THINGS COULD GET MESSY in the Middle East this coming week. Monday marks 70 years since the establishment of the state of Israel, which was founded on that date in 1948, while Palestinians mark the anniversary of what they call “the cataclysm” or “the catastrophe.” On Tuesday, thousands of Palestinians are expected to storm a fence along the Gaza-Israeli border, while others plan to march through Bethlehem in what some members of the Palestinian Authority are calling a “day of rage.” Hundreds have already been shot by Israeli soldiers in response to smaller incidents leading up to this major protest event. Potentially complicating matters, President Trump has ordered the US embassy to officially move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on that the same day.
Longtime Middle East experts fear the fallout from the embassy move. But to many of the Christian evangelicals who form part of Trump’s political base, apocalyptic tensions in the Holy Land aren’t a problem to avoid. They’re a sign that events are unfolding exactly as planned.
On the surface, one of the more perplexing mysteries of contemporary politics is why self-identified Christian values voters have so strongly supported Donald Trump — a two-time divorcé and serial adulterer who’s currently in a legal dispute involving a payoff to an adult film actress.
John Hagee, the influential pastor of the Cornerstone megachurch in San Antonio and the founder of Christians United for Israel, gave one possible explanation on his pulpit in late November 2016, soon after Trump’s surprise victory. “I have been asked a hundred and one times plus, ‘Why do you think Donald Trump won?’ And I have an immediate answer: Because he was the only one that was blessing Israel,” Hagee said.
Before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee months earlier, Trump had declared that “when I am president. . . we will move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem. And we will send a clear signal that there is no daylight between America and our most reliable ally, the state of Israel.”
For Hagee and like-minded evangelicals, this was the most important speech of Trump’s campaign. In moving the embassy, Trump is speaking directly to his evangelical base. They see the move as a fateful moment in the long interplay between Christian apocalypticism and American culture.
Nearly every ancient religion had some vision of the end of the world. The African Yoruba, Native American Hopi, and Mesopotamian civilizations told flood myths that symbolized an ending and renewal of world order. Zoroastrians believed that one day the Wise Lord would come to separate the good and evil with purifying fire.
Jewish apocalyptic theology was especially robust. The books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel described in great detail the events leading up to the end of the world. These beliefs included the return of exiled Jews to their homeland and the appearance of a messiah who would resurrect the righteous dead and usher in a new era of peace.
Early Jewish followers of Christ carried their apocalyptic beliefs into what later became Christian teaching. Ever since, some Christians have waited expectantly for Jesus’ return, looking for signs that the end is near. The Book of Revelations helped establish a key tenet: that before the return of Christ there would be immense turmoil and tribulation.
Jerusalem and Israel have always been important to Christian apocalyptic speculation, but they gained new potency during the Protestant Reformation, which called into question many components of Catholic theology. Catholics believed that the Church had replaced the Jewish people in apocalyptic prophecy. But according to Protestants, the Jews did have a role to play in bringing about Christ’s second coming and the end of time.
Influential reformers like John Calvin began preaching about the special part Jews would play in the events leading up to Christ’s second coming, especially their eventual return to their homeland after centuries of exile.
In America, Puritan preachers like Jonathan Edwards and Cotton Mather emphasized the doctrine, and in an 1836 Biblical commentary, the prominent theologian Charles Hodge wrote, “the restoration of the Jews is not only a most desirable event, but one which God has determined to accomplish.”
In the 19th century, a more historical and critical analysis of the Bible emerged, and with it came a renewed emphasis on the literal gathering to Israel.
This analysis was a largely German effort to treat the Bible as a historical document, evaluating its evidence according to the latest scientific techniques. Although more conservative Christian theologians were threatened by these developments, they were also wrapped up in the scientific zeitgeist. So they doubled down on their commitment to traditional theology using the methods of scientific reason. The result was a new form of Biblical reading called “biblical literalism.”
The popularity of apocalyptic theology continued to spread in America, thanks, in part, to popular media.
Matt Sutton, a professor of History at Washington State University and the author of the book “American Apocalypse,” describes this approach as more than an examination of text. “Instead of reading the Bible as a narrative that tells different stories across time, [Biblical literalists] in fact believe that hidden within this narrative are these particular ideas that you can kind of pick out and put together,” he says. “Essentially, it’s a codebook.”
One proponent of biblical literalism was Cyrus I. Scofield, a former Kansas legislator turned theologian who published a reference Bible for a general audience in 1909. Scofield’s Reference Bible offered a new innovation in Bible study: He inserted his interpretations side-by-side with the scripture. Instead of having to parse through the Bible plus several additional reference books, any believing Christian could simply read the Bible along with Scofield. His annotations crackled with apocalypticism, offering readers a precise understanding of when the world would end and what would happen beforehand.
The book was an immediate bestseller. Scofield’s work helped to shape a group of Christians who were the precursors to modern evangelicals. One important aspect of Scofield’s interpretation was that an evil anti-Christ would emerge out of organized government. This led many of Scofield’s readers to harbor intense distrust of Washington.
This end-times theology also proved attractive to business people suspicious of government interference. Sutton cites the influence of oilman J. Howard Pew, who was a mainline Presbyterian who recognized evangelicals’ growing power. He supported the founding of the evangelical magazine Christianity Today in 1956, and he worked closely with the preacher Billy Graham to revitalize an underfunded seminary in 1969.
The popularity of this apocalyptic theology continued to spread in America, thanks, in part, to popular media. The best-known example of this genre was the action-packed “Left Behind” novel series. In the late 1990s, theologian Tim LaHaye paired up with sportswriter Jerry B. Jenkins to write the 16 books, which depicted what the apocalypse might look like if it began in present day. Total sales for the series have surpassed 80 million copies. Seven titles in the series have topped the New York Times bestseller list. The Rev. Jerry Falwell once said the impact of “Left Behind” on Christianity is “probably greater than that of any other book in modern times, outside the Bible.”
As the movement grew, evangelicals came to the forefront of the battle over abortion and gay rights, but their theology influences American politics in other ways. Indeed, end-time narratives are even a factor in the debate on climate change, which, some evangelicals believe, is part of God’s plans for humanity. “As a Christian I believe that there is a creator who is much bigger than us,” a GOP congressman from Michigan said at a town hall last year. “And if there is a real problem, he can take care of it.”
Then there’s the US embassy in Israel. Past presidents opted not to move the embassy for fear of further entrenching conflict among Israelis, Palestinians, and the surrounding nations.
Yet, after the White House announced the move to Jerusalem, Hagee celebrated, saying that “President Trump has stepped into political immortality” and that “what he has done will be eternally celebrated.”
As for the timing of the move, it doesn’t trouble American evangelical leaders looking toward the final battles and the end of days. For them, diplomacy with Israel’s Arab neighbors is not just irrelevant but also, perhaps, counter to God’s plan.Liya Rechtman is a student at Harvard Divinity School and a producer for the podcast Ministry of Ideas, available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and ministryofideas.org.