Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
During this season of trying to remember that the ways we're different are so much less important than the ways we're all the same, I present a letter from someone who doesn't quite see things this way.
Q. I feel very sorry for you. Your beliefs regarding the soul will cause a lot of lost people to spend eternity in hell. The belief that all souls except for the very bad will go to heaven and people of all faiths and no faiths will inherit heaven is so far off that it's a sin for it to be published.
I won't even touch the subject of reincarnation; that's too ridiculous to think about.
I'm afraid some lost and confused people will read your column and determine that somehow they can become good enough to go to heaven. Of all the people in the world, a Jew should know, from the Bible, that following all the laws in the world, which no man can ever do, will not get you into heaven.
You and all the lost, before it's too late, need to read the complete Bible, not just the first five books. Only then can you possibly understand that only through a full belief in Jesus Christ can you ever get into heaven. I will pray for your understanding of the truth. If I'm wrong, then, according to your words, I will still go to heaven. If I'm right and you are wrong, then you will spend eternity in hell. Think about it.
-- F.E.A., via email
A You asked me to think about your claims, and I've spent years doing just that.
Here are my conclusions: How can you know if someone really believes in Jesus? Is saying so enough? What about the people who say they believe but really don't? Or what about the people who say they don't believe but really do?
One of the reasons I love the laws in the Hebrew Bible is that they're about actions, and it's much easier to determine if a person has acted in a proper way. Placing such a heavy burden of salvation on belief requires some way to determine sincere belief, and this seems nearly impossible to me. Think about it.
I do not understand how you can believe that a terrible person who's lived a corrupt life but who accepts Jesus at the last moment of his or her life is admitted to heaven, while a person who's lived an exemplary life but does not believe in Jesus is kept out of heaven. Do you honestly believe that Gandhi is in hell? If a recently converted serial killer is in heaven and Gandhi is in hell, I must tell you that I would absolutely, positively rather be in hell. Think about it.
Your final point is a version of what is called Pascal's Wager. The 17th century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal suggested that believing in God is a good bet because if God exists, you're on the winning side, but if God does not exist, you're no worse off than if you didn't believe. The problem is, this is a good rule for betting, but it's not a good rule for believing. Saying that something is true because it has good odds is not what anyone means by belief. Think about it.
Finally, there are many Christian theologians who've taught that one can be saved by Jesus even if one does not explicitly state that one believes in Jesus. There may be people who are "anonymous Christians." Jesus saves them, even though they don't know it. So explicitly affirming belief in Jesus may not be necessary to receive the salvation you seek. It does seem to me that Christianity may not be as clear or as monolithic as you imagine. Think about it.
In the meantime, I'll take comfort in the words of God to the prophet Micah (6:8) in the Hebrew Bible (which, by the way, you're also obligated to accept): "He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" And I also take comfort in the words of the New Testament from First Corinthians 12:4-7: "There are different gifts but the same Spirit. There are different ministries but the same Lord. There are different works but the same God who accomplishes all of them in everyone." Think about it.