If you’re planning to go to Florida any time soon, you’ll have plenty of theme parks to choose from: Universal Studios, Epcot, Disney World, Gatorland… and now the Holy Land Experience. According to the promotional literature, “The Gates of Jerusalem Are About to Open in Orlando!” The Holy Land Experience is a new $16-million, 15-acre theme park that includes the following attractions: a six-story replica of the façade of Herod’s Temple; the world’s largest scale model of first-century Jerusalem; Bible characters in period costumes; multimedia presentations that recreate scenes from Bible times; animatronic figures of Christian heroes such as John Wycliffe, the Bible translator; food items like the “Goliath Burger,” and, of course, gift shops full of Christian kitsch.
Before you plan your Florida vacation, however, there are at least two significant issues to consider. One is the perennial danger of turning Christianity into another form of consumerism. The theme park’s founder claims that visitors “will leave the 21st century behind and embark on a journey that is unequalled anywhere in the world. It will be an experience that is educational, historical, theatrical, inspirational, and evangelical.” Perhaps the new attraction will be all those things, but one wonders whether something that is theatrical will also be evangelical, in the true gospel sense of the word. The gospel makes for good theater, but good theater doesn’t always present the true gospel of the crucified and risen Christ, especially when there are souvenirs for sale. The Holy Land Experience is the latest in an endless series of attempts to commercialize Christianity.
Back in 1988 Jamie Buckingham wrote a novel called Jesus World. In the novel a character asked, “Why should Walt Disney be more attractive than Jesus Christ?” So he imagined trying to make Christ more appealing to the masses by building a major theme park. “It will be ‘Jesus World’ in capital letters,” he said. “A hundred times bigger and more spectacular than Walt Disney ever dreamed. We will recreate the scenes of the Bible, we’ll build a scale model of Herod’s Temple, we’ll have holograms of Jesus walking on the water. And when they come-by the millions-they’ll hear the Word of God” [cited by Mark I. Pinsky in Christianity Today, March 5, 2001, pp. 101-103].
Buckingham’s words obviously have turned out to be prophetic. What is interesting is the standard of comparison. The question is whether Jesus can compete with Disney, and not the other way around. It is simply assumed that in order to present the gospel, we need to measure up to the values of the entertainment age. But the gospel is not an amusement; it is a message of salvation through a suffering, bleeding Savior.
The second issue raised by The Holy Land Experience is the validity of Jewish evangelism. The theme park was built by Reverend Marvin Rosenthal, a self-described Hebrew Christian who is now an ordained Protestant minister. Rosenthal’s hope is that fellow Jews will be intrigued by the possibility of seeing Israel in America, and that when they come and visit, they will be introduced to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
This seems unlikely. The tragic history of anti-Semitism makes many Jews suspicious of anything involving Jesus Christ, and most of them will probably keep their distance. In fact, some Jewish commentators have been openly hostile to the Holy Land Experience. They view the theme park as a variation on the old “bait-and-switch:” Invite Jewish friends to see a scale model of Jerusalem, and then, without warning, show them a film about Jesus.
Jewish evangelism was controversial the day Jesus began his public ministry, and it remains controversial today. In a recent column in the Philadelphia Inquirer [April, 2001], anti-missionary Carl Nathans warned fellow Jews about Bible studies “that are really missionary efforts to attract Jews.” He also chastised churches for being deceptive in their evangelism. For example, some congregations sponsor celebrations that show how Passover finds its spiritual and historical fulfillment in Jesus Christ. But Nathans worries that Jews will attend these services without knowing what they are in for. He has a legitimate point: If churches sponsor programs intended to introduce Jews to Jesus, they should announce their intention up front.
However, Jewish criticisms of The Holy Land Experience and other forms of evangelism often misunderstand the meaning of conversion. Conversion is presented as something that Christians try to do to non-Christians. For example, Nathans complains that Jews are getting tired of “efforts by Christian missionary organizations to convert us.” But true conversion is not something that anyone can do to anyone else. It is a spiritual transformation that can only be produced by God the Holy Spirit (see John 3).
Christians need to remember this, too. Sometimes we are too pushy in our evangelism, imagining that there is something we can say or do to change someone else’s mind about Christ. But that is God’s work, not our work, and it is better for us simply to explain Christianity as clearly as we can and then pray for God to do the real work of conversion.
All of this is to say that evangelism must be done in the right way. But it must be done, for the sake of the Jewish community as much as for anyone else. Our conviction is that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah promised in the Hebrew Scriptures. To put this in a more provocative way, everything that God ever promised to the Jews is to be found in and through Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the Bible promises that in days to come, many Jews will come to faith in Christ. The apostle Paul-himself a Jew-explained that “Israel (meaning natural Israel, the Jewish people) has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel (meaning spiritual Israel, which includes both Jews and Gentiles) will be saved” (Rom. 12:25b, 26a). Whether or not they have The Holy Land Experience, they will be saved.
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