Recently, the New York Times ran a piece on a famous pastor’s son who is now a vocal ex-vangelical and a rising Tiktok star. Many have commented on the story and it’s not my intention here to weigh in on this tragic situation. God is sovereign and I pray that this man will one day have his eyes truly opened, and not remain in the sad ranks of those who achieved fame by publicly maligning the faith their fathers preached.
But there was one comment of his quoted in the article that I have been chewing on. He says, “How are you going to take your family to Outback [Steakhouse] after church while millions of people are burning alive?”
It’s the sort of “gotcha” question meant to highlight the supposed absurdity of a literal hell. “See? You can’t live consistently with this belief. You are a hypocrite to go enjoy a meal at a restaurant if you really believe in eternal suffering in hell.”
My main response to this comment would be to point out that the Christian is not unusually hypocritical to live this way – pursuing occasional wholesome recreation while millions suffer. The entire world lives this way every day. There is in fact no other way to live, in the actual sense of the word.
The fact is that this world is full of a million previews of a literal hell. Genocide. Starvation. Sexual abuse. Natural Disasters. Political violence. Abortion. Racist violence. Disease. War. Millions are suffering even as I write this and sit on my couch with a good cup of coffee. Millions are dying even as you read this line. Untold depths of anguish are taking place in the seconds it takes to verbalize the unbeliever’s “gotcha” question above.
There may be seasons of our lives where we try to alleviate the suffering of this world through burning ourselves out in a frenetic effort to rescue the suffering. Many experience a season like this in the university years. But if we are not careful, this can be the road to a kind of insanity. The weight of the suffering (and the indifference) can crush our hearts, minds, and bodies and we can end up broken, naked, and pounding the cement outside our house until we are arrested – as happened a few years ago with the founder of an American humanitarian movement that worked with African child soldiers.
We are not made to bear the suffering of the world on our shoulders. Only God can do that. We are made to respond compassionately to the suffering that God has brought into our own sphere of influence. And we are made to live whole lives. To not just respond to suffering, but to eat, to sleep, to laugh, to plant, to nurture, to work, to worship, and to recreate in all of its best forms. Those who neglect these things soon experience the cost of doing so on many levels. As one book puts it, the body keeps the score. As does the soul.
Even unbelievers find themselves living normal lives in the face of incredible contemporary suffering. But how how can they _____ when millions of Uighurs are living in concentration camps? What about the street children of Africa? Those trapped in sex slavery in South Asia? The widespread practice of honor killings and female circumcision in Central Asia? How can they just grab coffee with a friend, go to the gym, walk their dog, call their mom, or sit in that staff meeting in the face of such suffering?
The answer, even for unbelievers, is that the real presence of suffering doesn’t nullify our responsibility to live whole lives. We must somehow find a way to live healthy lives and to respond to the tragedy of human suffering. If we sacrifice wise living for the sake of alleviating others’ suffering, we will soon find that we are only adding to the suffering of this world, as our own lives and families fall apart. The only appropriate response to the ever-present suffering of this world must be a sustainable one. Responding to suffering cannot mean a continual neglect of what it means to be a human truly alive. If this is so for this world, then why would it not be so for the next?
This is not a question unique for Christians who believe in a literal hell. This is something we all must struggle with. The difference is that believers have a powerful source for living lives of sustainable sacrifice. Our God entered into our suffering, sacrificed himself, conquered suffering and death, and now indwells us. He gives us depths of compassion and love for the suffering we wouldn’t naturally have. And he is utterly sovereign, meaning we can trust him with the weight of the suffering we are unable to alleviate. I am thus empowered and freed to respond to human suffering and to take my kids out to eat after church. These things are not opposed to each other.
Life, real life, full of friendship and joy and echoes of Eden – this in the end is the most powerful way to heal this broken world. So, let’s love the suffering. By not neglecting to occasionally eat steak with the kids.
969 years. Although by our standards the pre-flood people lived long lives, one of the purposes of this genealogy was to be a polemic against Mesopotamian mythology, in which people lived for tens of thousands of years. Babylonian texts record the lives of ten kings who were demigods and lived exceptionally long lives in pre-flood times. The Sumerian King List names eight kings prior to the flood who lived a total of 241,000 years. The OT criticizes such myths; humans lived long lives before the flood, but they were not demigods who lived for an exaggerated amount of time.
ESV Archaeology Study Bible, p. 21
I find this to be an interesting note on the purpose of the pre-flood genealogy in Genesis. Who knew that a pre-flood life of 969 years at that time of Moses’ writing might come across as awfully conservative? If you want to peruse the Sumerian King List, you can do so here.
“I’m writing an English language paper comparing the Islamic and the Christian position on holy war or jihad. Could you help me with this paper by telling me what you believe your holy book teaches about this?”
What an invitation! I compiled the following verses and wrote simple English summaries of the content and sent it to him. I post it here, in the chance that others may have Muslim friends with this same question. Groups like ISIS are making the very public claim that violent warfare and slavery is just as much a valid interpretation of the jihad passages as is the modernist interpretation of “inner spiritual struggle.” So Muslims the world over are faced with this question and are wrestling with these things afresh. The following is the response I sent to my friend.
The New Testament clearly teaches that no form of physical holy war (jihad) is permitted for true Christians.
In Matthew 5:38-45, Jesus teaches, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles… You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
Instead of fighting against enemies or resisting them, these verses from Matthew teach that followers of Jesus should not resist them, but should serve them, love them, and pray for them.
In Romans 12:14 and 12:17, Paul writes, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them… Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
In these verses from the book of Romans, instead of fighting enemies in the name of God, believers are told to bless them, to honor them, to live in peace, to not take revenge, to feed them, and to overcome evil by doing good.
In John 18:36, Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not of this world.”
In Luke 17:20-21 Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed. Nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is! Or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”
In these verses Jesus teaches that his kingdom is a spiritual kingdom, not a physical kingdom. Because of this, his followers do not fight for him in this world.
The same thing is taught in Ephesians 6:11-18, “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
In these verses believers are told clearly that we do not fight against physical flesh and blood enemies, but we do fight against spiritual enemies, Satan and his demons. So, believers need spiritual weapons and armor to fight in this spiritual battle. The sword of a believer is not a literal sword, but is the word of God. His shield is not a physical shield, but his faith.
Peter tried to defend Jesus with a sword when the mob was trying to arrest Jesus, Jesus told him to “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than 12 legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:52-53)
Jesus tells Peter to put away his sword, that violence is not God’s way to advance his kingdom. If Jesus wanted to fight, he could ask God for 12,000 angels who would fight for him. But he would advance the kingdom of God by giving his life as a sacrifice, not by fighting. That is the same way followers of Jesus advance God’s kingdom, by giving our lives to others as holy sacrifices, not by fighting.
In the New Testament there is no command for Christians to fight unbelievers in a physical way. There are only commands not to fight them, but to love them and to speak truth to them.
“And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.” (2nd Timothy 2:24-26)
While Jesus was being murdered and while one of the early leaders of the church, Stephen, was being murdered, both of them prayed that God would forgive those who were killing them.
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 24:34)
“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60)
Some people say that Jesus supported fighting because in one passage he says that he came to bring a sword. But when the whole chapter is read, it is clear that Jesus is not talking about a physical sword, but that his message is like a sword that divides people because some believe and some will not. Those who do not believe will persecute those who do believe.
“Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour… Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:17-22)
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” (Matthew 10:34-36)
In this chapter, Jesus is talking about how his followers will be persecuted by those of their own society when they try to spread the message of Jesus. He is not talking about them fighting, but about how their own families will attack them when they try to share the message.
It is clear from these passages that true Christians must never take part in holy war or jihad. They must not try to fight for God in a physical battle. This is because God’s kingdom is a spiritual kingdom and God’s way is to defeat evil by love and sacrifice, not by fighting.
Some people will say that the Bible supports holy war or jihad because the nation of Israel was commanded to fight in order to conquer and defend the land of Israel. The history of this holy warfare is the subject of the book of Joshua in the Old Testament. In this time of history, the people of Israel were commanded to fight for God. However, with the coming of Jesus, this kind of fighting was no longer good or necessary. This is because the physical nation of Israel was a temporary physical example of what God was going to do in a spiritual way for the whole world. God chose ethnic physical Israel for a limited time as an example, but his plan was to have a spiritual people, not only an ethnic people, who are believers in him from every nation of the world. When Jesus came, the old age of the temporary and physical things passed away and the new age of the spiritual and eternal things began. That is why Israel was commanded to fight its enemies and Christians are commanded not to fight our enemies any more, but to love them. We now know that our true enemies are not other nations, but are Satan and his evil spirits. This transition from a temporary physical people of God (Israel) to an eternal spiritual people of God (Christians, including Jewish Christian and those from every nation) is what explains the differences between the laws of the Jewish people in the Old Testament and the laws for Christians in the New Testament. Through Jesus, God made a better covenant or relationship with his people where physical fighting was no longer good or necessary.
“For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second. For he finds fault with them when he says: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt… For this is the new covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.”
“Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. Put on them, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:11-12)
The New Testament teaches that we now live in the age of the New Covenant, where the temporary things of the Old Covenant have been completed by better, eternal things. The New Testament logic is that Christians must not fight for God in a physical way because we live in a new and better age where we overcome evil by love.
In the history of Christianity there have been some Christians who tried to fight in the name of God against others. The crusaders were one of these groups in the middle ages. They fought against Muslims in the Middle East and against Salah-al-Din. However, these Christians were following their own traditions and their own politics and not obeying what is clearly taught in the Bible. According to the Bible, we must never obey our own traditions if they are against what the Bible teaches. However, when the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church declared that Christians should fight in the crusades, they were disobeying what the Bible clearly teaches and following their own traditions.
Jesus says about these kind of people that, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:6-8)
“Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Mark 15:3)
Any Christian who fights in a holy war is wrongly following his own tradition or thinking and is disobeying God’s word. Because true Christians are, through faith, citizens of a spiritual kingdom, they must not fight for their religion in a physical way. The only appropriate way to fight is in a spiritual way, through love for our enemies, by praying for them and giving up our lives for them. This is the Christian and biblical position on holy war or jihad.
A few years back we ran an experimental outreach with some local friends. We were having an awfully hard time getting locals (believers and nonbelievers) to commit to weekly Bible studies in our homes, but we were always being hounded by friends wanting to practice their English with us in cafes. So we decided to start a cafe book group with locals where we would read, in English, Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God.
The goals of this time were multiple. See if locals would commit to anything on a weekly schedule. See what kind of buy-in we got by combining a desire to improve English with a desire to learn more about the message of Jesus. See if we ourselves could get some rich technical and theological vocabulary in the local language as the group worked through the advanced English of The Prodigal God. And above all, give our local friends the chance to soak for a good long time in the message of the gospel of God’s grace. Turns out all of these good things would come out of this very simple book group. But not without a good deal of surprises along the way.
One of the local men who became a regular at this group was a professing new believer. One week we were discussing some aspect of the gospel in detail when out of his mouth came the classic “man on the island” objection. “But what about the good person who died in a remote place (like India) without hearing this good news about Jesus? Does God really still send them to hell? And what about my ancestors? How is that just?”
The irony of the situation was not lost on us. Here was a man who had been in almost this very same situation. He was literally the man on the island!* He was living in a remote part of the world with much less gospel access than India. And yet the gospel had reached him. But here he was, wrestling with the very same question that so many have in the West. Accordingly, our first response was to have him look in the mirror.“Consider all of the millions of things required for the gospel to have reached you. Jesus has his sheep and they will hear his voice. He will get his gospel to his chosen ones no matter the obstacles. Just as he reached you.”
We next pointed him to the related point that the gospel had gone forth through much of the world in previous centuries. In his own homeland the Church had been established very early on in Christian history, even though it had eventually died out. How many of his ancestors had heard the message and believed or rejected it? We won’t know until heaven. The ancient church took the gospel as far as Ethiopia, Socotra, India, China, and even Korea – all places in which the modern church renewed the witness that had been there but died out long ago. And this is only from the small evidence that remains from those extinct Christian communities. What might have been lost? We shouldn’t be too hasty to assume that any part of the Eurasian-African landmass has had no Christian witness at some point predating the modern missions movement. After all, there’s even a possibility that early medieval Irish monks reached North America!
However, in addition to these historical points, we also pointed him to the sober but consistent logic of the scriptures. The command of Jesus is to preach the gospel to all nations (Matt 28:19, Luke 24:47). If people are safe without hearing the gospel and condemned only if they reject it, how does this command make sense? In fact, we are not condemned only after rejecting the gospel. We were condemned already by rejecting all of the light that we had by virtue of nature and conscience and religion (Rom 2:15). We always resist the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51), we consistently suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1:8), without exception. We are guilty because of who we are – in Adam’s race – and we are guilty because we go on and rebel just as our first father did, without exception and as soon as we are morally able to do so (Rom 5:12).
These things are true of everyone in the world. There are no “Holy Indian Uncles” who are somehow different from we are (Rom 3:23). Again, we should look in the mirror. Deep down our conscience confirms that we have failed even our own broken standards, let alone God’s – we know this in the core of our being. And every other human in the world is just. like. us.
Our local friends chewed on these responses as they simultaneously chewed on pieces from the fancy fruit plate we typically ordered at the cafe where we met. I sipped my bitter Americano and also pondered. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been that surprised that my friend would ask “the man on the island” question. Ultimately, it turns out that objections to the gospel really are quite universal. There is a certain logic of the lost mind that doesn’t change that much from New York to Kabul, Mumbai to Paris. We naturally justdon’t like the justice and the grace of God – whatever our religious and cultural background. And without the word of God to enlighten our fallen minds and hearts, we never would have chosen for him to apply justice and grace in the somewhat offensive ways that he has. We come to the Word of God. We are offended. We are then either humbled, or hardened. Such is the effect of confronting the prodigal love of the just Father.
“Friends,” we began again, “One more point. This topic is why you must, even now, look up and see the darkness around you, and in many other parts of the world. So many have never heard this message of Jesus. Right now, even though the gospel is brand new to you and to your people, you should begin to pray and to dream of sending the gospel to those who might never hear otherwise. It’s really good that you’re disturbed that many have had no opportunity to hear. But what should we do about the person with no access to the gospel? Pray. And do everything we can to get it to them. Jesus will find his sheep. But your prayers and your witness is his means by which he does that.”
And with that, someone asked a question about what Keller meant by the word bohemian, and the study moved on.
*For any who might object to my use of literally whereas historical usage requires the use of figuratively, rest assured, I feel your pain. Alas, the meanings of words change by popular usage and that of literally has literally come to mean its opposite of figuratively. Figuratively the man on the island just doesn’t sound quite the same!
*In this kind of discussion I often find it helpful to also point out that the perfect justice of God is not without perfect nuance. Even though we all reject the light that we have, we have evidence in the scriptures that a greater degree of condemnation is deserved by those with greater access to the light, such as Capernaum vs. Sodom and Gomorrah (Matt 11:23-24). God’s justice will perfectly account for these differences.
When I was twenty one, *Henry, a good friend from the Middle East, came to the US on a summer exchange program. I was excited to see him again and eager to see how he was doing in his young and still mostly-secret faith. He had not been willing to gather with other believers yet, which was disappointing, and he was terrified to tell his family. Still, like a Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea, his faith had continued. I was relieved when we met up and he was eager to pull me aside to talk in hushed tones about spiritual things.
His hosting situation was a peculiar one. He was staying with an elderly couple, the husband a retired pastor in a liberal mainline denomination. Another student, a conservative Muslim from Egypt, was also staying there. This Egyptian student was eager to ply the elderly pastor with hard questions about Christianity. His host was mostly willing to engage his questions, but with an inclusivist air that made the answers quite disappointing for the Egyptian – and for me. Now, this elderly couple was wonderfully kind and hospitable, admirably so, hosting two young Muslims (or so they thought) during the height of the War on Terror. But having had very little interaction with liberal American Christianity, I found myself growing more and more concerned that his answers were so, well, squishy. Did this man actually believe that Christianity was true? If so, where was his backbone, where was his conviction, where was his Bible? The Egyptian’s bias against Christianity was only being confirmed by this man’s very NPR-style politically correct responses. Henry, for his part, was not going to jump in and risk revealing to his Muslim Brotherhood-influenced roommate that he himself had apostatized.
I listened respectfully to their conversation, observing the retired pastor with a good deal of inner astonishment – and hoped that Henry would not be led astray by this well-meaning but watered-down Christianity. And I prayed for a chance to get to talk with the Egyptian myself. Thankfully, after a pleasant dinner and evening together, we got our chance as the three of us ended up bunking in the same room. Out came the polemics. The Bible has been changed. Christians Believe in three gods. Jesus never claimed to be the Son of God. The Bible prophesies Mohammad. And finally, out came the Bibles.
We discussed Christianity and Islam late into the night, open Bibles in front of us. Even Henry got into it, making some good points here and there while never quite revealing his own faith. Long after midnight we got into the concept of the Trinity. It was a rousing debate. Both the Egyptian and I loved it. We loved it because, young though we were, we both knew that truth matters. We both knew that Islam and Christianity make exclusive truth claims. We both believed that an honorable believer doesn’t insult his opponent by pretending that the differences aren’t real. We knew that the promises of squishy humanism were coming up empty. Somehow, strangely, we knew we were “older” than our elders and that we must muddle forward together in the pursuit of absolute truth. We debated and muddled until we finally called it a night around 2 a.m. To my great joy, Henry’s heart was freshly encouraged in the gospel.
The next morning we attended the mainline church where our hosts were members. Having grown up a Baptist in Melanesia and having recently been part of underground house churches in the Middle East, it was just as much a cultural spectacle for me as it was for my Middle Eastern friends. I had never been part of a liberal mainline service before. I was encouraged that so much truth was still remnant in the liturgy, but discouraged that no one seemed to take it seriously, not even the female pastor. At the end of the service, she called us up to the front. She wanted to welcome us as guests and to present the three of us to the elderly congregation. She let us introduce ourselves and when we were finished, turned to the congregation.
“Pastor *Smith,” she said with a smile, “who is hosting these young men, tells me they were up until 2 a.m. discussing, of all things… the Trinity!”
The congregation erupted into chortles of laughter and knowing smiles. The pastor egged them on.
“Well, boys, when you’ve figured it out, be sure to come and let us know!” More laughter. More respectable snickering.
There we were – the secret young believer, the Egyptian who would later become a mullah, the young American missionary – the brunt of a joke because we took the Trinity seriously.
We stood there awkwardly as the laughter died away. I looked at Henry and at my new Egyptian friend, realizing in that moment that we had more in common with one another than we did with all these chuckling church-goers. In fact, we lived in a different world. As a believer, I had more in common with my Muslim friends like this Egyptian than I did with many of my own countrymen who claimed to be Christians. What a strange and tragic thing.
There have been few moments where I’ve been more ashamed of Christianity in my homeland than I was that day. Though as Machen rightly maintained in Christianity and Liberalism, it was not Christianity at all, but a new religion entirely, gutted of the gospel. What would these cultural Christians say if Henry’s family found out about his faith and kicked him out, or tried to kill him? Would they try to comfort him by telling him that “We all really believe the same thing, after all?” What would they say to my other Middle Eastern friends who had lost everything for the sake of Jesus, for holding to beliefs that these wealthy westerners had long ago dismissed as intolerant or not progressive enough? For all of the residue of truth that clung to that church because of its once-faithful tradition, it had become a community impotent. Impotent to represent Jesus to serious Muslim theists, and even more impotent to mentor those who could lose their lives for their faith. Just a shell of what is was supposed to be, full of nice and polite grey-haired members who chuckled at the silly young men who thought it was worth it to stay up late and debate the nature of God.
It’s not always easy to live among Muslims. Sometimes we want to pull out our hair in frustration at how illogical Islamic belief and practice are. But there are many times when we actually find ourselves strange bedfellows with our Muslim neighbors, scratching our heads side by side at the absurd but confident assertions of Western modernity. It’s frankly refreshing to live in a society where the existence of God is strongly believed by most, where male and female still mean male and female, and where the question most wrestle with is What is the truth? rather than What is truth?
My neighbors largely believe that God exists, that he created the world, that he sent prophets and holy books, that heaven and hell are real, and that we should strive to live according to God’s will. This is not a bad theistic starting point, even given all of the distortions that Islam introduces. For many Muslims, like Henry, they are not far from the kingdom of God. They need a friend. One who will tell them of Jesus, open the Bible with them, and pray until the miracle of the new birth crashes in and changes everything.
Woe to the many respectable, progressive, and nice church-goers of the West. For while they chuckle and exchange the power of the gospel for niceness, it is the scrappy Middle Easterners who will get into the kingdom of Heaven before they do.
Today a painter friend is doing some touch up work in our house. Leaking water and life with three kids has left their mark on our white on plaster walls. I found out that he hadn’t eaten breakfast before he came, so my wonderfully hospitable wife set us up in the courtyard with some fresh chai, hot bread, walnuts, honey, tahini, cream cheese, and fried eggs. “Your wife is just like a local!” my painter friend proclaimed. Moments like this this missionary husband’s heart glows warm with pride. She has also surpassed me in her knowledge of the local language. Not bad for a homeschooling mom of three! A wife of noble character I have found.
Over breakfast my painter friend asked me if I have read the Qur’an. I shared with him that I have read most of it and am working through a good English translation to finally finish it (I highly recommend The Qur’an by A.J. Droge – so much more readable with lots of helpful footnotes). I was able to share with him the importance of reading the primary sources for ourselves and not just trusting what experts say. Most locals will not even read a translation of the Qur’an for themselves, cannot read the Arabic original, and simply trust that what they’re hearing from their local teachers and the internet apologists is accurate.
“Sometime I will introduce you to my mullah friend,” the painter said. “He is brilliant and can explain everything to you. I’m not a smart book person, just a practicing Muslim.”
I responded, “But every religion and religion and philosophy has brilliant scholars. And they don’t agree with one another! We can’t trust only in what the smart people say. We need to humbly read these books for ourselves and search for the truth.”
Walking inside, my friend stopped at our bookcase to take a look at my Bibles and my Qur’an. He has read some verses from the Bible in his language in the past, thanks to the faithful witness my colleagues. But I also hope to later have the chance to help him download the new audio bible that has been made available in his language on the YouVersion Bible app. So many of our local friends struggle to read books, being functionally but not truly literate in their preferences and ability. Audio can be a real help for the functionally literate like my Central Asia painter friend or my working class relatives in the US. I love audio learning as well, perhaps a side effect of growing up in primarily oral cultures.
Talking about the written sources led to the opportunity to clarify a crucial difference between the Qur’an and the Bible – the way of salvation. I tried to use a sentence that I learned from the Qur’an to summarize its philosophy, “Good deeds take away bad deeds” (Sura 11:114 Hūd). But for some reason my friend wasn’t quite understanding my meaning. So I switched to the image of the scale. Here he nodded with understanding. “That’s right, Islam teaches that there is a scale that weighs your good deeds and your bad deeds.” If the bad outweigh the good, most likely you’ll go to paradise (after a possible time in purgatory). With this image of the scale in mind, we then shifted to talking about how the way of salvation in the Bible is through faith in God’s sacrifice. This was foreshadowed by all of the Old Testament animal sacrifices and fulfilled through Jesus’ death as a substitute on the cross. Instead of being saved by our deeds, we are saved by faith alone in the sacrifice of Jesus. All our sins can be forgiven, pardoned by God if we will trust alone in the blood of his provided sacrifice.
“You can see this difference and understand this, right?” I asked.
“Yes, I can see that they are very different,” my friend responded.
This alone is a small victory. So many of my local friends stubbornly insist that the Bible and the Qur’an have the same message, even after we’ve spent an hour explaining their contradictory messages. My friend ended our conversation by encouraging me to read the Qur’an several more times. He told me that he knows the day of judgment is coming and he’s concerned about me and my family being safe on that day. So he’s not exactly ready to give his life to Jesus. But I do hope that another chance to hear the gospel contrasted with what he is currently trusting in will eventually have its effect. Put another pebble in his shoe, I told myself.
Once again I’m grateful for the contrasting images of the scale and the sacrifice. They consistently help to paint the contrast between true Christianity and Islam (and all works-based religion) in a vibrant yet simple way. My local friends currently treat the scale as a simple, matter-of-fact way that God runs the universe. My hope is that someday they will come to view the scales of God’s justice as a terrifying thing, something that only offers condemnation and death – and that they will on that day remember Jesus and flee to the sacrifice.
It doesn’t take very long for someone sharing their Christian faith with Muslims to hear this response. And if you continue sharing your faith with Muslims, you never stop hearing it. The concept that the Bible has been corrupted and changed is so deeply ingrained in the Islamic mind that it seems like common sense to the 1.2 billion Muslims of the world. For those who have grown up in a Muslim family, they have likely never heard anyone challenge this claim, so it is simply accepted as established truth. It is one of the most common and earliest objections to the gospel. Even if someone has never thought deeply about this question, it will certainly come out when they are in conversation with a Christian friend.
We’ve noticed among our friends a curious pattern with these kinds of common objections, such as the corruption of the Bible and Jesus not being the Son of God. Early on, these same objections always come out, almost on autopilot. It’s what they’ve been trained to say by their upbringing. Then later, if someone is close to coming to faith in Jesus, the same objections come out again, but this time with a different tone. In the beginning it was someone simply parroting an objection they thought would be unanswerable. Later on, they’re looking for deeper answers, looking for reassurance, and looking to see if they themselves will be able to have an answer when their friends and family hit them with the same responses. It’s therefore helpful to have a solid initial response and deeper answers that can be dealt with later on. I’d recommend avoiding getting bogged down arguing about this topic in the beginning.
My go-to initial response is to appeal to the character of God and the character of his word. In response to my friend’s statement that the Bible has been changed, I will assert that the Bible is the word of God. Instead of Bible I’ll use the terms Tawrat (Torah-Writings), Zabur (Psalms), and Injil (New Testament) – these are the parts of the Bible that Muslims have heard of. There is usually a statement of agreement from my friend when I make this point that these three “books” are the word of God. Islam does not contest this (and good Muslims shouldn’t either). But then I will share that the Tawrat, Zabur, and Injil all contain promises that God’s word will remain fixed forever. These are promises like Psalm 119:89, Isaiah 40:8, 1st Peter 1:24-25. I will often share Isaiah 40:8 in the local language, The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God remains forever. Then I simply appeal to God’s character.
“God has made promises that his word remains forever. He keeps his promises. God is strong enough to protect his word from being lost through man’s tampering. Do you really believe that man is stronger than God? That some puny group of Christians or Jews were stronger than God and able to change his eternal word? We should not believe that about our great God. Do you actually believe that or do you believe like me that God was strong enough to protect his word in history?”
This response, of course, is no silver bullet. Some squirm and make up hypotheticals about the real Bible being hidden in Yemen or somewhere, claiming that the Bible that we have is corrupted. But it’s the rare Muslim who is eager to admit that man was stronger than God and therefore able to change his word. Many will say that the quality of the inspiration of the Bible was less than the Qur’an, therefore God had to send a final revelation that could not be changed. But because the original Bible is affirmed as the word of God by Islam it’s a logical mess any way you look at it. There’s often power in just letting the question sit: You really think that man was stronger than God? Wow.
Some, never having faced this information and question before, will accept it as a good response and move on to other questions and objections. When this happens, it’s a win. The rabbit-hole of tit-for-tat arguments has been avoided on this difficult topic. And how? By an appeal to the character of God and to his word. If the argument can be sidestepped so that someone is willing to study the Bible with you and thereby let it defend itself, then that is ideal. The word of God is its own best defense. We should be ready with solid arguments, but we should leverage them cautiously as it’s not usually the intellectual and logical disagreements that are the main barriers for Muslims coming to faith. There will be a minority for whom a more detailed apologetics conversation needs to take place. An even smaller minority of those will actually hear the detailed arguments presented and consider them. These people do exist – and sometimes they go on to become a Nabeel Qureshi, the late author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. But most of my friends need help to simply get past these objections so that we can focus on the gospel message in the text of scripture and displayed in the lives of believers.
There are many other possible answers to this topic. Some of my colleagues like to put forward a series of questions. “Who, What, Where, Why, How was the Bible changed?” Challenging locals to find answers to these questions can lead them to the awkward place of realizing their teachers don’t have any. There is also the fact that the Qur’an itself commends the Bible as a book to be believed and followed. And the Qur’an never says that the Bible has been changed. All that’s there is an obscure reference to Jews twisting some spoken words. Earliest Islam simply did not teach that the Bible has been changed, but that the message of the Bible was in agreement with the Qur’an, albeit misunderstood by its followers. It was only later, when the differences were understood to be as stark as they actually are, that the whole doctrine of the corruption of the Bible came into play. The Jews and Christians twisted the meaning of the words evolved into the Jews and Christians changed the actual words. Today the latter is the almost-universal belief of Muslims.
Finally, there is the amazing manuscript evidence for the New Testament that can be appealed to. The evidence for the reliability of the Bible is stunning – over 5,600 Greek NT manuscripts with 99.5% copying accuracy between them. And yet in my experience I have found digging into these details, as encouraging as they are for me, seem to have very mixed results among my Muslims friends. Many of my local friends don’t use logic in the same way I do. They rely instead on trusted authority, even when it goes against logic and evidence. They also have the honor of their heritage to defend and will shift arguments as needed. Be prepared to hear strange claims about The Gospel of Thomas and The Gospel of Barnabas and maybe the Illuminati.
It’s a subtle trap, getting stuck arguing about the history of the Bible such that you never get to the message of the gospel itself. My counsel would be to simply appeal to the character of God, to ask good questions that your Muslim friends have never heard before, and then to get them in the actual Bible as soon as possible. Studying the Bible with a believer is the best way for Muslims to overcome the inherited belief that the scriptures have been corrupted.
Forever, O LORD, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens. (Psalm 119:89 ESV)
How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! (Psalm 119:103 ESV)
Can Islam be true Islam without a Caliphate? That is the question that has been simmering within the Islamic mind for one hundred years. The final Ottoman caliph was deposed during secular reforms after World War I. Ever since then there has been no caliphate, Islam’s equivalent of theocratic empire.
For a parallel Christians might be more familiar with, consider the similar question that Judaism faced after the destruction of the first and second Jerusalem temples. How can the faith live on when so much of it assumed the existence of a particular structure? With that structure gone, can the faith reinvent itself and reinterpret commands that seem impossible without that sacred structure?
After the destruction of the first temple in 586 BC, Judaism was able to eventually return from exile and rebuild. Yet it changed nonetheless, developing the synagogue system and coming to a deeper understanding of the kingdom of God as a universal one. God’s throne is revealed in the exile prophets as being a wheeled chariot. It is not limited to one locale. These changes laid the groundwork for much of Jesus’ and the apostles teaching about the true nature of the kingdom of God in this age.
But the Jews were unable to rebuild the second temple after its destruction in AD 70. This destruction at the hands of the Romans forced massive changes in Judaism leading to the disappearance of the Sadducees and the survival of Judaism through the Pharisees at the Jamnia school. Blood sacrifices were reinterpreted so that good works were now counted as equivalent. Rabbinic Judaism developed in new directions. Judaism survived, but even to this day Jews and Christians who study the Torah can feel the tensions introduced by the fact that the temple system is no more.
For traditional Islam, the caliphate is a divinely-ordained structure, a cornerstone of the world as it should be. The Islamic community is supposed to be led by a political and spiritual leader like Muhammad, Abu Bakr, or Uthman. Even though the history of the caliphate is a very mixed bag, its abolition is viewed by some as one of the greatest tragedies to ever happen to the Islamic community, a fall/curse motif of sorts. While the vast majority of Muslims have embarked on a process of making Islam compatible with the modern world system – nation-states, dictatorships, democracy, human rights, etc. – a minority of Muslims seeks to reestablish the caliphate system. This minority interprets Islam’s primary sources such that spiritual Islam goes hand-in-hand with a political system. They believe you can’t have true Islam without a caliph and a caliphate. They point out, rightly, that this is assumed by the original sources. The Qur’an and Hadith do not advocate for a City of Man vs. City of God intertwined worldview, but rather for the here and now to become the City of God, by the sword if necessary. The borders are supposed to be physical and clear. There is the house and Islam where the caliph rules, then there is the house of war. That’s it.
This minority seeks to implement what ISIS called the “prophetic methodology.” This means moving away from the majority view that advocates for a personal faith in Islam, expressed in the community of the mosque and in nation-states which have blended Western law codes with Shari’a. The minority views this kind of blending as an adulteration of true Islam. How do groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS get their philosophical attraction? They appeal to this tension within the Islamic mind. Can Islam be true Islam without a caliphate? Can jihad really be redefined to only mean spiritual war with oneself and good deeds toward others? Can Shari’a really be faithfully blended with law codes developed by those (like the English and the French) whose traditional religion ascribes partners to Allah?
You can see how the divisions come about. It’s as if a group of disgruntled Jamnia rabbinic students begin to meet secretly, disagreeing with their teachers’ positions that blood sacrifices can all of the sudden be reinterpreted as good works, now that the gentiles have destroyed the temple. That’s not what the text says! they might say, shaking their heads. From there it’s not very long until an armed group is formed and ready to attempt an attack against the Romans. They will spill their blood in hopes that the temple can be rebuilt. They believe faithfulness depends on it.
It’s important to note very clearly that the vast majority of Muslims are compatibilists, that is, they live and believe in the blending of Islam with the modern world. These Muslims are not working for a restoration of the caliphate. And yet we should not be surprised when secret or militant groups form around the ideology of restoring the caliphate. It is a tension not yet resolved within the mind of Islam, despite what a liberal mullah in a Western city might tell you. The tension is real and it’s presence makes sense given the sources and history.
Our contemporary age is witnessing this identity crisis within Islam play out, especially from the 1970’s to the present. Most of our Muslim friends will be far too practical to go down this road, but those ISIS propaganda videos still may strike a chord in their hearts. Practically, we need to support the moderates. A rigid return to the “prophetic ideology” is bad news for all, as the world saw in Al-Baghdadi’s caliphate. If Islamic interpretation can cement the compatabilist view as the dominant one, that is overall good for the world. Though I don’t myself know if its foundation is solid enough to be victorious. It’s main problem is a serious one – a straightforward reading of the primary sources.
But as Christians we should also learn to speak the gospel into this tension, calling our Muslim friends to a better kingdom, one which exists parallel to the kingdoms of this world and does not call for a theocratic empire run by a fallen mortal. Here instead is a spiritual kingdom that adopts its rebels, gives them new hearts and new names, and outlasts all of the temporary and flawed kingdoms of this world. All the while it seeds these transient systems with communities of eternal life and eternal truth – cities within cities as others have described it. Some Muslims longing for a caliphate will find themselves drawn by the Spirit to a surprising answer.
The Empire of God is coming in all its fullness, therefore, now is not the time for jihad. Now is the time for giving ourselves sacrificially to our enemies. It is the age of mercy and free pardon for all who will repent and align with the embassies of this coming kingdom. Our Muslim friends are right to long for a better ruler and they are right that Jesus is returning, yet they need to know that he is returning not as a mere prophet and warner, but as the true and divine king. The answer to the deep longings for a perfect leader ruling a perfect government will not be found in a new caliph. It can only be found in Jesus Christ.
At the center of the Qur’an’s view of reality are three concepts: The oneness of God, the day of judgement, and prophethood. I had this pointed out to me at a training about five years ago (my thanks, Scott, if you ever read this) and have since tested this framework with the Qur’an itself and with my Muslim friends. It is definitely built into the logic of the Qur’an and also functions as a self-evident truth in the minds of many Muslims that I have known.
The oneness of God (tawhid) means that there is only one God who is supreme over all others beings. Islam emerged at a time when most Arabs were polytheistic and worshiped many gods. The holiest shrine of the Arabs, the Kaaba, is said to have contained over three hundred idols. Muhammad focused on attacking polytheism with this doctrine of the oneness of God. In the process he also used it to attack the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, though there is much evidence that the Qur’an itself is ignorant of what most Christians actually believed (and believe) about the Trinity, since it focuses its rhetoric against the idea that Christians worship three gods: God, Jesus, and Mary. The Qur’an teaches an absolute and simple unity of God. There is one God and any attempt to ascribe partners or distinctions of personhood within God are the worst kind of blasphemy, known as shirk.
The second element of the Qur’anic worldview is the day of judgement. While the Qur’an doesn’t teach that humanity is fallen in the Christian understanding of having a sinful nature, nevertheless, most of humanity is understood to be ignorant and unbelieving. Because humanity has so often turned to idolatry and away from the worship of the one God, they are in danger of being condemned at the final day of judgment. The day of judgment is understood to be a straightforward day of reckoning where God weighs a person’s good deeds and their bad deeds. If the scale is heavier on the side of the good, then that person will go to gardens of paradise. If the bad is the heavier side, then that person will begin suffering right away in fiery torment. The day of judgment is taught to be inevitable, bearing down upon humanity and previewed in history by many destroyed cities and civilizations that were left in ruins because they refused to turn from their idolatry.
However, because the Qur’an teaches that humanity is morally free and able to do righteous deeds which merit eternal life, God sends prophets to call societies back to belief in the oneness of God and the day of judgment. This is where prophethood, the third aspect of the Qur’anic worldview, fits in. The Qur’an teaches that prophethood is a pattern of history that plays itself out repeatedly. A society turns away from God to idolatry and scoffs at the day of judgment. God sends that society a prophet from among them, often with his own book of God’s revelation. That society either repents and returns to the worship of one God and the proper fear of the day of judgment (with accompanying good deeds) or they continue to scoff and God utterly destroys them. This pattern is said to have repeated itself countless times before the emergence of Muhammad among the Arabs.
As the creation, fall, redemption, restoration pattern sets the big plot line for the Bible and shows itself in many smaller, foreshadowing narratives, so the cyclical pattern of Tawhid, judgment, and prophethood play a similar role in the Qur’an. Muhammad is cast as the seal of the prophets, meaning that he is the final messenger who brings this pattern to its final global manifestation. Muhammad is calling the Arabs, and through them the whole world, away from idolatry and to faith in one God and the day of judgment. The regional prophets of earlier times are understood to have been superseded by the global prophet with the final book of God’s revelation.
To tell a Muslim the biblical story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration is to tell them a new kind of story foreign to Islam, even though they themselves end up echoing this story in other ways. The primary narrative of salvation history painted by the Qur’an is much simpler than the Bible’s. According to the Qur’an, humanity’s need is not salvation, but teaching and warning – teaching about the oneness of God, warning about the coming judgment. As long as someone submits themselves to that basic theology as mediated by Muhammad and the Qur’an, Islam gives them a pretty good chance of being able to earn eternal life.
Many of my Central Asian friends believe that Islam and Christianity basically teach the same thing. It’s all we can do to eventually convince them of the mutually exclusive narratives at the heart of both religions. They believe that all the Abrahamic religions hold to this same simple narrative – because the Qur’an teaches that this agreement exists. So using Tawhid, judgment, and prophethood and explicitly pointing out the differences between that metanarrative and the Bible’s can be a helpful path to take when laboring to demonstrate how the message of the Bible is actually very different from that of the Qur’an.
It also helps to explain the shocking differences Muslims find if they actually read the Old Testament. Many prophets who are held up as simple yet exemplary warners in the Qur’an, men like Lot, Noah, and Abraham, prove to be quite complicated, flawed, and sinful in the book of Genesis. Prophets are understood in the Qur’an to be the holiest of humans, essentially sinless in their mission of proclaiming repentance and submission. In the Scriptures, Muslims find out that prophets deserve hell, just like everyone else, and must be saved by God’s sacrifice alone.
Initially that lands as very bad news. But when Muslims have a good Christian friend who can explain and model the grace of God for them, then it can become the very best news of all.
Sometimes we don’t get the chance to follow up. In God’s mysterious plan, we get the chance to share spiritual truth or give scripture to someone, only to never see them again. We might never know until eternity how their story turned out. For me, the gas canister man seems to be one of those people.
Our region of Central Asia has electricity problems. To put it mildly. So natural gas (propane) canisters of the kind you see attached to a grill are a part of daily life. We use them indoors for our stoves, for space heaters in the winter, and sometimes to power water boilers. Trucks drive around our neighborhoods with loudspeakers playing ice cream truck-style tunes. But instead of a creamy chocolatey treat, you lug out your empty bottle of gas to be exchanged and waddle back inside with your new, stinky, full bottle – that hopefully didn’t get damaged when the driver threw it off the back of the truck. Yes, make a note to pray that your friends working in Central Asia don’t get carbon monoxide poisoning.
Over time, I learned that I could better schedule my gas bottle exchange and get better quality if I drove myself to the store in the bazaar where the “ice cream” trucks get loaded up. There were a couple of men working at the particular store I frequented and one of them was definitely a Salafi. In our area this is a growing religious group. They adhere to a Saudi-backed understanding of Islam that seeks to return to what they believe is an earlier, purer form of Islam. This means that they are much more severe and strict in their application of Islam than your typical Muslim would be.
Salafis are visually conspicuous, sporting shorter pants than others, shaved upper lips, scraggly chin/neck beards, and usually wearing a religious hat or turban. Unlike most of their countrymen, they often insist that their wives wear gloves and the more conservative abaya or niqab, often covering all but their eyes. Salafis usually live peacefully with others, but word on the street is that they would be the first to sympathize with extremist groups were they to take power. Due to their strict adherence to Islamic law and open condescension toward the common people, they actually provide a pretty clean parallel with the pharisees when we are studying the Bible with locals.
“You know how the Salafis act, right? Well, the Pharisees were the Salafis of Jesus’ day.”
“Oooh, now we get it!”
I have certainly been guilty of writing Salafis off as those who would not be open to the gospel.
However, through several interactions with the Salafi gas canister man, I started noticing that he was actually respectful and kind to me, an obvious foreigner and infidel. One day I had my son with me as we ran our gas errand. Something about my interaction with my son made the man compliment us.
“You’re not Muslims, are you?” He then asked.
“No, we’re not. We are believers in Jesus.”
“Oh?” He responded. “You know the Bible’s been changed, right?”
“Well, the Torah, the Psalms, and the Gospel all contain promises that God’s word remains forever. No human is strong enough to change the words of God because God is powerful to protect his word. Just like he promised.”
The Torah (Tawrat), the Psalms (Zabur), and the Gospel (Injil) are the three parts of the Bible Muslims have heard about from the Qur’an. There is a great deal of confusion though in the Muslim world about how these three “books” relate to the Christian Bible.
To my surprise, the gas canister man didn’t dismiss my response. He was actually thinking about it.
“Yes, but you believe that Jesus is the Son of God. That is blasphemy.”
“Are you not a son of the mountains?” I asked.
“Yes,” he answered.
“Well, the title ‘Son of God’ has a very deep and important spiritual meaning. It does not have a physical-sexual meaning as many think it does. ‘Son of the mountains’ doesn’t have a physical-sexual meaning either, does it?”
“No,” He continued, still thinking about what I was saying.
“Have you ever read the Bible in your own language?” I asked.
“I haven’t,” he said.
“Well, I have one with me. If you want to learn about what I mean, you should read this book. But don’t take it unless you are one who is truly thirsty for God and a genuine seeker of the truth.”
“I… would like to read it,” he said.
I went to my glove box where we kept a New Testament just in case of opportunities like this. I handed it to him and we said goodbye. I looked forward to asking him the next time I saw him if he was reading and what he was learning. But I never saw him again.
I kept coming back to the same shop, hoping to catch a glimpse of my Salafi acquaintance. But he had disappeared. Had he gotten fired for possessing a New Testament? Had he been run off by his male relatives? Or had he simply changed jobs and thrown away the precious book I had given him?
I’ve never had any clue as to what became of this man. My prayer is that he is now, somehow and somewhere, a follower of Jesus. I don’t lose sleep over this situation, but it does make me wonder about the strange providence of God. Why would I get the chance to give this man the Bible and never get a chance to follow up? This especially since there are so few believers that can lead him into understanding the book he now possesses?
In situations like this, we must simply rest in the sovereignty of God. I was allowed to play a small part in the life of the gas canister man. Maybe someday our paths will cross again. Maybe not. But we rest in the truth of John 10:16, that Jesus’ sheep will hear his voice. We get the privilege to be a small part of that story, whether we sow, whether we water, whether we reap.
If you read this post, pray for the salvation of the Salafi gas canister man.