In the Left Behind novels—the inspiration for the 2014 Nicholas Cage movie—Christian believers are raptured away during a seven-year period of tribulation on earth. The seven years end with the inauguration of Christ’s thousand-year earthly reign from Jerusalem. Such “dispensational” views of the end time derive their position from biblical texts and emphasize the unique role of the modern nation of Israel at the end of time. Central to this position is Rom 11:26, where Paul announces that “all Israel will be saved.” But whom does the Jewish apostle really have in mind?
What does Romans 11:26 mean?
Rom 11:26 continues a line of argument begun already much earlier. At the end of Rom 8 (e.g., Rom 8:15, Rom 8:17, Rom 8:28-29, Rom 8:33), Paul had claimed that the privileges and heritage of historic Israel would be given to believers in Christ. This bestowal of Israel’s prerogatives on believers in Christ, including non-Jews, leads Paul immediately to lament for the people of Israel (Rom 9:1-5). He refuses to give up on his fellow Israelites despite the failure of many to agree with his claims about Christ. He tackles the problem in stages, but it all leads to Rom 11:26’s climactic claim that “all Israel will be saved.”
Some interpreters have argued that the “all Israel” being saved in Rom 11:26 is a church inclusive of both Jews and non-Jews. The fatal flaw in this approach, despite its popularity, is that Paul has been very careful throughout Rom 9-11 to distinguish “Israel” from non-Jewish gentiles. Paul may have stated that not all “Israelites truly belong to Israel” (Rom 9:6), but he quickly explains that he is not talking about gentiles. Rather, he is talking about a subgroup within ethnic Israel. Romans 11 explains the difference by using the metaphor of natural and wild olive branches. Gentiles may benefit from Israel’s history and heritage, but they remain the wild branches. When Rom 11:25-26 speaks of “all Israel,” then, Paul is continuing to carefully distinguish between what God is doing for the gentiles and what God is doing for Israel. Ultimately, Paul is holding out hope for his own people even in the face of the rejection by many of the Messiah Jesus. He maintains that Jesus is Lord of all, Jew and non-Jew, and that all are to place their faith in him (Rom 10:9-13). Yet, Paul explains, the people of Israel remain firmly within God’s plans.
Do those plans necessarily include a nation-state like modern Israel?
Consider Paul’s comments in Rom 4. Paul explains that both the circumcised and uncircumcised who place their faith in Jesus Christ (Rom 4:24-25) are descendants of Abraham—and the promises are even grander. Paul envisions that Abraham’s descendants would inhabit not a single nation or land, but the entire world (Rom 4:13)! The Left Behind novels are right to affirm God’s irrevocable promises to the historic people, but Paul never imagines a nation-state of Israel. He envisions the gentiles’ worldwide inclusion among God’s people spurring his own people to faith in the Messiah Jesus. Paul’s hope was to take the gospel message to one of the furthest reaches of his world, Spain (Rom 15:23-24, Rom 15:28).