When I was a student at a theological college, I attended a church in an affluent part of Sydney. I met a lovely ‘empty nest’ couple who had just returned from a tour of the Holy Land (Israel/Palestine). They shared how spiritually enriching it had been for them—to be in the places where Jesus walked and talked, suffered and died, rose and appeared had ‘brought it all to life’ for them. They enthused, ‘Every theological student should tour the Holy Land—it would do so much for their faith and their ministry.’ I offered to help them test their thesis if they would pay, but their enthusiasm had its limits.
Should the strength of our faith, and our growth in maturity depend on being affluent enough to tour the Holy Land?
As a young man who had never voluntarily travelled outside Australia, I found myself a little conflicted by their enthusiasm. On one hand, they had so obviously been encouraged in their faith by their experience. But on the other hand, should the strength of our faith, and our growth in maturity depend on being affluent enough to tour the Holy Land?
A Historical Faith
Christianity is a deeply historical faith. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible keeps insisting that God has worked out his plan of salvation in and through real historical people and events. There may be some room for discussion about the genre of Jonah and Job, but Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Mary, Jesus, Peter and Paul (amongst many others) were either historically real people or Christianity is merely wishful thinking. Even our Creeds mention Pontus Pilate to drive home the point that we are talking about real events carried out by real people at specific points in time and places in geography.
And yet, despite this, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that apostles ever felt the need to encourage believers to visit the Holy Land in order to validate the gospel message. In Jerusalem, Peter can appeal to their familiarity with David’s tomb (Acts 2: 29), but if Paul ever organised a trip to Jerusalem for the benefit of Corinthian sceptics or church leaders, well, history doesn’t mention it.
Confidence comes from the eyewitnesses’ testimony.
John writes about that ‘which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched,’ (1 John 1:1) but he doesn’t say, ‘Come with me and I will show you where it all happened.’ Instead he says, ‘we proclaim … we testify’ to what we have seen and heard. That these things happened is crucial, but personally seeing where they happened isn’t. The confidence that they happened comes from the eyewitnesses’ testimony.
The four Gospels exhibit a similar approach. Luke insists that his Gospel is the result of careful investigation of the events through eyewitnesses (Luke 1:2-3)—and expects that statement to give Theophilus confidence. Again, certainty depends on the testimony of the apostles, not each Christian having a personal experience (which is just as well since the events were unrepeatable). Visiting the place does not make the event real.
In fact, the whole idea of ‘the Holy Land’ seems foreign to Scripture. The places where the key events happened are never described in those terms. Pilgrimages … monuments … reliquaries—all came centuries later.
This is striking since Christianity grew out of Judaism, which had a very strong sense of holy places (like the Temple). Yet it makes perfect sense theologically because Jesus’ death and resurrection mean that all people everywhere can now draw near to God though him. True worship is no longer about a place, but a person: Jesus, our perfect, permanent High Priest, takes us all into the very Holy of Holies by his blood. There are no holy sites, but there is free access to all in every place. Jesus is our stairway to heaven, but the places he walked are not.
Christ Among the Religions
Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, animism and folk religion—these all have their holy places, where the privileged (or wealthy) can gain spiritual power or advantage by coming close to a holy site or box or tree. But Jesus has liberated us from such unedifying scrambling—we are all holy priests offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to our holy God through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:5) even though we are scattered as exiles all over the world.
Forty years after my theological studies, I have finally visited Israel. My wife and I spent an exhausting but interesting nine days touring the sites with a Christian tour company, followed by a few days in Greece exploring some of the places Paul frequented. Here are a few reflections:
- Seeing the geography and travelling the regions that Jesus and Paul traipsed through 2000 years ago gave me a good sense of what it would have been like for them. Much of the landscape is similar to the first century, and seeing the Sea of Galilee surrounded by steep hills on the east, as well as the rolling hills below Nazareth on the west, made it easy to imagine Jesus walking and boating and preaching. Looking down on Temple Mount from the (slightly higher) Mount of Olives gave a sense of what it might have been like for Jesus. Standing on rocky Mars Hill (Athens) looking up at the ruins of the spectacular Parthenon on the Acropolis brought out the challenge in Paul’s words, ‘The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples made by human hands.’ And yet (speaking personally), my confidence in the gospel and my joy in Jesus were unaffected by the experience.
- Much of the clear connection between the events of the gospel and the locations where they happened has been lost over time. In Bethlehem, we visited the gaudy ‘Church of the Nativity’ and visited the ‘Shepherds’ Cave’, both of which are promoted as the place of Jesus’ birth. We joined the crowds pressing into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and were taken on a tour of ‘Golgotha and the Garden Tomb’ in a different part of Jerusalem. I was glad that our guide made the point that, although the Garden Tomb fits the evidence we have from the NT about the location of Jesus’ death and burial, we can’t be sure about the location. But we can be sure about the event and its indelible effects for all of humanity.
We can’t be sure about the location of the tomb. But we can be sure about the event and its indelible effects for all of humanity.
- There is heaps of solid, concrete evidence for the historicity of Biblical times, places and people. To see inscriptions that mention Pontus Pilate (in Caesarea) and Erastus (in Corinth); to look down on the porticoes of the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem; to stand on the rocky Mars Hill in Athens looking up at the Parthenon do contribute in small ways to a conviction that the Bible is solid history. But, frankly, I knew all that without seeing it for myself—it is in books.
- Many Christians expect that Israel will give them a special experience of connection with God. When we visited a site on the Jordan River which included an opportunity to be baptised, more than half the group wanted to be baptised and, as I was one of two Pastors in the group, I was asked to help. When I expressed reservations about baptising without assessing suitability, quite a few dropped out. It turned out they had all already been baptised—but they believed it would be somehow ‘spiritually special’ to do it again in the same river where Jesus was baptised.
I have many great memories of the trip. And joining a tour run for Christians was a really good way to tour Israel. We were shown many sites significant for Biblical history and theology and we were given explanations that (mostly) connected well to the Bible. I got to see places (like Masada), whose history and geography have long fascinated me. But please don’t think that touring Israel will (in itself) kickstart or supercharge your spiritual life. It is the momentous gospel of Jesus that can do that, and I hope you hear it in Israel and in your church every week.
And please don’t call it the Holy Land—the church you belong to is holy to God in a way a rocky piece of dirt will never be.