Challenge the Implications of "Christian Zionism"


[1] The ubiquitous "rapture" story, elaborate end-times constructs, and fervent, unquestioning support for the state of Israel are now firmly embedded in U.S. Christian culture. Among these touchstones of pre-millennialism, a new "Christian Zionism" has found its way into the congregations of the ELCA. It is doubtful that many ELCA pastors teach or preach the tenets of pre-millennialism. The question is whether or not these leaders are willing to challenge the implications of a popular belief that has no place in Lutheran doctrine, because there is too much at stake to take it lightly anymore.

[2] The Rev. Munib Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jerusalem, has gone so far as to urge western Lutherans to consider the new Christian Zionism to be "heresy," in an effort "to alert all Christians everywhere to its dangers and false teachings."[1]

[3] Support among Christians for Israel as a safe homeland for the Jews is one thing, a form of Zionism that involves participation in a Jewish political movement leading to the establishment of the nation state of Israel.

[4] "Christian Zionism" as manifested in the programming of the Christian Broadcasting Network ( and the Trinity Broadcasting Network ( is another thing altogether. It is a movement with serious political and economic leverage that advocates Israel as a nation that reaches from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River or even the Euphrates; the transfer of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza to other Arab states; the destruction of the mosques in the Old City of Jerusalem and the rebuilding of a Jewish temple there. When the Christian Coalition of America met in October 2002 the conference began with a videotaped benediction direct from the Oval office. Some of the most influential Republicans in Congress at that time addressed the group, including - not once, but twice - Tom DeLay, arguably one of the most powerful people on Capitol Hill. The web site of the International Christian Zionist Center ( puts forth the most recent theme to emerge, and one that participants have raised in every ELCA setting where I have been the speaker lately: "There never was a Palestine."

[5] Lutheran scholars and pastors may once have grimaced at fundamentalist biblical interpretations or scoffed at the more inventive readings of Revelation, but it just isn't funny anymore.

[6] In Bishop Younan's experience, Christian Zionism is anti-justice, anti-peace, and anti-reconciliation. It calls for the transfer of Palestinians out of the land of their homes. "Christian Zionism is the enemy of peace in the Middle East," Younan wrote. It is imported into the Middle East and is not limited to one or more church bodies, but its adherents can be found in every church body, he said. The Rev. Dr. Naim Ateek called pre-millenialism a "heresy" and Christian Zionism a "menace" when he spoke at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas on Nov. 7, 2002. Ateek is director of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, Jerusalem. He said the implications of Christian Zionism are "life or death to people in Palestine on a day-to-day basis."

[7] Apocalyptic lore has been present in U.S. religious communities since the Hal Lindsey's Late Great Planet Earth was published in 1970. In recent years the Left Behind fiction series has captured the imaginations and bookshelves of countless U.S. Christians - Lutherans among them.[2] A show of hands in any group of ELCA pastors will indicate the startling presence of the Left Behind phenomenon in their congregations, a tribute to the success of this $8 million franchise.

[8] Dr. Barbara Rossing of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago describes the situation this way: "Many Americans interpret God's action in the world through pre-millennialism, as evidenced in the popular Left Behind series (nine novels, a web site, two movies, a board game). Sales of so-called "prophecy" books have surged since September 11, 2001. Their understanding of Revelation is consumed with the 'rapture' -- the belief that God will snatch true Christians up into heaven before the disastrous events of Revelation's seven-year tribulations are visited on the earth. This belief unfortunately is connected to unquestioning political support and military aid for Israel, arguing that the Jewish Temple must be rebuilt in order for Christ to return and usher in the end-times." This belief results in a peculiar understanding of the very nature of the state of Israel and its relation to the fulfillment of a covenant with God and the second coming of Jesus. Rossing writes, "No Lutheran or mainline Christian doctrine endorses such an escapist theology of the rapture or such Middle East policies, yet this view of the end-times has virtually taken over American Christian views of the book of Revelation."[3]

[9] So where are our people getting this stuff? In addition to the "Left Behind" products, there's television, especially cable TV. The enormously popular televangelists Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Benny Hinn broadcast this biblical interpretation over religious cable channels every day.[4] The ideas of Jack Van Impe and Kenneth Copeland, receive generous play on Christian TV.

[10] My guide to this pre-millennial TV world was Robert O. Smith, a student at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, who traveled to Israel and Palestine with a Lutheran group in November 2002.[5] They sought to encourage justice by living among Palestinians and helping with the olive harvest. Smith was raised amid fundamentalism in Oklahoma. When I spoke to him, Smith said, "People are suffering and dying because of this way of reading the Bible."

"I'm very familiar with the view that we're all moving toward this goal of bringing Christ back, but I simply don't read the scriptures in that way," Smith said. "I don't equate the modern state of Israel that has been established with the Israel spoken about in scripture." … Smith said Lutherans must take careful stock of complicity for atrocities against Jews throughout history. … "But the other side to the establishment of the Jewish state is the victimization of the indigenous population of Palestinians," he said. (St. Paul Pioneer Press, Nov. 18, 2002)

[11] Our history calls Lutherans to a particular sensitivity in their relations with the Jewish people. In discussing the problems of pre-millennial Christian Zionism, it is crucial that we not endanger authentic Lutheran/Jewish dialogue. The ELCA Department for Ecumenical Affairs provides a helpful web page:

[12] Mindful of our history and informed by our dialogue, we should not fear to speak honestly about Israel. At an event for journalists in April 2002, Benny Avni of Kol Israel Radio said that criticism of Israel or U.S./Israeli policy should not ever be misunderstood as anti-Semitism.[6] With some care, the same principle can work in our congregations.

[13] "They don't love the real Jewish people," the (Israeli) author Gershom Gorenberg told the CBS programme "60 Minutes." "They love us as characters in their story, in their play, and that's not who we are. If you listen to the drama that they are describing, essentially it's a five-act play in which the Jews disappear in the fourth act."

[14] A member of an ELCA congregation in Texas wrote to me recently to ask my opinion of a news story from the Christian Broadcasting Network's web site:

"...Israeli Ambassador Zalmon Shoval stated: The whole land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River is ours ... historically, morally, and by virtue of international law. We do not see ourselves as "occupiers;" of anyone else's country; there never having been a Palestinian or other sovereign state in what is now usually referred to as "the territories." Nor, is it illegal for Jewish people to live anywhere in the area. These are not Arab lands, the way the press routinely defines them.'"

She concluded, "My husband and I, both, would like to know if the ELCA is not in support of Israel. The Bible says that God blesses those who bless Israel."

[15] I responded that the ambassador's point of view represents the present administration in Israel, but certainly not all Israelis. Many citizens of Israel who seek peace with security for their country consider the area established after 1948 to be the extent of the Israel, as does the United Nations. I explained that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jerusalem has asked us to help in communicating their story and to encourage ELCA members to pray for them and for the peace process. And I tried to clarify for this earnest Lutheran our church's support for Israel. While seeking peace with justice for Palestinians, our ELCA has always continued in support of peace and security for Israel.

[16] My hope is that ELCA pastors and leaders will make good use of our strong Lutheran theology to help our members understand these issues, to guide them beyond the cartoon stories provided by pre-millennial Christian Zionism. In a letter to President Bush in October 2001, former presiding bishop George Anderson vouched for the ELCA's affirmation of Israel's "right to exist peacefully within recognized and secure borders and its call upon the international community to recognize the same right for the Palestinian people." Bishop Anderson also described the violence which torments the region, "The cycle of violence includes the violence inherent in decades of occupation: imprisonment without trial, demolition of homes, torture, intimidation, destruction of thousands upon thousands of olive trees and other crops, confiscation of land and the building of settlements in disputed areas, economic strangulation, and so on. Addressing the root causes of the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is in the best interest of both parties."[7]

[17] My hope is that we will not shrink from addressing in our congregations the peril facing Palestinians in the new Christian Zionist movement. At the Sabeel Conference[8] in 1998, Dr. Stephen Sizer said:

At its simplest, Christian Zionism has been defined as "Christian support for Zionism." Central to Christian Zionism is the belief in the abiding relevance of the promise God made to Abraham in Genesis 12:3, "I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you." [9]

But Sizer also quoted Louis Hamada's (author of Understanding the Arab World) definition: "The term Zionism refers to a political Jewish movement for the establishment of a national homeland in Palestine for the Jews that have been dispersed." On the other hand, a Christian Zionist is a person who is more interested in helping God fulfill His prophetic plan through the physical and political Israel, rather than helping Him fulfill His evangelistic plan through the Body of Christ.


[1]  Bishop Munib Younan&=javascript:goNote(39s newsletter can be found at the web site of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land:

The text that makes his point on Christian Zionism is as follows:

Bishop Younan Declares Christian Zionism to be a Heresy

Recently Bishop Younan was interviewed by a Danish newspaper. He was asked for his opinion of Christian Zionism and the bishop said, "I hereby declare that Christian Zionism is not only a sick theology but it is a heresy, right along with Arianism and Nestorianism and others. I believe it is time we named this misinterpretation of Christ and the gospel for what it is."

First of all, the bishop states, Christian Zionism promotes Christ not as the Savior but as a military general, readying his forces for a huge battle, Armageddon. "The true Christ is the Christ of the cross and the open tomb, bringing hope, peace, reconciliation and new life. This is the Christ in whom I believe."

Secondly, Christian Zionists pretend to be philosemitic, to love the Jewish people, but in the long run they are actually anti-Semitic in their teachings. The Jewish people are simply characters in the Christian Zionist heresy and in the so-called final battle; two-thirds of the Jewish people will be destroyed because they do not believe in Christ, while the other one-third will be converted to Christ. As Palestinian Christians we cannot accept such a heresy that loses sight of the core Gospel of Christ which is love for everyone, not only the Christians, without discrimination.

Thirdly, Christian Zionism is anti-justice, anti-peace, anti-reconciliation. Bishop Younan states that the teachings are racist, calling for the transfer of Palestinians out of this land. "Christian Zionism is the enemy of peace in the Middle East."

Christian Zionism is imported into the Middle East and is not limited to one or more church bodies, but its adherents can be found in every church body. Declaring Christian Zionism to be a heresy, Bishop Younan states, is intended to alert all Christians everywhere to its dangers and false teachings.

January 2003 Newsletter

[2]  ELCA page with Left Behind resources:

[3]  Dr. Barbara Rossing's article, "The Rapture in Reverse: Reading Revelation So No One is 'Left Behind'" appeared in Good Courage, resource and reflection publication of Holden Village, fall 2002 (

[4]  The Trinity Foundation monitors televangelists:

[5]  The Rev. Robert O. Smith was editor of The Concord student newspaper at Luther Seminary.  He wrote about his trip to Israel and Palestine in the December 2002 edition dedicated to "The Land."  Smith is presently Director for the Europe and Middle East desk in the ELCA's Global Mission unit.

[6]  Radio journalist Benny Avni was a presenter at "Megaphones and Muffled Voices: What Constitutes Full and Fair Media Coverage of Israeli-Palestinian Issues?" April 2002, New York City.  Information at the web site of the World Association for Christian Communication:

[7]  Bishop George Anderson's letter to President George W. Bush appears in the Lutheran Office for Governmental Affairs policy overview for the Middle East:

[8]  The web site for the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center is

[8]  Dr. Rev. Stephen Sizer is a Vicar at Christ Church, Virginia Waterand an area Tutor at the School of Theology, Westminster College Oxford.  His speech "Christian Zionism: A British Perspective" was presented at the 3rd International Sabeel Conference, Bethlehem University, February 1998.



© May 2005
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 5, Issue 5