Killing Palestinians for Jesus: Christian Zionism and Justification Theory

Palestinian Christians have written an open letter to Western Christian leaders and theologians condemning their complicity, not only in the destruction of the Palestinian people, but of Palestinian Christians: “some of us lost dear friends and family members in the atrocious Israeli bombardment of innocent civilians on October 19, 2023, Christians included, who were taking refuge in the historical Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Porphyrius in Gaza.”[1] The letter sets forth Palestinian Christians’ commitment to nonviolence, universal peace, and the condemnation of national ideology and racism being mixed with Christian teaching. The letter is a desperate plea to Western Christians to come to Jesus and oppose the ethnic cleansing unfolding on the world stage.

The irony of American Christians, predominantly evangelicals, blindly supporting Israel’s destruction of Palestinians, is that this is a repetition of the moral and theological error, which Paul and the writers of the New Testament condemned. The privileging of the law, of Israel, of circumcision, of food laws, is a “wall of hostility” or a “work of the law” undone in Christ.

It is not that Judaism is displaced, nor is it a distinct entity apart from what is being done in Christ, nor is the covenant with Abraham a distinct promise from that fulfilled in Christ, rather Israel is made complete in Christ, fulfilling the promise given to Abraham (Paul’s argument in Romans and Galatians). Israel is not made complete through land holdings in the Middle East, but through inheritance of the earth and a drawing in of all nations and peoples. This is the picture in both Testaments. Egypt and Assyria (Is. 19:24-25), foreigners of every nation (Is. 56:6-8; Ez. 47:21-23), those who are far off (Zech. 2:11) and those who are the traditional enemies of Israel (Egypt, Philistia, Babylon, Tyre, and Ethiopia (Ps. 87:1-7)) will be counted part of Israel and part of God’s plan for world-wide redemption.

In the New Testament Jesus calls himself the true vine of Israel (Jn. 15:1-11) through whom all believers are incorporated into Israel (Jn. 17:20-21). Paul describes those who were once aliens to the commonwealth of Israel as being made citizens through Christ (Eph. 2:11-21). He has abolished “in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace” (Eph. 2:15). Paul makes it clear that to cling to the ordinances of the law is synonymous with enmity, which Christ has brought to an end by incorporating all believers into a singular temple (Eph. 2:20-22).

As Paul describes it in Romans, Gentile believers are grafted onto the branch, which is Israel (11:26). Both James and Peter describe the dispersed Christians as dispersed Israel (James 1:1; I Pet. 1:1) and Peter describes Christians in terms which the Old Testament preserved for Israel: “But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION” (1 Pet. 2:9). Revelation pictures heaven come to earth in terms of a cosmic new city, Jerusalem, into which all peoples are counted among the twelve tribes of Israel (Rev. 21:12). Israel is not replaced but completed by the church. The church and Christ are not distinct from Israel, but the fulfillment of the promise given to her in Abraham, the establishment of her Temple, and the incorporation of all the earth and peoples into her precincts. There are not two covenants, two Israels, two temples, two peoples, but one singular new people. Israel is expanded and universalized, so as to include all the earth and all people.

The great irony is that it is Christian people who are insisting on a separate covenant, a separate race, a separate temple, and in so doing they are literally defending the wall of hostility. The enmity between Jews and Gentiles, the wall of hostility of the law, torn down and ended by Christ is once again being erected. The nationalism which killed Christ, in favor of the nation and religion of Israel, is that which continues to kill the body of Christ (in the name of Christ) today. The reification of the law, as if the Mosaic law, Judaism, and Israel, were an end in and of themselves, apart from Christ, is the Judaizing false teaching that threatened the early church and which much of the New Testament is aimed at preventing.

Justification theory has played a key part in making the law foundational to the work of Christ (rather than relativizing, suspending, and setting aside the law in light of Christ), and this has led to the conviction that the Jews must have a central role to play in a future millennial kingdom. This Zionism, or essentializing of the nation state was present among English Protestant colonists, who began to think of the United States as the city set upon the hill, like Israel. As Robert Smith has described it, “These hermeneutics, adapted by English colonists, were transposed into the apocalyptic foundations of American national identity and vocation.”[2] As James Skillen has noted, the point “at which the particular connection between Americanism and evangelicals . . . becomes truly significant for foreign policy” is the Puritan heritage of Americans seeing themselves as “a city set on a hill to be a light to the nations.” This heritage, “is the root that still gives light to the national identity, affecting even those who are not Christians or associated with a house of worship.” American evangelical support for the State of Israel “is based on the civil religious faith that God has chosen America to be the kind of new Israel that helps shepherd the survival of the Jewish state so that Christ’s return will come about as prophesied.” Skillen concludes, it is “more accurate to say that Christian Zionism is a specific kind of political theology arising from within the American civil religion.” [3]

Donald Lewis, in his history of Zionism concurs, that Christian Zionism is not primarily about the “restoration of Israel,” or about Jewish recovery of “the land” or even about Christian understandings of prophecy, but it is about how Protestants have framed their identity. Protestant identity has primarily been “hammered out on the anvil” of Christian relationship to Jews. “The ethno-nationalism that Christian restorationists fostered in England in the seventeenth century was largely focused on Protestant England’s duties toward the Jews, and from there this ethno-nationalism spread to America and in the last few decades has flowed to the ends of the earth.” American Christian nationalism, within this frame of understanding, is based upon being a nation that “blesses Israel.” Christian Zionism is attached to a form of Christian nationalism that constitutes a violent alternative form of the faith. Lewis concludes, “Christian Zionism today is an ever-widening stream and is expanding rapidly in many directions; it is a river that has burst its banks and is flooding new territory.” [4]

The specific origin of Israel as the anvil upon which to hammer out Christian identity has its roots in justification theory (the understanding worked out in the last several blogs here and here), in which the work of Christ is defined according to the requirements or condition of the law. Paul’s point is that Christ is the condition defining the work of the law and the purpose of Israel. There are no legal, ethnic, or contractual conditions which constrain the work of God in Christ. Israel has not created herself or determined herself. God has chosen, and it is not that this choosing conveys any significance on the quality of those so chosen, or that those chosen have done or could do anything to be chosen or not chosen. God chooses: He chooses Sarah, Rebekah, Isaac, Jacob, “so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls” (Rom. 9:9–11). The potter can do whatever he wants with his clay, and thus if God has fashioned Israel for a particular purpose, namely to bring in the Gentiles, who are we to protest. As He says also in Hosea, “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’ And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they shall be called children of the living God” (Rom. 9:25–26, NRSV).

In both Romans and Galatians, Paul argues that there is a singular covenant given to Abraham and fulfilled through Christ, which is inclusive of all people. As he argues in Romans 9-11, Israel is not the end point of this covenant, but the means of its historical mediation, as the Messiah would arise through the generations descending from Abraham for the blessing of all peoples. The people of God can include pagans should God wish to call them, and this is obvious from the arbitrary and unconditional choices He has made in the selection of Israel.

Paul describes Israel stumbling over the same stone which Christian Zionists have stumbled over. Isn’t Israel special, not just because she has brought the Messiah into the world? She is God’s chosen people, and if everyone is chosen to be in Israel, isn’t this wildly arbitrary? Isn’t it an abandonment of Israel?

What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone, just as it is written, “Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, And he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.” (Rom. 9:30-33)

Israel is formed from a neutral clay for God’s purposes, which included all people. As Douglas Campbell puts it, “Pagan inclusion in the saved people of God, then, seems to be not merely a possibility latent in the divine action of calling but a reality prophetically foretold.”[5] This was always God’s plan, and it is not “as though the word of God has failed” or has drifted off course. “For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel” (9:6). As Campbell writes, “We can virtually hear the Teacher accusing Paul in such terms: ‘Has the creative and saving word of God drifted off course?! Your gospel seems to suggest that it has, dragging pagans into the people of God! Indeed, it seems destined for shipwreck …’”[6] And indeed, between the false teacher, justification theory, and Paul, we have very distinct portrayals of Israel.

Israel in justification theory, represents a “timeless, ahistorical, individualistic, and contractual” arrangement.[7] For the false teacher, the law, and its significance are, likewise, eternal. While for Paul, Israel was never simply an ethnicity or specific national identity, but a medium in God’s purposes being worked out in Christ.

These are incompatible portrayals of Israel, and Christian Zionism clearly sides with the false teacher and justification theory. In fact, Christian Zionism seems to fall under Paul’s critique of seeking to establish a righteousness over and against the righteousness of Christ. “For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God” (Rom. 10:3). Israel has failed to acknowledge Christ and has imagined the law could deliver its own righteousness, apart from Christ (actually a possibility posed in justification theory). Israel is running a race (a striving or agon) that has ended, and they have stumbled in the process. “Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law” (9:31). Pursuing righteousness through the law they missed the law.

As Paul argues, in chapter 4 and elsewhere, the law was a medium whose significance was preceded by the promise and fulfilled in Christ. “The law competition and striving is over. If the Christ event is the end of the race for the law, in the sense almost of being the finish line, then the key point is that the race is over (see Phil. 3:2–16). Any subsequent racing on the part of Jews is therefore misdirected if not ludicrous.”[8] Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness” (Rom. 9:30) and they weren’t even in the race. The racers, the Jews, are running aimlessly, stumbling over faith, and meanwhile the race is over and the crown is awarded.

The mistake of Israel and the mistake about Israel, is not that she stumbled prior to Christ, in being Jews and keeping the law. The stumbling is over Christ, after the race has ended. She has not responded to Christ, but has continued to cling to the law, to cling to Judaism as an end in itself, when the end was in Christ. Prior to Christ’s arrival, Jews kept the law, and understood the Scriptures, but she has stumbled over the stumbling stone. “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame” (Rom. 9:33). Those who have faith will not be put to shame, otherwise stumbling Israel is out of the race. Jewish pursuit of righteousness on the basis of the law (as a futility), is a post-Christian phenomenon. To assign an ongoing significance to this race, which is finished, is to miss Christ. To ignore the Christ event, the righteousness of salvation given by God, renders subsequent pursuit of righteousness on the basis of the law a false religion, a false alternative, and not one of two possibilities. In this, Christian Zionism is not of Christ, but a false teaching on the order of assigning righteousness to “works of the law.”

The immediate fruit of this anti-Christ teaching is the slaughter of Christians in Palestine and the cry of Palestinian Christians pleading for their very survival in the face of a theology of ethnic cleansing. In their open letter, Palestinian Christians embrace the fullness of the peaceable gospel, and unlike the majority of American Christians, they recognize nationalism, of any brand, is a perversion of the all-embracing, universal gospel: “We are also profoundly troubled when the name of God is invoked to promote violence and religious national ideologies.” The problem is, American Christian nationalism and Christian Zionism, arise from the same soil and history, in which national, religious, and ethnic identities are fused with the name of Christ, privileging the law over the unconditional good news.  


[1] https://www.change.org/p/an-open-letter-from-palestinian-christians-to-western-church-leaders-and-theologians

[2] Robert O. Smith, “More Desired Than Our Owne Salvation”: The Roots of American Christian Affinity for the State of Israel (PhD submitted to Baylor University, 2010) from the Abstract.

[3]James W. Skillen, “Evangelicals and American Exceptionalism,” The Review of Faith & International Affairs 4:3 (Winter 2006): 45, 46. Cited in Smith, 2-3.

[4] Donald M. Lewis, A Short History of Christian Nationalism: From the Reformation to the Twenty-First Century (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2021) 7-8.

[5] Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (p. 777). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[6] Campbell, 780.

[7] Campbell, 780.

[8] Campbell, 791.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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