5 Lies American Evangelicals Believe About Israel and the Bible
On Thursday, 128 countries voted to condemn President Donald Trump's decision to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Trump made the controversial decision to honor campaign promises -- but also perhaps to give evangelical Christians a policy win, thanking them for voting for him in 2016.
Evangelicals overwhelmingly support Israel. A Pew Research Center survey in 2014 found that white evangelicals were twice as likely as American Jews to say the Bible gives the Jewish people the right to the land of Israel. This month, LifeWay Research published an in-depth survey revealing why evangelicals think this way.
This LifeWay survey uncovered five key lies many evangelicals believe about the relationship between the Bible and the state of Israel. The survey only focused on evangelicals by faith, who strongly agreed with certain statements about the Bible's authority, the need to preach Jesus's death as the sacrifice for sin, and the need to trust Jesus alone to receive God's free gift of salvation.
It is possible to support the state of Israel on its own merits, without relying on scripture. Orthodox Christians who reject the following lies may nonetheless back Israel for good geopolitical and historical reasons. That said, this article will debunk the claim that the Bible requires Christians to support Israel.
Without further ado, here are five lies evangelicals believe about Israel, and why they're wrong:
1. God gave the land to the Jewish people.
When asked why they support Israel, a full 63 percent of evangelicals told LifeWay Research that one of the reasons they do so is that "the Bible says God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people." A full 33 percent said this is the "most important reason" they support the modern state of Israel.
While God did give Jews Israel in the Old Testament, the claim that this requires Christians to support the state of Israel is extremely tenuous in the light of the New Testament.
In Genesis, God promises Abraham that his "seed" will inherit the land. Genesis 22:18 promises that "in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed." In Genesis 17:7, God promises, "I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession."
Interestingly, the land promised to Abraham stretches all the way to the Euphrates River, into modern-day Iraq. If foreign policy were determined solely by biblical texts, why shouldn't Christians demand Israel extend all the way to the Euphrates?
The clearest answer comes from the Bible itself. Paul explained, "And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, 'In you shall all the nations be blessed.' So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. ... Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, 'And to offsprings,' referring to many, but referring to one, 'And to your offspring,' who is Christ" (Galatians 3:8-9,16).
Furthermore, Paul explained, "And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise" (Galatians 3:29).
Romans 11 built on this theme further. Paul compared the Jewish people to the root of an olive tree, saying some branches (Jews who reject Jesus) were broken off, while other branches from a wild olive tree (Gentiles who accept Jesus) are "grafted in." He further suggested that some of the Jews who were broken off will be "grafted back in."
The New Testament promises are less about the land of Israel and more about redemption from sin, reunion with God, and everlasting life in a new heaven and new earth. All nations will be blessed by Abraham, but the promise of the land is merely a faint foreshadowing for the promise of eternal life.
Furthermore, Jesus undercuts the value of the land itself in John 4, when he said "the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father ... but the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth" (John 4:21,23). By emphasizing that the place of worship matters less than the attitude of the heart, Jesus suggested the link between God's people and God's land had been fundamentally transformed.
God keeps His promises, but not every descendant of Abraham by the flesh is a true descendant of Abraham by faith. It is a category mistake to say that modern Jews, who claim descent from Abraham by blood, should inherit the land promised to Abraham's seed. The ultimate promise to Abraham was fulfilled in Christ, not in the state of Israel.
2. Israel is important for fulfilling biblical prophecy.
In the LifeWay survey, 52 percent of evangelicals said one reason they support Israel is that "Israel is important for fulfilling biblical prophecy." Among evangelicals, 12 percent said this is the "most important" reason they support Israel. A full 80 percent said that the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 was one of the events that constitute "fulfillments of Bible prophecy that show we are getting closer to the return of Jesus Christ."
The Bible does indeed prophesy that God will bring His people from the ends of the earth back to Israel (Isaiah 43:5-7, Ezekiel 36:24), but one of the clearest such prophecies is often interpreted to apply to Christians, not Jews who reject Jesus.
Immediately after God promised to bring the people to the land in Ezekiel 36, He said, "and I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh" (Ezekiel 36:26). This promise could apply to Jews, but Ezekiel 36:26 has traditionally been interpreted as God the Father promising to send the Holy Spirit, who comes to Christians.
The biggest problem with associating the state of Israel with the fulfillment of biblical prophecy is the connection with the "end times" and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Many believe that the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel means Jesus will come back soon.
While Jesus laid out general signs of the end times, he warned against prophesying the exact time of His return. "But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only," He said (Matthew 24:36-37). He insisted the Second Coming would be a surprise.
Many interpret Bible prophecy as "already and not yet." The true fulfillment of prophecy is still in the future, but there can be signs or echoes — small fulfillments — along the way.
Christians must be wary of the pride of thinking that they can bring about the fulfillment of God's prophecy, or that they can know when Jesus will return.
3. "The Bible says Christians should support Israel."
According to the LifeWay survey, 42 percent of evangelicals said they support Israel partially because "the Bible says Christians should support Israel." A full 14 percent said this was the "most important" reason they supported Israel.
While God often took the side of the people of Israel in the Old Testament — helping them conquer Canaan through Joshua, defeat the Philistines through Judges, and return to the land through Cyrus of Persia after the exile in Babylon — the New Testament nowhere suggests that God has endorsed any one government over another, after the time of Jesus.
Jesus taught His disciples to pay taxes (Matthew 22:21). St. Paul taught that Christians should be subject to the ruling authorities (Romans 13). Paul also encouraged believers to pray for earthly rulers (1 Timothy 2:2). Besides these passages, the New Testament does not endorse any king, kingdom, or nation — besides Jesus Christ, to whom every knee will bow (Philippians 2:10).
Many Christians take Genesis 12:3, "I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse," as a promise that countries that support Israel will be blessed. The application of this promise — which God gives to Abraham — to modern Israel is extremely tenuous.
Not only did Galatians 3:29 apply God's promises to Abraham to Christians, but the final part of Genesis 12:3 — "and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" — directly echoes the Galatians 3 argument that it is through Jesus that God blesses all the peoples of the earth.
4. "Jesus was a Jewish person."
More than a third (36 percent) of evangelicals told LifeWay that one of the reasons they support Israel is that "Jesus was a Jewish person." Only 3 percent said this was the "most important" reason for supporting Israel, however.
While Jesus is a Jew (He is still alive, and His ascension did not involve His losing human form), His race does not mean Christians must support the state of Israel.
When Jews who sought to kill Jesus insisted, "Abraham is our father," Jesus responded, "If you were Abraham's children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, and now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God." Rather, Jesus insisted, "You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires" (John 8:39-40,44).
Christianity is not about race or lineage. St. Paul makes this abundantly clear in Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Paul wrote this specifically in addressing why Christians are the true heirs of Abraham according to the promise.
5. The Jewish people did not lose the promise of the land.
According to the LifeWay survey, 52 percent of evangelicals disagreed with the statement, "The Jewish people lost the promise of the land because they rejected Jesus." A full 63 percent disagreed with the statement "Biblical passages about Jewish people having a right to the land of Israel no longer apply today."
This seems to explicitly contradict what St. Paul wrote in Romans 11 about branches being "cut off" and "grafted in." If Jews who reject Jesus are "cut off" from the promise, that likely includes the land of Israel.
In Romans 11, Paul prophesied that the Jews who rejected Jesus would become jealous of the Gentiles who were grafted in, and so they would return to God and embrace Jesus.
The modern state of Israel does not represent this "re-grafting in," however. The state of Israel is secular and Jewish only in national and ethnic identity. It does not represent a Jewish embrace of Jesus, and even if it did, the Bible would require the state of Israel to consider Gentiles who believe in Jesus as full Jews for citizenship.
Reasons to support Israel anyway.
None of this is to suggest American evangelicals should not support Israel. Israel is a key U.S. ally and a secular democracy in the midst of corrupt Arab nations that struggle with the menace of Islamism, the ideology inspiring radical Islamic terror.
Furthermore, the horrors of the Holocaust also arguably support the Jews' right to a state, and the land of Israel seems most fitting for such a location.
Many evangelicals in the LifeWay survey identified other extra-biblical reasons to support Israel.
Nearly two-thirds (60 percent) said they support the state partially because it is the "historic Jewish homeland." Less than one-in-ten (8 percent) said this was the "most important" reason for backing Israel, however.
Almost half (49 percent) of evangelicals said that "every nation has a right to exist," and that is one reason they support Israel. A full 16 percent said this was the "most important" reason.
More than four-in-ten (43 percent) said they support Israel in part because the state is "the United States' closest ally in an unstable reason." Only 7 percent said this was their "most important" reason.
It is good for Americans to support the state of Israel, but that is no reason for evangelicals to reinterpret the Bible. Christians can disagree in good faith about the state of Israel, and the Bible prophecies are not nearly as clear as some evangelicals would suggest.