Christian Zionism and the Restoration of Israel
by Colin Chapman
Colin Chapman writes about his engagement with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over many years and the background to his latest book Christian Zionism and the Restoration of Israel how should we interpret the scriptures? (Wipf & Stock, 2021) and his recent mini-series of webinars on the biblical basis of Christian Zionism.
“Aren’t you ever tempted to give up? Isn’t it pointless to engage in advocacy over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Aren’t you fighting a losing battle?” This was a question put to me on a visit to the US some years ago by an Egyptian-American friend.
Answering that same question today, I would say several things keep me going: my engagement with these issues for over sixty years, my experience of living in different countries in the Middle East for eighteen years, my determination to read history and biblical interpretation side by side, and my interaction with Christian Zionists of many kinds.
On my first visit to the region as a tourist in 1960, I spent a month in Jordan (when it still included the West Bank) and a month in Israel. At that time I had no prejudices in favour of the Jews or the Palestinian Arabs and was blissfully unaware of the theological controversies about the fulfillment of prophecy relating to the Jewish people and the land.
When I was working in Egypt, it was through my wife Anne, a mission-partner nurse who, before our marriage in Jordan, had lived through Black September (the civil war between the Jordanian government and the Palestinians) in September 1970, that I began to understand what the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was all about. We arrived in Beirut with two young children in September 1975, just six months after the civil war started. And it wasn’t long before we realised that it was the presence of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in the country that upset the balance between the Muslim and Christian communities and sparked the conflict which went on for fifteen years.
During that time I read everything I could find about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and discovered W.D Davies’ magisterial volume, The Gospel and the Land. As a result, it was in the context of the civil war in Lebanon that I wrote the book Whose Promised Land? (first published in 1983), in which I brought together a study of the history of the conflict and questions about biblical interpretation. I was trying to challenge the belief that Zionism and the creation of Israel should be seen by Christians as a fulfillment of biblical promises and prophecies and to offer a convincing alternative.
During occasional visits to Israel during this period, I came into contact with Messianic Jews who were convinced that Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones had been fulfilled in the creation of Israel. So after the latest revised edition of Whose Promised Land? (published in 2015), I turned to a detailed study in the second half of Ezekiel, exploring the question of whether Ezekiel was predicting events in the twentieth century or primarily looking forward to the return from exile and the incarnation. This led to a similar study of Zechariah – an even more difficult book – asking whether or not his picture of a great battle around Jerusalem was a prediction of an actual battle that would be fought there in the end times.
So to cut a long story short, my Christian Zionism and the Restoration of Israel: how should we interpret the scriptures? puts together chapters dealing with all the biblical texts that are important for Christian Zionists (Part 1), and detailed studies of Ezekiel (Part 2), and Zechariah (Part 3).
Having engaged in dialogue with Christian Zionists over the years, I still find the biblical basis for their beliefs very weak. I’ve met dozens of Christians Zionists who have changed their minds and no longer believe that the state of Israel is the fulfillment of prophecy. What has changed their minds is either (a) studying the history of the conflict or (b) seeing for themselves what has been happening on the ground in Israeli-Palestine or (c) finding a more convincing way of interpreting the biblical story – or a combination of all three.
I’m encouraged by the fact that more and more young people in the West are passionate about justice issues and see the conflict primarily through this lens. I’m encouraged by the number of organisations, both Christian and secular – like Sabeel-Kairos, Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), Embrace the Middle East, the Balfour Project, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), and One Democratic State (ODS) – which are informing people about what is actually happening on the ground and lobbying in the corridors of power.
I’m encouraged by organisations like Musalaha in Israel-Palestine that have been bringing Jews and Arabs together to meet face to face and hear each other’s stories and thus demonstrating what real reconciliation might look like. I’m encouraged that an Israeli Jewish historian based in Oxford, Avi Shlaim, can write in this way about the way history works: “I draw comfort from the historical knowledge that nations, like individuals, can act rationally – after they have exhausted all the other alternatives.”
But my biggest reason for not giving up hope is that if there is a holy and loving God who is the lord of history, we can be confident that he is at work in Israel-Palestine – both in judgment and redemption.
So this is how I turn items on my wish list into prayer:
Lord, please open the eyes of politicians in the West and enable them to see what’s happening on the ground in Israel-Palestine and to understand the dangerous direction in which things are moving.
Lord, strengthen the hands of Jews and Palestinian Arabs who really believe in the possibility of working towards a peaceful and just kind of co-existence.
Lord, please bless the work of the UN and all the NGOs working to relieve acute human need in Israel-Palestine and the Middle East.
Lord, at a time when there are so many other big issues facing us in the world – climate change, the war in Ukraine, refugees, racism, rise in the cost of living – please may Christians remember the continuing conflict in Israel-Palestine and engage in serious and respectful dialogue with each other about these issues.
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come,
your will be done, in Israel-Palestine as in heaven …
Colin Chapman has worked for 18 years in the Middle East where he taught in seminaries in Cairo, Beirut, and Bethlehem. He is ordained in the Anglican church, and in the UK has taught in Bristol and Birmingham. His book Whose Promised Land? was written in Beirut during the civil war and was first published in 1983, with the latest revision in 2015. Whose Holy City? Jerusalem and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict was published in 2004. He recently led a 4-week mini-course with CMEP and Embrace the Middle East on “How Strong is the Biblical Basis for Christian Zionism?” in June and July 2022. Colin presented material from his book Christian Zionism and the Restoration of Israel: how should we interpret the scriptures? You can watch the full series here.
Any views or opinions contained herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP).