Eschatology 101: A Christian and a Jew discuss Dispensationalism

Bill Moyers (on PBS) does an interview with a Christian (Timothy Weber, author of On the Road to Armageddon) and Jew (Michael Lerner) about the dangers of dispensationalism (video).

Transcript

BILL MOYERS: How many people belong to Christians United for Israel? Well, they say they have the support of 50,000 pastors and their congregations. And that would be no mean number. Let’s talk further now with two men who follow closely relations between American Christians and Israel.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is the editor of the widely read and quoted TIKKUN magazine, which he founded in 1986 as a journal of liberal and progressive Jewish thought. He holds doctorates in both philosophy and clinical psychology and has written 11 books, including JEWISH RENEWAL, SPIRIT MATTERS, and his most recent, THE LEFT HAND OF GOD.

Dr. Timothy Weber is himself an evangelical Christian. Once a Baptist now a Presbyterian, a teacher and historian of religion, he taught at Denver Seminary and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, among other schools. He’s known as an innovator in graduate theological education and the author of LIVING IN THE SHADOW OF THE SECOND COMING and this one, On the ROAD TO ARMAGEDDON: HOW EVANGELICALS BECAME ISRAEL’S BEST FRIEND. Welcome to you both.

These people seem to be on a roll. They look as if they believe the future belongs to them. Right?

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: This is one group in a long line of similar groups that– began to organize in the late ’70s and early ’80s which combined a firm belief of Bible prophecy and a particular political agenda that has gained more and more power as the years have gone on.

BILL MOYERS: How do you account for the fact, rabbi, that there were more political actors among them than there were preachers?

RABBI MICHAEL LERNER: I think that that movement has three different parts to it. And one part is those people whose primary agenda is conservative politics in America and are using the issue of Israel as another part of their support for conservative politics. And if the United States moved away from Israel, they might move away from it. The second part are people who are dispensationalists, who believe that getting Israel into a huge battle with the Arab states is going to be good for bringing Jesus back onto our planet. And-

BILL MOYERS: Dispensationalist is a theological concept.

RABBI MICHAEL LERNER: Right. It’s a theological concept. Then there are an awful lot of people who genuinely care about Jews; decent good people in this movement who, unfortunately, are being manipulated for a political agenda that is very, very different and, in my view, not at all in the best interests of the Jewish people or in the best interest of Israel.

BILL MOYERS: Before we go any further, give me a shorthand definition of dispensationalism.

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: Dispensationalism is a particular way of reading Bible prophecy which divides the Bible into two stories. There’s a story about God’s earthly people, Israel. And then a story about God’s heavenly people, the Church. And the basic premise of dispensationalism is that all Bible prophecies concerning earthly events applies to the Jews. And all of those events will be fulfilled literally in the End Times. So, Israel must be returned to the land. They must stay in the land. Without Israel in the land, there can be none of the other events prophesied in the Bible. There can be no rise of Anti-Christ. There can be no rebuilding of the Temple. There can be no Battle of Armageddon. And there can be no second coming of Jesus Christ. So everything is riding on the Jews, getting them there and keeping them there in the Holy Land.

RABBI MICHAEL LERNER: But I think– but what you have to add in there is that when this is a step in the process that they see towards the end of end times in which the Jews will be cast down into eternal damnation and to the fires of hell. And only those Jews who convert to Christianity will be okay. And everyone — all the rest of us so they’re welcoming us now — with open arms and saying, “Oh, we love the Jewish people” But they love the Jewish people literally to death because they they want see those of us who stay Jews burn in hell but not– not right away. They don’t imagine it will happen right away. So there’s a staged process. And this is the first stage in the process that will eventually lead either to us converting totally to Christianity or burning in hell. So it’s not a really great future for the Jews that those theological people have in mind.

BILL MOYERS: If what you say is so, and I think you probably agree with it, I read your book.

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: Yes. Yes.

BILL MOYERS: Why does this play in Israel?

RABBI MICHAEL LERNER: Well, there’s– this is the other–

BILL MOYERS: They are being used, right?

RABBI MICHAEL LERNER: Yes. This is the other terrible part about the role that Christian Zionists play. Because they’ve been aligned with the most right-wing elements in Israel and the most right-wing elements in the American Jewish community– that have gathered together in the Israel lobby. And the Israel lobby includes AIPAC, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, and many other of the Israel-is-always-right organizations in the Jewish world have played the role of supporting the most reactionary policies in Israel. And that–

BILL MOYERS: Isn’t this an act of survival?

RABBI MICHAEL LERNER: Well, they think it’s survival. But, in fact, for a very large number of Jews today, both in Israel and in the United States, recognize that the policies that Israel has been following has actually been destructive for the long-range survival of Israel. And so they are an element, the Christian Zionists are really an important element in the Israel lobby today, pushing the United States towards support of the most conservative and unloving policies.

BILL MOYERS: As you watched the film, were you concerned that the thread that seemed to run throughout it, that connected the political wing of the movement and the theological wing of the movement, was the belief that a confrontation with Iran is not only inevitable but desirable? Did that hit you?

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: It’s easy to make that connection and to see that. As an historian, I’m struck by the fact that in previous attempts to understand Bible prophecy Iran did not show up on anybody’s radar screen. As history takes these unexpected turns the Bible teachers, the preachers, the dispensational theologians, they adjust the scenario to fit. In some ways, Iran is playing the role that the former Soviet Union used to play as the great evil empire in the world. In short, dispensationalists know how to change the subject, when it’s necessary.

BILL MOYERS: But to them — to the religious folks, Iran is an agency for war. To the political folks, Iran is a threat to Israel for its national security reasons. Isn’t this a combustible combination?

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: Absolutely.

RABBI MICHAEL LERNER: It’s bad for the world. It’s bad for the Jews. It’s bad for Israel. And it’s bad for the United States.

RABBI MICHAEL LERNER: This kind of a world view — as either they dominate us or we dominate them — has led us into this terrible– quagmire in Iraq. And most Americans now believe that we made a terrible mistake going into that war. Now the president believes that he can do a different kind of war in Iran. But I think that he’s not going to be successful in containing that war either, just as he failed in the Iraq War. So it’s bad for the United States. It’s bad for Israel because this will further enflame the Islamic world against Israel. Because the primary reason being given by Christian Zionists, by the Israel lobby for the need to take out Iran is protect Israel. So–

BILL MOYERS: Ahmadinejad himself has enflamed the, as you say, the worst instincts in the Muslim world, right?

RABBI MICHAEL LERNER: Yeah, he claims they’re the best allies. Ahmadinejad is really one of the best allies of the Christian Right and and of the Jewish Right.

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: Well, Islam has its own view of prophecy of the end days. And the president of Iran certainly speaks to that and speaks the language of Koranic prophecy to his own followers. Many people in this country, many political analysts don’t get it yet.

BILL MOYERS: Don’t get what?

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: The fact that he is operating out of a particular view of what the future will be like and what role he can play in bringing about the return of the Mahdi, a kind of messianic figure who will turn the world Islamic.

BILL MOYERS: So you’ve got two apocalyptic world views heading toward a collision.

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: That’s right.

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: And how do you negotiate two apocalyptic world views? How do you compromise? This is the danger that we’re in.

BILL MOYERS: When both believe that they speak for God or God speaks through them.

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: Right?

RABBI MICHAEL LERNER: Right. The alternative is to create a different world view. And this is the problem that the United States and those of us who are liberals or progressives in the United States and in the Western world have not been able to articulate an alternative world view, in part because we’re so largely secular and because we don’t understand that there is some spiritual foundation to the yearnings of people all over the world for something other than global capitalism, for something other than the globalization of selfishness. And that is seen as what America has to offer the world, each one for herself or himself. We need an alternative. We need an alternative that can speak to the hunger that people have for a framework of meaning and purpose to their lives and the hunger that they have for loving relationships that are not based solely on looking out for number one.

BILL MOYERS: The hunger I don’t deny. But as Dr. Weber just said how does a progressive world view, a more loving world view, compete with two apocalyptic faiths that believe God has set them on a course which can only be consummated in violence?

RABBI MICHAEL LERNER: Well, this is why I emphasize the fact that there are a lot of good Christian Zionists and a lot of good people in the religious right who are not primarily committed to the conservative agenda and to the support of global military interests of either the United States or Israel, but are actually coming from a different place. Their base can be split from their top if there is a reaffirmation of a loving world view.

BILL MOYERS: But there is no evidence, I mean, there are evangelicals who have actually signed statements to the president saying “we don’t agree with these people. We believe in a two state solution in Israel. We have empathy and sympathy for the Palestinians.” But they don’t have the clout that the–

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: Yes. They’re not organized. And when you’re not organized in this kind of an environment, you end up bringing up the caboose. I mean, you’re at the end of the train. It’s important to recognize that only about a third of American evangelicals would identify with a dispensational world view. This is–

BILL MOYERS: The end times theology.

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: That’s right.

BILL MOYERS: A third–

BILL MOYERS: –what? Twenty–

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: Maybe 20 million, 25 million. That leaves an awful lot of other evangelicals who are Bible believers, who have a very warm spot in their heart for Israel. Let’s face it. Evangelicals grew up with maps of Israel on their Sunday school wall.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, exactly. I did, too.

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: And the whole–

BILL MOYERS: You love the Bible, you love Israel.

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: That’s right. And the whole story of Jesus and the whole story of his ancestors were in the Holy Land. This is sacred space. And evangelicals know that. And they tend to love Israel because of it. In other words, evangelicals love Israel not just because of a specific prophetic scenario but for all kinds of other reasons.

BILL MOYERS: That’s a very important point to remember.

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: So growing numbers of evangelicals are recognizing that very thing. Bill referred to a letter sent to the president this summer signed by 30 evangelical heavyweights, presidents of seminaries and leaders of denominations and very well-known authors and spiritual leaders. And their point was we don’t want you to believe that groups like Hagee’s speak for the vast majority of us. We recognize that sometimes the best friend, the best advice that friends of Israel can give is to cooperate, is not to just endorse everything that happens but to encourage justice and peacekeeping and so on. And so you have this one group of evangelical leaders who are speaking for, I think, a much larger group that is encouraging a different approach.

BILL MOYERS: I can’t see that they are having any impact.

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: Not yet.

RABBI MICHAEL LERNER: Not yet.

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: No.

RABBI MICHAEL LERNER: History isn’t over. And —

BILL MOYERS: It may be sooner than you think.

RABBI MICHAEL LERNER: Well– I’m hoping we have a few more years here. And I think in the 21st Century the growing wisdom of the American people and of all people is that our well being depends on the well being of everyone else on the planet, and I think that the Israeli population increasingly are coming to understand that their well being depends on the well being of Palestinians and of the Arab world. That there’s that fundamental interdependence.

BILL MOYERS: But if you lived in Israel and none of the governments around you recognized your right to exist, and if, in fact, you heard Ahmadinejad– proclaiming the apocalyptic consummation of history on his terms, wouldn’t you welcome the support of John Hagee and these people no matter what ultimately they think happens to the Jews? Wouldn’t it be an immediate factor of survival?

RABBI MICHAEL LERNER: Well, I think it’s a mistaken view of survival. In other words, yeah, they’re —

BILL MOYERS: From your standpoint over here.

RABBI MICHAEL LERNER: They’re coming in there and they’re saying, “Right on, Israel, when you cut off food for the people in the Gaza Strip right now. Cut off water, cut off electricity, and just starve them out of their Hamas.” But anybody with understanding of human dynamics knows that that’s not going to lead to reconciliation. It’s just going to lead to further anger and further willingness of people to give their lives in murderous assaults on Israel. So it’s not really being helpful.

Now, yeah, there are a fair number of opportunists in Israel who say, “You know, we’ll deal with the second coming of Jesus and being burnt in hell when that happens. Right now we’re glad to have their support on the politics.” But what I’m saying is the politics is the wrong politics. It’s not helping Israel. It’s actually pushing the most reactionary elements in Israel.

BILL MOYERS: Dr. Weber, there was a CNN/Time poll that said only 36 percent of all Americans believe the Bible is God’s word. Only one third of all Americans believe the Bible is God’s word and should be taken literally. But 59 percent say they believe that events predicted in the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Christian New Testament, will come to pass. How do you explain that?

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: Paul Boyer, who is a now-retired historian from the University of Wisconsin, wrote a book called WHEN TIME SHALL BE NO MORE. And he studied this phenomenon, called prophecy belief in America. And he explained that the influence of this group, of this perspective, of dispensational perspective goes way beyond the confines of its own boundaries. He said if you view America in terms of this issue in concentric circles, you have this core maybe 20 million of really dedicated dispensationalists who give you chapter and verse, who can give you– draw the battle maps of the future and everything.

Then outside that core is another group of evangelicals, many millions more who believe in the Bible, who believe that it has something to say about the future. They’re just not exactly sure what it is. And therefore, they defer to the Bible teachers who seem to know. They listen to them. And a lot of the dispensational vocabulary filters out to that broader evangelical world of Armageddon and Rapture and the like.

And then more significantly, beyond that, you have a group of mainly secular people who don’t give the Bible much mind at all but who, during times of apocalyptic threat will give the Bible teachers a listen. Because of the fear that is so — I mean, this movement would not be strong if the newspapers every morning didn’t seem to support their world view.

BILL MOYERS: You mean with all the news of calamity and–

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: Calamity and disaster, threats, potential disasters, war. This is how they said it would look and this is how most people see the world today.

BILL MOYERS: It seems to be on the front page of THE NEW YORK TIMES playing out what they’ve read in the Bible.

RABBI MICHAEL LERNER: I think the dispensationalists are onto something. They have a sense, they just have the wrong analysis of why it’s all going to end.

BILL MOYERS: But what do you mean they’re onto something?

RABBI MICHAEL LERNER: They are onto the growing depression that people are feeling, a deep emotional depression in the United States — a lack of any hopeful picture of what the world could be. And that failure is not a failure of dispensationalists, it’s a failure of the mainstream political framework in this country that– to address the major questions facing the world in the 21st century.

BILL MOYERS: Isn’t that why John Hagee is providing political leadership? I mean, the fact is John Hagee is providing not only theological guidance, he’s providing political leadership to these people, right?

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: Yes, yes, he is. But if you listen carefully to his message, it is a message, in many ways, at war with itself. Because on the one hand, as you just pointed out, evangelicals at the core of evangelical religion is the belief that change is possible. Evangelicals believe in conversion. They think–

BILL MOYERS: Born again.

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: They think that enemies can be made friends and that bad people can be made good through the grace of God. And so they preach that. And you hear in some of the language of Haggee’s followers that we need to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Then in the next– in the next breath they say, “But we don’t think it’ll do any good.”

RABBI MICHAEL LERNER: No, and that we’re going to make– support those who want to make war for Jerusalem. And that–

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: That’s right. So how does that fit?

RABBI MICHAEL LERNER: — But they also are very questionable from my standpoint in the way that they read the Bible. Because they’re literalists when it comes to some issues and very much ignoring other issues. For example, they say that the Jewish people were promised the holy land from God through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They neglect to mention that the Arabs descended from, or believe they descended from one of the children of Abraham, Ishmael. And that that land was twice promised. It was promised to Jews and promised to Arabs. Why to two? So that we could become a model of how to reconcile. But we haven’t done that yet and we need to do that.

BILL MOYERS: So is there a different way in your judgment these conservative Christians could help the people of Israel whom historically and biblically they were taught to love and to appreciate without supporting the right-wing elements in Israel that want to crush the Palestinians?

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: Well, many evangelicals are calling for exactly that. They’re looking for another way. And I-

BILL MOYERS: And they’re not all like John Hagee. So many people think that all evangelicals are alike in the same way they think all Muslims are alike, right?

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: That’s right. And there are variations within the evangelical community. What I hear on the one hand, we have certain fellow believers who view the future in very well-defined ways and who or absolutely convinced that there’s nothing that anybody or anything can do about it. And yet we also have the clear teachings of Jesus about being peacemakers, about caring for the world, about loving your enemy. How do those two things go together? So there’s that deep biblical tradition that evangelicals can draw on to find another way.

BILL MOYERS: Here it seems to me is the fundamental issue. You heard all of the talk in the film about Islamofascism. People are genuinely concerned about terrorism and terrorist states. So how do we make a distinction between fighting terrorists and terrorist states without enflaming the religious passions? How do we do that?

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: Well, I think it’s important to recognize that dispensationalists are not the only ones who are worried about these issues. When you have the president of France and leaders in Germany who are warning Iran that there will be war if they do not stop what they’re doing, these are not dispensationalist-inspired people. I mean, the world is–

BILL MOYERS: Neither is Norman Podhoretz and Bill Kristol and people like the neoconservatives in this country.

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: That’s right.

BILL MOYERS: –the neoconservatives in this country.

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: That’s right. And so the wind is blowing in a particular direction and it’s very hard to redirect it. There is an evangelical past that is much more positive, much more world changing, much more embracing diversity and even tolerance in some ways than seems to be in the public eye today. And many evangelicals are beginning to rediscover who they are in that in their past. They’re saying we can be about our father’s business only if we take concern for people who are poor. The world that God has made is getting destroyed. We need to take care along those lines. And-

BILL MOYERS: But these people you heard had no sympathy for the Palestinians.

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: No, absolutely not.

BILL MOYERS: They see the Palestinians as part of the problem, right?

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: Yes.

RABBI MICHAEL LERNER: Yes. It– it-

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: Yes.

RABBI MICHAEL LERNER: This very week the WASHINGTON POST revealed a poll that it had done that shows that a majority of Americans now favor cutting favor for the war in Iraq. That’s a very big shift from where the majority of Americans were only five years ago in relationship to this war. Change is possible. Fundamental changes in world views are possible. And it is possible to create a different understanding of the Islamic world, one that doesn’t put them all together in one evil category just as it’s possible to understand that there are evangelicals who are very hurtful in their world view. And there are evangelicals who are very loving in their world view.

BILL MOYERS: So Timothy Weber, are evangelicals still Israel’s best friend when you saw what you saw?

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: Well, they certainly think they are Israel’s best friend. But I think evangelicals are realizing that there’s more than one way to be a friend to Israel. Whether in the long run the kind of support that– groups like Hagee’s group really brings to Israel, I tend to agree with the rabbi here, that this kind of support could really backfire. But when American evangelicals support those who want to rebuild a temple in Jerusalem by tearing down the Dome of the Rock-

BILL MOYERS: That’s because the Bible seems to indicate that when the Jews come back to Israel, they will rebuild the destroyed temple-

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: That’s right.

BILL MOYERS: –and it will be built upon the– on the very place that-

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: That’s right.

BILL MOYERS: –in the meantime the Muslims have built a sacred mosque.

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: There this is not a friendly act, according to anybody.

RABBI MICHAEL LERNER: And they forget the Isaiah prophecy that “my house will be a house of prayer for all people.”

BILL MOYERS: But this is combustible, isn’t it? I mean, when both tenants want the same property.

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: Yes. And say that God gave that property to them. And that their own — the ultimate vindication of their religion depends on that piece of ground, then compromise is very hard.

BILL MOYERS: And both of you seem to be saying that politics truly enflames religious passions when they become so intertwined, as we’ve seen, right?

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: That and the other way around as well. Religion enflames politics and politics enflames religion.

RABBI MICHAEL LERNER: Politics was never separate from religion in the Bible. And I don’t believe that there needs to be a separation between our highest ideals that come from the religious world and our commitment to implement them in the political world. It’s only when we try to implement them in an exclusivist way that says, “You have to believe in my religion and my particular vision of God”– that we run into deep trouble.

BILL MOYERS: Rabbi Michael Lerner and Dr. Timothy Weber, thank you both for being with me for this discussion on THE JOURNAL.

RABBI MICHAEL LERNER: Thank you for having us.

DR. TIMOTHY WEBER: Thank You.

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