Have you ever felt mystified by beliefs and actions of evangelical Christians?
Perhaps you can relate to some of the following questions. The answers are not comprehensive, but we hope they will be helpful. (Compiled by Rebekah Harvey)
- I am so tired of hearing that I am going to hell if I don’t believe in Jesus. How can evangelical Christians claim to love and respect Jews in one breath, then say that unless they believe like evangelicals do, they are going to hell? Don’t they realize how intolerant and disrespectful that sounds? Many Jewish people do not believe in either heaven or hell, so it is not surprising if some misunderstand the beliefs and conclusions of those who do. The most common misunderstanding goes something like this: “If you think I’m going to hell unless I believe like you do, you must think you are good and the rest of us are bad. After all, bad people go to hell, and good people go to heaven.” Or even more strongly: “You hate me.”
For evangelical Christians, humanity is not divided into good people who go to heaven and bad people who go to hell. Nor do they consider their own beliefs as an indication of moral or intellectual superiority. What evangelical Christians actually believe turns out to be surprisingly different and in fact, rather humbling.
David Neff speaks to this misunderstanding in the second paragraph of his article, “From an Evangelical Perch”. Evangelical Christians believe that everyone, themselves included, is separated from God by their sin. The result of this separation ranges from disruption in personal relationships to wars between nations. They also believe that not only the New Testament, but the Jewish Bible too, clearly pictures this problem of sin and separation from God. And they believe that the Jewish Bible also looks forward to the solution—shalom with God and with one another—a solution that is ultimately found in Jesus.
Is it intolerant or disrespectful to speak to a problem one believes is universal to the human race? If evangelical Christians did not include themselves as sharing the problem and needing the solution, they would indeed be arrogant and condescending. But evangelicals see all of humanity in the same sinking ship, needing a lifeboat. Not everyone may agree that the ship is sinking, or that the lifeboat is Jesus. But we can come to an agreement that those who do believe this are not being intolerant or disrespectful simply because they try to (persuasively) explain their beliefs to others. In fact, if that were the criterion of intolerance, we would have no newspaper editorials, no movie critics, and no political debates or blogs. Ironically, labeling as disrespectful or intolerant someone who advocates for their viewpoint may itself turn out to be disrespectful and intolerant.
Dennis Prager “would like to announce, as a practicing, believing Jew, that I am in no way offended, let alone frightened, by evangelical Christians who believe that it is necessary to have faith in Jesus in order to be saved.”i —Dennis Prager is one of America’s most respected radio talk show hosts, and is strongly involved in interfaith dialogue with Catholics at the Vatican, Muslims in the Persian Gulf, Hindus in India, and Protestants at Christian seminaries throughout America.
- I have a Christian friend who is always trying to explain her beliefs to me. I never try to tell her what I believe; I would not presume to do so. Why can’t evangelicals be happy with their own beliefs and leave Jewish people alone? Can’t they see that their need to convince Jews is offensive?Evangelical Christians believe that the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is God’s communication to humanity. (See question 3.) The conviction that no other way of salvation exists apart from faith in Jesus—for Jews and gentiles alike—is central to the New Testament.
Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
Furthermore, Jesus commanded his followers to share the good news of what he has done for us with all nations, including his own, the Jewish people. In Jewish terms, for evangelicals to share their faith is a mitzvah:
“. . . All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing1 them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
And because God has done so much for them in their own lives, evangelicals want to tell others about him, too.
“For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20)
From this threefold foundation stems the mandate and the desire for Jesus’ followers to share their faith with all, including Jewish people.
Some recipients of the message will perceive this as highly offensive. Evangelical Christians do not wish to offend; however they recognize that they are obligated to share their faith out of both obedience to the Messiah and also love for God and for the Jewish people. Their faith requires them to risk the good opinion of the very people they hope to persuade. Indeed, if Jews and gentiles alike suffer from the same spiritual malady of sin, evangelicals believe it would be wrong to refrain from offering their understanding of the solution. It would be like a doctor who refuses to tell a patient that she is sick and that there is healing available. For evangelicals, sometimes obligations and love coincide.
For evangelical Christians to deny or redefine the obligation to share their faith with Jews or anyone else would be to move outside the boundaries of the Bible. It does not mean that they must at every moment be talking about their faith—nor that they should “push their religion” on those who are clearly not interested. It does mean that anyone who claims to be evangelical and agrees to keep silent about Jesus does so despite obligations to the contrary.
- I don’t understand the word “evangelical.” Is it a way of describing the different denominations in the way we have Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist as forms of Judaism? What differentiates evangelicals from other Christians?At least three main factors set evangelicals apart from other varieties of Christians.
First, the attitude toward the Bible. Evangelical Christians regard the Bible—which for them is both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament—as God’s communication to us and the ultimate source of authority for life and practice.
Second, the need for a personal faith commitment. Evangelicals often use phrases such as “born again”2or “a new creation,” found in the New Testament, to explain the nature of their faith. They are not evangelicals because they were born into a Christian family, or because they attend church. They would identify with the saying, “Being born into a Christian home doesn’t make someone a Christian any more than being born in a bakery makes them a bagel.” Instead, individuals make a conscious decision to receive Jesus as their “Lord and Savior”—Messiah and Redeemer from sin—and begin a new life as his followers.
Third, evangelicals are committed to advocating for their faith. While some call this “proselytizing,” evangelicals use the term “evangelism.” The former expression implies trying to get someone to “join the other team,” so to speak. The latter term means “telling good news.” (The word “gospel” actually means “good news.”) For evangelicals, one’s faith is not a matter of being on one team or another—the Jewish (or Hindu, or Muslim, or atheistic) team vs. the Christian team. Rather, evangelicals believe it is both a duty and a privilege to help point people to reconciliation with God and with one another through Jesus. For them, it is a mandate as well as an opportunity to share the “good news” that the Messiah has come for all people. It is also important to note that for evangelicals, advocacy for faith has a social dimension. For that reason, many evangelicals are involved in causes ranging from disaster relief to opposing child slavery to neighborhood improvements.
“Many of my Jewish brethren reject evangelical Christians as dogmatic and intolerant. In so doing they are guilty themselves of rejecting one of Judaism’s most seminal teachings; to judge a man by his actions rather than his beliefs. Just try and find kinder, more compassionate people who are more willing to assist their fellow man in a time of crisis than the evangelicals. And this is especially true of the evangelical love for Israel.”ii —Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is one of the world’s most prominent rabbis. With his own television and radio show he is fast becoming a household name.
- When I hear the phrase, “Jesus died for your sin,” it sounds like a moral cop-out to me. How do evangelicals justify someone else taking the punishment for their wrongs?Evangelicals see both the problem of sin and its solution in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. The idea of atonement for sin long predates the modern Yom Kippur service. It was a key part of the Jewish religion since the days of the patriarchs and Moses. In those days, atonement came through the sacrifices of animals, who died as “substitutes” for individuals. For example, evangelicals see the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, which spared the people of Israel from the plague of death, as a picture of Jesus who atones for their sins so they can be spared spiritual death. One of Jesus’ followers called him the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), which has become part of the liturgy of many modern evangelical churches. In the New Testament, evangelicals see Jesus as Redeemer and Sin-bearer, whose death atones for the sins of Jews and gentiles alike.
Is believing that someone else can die for our sins then a cop-out—an excuse for any behavior—since “we’re forgiven anyway”? Evangelicals would shudder at such a suggestion. They would explain that their faith is no more a cop-out than the faith of Moses, Aaron, David or Solomon. Those great personages of the Hebrew Bible believed that as they brought their animals for sacrifice, God would accept the animal as a substitute in their place, and their sin would be forgiven. But—and this is an important but—then as now, it was not an automatic “magic button.” The sacrifices had to be brought with a spirit of repentance, and a resolution to do right in the future.
Forgiveness does not erase moral responsibility. Rather, in gratitude for what God has done, evangelicals resolve to do what is right; they strive to emulate Jesus. Some might picture Judaism as a “religion of deed” and Christianity as a “religion of creed.” To that, evangelicals would say that faith and actions are inseparable. Actions are the fruit of faith; but, to change the metaphor, faith is the foundation on which the edifice of actions is built.
Evangelicals would agree with first century New Testament writer, James, who said, “. . . faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26).
- When I go to the polls to vote, I don’t wear my Judaism on my sleeve. It really makes me uneasy to see how Christians seem to think that one political party is more godly than another. Is that true? Does being an evangelical compel them to hold a particular political affiliation?Some evangelicals have indeed looked to the political affiliation of other evangelicals as a litmus test of their convictions. And some American Jews have equated evangelicals with the “religious right.” Even more frightening, some Jews see evangelicals as determined to turn America into a Christian “theocracy.”
The truth is, however, that evangelicals are found on all shades of the political spectrum, left, right and center. An evangelical is defined by his or her attitude to the Bible, to personal faith, and to evangelism, not by a political party label.
Two of the most well-known evangelicals in recent American history stood in many ways at opposite ends of the political spectrum: the late Jerry Falwell, a stalwart Republican; and former President Jimmy Carter, a staunch Democrat.
Falwell’s political statements on social and moral issues were often seen by the Jewish community as controversial and intemperate—and by non-Jews as well. Yet at the same time, the Jewish community counted on him as a great ally when it came to support for Israel. It is said that when Israel bombed Baghdad’s nuclear reactor in 1981, Prime Minister Begin called Jerry Falwell even before he phoned President Reagan. Begin was eager for Falwell to explain the rationale for the action to the American Christian public.
In contrast, Jews have commended Carter for his liberal views on some social issues. After his presidency, many Jews participated in the Habitat for Humanity organization for which Carter was chief endorser and “poster president.” But when it comes to Israel, he has lately been excoriated by some segments of the Jewish community. Michael Lerner, the liberal editor of Tikkun, has criticized Carter’s book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid for its use of the term “apartheid” in describing Israel’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Ironically, the same president who engineered the Camp David Accords between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin in 1978 is now perceived by many as no friend of Israel.
The point is that even within a particular party or an individual’s political career, there is no monolithic position. The same person who “outed” one of the Teletubbies as gay, was a firm friend of Israel. The same ex-president whose humanitarian efforts were often so commendable, appeared to turn against Israel in a critical time. Pat Robertson, the evangelical host of “The 700 Club,” lies on one end of the political spectrum; Jim Wallis, the evangelical founder of Sojourners/Call to Renewal, lies on the other. One is on the political right, the other on the left.
As for the proverbial man in the street, whether Democrat, Republican or Independent, evangelicals choose to support political positions based on their understanding of morality and values as taught by the Bible. This does not mean that evangelicals think of the Bible as a public policy manual, or of God as the supreme policy wonk. Nor does it mean that evangelicals bring no other considerations to bear on their views. Rather, evangelicals see that the Bible presents human nature as flawed and that people, when given the opportunity, will act sinfully and selfishly. (In fact, much of what the Bible has to say on the subject of sin is empirically verifiable in daily life!) So they support positions in keeping with their understanding of what is best for families and for the social fabric of the nation. They also see that the Bible promotes social justice and care for other people and for the environment as well. As evangelicals sort through the best way to apply these principles in practice, some for example will feel more confident with local government as a watchdog rather than relying on a large and faceless government. They will therefore tend to identify as Republicans. Others, recognizing that God is the Creator and He has entrusted us with the care of His (and our) planet, will align with Democrats who have been seen as more responsive to environmental issues.
At the end of the day, evangelicals do not claim to have a corner on the best way of applying the principles of the Bible to society. Nor do they all agree with one another. At some point everyone, evangelicals included, has to make a judgment call in support of policies, parties and candidates. And that, after all, is what we should expect in a democracy.
“It seems to me that a lot of Jews who feel threatened by proselytizers are really unsure of their own identity and beliefs—their own essential Jewishness. . . . I don’t think Jews need to become Christians, or even Republicans. They (we) simply have to stop being so hostile, superior, or harsh to people who are extending a hand of friendship.”iii —Zev Chafets, an agnostic Jew, who was born in Michigan and moved to Israel in 1967 where he later became Director of Israel’s Government Office. In 2000 he moved back to the States.
- My Christian mother-in-law is coming for a visit. I know she will want to attend a church service when she is here. Oy. There’s a Catholic church nearby, but she’s into one of the Protestant denominations and I have no idea what to recommend in our neighborhood. What distinguishes the different Protestant denominations anyway?There are about 340,000 Protestant congregations in the U.S. Below are some of the main groupings and some of their distinguishing characteristics.
Baptist: Baptists are perhaps the most familiar Christian group to American Jews. In part, this is because of highprofile statements that some Baptists have made in the past concerning the Jewish people; they place a strong emphasis on evangelizing, including Jewish people. Their name highlights their belief that baptism is only for those who have made a personal faith commitment to Jesus. This is in contrast to some other Christian denominations that baptize infants.
Examples: American Baptist Churches USA, National Baptist, and Southern Baptist Convention. Some denominations, such as the Evangelical Free Church, are similar to Baptists.
Lutheran: Lutherans are also familiar to many Jewish people, primarily because Martin Luther became quite anti- Semitic in his later life. However, the Lutherans have since repudiated Luther’s anti-Semitic writings. Martin Luther was the father of the “Protestant Reformation” from which has come all the present-day Protestant churches. Lutheran services are liturgical, using a siddur-like Christian prayerbook. Lutherans practice the baptism of infants. There is a strong ethnic component to many Lutheran churches, as they are rooted largely in Germany and in the Scandinvian countries.
Examples: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Lutheran Church Missouri-Synod.
Presbyterian: Presbyterians trace their heritage back to John Calvin, who along with Luther is one of the key figures of the Protestant Reformation. One major emphasis is that God is control of all things. Another stresses social action and working for the betterment of the larger culture around us. Infant baptism is practiced, and many Presbyterian churches follow a set liturgy. Ethnically, many but by no means all Presbyterian churches have roots in Scotland.
Examples: Presbyterian Church USA, Presbyterian Church in America, Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
Pentecostal and “charismatic” churches: Christians who belong to these churches tend to have a very free-form worship service. Exuberant expressions of emotion in worship are common, and many emphasize supernatural events such as miraculous healing. The name “Pentecostal” derives from the Christian holiday Pentecost (which itself has roots in the Jewish Shavuot holiday), marking the day when Jesus’ first-century followers were prepared by God and sent out to spread the good news about Jesus to the world. They spoke in languages unknown to them as some Pentecostals still do today.
Examples: Assemblies of God, Vineyard Christian Fellowship, Foursquare Church, Calvary Chapel.
There are many other Protestant denominations. For instance, the Christian Reformed Church has affinities with Presbyterian churches but has Dutch roots. The Episcopal Church is highly liturgical and is often middle or uppermiddle class in makeup. Methodists trace their history to John Wesley in 18th century England; their worship tends to be liturgical. The Church of the Nazarene, who stress holy living, also is a Wesleyan movement.
In addition to the denominations, there are two other categories that American Jews might recognize through the news and other media:
Megachurches: A megachurch is a congregations with more than 2,000 members. Typically, they have strong and publicly visible leaders who excel in public speaking and who seek to make the Bible relevant to modern society, especially among those who might not come from any sort of church or religious background. Megachurches can affiliate with one of the existing Christian denominations, or might be independent or have their own network.
Examples: Willowcreek Association, Saddleback Church (part of the Purpose-Driven Churches network), Prestonwood Baptist Church.
Televangelists and radio preachers: Though TV and radio preachers are often pictured in the popular eye as money-hungry, deceptive, and irrelevant—and there are no doubt those who are—there are many reputable evangelicals who utilize the airwaves as an extension of their church or ministry. For them, the media is a tool in helping to communicate the message of Jesus. Many, though by no means all, are from Baptist or Pentecostal backgrounds. Some are quite public about their political stands. Perhaps the best known are Billy Graham and Luis Palau, whose rallies have not only filled stadiums but have been broadcast around the world.
Examples: James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Charles Stanley.
“More than any other force in the world today [the extreme Christian right], is the immediate and profound threat to our republic.”iv —Rabbi James Rudin is the former executive Director for Interreligious Affairs and a major player in the Vatican II dialogue with Jews. He recently authored a book on Christians in America.
They’ve never given up trying to bring me to Jesus. That’s what evangelicals do, it’s in their spiritual DNA, and I’m OK with that.”v —Mark Pinsky is a self-professed “nice Jewish boy from Jersey” and the religion reporter for the Orlando Sentinel. He has written for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.
“Lapin reassures Jews that despite evangelicals’ having been some of the most persistent anti- Semites in the past, they are the Jews’ natural allies. ‘I do not fear a Christian America, I fear a post-Christian America.’”vi —Rabbi Daniel Lapin has been called “America’s Rabbi,” and is the founder of Toward Tradition, a non-profit organization working towards educating America on traditional Judeo-Christian values.
“While many evangelical Christians are strong supporters of Israel, they present a dilemma for the Jewish community. Evangelicals are the only Christian grouping in the U.S. who today vigorously and clearly assert that without Christ there cannot be any salvation, redemption or cleansing from sin and actively work to convert anyone, including Jews.”vii —Rabbi Yechiel E. Poupko, Judaic Scholar at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.
- I heard a TV preacher talking about how all the Jews are going to believe in Jesus before he returns. Do evangelicals have ulterior motives in telling Jewish people about Jesus? Do they believe that Jesus will not return until Jews receive him as their Messiah and are they angry with us for “holding up the show” as I’ve heard some say?This is a common misconception that underlies the wariness many Jewish people feel towards evangelical Christianity. This begs the question, do evangelicals tell Jews about Jesus because they care about Jews or because they are in a hurry for Jesus to come back? Moreover, there is a fear that if Jewish people reject the gospel, evangelicals will vilify them for “holding up” Jesus’ return.
While evangelicals hold diverse opinions about the time and circumstance of Jesus’ return, the fundamental reason why they evangelize is simply because they believe the gospel is true. Their concern for others dictates that evangelicals share this truth with everyone, including Jewish people.
However, evangelicals generally believe that a significant number of Jews will come to faith in Jesus shortly before the “Second Coming.” They base this on passages from both the Old and New Testaments, such as Matthew 23:39, where Jesus addresses Jerusalem:
“For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
Likewise, the Apostle Paul, quoting the prophet Isaiah, alludes to a time when Jewish people will come to faith in Jesus as the Messiah who atones for their sins:
“And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: ‘The deliverer will come from Zion; he will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them when I take away their sins.’” (Romans 11:26-27)
Evangelicals are confident that God will accomplish this in his own time. They do not presume that they have the power to orchestrate it, but they do want to be a part of it. They are neither the composer nor the conductor, but perhaps some will admit to being the second violinist or the clarinetist! Could the perception that evangelicals believe that they can influence the timing of Jesus’ return have been shaped by rabbinic Judaism’s assertion that performing mitzvot or good deeds hastens the coming of the Messiah? “Jews have such a cynical, negative view of these people. There are all sorts of crazy conspiracy theories out there about how evangelicals only support Israel to bring on Armageddon or because they want to convert the Jews to Christianity. That’s not true. . . . They’re not religious fanatics, and they don’t have ulterior motives. These are good, religious people who love Israel and want to help. What’s the matter with that?”viii —Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein is the Founder and President of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, and a non-evangelical who raises millions of dollars from evangelicals for Jewish causes.
- On the Jewish background to baptism, see ISSUES Volume 2:10.
- “Born again” became a public catchphrase in the last century, but is based on Jesus’ conversation with a rabbi, found in the New Testament (John 3).
- Dennis Prager, “A Jew Defends Evangelical Christians,” Jewish World Review: http://www.jewishworldreview.com/1002/prager102402.asp (October 2002).
- Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “My Love Affair With Evangelical Christians,” World Net Daily: http://www.internationalwallofprayer.org/A-306-My-Love-Affair-With-Evangelical-Christians.html (November 2, 2004).
- Zev Chafets, “Weird and Wonderful,” World Magazine, (June 2, 2007).
- Rabbi J. Rubin, The Baptizing of America, (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006). p. 1.
- Mark. I. Pinsky, “How One Reporter Got Religion,” America’s Premier Media Monitor Columbia Journalism Review, Issue 1 (January/February 2005).
- Michael Hood, “Rabid Rabbi,” San Francisco Bay Guardian, (July 11, 2006).
- Yechiel Poupko, “Jews & Evangelicals: From Missionizing to Partnership?” Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility (May 2007).
- Zev, Chafets, “The Rabbi Who Loved Evangelicals (and Vice Versa),” The New York Times, (July 24, 2005).