When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to America recently to deliver a controversial address to Congress, it struck some as bizarre that his loudest supporters were evangelical Christians.
For instance, a reader emailed me:
"I am confounded by the lovefest for Netanyahu in Washington this past week, and am sickened by the fawning over any foreign leader, but am confounded by the evangelical outpouring for a man who represents a religion that doesn't believe that Jesus is the son of God. How is it that Christians find themselves in this position?"
I've heard and read similar questions whenever evangelicals voice unconditional support for the Jewish nation, as they have since its establishment almost 70 years ago.
Underlying the confusion is that evangelicals possess a reputation for being the hardest-core of Christians. They're the ones who take the New Testament most literally. They tend to believe nobody but born-again Christians can go to heaven.
How can they love Israel so?
Well, this all has to do with the Second Coming of Jesus and the end of the world.
I'm serious. That's not hyperbole.
Before I explain, I need to offer a few disclaimers:
First, one faction or another of evangelicals will dispute the details of everything I'm about to say; this topic is more cryptic than you probably can imagine or I possibly can explain. I'm only offering a broad overview.
Second, the great majority of Christians — Catholics, mainline Protestants such as President Barack Obama and millions of others — don't buy much the evangelicals' teachings about Israel or the Second Coming. What I'm laying out here is a minority theology.
Finally, I'm an evangelical myself, but don't mistake the following beliefs as mine. As I tell my congregation, I've studied the Second Coming for 35 years, and the longer I study it, the more confused I get. I simply don't have a theory. I leave it up to God's will.
Most evangelical Christians, probably most Christians of all stripes, believe Jesus will literally return to Earth someday. To evangelicals, his return is prophesied in both the Old and New Testaments. It will be both terrific and terrible beyond imagination.
In their reading of the Bible, certain other, preliminary events must take place before the Second Coming. These events are, you might say, the beginning of the end, the labor pangs before the delivery. They indicate the end is very near.
And these preliminaries often concern the Jews.
In the Old Testament, God made a covenant with the Jews, evangelicals say. God never breaks a covenant. Among other things, he promised Jews they would possess their holy land in the Middle East, and that they would always be God's chosen people. He said he'd bless anyone who blessed them and curse anyone who cursed them.
This covenant is why Jesus had to be a Jew — as a fulfillment of God's promise. This is why the apostles were Jews. This is why Jesus was born and died in Israel.
Even though Jews largely didn't embrace Jesus when he arrived the first time, evangelicals say, that didn't invalidate the covenant. That rejection only made it possible for non-Jews to receive Jesus as their messiah, too.
Got that? Still with me?
Now. Evangelicals long maintained that, although the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and dispersed Jews all over the civilized world, in the last days a Jewish nation would be restored and, more specifically, would regain control of Jerusalem.
These events would serve as divine neon signs heralding Jesus' imminent return.
In 1948, in what by any account seems to have been a near miracle that defied all political and military odds, Israel became a nation again. Then, in 1967, during the Six-Day War, Israel recaptured Jerusalem's holiest sites after a 1,900-year exile.
Evangelicals nearly lost their collective minds, because they'd been predicting all this since their granddaddies wore spats. To them, biblical prophecies thousands of years old had been fulfilled before their eyes, and the Second Coming was at hand.
Blessings would abound for those who blessed this new Israel, and curses would befall those who opposed it. To the extent the United States and its Christians supported Israel, God would protect our nation. To the extent we didn't, he would punish us.
Many evangelicals still believe this. That's why they so enthusiastically back Israel and, by extension, Netanyahu. They want to stay on God's good side.
I should mention that some evangelicals also believe Scripture predicts the Jews will eventually convert to Christianity. They aspire to help that process by evangelizing them. This doesn't warm the hearts of Jews, for obvious reasons.
Still, it's wrong to think evangelicals' embrace of — indeed, their love for — Israel occurs in a vacuum or that it's de facto wacky or that it's only about proselytizing. Their affection occurs in a powerful historical and theological context.
It's a demonstration of their genuine desire to protect Jews, protect the United States and please God. Whether it's the best foreign policy might be an entirely different issue.