A woman who is contemplating conversion to Judaism asked me the following question. I posed the question to our list of Jews by Choices. Beneath her question I have listed the caring answers.
(Note: A number of people expressed concern that this woman wasn't ready to convert and who is her rabbi that isn't picking up on her worries. She is NOT yet working on conversion. These are theoretical concerns as she ponders the meaning of conversion.)
I have a sense of anguish when thinking hypothetically of converting and I feel a sense that I'm going to hell; do other converts feel this way? A sense of loss?
#1 This is only partially related, but I left the religion I was raised in during my mid-20s, about 10 years before I started studying Judaism for conversion. But the process of leaving that Christian religion in my 20s came with all kinds of “deprograming” that I had to work through. Many religions that are “high cost” (meaning they ask a lot of social and identity commitments from adherents) actually create deep mental and emotional pathways in our brains that can take years of work to get through. In Judaism, this would be like growing up Hasidic and then trying to leave your Hasidic community in your 20s. Even moving from Hasidic Judaism to Conservative or Reform Judaism is a huge cultural, mental, and emotional transformation, and it’s the *same* religion. Does that make sense?
So from my experience, that this woman has her old religion’s claims on her rearing up during the conversation process makes sense and is relatively normal, especially if she grew up in a kind of Christianity that actually believes in hell (many mainline and liberal versions of Christianity downplay or reject the idea of hell completely (and Catholicism is split on the issue across a spectrum), so she sounds like she was probably raised more conservative evangelical?).
Anyway, I don’t know that it helps much, but whether or not she ultimately converts to Judaism, it can be important part of leaving a religion that has a firm hold on our habits of mind to practice reminding ourselves, “I don’t believe that anymore” or “that was what I was taught, but I don’t believe in that.” A lot of self-compassion and awareness are required.
Of course I’m coming from a particular background and my (Mormon) baggage is heavy and still at age 50 can rear its head in unexpected and painful ways (usually in other areas of my life, not in my Judaism).
#2 Never, ever thought I was going to hell if I converted. Never! Ever! I had long before stopped believing in my Catholic (Christian) religion before I even considered Judaism. Maybe she is not ready.
#3 Not being a hell-believer, this isn't anything I can personally relate to but I do have some thoughts. Christianity has a very well-developed sense of Hell (over-developed in my opinion) with eternal damnation etc. In that sense, it's a "negative" religion with the threat of Hell hanging over everything and where it's all about avoiding Hell at all costs. Meanwhile, Judaism has its Sheol but that seems pretty vague and is less defined, not much talked about, and is less of a "moving force" in Judaism, which is a more "positive" religion where it's all about doing the right thing, as opposed to the dread of doing something bad like going to Hell.
If the writer is concerned enough to ask the question then my gut feeling is she is considering conversion too soon. She might consider waiting till her sense of Christian Hell is lessened, which she could do by studying up on the "positive" aspects of Judaism, and thus not dwell on the "negative" aspect of Christianity.
Which is not to say Christianity is all negative, but Fear is a big deal in many forms of Christianity and I don't see that in Judaism much, certainly not to the same extent. A "kindly" Christianity would say "thanks for being part of us but we respect your need to move on to Judaism", whereas a "negative" Christianity would say "you are a sinner for jumping ship and you will go to Hell for it". So a concurrent approach would be to re-craft her outgoing Christian thinking to where she sees her form of Christianity in the kindly category, one which allows her out without retribution.
#4 There are a variety of emotions that I had to resolve during my conversion to Judaism. Christianity definitely brainwashes people that the ONLY way into heaven is by believing in Jesus. I have Christian friends who try to guilt trip me into converting to Christianity. They don't know that I converted from Christianity to Judaism because that would be opening up a can of worms so I never share that fact with them. After they try to guilt trip me, I just smile at them and remain silent then move the conversation away from the topic.
BUT with that said...
Based on fishing expeditions by well-intended Christian friends, I have felt from time to time the guilt trip a little bit. But it's the type of guilt that you feel when someone shames you for something, even when you know you did nothing wrong. I’ve had that done to me as a cruel control mechanism.
Christianity teaches that you are guilty just by being born (that's the concept known as original sin), that there is no way G-d can forgive you by your own merits, and that Jesus MUST continually intercede on your behalf otherwise you will be sent straight to hell when you die, where you will burn FOREVER with no hope of reprieve. So if you repent with wailing and gnashing of teeth in this lifetime, you can be forgiven only through God's grace bestowed to you in your pitiful condition. But you have to continually ask for forgiveness, so "forgiven" is not the end of the story. In the analogy of a court of law, in Christianity G-d is the judge AND the jury. Christianity as a whole preaches the ONLY salvation is through the "blood of the lamb (meaning Jesus who died on the cross to redeem us from sin)." That message is a very persistent drumbeat. One hears it MULTIPLE TIMES in every service and in every lesson.
But in Judaism, G-d is the defending attorney! This is a huge paradigm shift. If you have been brainwashed, it takes time to fully embrace the new paradigm. And with Jewish guilt added in, well you get my point. LOL
So... when I reflect back on the fact that converting to Judaism was the ONLY place that I felt at home, I quickly got over the guilt trips. But I can definitely understand if someone is wrestling with this. Especially if they recently left Christianity.
#5 I was quite perplexed with the question. Conversion is a long and very personal process. I am sensing at this particular point, she is still considering. That's OK to ponder with questions in order to seek the personal answers -- it is nothing to be shameful about. There is a reason we study with Rabbi and get involved in the community during conversion process.
#6 Good heavens. If she believes that part of her religion, why on earth is she considering converting? For me, the whole "you're going to hell if you don't believe this" piece of Christianity never EVER sat well with me. I nodded my head in agreement because I was trying with every fiber of my being to believe it. The alternative to believing it being an eternity of consumption by flames. What a relief to find a religion that encourages me to question everything (thanks, Judaism!) and that doesn't have any firm belief (as far as I know of) about what happens when a person dies. I love the quote I heard from a rabbi on NPR once who said something to the effect of: "The people who tell you what happens when you die don't know; the people who know what happens when you die can't tell you."
This woman doesn't sound like she's ready to convert or to even consider it a hypothetical option if she can't shake the belief of hell for "non-believers" in the afterlife.