American Christians and Jews have just formed a new organization, "Stand for Israel," that will coordinate fund-raising and lobbying efforts by some 100,000 evangelical churches. This support of the fastest growing branch of Christianity in America is crucial for Israel and highly dismaying for Palestinians since it envisions Israeli control of the entire Holy Land.
It is not Arafat. It is not Sharon. It is the Bible. That is the reason American evangelicals, as many as 20 million, strongly support Israel, says Ed McAteer, perhaps the leading organizer of Christian-Jewish cooperation on Israel.
More specifically, Christian Zionists, as they are sometimes called, back the expansionist policies of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Likud Party. They find justification for this in their interpretation of the Bible, one not shared by the larger body of mainstream Protestants. Mr. McAteer says, if he could, he would build the most beautiful housing for the Palestinians in Arab states since they would not have one of their own.
Despite some differences, these evangelicals believe a second coming of Jesus Christ is prophesied, to be preceded by Jewish return to the Holy Land and a final cataclysmic struggle known as Armageddon.
The Rev. John Wheeler is director of the Christian American Ministry and author of Earth's Two Minute Warning. He explains that God gave the land of Palestine to the Jews, but they were driven away and persecuted because they rejected the Christian Messiah. Yet as the end time approaches, the Jews must return, "And today," he said, "for the first time in 2000 years, we see Jews restored to their land. To Christians who interpret the Bible as I do, from a literal perspective, this is a very telling fulfilling of prophecy that has occurred before our eyes, in our lifetime."
Once Jews recover the Holy Land, says Mr. Wheeler, Armageddon will follow. What form this will take is a matter of conjecture, but Mr. Wheeler notes the weapons for earthly destruction are available. "If you believe Bible prophecy that at some point there will be an eruption of a major conflict in the Middle East and the descriptions in the ancient prophecies match what a nuclear holocaust would look like," Mr. Wheeler continued, "I think that is a very real probability. The time frame of that I cannot predict, and I do not think anyone can."
Mr. Wheeler hastens to add that he disassociates himself from the notion that in the end time, genuine Christians will escape the travail of other humans and reach heaven without having to die. That kind of selfishness, he says, is hardly Christian.
But a certain self-centeredness is true of this apocalyptic outlook, says Donald Wagner, director of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding. Its proponents insist their grim interpretation of Scripture is the only one. Thus, at the recent annual meeting of Southern Baptists, a prominent minister denounced Mohammed as a "demon-possessed pedophile," while his audience seemed to offer no objection.
Mr. Wagner says such evangelicals foresee a final showdown between their simplistic notions of good and evil. "I find it rather heretical just selectively splicing various prophecies out of the Bible and applying them to our time," he said, "That is not what the Bible is intended to be. Plus, it ignores justice questions, lasting peace, and in the end it is anti-Semitic. Jews will either be swallowed up in the final battle of Armageddon or they must convert to Christianity."
That outcome cannot be comforting to Jews, but then it may be a long way off. In the meantime, Jewish groups are encouraging their evangelical supporters and taking them on trips to Israel. Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, told The Forward newspaper, "I want their support now, and I do not care what their theology says down the line."
Mr. Wagner says in their drive to Armageddon, evangelicals ignore the plight of their fellow Christians in Palestine. "At a time when Christianity is literally disappearing in the Holy Land where it was born," he said, "these folks are accelerating the exodus of Christians and the death of the church as an institution, which is an interesting contradiction."
Whatever the apocalyptic future holds, daily lives must be led, here and now. Erin Zimmerman of the Christian Broadcasting Network recently visited Israel with other evangelicals. She told The Washington Times that Israelis and Christian Palestinians seemed to be less concerned with prophecy than with safety. They, too, read the Bible, she says; for example, Psalm 122: "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces."