Monday, July 12, 2021

Anonymous Asks (153)

“Do Jews go to heaven?”

Before we rush to give a pat answer to what seems an obvious question, we should stop to ask what the questioner means by “Jews”. The word is used several different ways today, and the answer very much depends on which sort of Jew the writer has in mind.

A discussion of how the term came to be used to mean so many different things to so many different people may be found here.

A Rose by Any Other Name …

In the first century, the definition of “Jew” was pretty cut and dried. The term was used of any genetic descendant of Abraham through his grandson Jacob.

“Jew” is derived from the word “Judah”, the name of one of Jacob’s twelve sons. It originally referred to a citizen of the nation that bore Judah’s name. However, by the end of the Babylonian exile, the term had expanded to include Israelites from any of the other eleven tribes who had thrown in their lot with the returning Judeans. Eventually, “Jew” came to refer to anyone of Israelite descent living anywhere in the world. At Pentecost, devout Jews were present “from every nation under heaven”, as Luke puts it. Thus, the apostle Paul, from the tribe of Benjamin and hailing from Tarsus in Cilicia, refers to himself as a Jew, because that was how the term was understood in his day. When the last books of the Bible were in the process of being written and compiled, nobody was confused about what it meant to be a Jew. It was primarily an ethnic designation rather than a religious one.

That statement requires a very minor qualification: the New Testament writers do use “Jew” in a limited religious sense to refer to the subset of ethnic Jews who formed the religious leadership of their nation. Joseph of Arimathea was a disciple of Jesus secretly “for fear of the Jews”, not meaning ethnic Jews generally, but specifically the religious sort who wielded sufficient clout to put him out of the synagogue for being a follower of Christ. Such a usage, being both ethnic AND religious, could legitimately be called “ethnoreligious”, which is how Wikipedia characterizes the word.

Nevertheless, there are no unambiguous usages of the term “Jew” in the Bible where the intended sense is only religious and not also ethnic. (Gentile converts to Judaism in scripture are referred to as proselytes, not Jews. The terms are directly contrasted in Acts 13:43.) In short, a Gentile can never become a Jew in the biblical sense.

Unfortunately, the popular usage of the term has broadened significantly since the first century to the point where you may hear the word “Jew” used to mean any person whose mother was a Jew or any person who has gone through the formal process of conversion to Judaism, i.e., Gentiles. There is also the occasional internet nitpicker who insists “Jew” refers only to descendants of the tribe of Judah, and not to members of other tribes, in order to make technical arguments that are not worth going into here. That notion cannot be supported either from the Bible or from popular modern usage.

Back to the Question

Whew! Got all that? At least now we are in a position to discuss the question intelligently. So then, do Jews go to heaven?

Well, it should be obvious that if we are speaking ethnically, then of course they do. The apostles were all Jews. The New Jerusalem has twelve foundation stones, each with the names of one of the twelve apostles of the Lamb engraved on it. It would be an odd sort of eternal dwelling if the very men commemorated on its foundation were not free to enter it. The first Christians — thousands of them at Pentecost and in the weeks afterward in the city of Jerusalem — were Jews. The book of Hebrews was written to Jews. There is nothing about Jewish ethnicity that prevents a person from going to heaven.

That’s the obvious part. But the question I think was probably being asked could be rephrased this way: Can an adherent of Judaism go to heaven while continuing to believe and practice a religion that rejects Jesus as their Messiah?

The answer to that is just as obvious: “If anyone has no love for the Lord [Jesus], let him be accursed.” That’s not my answer; those words were written by a Jewish Christian named Paul.

Dead Religion

Judaism is a dead religion and a dead end. It has nothing to offer except a book that points to a Messiah most Jews reject, and a few remaining traditional practices that whisper his name across increasing distances. Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” That includes his Jewish brethren. In and of itself, their religion does not lead to heaven. That road was cut off forever at the cross — or, really, at the moment Messiah came into the world, forcing his genetic half-brothers and half-sisters to choose between a new and living way and a tapped-out set of traditions cynically held by their teachers.

Therefore, a Jew who rejects Christ is as lost as a Muslim, a Buddhist or a secularist. The fact that his people were chosen and blessed by God at one point in history, and even the fact that his religion originated with God himself, cannot help him as an individual. Not one iota.

Now, not all saved Jews leave Judaism entirely. I know a Messianic Jew who continues to practice a version of modern Orthodox Judaism, going to synagogue and observing traditional Jewish holidays, rituals and customs. But he believes Jesus was God’s Messiah and is his Savior. He stays within institutional Judaism not to practice it, or because he fears association with Christians, or because he believes its current teachings, but in order to be able to communicate the gospel to fellow Jews who would never allow themselves to hear it otherwise. Basically, he is a spy in enemy territory.

The Deciding Question

Now, you can certainly argue with his tactics if you like. It’s possible staying within Judaism actually makes it much harder to give a clear testimony to the truth. You may think my friend might be better off in an evangelical church, and you may even be right. But he can’t bring himself to leave in good conscience while members of his extended family are perishing.

So then, perhaps it is possible, if difficult, to live as a disciple of Christ in what today is very foreign spiritual territory. What is quite impossible is to reject Christ while still claiming the right to an eternally blessed relationship with the God who sent Jesus into the world to reconcile the world to himself.

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