Religion can make strange bedfellows—or has done so once at least . Yaakov Ariel, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina provides a very interesting and informative history of the relationship between dispensationalist premillennialist Christians and Jews.
Dispensationalist premillennialist Christianity has become widespread and deeply influential amongst evangelical Christians. It can be traced back to Calvinists and Pietists and has variations, but the basic belief is that Jesus will return to earth to reign for a thousand years before the kingdom of God is definitively established, and that the Jews have an important role to play in this drama. In fact, according to this theology of history, human history has entered a new dispensation, an age that is one of proximate preparation for the millennial rule of Jesus on earth. Some Jews will convert and evangelize the world and some will return to the Land of Israel and reconstitute a Hebrew commonwealth there, eventually rebuilding the Temple.
Dr. Ariel stresses that this form of Christianity is markedly different from prior forms in holding that the Christian church has not replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people. Its followers are biblical literalists and oppose a ‘spiritualized” interpretation of scripture. Thus they see the Hebrew nation as still chosen with an important role to play in salvation history and are (or will be again) God’s first nation. Dr. Ariel shows that, as this theology has become stronger it has also evolved. For example, it used to be thought that the Antichrist would be a Jew. This is no longer held to be the case by everyone in the evangelical world. Another example is the attitude towards the rebuilding of the Temple. While traditionally it has been thought this was simply a necessary prelude to the return of Jesus, some evangelical thinkers today believe the Temple will serve a positive function in the millennial kingdom.
Dr. Ariel also points to the increasingly friendly attitude evangelical Christians manifest towards Jews, in part as a result of encountering them and working with or for them. These encounters can be ambiguous. Evangelicals are strongly missionary oriented and dispensationalist premillenarians have often targeted Jews in particular. At the same time, they have often opposed the mistreatment of Jews and anti-Semitic attitudes. Most notably, many have come to be strong supporters of Zionism and the State of Israel.
This paradoxical—or at least complicated—attitude towards the Jews is shown most strongly in the juxtaposition of the final two chapters. One is about evangelical support for those Hebrews seeking to rebuild the Temple and reestablish its sacrificial rites. The other deals with the rise of so called Messianic Judaism, evangelical Jews who strongly assert their Jewish identity, and the acceptance of this movement by many gentile evangelicals. All this was unimaginable not all that long ago and both have arisen, according to Dr. Ariel, because of the doctrine of the end times that has become widespread amongst evangelicals and the role it is believed the Hebrew nation will play in these future events.
The one lacuna I noticed in the book, and I think it is a serious one, is the lack of discussion of those evangelicals who say that they are friendly towards Jews and the State of Israel because of God’s words to Abraham in Genesis 12:3, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse.” This might weaken the book’s argument that the it is dispensationalist premillennarianism that is behind the remarkable concern for the Jews on the part of so many evangelicals.