Due to a long string of unrelated events, we determined this year that we would not be going to a Sukkot festival site, and that we would instead spend the holiday at home. However, at the last minute we decided to register for FFOZ’s Sukkot conference in Hudson, WI. I’m glad we did. We met some great people and the lectures were informative and challenging.
One speaker I had never heard before was Rabbi Dr. Michael Schiffman, executive director of Chevra, a humanitarian organization which assists elderly Jews and Holocaust survivors across Europe, in Israel, and in the former Soviet Union. (If you have time to check out the Chevra website, I highly recommend it. You can do a lot to support these extremely needy children of Abraham with a relatively small, regular donation. Matt. 25:31-46, Luke 16:19-31.)
Dr. Schiffman spoke on the theme of the conference – the Afterlife – during the Shabbos morning service at Beit Immanuel Messianic Synagogue. Speaking in front of the newly built ark, Dr. Schiffman laid out a basically Jewish view of who experiences “the happy afterlife” (known in Judaism as Olam ha’Ba, or the World to Come) and who doesn’t. I will get to his lecture in a moment.
In Christianity, as Daniel Lancaster explained in his four-part lecture on Heaven and Hell, it is taught that Christians and infants end up in a place called Heaven, and everyone else, by default, burns eternally in a place called Hell. There are some variations and complexities among the different expressions of Christianity but these basic principles are shared in common. In fact, these basic ideas about eternal destinies are some of the most important ideas in mainstream Christianity.
Judaism’s view of the afterlife is also variegated. However, seen against the background of Jewish views on the afterlife, the New Testament texts on the subject make a lot more sense. I don’t want to give a full summary here, but look for a future “What About…” CD set from FFOZ on the subject. If we’re all very fortunate, Daniel’s lectures this week will eventually be published in that format. I can already say, having heard the lectures, that I would highly recommend buying a copy.
I will mention here only that when Christianity dispensed with the belief in the Messianic Era, a period of eschatological bliss here on Planet Earth, and conflated the prophecies about the Messianic Era with a place called “Heaven”, we ceased to have a Biblical view of the afterlife.
Dr. Schiffman’s lecture, which I will get to below, was based on Jewish views of the Afterlife, views shared by Jesus Himself. To get an idea of what these views entail, it is constructive to read the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 and note what qualifications Lazarus had for enjoying a happy afterlife. He was poor, and suffered disproportionately. That’s it. He was not a Christian. He was not a believer in any sense or even especially pious. He merely suffered disproportionately.
Many Christians believe – even if they would never state it this way – that no matter what you do, no matter the circumstances of your life, no matter how horrible you continue to be, as long as you have the right confession or creed, you will make it into “Heaven”. But if Jesus’ parable is an accurate reflection of the nature of the fate of souls after death (and before the Resurrection), and I believe it is, then we can be assured that “we” will not be the only subjects of God’s mercy.
But make no mistake – a torturous “Hell” does exist, for without it, as Dr. Schiffman explained, there would be no justice. No justice for those murdered by the Nazis, or Stalin’s Red Communists, or Mao’s Cultural Revolution, or for those who continue to starve to death in DPRK prison camps. The duration of this “hell” is not absolutely clear, but it most certainly exists, and Scripture testifies to it clearly.
Dr. Schiffman’s lecture, which I am finally getting to, was eye-opening. Your nature, according to Jewish sources, doesn’t miraculously change when you die. You continue to be what you were – and more so. If you are a hateful, inconsiderate person – like the rich man in Jesus’ parable – you continue to be so after death. If you love people and try to grow closer to God, you continue to do so after death. If you suffer disproportionately, God recompenses you accordingly. Your destination reflects the choices you made in life and the situation in which you found yourself. As Jesus said, the Sabbath is coming, when no man can work. After death, you are “stuck” on the trajectory you held during your life.
This is completely contrary to popular Christian teaching, which is so unbelievably, horridly cruel and exclusive that it assigns those prisoners in the DPRK prison camps, and the Jews murdered in the Holocaust, to the eternal burning Hell which God has prepared for Satan and his angels, and their torturers and murderers, if they do nothing more than give intellectual assent to a few statements of dogma, to eternal bliss. I would go so far as to suggest that if Christians were working within the matrix of first century Judaism, they would be likely to assign the rich man and Lazarus to exactly the opposite eternal destinies than those to which Jesus assigns them, if the rich man demonstrated – again – intellectual assent to a few statements of doctrine.
As Daniel Lancaster reaffirmed to us this week, God is just – whatever fate we get is what we deserve. But even knowing that, the small voice in the back of our heads – the voice that is informed by the statements God Himself has made about His own loving, merciful character – objects to the traditional Christian idea of eternal torture for the sin, as it were, of ignorance of the Gospel.
Again, I truly hope FFOZ releases the recordings of Daniel’s four-part teaching on Heaven and Hell. These are ideas we as Christians need to deal with. If reading Jesus’ teachings on the afterlife through the lens of first-century Judaism causes us to reconsider our doctrine, then we need to reconsider it. There is really no other choice. If we don’t read the Scripture in context, we don’t apprehend its meaning. It’s that simple.
Daniel’s and Dr. Schiffman’s lectures were not the only great teachings at this conference. If you were not here, you also missed two great lectures by Toby Janicki on the nature of the soul and spirit in Judaism and the role of Gentiles in the Messianic Kingdom, a very interesting survey of Rabbinic literature on the Messiah in Creation by Aaron Eby, and an impassioned final talk by Boaz Michael on the future of the Messianic movement and the potential it has to effect real change. Joe Good also gave some incredible insights.
I was also able to meet a few readers I didn’t know about. As a blogger, I never really know who is reading my material. I hope that what I write can continue to be a help and not a hindrance, something that builds bridges rather than burns them. For as much as I disagree with the traditional Christian teaching on the afterlife, it is, as we were all reminded this week at the Sukkot conference, rooted in Judaism.
There are a few misunderstandings, a few things that didn’t quite make it intact from Judaism to Christianity. But a lot did make it through. There is a lot of good in the Church, both doctrine and practice, and there are a lot of good people in the Church as well. As a reformer, I tend to harp on the things I disagree with, but the distance between where the Church is and where it needs to be is surprisingly small. I hope to contribute to that final push, which will take us back to the true Apostolic faith.
Of all the strides we have made in the past five hundred years, this one – the one that brings us back to an understanding of our roots in Judaism and our role within Judaism – will be the hardest and the furthest. But we will get there. Hashem, our God, is True. And like Hashem Himself, the truth always prevails. The millions of sincere believers within the social edifice loosely called “Christianity” are truly drawn to God, and where He leads, they will follow.