Jews and Jewish Christianity - The Forgiveness of Sin

Contemporary Christianity appears in various forms. While there was a time when almost all Christian churches were engaged in missionizing Jews, in recent times most churches have discontinued special efforts directed at Jews. There are various reasons for this change. Let us read about the forgiveness of sin. How is it for Jews?

One of the most significant is the widespread conviction among many Christian thinkers that Judaism stands in a special relationship to Christianity and, therefore, that Jews cannot be addressed as people in need of salvation. Thus, the great contemporary Protestant theologian Karl Barth, speaking of the people of Israel, wrote:

For it is incontestable that this people as such is the holy people of God: the people with whom God has dealt in His grace and in His wrath; in the midst of whom He has blessed and judged, enlightened and hardened, accepted and rejected; whose cause either way He has made His own, and has not ceased to make His own, and will not cease to make His own. They are all of them by nature sanctified by Him, sanctified as ancestors and kinsmen of the Holy One in Israel, in a sense that Gentiles are not by nature, not even the best of Gentiles, not even the Gentile Christians, not even the best of Gentile Christians, in spite of the fact that they too are now sanctified by the Holy One of Israel and have become Israel (Church Dogmatics, II, 2, p. 287).

But there are Christians who see things otherwise. Most “Jewish Christian” groups in this country preach a straightforward “Jesus or damnation” theology. Jews coming into contact with these groups are told that if they do not accept Jesus as their personal savior, they are condemned to the tortures of everlasting hell since their sins cannot be forgiven. They are also told that sin can be forgiven only by the shedding of blood, and since Judaism no longer practices sacrifice, it cannot bring about the forgiveness of sin. What can be said about this point of view?

First of all, we must ask whether the simple “Jesus or damnation” point of view is indeed authentic Christian teaching. In the final analysis, we must let Christians answer this question, though noting that a very large segment of Christianity does not accept the view that all those who deny Jesus as savior are condemned to everlasting hell. At the same time, it must be conceded that the New Testament attributes to Jesus statements that sound very much like the “Jesus or damnation” teaching. As an example, Jesus is quoted in Mark 16:16-18 as saying:

Go forth to every part of the world, and proclaim the Good News to the whole creation. Those who believe it and receive baptism will find salvation; those who do not believe will be condemned. Faith will bring with it these miracles: believers will cast out devils in my name and speak in strange tongues; if they handle snakes or drink any deadly poison, they will come to no harm; and the sick on whom they lay their hands will recover.

Because it is difficult to insist that believing Christians are immune to the harmful effects of snakebites or deadly poisons, many Christians have found it necessary to interpret these passages more spiritually and less literally. And once that is done, it is equally possible to give a more merciful reading to the “Jesus or damnation” segment of the quotation. But some Christians have refused to take this path and, basing themselves on passages such as the one quoted, they have offered a stark choice between faith in Jesus and eternal damnation. For Jews, the view that the six million victims murdered by the Nazis went directly from Hitler’s ovens to eternal hell-fire is morally offensive. It must be noted that the certainty of damnation without faith in Jesus is understood not as a function of the individual’s sin but rather as a fate preordained by the sin of Adam, whose fall and guilt are carried by all human beings at birth, making them worthy of hell even before they have had a chance to sin at all.

Judaism, too, takes sin very seriously. From the beginning, the Hebrew Bible documents man’s recurring disobedience to the commands of God and the punishments meted out to him as a result of his disobedience. It is true that Judaism does not interpret the sin of Adam to mean that every subsequent human being starts his career with the verdict of guilty entered against him. Nevertheless, the Bible, as well as subsequent Jewish history, shows that sin is an ever-present human temptation to which we succumb far too often. The prophets of Israel interpret the various calamities that befall the people of Israel as the result of the people’s sin. Similarly, the rabbis interpreted the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. as resulting from Israel’s sin.

It is further true that sacrifice plays an important role in the forgiveness of sin. The Temple in Jerusalem, built on the spot where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac until commanded, at the last moment, not to do so, was and remains the holiest spot on earth for Jews. It is plain to any reader of the Pentateuch that God commanded a whole system of sacrifices to play a role in the atonement of sin. Because this is so, there is no doubt that the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. (not to speak of the earlier destruction) was a great problem for Judaism. What effect would the discontinuation of the sacrifices have on Israel’s relationship with God?

Could sins be forgiven without sacrifices? Could Judaism survive in exile, without a Temple and with Jews living in many different countries?

Before going any further, we must now speak of the traditional Christian explanation of how the death of Jesus took the place of the sacrifices offered in the Temple so that no further Temple sacrifice has been needed since this final sacrifice. This view is most clearly expressed in Hebrews 9:13-14, where we are told:

For if the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkled ashes of a heifer have power to hallow those who have been defiled and restore their external purity, how much greater is the power of the blood of Christ, a spiritual and eternal sacrifice; and his blood will cleanse our conscience from the deadness of our former ways and fit us for the service of the living God.

The argument is that the sacrifices brought in the Temple had only limited efficacy because they had to be repeated periodically, while the death as a sacrifice of Jesus was perfect and was therefore the sacrifice to end all sacrifice.

Judaism rejects this view on simple grounds. The God of Israel forbids human sacrifice. Again and again, in the Hebrew Bible, God condemns the sacrificing of children to Moloch with particular vehemence (e.g., Leviticus 18:21, 20:2-5 among 5s). While God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac perhaps established in principle God’s right to demand human sacrifice, his last-minute intervention established his firm desire that not human beings but animals be sacrificed to him. Once this is grasped, it becomes impossible for the faith of Israel to accept the account of a human sacrifice as conforming to the will of God. It can be argued that the death of Jesus was not a sacrifice in the sense in which human sacrifice is forbidden, since it was voluntary on his part and those who killed him did not do so for the sake of bringing a sacrifice. But if that is so, then the death of Jesus can only be considered a sacrifice metaphorically and cannot substitute for, and certainly cannot terminate, the sacrifices specifically commanded by God in the Hebrew Bible. Many Jews and Christians see the reestablishment of the State of Israel as the beginning of the redemption of the Jewish people as foretold by the prophets of Israel. These same prophets foretold the rebuilding of the Temple and the resumption of the sacrifices (e.g., Zechariah 14:21, Isaiah 60:7, Malachi 3:1-4), a resumption for which traditional Jews have prayed since the time of the destruction. These prophecies in themselves indicate that the Hebrew Bible never envisioned any event that would make the reestablishment of the sacrifices in Jerusalem unnecessary, and if this is so, then the death of Jesus cannot be considered the sacrifice to end all sacrifice.

Nevertheless, the seriousness of sin and the need for its forgiveness remain. For the Christian mind, this is accomplished by the death of Jesus. How does Judaism deal with this problem?

It does so through the idea of repentance. It is the basic teaching of God in the Hebrew Bible that God does not will the death of the wicked but their repentance (Jeremiah 18:1-10). Ezekiel 18:21-23 expresses this most clearly:

It may be that a wicked man gives up his sinful ways and keeps all my laws, doing what is just and right. That man shall live; he shall not die. None of the offenses he has committed shall be remembered against him; he shall live because of his righteous deeds. Have I any desire, says the Lord God, for the death of a wicked man? Would I not rather that he should mend his ways and live?

Repentance involves recognizing that one has done wrong, being sorry for having done so, and asking God sincerely to forgive one’s sins. Any Jew who does so will be forgiven by God.

Many scholars consider repentance a higher and more spiritual relationship to God than the offering of sacrifice. Frequently, the great prophets of the Hebrew Bible criticized those who brought sacrifices while continuing their evil deeds (e.g., Amos 5:21-22). The conclusion that these scholars draw from the prophetic denunciations of sacrifice without repentance (repentance not only means saying you’re sorry, but also changing your conduct) was that the prophets considered sacrifice primitive and unnecessary. The truth is that the prophets denounced sacrifice without repentance, but they deeply respected sacrifice combined with repentance. The prophets had the highest respect for the Temple and its divinely ordained sacrifices, and expressed great sadness about the time after the exile when Israel could no longer fulfill its sacrificial obligations (Hosea 9:4).

But that time came, and while we reject the view that the prophets considered sacrifice unnecessary even while the Temple stood, we cannot overlook the emphasis that the prophets laid on repentance. It is perhaps in Psalm 51:18-21 that the matter is best summed up. The Psalm starts with the expression of a sense of sin that weighs heavily on the writer. He begs God to cleanse him of his sin and then continues:

For thou delightest not in a sacrifice that I would bring; thou hast no pleasure in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise. Do good in thy favor unto Zion; built thou the walls of Jerusalem. Then wilt thou delight in the sacrifices of righteousness, in burnt offering and whole offering; then will they offer bullocks upon thine altar.

When sacrifice is possible it is necessary, though useless without repentance (the “broken spirit” and “wounded heart”). When sacrifice is not possible, God forgives those who sincerely repent.

Judaism thus looks to God for forgiveness. In his infinite mercy God waits for man’s return to him, and when this happens, God forgives all his sins. The rabbis taught that not only are the sins of a repentant sinner forgiven, but they are turned into virtuous deeds. So great is the power of repentance.

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Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

Berger, David, 1943-

Jews and “Jewish Christianity”.

Bibliography: p.

1. Judaism-Apologetic works.

2. Jewish Christians.

3. Missions to Jews. I. Wyschogrod, Michael, joint author. II. Title

BM648.B45 296.3 78-9423

ISBN 0-87068-675-5