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

What Hath ISIS to do with Story Book Bibles?

Photo by Ryan on Unsplash

It was 1:00 am in Richmond, VA, 2015. I was sitting next to a young Middle Eastern immigrant, reminiscing about what we missed about his native region. This young man was in an enviable situation, one which many are in fact dying to achieve as they freeze to death in refrigerated lorries or drown in the waters of the Aegean. My friend had legal residency in the USA, was going to a good university, and had a steady job at his uncle’s Mediterranean restaurant. As we talked and sipped black tea (loaded with egregious amounts of sugar), the topic of ISIS came up. At that point they still controlled an area of the Middle East comparable to the size of many countries. While we spoke, this young man confessed to me that he watched ISIS propaganda videos and followed some of their accounts. And, in spite of everything, his heart was stirred. He still insisted that their violence did not represent true Islam, but it was clear that there was a powerful resonance in their message, one which at the very least caused some measure of internal doubt and wavering for a young Muslim with a promising future in the West.

There’s a good reason young men (and women) from all over the world joined ISIS, and continue to join it and similar groups. It has nothing to do with them being uneducated or from impoverished backgrounds, as is sometimes reported in the media. In fact, most who volunteer for jihadist groups are actually well-educated and from middle class or upper class families. Instead, many join because of a powerful understanding of history that goes like this: creation, fall, redemption, restoration.

No, I’m not speaking of that redemptive history, which begins with God’s creation of a good world, which then falls into a curse through man’s sin, a world that is redeemed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is now restoring all things, culminating in a new creation. That’s the original and true metanarrative, wonderfully fleshed out in the recent wave of biblical theology texts and children’s story book bibles. I am instead speaking of a diabolical hijacking of that story. It goes something like this. Creation: Long ago there was a united and just society, the Islamic Ummah. This society, established by God and led by the caliph, ruled a huge empire and ushered in an unprecedented age of justice and enlightenment. Fall: Sadly, this world was undermined by the scheming of pagan Western nations, who finally divided the Islamic Ummah and ended the caliphate at the close of WWI. The Muslims of the world have been under the curse of foreign domination and internal division ever since. They have strayed far from the teachings and lifestyle of Mohammad. Redemption: This tragic situation can be redeemed if faithful Muslims from all over the world are willing to sacrificially return to the true teachings and lifestyle of early Islam, spilling their blood in noble jihad to restore the caliphate once again. Restoration: The blood of the martyrs will lead to victory and a renewed caliphate, which will once again rule the world in righteousness and usher in the day of judgment and the resurrection of the dead. Cue the epic music and visuals and you have a very moving propaganda video, especially for those who have felt any sense of inferiority as Muslims.

What exactly does the secular West have to combat a powerful metanarrative like this? Be true to yourself? Follow your heart? YOLO? Human rights because… Nazis are bad? Story after story of Western converts to Islam contain the same line, “I found my partying and my secularism to be empty. In Islam I found meaning and purpose.” Many young Muslims, like people everywhere, want to be part of something greater than themselves. When an individualistic pursuit of pleasure or success comes up empty (and it always does), when a community experiences oppression (real or perceived), the metanarratives beckon, promising purpose, redemption, and eternal life. This is bad news for a Western world too jaded to believe in metanarratives anymore. The West pumps trillions of dollars into stopping Islamic extremism and yet only succeeds in tripling the global number of jihadist fighters. Sure, the West has better physical weaponry, but when it comes to ideology, they’ve brought their Beyonce CDs to a gun fight – at least when it comes to the radical minority that is awake to the desire for glory, honor, and immortality (Rom 2:7).

Once or twice I have tongue-in-cheek explained my job as taking potential ISIS recruits and turning them instead into Southern Baptists. No, this is not exactly what is going on, but there is a grain of truth to this playful distortion. The scriptures reveal to us the one true account of redemptive history, the authentic story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. We have access to the only metanarrative that can cut deeper to the heart of a young radicalized Muslim than the sermons of the late Al-Baghdadi. Sadly, as things currently stand many will never hear this true account, but only the hijacked version. As much as it is up to us, then, let us resolve that every potential jihadi recruit has the chance to hear the gospel in a language he can understand, and from the mouth of a believing friend.

Jesus Directly Said, “I am the Son of God.”

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I came across it again yesterday in a Facebook thread. A local Muslim was claiming that Jesus never says that he is the Son of God, but that it’s only his mistaken followers who claimed this about him. So I posted this often-overlooked verse into the discussion:

do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’? (John 10:36 ESV)

There it is. This is Jesus speaking about himself. And he directly says, “I said, ‘I am the Son of God.'” I think this may be the only place in scripture where Jesus himself makes this direct and obvious a claim to the title, Son of God. Yes, there are dozens and dozens of other ways in which Jesus makes this same statement in other forms. Many of these ways are indirect, but some of them only seem indirect to us, removed as we are from the worldview of first century Judaism.

Ironically, many Muslim apologists will reject these seeming-indirect claims to Jesus’ divinity (e.g. “the Son of man has authority to forgive sins”) when they themselves come from a culture steeped and skilled in indirect communication. It’s helpful sometimes to point out, “Listen, friend, Jesus was a Middle Easterner! He teaches like a Middle Eastern teacher, where a lot can be clearly stated indirectly” (In Middle Eastern and Central Asian cultures, a “no” even means “yes” the first couple times an invitation is extended). At the same time, as long as Muslims and others continue to repeat the line that Jesus never claimed the title Son of God for himself, John 10:36 is there. Strangely absent from many of these discussions, yes, but there nonetheless, ready for a gentle but painfully true refutation that can advance the conversation onto fertile ground.

Gum Trees, Graves, and Genocide

Photo by Afonso Morais on Unsplash

We wound our way slowly up the mountain’s dirt road, carefully choosing tracks for the tires that avoided the worst of the ruts caused by the spring rains. It was only the two of us taking this outing to the top of the mountain, myself and my peculiar friend, a village Sufi mystic who was missing many teeth and who was at least twenty years my senior. My friend, a mullah (teacher) of sorts, had aggressively befriended me in the way only a villager in an honor-shame culture can, hoping, I later found out, that I would be his ticket to America. But on this day all I knew was that he wanted to take me somewhere special.

Sufism is the experiential “denomination” of Islam, roughy analogous to Pentecostalism within Christianity. The focus of Sufi Islam is on achieving mystical union with God, thereby experiencing his power and his love. But this is accomplished through good works, prayers, mantras, etc. It’s my opinion that the Sufis borrowed heavily from mystical Middle Eastern Christianity and that they came the closest to the Christian idea of God as they strayed further from orthodox Islam and into “heretical” ideas, such as the belief that God could become a man incarnate. The Sufis reached their zenith in medieval Islam, but in the last hundred years or so have lost much of their influence as Saudi-funded Wahabiism seeks to return Islam to its own interpretation of the faith’s original form and sources. If you’ve ever heard of the whirling dervishes, then you’ve heard of one expression of Sufi Islam. Sufism is declining, but it holds on in contexts like ours, where it once ruled.

As we traveled up the mountain we passed a few shepherds with their sheep dogs, goats, and sheep, as well as a man on an ambling tractor. The temporary vibrant green grass and flowers of spring complimented the view as we climbed higher and higher above the village, its valley, and its flashing lake. Many other mountain peaks were now in view and I soaked in the beauty of this ancient region. After about twenty minutes of driving we arrived at the end of the road. On our left we could now look down over the other side of the mountain where we could see a large town and the soaring peaks beyond it, home to local guerrilla fighters who are, of course, regularly bombed by neighboring countries. The town in the valley below us had its own tragic history of genocidal bombing at the hand of a former dictator. Just in front of us was a shepherd’s hut, but we turned and walked up the slope to our right toward a small grove of wild gum trees.

My friend reached for a cut made in the trunk of one of these gum trees and handed me a glob of cloudy white sap, encouraging me to chew it. It’s consistency was surprisingly like chewing gum, but the only flavor was bitter pine-needle, without any sweetness whatsoever. I forced a smile and kept chewing it for politeness, but looked for a good opportunity to discretely spit it out. In spite of my deep desire to “go native” I just haven’t been able to understand the delights of chewing on Pine Sol-flavored sticky tack. Next, we came to a natural spring, which I was genuinely happy to take a drink from. The way that God causes springs of water to gush up out of the tops of mountains is simply magical and delightful, especially in a land that turns into a desert for nine months of the year.

Now we came to the main attraction, an ancient oak tree, squat and bordered by a small fence. Hundreds of small colored cloths hung from its branches and swayed in the wind. And in the middle of the fenced area was a grave.

“This man was the son of the caliph, Umar,” my friend announced. “They came here with their armies and my ancestors gave them a bloody resistance. We killed so many of the invading Arabs that they still call those of us from this area ‘The Killers of the Disciples.’ Ha!”

“This man,” he went on, “killed thousands upon thousands of my people.”

It was a poignant scene. In front of us was the grave of a man who took part in religiously-motivated genocide. In the valley below us lay a town where thousands of the same people group had died by genocide, once again, but as recently as the year I was born. Just beyond that town lay the mountains where jets continue to drop their bombs to this day. What came out of my friend’s mouth next left me speechless.

“This is a holy man. This is a holy place. We should pray here.”

It was then I fully understood the horrific irony of this place. The locals understood this man’s grave to be a shrine. That’s why the little colored cloths were tied to the branches of the old gnarled oak, Asian-style, to represent a prayer. Somehow my friend could not see the awful contradictions of his words, his ethnicity, his history, and his religious beliefs. Two plus two did not equal four. The son of the caliph of Islam could kill thousands of his ancestors in the name of Islam and his grave could still be considered a holy shrine. And just that morning my friend had reassured me that ISIS’ violent actions did not represent true Islam. Yet here we were.

My friend entered the enclosure and lifted his hands to pray, in Arabic, the language of his people’s conquerors.

For my part, I turned and walked away. I did pray, but not to the shrine of a killer. Rather, I prayed to the God who made the mountains, the wild gum trees, and the mountain springs, the only one who hears prayer, the one who has called us to love our enemies, and the one who alone can open the eyes of the blind. Even one so blind as my friend.