by Bob Chodos
One oft-cited obstacle to peace between Israelis and Palestinians is the presence of two fundamentalisms on the territory claimed by both peoples. For Islamic fundamentalists, epitomized by the figure of the suicide bomber, Israel represents an alien intrusion on Islamic soil and no compromise with it is possible. For Jewish fundamentalists, epitomized by the West Bank settler, all of biblical Israel is the land God promised to the Jews and not one square millimetre of it can be given up without violating God’s sacred intention.
Awareness of a third fundamentalism that also impinges on the conflict is only now beginning to surface. Unlike suicide bombers and West Bank settlers, few evangelical Christians actually live in the territory under dispute. But they do live in the United States, whose government’s policy weighs heavily on the conflict. For theological reasons of their own, they are strong supporters of Israel and care passionately about it. And they vote.
It needs to be made clear from the outset that we are not talking about all evangelicals here, let alone all Christians, but about a particular theological tendency within evangelical Christianity that, for reasons explained below, goes by the convoluted name of premillennial dispensationalism. In principle, one can be a Protestant fundamentalist without being a premillennial dispensationalist. However, premillennial dispensationalism, first formulated in its modern version by a nineteenth-century British preacher named John Nelson Darby, quickly took root in the United States, and PDs, as we will call them for the purposes of this article, have represented the dominant tendency in American Protestant fundamentalism since it emerged as a religious movement. Early in the 20th century the text that gave fundamentalism its name, a series of pamphlets entitled The Fundamentals: A Testimony of Truth, was sponsored by two wealthy California businessmen who were sympathetic to PD thinking, Milton and Lyman Stewart.1 More recently, prominent American fundamentalists such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed have all preached PD theology.
PDs see history as following a divine roadmap outlined in the Bible, and especially in the books of Daniel in the Old Testament and Revelation in the New. In this roadmap, history is divided into a number of eras or “dispensations,” eventually leading to the Second Coming of Christ followed by his Thousand-Year Reign on earth, the Millennium. PDs differ both from “postmillennialists,” who foresee Jesus’ return as the culmination of a gradual perfecting and Christianizing of the world, and from “amillennialists,” who interpret the Millennium figuratively.