Friday, September 18, 2015

Too Hot to Handle: The Palestinian Question and the Christian

In which two or more of our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Editor’s Note: More and more I realize that a large number of Christians have strange ideas about the nation of Israel today. Some see them as God’s chosen people who can do no wrong. Some see them as entirely outside the scope of God’s blessing now and forever, and view all the promises to national Israel as being fulfilled in the Church. Where a Christian stands on Bible prophecy and Dispensationalism will likely be a factor in his or her position on Israel, but geopolitics often plays an even bigger role.

This is our first ever Too Hot to Handle discussion from the summer of 2014. IC and I don’t hit every possible facet of the topic, but maybe it’s a helpful opening salvo:

Alex Awad is a professing Christian who leads a Bible school in the town of Bethlehem and wrote 2008’s Palestinian Memories: The Story of a Palestinian Mother and her People

Mr. Awad believes the Old Testament promises to Israel are strictly conditional on Israel’s faithfulness and obedience and consequently that “Israel as a nation annulled its privilege as God’s chosen nation”. In his book, he says:
“By localizing the kingdom in the hearts of the faithful, Jesus made the kingdom of God both spiritual and global. And a kingdom that is thus present throughout the world need not — cannot — be limited to one specific plot of ground …”
He concludes with this:
“However, the misinterpretation and misapplication of Scripture — granting divine sanction to the Zionist occupation of Palestine — have contributed significantly to the turmoil in the Middle East, and by extension to wider global unrest. It has brought great suffering, bloodshed and loss of life to millions, and given fuel to militant groups throughout the world. This manipulation of the Bible has also caused much anguish and frustration to Arab Christians, and it continues to be a stumbling-block preventing millions the world over from responding to Christ and welcoming his message.”
Mr. Awad also insists that “there is no mention of a special plan for Israel in the New Testament”.

To what extent can we agree with Mr. Awad?

Immanuel Can: Well, views like this always get their traction with the Christian community at large by touching on a few points that are generally conceded to be true. One button he pushes is the idea that salvation is a trans-national concern. He might have even chosen to cite God’s promise to Abraham in the Torah (Old Testament), saying that “in you [Abraham] all the nations of the earth will be blessed”. Thus he might argue that nationhood no longer counts for anything.

Tom: It would also be hard to ignore the anguish and frustration of Arab Christians, though a question needs to be asked: Is the anguish Mr. Awad refers to a reaction to a genuine “manipulation”, “misinterpretation” and “misapplication” of the word of God, as he alleges, or is it possible that the idea of Israel having a national future in the plans of God is simply unacceptable to many Arabs? I’d never deny the anguish exists, but the only real question for a faithful Arab believer is what does the scripture actually teach? When we discover that, we can then debate the legitimacy of any particular response to it.

IC: Further, I guess we can grant Mr. Awad also that the nation of Israel is quite imperfect, and at times has behaved very badly. But then, the Tanakh (Jewish OT), says precisely the same thing, and says it more loudly than Mr. Awad does. It’s never been a picnic for that nation to have custody of God’s law, and Israel has often failed. Whether any other nation would do better, we can debate; but we can grant that there’s no scriptural prohibition on reasoned criticism of Israel — if that’s what Mr. Awad intends.

Tom: Agreed, definitely. We should also acknowledge along with Mr. Awad that the struggle for the territory that now makes up the nation of Israel has been a source of “suffering, bloodshed and loss of life to millions”. Where I will almost certainly part ways with Mr. Awad is on the cause of that suffering, and the issue of whether evangelical Christian support for Israel over the years has made it worse or better. Obviously those who refuse to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist are going to feel that evangelical support has made things worse. Opponents of Israel’s existence necessarily wish to isolate them and to maximize the real or imagined impact of any support Israel has received from Christians elsewhere in the world, so we need to take those statements with a grain of salt, I think.

So let me ask you this then:

Is there anything about Mr. Awad’s position you find less than tenable, either factually or scripturally?

IC: Well, let’s go back to my first point, because I think quite a few Christians are not clear on it. Awad dismisses the idea of a nation of Israel, and says he does so because Christians don’t buy in to “nationhood” anymore. Yet how can he do that and still argue for the rights of a nationalist group called “Palestinians”? In point of fact, “nationhood” is only a non-issue inside the Body of Christ, the Church. Outside, nations are a reality. We see this in 1 Cor. 10:32 — there are “Jews”, “Greeks” (Gentiles) and “the Church of God”. We see it from the promise to Abraham that “the nations” would be blessed, and we see it throughout the Bible all the way to Revelation 22, which speaks of “the healing of the nations”. So Christians have no mandate to dismiss nationhood, except when it’s used for purposes of making egregious distinctions within the Church.

Tom: So you would argue, if I have this right, that the fact that the “kingdom” (as Mr. Awad refers to it) is currently expressed globally and spiritually in the church, instead of locally and physically in the nation of Israel does not do away with the reality of national Israel whether or not God’s promised blessings to Israel have been forfeited.

IC: I’d also want to ask this: does the possession of the Land (as he says, “a specific plot of ground”) matter or not? If it does, then it matters for Israel every bit as much as for the Palestinians … and I would argue it scripturally matters more for Israel. If, however, the Land itself is not the issue, as Awad claims, then it does not matter where the Palestinians live either: either side can simply pick a new place, and live there.

I’m not telling him how it has to be; but it can’t be both ways. Pick a horse and ride it.

Tom: Well, this is the thing: in the current anti-Semitic environment, where on earth are the Israelis to go exactly, if not where they currently are? You can’t redistribute them throughout Europe at this point. Good luck with that! Mr. Awad, if he is a Christian, may well be saying “let’s share it” about the land, but the Arabs for whom he speaks are vocally and demonstrably not into sharing and many will not be satisfied with rehoming the Jews; they want them dead and gone. So that’s a practical problem, and better minds than mine have been grappling with it for years so the answer is not a simple one.

But I think he’s wrong about the New Testament too.

IC: Well, let’s pick up on that. What would you point to by way of him misunderstanding scripture?

Tom: When he says there is “no mention of a special plan for Israel in the New Testament”, I’m wondering what on earth he does with Romans 11, specifically the bit about the “natural branches” [Israel] being “regrafted” into the olive tree that represents the kingdom. Paul makes it clear that there is a remnant in Israel chosen by grace and that the nation is not utterly or perpetually rejected, and he ends with:
“I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved.”
That sounds to me exactly like a special plan for Israel in the New Testament.

So does Mr. Awad assume that the prophesied return of Israel to the full blessing of God and participation in the kingdom will be a spiritual return only, rather than a physical one? And if so, whatever does he do with the millennium prophecies of the Old Testament, which clearly take place in the physical land of Israel with the nation restored to the blessing of God and ruling not just over the Arabs but over everyone?

IC: Good question. Mr. Awad is what is called a “Supersessionist” in technical language and, more commonly, a believer in Replacement Theology, meaning the idea that when Israel rejected Jesus as Messiah, they thereby forfeited any standing they had nationally with regard to God. In their thinking, the Church replaces Israel, takes over all the promises given to national Israel. It’s the theology that is responsible for much of historical anti-Semitism under various pseudo-Christian banners. In order to sustain this theology, Supersessionists have had to misread not just Romans 11 but Romans 2-3 and a whole lot of other such passages, as well as largely to dismiss the Old Testament or rewrite it in ways neither ancient Judaism nor early Christianity would ever have recognized. But as Romans 11:29 clearly says, “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable”.

Tom: No matter how convenient it may be, politically at least, to embrace such a view of scripture, it does serious violence to the plain language of the Old Testament, requiring, like you say, in some cases outright dismissal of multiple chapters of the word of God. How do you “spiritualize” much of Ezekiel (for instance chapters 40-48, which are largely concerned with very specific details of the millennial temple) and Isaiah, for another example — or, for that matter, Joel, Zechariah, Haggai, Daniel and Jeremiah — and apply their prophecies to the present day Church? It’s easy to say these prophetic passages are to be interpreted allegorically for believers today until you actually sit down and read them through and see how very specific and — to all appearances — literal they are, and then make the effort to try to apply these promises to ourselves ‘spiritually’.

It’s my conviction it can’t be done. Not consistently or rationally.

IC: Israel is, ironically, always collateral damage to something else someone wants. The Catholics want the Church to be the vehicle of salvation and need to take over the promises to Israel in order to do it, so Israel must go. The Calvinists want New Testament passages that refer to Israel to refer instead to the Church, so Israel must go. I never know how much is pure Godless anti-Semitism, how much is sincere scriptural confusion, and how much is visceral self-interest in a Supersessionist’s motivation. It’s not for me to judge. But I don’t know of any good motivation for it.

Tom: Mr. Awad is presumably writing largely for a Christian readership, if I’m not mistaken. He claims that the support of evangelicals for the nation of Israel has “brought great suffering, bloodshed and loss of life to millions”, among other claims that I’d be inclined to dispute. I assume he means they have done so by influencing the politics of the U.S. and to a lesser extent, Canada. I can’t quite see how evangelicals might have accomplished this directly since I doubt either Orthodox Judaism or secular Jews draw much strength or comfort from the opinions of North American Christians. Take away the support of evangelicals and Israel seems unlikely to simply lie down and die.

So what exactly does Mr. Awad want Christians to take away from his book? What's his end game here?

IC: His end game? Oh, I can give you that. His organization runs a conference, the explicit point of which is stated at the start of their manifesto: “The Kingdom of God has come. Evangelicals must reclaim the prophetic role in bringing peace, justice and reconciliation in Palestine and Israel.”

Bottom line: they want evangelical Christians to intervene on the side of the Palestinians. Awad himself certainly wants what he calls “Zionist” Christians to stop supporting Israel.

I checked. I personally asked the president of their organization, “What Biblical prophecy?” “What role?” “How do you know ‘evangelicals’ even have one?” He couldn’t name even one of these claimed “prophecies” showing any Christians were appointed arbitrators in Mideast Conflict. All he said was essentially, “Well, God’s a God of justice, and we want justice”.

As the Israelis would say, “Oy vey”.

Tom: In one sense, this is very much someone else’s fight. On one side, you have secular Israel, out of whose numbers or from whose descendants one day, probably soon, will come the “remnant” spoken of throughout scripture. But right now they are no better or worse than many other nations; certainly they can lay no claim to currently being uniquely God’s people in the way they once could. On the other side are the Palestinians, some of whom have no doubt suffered significantly, but who are also currently hurling rockets into Israel and killing innocent Jews.

It’s not our fight in one sense and I’m sure some Christians would like to remain as far out of it as possible.

And yet the judgement of the sheep and the goats referred to by the Lord in Matthew 25 clearly indicates that how you treat the “least of” the Lord’s “brothers” is how you are deemed to have treated him. And those are his Jewish brothers in view in that passage, I believe, and a great many other Christians believe that too.

So what do you see as being the dangers for Christians here?

IC: I see a few different dangers. One is from Supersessionism itself. People might think it’s harmless, but it enters into theology and destroys it. It destroys the gospel as well — replacing it with Fatalism, Sacerdotalism (salvation by priests, etc.), and Conditional Security instead of Eternal Security, because the passages stolen and applied to the Church this way seem to undermine key points of the faith. So that’s a danger, for sure.

Tom: And if it affected a verse here and a verse there, that’s still a bad thing, but it’s a different level of bad than discarding whole chapters and themes within scripture because they don’t suit where you want to go politically, which is the sort of rewriting and wholesale gutting of scripture you have to engage in to hold to Supersessionism.

IC: A second danger is unhealthy disregard for Jews and contempt for the Nation of Israel. Under no circumstances can those things be practiced by those who follow Yeshua Ha’ Mashiach, who is, most decidedly, a Jew from Israel, and One who returns as both the Hope of Israel and the Healer of the Nations.

Tom: This is the difficulty. I can’t speak to Mr. Awad’s Christianity or the lack of it, but he has definitely aligned himself with some very seriously depraved people bent on the wholesale extinction of Israel. I think Christians can generally sympathize with the Palestinian desire for a national home, but not at the price of exterminating Israel, which is the stated goal of the more militant element of the Palestinian movement. I’m not speaking as a premillennialist here, but simply as a human being.

IC: The third thing is that Christians can be drawn by it into the liberal delusion that we can solve the world’s problems through politics, and this boosts an unhealthy confidence in the nature and powers of man. This can even encourage us to embroil ourselves in trying to adjudicate or control the situation between Palestinians and Israelis, just as Awad would like.

These are all bad options.


  1. Just so that readers can see a different point of view, here are a couple of references. Don't mean to get into a lengthy discussion since that could go on forever. My personal viewpoint though is that priesthood and the eucharist have a sound basis in the bible as indicated in various references. In other words, I certainly agree that the apostles were priests in training under Christ and as such charged with the mission of the eucharist and confessional. It is clear that you will find examples that would seem to contradict that and I can find examples that support that. So, I simply go with the higher probabilities, in my assessment, and don't fret about the differences. It is also clear we are not privy to why God allows this, and many other things, to go on but he certainly expects us to deal with it in a Christian manner contrary to what is currently happening in the world with false religions.

    Israel: What do Catholics believe about the Jewish people? Are Catholics into Replacement Theology?

    Welcome to Catholic Answers.
    What is Sacerdotalism

    1. Thanks for your thoughts here, Q.

      I don't think Tom had in mind -- and I know I didn't -- to single out Catholics for a rap on the knuckles here. Really, the problem of Replacement Theology today, at least as far as it appears among evangelicals, is evident mostly within what's called the Reformed (i.e. Calvinist) tradition. And here, it's interesting how the adversaries of Israel have piggybacked their cause on that particular error, using Reformed Theology to propel anti-semitism.

      I think it's fair to say that Mr. Awad can look to the Catholic Church to more-or -less retain its traditional beliefs about Israel (pending any new councils, of which I am unaware). However, today, the swing vote seems to be within the Reformed Tradition and those evangelicals being now influenced by it. They are an increasing demographic, unfortunately, and Mr. Awad seems quite aware of what buttons to push to move them in his direction.

      My thought would be that we should not take our theology from such men, but rather only from what the Scripture itself says about Israel, taking into account all the passage which speak of the matter in both the Old and New Testaments.

      I trust that sounds reasonable to you, since for me, it's the "take away" point.