On the Road to Armageddon
How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend
By Timothy P. Weber Baker Academic. 336p $24.99
by Jeffrey Gros
Religious forces in the Middle East and in the United States are complex. While Muslim, Jewish, Catholic and Orthodox perspectives are widely known, account is often not taken, however, of the strong millennial movement in the evangelical subculture, which assigns a special theological significance to the State of Israel and its role in Christian end-time thinking.
This volume provides a very helpful historical and theological analysis of the significance of a Protestant Christian theology of history that gives special importance to the end-time ingathering of the Jewish people, their evangelization and the ultimate destruction of the majority of them, who do not convert to Jesus. This “dispensationalist” view of biblical prophecy has been a recurrent theme in Christian reform movements, most notably in the Middle Ages under the Cistercians and Franciscans. The Catholic Church, however, set aside this eschatological urgency at the Fifth Council of the Lateran (1517), but it survived among some of the Reformers, was revived by John Nelson Darby and the Plymouth Brethren in England and became popular in the American revivalism of the late 19th century.
In this view of history, Christ will take his elect with him into heaven in the “rapture,” made so popular today in the Left Behind series of novels. During a period of tribulation there will be other signs of the coming 1,000-year reign, the rise of the Anti-Christ, the ingathering of the Jews, an intensification of evangelism especially targeted at the Jews and, for some, the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple. This way of thinking is not a dominant motif in American Christianity, where only 36 percent can be considered biblical literalists. In times of uncertainty, though, such as after Sept. 11, 2001, polls show that 59 percent of Christians expected the events recounted in the Book of Revelation to come to pass.
On the Road to Armageddon provides the history of how this dispensationalist view came to the United States, how it was popularized in the evangelical subculture and the specific ways in which historical events are interpreted in the light of this view of Scripture’s prophetic passages. Weber devotes two chapters to the complex relationship of this view of God’s plan to the Jewish people, and demonstrates how some dispensationalist evangelicals were supportive of Zionism long before it was welcomed by American Jews.
Chapters cover where the founding of the State of Israel fits into their understanding of biblical prophecy, dispensationalists’ ambivalence over the rights of displaced Palestinians and how dispensationalists have developed their support for Israel. A final, chilling chapter describes fringe dispensationalist groups that work with fringe Jewish groups to bring about the prophecies in which they believe. The destruction of the mosques on the Temple Mount and the reconstruction of a third temple with the restoration of Jewish sacrifice are among the objectives of these groups. Of course, the Christians further believe that this will hasten the end of Israel and the unconverted Jews in the great battle of Armageddon, in northern Israel.
The book is an engaging read, sympathetic and accurate while critical of the theology and approaches to history that operate in these Christian communities. It also provides information that will help the reader engage in understanding conversation, if not in dialogue, with people who firmly hold to these convictions.
This sort of thinking is not leading to the forced conversions and open persecution to which it led in the pre-Reformation period. Nevertheless, it does provide fuel for geopolitical imbalance in an American culture that is notoriously influenced by religious ideas and theologies of history that legitimate one policy or another in the nation’s dealings with peoples of the world. For that reason alone, it will be a useful book for Americans as they try to understand their own cultures and for the rest of the world in its efforts to understand how some Americans think and act.
Brother Jeffrey Gros, F.S.C., is associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.