Apocalypse Soon, From North America to Jerusalem

Are the US evangelists the last rampart against the expansion of Zionism or are they Israel’s unnatural allies? In their majority allied with the Israeli far right, they include nonetheless a fringe which believes that the salvation of Christianity lies with the conversion of the Jews.

Several hundred American evangelists from Christians United for Israel march in Jerusalem (2008)
Gali Tibbon/AFP

“As the conflict rages and world leaders strive to find a peaceful solution to the problems in the Middle East, the significance of Jerusalem will only increase,” US Pastor John Hagee tweeted on 30 May 2021, a few days after a cease-fire had put an end to the massive Israeli bombings of the Gaza strip and the Hamas rocket attacks on Israel. That crisis had been triggered when Israel threatened to evict Palestinian families from their homes in the Cheikh Jarrah district of Jerusalem. Five days earlier, he had already tweeted: “The future of Jerusalem is at the core of God’s blueprint for eternity. Make no mistake: God will remove, reclaim, restore, reorder, renovate, redistribute, recommit, and redeem until the Holy City becomes the crowning gem of all the cities on earth.”

This declaration should come as no surprise, since its author is the founder of the pro-Israeli Christians United for Israel (CUFI) with its seven million members in the United States. These evangelical fundamentalists believe that the settling of Jews in the Holy Land, the creation of the State of Israel (1948) or the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem (1967) are the harbingers of Christ’s return. The notion of the “rapture” of the Church and its believers—their ascension to Heaven at the end of time—is an integral part of dispensational eschatology.1 Thus, John Hagee was delighted with the bloodshed of month of May which for him was simply another prophetic sign: “When I tell you the rapture of the church is imminent, ‘imminent’ means it can happen at any time,”, “That is not an overstatement; it’s an understatement. If you’re not ready, get ready, because we’re getting ready to leave this world!” 2

During Donald Trump’s presidency the already sizeable impact on US policy in the Middle East of the Evangelists agitating in favour of Israeli expansion grew stronger. Though it is true that in the younger generation of Evangelists voices may be heard to oppose the Biblical interpretations propagated by Hagee, including on the Israel-Palestine issue.3 During his term of office, Trump also kept the old promise to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (in compliance with the Jerusalem Embassy Act, passed in 1995, under pressure from the Evangelists), thus comforting the colonists and their backers. And with his plan for peace in the Middle East, publicised near the end of his presidency as” The Deal of the Century”, it would have made the wishes of the Israeli right and far-right come true, as well as those of the US evangelists who support them.

Nor has the election of Joe Biden discouraged the latter. Thus, on 10 May 2021, in the Israeli liberal daily Haaretz, Ron Dermer, former Israeli ambassador to the US, contemplated reinforcing his country’s relations with the Evangelists circles in the US rather than with that country’s Jewish community, which is increasingly critical of the Hebrew state’s policies and is fewer in number than the Evangelists.4

But just why is it that the US Evangelists are so interested in Israel? Exactly where do the Jews fit into their eschatology? To understand this, we must go back to the aftermath of The Great Disappointment in the United States and rescue from the limbo of history two exponents of “the end of Time”: pastor William Miller and his disciple, Clorinda Minor.

An unfulfilled prophecy and “The Great Disappointment”

Apocalyptic prophecies have always occupied a central place in the exegeses of the Old and New Testaments. The ideas belonging to Protestant exegeses are gathered under the heading “millenarianism”, i.e. the belief in a future of a thousand blessed years. Among those who believe in this, the dispensationalists interpret the Bible literally, reading its apocalyptic texts as predictions of real events to come. Thus, they seek “signs of the times” in current events and revisit historical events in terms of the expected apocalypse. Long before John Hagee, others have seen it coming.

William Miller, for example, a 19th-century Baptist pastor, founder of a movement known as Millerism, calculated from the dates mentioned in the Bible that the physical return of Jesus Christ would take place between 1843 and 1844, an event which would inaugurate a New Age. Touring the major cities of the Eastern USA to announce his prophecy, Miller acquired a great many disciples. Thus, on 22 October 1844, between 50,000 and a 100,000 Millerites were expecting the coming of Christ, some had even abandoned their homes and jobs, convinced that the world was about to be destroyed.

Alas, when the Second Coming of Christ failed to materialise, Miller’s disciples lapsed into “The Great Disappointment”5 Many returned to their traditional beliefs, but some kept faith in Miller’s prophecy, arguing that the calculations had to be revised and the preparations necessary for the coming of Christ reconsidered.

From the “Indians” of the West to the Palestinians of the East

Clorinda Minor, a Phildelphia shopkeeper, was one of these. After a “revelation”, she revised the prophecy, adding a period of preparation in which the Jews of Palestine would play a prominent role and she herself would be the instrument. Minor’s conviction was that the prophecies could not be fulfilled in North America but in the Holy Land. The account of her pilgrimage to Palestine (1849–1850) entitled Meshullam ! Or Tidings from Jerusalem (published in 1851 in Philadelphia under the pseudonym A. L. Wood) is an appeal to support the first farming colony established in Palestine by John Meshullam, a British Jew converted to millenarian Anglicanism. In Minor’s view, his project was perfectly suited to her “prophetic” vision of the future of Palestine: run by a converted Jew with the intention of coming to the aid of the destitute Jews of Jerusalem by teaching them the rudiments of agriculture, this farming colony South of Bethlehem was quite literally laying the groundwork for the “return” of the Jews and hence for the Second Coming of Christ.

Because the Jews have a key role in the prophecy of the end of time: they will materialise the promises made to Israel in the Bible. Regarded by some as the natural descendants of Abraham and the natural brethren of Jesus, they must return to the Holy Land in order to make it ready for the return of Christ, especially by restoring the Kingdom of David and rebuilding the Temple.

Not only does Clorinda Minor’s book shed light on millenarian eschatology but on the mindset as well of the pioneering settlers from the USA: the frontier which once was found on the North American continent, was now transposed to the Middle East. The English Puritans believed that God’s Kingdom on earth would be established on the North American continent, in New England, a providential act which inscribed the colonial undertaking in the very fabric of the history of salvation. For historian Ussama Makdisi, the missionaries of millenarian persuasion from the USA “(…) embodied a reinvigorated sense of mission born from the crucible of white conquest and Indian defeat in the New World.”6

The Arabs ousted in the first act…

Clorinda Minor describes her pilgrimage to Palestine in vivid terms. Palestine resembles a “desolate and long-forsaken hearth” waiting for the return of its true owners, the Jews in exile. This desolation is blamed on the Arabs, whom Minor calls “the wild son of Ishmael master of the scene”. Minor appeals to the millenarians to step in and prepare for the “return” of the Jews to the Holy Land. This return would involve a radical transformation of the country, which she has already seen in a vision:

Here Jerusalem lay at our feet as a map; and the beautiful broad level of the Temple site, encircled with trees and fountains; and still above on its left, the lofty terraces of Zion, with the sealed gate, in silent reverence waiting, till He whose right it is to reign, shall come and open its long untrodden threshold. Not an Arab crossed our way, and all around the silent lonely hills kept Sabbath with us: a sacred presence seemed to rest upon the Mount, and I was filled with awe … and prayed that HE would quickly come, our long expected, and stand again on Olivet, (Zech. xiv. 4), restore his heritage, and from the four winds bring his scattered and his waiting saints; and then we fell upon our knees, and plead the everlasting covenant of God with ransomed man; that for the name of JESUS … and for his kingdom’s sake, and for Jehovah’s Name, and truth, and promise sake, that he would bring again the long captivity of Israel, and build again his house of prayer, and set on Zion’s hill, the King of Righteousness! And while we prayed, a cloud of blessing came, which words may not describe; for in a moment, to my quickened sense, the heap of ruinous rubbish, and the Moslem’s shrine, was seen no more, and on its site a city, pure and beautiful, arose; and in the midst, in glorious majesty, the King of Righteousness…

In Clorinda Minor’s vision of the New Jerusalem, there is no room for the Arabs or, by extension, for their mosques which must vanish with the ruins of the Apocalypse. In the place of the present Jerusalem, a new city must come into being, “pure and beautiful” stripped of both its Arab population and the symbols of Islamic civilisation. This transformation can take place without resorting to force, ethnic cleansing or the massive destruction of houses and mosques, for it will be the result of an act of God.

… and the Jews will disappear in the fourth act

Yet the Jews themselves could also be made to vanish, despite their major role in the advent of the New Age. According to certain versions, they will indeed have to convert to Christianity in order to be saved. “The Evangelistic conception is a play in five acts wherein the Jews disappear in the fourth” writes journalist Gershom Greenberg in his book The End of Days. The controversy triggered in the spring of 2020 when an evangelist channel called GOD TV was launched on Israel’s cable network shows that the conversion of Jews is still a red line in Israel, even if the support of the Evangelists is most welcome there.7

For John Hagee, as for Clorinda Minor before him, the issue of conversion is less important than the support for Israel: “The scriptural principle of personal prosperity is tied to blessing Israel and prayers for the city of Jerusalem,” he tweeted on 19 May 2021. Pastor John Hagee is not just the founder of Christians United for Israel (CUFI); he also figures on the list established by Israel Allies of the fifty most important Israel backers, along with the former vice-president Mike Pence and former US ambassadress to the UN, Nikki Haley. On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of its founding? John Hagee was recognized by the State of Israel as one of its major contributors. And on 14 May, in Jerusalem, it was the same John Hagee who recited the prayer of blessing at the inaugural ceremony in the new US embassy.

1Dispensationalism is based on a literal interpretation of the Bible and a conception of the history of humanity divided into seven distinct phases (“dispensions”) characterised by different relationships between God and humanity. According to L’Encyclopédie du Protestantisme (1995), “one of the touch-stones is the separation between the destiny of Israel and that of the Church which do not even join together at the end: the promises of a Kingdom made to Israel are earthly and it is not permitted to ‘spiritualise’ them; hence they are not fulfilled within the Church”.

2Gregory Khalil, “Christians must rethink their reflexive support for Israel,” Washington Post, 27 May 2021.

3For a close reading of the many Evangelistic positions, cf. Sébastien Fath, “Le poids géopolitique des évangéliques américains: le cas d’Israël,” Hérodote, no. 119, 2005/4, p. 25-40.

4Cora Alder and Emanuel Schäublin, “US Evangelicals, from Prophecy to Policy,” Policy Perspectives 8/11, September 2020.

5Eugen Weber, Apocalypses: prophecies, cults, and millennial beliefs through the ages? Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1999.

6Ussama Makdisi, Artillery of Heaven, American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2008 ; p. 4.

7Jonathan S. Tobin, “Evangelicals Trying to Convert Jews: A Fair Price for Christian Support for Israel?,” Haaretz, 11 May 2020.