brief report as an introduction to the closed books of a very large voting bloc.
THE SECOND COMING
It is not a revelation to most readers that the Christian doctrine of the last things has something to do with an apocalypse. After all, the final book in the New Testament, which Protestants call the Book of Revelation (singular), is called the Apocalypse by Roman Catholics. The Apocalypse has to do with the last judgment. This, in turn, has something to do with the second coming of Christ.
Beyond this, matters eschatological become hazy for journalists and commentators. But for participants in the eschatological wars, things are amazingly precise.
There are three basic views of the final judgment. The first view, called amillennialism, is common to most European church traditions. It teaches that Christ will return bodily in final judgment at the end of the era of the church, which is the end of time. The church will never attain universal dominance in history. There will be no literal millennium of a thousand years of cultural and political rulership by the saints of God. On the contrary, reign by evil-doers is to be expected. Christianity will be one position among many in a world characterized by sin, i.e., the same old same old. The position is called amillennialism because it forecasts no literal millennium preceding the final judgment.
Postmillennialism is a narrowly held position which teaches that there will be a worldwide era of Christian dominance prior to Christ’s second coming. This position was held by some of the English Puritans of the Civil War era of Oliver Cromwell (1642—60). It was also held by many Scottish Calvinists in the same era. It was held by New England Puritans prior to the restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660. Jonathan Edwards defended the position a century later. So did many Presbyterians in the nineteenth century, especially those associated with Princeton Theological Seminary. The term postmillennial refers to the timing of the second coming: post-millennial, i.e., after a long reign by the saints.
The most widely held view among fundamentalists is a variant of premillennialism. This view teaches that Christ will return to earth in order to establish a worldwide kingdom. He will return bodily in full power to rule mankind with a rod of iron. The final judgment will take place one thousand literal years after Christ’s bodily return; hence, the term pre-millennial, i.e., a return before the millennium. This view has had defenders in the church almost from the beginning, but it has rarely been dominant.
Modern fundamentalism has adopted a variant of premillennialism that was first taught in 1830. It is called dispensationalism. This view teaches that Christ will return invisibly to “rapture” — a word not found in the Bible — every Christian into heaven. Then Christ will return to set up a worldwide kingdom that will last a thousand years.
As to the timing of this visible return, dispensationalists are divided into three camps. The dominant group teaches that He will return after seven years, three and a half of which will involve horrendous tribulation. This tribulation will be applied to the State of Israel. This view is called pre-tribulational: the removal of Christians from the world before the Great Tribulation that Jesus spoke of in Matthew 24. There is also a small group of post-tribulationists. They teach that Christians will go through this tribulation. It will not be limited to Israelis. Those Christians who survive will then be translated to heaven by Christ, who will stay behind to set up his earthly kingdom. There is a tiny group of mid-tribulationists, who see Christians removed from the world three and a half years before Christ returns to set up His kingdom.
GETTING OUT OF LIFE ALIVE
The pre-tribulational position is the position of Scofield, Lindsey, and Rev. Tim LaHaye, whose multi-volume novel, Left Behind, has sold tens of millions of copies, and has resulted in two Left Behind movies so far. The popularity of this position is understandable. Its adherents believe that they may not have to die.
There are two people in the Bible who are said not to have died: Enoch and Elijah.
And all the days of Enoch were three hundred sixty and five years: And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him (Genesis 5:23—24).
And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven (2 Kings 2:11).
There are approximately 20 million Americans who believe that they may share this experience. It all depends on timing. If the State of Israel is drawing close to its tribulation period, then those Christians who are alive exactly 42 months before Israel’s Great Tribulation begins will escape death. This is what Left Behind is all about. Non-Christians will be left behind. They will not avoid death.
Should anything happen to remove Israel from the Middle East during the lifetimes of these people, then the expected Great Tribulation will have to be postponed, probably for centuries, until another State of Israel is established. The appearance of the State of Israel in 1948 would then turn out to have been an eschatologically irrelevant political event.
Should Israel ever be “pushed into the sea,” these people will have to face what the rest of us began facing early in life: the prospect of our statistically inescapable physical death. This is unacceptable to them, just as it would be for the rest of us if we honestly thought we could beat the mortality table. This belief in death-free living is the rarely stated psychological motivation behind American fundamentalism’s unwavering support of the State of Israel.
In pre-tribulational dispensationalism’s view, the Church Age will end with the Rapture of living saints into heaven. The millennial age, which will be marked by Christ’s bodily presence, will not be a church age, but will be a restored Davidic kingdom. It will even involve the restoration of the Temple sacrifices — as memorials, however, not as redemptive sacrifices. As Scofield writes in one of his notes, “Doubtless these offerings will be memorial, looking back to the cross. . . .” (Scofield Reference Bible, p. 890n).
TIMING THE GREAT ESCAPE
According to Scofield’s note to I Corinthians 15:52, the first resurrection of the dead will accompany the death-free translation of living Christians into their eternal condition. He writes:
The “first resurrection,” that “unto life,” will occur at the second coming of Christ (I Cor. 15. 23), the saints of the O.T. and church ages meeting Him in the air. . . . The bodies of living believers will, at the same time, be instantly changed (I Cor. 15. 52—53; Phil. 3. 20—21). This “change” of the living, and the resurrection of the dead in Christ, is called “the redemption of the body” (Rom. 8. 23; Eph. 1. 13, 14). (Ibid., p. 1228n.)
The crucial question is this: When will this event take place? It will take place before the beginning of the Great Tribulation, which will last three and a half years. In his note to Revelation 7:14, Scofield writes regarding the duration of the Great Tribulation,
The great tribulation is the period of unexampled trouble predicted in the passages cited under that head from Psalms 2:5 to Revelation 7:14 and described in Re 11.-18. Involving in a measure the whole earth Revelation 3:10 it is yet distinctly “the time of Jacob’s trouble” Jeremiah 30:7 and its vortex Jerusalem and the Holy Land. It involves the people of God who will have returned to Palestine in unbelief. Its duration is three and a half years, or the last half of the seventieth week of Daniel. . . .
The great tribulation is immediately followed by the return of Christ in glory, and all the events associated therewith (Mt. 24. 29, 30). (Ibid., p. 1337n.)
But how long before the 42-month Great Tribulation begins will the invisible second coming take place, the one that allows Christians to avoid death and the grave? Exactly 42 months. This is because this coming dispensation, according to dispensationalists, is the fulfillment of the prophecy of the seventieth week of Daniel (Dan. 9:24), a week of seven years. Scofield’s note says:
When the Church-age will end, and the seventieth week begin, is nowhere revealed. Its duration can be but seven years. (Ibid., p. 914n.)
Ever since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, fundamentalists have lost their reticence in dating the end of the Church Age. They have rejoiced in the presumably fast-approaching fulfillment of Bible prophecy during which, in Scofield’s words, “the people of God who will have returned to Palestine in unbelief.” Why such rejoicing? Because, if a Christian can make it to the day, exactly three and a half years before this fulfillment takes place, he will not suffer death.
This is why fundamentalists send money to Jewish organizations that bring Russian Jews to the State of Israel. They want to speed up the process. One of these programs, “On Wings of Eagles,” is sponsored by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein’s International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. In 2002, he joined with Ralph Reed, the former political technician for Pat Robertson’s grass-roots political training organization, Christian Coalition, to create Stand for Israel. Reed today is Chairman of the Georgia Republican Party.
“BETTER THEM THAN US!”
What is rarely discussed publicly by Jews or fundamentalists is the fundamentalists’ view of the looming cost to Israelis for their return to Palestine. Fundamentalists believe that the Great Tribulation will wipe out two-thirds of the Jews in Israel. Hence, to encourage their return to the State of Israel is to encourage their destruction.
John Walvoord, who died in 2002, served for three decades as the president of Dallas Theological Seminary, the largest and best-known dispensational seminary (founded, 1924). He was the author of numerous books, both academic and popular, on dispensational prophecy. He taught Hal Lindsey, who attended Dallas Seminary. Here is his assessment of the future of Israelis.
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,  1988], p. 108.
Nothing 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 only Christians present at that time will be recent converts to the faith, who had been left behind as non-believers at the time of the Rapture.
Therefore, 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 political support for the State of Israel.
It should be clear why they believe that Israel must be defended at all costs by the West. If Israel were removed militarily 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 accept the doctrine of an inevitable future holocaust.
This specific motivation for the support of Israel is never preached as such from any fundamentalist pulpit. The faithful hear sermons — many, many sermons — on the pretribulation Rapture. On other occasions, fundamentalists 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 over the last four decades 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 talk much about the prophetic fate of Israel’s Jew. Nevertheless, this is the bottom line: the prophetic scapegoating of Israel.
The survival of the State of Israel is mandatory for its role as national sacrifice for Christianity, as fundamentalists perceive Christianity. Millions of Jews must die in horror in order that Christians may avoid death.
To imagine that fundamentalists will ever abandon their support of the State of Israel is to imagine that these people will also symbolically sign their own death certificates. That would be the meaning for such a reversal in outlook regarding American foreign policy.
It is always possible that they will abandon their faith in pre-tribulational dispensationalism, but the odds are against it. As the late David Chilton, a postmillennialist and author of three books on eschatology, once said, “The day that I became a postmillennialist, I realized that I was going to die.” This was a high psychological price to abandon pre-tribulational dispensationalism. Not many fundamentalists are likely to pay it.