I’ve written before about hell being my biggest stumbling block within Christianity, but the topic emerged again in my brain during a sermon about two weeks ago, where a guest speaker talked about his overseas mission trip. Something like eighteen families in a single Asian village came to know Christ as a result of his endeavor, and while hell was not explicitly mentioned during his talk, the idea was still embedded throughout: what need is there for evangelism if the goal is not to save people from something bad?
People around me clapped and cheered “Amen” at those numbers, and I realized for about the thousandth time in the six years I’ve been a Christian that I still have a stubborn inner Jew, and she comes out roaring in moments like this. As a whole, Judaism is pretty unconcerned about the notion of any afterlife, and is driven by an obligation for tikkun olam – social justice – than any desire to gain converts.
Now I’m sure that most missionaries travel abroad not only to spread the gospel message but to perform acts of service as well. I don’t want to generalize that all mission trips are agenda-driven, but growing up as a member of the religious minority has not shaped my view of missionaries in a very positive light. When I think of missionaries, I can’t help but think of trampling on someone else’s turf, invading someone else’s culture, and telling them their beliefs are wrong.
I realized I’d rather give my money to causes that directly affect people in this life – a very Jewish way of thinking. To the Christian, however, what we suffer on earth cannot compare to the suffering that awaits nonbelievers after death – an idea that always struck me as philosophical more than literal, because twenty years of Judaism trained me not to be concerned about such matters. Even today, it’s still extremely difficult to wrap my mind around.
So why do I still bother? Why do I continue going back to church week after week, where I’m bound to continue hearing these troubling messages?
I go because an incarnate God (a nonexistent concept in Judaism, if not a heretical one) appeals to me: a God who possessed a human body that felt love, depression, anger, and physical agony. Christianity gave me a tangible example of putting others before myself (in non-codependent ways). That is still meaningful to me, and where I am reminded of humanity’s intrinsic value – Imago Dei – on days when I just hate everybody. And the idea of redemption: God taking broken things and making them new; no negative experience ever having to be wasted. I just love that, and I’ve seen evidence of that in my life a few times.
But then there’s other parts attached, like hell and Satan and demonic influences, which never resonated with me, and still don’t. I never understood where hell even came from, if the Jews penned the Old Testament, which is largely silent about the topic. As previously mentioned, Judaism puts virtually no emphasis on it. If punishment for the wicked is mentioned in the OT at all, it is referred to as ultimate destruction, not eternal agony. And, if hell is eternal – that is, if I’m defining “eternal” right – that means it has no end OR beginning. So how could that be, if punishment and death did not exist before the Fall?
I have no answers to these, and I could very well be wrong in my theorizing. It just doesn’t make sense to me.
And then there are the times I look around the sanctuary at all the people with their eyes closed, swaying and raising their hands to music, which was never integral to the worship I grew up with, and I can’t help but think These are not my people.
And yet, if I profess to still believe in Jesus the incarnate son of God, they are by default my people. And it goes without saying that any systematic set of beliefs will come with its own unique culture and verbiage. The culture and “Christianese” lingo I can do without – that’s not what Christianity is based on. And I’m quite certain that the Jewish cultural norms I’m so comfortable in probably sound as downright strange to gentiles as “love on” and “washed by the blood” sound to me.
And I’m also certain that no matter which faith I choose, there will be unanswerable questions and habitual doubts. I have posited before among Christian groups that there could be a chance – maybe a 1% chance, but still a chance nonetheless – that we’re all wrong about what the Real Truth is. Maybe the “correct” religion died out with a remote Amazonian tribe centuries ago. To me, that seemed like a humble thing to consider, but that line of thinking is what drove me out of seminary – a place that did not feel safe because apparently, I asked too many questions.
As you can see, I am far from giving up on asking. And the questions only get more difficult as time goes on, but being as stubborn as I am makes me all the more determined to keep seeking and not give up.