It was a beautiful June evening in Marseille, perfect for taking a walk to think over all the things I had been learning in the course on Islam. God had provided an opportunity for me to spend the summer with a mission in Morocco, and this was the orientation to Islamic culture. As I approached a café near the university and turned in for a cup of coffee, I happened to see three Arab-looking students from the university seated at a table. Upon my greeting them, they invited me to join them at their table. This was a great opportunity to test first-hand the information I had been receiving in the classes, so I gratefully accepted their invitation. Perhaps I would also be able to share the gospel with them.
I sat down and we introduced ourselves. My new friends were Abdul, Hassan, and Shadid, Moroccans who were in France to study. They were very pleased that I was planning to visit their country and were surprised that I was taking the time to learn something about their culture. Abdul asked, “Have you been introduced to the teachings of Muhammad in your studies?”
“Yes,” I replied. “The study of Islam is very important to me because it is central to your culture.”
This seemed to impress them further, and Abdul responded, “Don’t you find that Islam is the perfect religion? It is the fastest-growing religion in the world because it is so reasonable. It gives purpose to life and provides order for society. This is why Islamic societies are more moral than Western societies.”
I did not wish to launch into an argument with my new friends, but here was an easy opening into spiritual matters. Rather than debate the morality of Islamic societies, I said, “There is much to admire in Islam, but there is one thing that seems to be missing. So far nothing has been said about Christ’s death for our sins. Isn’t forgiveness of sins an important aspect of Islam?”
I could see my friends were relishing this discussion, for Abdul answered eagerly, “Jesus did not die. He was a prophet of Allah, and Allah would never allow one of his prophets to die as a criminal. The Quran teaches that Jesus was resurrected, and most of our Mullahs teach that the Jews crucified Judas Iscariot instead.”
“But the Bible clearly says that Jesus died on the cross. It says so in all four gospels. You Muslims accept the Bible as God’s word, do you not?”
“Truly,” replied Abdul, “we recognize the Law of Moses, the Psalms of David, and the Gospel of Jesus as God’s Word. But the Christians and Jews have corrupted their teachings so that they are no longer reliable by themselves. That is why we rely on the Quran to interpret the earlier writings. Besides, the revelation to Muhammad is the most authoritative because it came last and was Allah’s final revelation. The Quran clearly states that Jesus was not crucified, so we know it is true.”
“Well if you say the Bible has been corrupted, how do you know the Quran has not been corrupted also? And if God has preserved the Quran, then how can you say He has not also perfectly preserved the Bible?”
“Ah, you have not adequately understood the perfection of the Quran. But of course it would be impossible for you to understand it fully until you learn Arabic. Even so you must know that the Quran was not written by men, but came from heaven itself. Muhammad simply wrote the words he heard Gabriel speak. There is no possibility of error. The Quran has been preserved without any corruptions ever since Muhammad received it. The other books were tampered with over the many centuries by the Jews and the church. They still contain Allah’s word, but in an adulterated form.”
“But if God transmitted the Quran and preserved it over the centuries, it is only reasonable to believe that He did the same with the earlier books,” I responded.
“No, you do not understand,” Abdul returned. “As the last revelation, the Quran corrects all the previous books. As to its corruptibility, it says, ‘We will assuredly / Guard it (from corruption)’. You see, it has God’s promise of perpetual perfection.”
“But that promise is in the Quran itself. That is circular reasoning. You can’t do that. Is there any evidence from another source that supports your claim that the Quran is uncorrupted?”
“Ah, if you read the Quran, you would see. It far surpasses the books of other religions in its wisdom and beauty and provides the best foundation for society. That is why Islamic societies do not have all the troubles of the West. We follow the Quran in every aspect of life. We do not have to fear robbery or murder when we go out into the streets. We have no problem with drunkenness or drugs. Our women are not seducing every passing man by their immodest dress and behavior, so divorce is very rare among us. Only when the influences of the West are unrestrained is the peace and beauty of Islamic culture interrupted in our lands. Why do you think Islam is spreading so rapidly into sub-Saharan Africa? When the heathen tribes see the great advantages of our way of life, they eagerly submit to Allah. Someday even the West will recognize the superiority of Islam and the advantages of submission to Allah.”
“I believe you may be exaggerating the bliss that Islam brings to a nation, but I will not deny the moral decay of Western countries. However, this moral decay is evidence of the sin in all men and shows the need for a savior. As I said at the beginning, I think the death of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins is necessary for our salvation. In Christianity we are not left helpless in the guilt of our sin, but Christ died for us and thereby paid the penalty for our sin.”
“But that would be most unfair!” exclaimed Hassan. “Why should one man die for another, and what good would it do?”
“Helpless indeed!” cried Shadid. “Do you think man is a puppet, or a monkey? Everyone chooses to do good or evil. God made us so. You remove from man responsibility for his behavior. No wonder your country is in a mess.”
“Do you not agree that man is responsible for his own actions?” asked Abdul.
“Why, of course…,” I answered.
“Well, then,” continued Abdul, “you must consider how Allah views man’s behavior. The will of Allah is set down perfectly in the Quran, and all men are commanded to learn and obey its teaching. Some obey better than others, and the Quran makes provision for the punishment of those who break the law. But everyone is made in the form of Allah and is capable of obedience to his will. In the end, at the last judgement, Allah will weigh our deeds, the good and the bad. By our submission to his will he may find our good deeds weightier than the bad and welcome us into Paradise.”
“How does God forgive your sins?” I wondered. “Isn’t it wrong to overlook sin? Shouldn’t sin be punished?”
“Allah can forgive sin because he is Sovereign. Nothing is outside of his power. If he chooses to forgive, so be it.”
“But where is his justice?” I asked. “You make Allah sound capricious. Doesn’t Allah preserve his law? Mustn’t there be punishment for sin?
“Do you accuse Allah of iniquity? Of course Allah is just and punishes sin. That is why he created hell, for the just punishment of the rebellious and sinners. It is you who do not understand justice. There is no justice in one man dying for another. Allah judges all men on their own deeds at the final judgement.”
“If this is so, then how do you know if your good deeds outweigh the bad?”
“This cannot be known by man, but is only revealed at the judgement by Allah. Otherwise he would not be the All-Powerful, the Sovereign.”
“That would be a terrible way to live,” I replied. “You have to go through all your life in fear of hell. You see, in Christ we can be sure of forgiveness for our sins.”
“Islam is not a life of fear, but of peaceful submission to the will of Allah. Allah is the Forgiver, the Compassionate, the Merciful. But how do you Christians come to believe you can be sure of forgiveness of your sins? If that were true, surely it would mean that God is not Sovereign. And besides, then there would be no motivation to live a pure life.”
“I will be happy to answer these questions,” I said, “and I am sure you will see why it was necessary for Christ to die.
I continued, “Surely God is sovereign – of that there is no doubt at all. But the fact that God is sovereign does not mean that he can do anything he wants.”
“But that is an outright contradiction!” interrupted Hassan.
“Hold on,” I said. “God can do anything within His will. You also believe that God has revealed His will in the scriptures, do you not? You see, in Genesis God said that if Adam sinned he would die. God did not have to say that, but once He said it He is bound by His word. When Adam sinned, sin entered the world and we all are born sinful.”
“No, but we are made in God’s form with the capacity to do good,” Shadid insisted.
“True,” I said, “but sinful too. Then God promised to send a savior to free us from sin. All through the Old Testament you can find the promises of a savior. He did not have to make these promises, but having made them He must keep them. Eventually He sent His Son Jesus to die for our sins and the resurrection is proof that He has accepted the death of Christ as the punishment we deserve. The message of the Gospel is to repent of sin and have faith in Christ. All the good deeds we do are not adequate to gain us favor in God’s sight, but by faith in Christ we can be sure of forgiveness of our sins.”
“How can you say God is bound to a promise?” demanded Hassan. “Allah can do anything he desires.”
“How can God have a son? insisted Shadid. “Allah does not copulate with women. Jesus was a great prophet, but it is blasphemous to call him God’s son.”
“God does not allow his prophets to be crucified,” asserted Hassan. “He took Jesus away before the Jews got to him.”
“Allah is the Mighty, the Lord. He forgives without the need to turn into a man and without any help from his prophets,” claimed Shadid.
“All these objections are true,” said Abdul, “but the point that bothers me most is your insistence on faith. Once again, you absolve man of responsibility. You have adopted the view that Jesus’ death does more than all your good deeds – no wonder your country is so short of good deeds! Everyone is waiting for God to welcome them into heaven, regardless of their behavior. This faith of yours has robbed your religion and your nation of its vitality. Do you not agree this is so?”
“But everyone has faith,” I protested. “You have faith in Muhammad…”
“Oh no,” interjected Hassan. “We submit to the will of Allah.”
“So you trust Allah, then,” I said.
“We obey his commands,” replied Shadid.
I could see I was getting nowhere with these three Muslims. What had begun as a golden opportunity to witness to the Gospel had turned into a frustrating argument. How relieved I was when just then my French friend Michel, who was also enrolled in the Islam course, walked into the café and spotted me. I rose and warmly greeted him, then introduced him to Abdul, Hassan, and Shadid.
“We have been discussing Islam and Christianity,” I said, “and we seem to be stuck on the issue of faith.”
“Faith is an excuse for refusing to submit to Allah,” countered Abdul. “Allah has revealed his will in the Quran, and he will judge each man on the basis of his obedience to its commands. Faith in a man is irrelevant at best or blasphemous at worst. We must worship Allah and obey the Quran.”
“And what will be the result of worshiping Allah and obeying the Quran?” said Michel.
“For each true Muslim, eternity in Paradise, and for the nation, peace and prosperity,” answered Abdul.
“Tell me how this works in your nation,” asked Michel. “What are the fruits of Islam?”
“We have a beautiful country,” Abdul replied. “I hope you will visit us sometime. There are rich farm lands and bustling cities. Our cities are safe and beautiful, for robbery and murder are almost unknown. Our people get along peacefully for all pray to Allah and no one is drunk with alcohol. Marriages are strong because our women are cared for in the homes and are not allowed to tempt men by wearing immodest clothing or behaving seductively. Islam is one big brotherhood where hospitality is offered freely, even to strangers. You see, we do not have the violence that fills your Western cities where everyone demands his own way. The path to peace is submission to Allah.”
“That is very beautifully put,” said Michel. “Does that truly describe Morocco?”
“Certainly,” replied Abdul.
“If these things were really true, I would wish to become a Muslim,” said Michel. “But I have some doubts. Is it not true that Morocco is not able to feed its own people? Your milk imports from my country are considerable. I find this to be even more surprising in light of the very high unemployment in Morocco. Are not some families struggling due to lack of work?”
“Absolutely not,” countered Abdul. Few of our people lack jobs.”
“That is not what is was told by several Moroccans I visited last year,” said Michel. “And why are you here in France? If it is so dangerous and less desirable, why not study in Morocco?”
“We are not yet able to receive advanced engineering training at home,” said Abdul. “But that is changing very soon. It has taken us a while to recover from the colonialism of the past century, but soon we will be as modern as France.”
“Morocco is a pleasant country,” continued Michel, “but the peace you spoke of seems not to extend to the Sahara. The war there has been a big drain on your country. Do you not find it a contradiction that you are at war with Muslims in another region?”
“This was all caused by the foreign intrusions. There was a time when all the Muslim lands were united under the Caliph. But in the last century we were not so strong, and we allowed the Europeans to gain control of us piece by piece. Now we are becoming united again.”
“I wish it were so,” said Michel, “but it seems there is warfare throughout the Muslim lands. Iraq fought Iran for a decade with the support of many other Islamic nations, but then they all turned against Iraq in the Gulf War. Furthermore, Iraq and Iran had declared a jihad against each other. Even though Iraq also declared the Gulf War a jihad, Morocco joined other Muslim nations and the European powers against her. And it is no wonder they did so. Look at the terrible way the Iraqis treated Kuwait. I am sorry, but this does not seem like the Muslim brotherhood of which you spoke.”
“Hussein is a madman,” Abdul responded. “You cannot use him as a representative of all Muslims.”
“Fair enough,” replied Michel, “but all the same, I do not find that your picture of Islam fits reality. Perhaps Morocco is no worse than France, but there are sinful people in every country. Even your Quran teaches that there is bad as well as good in people. You have succeeded in controlling some sinful behavior, but evil still lives in the heart, does it not? You see, this is why we Christians believe the Bible when it says that everyone is born in sin. This is a better explanation for how people really act. Now consider this, violence stalks our streets, but did you ever notice the difference in the way our people go about? Westerners have a comfortable manner of walking, but North Africans are quite uneasy. They seem always to be looking over their shoulder, as if someone might be spying on them. There is a big lack in the peace of which you spoke. What do you say to this story? My friend Bob was speaking to his Moroccan neighbor who was nervous about an upcoming trip. He was afraid that his other neighbor would take advantage of his wife while he was gone. “Relax,” Bob told him. “What makes you think he would do such a thing?” “Because I would take his wife if I had the opportunity,” he replied.
This story caused a stir among our friends, and Abdul responded, “Idle words prove nothing.”
“True enough,” said Michel, “but what do you say to the well-known common practice of the Saudis who travel to the West for women and alcohol?”
“The Saudis think they are better than the rest of us, just because Mecca and Medina are in their country,” spat Hassan. “And if they sin, they are led into it by the West.”
“The West is far from God,” I agreed, “and I do not say these things to cast a bad light on your noble people. I only mean to show that reality does not seem to match the promise. If the Quran were right, after all these centuries we should see the peace and prosperity of which you spoke. But I think that Muslim lands and the West are equally sinful, just in different ways. Now for those who believe the Bible this is what one would expect. The Bible teaches that we all are born in the image of God, much as you believe we are made in the form of Allah. This is why people are capable of such great works – far more than any animal. But the Bible shows that this image is damaged by sin, and this is why man’s great potential is constantly hampered. He sets out to build a palace, but a neighboring king, hungry for power, marches in and destroys it. Allah gives him a good wife and family, but he begins to desire the neighbor hidden behind her veil. Whatever man sets his hand to do, the evil within him leads him astray. He may be held back by fear of the law, but the evil desire still lives within. This is why the Bible teaches Jesus had to come to free us from the power of this sin. I think this is a better explanation of how people in all lands behave.”
Abdul responded, “The problem with you Christians is that you worship three Gods. The Quran teaches very clearly that there is only one God, Allah.”
”Oh, we also worship only one God. God is one, and we worship him alone; but He is also three.”
“Ha! What nonsense!” cried Shadid. “Make up your mind. Do you have one God or do you have three?”
“Both,” Michel answered, “and it is difficult to understand. But if you are interested, I will show you how this must be.”
“We will listen to hear this great feat,” Abdul said.
“Very well,” continued Michel, “but you must help me out by answering a few questions I have. You seem to know much about Allah. How do you know him? Have you seen or talked to him?”
“Of course not,” said Abdul. “Allah is the Hidden one. He is far distant from all creation and cannot be known. Man cannot know him, but we can know his will because it is revealed in the Quran.”
“Where did you get this Quran? Did Muhammad write it?”
“Certainly not! Muhammad wrote down the words as Gabriel spoke them. Muhammad did not know how to write, but Allah used him as an instrument to reveal the Quran.”
“Then did Gabriel write the Quran?”
“Gabriel? What ideas you have! Of course Gabriel did not write the Quran. He merely recited it to Muhammad.”
“Well, then, where did the Quran come from? Did Allah take pen and paper and write it himself?”
“How badly you misunderstand the Quran. ‘The Quran is the Book of God. It is the eternal, uncreated, literal word of God sent down from heaven.’ Allah did not write the Quran, for it has always been, just as Allah had no beginning, but has always been.”
“What, then, is eternal and unchanging – Allah or the Quran?”
“Both, for the Quran is the word of Allah.”
“But if the Quran possesses the same qualities as Allah is it not then divine? What keeps it from being God also? If you have two arms and legs, one head, the ability to think, and a soul just as I do, am I not correct in calling you a man? So then the Quran is divine as well as Allah.”
Abdul seemed genuinely confused at this point, and paused a few minutes before responding, “I do not think any of our teachers have said the Quran is divine.”
“Well,” Michel pressed on, “given what you have said about the Quran, it seems that there is no other conclusion, and this means that you really believe in two Gods.”
This produced a vigorous protest from all three of our friends all at once! “One thing we know for sure, Allah is the only God, and Allah is one,” declared Abdul. “Agreed,” chimed in the others.
“OK,” conceded Michel, “we will not consider the Quran divine, then. After all, we can read it and understand it. If it were written in the divine speech, mere human beings would have no ability to understand it. God’s speech is just as unintelligible to us as our speech is to a worm. Is this not so?”
“Yes, now you are making sense,” agreed Abdul. “Allah is the Vast and Lofty One, the Hidden and Alone. No human being could understand his speech.”
“So now we are all agreed, then that the Quran is a human book. Muhammad or one of his friends must have written it.”
“Why do you insist on twisting our words?” Abdul contended. “We told you at the beginning that the Quran was the Book of God. You are hopelessly confused.”
“Now let me explain,” said Michel. “You began by saying that Allah is far distant from man, the Hidden One. But you also believe that the Quran teaches his exact words to man. If he is hidden, and distant, how can he speak to man? But if his words are understandable to man, how can he be hidden? You believe that Allah is very different from man. That is good. So do Christians believe that God is very different from man. But you believe that Allah communicates to man. So do Christians believe that God communicates to us. But for this distant God to speak to man, there has to be some way for the divine and the human to meet. There must be a bridge. For you this bridge is the Quran. You speak of it in divine terms, as eternal, uncreated, and unchanging. You also speak of it in human terms, as understandable to men. This is a plain contradiction, yet you do not admit it. You cannot be a camel and a snake at the same time, neither can the Quran be divine and human at the same time, according to our ordinary way of thinking. You claim that the Quran is divine, yet there is only one God. This also is a plain contradiction which you also do not admit. God cannot be two and one at the same time according to our ordinary way of thinking. But when we begin to speak of God, perhaps our ordinary way of thinking is inadequate.
“The Bible also teaches of God’s interaction with man. God is always spoken of as the high and mighty creator. But when He created, He sent out His Spirit to move upon the earth. The Bible speaks of God’s Spirit at work in men, instructing and guiding them. In addition, when God visited men in old times, the scripture says ‘The Angel of the Lord’ appeared. This Angel appeared as a man; in fact, he was sometimes mistaken for a man. But he behaved as God. The clearest case of this is when God visited Abraham prior to the destruction of Sodom in Genesis chapters 18 and 19. We believe this Angel of the Lord is Jesus before he became a man. But the scripture teaches that there is only one God. When God spoke to the Israelites in Deuteronomy, He said, ‘Hear O Israel, The Lord your God, The Lord is One.’
“God is both far away and close at hand. He is both one and three. If we spoke this way about created things, we would be speaking nonsense. But if we speak in any other way about God, we speak nonsense. He is different from all else, and we must speak of Him differently. God is infinite and eternal. It is foolish to think that we could understand his nature, or that we could express his nature in one word only. In fact, this far-and-near, on-and-three is the only way to speak of God which fits with the way things are.
“You agree that Allah is hidden, yet communicates. Although you understand that he is very different from us, you still try to think of him according to human reason. Consequently, you contradict yourself. By allowing God to speak to us on His own terms, using His own categories, our view fits with God and the world as they really are. Now do you see that not only is God both three and one, this is the only way we may accurately account for how this world works?”
I can not say that our friends understood very well what Michel had said; I had a hard time following it all myself. But they seemed attentive and eager to continue the discussion. “You speak of a Father, a Spirit, and an Angel, but the Quran teaches that Christians believe in three gods: the Father, the Son, and the Mother,” said Abdul.
“No, that would be a silly belief. The Quran is right to reject that idea of God, but it is not the belief held by Christians. We believe with you that God is not a material being. He is the Creator. He made all that we see, so how could he be part of the physical world? In the Gospel Jesus says, ‘God is Spirit’. He did not mate with Mary to have a son. When we say God has a son, we do not mean the offspring of two parents, but a son-like relationship. In America there is a group of women called the ‘Daughters of the Revolution’. Does this mean that their father was a war? No, it does not even mean that they were conceived or born in a war. In their case they are descended from men and women who fought in the American Revolution, but the deeper meaning of the title is that they share and revere the commitments of the original revolutionaries. Their nature, character, and beliefs are the same as their ‘fathers’’. Likewise, when they call George Washington the “Father of Our Country”, they do not mean that he mated with all the women or sired all the citizens! It means he played the guiding, protective role of a father as the nation was being formed.
“Jesus is the Son in that He is God, like the Father, and in that He submits to the will of the Father who directs him. In the Gospel He says, ‘I came to do the will of my Father.’ He also says, ‘I and the Father are one.’ It is hard to understand how Jesus and the Father are one, just as it is hard to understand how God is both one and three. But as we said earlier, if God is truly infinite, we do not expect humans to understand Him fully. Now since the Son is God, that means that He also is infinite and eternal. He existed long before he was born of Mary. In the Gospel, Gabriel predicted that ‘the Holy Spirit shall come upon you, and the power of the highest shall overshadow you.’ Somehow the Son entered Mary’s womb and took human flesh to be born as a baby. Mary was his mother, but no more. She was not and is not God, but is merely a human being like us. The Gospels do not teach the ideas refuted in the Quran, and we Christians do not believe them.”
“Perhaps you are right about that. You certainly seem to be closer to true belief than many Christians. But the Quran clearly denies that God could have a son, by any means, for this would violate his oneness and independence. It says, ‘Never has Allah begotten a son, nor is there any other god beside him’. Allah is perfect in himself. He is called the Self-Sufficient, and it is blasphemous to say he has a son. Jesus is a great prophet, but you go astray when you make other extravagant claims for him.”
“All that you say would be very reasonable if we limited God to our own understanding of Him. But if we allow that He is infinitely greater than we, even extravagant claims become modest. But now consider this. Have you ever thought about why Christians hold to their belief that Jesus is the Son of God? I freely admit it is unnatural to human beings, since we are not God, to think this way. So why, then, would we tenaciously hold to these ideas?”
“It is ignorance, no doubt,” replied Abdul. “Anyone who is enlightened by the Quran would quickly see the folly of believing God has a son. Therefore, I can only conclude that those who hold such beliefs must do so in ignorance of the truth.”
“You know, of course, that Christians commonly think that it is ignorance which keeps Muslims following Muhammad,” Michel said with a smile. “But let us consider another reason why Christians hold the belief in Jesus as the Son of God so tightly. The Gospel says that God sent Jesus into the world because he loved the world and did not want anyone to perish in sin. God is not only the creator, the infinite, eternal sovereign Lord, He also loves the people He created. Now which would you rather serve, a master who is far away and you never see or hear, or a master who lives right in your house, and constantly looks after you. I would definitely rather serve the master who gives up his sumptuous palace so that he can live with me and watch over me. One of the apostles wrote ‘God is love’, and this love is a very powerful force. Even on a human level, which makes the better commander, the one who leads by instilling fear in his men, or the one who inspires by love? King David became great because his men loved him, for he cared for them. In this way David is a picture of how God loves us. So you see, when God came to live among us as Jesus, it was a very powerful persuader of God’s love for us.”
“Allah cannot be compared to men,” responded Abdul. “As we have firmly established, he is totally different from us. He is the Mighty, the Glorious, the Self-Sufficient. It is wrong, perhaps even blasphemous, to say he loves man. This is ascribing a creaturely attribute to the Creator.”
“God is without doubt the mighty, glorious, self-sufficient creator, utterly distinct from man. But we already established that if we are to know anything at all of Him, it is necessary for Him to communicate with us. He did not create the world and then abandon it. If He is sovereign, as you say, He is involved with the world. You err by assuming that God is so different from us that He bears no similarity at all to us. Yet you affirmed earlier that we are made in the form of God. God is both near and far, one and three, creator and companion. You have no warrant for separating these characteristics. Furthermore, the glory of God is that He did not remain aloof, but loved us enough to live among us and die for our sins.”
“Now you will greatly disturb us if you insist on saying not only that Jesus was the Son of God, but also that he died for the sins of man. This is extremely offensive. It is bad enough to say that God lived among us, it is worse to say that Allah should punish one man for another, but it is wicked to say that a great prophet of Allah should suffer such a humiliation as crucifixion. The Quran has told us that Allah resurrected Jesus before the Jews were able to kill him. Why do you not believe what God has said?”
“Let me ask you a question, Abdul. Is Allah holy?”
“Of course,” replied Abdul.
“Do we agree that holiness is purity, separation from sin?” Michel asked.
“We agree to that,” responded Abdul.
“Is there anyone who is perfect, who has never sinned?”
“No, for there is good and evil in everyone.”
“Agreed. Now here is my question. How does Allah allow anyone into Paradise? If Allah is holy, but even the best men have sinned, will not their presence offend the holiness of Allah? Does it not seem to you that everyone will be sent to hell?”
“This is not difficult to understand. On judgement day Allah weighs our good and evil deeds. Those whose good deeds outweigh the evil are forgiven their evil deeds and welcomed into Paradise. Those whose evil deeds outweigh the good are sent to the torments of hell. Allah is the Forgiving and the Just. Each man gets what he deserves.”
“How, then, does Allah forgive the evil deeds of those who go to Paradise? Ought not they be punished for their sins? It does not seem fair that some are punished for their sins without regard for their good deeds, while others are forgiven for no reason at all.”
“But once again you forget that Allah is sovereign. Allah may do as he pleases. How may a mere man challenge Allah’s judgement? He is the Exalted, the Wise, the Powerful. He forgives according to his pleasure.”
“Are you saying, then, that there is no justice in Allah’s judgement? Is there no holiness or love? Is judgement based on nothing more than Allah’s pleasure?”
“Will you never cease distorting the truth?” replied Abdul. “We have firmly stated that Allah is just and holy. He executes justice according to his sovereign will. But human characteristics such as love have no part in Allah. You Christians hold to an opinion that is most unfair, that one man should die for another. There is nothing just or right about such an idea.”
“I understand that you firmly believe God is holy and just, but it seems to me that the way he conducts the judgement contradicts those qualities. I would not expect a holy God to allow any sin into his presence, yet you admit that people in whom dwell both good and evil are allowed into Paradise. It appears that relative righteousness, not holiness, is Allah’s characteristic. Rather than being holy, Allah seems merely to be the highest on a scale of righteousness.
“Again, I would expect a just God to require some retribution to pay for sin, yet you say God requires nothing of those who do a certain amount of good deeds. Allah is good, so I understand he should expect goodness of his creatures. But does he then forget their sin? Or pretend it doesn’t exist? If you consider how people operate, you will see the problem here. If Hassan steals your car, do you forgive him as long as he does a certain amount of other good things? No, you expect him to return your car, perhaps also to pay for your trouble and as a punishment for his wicked deed. If Shadid should commit adultery with your wife, will you overlook it as long as he never does it again? I quite doubt it! You will haul him into court and demand he pay for his wickedness. All his previous good deeds will not persuade you to let this act go unpunished. No, justice requires a just reward for every deed, not merely for the average righteousness of our deeds. Although you are sovereign over your wife and car, your sovereignty will not move you to forget justice. Likewise, God’s sovereignty over man does not answer the question of justice.
“But now you may see why the scriptures teach that Jesus died for the sins of man. At the very beginning God told us what his justice requires. He said to Adam in the first Book of Moses that if he sinned he would die. Death is the punishment for sin, and it only takes one sin. Adam sinned only once and immediately repented, but the sentence of death stood, and still stands. All men die, for all sin. Now if God were not holy and if He had decreed that He would judge us on a scale of relative righteousness, then perhaps we could earn His favor by accumulating good deeds. But as it is, as the scripture says, we all have sinned and all face death, because we deserve death. God is not forgetful or weak-willed or unholy to pass over sin.
“Now here is where Jesus enters, for God loves His people and does not wish them to perish. Consequently, He has agreed to accept the death of Jesus as a substitute punishment for the death we all deserve. Because Jesus is God, and therefore infinite in His being and perfect in holiness, he is able to substitute for the sins of all people.
“I can see your objections coming, so permit me to add one more thing. No doubt you will object that it is a great travesty of justice for one to suffer on behalf of another. This would surely be the case if the victim were forced against his will to substitute for the guilty one. But if the substitute willingly took the punishment, justice would be upheld. Consider this. You go shopping in the medina with your little son, and as you go, he accidentally bumps a vase in one of the shops and breaks it. He has destroyed the property of the shopkeeper, and justice would require that he pay for the broken vase. In fact, he really has stolen the shopkeeper’s property. Shall the court cut off his hand, as provided by the law? Or if payment is expected, what shall be done? If he has not the money to pay for the vase, shall the shopkeeper take him as a slave? No, everyone knows what will happen. You will pay for the vase and your son will go free. You will be upset at the loss. Perhaps you will be exasperated over your son’s clumsiness, but you will willingly pay for the vase. Why will you do so? Out of love for your son. He is unable to pay, but you love him and make the payment for him.
“This is the case with God. We are guilty of sin and deserving of death, but God willingly takes upon Himself the punishment we deserve so that we might live in Paradise. Consequently, when He forgives us it is not a breach or suspension of justice, but justice is upheld. The sin is punished in full accord with the law. So because Jesus is the Son of God who died for us, God’s holiness, love, and justice are all upheld. God does not act in an arbitrary manner. Forgiveness is not dependent upon God’s pleasure apart from holiness and justice, but God’s sovereignty operates in accord with his other attributes.”
“You have given great attention to how God upholds justice, but I do not see how the problem of righteousness is solved in man. Even if he is forgiven, according to you he still is unholy, for he still sins. Therefore you are just as inconsistent as I in permitting sinful man to enter Paradise. How do you explain this?”
“That is an important question, one that I will be glad to answer. Not only does God forgive the sins of believers, He also purifies them. He does not do this all at once, but as we go through life, He changes our hearts and minds to be more like His. You say that we all are a mixture of good and bad, but what causes a man to do good instead of evil? Is it nothing more than fear of the law? Is it not true that without the law restraining him, man would indulge in sin? Or is fear of hell a sufficient motivator? You rightly condemn the loose morals of the West, but we observe that most Muslims live by the same low standard when they live here. I have known many Muslims who deliberately travel to the West to engage in sin. This does not make them any worse than Westerners, but proves that all people are equally sinful.
“But when God changes a person, he gives him a genuine desire to do good. We do not always act on this new desire, but it is there, and it keeps growing stronger. We also are filled with gratitude for God’s love in dying for us. Wouldn’t you greatly admire and love someone who died to rescue you from death? Suppose you were in the ocean and about to drown due to a storm, and someone gave you his life jacket. What gratitude you would have for his noble act. If before he perished in the sea he had asked you to do something for his family, would you not do it? And would you do it out of fear of the law? No, you would do it out of gratitude for his love. You see, Christians obey God out of love, not out of fear of the law.
“Abdul, here is the conclusion I reach. Islam is a very strong religion, and has much that is appealing. But when I look at the world around us, and examine how things really work, the teachings of Islam do not seem to fit. Man doesn’t seem to be an equal mixture of bad and good, but seems to lean toward evil constantly. God is not only distant, but is also close. We do not find happiness living by the law, but long for love. When we examine the world in light of the Bible, however, there is an explanation for everything. Even the confusing things such as God’s nature find a place when we admit that God is both understandable and incomprehensible.
“What is most important, though, Abdul, is that you come to believe Jesus. If you were to read His Gospel, perhaps you would come to agree with me about some of these things, and perhaps you, too would find the salvation He offers.”
It was getting very late and the waiters had begun to sweep the floor of the café. I had been having difficulty keeping alert for the last half-hour. We rose to say our farewells and depart. Although we disagreed on some very fundamental points, our discussion had been very fruitful, especially since Michel had joined us. Why is it that he seemed to be able to make sense to these Muslim students, while my effort degenerated into a fruitless argument? As I returned to my room I resolved to ask Michel the next day for the secret of his ability to engage those unbelievers, and I said a prayer for God to open the hearts and minds of Abdul, Hassan, and Shadid to the truth of the Gospel.
Al Faruqi, Isma’il R. Islam. Niles, Illinois: Argus Communications, 1984.
Braswell, George W. Jr. Islam; Its Prophet, Peoples, Politics and Power. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996.
Dretke, James P. A Christian Approach to Muslims; Reflections From West Africa. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1979.
Chapman, Colin. Cross & Crescent; Responding to the Challenge of Islam. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1995.
Esposito, John L. Islam, The Straight Path. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Fry, C. George and James R. King. Islam; A Survey of the Muslim Faith. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1982.
Goldsmith, Martin. Islam & Christian Witness; Sharing the Faith with Muslims. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1982.
by C. David Green
Submitted to Dr. Scott Oliphint for Apologetics 213
Westminster Theological Seminary
May 9, 1997