Dear Rabbi Singer,
I am certain that the question will surface somewhere in this general commentary I am making. I hope you will bear with me until the question does arise.
For one who has been a Christian all his life, I find your commentaries very compelling and thought provoking, but, at times, dismaying, while there have always been questions in my mind inherent to matters of truth concerning the Gospels, and the remainder of the New Testament. The question is, as Pilate said it, What is truth? Everyone has a different version, and all claim their particular version to be the final word. Regarding your commentaries, I do not find anything that I would consider to be misleading or mean-spirited in your answers to your reader’s questions when you criticize Christianity, but it is obvious to me that you base practically your entire criticism on legalism. Jesus Christ had much to say about the legalism of the scribes and Pharisees in the context of how it applied to their religious worship. The one thing you seem to miss is that much of the teachings of Jesus related to the depth of the love of the individual towards God. I can understand how you can use legalism to apparently refute many of the claims of Christianity, so I believe my question is: How do you refute the almost unbelievable change in the character and personality of people after they are converted to Christ?
I have seen this again and again, so I believe my observations are, at least, reasonable. I have seen this change continue throughout lifetimes. What you seem to observe as a zeal to convert others is actually a zeal to help others, and of course to witness to that person for Christ. I am not aware of any pressure to convert. The basic premise is to show other people the change in your life and how it came about. As much as I am swayed by your legal criticism, I cannot deny the knowledge of Christ in my being, even when I sin. Surely, the God of all mankind would preempt a false religion, proclaimed in His name, which would lead millions from the true path and towards damnation. If this is not the case, then the existence of man on this world appears quite pointless.
Thanks for your time.
I am certain that many readers will not fully grasp the importance of your main point because your letter touches on an intangible condition rooted in the heart of the believer. It would not be an overstatement to say that your thoughtful letter contains one of the most important questions that could be asked of me.
Ever since I began working to help Jews return to the Jewish faith, I have received numerous letters, and listened to many stories from people just like yourself. Their accounts are filled with personal anecdotes illustrating how their lives miraculously changed as a result of their newfound religion. Many of the accounts describe how their drug addiction and alcoholism inexplicably ceased.
Recently, I received a letter from a middle-aged Jewish woman who maintained that as a result of her conversion to Mormonism, her festering infection in her swollen leg was miraculously cured. Following a recent lecture, a young man vividly recalled how his plaguing depression had lifted soon after he embraced the Catholic Church.
For him, the euphoria that had now replaced his nagging bouts of depression bore testimony to the validity of the teachings of Roman Catholicism.
While I was speaking in Southern California a number of years ago, I met four young men who were members of Hare Krishna. It wasn’t a planned encounter; we just happened to strike up a conversation as we were crossing the same busy street in Los Angeles. To my utter shock, three of these lost souls were Jewish. As I listened attentively to the testimonials of these oddly dressed fellows, each of them enthusiastically described how their newfound religion had transformed their lives.
As they joyfully spoke of their joining this eastern sect, I could sense the elation and inner peace they experienced. They were certain that what they believed was true; it was apparent that they were more spiritual now than they had ever been in their former lives.
When considered individually, each of these moving accounts appear quite impressive. Once these remarkable testimonials are examined as part of a larger pattern, however, they present us with a serious theological problem.
Although each of these personal anecdotes appears to the novice as evidence of the validity of their newly acquired faith, the fact remains that these variant religions cannot all be valid. When it comes to spiritual experiences and miraculous occurrences, things get very messy.
The realm of faith would be very tidy if only one religion produced life-altering transformations and miraculous occurrences. To the dismay of the fervid believer, however, this may be the most disorganized arena of organized religion.
In fact, the life-changing experience that you describe in your letter is a phenomenon found among adherents of all religions. Followers of every religion claim an “almost unbelievable change in the character and personality,” regardless of the truth of the doctrines they preach. In essence, there is no relationship between spiritual transformation that occurs in the heart of the believer and the spiritual truth which he espouses.
Bear in mind, our planet is brimming with world religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, each of which boast many hundreds of millions of adherents. The multitudes of these devout believers, in their competing diverse faiths, all remarkably speak of the very same “character and personality” transformation that you describe within the context of your newfound religion – Christianity.
Yet, when their personal testimonials are scrutinized and considered, as they recount how their religious faith has transformed their lives, it seems as if they all somehow belong to the same religion their testimonials all pulsate with the experience of an encounter with the divine.
According to your doctrinal barometer, however, billions of these devoted faithful are lost souls merely following a “false religion.” Realize, therefore, that their startling religious experiences cannot possibly speak of the validity of their beliefs.
For example, Hinduism and Islam have radically different teachings on the nature of God, yet, how is it that Hindus, Christians, Mormons, Muslims and those that embrace New Age movements, all experience this profound religious conversion, which you describe?
This question becomes particularly puzzling when we consider your implied assertion that spiritual transformation among the faithful will point us in the direction of spiritual truth.
Faith Healing claims have been made by many religions, and the sick have visited their shrines in hopes of recovery.
I have visited Lourdes in France and Fatima in Portugal, healing shrines of the Christian Virgin Mary. I have also visited Epidaurus in Greece and Pergamum in Turkey, healing shrines of the pagan god Asklepios. The miraculous healings recorded in both places were remarkably the same. There are, for example, many crutches hanging in the grotto of Lourdes, mute witness to those who arrived lame and left whole. There are, however, no prosthetic limbs among them, no witnesses to paraplegics whose lost limbs were restored.
— John Dominic Crossan
John Dominic Crossan; Richard G. W atts (1999). Who is Jesus?: answers to your questions about the historical Jesus. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 64.
All of these religions cannot possibly be transmitting truth; nevertheless, each of them can ignite profound spiritual changes within the character and personality of their devoted masses.
This is the profound question that comes to mind: Why would God allow all religions, regardless of the theological untruths they espouse, to spark a spiritual passion within the heart of the believer? The Bible contains a record of many individuals and nations who possessed fervent devotion to their idolatry. Nonetheless, their spiritual adultery is condemned as an utter abomination, regardless of the spirituality and transformation they experienced.
Why would the Almighty permit religions whose fundamental teachings have no basis in truth to produce life-transforming experiences and miraculous occurrences in the lives of their devout followers?
The answer is found in the beginning of Deuteronomy, where the Torah addresses this dilemma with a more startling scenario than the anecdote you presented.
In Deuteronomy 13:1-2, the Bible raises the question of how to respond to a “prophet” who offers to show a miracle to support his message. How are we to respond if, in fact, the promised miracle comes to pass just as he predicted? Should we then follow this “prophet” even if he encourages us to worship other gods which our fathers did not know? “You must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer,” the Almighty emphatically declares. “I did not send him,” says the Lord.
“If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, 2and the sign or the wonder comes true, concerning which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) and let us serve them. You must not listen to that prophet or dreamer of dreams.’”
In the following verses, the Torah reveals why God allows prophets who teach unsavory doctrines to produce miraculous transformations:
The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love Him with all your heart and with all your soul. It is the Lord your God you must follow, and Him you must revere. Keep His commands and obey Him; serve Him and hold fast to Him.
In other words, your experience was a test from God. This is your choice in a world where freewill hangs in perfect balance. Will you worship the God of Israel alone, or turn to gods whom the nation of Israel has not known? If we lived in a world where only one religion could produce spirituality and miraculous life-altering experiences, the balance of freewill could not exist.
In the 18th chapter of I Kings, Elijah proposes a direct test of the powers of Baal and the Almighty. The people of Israel, 450 prophets of Baal, and 400 prophets of Asherah are summoned to Mount Carmel. Two altars are built, one for Baal and one for God. Wood is laid on both altars. Two oxen are slaughtered and cut into pieces; the pieces are laid on the wood. Elijah then invites the priests of Baal to pray for fire to light the sacrifice.
The Bible vividly recounts how they enthusiastically entreated Baal and prayed fervidly for a miracle from morning to noon without success. It seemed as though there was no doubt in the minds of these pagan worshipers that Baal would hear their supplications, intervene on their behalf, and consume their bullock with a heavenly fire. They even climbed on top of the altar and began to prance beside their sacrifice. Elijah ridicules their efforts.
When no heaven-sent flame appeared, a peculiar and gruesome spectacle followed. They responded by frantically cutting themselves with swords and lancets, adding their own blood to the sacrifice (such mutilation of the body was strictly forbidden in the Mosaic law).
These prophets of Baal were clearly enraptured and devoted to their gods. Regardless of their unyielding zeal for their idols, they were commanded to turn away from these abominations.
In fact, the prophet Jeremiah warns us that the spirituality gained from following false prophets and corrupt teachers may become so encompassing and overwhelming that one may begin to have dreams regarding these prophets. Jeremiah concludes,
…for thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, “Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are in your midst deceive you, nor listen to your dreams which you cause to be dreamed; for they prophesy falsely to you in My name. I have not sent them, says the Lord.”
Jeremiah’s message is clear: If messages of false prophets so completely permeate you psyche, to the point that you are having dreams of these presumptuous messengers, you alone are responsible for these improper apparitions. God did not send them.
Furthermore, at the very end of your question, you suggest “the God of all mankind would preempt a false religion in His name, which would lead millions from the true path, and towards damnation.” This claim is unfounded.
If your assertion were accurate, why do masses of spiritually blind believers make such deplorable choices about their religious affiliations? Why didn’t God preempt false religions and foil their success? Why is Islam the fastest growing religion in the world when your Christianity is supposedly the only life-transforming truth? In essence, how could so many be so wrong about something so crucial as religion when, according to your reckoning, the Almighty would never “lead millions” away from His true path?
A careful reading of the Bible reveals that God never led mankind away from a pure and true path. The prophets of Israel were given the power to preach repentance to those who do not want to hear the message, and to warn of God’s wrath for disobedience.
The decision to indulge in sin is an individual decision alone, and it will forever remain man’s domain. Your Creator never removed freewill from your grasp, as the Torah declares,
See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil, in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments, that you may live and multiply; and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you go to possess. If, though, your heart turns away so that you do not hear, and are drawn away, and worship other gods and serve them, I announce to you today that you shall surely perish; you shall not prolong your days in the land which you cross over the Jordan to go in and possess. I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live.
God permits man to become enraptured with false religions for the same reason He permits a married man to be attracted to women other than his wife. Freewill is within your grasp.
Virtue is only possible when sin is alluring. If alien religions were unappealing, there would be no merit for rejecting their blandishments. If this tender balance of freewill were ever injured or compromised, virtue would be impossible.
God has given all humans the gift of moral agency. Only the proper exercise of unfettered choice leads to the ultimate goal of returning to God’s presence. Having the choice to do right or wrong is vital, because God wants a society of a certain type —those who are devoted to His eternal laws. The belief in freewill is axiomatic in Jewish thought, and is closely linked with the concept of reward and punishment, based on the Torah itself:
“I [God][/God] have set before you life and death, blessing and curse: therefore choose life.”
Don’t, though, seek out miraculous life-changing events as your guide to God’s sacred truth. Look to the Bible alone for this eternal instruction. Once you have committed your life to truth in the God of Israel, joyously take part in the spiritual food it provides. Never permit spiritual expressions to become your barometer for truth. Your foundation must be the Jewish Scriptures alone.
Best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year.
Very sincerely yours,
Rabbi Tovia Singer