Strategically timed to coincide with the virulently anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic Israel Apartheid Week taking place on college campuses around the world, the 2016 Christ at the Checkpoint (CATC) Conference began this week in Bethlehem.
The conference, which is hosted by Bethlehem Bible College, claims as its mission the task of challenging “Evangelicals to take responsibility to help resolve the conflicts in Israel/Palestine by engaging with the teaching of Jesus on the Kingdom of God.”
The theme of this year’s conference is “The Gospel in the Face of Religious Extremism.” However, the only religious extremism conference participants seem to have in mind is Zionism. Munther Isaac, who spearheads the conference, delivered a paper entitled “Christian Zionism as Imperial Theology.”
Since its first conference in 2010, Christ at the Checkpoint has proven itself to be anything but the great peacemaker among evangelicals that it purports to be. To say that the conference is decidedly one-sided would be an understatement. CATC relentlessly demonizes Israel and places the burden of reconciliation squarely on the shoulders of Jewish followers of Yeshua and their shrinking ranks of evangelical supporters. The presumptive Palestinian State is lovingly embraced with a sense of divine providence that many evangelicals once reserved for the modern State of Israel. Palestinian Christians, indeed Palestinians in general, are now perceived to have more in common with Jesus and the promised land than Israel’s Jewish inhabitants do.
How can we account for this Orwellian reversal of reality? To be sure, many factors have energized this paradigm shift. Suffice it to say that the growing influence of replacement theology, or supersessionism (the doctrine that the church has “superseded” or replaced Israel as the new people of God), is undoubtedly the main reason.
What we know today as the modern evangelical movement began to take shape in the 1940s and 1950s. These evangelicals put a great deal of emphasis on the exposition of Scripture and the literal fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Replacement theology eventually seeped into the evangelical movement so that evangelicals are divided on the subject today.
Despite claims to the contrary by conference participants, replacement theology permeates the Christ at the Checkpoint conference.
Consider the case of radio talk show host and “Bible Answer Man,” Hank Hanegraff who delivered a paper entitled, “A Gospel Response to Christian Zionism.” Just yesterday the conference tweeted the following from Hanegraff:
"The holy land, holy city and holy temple have historical significance, but no longer have theological significance.”
His statement is fundamentally incorrect, both biblically and theologically.
Let’s begin on the theological level. Hanegraff asserts that the holy land (which is actually called the “promised land” in the Bible), the Holy City, and Holy Temple have historical—but no theological significance. This is actually impossible, as the two are inextricably linked. Theology never takes place in a historical vacuum.
In one sense Hanegraff is engaging in what Kendall Soulen refers to as “structural supersessionism,” in which “distinctly Jewish or Israelite elements of Scripture are a mere background to the biblical story, which moves primarily from universal creation to universal consummation by way of universal sin and universal redemption. Israel, per se, is not really even in the main story of the Bible.” For Hanegraff and those at CATC who share his theological convictions, Israel as a nation was always ultimately irrelevant to God’s kingdom program.
In another sense, however, and despite his claims to the contrary, Hanegraff does believe that Israel is theologically significant—but not in a good way. The reason Israel is no longer theologically relevant is its rejection of Jesus, an event grounded in history. God stripped the nation of its covenant promises and its memory remains a perpetual example of God’s judicial wrath. Soulen labels this form of replacement theology “punitive supersessionism.”
Hanegraff is also wrong on the biblical level. He would have us believe the Gospels repudiate the land and the city of Jerusalem and the Temple as holy spaces, but this is simply not true.
Matthew presents Jesus as Israel’s Messiah-King who has come to inaugurate the nation’s eschatological restoration. Combining narrative material with “fulfillment quotations” from the Hebrew Bible that evoke themes of Israel’s return from exile, Matthew reveals that Jesus’ arrival in the Galilee has triggered that event (Matthew 4:12-17). In Matthew’s gospel, the Galilee is filled with messianic significance.
Matthew displays a great deal of reverence for Jerusalem. He refers to Jerusalem as the “holy city” at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (Matthew 4:5) and after his death (Matthew 27:53). And, as Anders Runesson points out, Jerusalem’s holiness is “connected to the God of Israel and the temple, not the leadership.” Jesus’ mournful woe against Jerusalem and its current inhabitants in Matthew 23 is filled with longing for the nation’s repentance and future restoration. Citing Psalm 118:26, Jesus declares that Jerusalem will see him again when its inhabitants declare, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” This is not the cry of recalcitrant Jews standing before Jesus at the final judgment (as many replacement theologians assert) but rather the words of the redeemed remnant at the time of Israel’s restoration.
Whether the Gospels envision the Temple’s destruction or purification remains a subject of debate even among scholars who anticipate Israel’s future redemption. What is clear, however, is that the Gospels always portray the Temple as holy. In fact, as Runesson again points out, it is the Temple and the One who dwells in it that makes the gold in the Temple sacred (Matthew 23:17). The nation’s corrupt leadership and wicked shepherds are in fact the real cause of the Temple’s destruction (Matthew 9:36, 21:33, 45).
Hanegraff’s catchy tweet might energize the CATC faithful who want to demonize Israel and invalidate the nation’s theological significance but under close scrutiny the evidence collapses on both a theological and biblical level.