What religions are inherently evil? Those that reject substitutionary atonement

The following is an excerpt of a review by Kendal B. Hunter from Ravi Zacharias’ Light in the Shadow of Jihad: The Struggle for Truth.

“In Chapter Three, Dr. Zacharias discusses the essential nature of Islam, whether it is good or bad. … I think that we make sweeping generalizations against Islam, since the key to understanding the two Islams is how one translated “jihad.” Dr. Zacharias makes the case that Islam is not inherently evil, but that the fundamentalists have hijacked it. He spends some time discussing the blasting cap book of radical Islam, “The Missing Religious Precept,” which focused on the negative, violent definition of “jihad.”

I haven’t read Zacharias’ book, but if he did indeed say that Islam is not inherently evil, here is the reason why the New Testament maintains that all non-Christian religions are inherently evil: they all fall down at religion’s highest point – the cross. I quote from Steve Lawson’s lecture The kind of preaching God blesses. at the Knox 500 Conference, Perth, Scotland, 11 August, 2014.

“Paul, “I’m determined to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ crucified.” The highest apex, the pinnacle the summit of Paul’s preaching was again and again to scale the heights of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Paul preached the full council of God, did he not? Paul preached the truth,the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. He preached all the areas of systematic theology, … Christology, pneumatology (Holy Spirit), eschatology, anthropology, harmatology (Si), soteriology (salvation), ecclesiology. Paul preached it all, yet here he says, ‘I am determined to nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.’ What do you say if every area of systematic theology is rooted and grounded in one way or another in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and that all of the lines of his theology intersect at that highest point that sets forth the glory of Jesus Christ who has come into this world to lay down his life as a ransom for many. He preached Christ but not just Christ,the teacher, not just christ the example, and not just Christ the wise instructor.”

“But Christ the sin-bearing substitutionary saviour of sinners by whose death propitiated the righteous anger of God for sinners so that therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For Christ up on the cross reconciled holy God and sinful man by bringing them together through the blood of his cross.”

Judaism rejects the idea of Jesus’ substitutionary/vicarious penal sacrifice. Islam bolts out of history and says that Jesus wasn’t even crucified.

During the last few decades, many Christians are abandoning this crucial doctrine of substitutionary sacrifice, so vivid in Isaiah 53: “He was crushed for our iniquities.” A pox on their houses.

Conversation between a Jewish agnostic and Jewish Calvinist

Although I have written about 20 posts on “Arminanism and Calvinism,” this topic is relatively a small part of my “bog” (My user name is “bography”). It is, however, very important because it deals with the role of man and God in salvation. 

When Calvinism is contrasted with Arminianism, what first comes to mind is God’s role and man’s role in coming to faith. The Calvinist says that man plays no cooperative or contributive role in coming to faith, while the Arminian says that man cooperates with God in that man turns his heart to God, that is, exercises his will to come to faith. In Calvinism, God first regenerates the sinner and then gives the sinner the gift of faith, while in Arminianism, regeneration follows the sinner’s acceptance of God’s offer of salvation. Faith, for the Arminian is something the believer does, not something God gives, as Calvinism understands it.

Here is a verbatim conversation between an agnostic and a Calvinist, moi. We both had Jewish parents. The agnostic did not grow up in a Jewish-keeping home whereas I  did. The issues discussed deal with differences between Calvinism and Arminianism in relation to faith, works and assurance of salvation. 


Agnostic Jew (AJ): You say that it’s not ok for Arminians to ask God to forgive them and then go ahead and repeat their sin and then ask for forgiveness again etc and assume that they are saved.  (Because their being saved has nothing to do with their deeds, only with God’s choice).What about Calvinists?  You say they are saved because God has chosen them.  But what if these saved Calvinists commit murder or something? Are you assuming that, because they are saved, Calvinists never sin?

Calvinist Jew (CJ): One’s life  indicates whether one is regenerated or not. So whether you are Arminian or Calvinist, the evidence of your faith lies in the fruit it bears in your thoughts, actions and attitudes.

AJ: So, then it IS possible that a saved Calvinist can be lost if he/she sins?  So it DOES have quite a lot to do with the person him/herself?  So in spite of God’s choosing to save a particular individual, that person can still be condemned?

CJ: With regard to losing your salvation, a Calvinist says no, an Arminian says yes. In Calvinism, salvation is wholly a work of the Lord (monergism – mono “alone; ergon “work”). In Arminianism, salvation ultimately depends on man (synergism – syn “together”; ergon “work”), where man and God cooperate in salvation. 

In Calvinism, 1. if good works do not accompany faith, this means you had a false faith, and 2. you are assured  that you will never lose your faith. If you do “lose” it, it means you did not have true faith. 

In Arminianism, there are two main attitudes towards “works”: 1. The Protestant view – works cannot save you, 2. The Roman Catholic view – works (plus faith) save you. In all Arminian views, you CAN lose your faith again and again and again. The reason is that you get to decide your salvation, and you know how fickle the human heart is. I give a more comprehensive explanation here.


AJ – I see what you mean.

End of conversation

Now, if an agnostic and a (clever) Jew to boot can see what I mean, why is it that Arminians (both Jewish and Gentile) kick against the pricks? Simply, as the Bible says, it is God who opens or keeps shut blind eyes – so that no one may (even be tempted to) boast.

Does the fact that we’re both Jewish contribute to the content? Not really, but the title did grab your attention. Crafty.

Jacob Neusner and the grammar of Rabbinical theology (4): God wants the Jew to create his own history and live in the now.


Jacob Neusner’s metaphor of rabbinical theology as “grammar” extends logically to his view of history. In previous sections on Neusner’s rabbinical theology, I discussed Neusner’s (Chomskyan) “grammar” at length. In a nutshell, “grammar” is a set of limited rules applied to words forms, word order and vocabulary that are used to construct an unlimited number of sentences. For example, my previous sentence has never been constructed before, and probably will never be repeated by someone else (unless copied). Apply this idea to history, and the historical record becomes a set of limited “facts” (Neusner) that are used to create the rabbinical system. And God wants it that way, says Neusner (as we shall see later). According to Neusner, history is not about what really happened but about what Judaism creates and “lives on in the minds and imaginations of the great rabbis of Judaism.” And this is what God wants, says Neusner. I examine this claim.

In Neusner’s “Handbook of rabbinic theology,” the section “A religion of intellect, creating a language of faith,” he writes:

(I have italicised the two terms, “documentary record” and “history” that I would like to discuss).

…in Rabbinic Judaism, religious encounter to begin with takes place in, and is handed on for generations to come through, the medium of words properly used. It is a religion of intellect, encompassing emotions within the conventions of rationality, a religion that knows God through the close analysis of what God says in so many words and in the breaths, the silence separating them… For what it [Israel] knows about God, this particular religion [Judaism] appeals to the documentary record of God’s presence in humanity…Pointing to God’s presence in nature and in history, the Torah identifies the occasions of encounters and intervention.”

Neusner speaks of “the documentary record” that points to “God’s presence in history.” In normal historiography, the “documentary record” aims to establish what really happened in history. It might come as a surprise – perhaps to some traditional Jews as well – that for Neusner the documentary record (the rabbinical canon) has little to do with “history” as a record of real events. Elsewhere (in his “Judaism in the Beginning of Christianity”) he distinguishes between the “Hillel of history” and the “History of Hillel):

One thing, says Neusner, we “will recognise (if not immediately) [about the redaction of Hillel’s “stories”] is that they were made up or constructed for some purpose other than to preserve the very words Hillel had spoken, the very deeds he had done.” Here is the purpose, according to Neusner, why these stories were “made up.”

Rabbi Hillel was a great story teller. What is, and always was, asks Jacob Neusner, the Jewish interest in Hillel? One thing only: no one could tell stories like he could; he was a “model story-teller.”  Neusner distinguishes between “the history of Hillel” and “the Hillel of history.”  He says:

If we ask not about the historical Hillel but about the Hillel of history, that is, about how Hillel lived on in the minds and imaginations of the great rabbis of Judaism, we get exact and reliable answers. Every story then is a fact. It testifies to what people later thought Hillel had said and done. It tells us then about the things rabbis maintained all Jews should say and do: the model of virtue, the mode of correct reasoning alike. Hillel then is: he endures. He never dies. He is the teacher, he is the paradigm. That is why the stories reach us. That, it seems to me, stands then for the purpose for which the stories were made up and preserved. They are documents of culture, glyphs of faith).” (Jacob Neusner, “A counterpart to the problem of the historical Jesus,” in “Judaism in the Beginning of Christianity, pp. 77-88).

Facts” in Neusner, therefore are not a record of what really happened outside the rabbinical mind. The rabbinical “documentary record” consists of “documents of culture, glyphs of faith.”

l wonder, however, says Neusner, whether in the context of faith – whether concerning Moses, Jesus,or Muhammad, such a thing as “critical history” in the nineteenth-century sense indeed can emerge. I ask myself whether, to begin with, the sources came into being with any such purpose in mind. And I question whether when we ask about history in the sense at hand, we address the right questions to sources of such a character. And, anyhow, what ‘critical historical’ facts can ever testify to the truth or falsity of salvation, holiness, joy, and love? ((A counterpart to the problem of the historical Jesus.” Jacob Neusner, “Judaism in the Beginning of Christianity”, p. 88; see “Jewish scholars and the play dough of interpretation”).

What matters in Scripture, says Neusner, is not the history of Scripture or even the historicity of the events portrayed in Scripture. What matters is the authority of Scripture, and that rests on the community of the faithful today, not the events that (we may “prove”) took place so long ago…What counts is not what happened then – did Sodom really perish in fire and brimstone, or was it an earthquake? – but what scripture teachers us to make of what is happening now…what God wants of me. And to people who ask Scripture to explain what is happening now, to lessons and examples of the sages of Judaism have much to say.” (Jacob Neusner, “Christian faith and the Bible of Judaism: The Judaic encounter with scripture, William B. Eerdmans, Michigan,1987, p. xii)

Neusner’s rabbinic Judaism sounds very much like “Reconstructionist” Judaism, where the Torah is regarded as the folklore that binds the Jewish community together. Here is part of Rabbi Lester Bronstein’s “crash course” in Reconstructionist Judaism:

In this system, God does not choose the Jews to be performers of the commandments. Rather, the Jews choose to be called by God by means of a vast network of sacred acts (mitzvot) ranging from balancing work and rest (Shabbat), to establishing courts and laws, to sexual fidelity, filial respect, medical ethics and the rhythms of the seasons. (Hence, asher ker’vanu la’avodato, “who has called us to your service.”) Paradoxically, it is the mitzvot that keep us Jewish, but which simultaneously attune us to the greater universe of which we are a tiny part.” (See The Spirit of Reconstructionist Judaism).

Neusner and Reconstructionist Judaism (and Reform Judaism, by and large) would say that it doesn’t matter whether the Babel story, for example, is a myth, or (to use a reconstructionist term) folklore; what is important is that it is a shared myth, and it is the sharing of a common heritage that binds a community together. What matters more, in reconstructionism, is the “binding,” not the Book.

Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, another reconstructionist Jew, believes that the Torah stories, even if not true in the historical sense, are central to Jewish life. The Torah, she says, is one of the “noblest employments of the mind and soul aiming at knowledge and wisdom….“Perhaps religious experiences provide no new information about the universe. Rather, they give us the emotional impetus to tell certain kinds of stories. We may indeed be nothing but a pack of neurons and our religious experiences may be neurological phenomena; nevertheless, the stories we tell ourselves about those experiences come from our higher cognitive functions. When we choose to link ourselves to a religious civilization, we opt for a narrative tradition that will shape raw experience in particular ways.”

And that’s also Neusner’s “rabbinical” view of history – raw facts, the raw gristle of rabbinical theology.

Jacob Neusner and the Grammar of Rabbinical Theology (Part 1)

Great names in Hebrew grammar of yesteryear are the Kimchi family (Joseph and his sons Moses and his celebrated brother, David), Jarchi (Rashi), Moses Maimonides and many others. In modern times, I single out Jacob Neusner, not only because of his grammar skills but because of his analogy between grammar and theology. The basic idea is that theological structures and grammatical structures have much in common. I shall devote much time to this idea in later posts.

When you hear the word “grammar,” what comes to mind? Plurals, spelling, tenses, word order. Most of us think of “grammar” as the cement, and vocabulary as the bricks of a language; the bricks may be right, but the cement mix may be wrong – I can see it’s a house but it’s wonky.

Kyle Wiens writes in the Harvard Review, I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why:

If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me. If you think a semicolon is a regular colon with an identity crisis, I will not hire you. If you scatter commas into a sentence with all the discrimination of a shotgun, you might make it to the foyer before we politely escort you from the building…Everyone who applies for a position at either of my companies, iFixit or Dozuki, takes a mandatory grammar test. Extenuating circumstances aside (dyslexia, English language learners, etc.), if job hopefuls can’t distinguish between ‘to’ and ‘too,’ their applications go into the bin.” 

True, that is one meaning of “grammar”; its mechanics. A wider meaning of “grammar” refers to everything involved in the structure of sentences. There is more to the term language, however, than sentences. I deal with this “more” in Part 2.

I introduce Neusner.

Jacob Neusner is a prolific writer on Jewish Studies. The Huffington Post describes him as “Distinguished Service Professor of the History and Theology of Judaism and Senior Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Theology at Bard College Annandale-on-Hudson. He also is a Member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, and a Life Member of Clare Hall, Cambridge University. He has published more than 1000 books and unnumbered articles, both scholarly and academic and popular and journalistic, and is the most published humanities scholar in the world.”

In the next few posts, I’d like to concentrate on one of his major works in rabbinical studies, namely, his “Handbook of Rabbinical Theology: Language, system, structure”(Brill Academic Publishers, 2002), which

presents, says Neusner, in condensed form the results of three of my systematic works on the theology of Rabbinic Judaism, the Judaism set forth by Scripture as mediated by the Mishnah, Talmuds and Midrash-compilations of late antiquity. The three titles here formed into a single coherent statement are The Theological Grammar of the Oral Torah I-III (1999), The Theology of the oral Torah: Revealing the Justice of God (l999), and The Theology of the Halakhah (2001).The three were conceived to form a single continuous statement covering the theological language, system of belief, and structure of behavior that animates the definitive documents and characterizes the age and thought of those that produced them.”

Jacob Neusner: the one with the yamulka?

I shall be studying Neusner’s Handbook over the next few weeks. Here I relate the bit I’ve read so far with a few introductory observations on the origin and nature of language. (I have more than a nodding acquaintance with Neusner’s other works).

As we know, “theology” deals with the application of our noggins to what God says to us. Jewish theology and Christian theology obviously have much in common and also much that is not. Both will agree, though, that theology is based on God’s word, on what He is saying to us. What is very important is that our interpretations of God’s word should be based on sound inferences.

For the true-blue Jew (In future “Jew” will refer to the real mccoy), the scriptures (the written Torah, also called the Tanach) is one part of the Oral Torah, which is the total Torah given orally to Moses and God’s other spokesmen, the sages (chochomin). The rest of the Oral Torah was later recorded in the Talmudic and other Jewish literature.

Here’s a thing: the Hebrew root davar (means “word/speak” as well as “thing.” A famous book in introductory linguistics is Roger Brown’s “Words and things.” No prizes for the Hebrew translation of the title.

For the Kabbalist, the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are the basic building blocks of the universe. So, Hebrew is not merely a natural language, but a supernatural language, the language of God. Also, it is not merely a language but the “table of elements” out of which all things in the earth and in the heavens were created. It is easy to see that in such a view, God’s speaking creation into being is given added poignancy. But I am jumping my creative gun, because before I rev my rabbinically fueled engines (in Part 2)), I need to examine here some salient facts about language in general.

Human language, says Edward Vajda, is not purely a reflex triggered automatically by external stimuli or internal emotional states. Human language can be used as an index, just like animal communication, but it may also exhibit what has been termed displacement. Humans can not only talk about things that are absent but also about things that have never been. Humans can invent myths and tell lies. Human language can be used arbitrarily, with the stimulus deep within the speaker’s psyche and the topic not present or even non-existent. Animal languages can only be used as a means of pointing to something directly present in time and space.”

The origins of human language will probably remain for ever obscure. By contrast the origin of individual (natural) languages has been the subject of very precise study over the past two centuries.

How did language begin? (No, Menachin Begin, although Jewish, can’t help you there). If you believe, with Ray Jackendoff, that we come from monkeys, a logical question to ask would be “how human species developed over time so that we – and not our closest relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos – became capable of using language” (Jackendoff). Neither Jackendoff nor any other human is able to unbundle this knotty question. In 19th century France, speculations on origins got so so out of hand that in 1866 the French Academy banned any further research on the matter. If you believe that human language originated in Adam, you get, of course, a different picture. The standard theories of language variation maintain that when people gradually separate, their language begins to vary. The Bible teaches that mankind had a common language but when it decided to build a Tower (of Babel) to climb to the heavens, God confounded the common language. So, instead of gradual change, a miraculous rupture in the uniform linguistic fabric occurred to produce linguistic variation.

When people, says J.W. Oller, with a common language were separated by, say, an ocean for about 1,000 years, they ended up not being able to understand each other. The Scandinavians in Iceland cannot understand those who stayed in Europe. The English of Beowulf’s time—between AD 680 and 8003—is unintelligible to speakers of “modern English,” which is dated roughly from Shakespeare (1564–1616) and the King James Bible (1611). If we met Shakespeare today, we would understand him, but not folks from Beowulf’s time. Even printed literature, dictionaries, telephones, computers, and worldwide travel cannot keep languages from changing. We see remnants of change in English where let used to mean “prevent” but now generally means “allow” (excepting a “let ball” in tennis) and meat used to mean any kind of food but now is limited to what Shakespeare called “flesh.”

J.W. Oller (Jr). So glad to see you’re wearing your yamulka, J.W.

From Genesis to Revelation, continues Oller, the Bible shows us that God created the universe, sustains it, and has redeemed all who will believe, by the power of His Word. That power, according to the Bible, resides in the language capacity. It is the one and only unmistakable signature of God in us.”

The Tower of Babel account is not a PIE in the sky theory. Indeed, the Tower of Babel story accounts very well for the data, and therefore there is “More than PIE (the title of Oller’s article) – Proto-Indo-European (PIE) – in the Tower of Babel account. According to Oller, “[s]ecular theories fail to explain the many distinct language families throughout the world. The biblical account of Babel is the only explanation that fits the data.” (See here for Oller’s argument)

(Dr. John Oller, Jr., is the Hawthorne Regents Professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He has taught in prestigious universities and lectured around the world. The Modern Language Association also awarded him the Mildenberger Medal for one of his numerous books).

For the Jew, Hebrew didn’t start with Adam but in heaven; indeed, it didn’t start at all because if God always was, so was His language, which is equated with his creative power, namely his davar, his word. The Muslim says the same things about Arabic. I shall deal with this Hebrew-Arabic claim at a later stage.

Language, like everything, natural and supernatural consists of two fundamental interlocking categories: structure (or form) and function. Cognate terms used in the biological sciences are anatomy (structure) and physiology.

Neusner’s book is going to compare the rabbinical theological system to a language, which for him comprises vocabulary, syntax and semantics. Neusner seems at first blush to equate “language” and “grammar,” but we will need to read more to establish whether this equation is maintained throughout his book. He uses the “metaphor of grammar” to describe the rabbinical theological system:

“The metaphor of a grammar serves [for this purpose], for by grammar is meant “an example of a discrete combinatorial system. A finite number of discrete elements (in this case, words) are sampled, combined, and permuted to create large structures (in this case, sentences) with properties that are quite distinct from those of other elements.” (Steven Pinker, “The language instinct” (New York: HarperPerennial, 1995, p.84). At issue then are the rules of combination and permutation into larger structures – an ideal way of surveying the work at hand. ” (Neusner pp. 19-20).

It is important to note that “grammar” in Pinker and Neusner is restricted to the sentence level. What about the “discourse,” level, namely, the level beyond the sentence? This higher level is of crucial importance in language as communication, in our context, biblical and theological texts. In Part 2, I map out the basic principles of (verbal) language and discourse. In Part 3, I examine Neusner’s pivotal analogy between “grammar” and “theology.”