Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The "Those Who Never Heard" Concern...in Judaism

A problem that has perplexed a lot of Christians and thinkers about Christianity is the eternal destiny of those who have never heard the Gospel. A salient doctrine within Christianity states that one must believe in the Gospel (usually defined as Jesus dying and rising again to bring forgiveness of sins) in order to escape eternal torment in hell and to enter the good afterlife. But what about those who have never heard the Gospel and thus have lacked an opportunity to respond to it? Would a loving God condemn them to hell?

What I found interesting in my latest reading of David Novak's The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism is that a similar problem exists within Judaism. Moses Mendelssohn said the following, and I will provide some context for his remarks after featuring what Mendelssohn said:

"And to me these matters are difficult...that all the inhabitants of the earth from the rising to the setting of the sun are doomed, except us...unless they believe in the Torah which was given us as an inheritance to the congregation of Jacob alone, especially concerning a matter not at all explicit in the Torah...Concerning this we only have ancestral tradition, but what will those nations do upon whom the light of the Torah has not shined at all?"

"God...was, in their opinion, good enough to reveal to mankind the truths upon which their happiness depends; but he was neither omnipotent nor good enough to grant to them the faculties of discovering them themselves. Besides, by this assertion, they make the necessity of a supernatural revelation more universal than revelation itself. For if without revelation the human race cannot but be depraved and miserable, why have by far the greater portion thereof been living without true revelation from the beginning, or why must both the Indies wait until the Europeans are pleased to send them some comforters, to bring them tidings..."

These quotes appear on pages 206-207 of Novak's book. The first quote is from an October 26, 1773 letter, and the second is from Mendelssohn's book, Jerusalem.

Mendelssohn was responding to a Jewish view that Gentile observance of the Noachide commandments only counts if the Gentiles recognize and accept that God revealed the Torah to Israel, meaning that the Gentiles are obeying the Noachide commandments specifically because they are in the Torah. Otherwise, the Gentiles will not enter the World to Come, and they will not receive the happiness that obedience to God brings. But Mendelssohn finds this view problematic, for there are many people around the world who have not heard of the Torah. Mendelssohn appears to think that it's more reasonable to believe that Gentiles will attain happiness and enter the good afterlife if they obey the principles of natural law----which are universal and thus are accessible even to those who have never heard of the Torah.

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