Why is Jerusalem so important to American Evangelical Christians?

The Holy Land plays important role in US evangelical Christians' view of end-times

Graig Graziosi
Tuesday 18 August 2020 22:15 BST
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Trump admits moving US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was 'for the evangelicals'

Donald Trump told supporters in Oshkosh, Wisconsin on Monday that he formally recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved the US Embassy there for the benefit of his evangelical Christian supporters.

"And we moved the capital of Israel to Jerusalem," he said. "That's for the evangelicals."

Prior to his declaration in 2017, the US embassy was located in Tel Aviv.

"You know, it's amazing with that – the evangelicals are more excited by that than Jewish people," Mr Trump said. "That's right, it's incredible."

From the outside, it may appear that evangelical Christian enthusiasm over Mr Trump's decision is rooted in support for the Israeli government and its longstanding battle with the people of Palestine over land rights, but in truth, Christian support of Israel is rooted in theology rather than politics.

For Christians, Jerusalem is the linchpin of their eschatology; that is, their understanding of the end-times.

Conservative Christians – most of whom maintain a literal interpretation of the Bible – believe that Christ will return to Jerusalem, and specifically a Jerusalem controlled by the Jewish people.

In essence, the belief is that the Jewish adherents will experience a great spiritual rebirth and rebuild a temple in Jerusalem prior to the events foretold in the Book of Revelation.

In the Jewish and Christian faiths, early Hebrews worshipped at Solomon's Temple, which was destroyed by Babylonians in the 500s BC. A second temple, Herod's Temple, was erected in Jerusalem, and Jews and Christians alike believe it held a number of important religious artefacts, including the Ark of the Covenant and the Urim and Thummim divination stones. Many Christians believe that the temples were the literal house of God – that his presence on Earth resided inside the structures.

Herod's Temple was destroyed by Romans in around AD70. Later, Muslims erected the Dome of the Rock – one of the holiest sites in the Islamic faith – on the site of Herod's Temple. The Wailing Wall is believed to have been a part of the second temple's expansion, and is one of the few remaining intact pieces of the original structure.

Men at the Wailing Wall during the snow fall

Many evangelical Christians – particularly those in America, but the beliefs have been exported – hold what is called a pre-millennial dispensationalist theology. The "millennial" in pre-millennial refers to a prophesied 1,000 year reign of peace ruled over by Christ. The "pre" means that these Christians believe Christ will return to Earth prior to the 1,000-year reign.

Though pre-millennial dispensationalism isn't common among other mainstream groups of Christians – such as Catholics or adherents of the Eastern Orthodox church – the view has come to dominate much of the American Protestant church. It was popularised in the 90's by the "Left Behind" series of books that give a narrative telling of the Rapture and the Tribulation period as viewed by pre-millennial dispensationalists.

Because these Christians hold to a literal interpretation of the Bible, it is necessary – in their world view – for the temple in Jerusalem to be rebuilt by a renewed Jewish populace before Christ can return and bring about the end-times.

According to a LifeWay poll conducted in 2017, 80 per cent of evangelical Christians view the creation of Israel in 1948 as a fulfilment of Biblical prophecy.

Speaking to Vox in 2017, Professor Elizabeth Oldmixon of the University of North Texas explained how the promise of the Holy Land is inextricable from evangelical belief.

"The tenet of Christian Zionism is that God's promise of the Holy Land to the Jews is eternal. It's not just something in antiquity," Ms Oldmixon said. "When we talk about the Holy Land, God's promise of the Holy Land, we're talking about real estate on both sides of the Jordan River. So the sense of a greater Israel and expansionism is really important to this community. Jerusalem is just central to that. It's viewed as a historical and biblical capital."

If the temple were to be rebuilt at its original site, it would require the destruction of the Dome of the Rock. That is unlikely to happen – at least without violence – while Muslims remain a prominent population in city.

For these Christians, the end-times isn't just an end of the world scenario – though it does include apocalyptic destruction in the form of God's Tribulations – but rather the culmination and vindication of their faith. They believe that those who who have given themselves over to Christ will be taken away from the Earth and renewed in Heaven in an event called the Rapture.

Beyond the rebuilding of the temple, Israel is also important to evangelical eschatology because they believe it will be home to the final battle of good against evil in which God obliterates his enemies and ushers in the millennial reign of Christ.

They believe – based on certain readings of the New Testament – that the battle will be fought at the ancient site of Megiddo, an area in northern Israel. The battle at Megiddo – Armageddon – is a key element of their end-times prophecy.

"What kick-starts the end times into motion is Israel's political boundaries being reestablished to what God promised the Israelites according to the Bible," Pastor Nate Pyle told Newsweek in 2018.

It is unlikely Mr Trump has a sophisticated understanding of this theology or of Biblical prophecy in general, as evidenced by a speech he gave at Liberty University in 2016 in which he quoted "Two Corinthians", a New Testament book that even the most lax evangelical Christian would know as "Second Corinthians".

However, Mr Trump has plenty of advisers around him – including Vice President Mike Pence, who prides himself on his conservative Christian faith – who would know the importance of Israel to the American evangelical Christian community.

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