Now in its thirty-sixth year, the annual Feast of Tabernacles celebration, sponsored by the International Christian Embassy (ICEJ—the J stands for its headquarters in Jerusalem), attracts thousands of Pentecostal Christians from around the world to Israel. Timed to coincide with the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles is intended as a public show of Christian support for Israel. The prime minister of Israel almost always sends a personalized video greeting, and the mayor of Jerusalem usually delivers an address. Attendees tour holy sites and West Bank settlements, and they march in a “Parade of the Nations” through the streets of Jerusalem in front of curious Israeli bystanders.
The ICEJ has been around since 1980, but in the last decade has enjoyed a surprising ascent. It has become the new face of Christian Zionism, in many ways surpassing more familiar American Evangelical leaders Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and the large lobby group Christians United for Israel. At the same time the demographics have changed. The usual list of Christian Zionist leaders over the last forty years has been overwhelmingly American, white, and deeply influenced by apocalyptic theology. The new face of Christian Zionism, however, is mostly not American, white, English-speaking, or overly concerned about the end of history.
This shift hints at changes that are afoot in the global relationship between Christians and Israel. Israel has found potential allies in the Global South who vastly outnumber American Christian Zionists. They are driven less by apocalypticism and more by a type of nation-based prosperity theology—an outgrowth of their Pentecostalism, which is the fastest-growing segment of Christianity in the world today.
The new Christian Zionism in countries like Brazil, Nigeria, and China is not only remarkable as a religious development. It could have major geopolitical implications. For much of the last seventy years, and especially after the Arab-Israeli War in June 1967, the Third World, including the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and Asia, was generally hostile to Israel in international venues such as the United Nations. Many countries, including most states in the Middle East, still do not have official diplomatic relations. But given the growth trends of Pentecostal Christianity and the expansion of Christian Zionist lobbying in dozens of countries, historical attitudes toward Israel may be changing.
In the United States, the prosperity gospel (or prosperity theology) is associated with Pentecostal preachers who teach that God bestows material blessings on those who prove their faithfulness by following the Bible. Evangelist Paula White (President Trump’s spiritual advisor) typifies the emphases of the prosperity gospel. In her pitch to new followers, after pointing to Bible verses that describe how to “honor God as instructed,” she promises that following God “will open up financial abundance, opportunity, favor, and supernatural miracles.” Unsurprisingly, the individualistic and materialistic tenor in prosperity theology has drawn the ire of critics inside and outside of the Christian world, but its popularity among preachers across the globe is spreading.
In the decades since the prosperity gospel emerged in the 1950s, it has undergone countless iterations as it has moved through Western and non-Western societies. The experimentalism, creativity, and decentralized structure of Pentecostal Christianity have made it and the prosperity gospel popular for Christians around the globe. Some of the largest churches in the world, such as the 480,000-member Yoido Full Gospel Church in South Korea, and the Nigeria-based Living Faith Church Worldwide (more revealingly known as Winners Chapel), promote prosperity theology as part of their charismatic brand of Christianity.
In this lively movement, the theological emphasis underpinning the prosperity gospel has changed based on location. In the U.S., the prosperity gospel has appealed to American individualism and the highly personalized goals of wealth, career success, and wellness that dominate American culture. Some Pentecostals outside the United States, on the other hand, have gleaned from the core insight of the prosperity gospel a more collectivist lesson: God also bestows material blessings to entire nations. In broad terms, the Old Testament depicts God materially rewarding or punishing Israel based on its actions. And just as explicitly, God seems to say, he rewards or punishes other nations based on their actions toward Israel. This teaching crops up throughout churches in the largest Pentecostal denomination, Assemblies of God, and throughout international groups such as the World Pentecostal Fellowship. Preachers on Christian television channels, including Christian Broadcast Network and God TV, teach it. Theologians including David Pawson and Malcolm Hedding (both affiliated with the ICEJ, with Hedding as its executive director from 2000 to 2011) expound on the idea in more detail.
Genesis 12:3 is the text these Christian Zionists cite most. Speaking to Abraham, God promises, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Read plainly, this verse provides a clear roadmap for Christian Zionists to gain the favor of God: bless Abraham and his household, i.e. the state of Israel.
This verse is at the heart of the new generation of Christian Zionists, offering a spiritual guarantee—a promise by God that blessings will flow to those who bless the people of Abraham. The older faces of Christian Zionism, such as Jerry Falwell, affirmed that God blessed the United States because of its support for Israel, but his aversion to prosperity theology made his empirical evidence vague. Prosperity gospel preachers are more explicit. Kenneth Meshoe, president of the African Christian Democratic Party in South Africa, describes how “many people on the African continent believe in Genesis 12:3.” He likes the example of Zambia, whose economy thrived after independence in 1964, but which suffered through decades of tumult after breaking off relations with Israel in 1973. Strengthening South Africa–Israel relations is central to Meshoe’s economic growth agenda—a pragmatic and results-based Christian Zionism.
As the prosperity gospel has spread far and wide over the past half century, the nation-based theology at the heart of Christian Zionism has flourished especially through the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, the largest Christian Zionist organization on the globe. When thirteen countries closed their embassies in Jerusalem in 1980 after the Knesset declared the city “the undivided, eternal capital of the State of Israel,” Christians from Europe and North America founded the ICEJ in Jerusalem to help organize the first Feast of Tabernacles celebration. Its spokesman, Jan Willem van der Hoeven of Holland, set the tone by announcing that while the embassy would still depend disproportionately on American financial support, its calling was global. Today it has offices in more than eighty countries.
Outside of the United States and Western Europe, Pentecostal Christianity has witnessed massive growth since 1980. The advance of Pentecostalism in the Global South constitutes one of the biggest religious developments in the late twentieth century. Brazil and Nigeria have seen the rate of Protestant identification double or triple in recent decades. Many new churches and denominations preach a version of the prosperity gospel that combines individualistic and nation-based blessings. Christian Zionism is often central to Pentecostal understandings of nation-based blessings.
This is true for Renê Terra Nova, currently director of ICEJ in Brazil. Born into a Catholic family, Terra Nova converted to Pentecostal Christianity at the age of twenty and began to attend the Baptist Theological Seminary of North Brazil. In 1990 he broke away from his first church and founded First Baptist Church of the Restoration in Manaus. In his teaching and more than a dozen books, Terra Nova emphasizes “family restoration,” a concept that is flexible enough to relate both to Brazilians’ personal families and to healing God’s family, composed of Jews and Christians. As his website explains, Terra Nova takes as a sacred duty his ministry’s “work in spreading love for Israel and the true root of our faith: Jerusalem.” Terra Nova’s literal connection to Jerusalem through the massive “caravan” tour groups he leads underpins his emphasis on the prosperity gospel. Through “showing the way to Jerusalem,” Terra Nova has “raised the spiritual level of the people, showing that poverty, misery and ruin are stigmata of the past and that the great truth is prosperity: a right of every child of God.” He claims to lead a congregation of 75,000, with church branches throughout central and northern Brazil.
Terra Nova’s pro-Jewish and pro-Israel ministry is not unique. Mosy Madugba, an ICEJ representative and Nigerian evangelist who directs Spiritual Life Outreach and the Ministry Prayer Network, claims to reach more than 10,000 pastors worldwide. Sandor Nemeth, who leads the Hungarian branch of ICEJ, is the influential Pentecostal minister of Faith Church, one of the largest congregations in Europe, and has made Christian Zionism a central pillar of his ministry. These leaders represent the ICEJ in their countries and, by building up local influence, draw a tight network between their pews and the ICEJ’s political lobbying efforts on behalf of Israel.
The new Christian Zionism is returning to its historical roots in Western Europe, too. While attendance in traditional churches across Great Britain is collapsing, the work of Oliver Manyemba, a Pentecostal Christian from Zimbabwe who is a lecturer at the Cass Business School at the City University of London, stands out. In 2013 Manyemba founded Christian Watchmen Over Zion, which organizes support for Israel among the U.K.’s nonwhite Protestant communities. After just a few years, CWZ hosts biannual prayer conferences and claims to be fighting anti-Israel sentiment throughout Europe. Like other new Christian Zionists, Manyemba is most concerned about teaching Christians a “biblical understanding” of Israel that lays out the divine economy of Genesis 12. CWZ explains that Christians “have a vital role in relation to the very existence of Israel, at a time when the legitimacy of the nation is under attack from Islamic militants, Western liberals,” and even fellow Christians who do not have the proper theology. It is this “vital role” that Manyemba finds to be a necessary and undervalued Christian teaching.
While reliant on Pentecostal and prosperity theology, the new Christian Zionism appeals to non-American Christians because of its promises of practical and material benefits. This is no end-times escapism or even right-wing political ideology. Rather, in the twenty-first century, Israel represents hope for the largest generation of new Christians around the globe. As Israel expands its outreach to Christians into the new global Pentecostalism, we are likely witnessing a key arena in which the future of the Middle East will be decided.
Whatever the geopolitical fortunes of the new Christian Zionism, its existence points to a remarkable shift in the Jewish-Christian relationship. The unifying premise of the contemporary movement—the expectation of divine national blessing that will follow from supporting Israel—is never far from the surface. And much like the fate of Christianity in the twenty-first century, the fate of Christian Zionism will increasingly be decided away from the traditional sources of American Evangelicalism and Western governments.
Daniel Hummel is a postdoctoral fellow in history and public policy at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University.