Hell, Judaism, mission trips, identity crises, and why I still bother with this whole Jesus thing

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.


16 thoughts on “Hell, Judaism, mission trips, identity crises, and why I still bother with this whole Jesus thing”

  1. I was raised Catholic, and I never had trouble with the notion of hell until I joined a nondenominational Christian club in college. I was never taught that people of other faiths or beliefs went to hell; then, when I joined the club, I was guilted and chided and generally condescended to about my allegedly naive ideas about the afterlife. I was also encouraged to go around proclaiming to people that what they believe is wrong and that I wasn’t living up to my potential by withholding my opinions. This from folks who couldn’t even understand that Catholicism is part of Christianity, not a separate entity.

    Needless to say, I commend you for asking questions, and for believing in action for social justice. I find myself nodding along to pretty much every post you write about these subjects. Faith is fluid, and I wish more people understood that not everything a person “knows” or is taught is set in stone.


  2. I enjoyed your post and conversations with your fellow bloggers above. I agree with April above when she says “Don’t quash your inner Jew, she brings a great richness to your faith” After all God’s chosen people were firstly the Jews and must still be close to His heart. I have learnt a lot more than I knew in 5 minutes reading your post about the Old Testament in your interpretation of the Scriptures. I knew a Methodist Minister who was an expert at many languages and was very careful about how words are translated in the Bible. He often liked to attend a Synagogue. He was convinced that God would include the Jewish people within heaven even if they still find Jesus to be stumbling block and are unable to convert. You might think that is wishy washy thinking. I think that the way God thinks is not how we think and I am happy to leave the mystery to Him. I love diversity and i think I get that love from God. Our three in one God has created and loves a world full of diversity. I cannot believe that heaven will be less full of diverse people. Continue to question, listen and learn. We all need to grow to flourish. We need you. Best wishes, Julia


  3. I was raised in evangelical Christianity, yet I’m struggling with the same doubts. Don’t quash your inner Jew; she brings a great richness to your faith. There is much about the Jewish perspective that I love and believe was meant to be a part of Christianity. Sometimes we forget that Jesus was a Jew and expressed a primary concern for the poor and oppressed. We need to get back there. It’s hard sometimes being the only one on the fringes asking questions, but the church really does need that voice of dissent…even if it doesn’t think so.


    1. That stubborn inner Jew tends to get me in trouble 🙂 I don’t mean to cause a disturbance in small groups by bringing up tough subjects, but I want answers that aren’t pulled from a C.S. Lewis book, as brilliant as that man was. It seems that the same apologetic reasoning gets recycled constantly by the current “It” pastors – Tim Keller, Francis Chan, etc – and I just want to hear something more concrete than another metaphor or analogy.


  4. Hi Erin, I noticed you are now following my blog, so I came to see who you are. Quite a pleasant experience! I read your bio and several of you posts; it seems that you and I are walking on the same path. I started following you today on RSS and on Twitter.

    I am sure you have investigated further than you indicate on where the idea of hell originated [not ‘came from’; do I get credit for that?], but you might be interested in my series on hell that examines that question


      1. My apologies, Beth; my mistake. I know your name, and you are the one I am following. I used Erin’s name without being aware of it. I really like your blog.


  5. Yes. Pretty much this, from top to bottom.

    While I was raised to believe in eternal torment, I can’t really even grasp the concept now, let alone find it in the bible (even in the new testament).


Leave a Reply to Beth Caplin Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s