Redemption and the Power of Man

How to understand the differences between the Jewish and Christian perspectives on the messiah and on man's role in history.


A venerable Jewish anecdote describes a man hired by his shtetl to sit at the outskirts of town and alert his brethren should he see the messiah coming. When asked why he had accepted such a monotonous form of employment, the watchman would invariably reply: “The pay’s not so good, but it’s a lifetime job.” Indeed, waiting for the redeemer of Israel is considered a lifetime job for the Jews. According to the Talmud, Jews are obligated not only to believe in the messiah, but to yearn for his arrival. Thus the list of credos recited daily by many traditional Jews concludes: “I believe with perfect faith in the advent of the messiah, and though he may tarry, I will await his arrival every day.”

This expectation of a tarrying messiah has always been uniquely Jewish. The Protestant theologian Harvey Cox, who is married to a Jew, marveled at this theological point in a book he wrote describing his experience of the Jewish rituals. In a chapter devoted to his reflections on the Passover seder, Cox describes the tradition of opening the door for Elijah, who, according to the prophet Malachi, will precede the messiah to herald the coming redemption. “If no one is there,” Cox notes, “none of the dinner guests seem too upset. From a Jewish perspective, the wait has already been a long one. There are smiles and jokes, maybe in part because the adults have already consumed the seder’s requisite four cups of wine. But the light touch cannot fully obscure my recognition that here we come to a great divide.”1 For Jews and Christians famously disagree as to the identity of the messiah. Christians argue that Israel’s messianic expectations were realized with the birth, life, and death of Jesus of Nazareth; moreover, Christian doctrine asserts that Jesus was divine, God incarnate, and the second person of the divine Trinity. Jews not only argue that the messiah has not yet appeared, but also disagree vehemently with the concept of incarnation. Jewish tradition has always insisted that the messiah will be a human, rather than divine, redeemer, who will restore the Davidic dynasty and defend Israel from its enemies.

All too many Christians and Jews, however, assume that this is the only essential difference between Jewish and Christian eschatology. Cox reflects that “as a child in Sunday school, I was taught that the main difference—sometimes it was put as the only difference—between Jews and Christians was that ‘they believe the messiah is yet to come.’ I do not recall that this was ever said in a deprecating way. It was just a difference… but nothing more than that.”2 Not surprisingly, many texts focus only on this theological distinction in describing the disagreement between Judaism and Christianity. For example, the catechism of the Catholic Church, in its one discussion of post-biblical Judaism, reads as follows: “And when one considers the future, God’s People of the Old Covenant and the new People of God tend toward similar goals: Expectation of the coming (or the return) of the messiah. But one awaits the return of the messiah who died and rose from the dead and is recognized as Lord and Son of God; the other awaits the coming of a messiah, whose features remain hidden till the end of time; and the latter waiting is accompanied by the drama of not knowing or of misunderstanding Christ Jesus.”3 Similarly, Reinhold Niebuhr, in his book Pious and Secular America, notes that Jews and Christians disagree as to whether the messiah has already arrived, and adds that the issue is only one “of emphasis, but there is no radical contrast.”4 

It is true that the question of the messiah’s arrival is one that will divide Jews and Christians until the end of days. Yet there is a more profound divide in the way Jews and Christians conceive the idea of the messiah. This distinction relates not to whether he has already come, but rather to what part humanity plays in bringing about the messianic redemption, a distinction that reveals very different approaches to the moral capacities of mankind. For Christians, redemption is essentially an act of divine grace, the salvation of a humanity that is incapable of saving itself. For Jews, however, the reverse is true: Redemption depends entirely on the repentance of man, who is responsible for his own fate. As such, the difference in the respective religions’ approach to the messiah is, in truth, a difference in the understanding of man’s own moral capacity, and of the nature of good and evil itself. 


The Jewish approach to the messiah takes its cues from the Hebrew Bible. The book of Deuteronomy, for example, in describing the suffering that will befall Israel in the future, appears to assert that the Jewish people will be saved from such a fate only if it turns wholeheartedly to God:

And it shall come to pass, when all these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have put before you, and you shall have a turn of heart while still among all the nations…. And you shall return to the Eternal your God and shall obey him.… Then the Eternal your God will turn your captivity, and have compassion upon you, and gather you from among the all nations, whither the Eternal your God has scattered you.5

The passage implies that redemption cannot take place without repentance; the messiah will not come unless we are deserving of his arrival. Maimonides, the most influential of medieval Jewish philosophers, interprets the passage in its most literal sense, asserting in his Laws of Repentance that “Israel will be redeemed only if it repents.”6 Whether the messiah comes, Maimonides seems to be saying, is up to us; whether he redeems us depends on whether we become worthy of redemption. Yet Maimonides’ assertion, which is based on talmudic precedent,7 begs the following question: What if we never repent, and therefore never become worthy of redemption? If the messiah’s coming depends on our own worthiness, how can traditional Jews be so certain—indeed, why are we obligated to believe—that he will eventually come? This question was posed by one of the leading Jewish philosophers of the last century, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in a lecture on the subject of repentance:

If one accepts Maimonides’ opinion… that the coming of the messiah is dependent upon repentance, and that if it does not take place then there will be no redemption; how is it possible to declare, “I believe with complete faith in the advent of the messiah and though he may tarry I will await his coming every day”? It is possible that he will tarry indefinitely if Israel does not repent; what sense is there in awaiting his coming daily?8

Rabbi Soloveitchik’s answer is startling: Because the messiah will come only when Israel is worthy of his coming, the belief in the certainty of redemption is of necessity a belief that Israel will prove itself worthy of the messiah. Maimonides himself stresses that “The Tora has already assured us that Israel will finally repent at the end of its exile and immediately be redeemed.”9 Thus, writes Rabbi Soloveitchik, the portion of the Jewish credo that expresses belief in the coming of the messiah is “based upon faith in kneset yisrael [the congregation of Israel]It is not an easy faith.”10 Faith in the messiah is faith in ourselves, in our ability to bring the messiah by becoming worthy of his arrival.

This idea, that human beings may become worthy of the messiah, and, further, that the messiah will continue to tarry until humanity is deserving of redemption, does not exist in Christian scripture. As set out in the New Testament, the messianic redemption of the world was made necessary by the disobedience of Adam and Eve, an “original sin” that infected all of humanity. Because of the fall of man, Paul argued in the book of Romans, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,”11 and are therefore incapable of earning redemption. Salvation, Paul writes, depends not on “human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy.”12 Human beings after Adam’s sin are incapable of full repentance or true goodness, and require the grace provided by the crucified messiah if they are to be redeemed. Only through Jesus, the son of God who became man in order to save humanity, is mankind saved from the perdition that it deserves: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”13 Jesus saves humanity by taking Adam’s sin upon himself: “For just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.”14

Read the full essay from Azure.

Jewish and Christian perspectives on the messiah and man.

Jewish and Christian perspectives on the messiah and man.