Literally The Man on the Island

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 just don’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.

Photo by Tom Winckels on Unsplash

Closer to Islam than to Liberal Christianity

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.

Photo by Alexis Mette on Unsplash

*Names changed for security

The Scale Versus the Sacrifice

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.

Photo by Flavio Gasperini on Unsplash

But Hasn’t the Bible Been Changed?

“But the Bible has been changed.”

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)

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

A Snapshot of the Identity Crisis Within Islam

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.

Photo by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash

The Core of the Qur’anic Worldview

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.

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

A Bible for the Gas Canister Man

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.

Photo by Marra Sherrier on Unsplash

Religions of Men As a Three-Legged Stool

Last week I wrote about learning culture in order to illustrate the truth of God’s word. When it comes to the risky area of illustrating with, or building bridges with, Islam, we should affirm that some bridges do exist in Islamic theology, history, and culture that can help Muslims understand Christian concepts that Islam itself rejects. J. Nelson Jennings proposes that Christians should view other religions as being like a three-legged stool:

“the three legs represent sin, Satan, and searching… one must not view Islam as simply sinful and Satanic. Similarly, one must not view Islam simply as Muslims searching for (and perhaps adhering to) the truth. Islam, like all religious traditions, evidences morally sinful, deceptively Satanic, and genuinely searching (and true) aspects.”

I find this metaphor to be very well-balanced (pun intended). We need to acknowledge the reality that so many Muslims are sincere in their error, zealous for the law as it were, alongside the fact that Islam itself is a Satanic system of deception which empowers the sinful nature. This doesn’t open the door at all to Islam being a way of salvation, but still acknowledges that many Muslims are indeed searching for truth – no surprise given that Islam has inherited so much Judeo-Christian content, albeit by co-opting it for its own narrative.

It is with the aspect of Islam which is genuinely searching that bridges can prove to be helpful, rather than harmful. In building bridges, one seeks to illustrate the truthfulness of a doctrine by demonstrating that the hearer already adheres to an analogous or similar belief to that which they are currently rejecting. Put another way, building bridges is an attempt to seek those truth categories that already exist in a religion or a person’s mind and to link those categories with biblical content in order to show that biblical content’s truthfulness, goodness, and beauty. It is category renovation rather than category creation, an attempt at moving from shadow to substance.


Source Material:

Jennings, “The Deity of Christ for Missions, World Religions, and Pluralism,” p. 270.

Photo by Diana Parkhouse on Unsplash

Doesn’t the Title “Son of Man” Emphasize that Jesus is Not Divine?

Sometimes Muslims will seize on Jesus’ favorite title for himself, Son of Man, as evidence that Jesus never claimed to be the Son of God or that he didn’t claim to be divine. There is a passage where Jesus uses the title, Son of God, for himself. But here we’ll deal with the claim directly – Does Jesus’ usage of Son of Man mean that he is emphasizing his mere humanity? At first glance, it would indeed seem that this title is emphasizing humanity. Perhaps Jesus knew that people would naturally ascribe divinity to him, given his many miracles, and he wanted to guard against this? However, as with so many other questions, a better answer comes from reading the passage in question in the context of the whole Bible.

Jesus isn’t the only one who is the recipient of the title, Son of Man. Many of you reading this know where I’m going, but the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the world have never heard of the book of Daniel, much less the vision of the Son of Man contained in chapter seven. Here is that vision from Daniel 7:13-14.

     “I saw in the night visions,
             and behold, with the clouds of heaven
                        there came one like a son of man,
            and he came to the Ancient of Days
                        and was presented before him.
            And to him was given dominion
                        and glory and a kingdom,
            that all peoples, nations, and languages
                        should serve him;
            his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
                        which shall not pass away,
            and his kingdom one
                        that shall not be destroyed. (ESV)

In this passage, this Son of Man figure is pictured coming on the clouds of heaven. This is not merely a note about the mode of this person’s arrival. This is theophany language, phraseology used to describe when God reveals himself. Only YHWH is pictured coming on the clouds in the Old Testament. If the clouds in Daniel 7 are not meant to imply divinity, then, according to the scholar Peter Gentry, this would be the only time in about seventy Old Testament occurrences.

This Son of Man comes to the throne of the Ancient of Days, apparently possessing the kind of standing and glory necessary to approach the throne of God himself. Then he is given dominion and universal service (another translation could render this term as worship) and an everlasting kingdom. These two things, universal service/worship, and an everlasting kingdom, belong to God alone, as every faithful Old Testament believer would attest. But in this passage, the Son of Man is given both. Furthermore, he is mysteriously presented as distinct from the Ancient of Days, yet also possessing the unique attributes of the Ancient of Days. Sounds a lot like and the word was with God, and the word was God. Somehow distinct, yet somehow the same. The Son of Man is clearly presented here as mysteriously divine.

But how do we know that Jesus is alluding to Daniel 7 when he uses the title, Son of Man, for himself? Couldn’t he be using it to say he’s not God, as is the usage in Numbers 23:19? Maybe it’s just royal language like is used in Psalm 8:4? Or maybe Jesus has a particular affinity for the prophet Ezekiel, who is called Son of Man more than ninety times in his book? I actually find the linkage to the Psalm 8:4 and and Ezekiel helpful, though they are not usually mentioned in talking about the background to Jesus’ usage of this title. Apparently, the title Son of Man has Davidic-Messianic meaning as well as context informed by Ezekiel, the prophet who suffers in exile on behalf of his people. Very appropriate for the Messiah-King-Prophet who would suffer exile from God for the sake of his people.

But Jesus himself lets us know which passage he has in mind as the primary lens through which we are to view the meaning of Son of Man.

Matthew 26:63–65

[63] But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” [64] Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” [65] Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. (ESV)

Apparently the high priest understood Jesus’ allusion to Daniel 7 all too well. We also are to understand Jesus’ choice of the title, Son of Man, primarily through the figure of Daniel 7. This means that the title Son of Man is Jesus claiming to be divine every single time he uses it. And the gospels are absolutely saturated with his usage of this term.

Far from being a title that proves Jesus didn’t claim divinity, Son of Man is instead a radical self-claim by Jesus that he is with God, and that he is God, that he has received an eternal kingdom and is worthy of universal service and worship. So, if you ever encounter the objection that Son of Man is emphasizing Jesus’ mere humanity, take your friend to Daniel 7 and Matthew 26 and draw the connections. They are mysterious, yes, but they are clear.

Source Material:

Hamilton, Jim, With the Clouds of Heaven: The Book of Daniel in Biblical Theology

Photo by Michael Weidner on Unsplash

Can the Name of Allah Be Used for the Christian God?

Short answer: It depends.

Long answer:

First, some historical background. There were Arab Christians before the emergence of Islam that used Allah to refer to the Christian God. These were Arab tribes such as the Lakhmids, the Banu Taghlib, and the Ghassanids who lived on the borders of the Byzantine and Sassanian empires. In fact, one of the oldest sources of written Arabic is a monastery inscription written by Hind, mother of the Lakhmid king, Amr, which reads “This church was built by Hind, mother of King Amr and servant of Christ… May the God for whom she built this church forgiver her sins and have mercy on her son.” Arabic Christians have continued throughout history to use the name Allah to refer to the God of the Bible to the present day. The name Allah is linguistically related to the Aramaic name for God, Alaha, and more importantly, to the Hebrew name, El. So in terms of history and etymology, Allah has a strong case. It has been conveying the meaning of the God of Bible’s identity for at least 1,500 years among Arabic-speaking Christians. Its sister languages have been similarly using its cognates for even longer than that.

But what about Islam? What happens when a rival religion emerges and hijacks the name for God the Christians have been using, filling it with unbiblical meaning? The god the Qur’an describes is vastly different from the God the Bible describes. The god of the Qur’an is a simple unity who is transcendent, but not imminent. The God of the Bible is a complex unity, a Trinity, who is both transcendent and imminent. The nature of the former means he cannot become a man to die a shameful death on a cross for the atonement of sins. The latter did, as the eternal Son took on flesh and became the man, Jesus Christ. Despite this and many other differences, Arab Christians throughout history, including our evangelical brothers and sisters, have held onto the name Allah for God. They are the linguistic insiders, the ones best qualified to know whether the biblical meaning of God can still be communicated by the form, Allah. English speakers should defer to native Arabic speakers, agreeing that within the Arabic language, Allah can be used to speak of the Christian God.

As English speakers, a little reflection on our own word, God, can be helpful here. In spite of its polytheistic Indo-European and Germanic baggage, the name God has been redeemed and filled for a millennium and a half with biblical meaning. Therefore, our own experience tells us that names of deities with pagan baggage can become faithful linguistic servants of the true revelation. Let’s say Mormonism, with its own unbiblical views of God, overtakes Christianity in the West and becomes the dominant religion. Would we abandon the name, God? Unlikely. We would probably labor for thousands of years to refill the form with its biblical meaning, not unlike what Arab Christians have done.

But…

The name Allah should not be used to refer to the God of the Bible outside of Arabic-speaking communities. There are at least three reasons for this.

The first is that Christian history and missions history have shown that whenever possible, Christians should seek to redeem the indigenous word for the all-powerful creator God that already exists in that language, if one exists. Again, we English speakers live this reality every day when we say God instead of YHWH or El. Why has redeeming the chief divinity’s name been so effective throughout history in hundreds of languages? My theory is that the name for the all-powerful creator god in a given language represents an ancient remnant of early monotheism, diluted sometime after Babel into polytheism, but still there, waiting like a time-bomb for a Christian missionary to come along and connect that name back to its source. He has not left them without a witness to himself (Acts 14:17).

The second reason for not using Allah in other linguistic contexts is that Allah primarily represents/means the god of Islam in those other languages, making it more harmful than not to communicating the biblical God. Languages other than Arabic don’t have the broader range of meanings of Allah that Arabic has, in which Allah continues to be used also as the God of Arabic Christians and Jews. These languages often have another name for the all-powerful creator god in addition to the more narrowly-understood Allah proclaimed among them by Islam. This is true of the Muslim Central Asian people group that we work among and many others. Our focus people group, interestingly enough, has a name for God that is a very distant cousin-cognate to our English term, God. When they use this indigenous name, it carries a broader sense than Allah does, thus giving us more room to build biblical categories. We sense this even in English. When someone speaks of Allah we understand that that person is speaking of the god of Islam in a narrower sense than we use the term God in English. Words really do carry around meaning-baggage with them, and we need to acknowledge it and carefully judge if a name is already so tied to unbiblical meaning as to be not worth the salvage effort. In other languages, Allah is not worth the effort it would take to redeem it, especially when God has preserved an indigenous name for the all-powerful creator god in that language.

That brings me to my third reason to not use Allah to refer to the biblical God in non-Arabic contexts. Islam teaches that in order to please God, you must pray, worship, and live like a 7th century Arab. It teaches that Arabic is the language of heaven and thus holier than all other languages. This means that all those other people groups who are Muslim have been raised to believe that their language is inferior for praying to Allah and that they will only get the spiritual merit they need to gain paradise if they pray in 7th century Arabic. In a real sense, they must become Arabs or they will go to hell. Why have the Persians, the Turks, the Kurds, the Berbers, the Dari, the Pashtun, the Baloch, the Somalis, and so many others blindly accepted this linguistic and cultural colonialism? It is tragic that no one has taught them that gentiles don’t need to become Jews in order to be saved, and therefore, they do not have to become Arabs. Missionaries run the risk of contributing to this Arab-supremacist heresy when we thoughtlessly or “creatively” use Allah among non-Arab people groups. Instead, we should be proclaiming that the true God knows their language and knows their people, that he loves them and desires for them to worship him in their own language as a unique manifestation of his glory – that he will even preserve worship in their language for all eternity (Rev 7:9). These truths are precious and powerful for oppressed people groups in a way that dominant people groups (like English and Arabic speakers) sometimes struggle to understand. Yes, the gospel will call them to transcend their ethno-linguistic identity as members of the race of Christ, but first it will honor their ethno-linguistic identity. In salvation, God will come to them and will speak to them in their mother tongue. So should we.

So, can Christians use the name of Allah to refer to the God of the Bible? It depends. If it’s in Arabic, absolutely. In other languages, let’s avoid it wherever possible.

Arab Christian History Source: Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 92

Photo by Rumman Amin on Unsplash