The hope of Israel?
To many Christadelphians, the return of Israel to their land is considered the go-to argument in support of the Bible. The Christadelphian even has as its tag-line ‘A magazine dedicated wholly to the hope of Israel’. But how does this relate to Israel today?
A simple message
I didn’t come from the most pro-Israel part of the denomination, so I’m not sure that I fully understand the nuances. But I think the core Christadelphian position is fairly clear cut:
Jesus was and is the promised Jewish Messiah, and he will return to set up a kingdom over all the world as a restoration of the Jewish kingdom of old. The hope of Israel is the hope of resurrection from the dead through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and it is open to both Jews and Gentiles. Essentially, Jesus’ message builds on and takes precedence over the Old Testament revelations, and Christianity (or at least Christadelphianism) is Judaism Plus.
The most relevant clauses from the BASF are these:
21. That the Kingdom which he will establish will be the Kingdom of Israel restored, in the territory it formerly occupied, namely, the land bequeathed for an everlasting possession to Abraham and his Seed (the Christ) by covenant.
22. That this restoration of the Kingdom again to Israel will involve the ingathering of God’s chosen but scattered nation, the Jews; their reinstatement in the land of their fathers, when it shall have been reclaimed from “the desolation of many generations”; the building again of Jerusalem to become “the throne of the Lord” and the metropolis of the whole earth.
23. That the governing body of the Kingdom so established will be the brethren of Christ, of all generations, developed by resurrection and change, and constituting, with Christ as their head, the collective “Seed of Abraham,” in whom all nations will be blessed, and comprising “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets,” and all in their age of like faithfulness.
What about the Jews today?
However, while this position can be clearly stated, I think it leaves a gaping hole. It says that the Jews were God’s chosen nation in the past, and it seems to view the return of Israel to their land as part of the restoration of the kingdom. But then in future it has switched to “the brethren of Christ” as the governing body - nothing like the secular state of Israel established in 1948.
What about the Jews, both now and in the future? Are they part of this vision, or not? And if it is truly the “Hope of Israel” and Israel right now is part of the preparation for the kingdom of God, how come so few people in Israel know about it? Do the Jews have some kind of special access to the kingdom as God’s chosen people? Or are they left in this brave new Christian era with exactly the same hope of salvation as everyone else?
There was the idea (taken from Romans) that God had not finally rejected Israel. There was also the idea (taken from Zechariah) that after the defeat of Israel and the return of Jesus the Jews would finally acknowledge the crucified Jesus as their king. But I’m not sure why either of those ideas should drive Christadelphian support for the Jews or Israel today.
Consider how Christianity has changed the story: According to the New Testament, Jesus was a Jew, his disciples were Jews, and the apostle Paul was a Jew. However, most Christians today are not Jews, and most Jews today do not accept Christianity. I’m not aware of any Palestinian Christadelphians, but there are certainly Palestinian Christians. Are they more or less worthy of salvation than non-Christian Jews? I’ve heard that they feel abandoned by pro-Israel evangelicals.
The impression I got growing up was that understanding “the Hope of Israel” was part of what made Christadelphians special. Most or all other denominations were unaware of the importance of the nation of Israel, and if they read the Bible at all it was probably just the New Testament.
As a result, these other denominations almost universally accepted the terrible doctrine of “replacement theology”: At best, the Jews had been discarded by God and replaced by Christians, who were building God’s kingdom on earth while preparing for heaven. At worst, the Jews were directly responsible for the death of Christ and were worthy of punishment for their ancestors’ actions.
Though I’m sure I’ve heard each of these things said, maybe they weren’t quite spelled out. But in my opinion they all rate as “mostly false”. Christadelphians certainly do have teachings that distinguish them from most other denominations. But I’m not sure the role of Israel is one of those teachings.
Since leaving, I have talked with friends from a number of denominations. Few if any in these other denominations limited their Bible study to the New Testament, and all of them viewed Israel as important. Some of them had teachings on Israel which sounded quite similar to Christadelphian teachings. In fact, evangelical support for Israel has been one reason for US governments to support Israel.
But my final problem with these Christadelphian claims is that I don’t think replacement theology was the bogey-man it was presented as. In fact, I personally came to the conclusion that it was what Paul’s epistles explicitly taught.
Lovers of Zion
To try and understand the role of Israel in all this, I once attended the annual “Lovers of Zion” fraternal. I think I can safely say it was organised by the most strongly “pro-Israel” side of the denomination.
That evening, there were three talks: One about what the hope of Israel really meant, one about giving aid to Jews around the world in need as our brothers, and finally one which appeared to endorse controversial political actions of the nation of Israel. We also sung our pro-Israel hymns accompanied by a harp (because why not?)
During the first talk, the speaker complained that “the Hope of Israel” was talked about much less than it had been in his childhood, and went through all the verses we should know about it. Unfortunately, I don’t still have that list of verses. But the thing that stood out to me, verse after verse, was “This verse doesn’t say what the speaker claims it does”. My conclusion from the talk was that none of the verses used actually required Christadelphians to support Israelis today, either politically or as “God’s chosen nation”.
I’ll go into more verses in a later post, but for now I’ll limit it to the only relevant verse that mentions the hope of Israel (yes, this fundamental Christadelphian phrase is only used in that way once in scripture):
[Paul speaking] When they had examined me, they wished to set me at liberty, because there was no reason for the death penalty in my case. But because the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to Caesar—though I had no charge to bring against my nation. For this reason, therefore, I have asked to see you and speak with you, since it is because of the hope of Israel that I am wearing this chain.Acts 28:18-20 (ESV)
Paul wasn’t in prison because he was a Jew, but because he was being accused by Jews of taking his message to the Gentiles. In short, because he was a Christian.
This doesn’t appear to foreshadow the supposed miraculous return of the Jews to their land in 1948. Paul was not offering the Jews the political sovereignty they hoped for. Instead, he wanted them to drop their exclusivity and join the worldwide community of believers in Jesus Christ, supposedly giving them access to the resurrection from the dead.
The Promises to Abraham
Christadelphian support for Israel today often traced back to the promises to Abraham. Since these promises included a promise of the land being given to Abraham and his descendants, it was considered to establish a God-given right for Israel to own that land today. But the other phrase I remember being used was this:
I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curseGenesis 12:3 (ESV)
This was taken to be fulfilled by the Jews today using various cherry-picked examples. For example, it was said that after World War 2 the British lost their empire when they stopped supporting Israel, while America started supporting Israel and became the new super-power.
This ignores examples like the mighty Roman empire, which was at the height of its power when it crushed Israel in AD 70 and AD 135, and didn’t suddenly collapse as a result. It also has a distinct Prosperity Gospel feel: Are you supporting Israel because you think it the right thing to do, or because you’ll get blessings for doing it?
But the bigger problem is the context of this particular promise:
I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.Genesis 12:2 - 3 (ESV)
Most of this could be applied to the nation of Israel, but the final part would typically be taken to refer to Christianity. BASF Clause 21 (quoted above) makes it clear that Christadelphians have accepted Paul’s application of this to Jesus (the promised Seed of Abraham), and are even happy to extend this to Christian possession of the promised land. So why is one part of this promise applied to the Jewish people today and another part applied to Christianity? It seems inconsistent.
Christadelphian support of Israel
As I pointed out in my previous post, officially Christadelphians are strangers and pilgrims who don’t support the nation of Israel politically. But in practice they kind of do: It is difficult in the denomination to be anything other than pro-Israel, since they view Israel as the chosen people, living in a land that they have a God-given right to live in.
Over the years many Christadelphians have given practical support to Jews around the world. As far back as the 1880s they contributed to schemes supporting Jews returning to the land of Israel (though I do wonder if those involved were trying to hasten the return of Jesus and Armageddon). And before and during World War 2, a number of Christadelphians cared for Jewish children escaping from Nazi Germany.
This support continues today in projects like Christadelphian Jewish Clothing Relief (described here by a British Jewish site). The support given is not limited to Jews living in the nation of Israel, and is supposed to be non-political. As Andrew Bramhill, editor of The Christadelphian, explains:
As a community, we believe in providing practical humanitarian support to Israel and the Jewish people.
Our support for the Jewish people in Israel and around the world is based on our Biblical beliefs, not on the political whims of the day.
Just to be clear, I have no problem with humanitarian aid being given to Jews in need. No one person can support every possible cause, so it is perfectly reasonable for individuals and groups to focus on particular causes that are meaningful for them. And if individual Christadelphians feel a strong identification with the Jewish people then they are welcome to support them.
However, as already mentioned, one of the Lovers of Zion fraternal speakers justified this kind of material aid because the Jews were our brothers. I’m not sure how well this matches Biblical teaching.
An influence on statesmen
There have been various claims that Christadelphian teachings have influenced various world leaders in favour of Israel. The best supported one seems to be US President Lyndon Johnson. For example:
This is the story of a United States President who was raised amongst a Christadelphian family and community and was impressed with a love of the Jews as a child and later in life, to the degree that he helped change the course of Israel’s history in one of Israel’s darkest hours. (Source).
Apparently, both his grandfather and his aunt were Christadelphians who told him:
Watch the Jews. Take care of them any way you can. They’re God’s chosen people.
As before, I’m not sure this is actually good Bible teaching, but there is an irony to this tale. As I discussed in connection with the Six Day War lat year, before the war some Christadelphians were expecting it would bring a Russian invasion of Israel, and ultimately Armageddon and the return of Christ. It was said that Britain and America had been distracted by God to allow this to happen.
Now it seems Christadelphians want to claim some of the credit for the US President supporting Israel. This really is the “Schrödinger’s War” I wrote about: whether Israel won or lost, it would have been considered fulfillment of prophecy as accurately interpreted by Christadelphians.
I never clearly understood how the Christadelphian “hope of Israel” related to their support of the nation of Israel today. I still don’t.
Next up I’ll discuss my journey as a believer away from support of Israel towards the vilified “replacement theology”. At the time, I was just trying to understand scripture. But I’ve become interested in it again because I see it as a fundamental problem for the legitimacy of Christianity in general, not just for Christadelphians.