I first became aware of Timothy Weber when I read his excellent book, Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming: American Premillennialism, 1975-1982 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983). Weber is president of Memphis Theological Seminary and has provided us in this volume with the most exhaustive history of American prophetic belief since the publication of Paul Boyer's equally excellent, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992).
More than anything else, this book is a history of the origin and development of dispensational theology and the foundation it has provided for a virtually unqualified support of modern day Israel and the belief that the latter is the key to the prophetic future. While most of you are already quite familiar with dispensationalism, others may be encountering the word for the first time. If you are among the latter, Weber's book is an excellent place to begin your study.
Dispensationalists, says Weber, make up 'about one-third of America's forty or fifty million evangelical Christians and believe firmly that the nation of Israel will play a central role in the unfolding of end-times events (9). That is actually quite an understatement, as they believe that Israel will play the most central and indispensable role in God's prophetic purposes. Weber's purpose is to tell the story of how dispensationalists became Israel's best friends and their most ardent and influential political support base. He aims to demonstrate not only the theological impact of dispensationalism on American evangelicalism but also the cultural, military, economic, and political influence of those who embrace this perspective.
This is not the place to explain the complexities of dispensational theology or its unique way of reading Scripture. My website will soon provide an introductory study of dispensationalism that will familiarize you with its most basic ideas. But Weber's book is also an excellent place to begin.
I should point out what Weber's book is not. He is more historian than theologian (although that's no criticism). There are several things you should not expect to find in this book. Weber engages in virtually no biblical interpretation. It is not his purpose to explain the biblical text but rather to account for how the dispensationalist's reading of the text has served to forge this remarkable alliance. There is little theological analysis of either dispensationalism or its eschatological alternatives. Weber nowhere addresses the thorny issue of the relationship of Israel to the Church. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to prove what Weber himself believes about the issue. His work is almost entirely descriptive in nature, although there are enough comments and innuendo scattered throughout the book to leave little doubt that Weber is no fan of dispensational thinking.
Chapter One is a survey of the origins of dispensationalism, especially as found in the person of John Nelson Darby. Weber briefly describes the emergence of the pre-tribulation rapture doctrine and how dispensationalism made its way into the heart of American fundamentalism.
Weber is at his best in Chapter Two and elsewhere when he addresses the uneasy tension between dispensationalism's tendency toward passivity, on the one hand, and its active involvement in evangelism and foreign missions, on the other. In Chapter Three he explains the interpretation dispensationalism placed on both World War I and II, as well as its attempt to locate Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini in the emerging end-time prophetic scenario. What makes this especially interesting reading is Weber's discussion of how dispensationalism's belief in a revived Roman Empire provided its advocates with a fascinating way for explaining the place in contemporary history of everything from the rise of the Soviet Union to the European Common Market.
Chapter Four may be the most important in the book, as Weber explains the relationship between the Jewish people and dispensationalists. He explains with remarkable clarity the history behind the Holy Land, the importance of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 (Britain's declaration of the need to establish in Palestine a national home for the Jewish people), the emergence of Zionism, and the eventual capture of Jerusalem by the British.
Perhaps no document played a more sinister role in the growing relationship between dispensationalism and Israel than The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which chronicled an alleged series of secret proceedings in which Jews plotted to take over the world. The Protocols did more to contribute to the spread of anti-Semitism than anything that preceded. Weber does a wonderful job of explaining the ambivalence of early dispensationalists toward this scurrilous document and how it served to reveal a number of theological inconsistencies in the movement.
Chapter Six is Weber's attempt to explain the founding of the modern state of Israel and the destructive conflict over ownership of the land of Palestine. He does a masterful and accurate job of describing the U.N. recognition of Israel in 1948, the Suez Crisis of 1956, and the Six-Day War of June, 1967.
No discussion of this issue would be complete without an explanation of the monumental impact of Hal Lindsey's book, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970). The New York Times declared it the best-selling nonfiction book of the 1970s, although its critics might be more inclined to classify it as fiction. It has been translated into over fifty languages and sold more than thirty-five million copies! Weber devotes considerable space to the impact of Lindsey's book on American religious culture. Even more influential has been the Left Behind phenomenon of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Weber is at his best when he links these two publishing events to the growing political consensus among dispensational evangelicals of unqualified support for Israel.
In the final two chapters, Weber unpacks in meticulous detail the extent and depth of dispensational support for Israel, citing countless organizations and their overt, and often covert, efforts to bolster American (and global) endorsement of Israel's right to exist as a nation and possess the land they believe God granted them in Genesis 12. Countless other issues are also addressed: the lack of dispensational interest in the plight of Palestinian Christians (the largest group of believers in Israel and the West Bank), the zeal to see a new temple constructed where the Dome of the Rock now stands, and the almost comical (were it not so tragic) search for the perfect red heifer, which many dispensationalists believe is essential for the sacrificial system that will be reinstituted amidst temple worship (see Numbers 19:2).
Weber's book is must reading for all Christians, whether dispensationalists or those, like myself, who find dispensationalism to be a seriously flawed system for reading Scripture. This book may not sway the reader in his/her theological convictions, but it will most surely open the eyes of all to the reasons for the widespread support of Israel among so many evangelicals, both in America and around the world.