How Do I Debate Missionaries Who Think I’m Going to Hell?

Dear Jew in the City,

You know how there’s an idea in Christianity that we Jews are going to Hell for not believing in Jesus? What’s a good way to debate missionaries on this issue using the Bible?

Sincerely, Jew in the Bible Belt.

Dear Jew in the Bible Belt,

The best way to combat proselytizing from another religion is to know who you are and what your beliefs are as Jew. That’s why only a very small segment of Orthodox Jews ever convert out of Judaism. They know how very special their own heritage is.

In terms of debating a Christian missionary using the Bible – I have two things to say about that. Number one, that’s not my area of expertise, though you can find a wealth of information on these issues at http://jewsforjudaism.org/ and http://www.outreachjudaism.org/. Number two, I wouldn’t recommend debating a missionary in the first place. People who missionize are trained in this area and you’re not. So unless you’re interested in devoting a considerable amount of time in understanding why we reject the claims that missionaries make, it’s not going to be an even debate.

Now while I can’t personally help you with Biblical sources, there’s a philosophical argument that I came up with a little while back in regards to this issue that I’d like to share. About a year ago I was looking at a website designed to teach Christians how to convert non-believers into believers. The site gives a quiz to the visitor and also shows videos of this quiz being given to random people on the street. It goes something like this:

Missionary: If you believe that in order to get to heaven you need to obey the ten commandments, let’s go through them and see how you’re doing. (As an aside, I think it’s perfectly fair that if a person ascribes to certain beliefs he take an honest look at himself and see if he’s living up to his beliefs.) Question number one: The Bible says to not take God’s name in vain. Have you ever taken God’s name in vain?

Man on the street: Yeah, I guess I have.

Missionary: Do you know what that makes you?

Man on the street: Um, I’m not sure.

Missionary: A blasphemer. Let’s move on to question number two. The Bible says not to steal. Have you ever stolen anything, even something as simple as a pen that wasn’t yours?

Man on the street: Yeah, I guess I have.

Missionary: Do you know what people who steal are called?

Man on the street: Thieves?

Missionary: Exactly.

(The quiz goes on and on until the man on the street sees that he is basically striking out on every commandment.)

Missionary: Do you know what happens to sinners when they die?

Man on the street: They go to hell?

Missionary: Exactly. Which is where you should be going. But there’s some good news in all of this. Jesus Christ suffered so you won’t have to. He died for your sins, and now all you have to do is accept him into your heart and you won’t have to face the pain of hell.

Now there is a certain logic to this, provided the quiz unfolds the way it does in these videos. But I realized, as I watched this quiz take place a few times, that if I was stopped on the street and asked about my commandment observance, I would answer differently. It’s not that I could claim that I always honored my parents. It’s not that I would claim that I never coveted anything my neighbor had.

The difference would be in the conclusion I would come to. I wouldn’t call myself a “parent dishonerer” nor would I call myself a “coveter.” That’s because my mistakes don’t define who I am – they’re just minor setbacks along the way to where I’m really going. In essence, I’m a good person who stumbles sometimes, but I’m always working on being better.

Although I’m not an expert on Christianity, based on these videos, I realized that there’s a major philosphical divide between Christian thought and Jewish thought in regards to sinning. Christianity seems to brand people who sin as “sinners.” And let’s face it, no matter how hard a person tries, it’s impossible to live a life without making mistakes. So the conclusion that Christianity comes to is let Jesus lift you up, since you’re destined to fall again and again on your own.

But Judaism has a very different take on sinning: We believe that the road towards ultimate righteousness can only be paved by making mistakes. It says in the Talmud that a perfectly righteous person, who never erred once in his life, will never be on as high a level as a person who made mistakes, but learned from them and grew from them.

Likewise, it says in the Talmud, “seven times a righteous person falls and picks himself up.” And though it seems counter-intuitive at first glance, it’s in the act of falling and trying again and again and again that according to Judaism, righteousness is born. Jews believe that God doesn’t expect us to be perfect – He just expects us to strive towards perfection.

Sincerely yours,

Jew in the City

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  1. I came across your site when researching mikvahs online. I wanted to know more about it. and then I got sucked in because I find your site very interesting! I really enjoyed it a lot!

    anyhow, I’m a Conservative Christian and I just had to respond to this. I know exactly the program you are talking about – I’ve seen it on a program and circulating the internet myself. and I shudder every time. All I can say is they mean well. they really do. they just… I don’t know. they lack ability to see things from outside their own perspective I suppose, would be the best way to put it.
    It is so easy to make assumptions about entire groups of people simply because the loudest (and most ignorant) of that group stand up and make idiots of themselves. But in truth, there are many many of us Christians that live everyday quiet lives. we don’t try to convert anyone – only remain open to those who want to know more about our faith. We feel the best way to show how much our beliefs mean to us is by living it every day, NOT by trying to trick people into thinking that they believe it too.

    you are right to avoid these types of “traps”. they are wrong and don’t prove anything. nobody should ever be tricked into saying something other than they mean and then held to it. the best thing to do is to turn and walk away from such silly meaningless games.

    anyhow I guess I just had to say something. I wanted to be a Christian voice for those of us who are also unhappy with this way of trying to “convert” people. I’m not sure it makes you feel any better about us, but I had to try. I would hate for any one to think that every time they come in contact with a Christian they will try to trick them into being Christian too.

    sincerely,
    Henny

    p.s. if you don’t post this to your site because it’s a little off topic, I completely understand. But I would so appreciate it if you let me know your got my comment. thanks!

    • Thanks for your comment, Henny. I didn’t mean to imply that all Christians do this sort of thing – that’s why I used the word “missionary” in my answer instead of “Christian.” But I appreciate you speaking up for the people who are committed to your faith but who are not actively trying to convert others to it.

      • As for me, I came across this site because i’m interested with Jews(who are the people of God) and i”m always looking to know and understand the jewish culture because it is related to God. The only thing i would like to say is, why you think is so bad to try to convert people to christianity? I don’t know why you are calling methods to do so tricks. I myself have been approached in the same way somedays after i moved to america. But i would have never thought of it as tricks to manipulate people. People in the end still do what they want. One have to choose Christ with his own soul and mind. Jesus saved me and i hold on to him tight, because i know no other way of going to heaven. Jewish have the chance of having the Ten Commandments and the Torah. I do not, I’m a gentile like my brothers and sisters, we have no other way. Why can’t I convert other people in the same situation?

        • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs says:

          Thanks for your comment, Amani. I’m not trying to convince you of anything, but you should just know that according to Jewish belief, if you’re a good person and follow the 7 Noahide Commandments (don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery, etc.) as a gentile you have a portion in the World to Come to. I’m not telling you to not be Christian, but just to know that we Jews don’t believe we’re the only ones with a portion in the World to Come.

        • Curtis Scissons says:

          A little late, but here goes..
          Simply put, us Jews think it’s bad to convert to Christianity because when a Jew does so, that Jew ceases to be Jewish, according to scripture and over 2,000 years of established Jewish law. So no matter how well-intentioned, desiring to convert Jews to another religion also results in helping to destroy Judaism, something we have fought against and suffered through for millennia.

          • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs says:

            thanks for your comment, curtis, but we don’t actually believe that it’s possible to cease being jewish. you can believe or practice anything but there’s no way to undo the status. converting certainly is not good for jewish continuity though.

  2. Also, as a Christian (Catholic, to be precise), I feel compelled to say something here and clear something up.

    I completely understand how you came to the conclusion that Christianity labels people “sinners,” thereby defining them by their mistakes rather than by their personality as a whole. If I wasn’t Christian, I would probably think so too.

    However, I have never felt that as a whole Christianity labels people sinners who then need Jesus’ help to redeem themselves. I think this mentality is prevalent in SOME Christian religions, particularly the more conservative and fundamentalist ones, but is NOT characteristic of Christianity as a whole.

    I think it’s wonderful what you’re doing. Our society today tends to look down on religion and instead of understanding why someone may be religiously conservative, it tends to poke at it. I think, more than anything, religious conservatism means truly looking deep into one’s faith and trying to really understand the intricacies and find the truth and significance behind the traditions, symbolism, teachings, and stories. And I think you are doing that admirably! Blessings

  3. Thanks for your comment, Jessica. Judaism of course still rejects Jesus as the Messiah for many other reasons, but I appreciate you clarifying that not all branches of Christianity feel the same way about sinning.

  4. Mr. Cohen says:

    I have about 20 years of experience combating deceptive Christian missionary cults that target Jews for conversion.

    The best way for Jews to deal with these cults is to ignore them completely. We Jews are NEVER obligated to listen to Christian missionaries, and we are NEVER obligated to speak to them.

    The laws of the Jewish faith [Halachah] forbid debating apostates. Jews debated Christian missionaries in the Middle Ages, but only because they were repeatedly forced to. Jews NEVER participated in these debates voluntarily, and there is still no reason for us Jews to debate them.

    If all Jews would be smart enough to *** STAY AWAY *** from Christian missionaries, then anti-missionary activists could spend their lives doing things that are normal, pleasant, and meaningful, instead of fighting extremely difficult battles to get Jews out of deceptive Christian missionary cults that target Jews.

    Deceptive Christian missionary cults that target Jews spend months and years training in tactics to convert Jews, including nasty psychological tricks designed to make Jews confused and make Jews look like evil people, so they can look good in comparison.

    QUOTE 1:

    Rashi commentary on Mishlei / Proverbs, chapter 9, verse 7:
    …This is a warning that it is forbidden to speak with missionaries, even to rebuke them or cause them to repent.

    QUOTE 2:

    Rambam, Hilchot Avodat Cochavim,
    Chapter 5, Law 7:
    It is forbidden to enter into a discussion or debate with a person who proselytizes in the name of a false god.

    QUOTE 3:

    Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, The Real Messiah, Chapter 1, Page 1:

    DO NOT argue with missionaries; do not lend credence or dignity to their efforts at soul_snatching…

    DO NOT debate, dialogue or argue with missionaries. Missionaries often seek to engage Jews in public discussion. DO NOT be drawn into this utterly fruitless exercise.

    …DO NOT invite missionaries or their followers to address meetings under Jewish auspices. Such hospitality only gives the missionary cause institutional dignity and legitimacy.

  5. I’m a Christian and am familiar with debates using the Bible.
    First thing is, you would actually have to know the Bible verses missionaries are likely to throw at you. If you are a Jewish person, it might help to know the 53rd Chapter of Isaiah. Study Messianic prophecies and be able to compare those to Jesus’ life and teachings.
    Talk to Rabbis and trusted Christian friends if you don’t understand something.

    BTW You could always just ignore the missionaries too. 😉

  6. Allison, once again nice job in answering the question.

    Mr. Cohen’s quotes have good points too.

    I was raised in a Christian home. The single thing I hated most about being a Christian was proselytizing. I hated knocking on people’s doors or confronting people in public about something that I really felt was none of my business and very uncomfortable…especially when I was younger. Ugh!

    On my Jewish journey the most annoying group I encounter is Jews for Jesus or Messianic Jews. I really can’t stand them. Maybe it is the excessive proselytizing or maybe it is the extremely false representation of Judaism. There is a big difference in “calling yourself” a Jew and “actually being” Jewish. Also there is a difference in being born to a Jewish family, then converting to Christianity, and then joining the J4J or Messianic movements.

    Clearly, if you are financed by Evangelical Christian movement your movement is not Jewish at all.

    I don’t debate people on Judaism. When people try to get into negative discourse with me and I don’t answer it seems to make them madder. My favorite quote, “Let’s agree to disagree and move on with our lives.”

    No matter what you say or how much you know they will never agree with you. They will always look at you as the person who killed their messiah…even though they are wrong.

  7. As a Catholic who’s always lived in the Bible belt, I’m a veteran of these kinds of exchanges. Some of these “missionaries” are acting out of a genuine desire to rescue people they think are in need of rescuing, others just want another notch on their belt. I’m willing to engage with the former if I sense they’re really willing to listen and not just looking for an opening for their spiel. I don’t do this with the intent to persuade since I don’t think this kind of conversation ever actually persuades anyone, but just to open them up to the reality that other people’s beliefs are well grounded and reasonable.

    As far as branding people sinners, that was one of the dividing points of the Reformation. Strict Reformed Protestants do not differentiate between having a tendency to sin and actually sinning. They also think that any sin, no matter how small, leads to damnation. Catholics disagree on both points.

  8. “Christianity seems to brand people who sin as “sinners.””

    As a Christian, it has been my experience that for most Christians we brand PEOPLE as sinners. Period. That includes Christians, we all sin, no one is perfect, thus necessitating the sacrifice in order to make it to Heaven.

    Like Jews, I think most Christians also believe that the path to holiness is one with ups and down, slips and falls, and that no one will achieve perfection. Rather it is a lifetime of trying your best to do what God wills.

    The difference seems to be largely in the belief of a need for a savior as well as a belief in who that Savior is.

    Hope this helps!

  9. You have the wrong idea. you say “Jews believe that God doesn’t expect us to be perfect – He just expects us to strive towards perfection.”
    That’s what Christians believe as well. The only perfect person was Jesus (in christianity) and Christians are people who “Strive” to be like Christ. Paul, one of the apostles, describes the christian journey as ‘running a race towards perfection’. The bible states clearly, we fall, but we get back up again during that race. The important thing is to keep running. Dunno why you think otherwise based on one video you saw.

  10. The article was very well done, but I just would like to point out that “seven times a righteous person falls and picks himself up.” is actually a pasuk in Mishlei (24:16), not just in the T

  11. I know that I have liberal views many other Christians might not agree with. I am a Protestant from Germany, but I’ve always been interested in other religions and cultures. Personally, I think that interreligious dialogue is very important because there is so much we can learn, if we keep an open mind. However, having a productive discussion with missionaries is hard, if not impossible. They aren’t really interested in other opinions – at least this was the case in my limited experience. So it’s probably the best to ignore them.

    Yes, Christians believe in hell and in Jesus as the saviour. But people not believing in Jesus don’t necessarily have to end up in hell. This is something that Pope Francis recently stated. By simply trying to be a good person and a helpful part of society (10 Commandments, for example), you’re ok. Christians believe in a kind and merciful god who knows that humans aren’t perfect and that they fail. What counts is the will to try one’s best and by trying to do better next time.

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