Film & Television

‘Til Kingdom Come’: Fundraising for the Apocalypse

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Those who believe religion and politics aren’t connected don’t understand either.” Emmy-winning Israeli filmmaker Maya Zinshtein has uncovered startling links between the two but, after watching her provocative documentary Til Kingdom Come, you may have more questions than answers.

‘Til Kingdom Come, which has been nominated for awards in both Israel and the U.S., examines the unlikely partnership between Evangelical Christians and Israeli Jews. What on the surface seems to be a philanthropical fellowship is rooted in the most literal and extreme interpretation of the New Testament’s End Times. And, religious ideology aside, Zinshtein makes a solid case that these strange bedfellows have had tremendous influence on political decisions and diplomatic policy over the past four years.

The film begins in the backwoods of Kentucky, and the first scene could be seamlessly inserted into Netflix’s controversial Hillbilly Elegy. A young man in a Breitbart tee shirt is meticulously preparing his automatic weapon for target practice. He explains that President Obama didn’t support the Christian right, but “We are the people that brought Donald Trump to power, and he pushes our agenda.” Immediately after, we see the same young man, who turns out to be Pastor Boyd Bingham IV, the latest in a long line of familial Baptist preachers, dressed up and ready to tend his flock. And that flock needs help.

Half of Bingham’s congregation in Middlesboro, Kentucky, lives below the poverty line. The community faces serious and unrelenting problems with addiction, hunger, and homelessness. Yet the church regularly collects money — tens of thousands of dollars, much of it in loose change — to send to Israel. At least some of it goes to elderly widows and Holocaust survivors. Clearly, the people of Middlesboro are kind and generous. 

However, they have a much greater, in the words of their own pastor, “agenda.”

Through interviews with Boyd and his more passionate father, Pastor William Bingham III, we learn prophetic details we may have missed in Sunday school. The gist is that to prepare for Christ’s second coming, the kingdom of Israel must rise to sovereignty and then face seven years of Tribulations (the fine points are a bit unclear, but we have to assume wars, floods, famine, pestilence, earthquakes). But, Christians — at least those of the God-fearing, Evangelical variety — will be spared, thanks to the Rapture (and yes, I’m oversimplifying).

But here’s the rub: two thirds of the world’s Jews will die during this cataclysm. The remaining third will convert to Christianity and, we assume, be saved.

So, to this agnostic viewer (I freely admit to being skeptical where religious dogma, of any faith, is concerned), the logic seems flawed. Essentially, the Middlesboro congregation contributes money (which it can little afford to do) to help Israel, so Israel will thrive, so that the same Israel can be destroyed. 

Zinshtein introduces us to the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the recipient of Middlesboro’s generosity. The nonprofit organization was founded in 1983 by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein. After his mission was featured on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club on the Christian Broadcasting Network, it was embraced by Bingham’s church and others like it. Over the years, Evangelicals have donated $1.5 billion, most of which has gone to support impoverished Israelis and to help Jews around the world who want to resettle in Israel. Since Yechiel’s death in 2019, it has been run by his daughter Yael. 

Yael Eckstein is a natural spokesperson. She’s articulate, impassioned, and has a megawatt smile. Videos of her bringing boxes of food to some of the organization’s beneficiaries are genuinely moving, if a little melodramatic. She explains, “This isn’t about money; this is a strategic partnership of God.” Still, despite her commitment to the cause, she admits that there are problematic conflicts of interest. “It’s a paradox,” she shrugs. “When you go five steps ahead of it, it gets really freaking complicated. So I don’t go those five steps.”

Others do, and many Israelis object to taking money from a group that is pro-life, pro-gun, and essentially praying for their nation’s eventual demise. Zinshtein understands these concerns. As she explained in an interview with The New York Times, “These people have a very specific set of beliefs that drives them. In the film, for example, you see them celebrating the ban on transgender [members of] the American military. You’re signing on with their whole agenda. You cannot take just one part.”

There are dichotomies on the U.S. side as well. The far right is generally thought of as antisemitic, while many American Jews lean left on the issues that the country’s Evangelicals support. Speaking of her access to Evangelicals, Zinshtein notes, “If I were a Jew from New York, I’d never have been able to make this film. American Jews are recognized as the other side. We are not. We are part of this bond. The bond is with Israel.”

The film includes scenes from the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem after the Trump administration relocated it from Tel Aviv. Ivanka and Jared Kushner beam as Netanyahu declares his everlasting friendship and alliance with the U.S. Meanwhile, John Hagee, founder of Christians United for Israel and other Evangelical leaders rejoice that apocalyptic prophecies are being fulfilled. A frail Pat Robertson, now 90 years old, notes that the embassy’s move was “a very important signal of prophecy. We’ve been waiting for that for decades.” There’s a clear message that the Trump administration made the move to appease its Evangelical base, which, according to an advisor, represents 25% of the American vote. But the film also points out that 58 Palestinians died in protests the day the embassy opened.

Another scene takes place at a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago, which surprised the director herself. “It was mind-blowing,” she says. “You saw all these wealthy Christians and Jews sitting together, saw Christians give testimony about how ‘Before I started to donate to Israel, I had a small shop in Cleveland, and today I have a huge chain of stores, just because I started to donate to Israel.’ They think it helps them in their lives.”

Meanwhile, when Til Kingdom Come was first screened, audiences were upset by the living conditions they saw in Zinshtein’s scenes from Middlesboro. As the director remembers, “Some Israelis who saw the film asked if they could send money.”

One of the most thought-provoking and affecting scenes occurs when Zinshtein captures a simple interaction between people with dramatically different perspectives. Toward the end of the film, Boyd visits the Holy Land and speaks with a Palestinian Christian minister, who tries to explain to him that his church’s money is being used to build settlements that displace people. The conversation is civil, but as Boyd leaves, he speaks directly to the camera. “I didn’t want to hurt his feelings,” he says, “but there’s no such thing as Palestine. That’s not Evangelicalism. That’s fact of history.” 

Perhaps. But, in Til Kingdom Come, history, faith, and policy blend in complex and often contradictory ways. Zinshtein worries that the Evangelicals’ support runs counter to any hopes for peace in the Middle East. To her point, Hagee’s assertion that Evangelicals should rejoice if Israel goes to war is chilling.

And it stands in sharp contrast to the director’s own mission for her film: that viewers will understand that Israelis are “not just [in] the Bible; we’re people with a present and a near future. That Israelis and Palestinians want to live in peace. Just because your faith says that God said to Abraham that all this land belongs to the Jewish people — they are not going to suffer the consequences. We are the ones who’ll suffer the consequences, in real life, not just in the afterlife.”

‘Til Kingdom Come will have its broadcast debut on the PBS series “Independent Lens” on March 29. Check your local listings.


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