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?
(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.
Jew in the City