Christianity and Islam: What American Christians need to know about Muslims
Last week, in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom, President Trump appeared to change two important parts of his Middle East policy. In January Trump criticized President Obama’s decision not to veto the UN resolution condemning Israel’s construction of new settlements. Also, as recently as January 20, Trump promised to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In last week’s interview, however, he sounded like he is rethinking both ideas.
I’ve written earlier about why Christians should oppose new Israeli settlements; among other reasons, new settlements make it harder to achieve peace (Trump now seems to agree). But how should Christians feel about moving the US embassy?
The location of the embassy is important politically. By definition, an embassy holds the office of the ambassador and so is located in or near a country’s capital. The nation of Israel claims that its capital is Jerusalem. So by placing our embassy in Tel Aviv, the United States is saying that we think of Tel Aviv as the capital, not Jerusalem. As long as we (and other nations) insist that Jerusalem is not the capital, Palestinians can hope that, one day, Jerusalem will belong to them, or at least be shared, and not belong to Israel alone.
Trump’s hesitation is actually the norm. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama also felt pressured by Jews and Christians to move the embassy to Jerusalem, then decided against it. Will Trump break his campaign promise, and decide to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv?
As a Bible-believing Christian, I pray that Trump does break his promise, keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv. Let me explain why.
The Bible of course describes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, established by Israel’s greatest ruler, King David. Even more important, Jerusalem was the place in which David’s son Solomon built God’s temple, containing a room devoted to God’s presence. According to passages like Deuteronomy 12, 2 Samuel 24, and 1 Chronicles 21-22, only one temple was allowed, and it had to be constructed in a specified place in Jerusalem. So when the temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC, it had to be reconstructed after the exile on the same spot.
This is the temple that Jesus visited in his day. It was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, and has not been rebuilt since. We know the general location, as the Romans did not destroy the temple foundation, a huge stone platform known as “the Temple Mount.” This platform, shaped like a lopsided rectangle, covers about 35 (!) acres. Today, it holds two buildings which are sacred to Muslims: the “Dome of the Rock,” containing the place at which Abraham is said to have tried to sacrifice his son Ishmael, and the Al-Aqsa mosque, from which Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven.
Traditional Jewish teaching holds that one day the Messiah will come to Israel and rebuild the temple on the same spot as the first two. Most Jewish people believe that it is very important that the temple be built by the Messiah. If the Temple is built in the wrong way or on the wrong spot, God will not approve it. A few small Jewish groups have theories about the correct location and dimensions of the temple; however, most believe that the Messiah is the only one who knows for sure. Therefore, the vast majority of Jews want to wait for the Messiah before they start building. (If you are skeptical, please – ask your Jewish friends if they think that Israel should build the Temple before the Messiah comes!)
For most of the last 2,000 years, Christians have not cared about rebuilding. While both the Old and New Testaments have a lot to say about the coming of the Messiah (which Christians believe is actually the return of Jesus), it never talks about actually rebuilding the temple. (Ezekiel 40-46 talks about an idealized temple, but its dimensions are very unrealistic.) Therefore, the attitude among Christians has been something like, “if he wants, Jesus can build a temple after he returns to earth.”
Over the past 150 years, however, a very popular movement has arisen within Christianity, which is best called “dispensational premillennialism” (which I will call “DP”). The Left Behind series is an example of DP literature. I won’t bother with the details of DP here, except to say that one of its big ideas is that Jesus will not return until the temple has been rebuilt. DP gets this idea by reading Daniel 9:27, Matthew 24:15, Mark 13:14, 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, and Revelation 11:1-2 as referring to a literal future time. These passages mention a temple in Jerusalem prior to the return of Jesus; therefore, according to DP, the temple must be rebuilt before then.
DP teaches that the establishment of Israel as a nation fulfilled Bible prophecy, and that, as a result, the Jewish people will soon rebuild the temple. According to DP, this is part of God’s overall historical plan, so that Christians must support Israel’s full control of Jerusalem.
If you’re following me, you can see the problem. For DP to work, Jews must build the temple before the Messiah returns. DP teachers love to talk about the few small Jewish groups which support the reconstruction of the temple; but for all sorts of reasons, most Jews strongly oppose this idea, either because the Messiah has not yet come, or because it would anger Muslims, thereby making peace with Palestinians much harder to achieve.
This teaching of DP is very popular with Evangelicals. This is why Trump promised to move the embassy (and why his predecessors all hinted at the same idea): he wanted the Evangelical vote.
Most Evangelicals have not quite realized that the vast majority of Jewish people do not see the establishment of Israel as a sign that the Messiah will come anytime soon. For Jews, Israel is important as a place for Jewish people to escape anti-Semitism, and as a center of Jewish language, literature, and art. It just is not that important religiously. Israel is a secular state, and few of its leaders, including the current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, practice Judaism. Ancient Israel was a theocracy, established to be ruled by God (sometimes with a king as intermediary). Modern Israel is a democracy, ruled by the desires of the people – most of whom do not practice Judaism!
This is why, for Christians, making Jerusalem the capital of Israel shold not be a theological matter. Israel was created after World War II to be a safe haven for Jews. Anti-Semitism is real; therefore, Christians should support Israel’s existence and security. But to be safe, Jewish people do not need Jerusalem to be part of Israel.
I’m sorry to have to report to my DP friends that the Bible does not say anywhere that Jews will rebuild the temple, or that when the temple is rebuilt, Jerusalem must be part of the nation of Israel. But the Bible does clearly instruct Christians to work for peace. If making Jerusalem into an international city (open to Jews, Muslims, and Christians) will help bring stability and security to that area, then Christians must support the way of peace.
Helping modern readers engage with ancient biblical texts
Mostly on the Bible