Divine Retribution

The Tanakh is often described as portraying the Jewish God as an angry, vengeful god.  In comparison, the New Testament supposedly depicts the Christian God as a kind, forgiving god.  I suppose this makes sense; the New Testament is full of passages about how God loves us despite our sinning, whereas the Tanakh is full of passages in which God, having been slighted by the Hebrews, almost gets rid of them all, ultimately contenting Himself by killing a few and terrorizing the rest with horrifying threats if they don’t shape up (“YOU’LL HAVE TO EAT YOUR BABIES”, for example).  But, well, the actual beliefs of His followers seem to indicate the opposite.  In particular, their views on the afterlife and the coming of the Messiah seem switched, in my admittedly limited understanding.

The Jewish view of death is that you go to a vaguely Purgatory-esque place for a number of months and then go on to one of the seven levels of Heaven, regardless of what kind of life you lived or what you believed.  There’s no sort of eternal punishment for screwing up in life; even the lowest level of Heaven is pretty awesome, and you’re guaranteed at least that.  It’s just that the other levels are, y’know, more awesome.  To top it off, when the Messiah shows up, you get to come back to life unless your body was snorted by Keith Richards or something.  No matter what you did, God forgives you, though he does reward goodness.

By contrast, the Christian view boils down to this: if you believed in Jesus and weren’t an unrepentant douchebag or something, you get to go to Heaven, which is a totally sweet place.  If not, though, have fun spending eternity in Hell, which is on fire and resultantly sucks.  Even if you lived like a saint, you get endless suffering if you didn’t believe in Jesus.  And that’s it.  It seems a bit petty to me, and certainly retaliatory.

Then, of course, there’s the beliefs of the coming of the Messiah.  The Jewish view, while a bit unclear, is something along these lines: either some dude will show up to lead us to a new age of peace and prosperity or we’ll just enter such an age anyway but, either way, it’s gonna rock for pretty much everyone.  Especially the Jews, though.  Also, as previously noted, the dead get to come back if their bodies were dealt with properly.  Cool.

Meanwhile, Christianity seems to say that Jesus is gonna show up again (I say again because we killed him the first time because we’re jerks), at which point all believers will die and be whisked away to Heaven.  Everyone else gets to suffer a variety of horrors heretofore unmatched until they die, at which point they’re sent to Hell to suffer some more.  Harsh.

To be fair, my understanding of these topics is incomplete and probably at least a little wrong.  Still, it seems odd that the “vengeful” God would let people mostly off the hook while the “forgiving” God would punish the crap out of people.

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Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010 Thoughts

3 Comments to Divine Retribution

  • AmericanMystic says:

    I would argue that the Hebrew Bible (which is most of the Christian Old Testament, depending on who you talk to) portrays the "forgiving" God just as much as the New Testament. The "vengeful" God of the Hebrew Bible I would say is better described as the "jealous" God who punishes his unfaithful Israel but is alway quick to forgive if his people would repent and turn back to him.

    I can't speak as to what the currently-held Jewish view of salvation and the eschaton is, but allow me to correct your descriptions of the Christian one. Although there are many Christians today who hold a "believe in Jesus or be punished forever in hell" type of faith, that view definitely does best represent the Christian view held for most early centuries. A closer and more nuanced view is that everybody, good or bad, dies because of sin and goes to Sheol (the grave or "hell" as translated in early English Bibles). To save everybody from sin and death, God unites himself to humanity by sending his son to become incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, who Christians believe is the Messiah (or Christ) prophesied in the Hebrew Bible. To fully become what we are, Jesus in perfect love suffers even to death to go where go. Although many Christians miss it today, a central core of the Christian faith is the Resurrection of everybody, which is fundamentally rooted in Jesus's resurrection and is fully ushered in by his second coming.

    So Christians don't (or at least shouldn't) believe that when Christ returns everybody dies and goes to heaven or hell, but rather exactly the opposite: everybody resurrects (or is "saved") and either gets to dwell with each other and with and in God in perfect love forever with his "Kingdom come" (the New Jerusalem or heaven on earth) or rejects Jesus's saving work and be cast out to die forever in their sin (i.e., their enmity towards God). The "punishment" experienced by the damned is of their own choosing. How can somebody who hates God enjoy heaven if heaven is where God is?

    -Uncle Alf

    • elyscape says:

      Interesting. Thanks for correcting me. My knowledge of Christian beliefs is quite limited, due at least in part to the fact that I didn’t really know any Christians until my first year of college. I do intend to study Christianity and the New Testament at some point, but first I need to put some more time into the Tanakh.

    • elyscape says:

      As a side note, somebody elaborated somewhat on the Jewish perspective over here.

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