For American evangelicals who support Israel, ‘Neutrality is not an option’

ARLINGTON, Texas – Pastor Jared Wellman took the stage Sunday morning at Tate Springs Baptist Church, 7,000 miles west of Jerusalem, to speak to his congregation about Israel.

“Neutrality is not an option,” said Mr. Wellman to the crowd, with murmurs of “Amen.” He traced the history of aggression and oppression of the Jewish people through ancient Egypt to the Roman Empire and then from Nazi Germany to last weekend’s attacks on civilians by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, which he described as “acts conceived in the darkest pits of hell.”

American evangelicals have been among Israel’s most ardent advocates for years, compelled in part by their interpretation of Scripture that says God’s ancient promise to the Jewish people to designate this region as their homeland is unbreakable. Some evangelicals also see Israel’s existence as connected to biblical prophecy of the last days of the world before a divine theocratic kingdom can be established on earth.

Now, a week after at least 1,300 people in Israel were killed in attacks by Hamas, and as the death toll in Gaza rose to over 2,400 in Israeli airstrikes, evangelical leaders across the United States are voicing that support in sermons, public statements and calls to action.

“There is probably no greater friend to the State of Israel than American evangelical Christians,” said Daniel Darling, director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

Conservative evangelicals have long formed the backbone of the Republican Party’s support for Israel. (Evangelicals cheered when President Donald J. Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state in 2017, announcing that he would move the United States embassy there.)

This support is not only abstractly political. American Christians have long flocked to Israel as pilgrims, sometimes on church-sponsored tours like Tate Springs, or led by guides who specialize in Christian history. Some tourists mark their trip a a tattooor be baptized in the Jordan River, where Jesus is said to have been baptized by John the Baptist.

In Tate Springs on Sunday, Mr. Wellman, after pointing to a new page on the church’s website directing prayers and donations to Israel, led the congregation in prayer: for peace, for justice and for “the innocent people of Gaza, the West Bank and Israel.”

In the pew toward the back of the church, Brandy and Brian Johnson greeted the message. But their minds were also on more practical concerns: Just last week, they paid more than $10,000 for a church-sponsored trip to Israel scheduled for January that is unlikely to happen. Mrs. Johnson looked forward to walking through the historic sites there, “just to know that it was his country,” she said, referring to Jesus.

At Sunnyside Baptist Church in Kingsport, Tenn., on Sunday, the congregation cheered the return of a group of about 50 people from the church who had been stuck in Jerusalem for days after the attack.

“This has been a week unlike any week I’ve ever experienced,” the church’s pastor, David Luster, said from the stage, noting that he prayed continually for the travelers and for Israel.

Many evangelical pastors condemned the attacks by Hamas and called on their congregations to pray for the country to which many of them feel intense spiritual, cultural and political ties.

Others had a more apocalyptic tone.

At Radiant Church, which has several locations in southwest Michigan, the pastor, Lee Cummings, gave a sermon about the escalating war between Israel and Hamas, describing the Jewish people’s right to the land as an inheritance from God.

Peace between the Palestinian and Israeli peoples is currently not possible because of Hamas, he said, speaking ominously of future violence. “When they finish with the Jews, they come for the Christians,” he warned. “Prepare your hearts for the growing storm because this is not calming down.”

An evangelical statement of support for Israel” was signed last week by about 90 pastors and other leaders, including Southern Baptist Convention President Bart Barber and Christianity Today Editor-in-Chief Russell Moore.

The statement condemned the attacks by Hamas and affirmed Israel’s “right and duty to defend itself against further attack,” citing the Christian tradition of just war and passage from the New Testament book of Romans about state authorities as agents of God’s justice.

The intensity of American evangelical commitment to the state of Israel is impossible to separate from popular beliefs about the role of the state of Israel in the end times. Books such as The Late Great Planet Earth, an overheated tour de force of apocalyptic predictions published in 1970, and the Left Behind series of novels have reinforced the appeal of many evangelicals to interpret contemporary global events as the culmination of prophecies recorded in the Bible.

In Plano, Texas, the pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church, Jack Graham, who advised Mr. Trump while in office,

evoked the specter of the end times. “The last days are coming and coming, when you will come again, for your church and for your people,” he prayed.

More than 60 percent of American evangelicals believe that humanity is living in the end timesaccording to a 2022 Pew Research Center survey. (By comparison, a total of 39 percent of American adults share that belief.)

Many evangelicals see Israel as the key setting for these events. Four out of five American evangelicals say the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948 and the return of millions of Jews to it was a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, according to a 2017 survey. Nearly half of respondents said the Bible is the primary influence on their opinion of Israel.

The survey was conducted by LifeWay Research, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, and was co-sponsored by an organization that evangelizes Jews.

Joel C. Rosenberg, another co-sponsor of the research, was born in the United States but has lived in Israel for nearly a decade. He hosts “The Rosenberg Report,” a show on the conservative evangelical Trinity Broadcasting Network that offers a “biblical perspective” on news from the Middle East, often with an eye toward how news events line up with Bible prophecy.

In an interview, he described American evangelicals’ support for the country as primarily theological, not political.

“God laid out His love and His special plan for Israel and the Jewish people, beginning in Genesis 12 and continuing through the book of Revelation,” he said.

Other Christian groups have taken a more cautious approach, condemning violence against all civilians and stopping direct support to any side of the conflict. Many evangelical leaders, while firm in their support for Israel, acknowledged and prayed for the Palestinian Christian population, and emphasized that not all Palestinians are responsible for the actions of Hamas. Although the Palestinian population is predominantly Muslim, part of the population is Christian and has long been part of the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions.

But the grip of apocalyptic prophecies on the evangelical imagination is waning in some corners. At least one Protestant denomination has claims removed about the end times from their statements of core beliefs in recent years. And younger evangelicals view the news in Israel much less through the prism of biblical prophecies. Like their generational peers, they are less likely to support Israel in general.

Mr. Wellman, the 40-year-old pastor of Tate Springs Baptist Church, once espoused a theological framework that sees contemporary events in Israel as a prelude to the end times. But a few years ago, he began to rethink that part of his theology. These days, he said, “it’s really hard to find people my age in my circles” who interpret every event in the Middle East as a correlation to certain Bible prophecies.

His message in Tate Springs on Sunday asked his congregation to think about the situation historically, not purely “eschatologically or prophetically.”

But the change in his theology hasn’t changed his affections, he said. As a pastor, “you give your whole life to the study of a small piece of real estate the size of New Jersey,” he said. “I love this nation and these people.”

Leave a Comment