And now, time for an in-depth book review… so pour yourself a beverage, before you dive in…
Are Christians in danger of forgetting national, ethnic Israel’s role in God’s “End Times” program?
According to New York Times bestselling author, Joel Richardson, the answer is “yes.” Joel Richardson is a fairly young, articulate spokesperson promoting Christian Zionism, hosting an Internet biblical prophecy program, “The Underground.” Joel Richardson travels widely in the Middle East, with a genuine excitement about God’s mission to proclaim the Gospel in that part of the world. He is passionate about keeping Christians informed about the Middle East through various books and films. Nevertheless, Joel Richardson is deeply concerned. In a promotional advertisement for Richardson’s 2015 book, When a Jew Rules the World: What the Bible Really Says About Israel and the Plan of God, we read, “In the past thirty years, the trend among American evangelical’s view of Israel has shifted dramatically.”
As Richardson’s ad continues on later, “A new generation of Christians are not only turning away from traditional support for Israel, but from the very belief that there yet remains any ongoing calling and election upon the Jewish people. As this portentous shift is seen on a growing number of evangelical seminaries, and even on Facebook, are Scripturally-grounded Christians prepared to provide solid responses?”
When A Jew Rules the World, which I recently finished in an audiobook form, is designed to present arguments to reverse this trend. I wanted to read this book, since I keep hearing quite a bit about the dangers of so-called “replacement theology” these days. The terminology of “replacement theology” was something unknown to me until about five years ago, so I wanted to understand what the fuss was all about. If “replacement theology” was a theological error that needed to be addressed in the evangelical church, I figured that Joel Richardson might be able to help me out.
Prophecy teacher Joel Richardson impresses me as an articulate, well-informed defender of an Israel-centric view of the End Times, which stands at the heart of the concern over “replacement theology.” This is a hard-hitting book, and it deserves wider exposure, for those not familiar with the arguments proposed by folks like Richardson. But I would be careful before you raise the issues that concern Richardson in your small group Bible study. For example, in that same Richardson ad, there is also an extraordinary claim: “There is a sudden rise of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment among Christians today. ”
There is? Really? In the wider culture, I thought being Jewish was cool. In a post-Holocaust era, with movies like Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List permeating popular consciousness, have Christians bucked the cultural trend and grown more hateful towards Jewish people in recent years?
A Case for Israel Against the Spectre of Growing Antisemitism?
Well, sadly in principle, historically, Richardson has a good point. The history of the church has some rather embarrassing periods where different church leaders have said some terrible things about the Jews (John Chrysostom, Justin Martyr, Martin Luther, just to name a few). His cataloging of antisemitic statements and behaviors, particularly in “Christian” Europe is very painful, and yet very necessary, to hear. While one could argue that the Christian church has never “officially” supported antisemitism, through a major church council, Richardson is not so optimistic. He makes a very convincing case to show, at best, that the history of Christianity only barely avoids such a horrific charge. At least, Richardson has made me rethink the idea that Christian “anti-Judaic” sentiment was only promoted at the margins of the Christian movement.
Richardson lists out dozens of cases where different sermons by popular church leaders in early and medieval Christian history, along with various decrees in minor church councils, promote a type of punitive view of Jews and Judaism, that anticipate various pogroms against the Jews throughout Europe, culminating in the horrors of Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution.” Such a view claims that because so many Jews have rejected Jesus Christ as their Messiah, God has rejected the Jews as an entire, ethnic group of people. In this punitive theology, God has completely given up on the Jews. The church has superseded and replaced the Jewish people with Gentile people, which is where we get the “replacement” in “replacement theology” from. Reading through Richardson’s chapters on church history alone is worth the price of the book. Assuming that this punitive view of Jews gets at the error behind “replacement theology,” it now made sense to me why this is such a dangerous concern in the church.
For example, I learned about this difficult nugget of history just recently, on top of the stunning evidence Richardson has in his book. A minor, regional church meeting in about 364 A.D, the Council of Laodicea, forbade Christians from resting on the Jewish Sabbath and working on Sundays (canon 29), from receiving gifts from Jews (canon 37), and specifically from accepting matzah from Jews (canon 38).1
Wow. Why were these folks so uptight about receiving matzah as gifts? Jewish friends have given me gifts of matzah over the years, for which I have been thankful for their generosity. But apparently, 4th century church leaders in Laodecia would think of me as being a “compromiser” for accepting such gifts. This is truly puzzling. However, when you draw the trajectory in history down through the ages, the logic is downright sickening, from a post-Holocaust era perspective. I am sure that Joel Richardson would view the actions of this council as deliberately smacking of overt antisemitism, and I would agree. Christians have much to repent from our past. We should heed Richardson’s warnings with great sobriety.
A Growing Hatred of Jews Among Christians Today?
What about today? Is there a growing movement within the evangelical church of Christians who “hate” the Jews? Does the evidence support Joel Richardson’s claims?
True, you can find movements in liberal, mainline churches that tend to side with Palestinians over and against Israelis. Richardson provides several examples where church bodies, that are less beholden to a high view of Biblical authority, tend to single out the modern nation-state of Israel, from among other nations, for boycotts, etc. But what about among more conservative, Bible-believing churches?
Well, there are the rather odd reports here and there of evangelical activists gone awry. In August, 2016, a manager with World Vision, one of the world’s largest evangelical charities, was accused by the nation-state of Israel of siphoning off millions of dollars of donations intended to help the poor in Gaza, and instead giving that money to Hamas. I would hope that World Vision is proven innocent here. I do not know where this will end up, but thankfully, these things involving evangelical Christian missions do not happen very often (NOTE: In fairness, not all of the tragic news regarding Palestinians involves Israel. Before finishing this blog post, I recently learned of thousands of Palestinian refugees being killed in refugee camps in Syria, caught in the crossfire of civil war there).
And true, yes, there is the “lunatic” fringe. For example, there is a King James Only, independent Bible pastor in Tempe, Arizona, Steven Anderson, who has made quite a name for himself on YouTube. Anderson helped to produce “Marching to Zion,” a film that is part-informative documentary, part-questionable journalism, and part-inflammatory propaganda, about how so many Christians have been over-obsessed with Israel. Without apology, Anderson dismisses the entire quest of Jews moving back to Israel as a grand “fraud,” based on the idea that DNA testing demonstrates that it is almost impossible to prove one’s Jewish ancestry. At one point, Anderson suggests that, in the “last days,” it will be the Jews who will follow a false Messiah, and in turn, encouraging Israel-centric Christians to do the same. In Anderson’s mind, Jews will mistakenly call the AntiChrist as their Messiah, thereby deceiving potentially millions of gullible, Israelic-friendly Christians. Yep, that is pretty “out there,” to say the least.2
Okay. The evangelical church has some rather loose canons. However, what about the larger body of evangelical Christians not on the fringe? Are they contributing to the rise of anti-Israel sentiment, as Richardson fears, too?
Why Young Christians Today are Less Interested in Israel Than Their Parents
Dale Hanson Bourke, author of another book, The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Tough Questions, Direct Answers, makes a number of different suggestions that account for the recent shift in views, in contrast to Richardson’s sweeping claim of growing antisemitism among Christians. Here are just two of the reasons Bourke cites for many Christians today, particularly younger ones, having a different perspective on the nation-state of Israel in the Middle East, as opposed to what Richardson believes:
- Young evangelicals value justice. As the stories typically unfold in the news, the Israelis are viewed as rich and wealthy, whereas their Palestinian neighbors are viewed as being poor and disenfranchised. Sympathies tend towards supporting the underdog. Richardson, on the other hand, interprets justice-oriented strategies of “Divestment” in Israel, in order to rectify economic and political imbalances, as ill-conceived. Perhaps Richardson is correct, but is the intent behind such justice and peace efforts truly antisemitic? Are these young, evangelical Christians “haters of Jews?”
- Traditional dispensationalism is on the wane. For much of the 20th century, American evangelicalism was held sway by preaching that endorsed a rather complex set of ideas about the End Times, including such doctrines as a Rapture of the church just prior to a seven year Great Tribulation, and a literal one thousand year millennium, following the Second Coming of Christ, commonly known as premillennialism. Yet perhaps the biggest feature of classic dispensationalism has been the emphasis of a distinction between Israel and the church, as a hermeneutical principle on how to study the Bible. But things have changed for younger evangelicals. As compared to previous generations, today’s Christians receive very little teaching in the area of eschatology, otherwise known as the theological study of the End Times. The eschatological speculations of previous generations could get pretty complicated, so there is a tendency to go to the other extreme and just avoid the topic altogether. In other words, many younger Christians are less focused on Israel due to theological ignorance, and not anti-Israel sentiment.
In a post-Holocaust era, these two reasons alone are sufficient enough in my mind to explain why attitudes towards the nation state of Israel are changing today, as opposed to Richardson’s claim of “the rise of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment among Christians today.”
Even in his historical analysis, Joel Richardson tends towards the myopic and the anachronistic. Because Richardson focuses primarily on the mistreatment of the Jews over the centuries by a church-sponsored state, he myopically ignores the plight of other groups that also suffered greatly during the medieval period. We do not remember the Donatists, the Cathars, the Waldensians, early European pagans, etc. because they were largely wiped out by a “Christianized” Holy Roman Empire, if they were not converted to the papal-defined version of the Christian faith. Even in more recent times, American hypocrisy, even among Christians, enabled the near genocide of thousands of Native Americans. No punitive supersessionism or “replacement theology” applied towards the Cherokee. It was the mere fact that they were different that led to their demise.
Thankfully, the Jews, who were just as different, survived their mistreatment, though we should not minimize the severity of their sufferings. Prior to the modern period, the concept of religious freedom did not exist for groups that did not conform to theological expectations of a state-supported church. Punitive supersessionism surely did play a role in making it easier for Jewish communities to be targeted for pogroms, but it is so easy for modern Americans to anachronistically forget that previous societies allowed very little room for freedom of conscience for any dissimilar group, including the Jews, but not the Jews alone.
Premillennialism, Israel, and the Discussion of the “End Times” Among Christians Today
Nevertheless, Joel Richardson’s broader argument deserves a hearing. Much of Richardson’s argument stems from his view of eschatology; that is, the theological study of the “End Times.” Yes, Joel Richardson is an enthusiastic defender of Christian Zionism; that is, the belief that Christians should support the efforts of the modern nation state of Israel to reclaim the ancient homeland of Biblical Israel for today’s Jews. As I have observed in a multipart series on Zionism on the Veracity blog, this issue is very controversial today within the church. In When a Jew Rules the World, Richardson wants to resolve the controversy once and for all.
Richardson takes on a number of Christian authors, many of whom I highly respect, such as Carl Medearis, Sam Storms, G. K. Beale, and N. T. Wright.3 When A Jew Rules the World is not an exhaustive, scholarly book, as Richardson has a very broad audience in mind. But he does make an articulate, succinct effort to make his case, for the reasonably informed Bible reader.
His position argues for the view of restorationism; that is, the idea that God made a specific promise to the Jewish people, primarily through the Abrahamic covenant (see Genesis 12:1-3, 12:7, 13:14-17, 15:1-21, 17:1-21, 22:15-18), whereby God has unconditionally and irrevocably granted the physical land of much of the modern Middle East as a Jewish inheritance. Richardson’s reading of the Davidic covenant, in the Old Testament, requires the belief in premillennialism, whereby after Jesus makes his final return, He will rule physically from Jerusalem for a literal period of one thousand years, before the final consummation of all things. In making his positive case, Richardson is quite compelling. However, his polemical argument against a whole collection of other contemporary Christian authors is not as firm.
To his credit, Richardson (for the most part) stays away from the overused pejorative of “replacement theology” to describe the position of those who do not agree with him. Instead, he focuses his critique on what he calls supersessionism. But as with the difficulties of “replacement theology,” defining supersessionism can get tricky. Richardson is willing to admit that with the coming of Jesus Christ the first time, God’s covenant with Israel in terms of keeping the Mosaic law has been superseded. But the Abrahamic covenant, whereby God promises the physical land of Israel in the Middle East to the people in all perpetuity, has not been superseded.
But even here, I wondered in reading When a Jew Rules the World, if I was really getting the full story. Let us consider only one example: Richardson decides to wrestle with a real scholarly heavyweight, N. T. Wright, probably one of today’s most influential, evangelical New Testament scholars. Even though N. T. Wright has quite forcefully argued that he is not a “supersessionist” theologian, Richardson is convinced that Wright nonetheless fits the category. I can understand why Richardson reaches that conclusion, as N. T. Wright does not necessarily anticipate for a mass conversion of the Jews, prior to the Second Coming of Jesus, from Wright’s commentary on Romans 11. But does this really make N. T. Wright a “supersessionist,” in the manner that Richardson critiques? Perhaps, but it all comes down to how one defines such terms and interprets difficult passages of Scripture.4
For example, N. T. Wright argues that the Apostle Paul teaches in Philippians 3:3 that all believers in Jesus, both Jew and Gentile, “are the circumcision,” the New Testament continuation of the story of Israel as the people of God:
“For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh (Philippians 3:3 ESV).”
Richardson contends that those who put “confidence in the flesh” are Judaizing Christians, those who would force circumcision on all Gentile Christians. N.T. Wright would agree on this. Yet Richardson lays the charge of Wright imposing supersession on the text, with Wright’s claim that for the Apostle Paul, all believers in Jesus, Jew and Gentile, are the “we” in the who “are the circumcision.” However, Richardson fails to substantially address the immediate context of the text itself. If Wright is wrong about who the “we” are, then who is this “we” for Richardson? Who is Paul addressing in Philippians? Are these not, at least, including some Gentile believers, as well as Paul himself, a Jew who has faith in Christ?5
Without giving us a clear answer, Richardson goes on describing Wright’s position as being hopelessly supersessionist, indeed even to the point of calling examples of such theology as “anti-Israel” or “anti-Judaic” (at least, by association). However, I am still left scratching my head as to how Richardson himself reads Philippians! Richardson is surely correct to reject the view of punitive supersessionism, a type of supersessionism that casts all ethnic Jews off as being beyond redemption. But what of the type of “supersessionism,” for lack of better terminology, that the Apostle Paul himself appears to be advocating here in Philippians 3:3? Paul appears to be appealing to a sense of “circumcision” that is inclusive of Jew and Gentile together, without succumbing to the rhetoric of rejecting ethnic Israel, that Joel Richardson rightly despises.
Nevertheless, Richardson dismisses any sense of an inclusive or fulfillment theology as being fundamentally different from punitive supersessionism. In reading When A Jew Rules the World, the message of Richardson is that any and all inclusive or fulfillment theology is simply a warmed-over, politically-correct repackaging of the punitive “replacement theology” that he so rightly condemns. *SIGH*. This lack of nuance on Richardson’s part takes away from the strength of the argument that he otherwise cogently makes.
Here is N.T. Wright from his magnum opus, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, responding to his critics, which in this case, would also include Richardson:
We have to contend with what one can only call a revived anti-Christian polemic in which anything, absolutely anything, that is said by way of a ‘fulfilment’ of Abrahamic promises in and through Jesus of Nazareth is said to constitute, or contribute to, that wicked thing called ‘supersessionism’, the merest mention of which sends shivers through the narrow and brittle spine of postmodern moralism. How can we say what has to be said, by way of proper historical exegesis, in such a climate? (p. 784)
My proposal has of course been…that Paul’s revision of the Jewish view of Election was more or less of the same type as what we find in Qumran. Call it ‘Jewish supersessionism’ if you like, but recognize the oxymoronic nature of such a phrase. The scandal of Paul’s gospel, after all, was that the events in which he claimed that Israel’s God had been true to what he promised centred on a crucified Messiah. That is the real problem with any and all use of the ‘supersession’ language: either Jesus was and is Israel’s Messiah, or he was not and is not (p. 810).
There is a lot to take in here, and I am still processing it myself. But you would never know the force of Wright’s argument just from reading Joel Richardson’s critique. That is not to say that Richardson is necessarily wrong. N. T. Wright surely could be wrong, and Richardson, could be truly in the right (to borrow the pun). Detailed, extensive exegesis of the many texts of Holy Scripture is required to sort all of this out. The main point I am bringing out here is that Richardson’s claim that the arguments of so-called “supersessionism,” as with Wright, are somehow “anti-Israel” or “anti-Judaic,” is just about as offensive as Wright’s claim that “restorationism,” along the lines of Richardson, is somehow “anti-Christian!” I am not interested in defending N. T. Wright as much as I am concerned about making sure that our doctrine is based on a solid exposition of the Bible.
Richardson does not do this kind of thing all of the time in When a Jew Rules the World (and neither does N. T. Wright in his books), but there is a lot of strong language here. Perhaps it would be better for proponents of both sides, including Richardson’s “restorationism” and his antagonists’ “supersessionism,” to engage in more constructive dialogue with one another. The charge of “replacement theology,” whether it be under the more subtle guise of “supersessionism,” is often tantamount to calling someone a “Jew hater,” thereby baiting an indignant response from those who disagree. Is it possible to have more light and less heat on these touchy points? It would probably serve the church better if both sides in this debate were to tone down such unhelpful rhetoric, and listen better to what the other side has to say.
Where is the Boundary Between “Restorationism” and “Supersessionism”?
What is not clear from Joel Richardson concerns what would constitute an acceptable boundary against the “supersessionism” he rejects. Is it sufficient to say, that the Apostle Paul, in Romans 9-11, teaches that there will be a mass conversion of Jews in the End Times, as in Paul’s statement, “all Israel will be saved?” Does this also require a literal fulfillment of the land promise, such that these converted Jews will somehow regain the ancient borders of the Middle East, as the center of a literal millennial kingdom? Or is it possible to hope for a great turning of Jews to Christ that does not necessarily entail a literal fulfillment of the land promise? Richardson mentions, but never adequately, discusses this.
I, for one, believe that God does have a future plan for ethnic, national Israel, in terms of hoping that God will bring many, many Jews to recognize their Messiah, particularly just prior to the Second Coming of Jesus. However, I have a lot of questions as to why a future, physical rebuilding of a third temple in Jerusalem is necessary, along with a reinstitution of the sacrificial system, when Jesus’ atoning work on the cross signals that animal sacrifices in the temple are no longer needed. Christ Himself was and is the final sacrifice (Hebrews 10:1-18). If Christ has superseded the Mosaic covenant, as Richardson admits, should this not cause us to reconsider how we are to view the Temple, which is so tightly linked to the practice of the Mosaic covenant? Richardson never really explains this.
Richardson is clearer when trying to address critics of Christian Zionism, the view that teaches that the Jews will someday inherit fully the physical real estate in the Middle East as their Promised Land. For Richardson, to deny the land promise in terms of a literal fulfillment is supersessionist, as best as I am able to read him.
Christian critics of Richardson’s position are prolific. There are a number of books written by evangelical Christians that cast a critical eye on Christian Zionism. Authors, such as Gary Burge, Hank Hannegraff, and Stephen Sizer, emphasize the importance of justice issues, as well as pointing out the theological problems undergirding classical dispensationalism, as a system of eschatology.6
However, Richardson’s alternative perspective comes from an angle that writers like Burge, Hannegraff, and Sizer do not adequately themselves address. On this problem, Joel Richardson shows his critics to be using “straw man” logic fallacies at times:
- First and foremost, Joel Richardson does not fit into the classic dispensationalist mold, the boogeyman that Christian Zionism critics typically describe as the object of their critique. For example, in When A Jew Rules the World, I have yet to find a single reference to the pre-tribulational Rapture of the church. Does Richardson believe in a Rapture of the church, prior to a seven year Great Tribulation period? With the absence of such discussion in this book, I highly doubt it. Richardson is probably more of a post-tribulation Rapture theorist.
- Secondly, Joel Richardson successfully argues that a Christian expectation of a restoration of national Israel, including the land promise, was not an invention in the late 1820s, in the mind of John Nelson Darby, the father of modern dispensational theology. Rather, long before John Nelson Darby, such luminaries as Jonathan Edwards and Sir Isaac Newton also proposed a type of Christian Zionism, though they differed from the relatively recent view of Darby’s classic dispensationalism, generally associated with the popular Left Behind novels and movies. Most critics of Christian Zionism fail to draw attention to this pre-19th century tradition of reading Scripture, though they rightly attribute the immense popularity of Christian Zionism in the 20th century with Darby-inspired dispensationalism. I was not aware of this history before reading When A Jew Rules the World.
- Here is another point of contrast: Joel Richardson does not follow the typical view of classic dispensationalism, which sees the final Antichrist coming out of a revived Roman empire in the last days, most probably out of Europe. Instead, Richardson takes the view that the Antichrist will rise from the Middle Eastern Islamic world instead. This variance in eschatology has an impact on how Richardson views justice issues. National Israel, as in terms of the Zionist state in the Middle East, is the real underdog, as compared to the growing threat of radical Islam, typified by the rise of groups like ISIS in Syria/Iraq.
In other words, today’s critics of Christian Zionism assume a rather monolithic theological foe of classic dispensationalism, when the reality is that the range of theological opinion regarding eschatology, and national Israel’s role in it, is a lot more diverse today. You can still find classic, pre-tribulation Rapture dispensationalists who uphold the older, 20th century views, like Tommy Ice, the exegetical brain behind the popular author of the Left Behind series, the late Tim LaHaye.7 Yet even Tommy Ice admits that the situation has been changing. Even Dallas Theological Seminary, the famous bedrock institution that once favored classic dispensationalism, is now known for a more progressive dispensationalism, distancing itself from the days of an evangelical church that grew up on C. I. Scofield’s notes in the King James Bible.
Here is my point: It is really impossible today to fully nail down the eschatological landscape of contemporary evangelical thought, just by reading a single book like Richardson’s, or even one of his critics. Richardson’s book, When a Jew Rules the World, is written in a popular style, and though it is well researched for a book of its style, it is necessarily incomplete. Instead, When a Jew Rules the World is mainly a polemic, written to specifically promote what he calls restorationism theology, a theology that looks towards the full restoration of national Israel within its ancient Biblical borders. This restoration promise will be fulfilled when the Messiah, Jesus, returns to physically rule for a thousand years, seated in a physical Jerusalem.
A Plea to Better Understand Church History and the Bible… But to Back Off from Some of the Rhetoric
Positively speaking, When a Jew Rules the World serves to help Christians better understand church history and to better understand the Bible when it comes to developing a theology of the End Times. To this end, Joel Richardson is absolutely correct. Most Christians are poorly educated about church history, so they remain woefully ignorant as to how much the church has been complicit in perpetuating negative attitudes towards the Jews over the centuries. Furthermore, Biblical illiteracy in our churches today is keeping Christians from even having a basic understanding of what the Bible teaches regarding the End Times. In that sense, books like When a Jew Rules the World are an important contribution to the discussion.
But when Richardson brings out the club of charging others with being “anti-Israel,” or “anti-Judaic,” or even “antisemitic,” I get a bit nervous about what ultimately drives Joel Richardson. There can be honest disagreement about the proper interpretation of various Scriptural texts that form the context of this debate, but one need not play the “antisemitic” card to make an otherwise important point. Despite all of the strengths of When a Jew Rules the World, this rhetoric only serves to take away from an otherwise reasonable case for premillennialism. The land issue in the Middle East is exceedingly complex. But to look for ways to somehow share the land, whereby Israelis and Palestinians might peacefully resolve their differences, should not be misconstrued automatically as being a form of “hatred” of Jews.
Even in his critique of the history of antisemitism and the Christian church, perhaps the most sobering part of the book, Richardson does not give the full picture. In Richardson’s mind, an amillennial eschatology, one that does not believe in a literal future one thousand year reign of Christ after the Second Coming, is a major factor contributing to antisemitic sentiment. To the extent that amillennialism has been the dominate view of eschatology throughout most of church history, Richardson is probably correct (though Joel Richardson has some chutzpah to say that what the majority of Christians have believed, over the centuries until about the 1830s, about the millennium and a spiritual understanding concerning the church as the “new Israel,” is utterly wrong).
Richardson rightly singles out Justin Martyr, a 2nd century Alexandrian Christian, who advocates clearly for a supersessionism of the most negative sort. However, Richardson neglects to tell the reader that Justin Martyr embraced premillennialism, and not amillennialism, as his eschatology. In other words, a tendency towards antisemitism is not as strictly tied to someone’s particular view of the millennium, as Richardson would have the reader believe.
Within the past few years or so, there has been a growing discontent with so-called “replacement theology,” as a type of dangerous heresy that wrongly minimizes the role of ethnic, national Israel within God’s future plans and purposes. Joel Richardson taps into this discontent. He does so in this book, even with the noted exceptions, in a generally irenic, conciliatory tone. However, I find that the strength of Richardson’s argument comes not from his polemic against other Christian teachers. Instead, it comes from painting a positive portrait of how national Israel points towards a greater hope of God’s “End Times” purposes. For example, while applauding this generation’s increased concern over justice issues, Richardson rightly reminds the reader that true justice will only be achieved when Jesus Christ comes back to right all wrongs, and undo the evil that has corrupted our world. Amen to that!! Furthermore, Joel Richardson’s compassion for the Jewish people is commendable, demonstrating that all believers should develop an interest in loving their Jewish friends into the arms of Jesus, their Messiah.
Encouragement from Walter Kaiser
My review of Joel Richardson’s When A Jew Rules the World might come across as being a bit of a downer, if it had not been for a few pages where Richardson interviews the venerable Old Testament evangelical scholar, Walter Kaiser. Now retired, Dr. Walter Kaiser served as president at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and is perhaps one of the greatest living scholars of the Old Testament we have today. As Richardson meets with Dr. Kaiser in his home, Richardson reports that Walter Kaiser is enthusiastic over Joel Richardson’s efforts to remind evangelical Christians of the prominent place for Israel in our theology.
Richardson’s conversation with Dr. Kaiser reminds me of a personal conversation I also had with Dr. Kaiser at an apologetics conference a few years ago. The eminent professor was pleading in his conference message that contemporary evangelicals were in danger of neglecting the priority and place of national Israel, in view of the demise of classic dispensationalism, which appears to be running out of steam in evangelical academia. After his talk, I went up to Dr. Kaiser and asked what motivated him so strongly to encourage his audience to reconsider the central role for future Israel. In his kind and encouraging manner, Dr. Kaiser told me that he was a “promise theologian.” God’s faithfulness to preserve the Jewish people, despite years of unbearable hardship and suffering, should serve as a witness to the world that God has not forgotten the covenant He made long ago with a moon-worshiper turned father of many nations, Abraham. God keeps His promises.
These are thoughtful words from a fine scholar, whom I respect deeply. I will continue to remember them, as I personally wrestle with how to understand God’s future purpose for ethnic, national Israel.
A Cautious Recommendation for When a Jew Rules the World
My cautious recommendation for When a Jew Rules the World could be put in another way. Joel Richardson argues that there are “unintended consequences” associated with supersessionism. Namely, even a theology of prophecy concerning national Israel that finds its fulfillment or inclusion in Christ, thus avoiding the harsher language of “replacement theology,” could nevertheless unintentionally lead to a revived hatred of the Jews. While this is surely possible, it is not inevitable. My understanding of fulfillment or inclusion theology specifically rules out the punitive idea that God is somehow “finished with the Jews.” Sure, any theology can be twisted around, distorted, and taken to an extreme. Turning the argument the other way, to theologically insist that any view of fulfillment or inclusion is effectively taking away something from the promises given to national Israel, may lead to a different set of “unintended consequences.” Such a restorationist theology, if taken to an extreme, could unintentionally promote a view that diminishes the glory of Christ, and Christ alone, as the sufficient revealer and implementer of God’s purposes. It is one thing to say that the fulfillment of prophetic promises in a spiritual, or more expansive, sense does not rule out the literal, material promises given to national Israel regarding the land, etc. Fair enough. But it is another thing entirely to say that a non-literal, or more expansive, fulfillment of the prophecies of God somehow discredits God’s character, as though what Jesus Christ has accomplished for His people is not “good enough.”
Christ and Christ alone is sufficient. God does not need to do anything more to establish His reputation. He has already done more than enough through the finished work of Jesus on the cross. There is no need to add anything to Christ. Perhaps we need to see God work in a literal fulfillment of the promises to national Israel. Joel Richardson could be correct here. But to imply that God never really accomplished what He said He did through Jesus, by His life, death, and resurrection, threatens to undermine the glory of God revealed in Christ. Surely, Joel Richardson would object to such an extreme characterization of his theology, would he not?
In my view, Joel Richardson (as well as others like him) has his heart in the right place, regarding his love for Christ, his zeal for the mission of the church, and a concern about Israel. He just needs to back off on some of the (sometimes explosive) rhetoric against his fellow Christians. As Walter Kaiser reminded me personally, a positive case for future Israel is strong enough on its own, without having to resort to what often degenerates into the unnecessary name-calling associated with pejoratives like “replacement theology.”
As my associate pastor, Rich Sylvester, put it, this type of negative rhetoric pretty much guarantees to be a “conversation stopper.” Whether you embrace a “restorationist” eschatology or a “supersessionist” eschatology, both sides emphatically point out that God keeps His promises. The real point of contention is this: The two different conversation partners in the discussion differ on exactly how God keeps those promises. If I could ever convince Joel Richardson of this point, I believe he might find that some of his critics would be more interested in what he had to say and might become persuaded.
So, if you want a spirited defense of national Israel’s place in Biblical eschatology, that emphasizes premillennialism without many of the traditional assumptions commonly associated with classic dispensationalism, then I recommend reading Joel Richardson’s book. You will still want to read and study the Biblical passages yourself, to verify if the author has faithfully presented the truths of God’s Word. Richardson makes a very engaging case. Just take his claims of antisemitism among other Christians, who have a different eschatological view from his, with a healthy dose of skepticism. Therefore, if you want a more balanced perspective, go grab a copy of something like Stephen Sizer’s Zion’s Christian Soldiers, and read that alongside Richardson’s When a Jew Rules the World. Then take what you have read from both books, filter it through the lens of your own personal study of the Holy Scriptures, and then come to your own conclusion.
1. For an excellent and exhaustive scholarly survey of how anti-Judaic attitudes developed within the early and medieval church, from a scholar who converted to orthodox Judaism, I highly recommend Paul Fredriksen’s Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism, which is where I learned about the anti-Judaic canons in the Council of Laodicea. From a more evangelical perspective, I would also recommend Barry Horner’s Future Israel: Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged. Horner is of the same mindset as Joel Richardson, yet Horner’s book has a more scholarly approach than Richardson’s book, focusing more on the details of biblical exegesis. Though When A Jew Rules the World is a significant book by Richardson, it is not his most provocative. Joel Richardson’s most popular book is The Islamic Antichrist: The Shocking Truth about the Real Nature of the Beast, an approach that will challenge the traditional, dispensationalist speculations about the Antichrist.↩
2. Pastor Steven L. Anderson is quite a character. You can view his film, Marching to Zion, here on YouTube. I ran into his material a few years ago when doing some research on the King James Only movement. Though not as crazy “out there” as the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, the folks who protest against homosexuality at military funerals, Anderson’s Faithful Word Baptist Church is as about as fundamentalist as you can get these days. So, I was actually rather shocked at how bold and outspoken he was in embracing “replacement theology,” without any apology. Some of Anderson’s more explicit sermons regarding Judaism have been blocked by YouTube, due to various legal complaints in well over a dozen foreign countries. I can see why Pastor Anderson would give someone like Joel Richardson fits!↩
3. I have blogged about Carl Medearis before on Veracity, the author of Tea With Hezbollah: Sitting at the Enemies Table, Our Journey Through the Middle East. Carl Medearis lived in Lebanon for a number of years, and he specializes in outreach towards Muslims. It is blog posts, like this one by Carl Medearis, that gets Joel Richardson all fired up…. Sam Storms is a pastor in Oklahoma City, who participates in the educational ministry of Credo House, serves on the board of directors for John Piper’s Desiring God ministries, and blogs for the Gospel Coalition. Joel Richardson was once a young Bible student studying under pastor and teacher Sam Storms. Storms himself grew up with a classic dispensationalist view of the End Times, even attending Dallas Theological Seminary, when that seminary was in its heavy, classic dispensationalist hey-day. Storms grew concerned that his dispensationalist heritage was not standing up to Biblical scrutiny. So, he rejected dispensationalism in favor of covenant theology, embracing an amillennial view of the End Times, as opposed to premillenialism. He outlines his new position in Kingdom Come: The Amillennial Alternative, a position that Richardson rejects…. I reviewed God Dwells Among Us, by G. K. Beale, recently on Veracity… I blogged about N. T. Wright previously on Veracity.↩
4. N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone. Romans, Part 2, Chapters 9-16, 2005 edition. See pages 57-63. A more in-depth critique of N. T. Wright on Romans 11 can be found in Horner’s Future Israel, p. 90-93. More on N. T. Wright in general can be found here. Here are N. T. Wright’s own words summarizing Paul’s teaching in Romans 11, from page 62 of Paul for Everyone: “Unbelieving Jews are at present ‘enemies’, opposing the gospel and so, paradoxically, continuing to create that breathing space in which Gentiles can come in. But they remain ‘beloved’ in the sense that God continues to yearn over them, as a father for a long-lost son. That original relationship can never be taken away or denied (verse 29). And, because of it, Gentile Christians urgently need to learn the lesson of verses 30 and 31. This is the sequence. First, the Gentiles were disobedient. Then the Jewish people as a whole rejected the gospel — and that created a space for the Gentiles to come in. Now, however, with Gentiles receiving mercy, the Jewish people will, Paul believes, become ‘jealous’ of the (verse 14) and so turn away from unbelief (verse 23) and find mercy. This will happen, not just at some future date, but ‘now’, in the present time, as he says at the end of verse 31.” Is this the type of “supersessionism” that Joel Richardson finds to be so “dangerous?” Having not read N.T. Wright’s entire corpus(!!!), I can not say for sure (see this blogged analysis of Wright by Richardson’s friend, Dalton Thomas). For the moment, I will let the reader be the judge.↩
5. Most likely, Joel Richardson has in mind the interpretation favored by Barry Horner (see Future Israel, p. 279). Horner believes that the “we” of Philippians 3:3 is actually Paul referring to himself and Timothy. Therefore, Paul is not including the believers in Philippi in his use of “we.” In this interpretation, Paul wants to impress upon the church of Philippi that they should listen to Timothy and himself, those teachers who are truly “the circumcision,” as opposed to those who put their “confidence in the flesh,” the Judiazing Christian teachers who wish that every Gentile Christian be circumcised as they are. In contrast, even though he himself is circumcised, Paul does not wish to impose circumcision on the Gentile believers in Philippi. But Paul is in no way suggesting that circumcision be redefined in any spiritualized sense to include Jew and Gentiles together in the church as a whole. While Horner’s interpretation is possible, I am not aware of any major commentary by an evangelical Bible scholar on Philippians that adopts this view (see Ralph Martin, Tyndale New Testament Commentary on Philippians; Gordon Fee, New International Commentary on Philippians; English Study Bible, Zondervan NIV Study Bible). Most New Testament scholars that I am familiar with, at least on this one passage, concur with N. T. Wright. Is Joel Richardson suggesting that the vast majority of evangelical Bible scholars “with a twist, a spin, and a little sleight of hand, … fall for Satan’s truly vile lie, known as supersessionism?” (chapter 5, When a Jew Rules the World, Audible version, or p. 63, hardcover edition). Right or wrong, Richardson is gutsy to take on nearly the entire guild of New Testament evangelical scholarship!……However, it is good to know that Richardson does not always challenge the primary, scholarly consensus with such bravado. Just a few pages later, (within the same chapter 5 of the audiobook version), Richardson fairs much better in his handling of Galatians 3:16, “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.” Richardson is quite correct to rebuke those over-enthusiastic interpreters who would dare to substitute every single reference of “offspring” in the Old Testament with an explicit reference to “Christ,” thereby rubbing Abraham’s physical descendants out of the picture. Richardson makes the quite interesting observation that in the case of Abraham, only one of his sons, Isaac, was the bearer of the promise, excluding Ishmael and the other six sons Abraham fathered with another wife, Keturah (Genesis 25:1-6). Also, only one son of Isaac was the bearer of the promise in that generation, namely Jacob and not Esau. In this sense, it would be quite appropriate to say the promises were made to the singular “offspring” of Abraham and not the plural “offsprings.” But is this what Paul really had in mind when writing Galatians 3:16? The idea that Christ is somehow ultimately fulfilling the intended purpose of the Abrahamic promise is read more naturally here. It seems that the explicit reference to “Christ” would make it difficult to import a reading of Isaac and Jacob into that “offspring.” Nevertheless, Paul “specifically,” as Richardson puts it, has this Old Testament insight, demonstrating that the promises to Abraham would be realized by his physical, blood descendants, and not through the church, made up of Jews and Gentiles. At least, Richardson concedes that those Gentile Christians, who celebrate the coming of the Jewish kingdom, restored with the land promise physically fulfilled, are also included in this blessing, in Christ. But where, in Galatians, does Paul make any such mention of the land promise, “specifically?” Again, I have read no major evangelical commentary of Galatians that concurs with Richardson’s assertion. While such an Old Testament understanding of Genesis could be brought to bear on Galatians 3:16, much to the chagrin of “supersessionist” interpreters, such a “restorationist” reading advocated by Richardson does not seem required or necessary. A fair case could be made for both theological camps. Again, the student of Scripture should search more thoroughly before arriving at their own conclusion. ↩
6. Wheaton College professor Gary Burge wrote Who Are God’s People in the Middle East?, that I read some twenty-two years ago. A more updated version of his argument can be found in Jesus and the Land: The New Testament Challenge to “Holy Land” Theology. Hank Hanegraff, host of the popular “Bible Answer Man” radio show wrote The Apocalypse Code: Find out What the Bible REALLY Says and the End Times… and Why It Matters Today. Anglican vicar Stephen Sizer wrote Zion’s Christian Soldiers?: The Bible, Israel and the Church, which I read about five years ago. Sizer’s zeal for his opposition to Christian Zionist theology got the best of him a couple of years ago, as he was disciplined by his Church of England for some statements he made that critics regarded as inflammatory. Joel Richardson considers Sizer to be the “Ann Coulter of the anti-Israel movement” (p. 181, hardcover edition, When a Jew Rules the World). Nevertheless, Zion’s Christian Soldiers, reflects more of Sizer’s soft-spoken prose, and this book provides an easily accessible counter-argument to Joel Richardson’s When A Jew Rules the World. Like When a Jew Rules the World, I would give Sizer’s Zion’s Christian Soldiers a cautious recommendation.↩
7. Thomas Ice is the Executive Director of the Pre-Trib Research Center, a kind of think-tank for classic dispensationalism. In my view, Thomas Ice provides the best, scholarly defense for the view of the EndTimes promoted in Tim LaHaye’s and Jerry Jenkins Left Behind novels. Ice and Richardson debated one another in August, 2016 on the topic of the Antichrist, will such a figure rise in a “revived” Roman empire (Ice) or in the Islamic world (Richardson)? The transcript and media for the debate have not yet been released.↩