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Why Christians Should Agree with Jews’ Disinterest in Heaven and Hell

Digging deeper into Rabbi Shmuley Boteach's Kosher Jesus.

Rhonda Robinson


September 23, 2013 - 11:00 am
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I didn’t realize it, but apparently my son asked a theological question that divides Christians and Jews. Only fourteen at the time, and obviously contemplating the tempting life of a teenager looming before him, the boy asked,

“If there is no heaven, would being a Christian still be worth it?” He went on trying to clarify, “I mean, what if we’re all wrong? What if when we die there is no heaven? Would you be sorry that…”

“Sorry I didn’t have ‘fun’?”  I interrupted.

“Well, yeah,” he said sheepishly.

To his surprise my answer was an emphatic “Yes.” I didn’t become a Christian for the gold star at the end of the day or a mansion in the clouds for that matter.

In this week’s reading of Shmuley Boteach’s Kosher Jesusthe rabbi spends several chapters explaining why Jews can never accept Christ in the manner Christians do. He states that the differences between Christianity and Judaism could fill volumes. I get that, and have no interest in debating or highlighting our theological differences. Rather, it’s my intention to find common ground and promote our shared values.

Boteach cites a separation between the faiths,

“Christianity is extremely concerned with heaven and the afterlife. This urgency entails a list of things people can do to ensure that they receive the best rewards in the world to come. This is very different from Judaism, which focuses almost exclusively on proper behavior in this world.”

I see an opportunity for unity. It’s tempting to divide Christians and Jews along these lines. However, it is an unnecessary division. Here is where we can learn something from the Jewish side of the family.

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All Comments   (18)
All Comments   (18)
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“Nothing is more likely to destroy a species or a nation than a determination to survive at all costs. Those who care for something else more than civilization are the only people by whom civilization is at all likely to be preserved. Those who want Heaven most have served Earth best. Those who love Man less than God do most for Man.”
51 weeks ago
51 weeks ago Link To Comment
I have a problem with the theology here. Not focusing on the destination of our souls is missing the point of life itself. If Christians are not looking forward to an eternity beyond time, what is the point of Jesus' substitutionary atonement? If the point of Christianity is just to do good in the world and love God, what makes the Christian different from a Buddhist, or Muslim, or a Humanist?

If salvation is to have meaning, it is salvation FROM something and FOR something. Christians have a limited number of years intersecting with other people. That is a tiny fraction of time to introduce them to the God who loves them. Souls are eternal, will outlast the meat-shells that house them, and a choice needs to be made: you can spend eternity with your Creator, or apart from Him. Ignoring this robs you of opportunity. Doing good in the world is an adjunct of being saved, NOT the purpose of it.

For a Christian, life is joy, peace, excitement, and contentment. And it's still the lowest point of our eternity.
For the lost, life is empty, striving, greed, and a scrabble to acquire material goods, only to lose it all and die alone. And that will be the highest point of their eternity. An all-too-brief intersection of lives, before diverging. May we never forget that.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Directed to Mrs. Robinson and MT Geoff.

1. Mrs. Robinson, I will get around to answering you, but in a personal email or two.

2. MT Geoff, you "theodicy" problem is genuine and well worthy of consideration. I not only understand the force of your argument, but I also can feel, quite emotinally, said force. It is precisely Jesus on the Cross <> that affords me with the symbol for a transfiguring function of death and suffering, especially of the innocent. Why do I say that? No reasoned anwer is possible in the comment page of Mrs. Robinson's article. I will only say I encountered this theodiy encounter in the person of a genial writer Georg Büchner (early 19th Century Germany) who wrestled, particularly in phantastic literature, with a good God who watchs the suffering of mankind like carniverous fish in a container and finds creation "good". Yet, on his death bed in full suffering, shortly before death, Büchner loudly proclained: "We do not suffer enough, for it is throught suffering that we come to God." I still mediatae on the words of that literary giant. Perhaps Mother Theresa's lifestyle illustrates a life formed by the wise answer to Büchner's problem. Thank you for your reasoned thoughts.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Howdy Prof
I hadn't heard the term "theodicy" applied to the issue of benevolent God/dicey Universe. My own best version of squaring the theodicy circle is that humans make bad and even wicked choices and that explains most of what goes badly in life. It leaves a lot unexplained, at which point I acknowledge it as mystery and I don't pretend that being a mystery explains it. I've heard people try to do, to simply say "It must be God's Will" as if that were an explanation and an excuse.
In terms of the death of Jesus: I just don't know what to make of it. Christianity, linked with Greek, Roman and Jewish influences, has done more good than any other religion I know of. Christianity has been a well-spring of liberty and generosity that Buddhism, Hinduism and other religious traditions have not been. There has been a strain within Christianity as controlling, even as cruel as any other religion -- the Inquisition comes to mind and the early Protestant churches in the American colonies hanged heretics. But overall Christianity has been more of a source of liberty and of generosity than any other. So there's something there that other traditions have lacked.
At the same time, the idea that God had to purchase our redemption from Himself just doesn't work for me. I know the Old Testament is full of the tradition of paying off one's sins. It seems like this would be the root of the idea that our sins created a debt and the debt could not be forgiven, but had to be paid with a price we couldn't pay. I can't make that logical.
The death of Jesus as an example of giving up one's own life for the sake of others, or more generally of acting for others even when the cost to oneself is high, is a concept I can work with. But that's not the core Christian tradition; the core tradition is that God demanded a price and then paid it Himself. Not the same thing, not at all the same thing.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
There's a quote I've seen a few times, attributed to a Muslim woman and I'm going to have to my best because I have it on a different computer:
"If I love Thee from fear of Hell, Lord, send me there. If I love the for hope of Paradise, bar me from it. If I love for Thine own sake, then do not withhold from me Your bounty."
Like a lot of people who have thought about God and the major faith traditions, I can't square the God who created the Universe and "...all the worlds Thy hands have made..." with eternal torment for anyone. As one who has a mixed bag of sin and virtue in my own life, I believe I have to hope for Hitler's salvation or Bin Laden's as I hope for my own. I can believe that God would manifest Himself, and die in our sight, to show us we were forgiven our sins but I don't believe God Himself needed to buy our redemption.
I haven't found an affection for God in myself. Awe for the marvels of the Universe, awe for the concept of loving each other and acting that love in our daily lives, as Rabbi Boteach writes. That I've got. If that qualifies as loving God, then I do. But I don't feel a "relationship" or a personal bond or affection. Perhaps because I never got a burning bush or a voice in the night, as most people never do. Perhaps because the Universe "...and all that is seen and unseen..." so completely pass my understanding.
On the topic: I don't believe in Hell but I do hope for an eternity with God. I don't know what "eternity with God" means, really. I'm sure it's something far past the angel wings and heavenly choirs.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Dear Mrs. Robinson:

I would like to second your thanks to NewMarcH. Influenced by David Goldman I began reading various aspects of Jewish self-understanding and Jewish understandingS of Christianity or, more specifically, of Jesus. Boteach has, I hold, a reductionistic analysis of Jesus, i.e., makes Jesus just too kosher. Other Jewish scholars, Bertelheim, view Jesus as not so kosher, indeed, as showing not so Jewish signs of what Christians will make of him. Whereas the Jewish background of Jesus does, indeed, add new and needed light to my understanding of Christianity, it is not sufficient for grasping the dynamics of Christian development. Here one must look elsewhere.

I find it essential to examine how Christian doctrines, e.g., trinity of Mary as the Mother of God, came about within the thinking of the Church Fathers, which are mostly of Eastern Christianity (St. Augustine being a major exception). The influence of Greek thought, particularly of a Platonic nature (Aristotle enters Christian reflection in the Mideval period) is essential to Christian reflection upon Jesus. (Within Catholicism some decades back, there was a movement to get rid of Greek influence, thereby stripping Catholic Christianity of its interest in the "eternal", >> all this as a prelude leading to a "social justice" affirmation of revlative-istic humanism and still calling it Catholic.) But, more is needed. For example, just how did Christian doctrine evolve? When and why and how did Christians ever come to the conclusion that the mother of Jesus, was the mother of God and not just of a human which shared, so to speak, the same human boat, viz., body with divine reality? Here I would suggest Cardinal Newman's book on the development of Christian doctrine. Newman's theory of doctrinal evolution can be abstracted from his specific Catholic interests and applied to Protestant understandings. (Indeed, Newman's theory has been used by me to attempt to find the doctrinal orthodoxy and heresies within the myriad of Marxist sects, all claiming Marx as their origin.) It is quite likely that a Boteach type of viewing Jesus will not accept, let alone understand that the Chrisitans of the first 6 or 7 centuries reflected philosophically upon the revelational data in order to interpret such data >> leading to doctrinal evolution. Such reflection is no longer enlightened by Jewish opinions on Judaism and Jesus for the simple reason that it use though categories than are not that of "kosher-ism". Usually the development of doctrine was a reaction to heretical interpretations, e.g., the Arians. What I am suggesting is that there is a limit to the value of a Jewish understanding of Jesus from within Judaism re the formation and evolution of Christian reflection upon the historical data, e.g., life, death and resurrection of Jesus leading to the Christian doctrine of Jesus THE Christ. (As a note I would suggest entering into the world of Eastern Orthodoxy for there the Greek influenced doctrinal thought still is very much alive. Also, particularly in the case of Russian Orthodoxy, you will find a sublimely beautful liturgy. Rachmaninov "Vespers" and, for me, his "Liturgy of St. John Christosom" are beyond compare.)

Final word: Mrs. Robinson you state that you are beginning to understand why so many Jews despise Christians. I wish you would develop the "why" to this opinion. I do hope that Christian comments, some alas a bit unfriendly, to your presentation of Boteach do not confirm your inchoate understanding of Jewish disdain for Christians. I would be disturbed to learn that my comments are illustrative of a provocation of Jewish unease.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"Newman's theory has been used by me to attempt to find the doctrinal orthodoxy and heresies within the myriad of Marxist sects, all claiming Marx as their origin."

Interesting statement. Care to expand further?

"It is quite likely that a Boteach type of viewing Jesus will not accept, let alone understand that the Chrisitans of the first 6 or 7 centuries reflected philosophically upon the revelational data..."

You are correct. Boteach totally dismisses revelational accounts, and all accounts by Paul. In doing so, he can't see the full picture of Christ, or why his followers would face lions before they would deny him. It's the same as not allowing key witnesses to testify.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"All desire seeks deep, profound eternity" -- Friedrich Nietzsche. (One can well argue that Nietzsche's insantity, where not a function of disease, received impulse from his failure to find "profound eterity".

"I want to be in a relationship with Him [God, viz., "Deep Eternity"]" -- Rabbi Boteach.

But, Boteach, counter to his very own words, does expect something from God, namely a relationship. I doubt that Boteaches "I love God unconditionally and unequivocably" is the "relationship" to God that Boteach would want if God were to make it clear to him that God rejects said relationship, indeed, expresses complete indiffference both any relationship or, given one, anything Boteach might do within this relationship. -- I love God unconditionally" As HE rejects me a
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Oops, I accidentally pressed the "Post Comment". So I must reply to myself.

I was writing::: as He rejects me or is indifferent to my worship. Would Boteach love God unconditionally if the "relationship" to God were pure negativity, i.e., one of total rejection by God or absolute indifference on the part of God? I doubt it! If my doubt is correct, Boteach does indeed expect something out of his "relationship" with Him. Boteach does want that God accepts his worship. In God's acceptance Boteach finds his "reward". But let me return to Nietzsche's seeking a "relationship" with "deep, profound eternity".

I have friendly relationships with various people by gmail or regular mail, with people that I have never seen, face to face. It is this "face to face" that Nietzsche sought in his desperate and false way. I have no "face to face" (metaphorically speaking, of course) vision of some partners of my relationship, not to speak of God. Something is lacking for my fulfillment. How much deeper and profounder is my relationship with friends whom I can see, i.e., have immediate and direct awareness of. (And how much do I bemoan the loss of parents, not to mention deceased dear friends (I am getting old) as they are not longer "seeable" for a relationship. But, relative to the friends that I see I experience a "visio amicorum proxima beatificaque". Ah, "visio beatifica" is a Roman Catholic way of expressing the direct and immediate relationship of experiencing "deep, profound Eternity", viz., God, so to speak, "face to face". It is with this God that I seek a relationship, acceptable to his wants in this life,which, not being a mystic, will allow me the "visio mystica" sometime post mortem. In other words, I seek an indirect "relationship" with God here and now and one directly forever, may God be willing, eternally so after my demise.

It is the desire to worship God, so deep and profoundly eternal, indirectly (as Boteach so wanderously proclaims) and DIRECTLY in Eternity that motivates my Christian activity in a here and now relationship to God. Should I expect a "visio dei beatifica" if I spend my life living it up in a brothel or, worse, murdering people without repentence. Should I do harm to a friend, I repent and hopefully am forgiven and the relationship of friendship is re--established. Can I hope for less from God?

In the few words I have just written, I have sought to outline my Christian interest in the afterlife. I will be much longer in "afterlife" than in this "life". So my concern is wisdom, no? I have too much sense to try to explain hfere the differences between traditional Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox understandings of the nature of the "relationship" of "life" unto "afterlife", the indirect and direct worship of God, eternally deep and profound infinity. I do hope that I have cast the Christian interest in the afterlife and sin and repentence in a way that avoids the the business-deal version of Christianity that Robinson, inspired by Rabbi Boteach, has concocted and rightly rejected. I have my doubts that Rabbi Boteach understands the (or my) Christian position. May a dialogue result from this article. In the meantime I will return to my crazy Germanic pursuit of "deep, profound eternity". (I note that I hold the atheist Nietzsche to be more authentically Christian in his desires than the sloppy "social justice" Christians, whatever the brand might be.)
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"He rejects me or is indifferent to my worship. Would Boteach love God unconditionally if the "relationship" to God were pure negativity, i.e., one of total rejection by God or absolute indifference on the part of God? I doubt it! If my doubt is correct, Boteach does indeed expect something out of his "relationship" with Him. Boteach does want that God accepts his worship. In God's acceptance Boteach finds his "reward"."

Well said. I hadn't thought of it like that. But in reality, that is what we want--communion with our Creator now and in the eternal.

""All desire seeks deep, profound eternity" -- Friedrich Nietzsche."
Whether we acknowledge Him or not-- He created us all with that desire.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not about getting into Heaven or avoiding Hell; the Gospel is about the rule and reign of God over all of life. In the gospels of Luke and Matthew the terms Kingdom of Heaven and Kingdom of God are interchangeable because Heaven is where God dwells and that is why people long for it. Unfortunately, many a christian have made salvation about heaven and not about the rule and reign of God over life. Salvation is a life not a destination. Furthermore there really is not distinction between life and eternity, eternity is now ongoing.

As Dallas Willard points out, “What is most valuable for any human being, without regard to an afterlife, is to be a part of this marvelous reality, God’s kingdom now. Eternity is now ongoing. I am now leading a life that will last forever. Upon my treasure in the heavens I now draw for present needs....Eternity is not something waiting to happen, something that will commence later. It is now here. Time runs its course within eternity.”
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
> "My worship of God is not about me. It’s not about saving myself form hell. I’m not here on this earth to spend my life accruing virtue so I get some divine reward."

That seems to be the way people who aren't Christians see Christianity. Maybe that's the fault of us Christians.

But the Christian concept of salvation has nothing whatsoever to do with accruing personal virtue. Isaiah already assured us that our *best* works are as filthy rages. But if we didn't get that, then there was Paul to tell us that none of us are righteous, no one seeks God, and all have fallen short.

It's enough to give someone a complex.

The promise is that God will improve our character, but that's a result of faith. If we had to make ourselves good enough for God before He started His work on us, we might as well give up now.

If Rabbi Boteach wants to write about Christian theology, that's great, but he probably needs to learn a little more about it.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"...he probably needs to learn a little more about it."

Yes. He does. He paints with far too wide of a brush to be accurate.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Jesus Himself spoke quite a bit about the afterlife (more on Hell than Heaven, but he addressed both). If it was a worthy topic for Him, it seems like a worthwhile topic for me. No, I cannot live solely for a hoped-for reward in the afterlife, but it IS what Christ promised to His followers.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Mrs. Robinson,

As a somewhat traditional Jew, I salute your efforts to explore compatibilities between Judaism and Christianity (FWIW, I have enjoyed the religious apologetics of C.S. Lewis, BXVI, etc.). Nevertheless, I think if Rabbi Boteach is serving as your guide to Judaism you are getting an idiosyncratic POV. For example, while I think that most traditional Jewish sources agree that it is ideal for one to follow the commandments out of love and awe for the Creator, it is also permissible and helpful to be conscious of a reward in the afterlife (also, w/o an afterlife or messianic era, apparent unjust suffering on Earth may be a big dilemma). One can get a sense of the importance of an afterlife for traditional Jews by googling the terms "World To Come" (in Hebrew, "Olam Ha Ba") as they appear on Jewish websites.

In addition to Rabbi Boteach as a source on Judaism, I heartily recommend contemporary rabbis (Orthodox), Shlomo Riskin and Lord Jonathan Sacks, the late (Conservative) Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (OBM) (esp. his book on the Sabbath), novelist Herman Wouk's (interestingly, an Orthodox Jew, Broadway playwright and WWII USN line officer) "War and Remembrance" and "This Is My God", and PJM columnist David P. Goldman's (an Orthodox Jew and associate of the highly respected contemporary rabbi, Meir Solovechik) columns on Judaism and Christianity (his two books give a good intro) . You may also be interested in (conservative) Rabbi Jacob Neusner's book on a Jewish response to Jesus. Finally, I heartily recommend the memoirs of novelist I.B. Singer youth in pre-WWII Poland with his Chasidic rabbi father, "In My Father's Court".

May God bless you in your efforts.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
new MarcH,

I can't thank you enough for your kind comments and suggested reading. I will certainly look into it.

The one thing that Boteach has given me is a view of Christianity through Jewish eyes.

I never understood why Christians were so despised by Jews. I'm beginning to understand, and it breaks my heart.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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