Saturday 5 June 2010

Jesus and Islam

I had one of the most stimulating discussions I've had about Jesus in a long time with Muslim man this afternoon. We met at an exhibition about Islam in the city centre, where A welcomed me warmly to have a look at the maps, historical charts and calligraphy on display about the Islamic faith and culture. As soon as he found out I was a Christian, he became very inquisitive about the bible, the God of the bible and Jesus. It was clear that there were stark differences between Jesus and Islam, but I enjoyed the opportunity to explain how Jesus was central to understanding God, his plan of salvation and the meaning of Jesus' death on the cross.

Here are some points we able to talk through in the half-hour or so we chatted:

1. Grace and Mercy
  • While A was emphatic that he believed in a merciful and gracious God, I pressed him to clarify what he meant by this. For Islam, grace is seen in God's benevolence. He bestows blessings - of life, sight and senses, enjoyment - upon creatures who do not deserve this.
  • For Christians, God's mercy is fully revealed on the cross. Jesus dies to take our punishment for sin, thereby displaying the fullness of God's mercy in forgiveness.
  • Grace is therefore unfair. A had a big issue with this - at two levels. One, God need not send Jesus to die in order to forgive sins - he merely needs to overlook it. Secondly, God cannot punish another man for our sins. This led to a discussion about God's view of sin (see no. 2); and God's relationship with Jesus (see no.3 below)
  • It is important to see here, that Islam has a big issue not simply with God's forgiveness of sins (How the cross brings forgiveness), but for the need for forgiveness of sins (Why Jesus had to die in order for us to be forgiven).
  • This was a good opportunity to then move on to the justice of God...

2. Sin and Judgement
  • I think it was new for A to see that the cross displays the justice (or righteousness) of God.
  • Starting with Paul's argument from Romans 1 (I did not refer to it as such, instead I often used the phrase "The bible says"), God's rightful anger is displayed towards sinful man in creation. A did not have a problem with the idea of creation testifying to God's existence. But he was unsettled with the notion that God was personally offended by our sinfulness.
  • The follow-on question was then - How could we personally offend God? The bible says that we do not acknowledge him as God, neither glorifying him nor thanking him. But again, the rub was that God took personal offence at this as creator.
  • The point I was trying to get across was our differing views on sin. Sin is a personal offence against God. Rebelling against him as God but also ignoring him as our Creator.
  • Therefore God's response in judgement is also personal. He hates sin. But he also hates those who sin.
  • Furthermore, I tried to get across the fact that God was grieved by sin. It saddens him as a father who is hurt when his children not only act in a way that is harmful to themselves (which was A's argument for our need for salvation), but when his children turn away from him to live lives independent of him, despising who he is and what he has done for them. For A, and for Islam, God is not affected when we sin. In Islam, God does not experience anger when we sin.
  • I did this in part to help articulate A's problem with the "unfairness" of the cross. You see, for A and for Islam, God's righteousness is seen in punishing wrong and rewarding good. Therefore punishing the innocent (Jesus) and rewarding sinners (us) is "unfair".
  • I was bringing A to the point where I could show him how the cross was the ultimate justice of God. God is able and justified to fully forgive sinners, not simply by overlooking sin, but because his anger has been satisfied when he poured out his wrath for sin upon Jesus.
  • This was vitally important for A to see, as Islam defined grace very differently from Christianity. For Islam, God is "gracious" when he rewards those who obey his commandments - by observing the 5 pillars of Islam (the duties of every Muslim believer: prayer, profession of faith, fasting, alms-giving and the hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca).
  • For Christians, God's grace is displayed through the forgiveness of sinners through the righteous judgement of anger poured out on Jesus at the cross.
  • The questions that remained were: (1) Why was Jesus able to take our punishment for the sins of the world and (2) How can we know that what the bible says about this is true (over and against the testimony of Mohammed and the Quran)?

3. God and Jesus
  • The repeated objection I got from A was, "You say there are two Gods: God the Father and Jesus. How can that be?"
  • A had earlier had a conversation with a Christian named R (whom I suspect is a friend I know; and I was thanking God silently in my heart for) about the Trinity. A made comparisons between the Christian God and Hinduism, which also promoted a view of God in triplicate form (this was new to me). Essentially, A was saying that Christians taught there were many "gods" when they said Jesus was also God.
  • In answering these very valid questions, I decided to bring A back to the cross. I said that Jesus fully revealed who God was through his life and ministry (his mercy and compassion), his dependence upon his heavenly Father (his personal relationship with God), but ultimately through his death and resurrection (God's humility, grace and love). So instead of starting with arguments about Jesus as creator, Jesus as judge (which I touched on in answering the caricature question - "You Christians say: The Old Testament God is anger, the New Testament Jesus is love"), Jesus as the true prophet (promised by Moses - not Mohammed) - which are all valid and useful - I wanted A to look at Jesus on the cross and see that there, God was fully revealed.... on the cross. There, God was fully revealed in his mercy, his justice and his love.
  • On the cross we the severing of the eternal relationship between God the Father and God the Son. A's repeated caricature of the cross was "God punching himself". I could tell he was trying to evoke a response with that quip (even acting it out for me).
  • Here is where the Trinity is so important in understanding what happened on the cross. God the Father punishes his Son, Jesus whom he has loved since eternity past - by breaking this relationship momentarily on the cross. The judgement is seen not in the pain Jesus experienced through the beatings, the cuts and bruises, the open wounds and stripes on his back - but through the rejection of Jesus from man and God. It is the severing of a loving relationship resulting in animosity, anguish and agony.
  • Only the Trinity can explain God's love. It is relational: between the eternal Father and Son. For Islam, God's love is distant - Muslims are not to think of a God who is personally involved with their lives, their love or even their pain and frustrations - Allah is gracious in even considering to reward the believer who obeys him fully. But Jesus shows us that God is loving in an intensely personal and affectionate way: as a father loves his own son. And the cross demonstrates this supremely - in the true eternal Son, who humbly obeys his Father even unto death.
  • In this way, the cross shows God's relationship with us. Through his death, Jesus clothes us with his righteousness: God the Father sees us as he sees him - holy, righteous and loved.

4. Revelation and Illumination
  • My goal was to talk about the gospel, and the question that led there was revelation: Was the bible a reliable witness to Jesus?
  • For A, the Quran was God's final revelation and a guide for Muslims to live rightly under his rule. He expected me to say that Christians only deferred on the point that the bible was our source of God's revelation.
  • Rather, I replied that Jesus was God's final and full revelation, and that the bible was the means by which this was revealed to us, but only in as much as it pointed to Jesus. More than that, it pointed to Jesus on the cross and explained the reason why he came to save us through his death and resurrection.
  • This was important, as A saw Judaism, Christianity (and the bible - though in a rather distorted form) and the Quran as successively revealing God through the prophets, with Mohammed as the last in the line of God's chosen spokesmen. However, for the Christian, every point of the bible, even the Old Testament pointed forward to the same event and person of Jesus as the fulfilment of God's plan of salvation. True, there is a progression in salvation history: through Abraham, through the Exodus and the Kingdom of Israel to the Deportation and return from Exile - but given any point of these events - they point to who Jesus is, and what Jesus did on the cross.
  • Here, I brought A back to God's revelation of his wrath in creation. Though evident to all, hence making all mankind accountable for their rebellion, we suppress this revelation of the knowledge of God.
  • This created the tension I was hoping for; because A's next question was - how do we get to Jesus? If the revelation of God in creation (which he agrees with from Islam's perspective) is suppressed, what role does Jesus play?
  • In part, A thought Christians placed a premium over their personal experience over God's revelation. "You Christians say you feel what is right for you, but Islam speaks from the objective viewpoint of the Quran."
  • I replied that the bible says we suppress the knowledge of God through sin. But the cross is the true revelation of God that overcomes this suppression by (1) displaying God's true justice over sin, (2) displaying God's forgiveness for sin and finally (3) enabling man to respond to God's offer of forgiveness and new life through repentance and faith.
  • And here then was the biggest difference between the message of the bible and the message of the Quran - the gospel! The gospel was the good news of forgiveness for sins. And the turning point in all history that made this a possibility was the cross.
  • When Christians speak about God opening their hearts to hear the gospel - it is the work of God's Spirit to open our hearts and minds to see Jesus on the cross.

At this point I got a call from V and had to leave. But I am praying for A that will see how wonderful the message of Jesus is; how much more hopeful and real and joyful the gospel is because of his death on the cross.

Some reflections on my encounter:

  • Being loving
    I am conscious we were in a very public place. It would have been a terrible testimony if I had made any remarks or accusations about the Quran and Islam in such a context. Everything I said was only in response to A's questions on Christianity.

    The encounter was totally unexpected; I was only strolling through the area and had a heavy bag on my back. Throughout our conversation, A was gracious in his manner, and even apologised at times, which I really appreciated. To be honest, I wasn't concentrating on getting the answers right as much as I was thinking about getting them across as lovingly as possible - consciously slowing the pace of my speech (it was tempting to speed up to get as much in as possible), and listening to his comments closely in order to understand them rightly before answering.

  • Being clear about Jesus
    A was firing question after question about Jesus, the Trinity, Catholicism - I didn't really get a chance to deal with any one of them at length. So, instead I focussed to connecting each question with Jesus and the cross; ending each answer with "It really has to do with what Jesus - what he did at the cross."

    Revelation of God? Look at the cross. The Trinity? Look at the cross. Grace? Look to the cross. How can Jesus be God? Good question - precisely the question that got Jesus into trouble and killed on the cross.

No comments: