Other Religions: Islam
By Paul Copan | Bulletin Roundtable
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In this month’s Roundtable discussion, the team is tackling topics related to other religions. Dr. Paul Copan starts the series with some responses to Islam.
For the Kingdom,
I’ve had some interesting discussions with adherents to non-Christian religions. In January 2002, a few months after the September 11th attacks, I was on a panel discussion with a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim imam at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. We discussed understandings of war and peace within our respective religious traditions. I defended a Christian just war position even though acknowledging pacifism within Christianity.
Though I have known many Muslims who are peace-loving, I pushed back during the discussion when the Muslim said that “Islam is a religion of peace.” If we look at the trajectory of Muhammad’s life, it moves from an earlier period of tolerance and extending good-will (“Let there be no compulsion in religion” [Qur’an 2:256]) to a more militaristic phase (e.g., Muhammad’s farewell speech, when he said, “Allah has called me to fight until all men say, ‘There is no God but Allah’”). And just looking at Muhammad’s own life and teaching, his sixty-eight military campaigns and raids, and the similar path taken by his immediate successors, is quite telling.
Seven years later (March 26, 2009), I was a panelist for a symposium entitled, “Who We Are and How We Came to Be: Perspectives on Our Origins.” It was hosted by Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, just south of Palm Beach Atlantic University, where I teach. I would represent the Christian faith in my presentation. Others on the panel included a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim imam, a Zen Buddhist monk, a Hindu, a Seminole Indian, and a “Haitian Vudou priestess”—and an atheist philosopher was the moderator. This was a splendid opportunity to challenge the assumption that “all religions are basically the same” and to point out that, while all of us presenters could be wrong, we could not all be right. And I offered reasons to support the greater explanatory power of the Christian faith, and for the rest of the evening all audience questions were directed to me. This afforded an extensive opportunity to address student questions and to provide additional reasons for the historicity of Jesus’s resurrection.
I greatly enjoyed these cross-worldview engagements, the opportunities to represent Christ, and to have personal conversations before and after these gatherings. My start with engaging world religions started earlier, however. This included a summer in India after my college graduation, and even earlier when I attended a mosque every Friday for two years as an undergrad student.
Getting Theological Training at a Mosque
If you want to sharpen your theology, start talking to Muslims. Many of them have been trained, at least informally, to rebut Christian theology. After a Muslim I had gotten to know (Abdul) invited me to attend a mosque, I determined that I would start my “mosque ministry” by befriending Muslims. I often ate in Muslim homes, and every Friday after the community gathered for prayer and a sermon by the imam (Omar), I joined them for lunch (usually fish sandwiches) and conversation. I learned a lot and built good friendships, and just before graduation, I was asked to speak to a dinner gathering at the mosque as a friendly farewell, at which time Omar presented me with a Qur’an in both Arabic and (thankfully!) English.
In my interactions with Muslims, in addition to building friendships, here are a few things I’ve found helpful in theological discussions.
Omar once asked me, “If Jesus was God, to whom was he speaking when he said, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” I replied, “If the Father is God and Lord, to whom is he speaking when he calls his Son both ‘God’ and ‘Lord’ in Hebrews 1 (vv. 8 and 10-12)?”
But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom….” And, “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment, like a robe you will roll them up, like a garment they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will have no end.”
Even though Muslims consider Allah’s having partners (shirk) to be blasphemous, it is helpful to have a solid analogy for the Trinity at the ready to illustrate threeness of persons within oneness of being. (I’m not talking about the three states of water or three parts of an egg or a three-leafed clover.) I was talking to a local Muslim imam a few years back at a community evening meal—a breaking of the Ramadan fast. My son Chris was with me—we ate with the men—while my wife Jackie was eating with several of her Muslim women friends. I listened to the imam speaking informally for a while. He gave his reasons for believing that Islam is superior to the Christian faith—all very familiar arguments. All the men were listening attentively.
One of the objections he raised was the Trinity. I chimed in that this was no contradiction and that there are no partners with Allah (the Arabic word for God) in the Trinity. I then asked, “Have you heard of Cerberus?” He replied that he had, but when I pressed him further, he said, “I don’t know.” So I proceeded to describe how this three-headed dog of Greek mythology was one being but with three distinct centers of awareness. And with the Trinity, three distinct divine persons exist united in one divine being (a soulish being). And this is why the Father and Son can refer to each other as “God” and “Lord.”
Jesus’s Incarnation and Death
Muslims commonly treat the Incarnation of Christ as an intolerable humiliation or degradation. Such a doctrine brings a wholly-other God down to shameful depths—especially a death on the cross. One Muslim (Shabaz) asked me, “How can Christians wear crosses around their neck? This is a horror, wearing this instrument of torment. If your brother died in an electric chair, would you wear a ceramic electric chair around your neck?” I replied that Jesus’s death turned a first-century symbol of degradation into an image of salvation for the world. If, like James the brother of Jesus, my brother were the Son of God and his death in an electric chair brought about the salvation of the world, that symbol of horror would take on a new meaning—a reminder of how my salvation had been wrought.
This is what John 12:23-33 spells out. It follows the language of Isaiah 52:13: “Behold, My servant will prosper, He will be high and lifted up [hypsoō] and greatly exalted [‘glorified’; doxazō].” In John 12, Jesus said that the hour had come for him to be glorified. How would he be glorified? He would be lifted up from the earth—i.e., on the cross—and that through this, salvation would come to all people. Notice that Jesus’s being lifted up on the cross is actually his moment of glory. That is, in the cross we see how low God is willing to go for our salvation. So great is God’s love for us!
Of course, Muslims deny the death of Jesus on the cross (Qur’an 4:157-158), which raises another issue and response. Why should we trust the words of the Qur’an, dictated by Muhammad in the seventh century, as opposed to sources going back to the first and second centuries? Shouldn’t we favor the overwhelmingly solid historical fact of Jesus’s crucifixion attested by the earliest witnesses and sources (biblical and extrabiblical), by friend and foe alike?
When I was engaging with the local imam about his objections, he raised a number of caricatures and misrepresentations. He mentioned a common one: the alleged corruption of the Bible, with the result that it is wholly untrustworthy—except at any points where the Bible seems to support Islam! One way Muslims will show this is to reveal how there are many different versions of the Bible. Of course, the fact that there are different versions doesn’t trouble informed Christians, and we have good reasons for considering the biblical text reliable, and there are plenty of resources on this.
What’s more, even the Qur’an itself makes no claim that the Bible has been corrupted. In fact, it’s just the opposite. The Qur’an assumes its reliability. And what often gets papered over is the troubled textual history of the Qur’an, despite the Muslim claim that the Qur’an has remained unchanged from the time of Muhammad. There are actually different versions (recensions) of the Qur’an, revealing that it is a very human work and not the “eternal Qur’an” as Muslims have claimed.
Omar once asked me, “Do you mean to tell me that if a person lives like the devil all his life and then calls on Jesus on his death bed, he’ll go to heaven? He’ll be saved?” I replied, “Assuming that this person is earnestly repenting, then the answer is yes.” Omar replied that he couldn’t believe in this kind of “easy salvation.”
I reminded Omar of the criminal on the cross who cast himself on the mercy of Jesus: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus said that this criminal would be with him in paradise that day. I then said to Omar: “It seems that your conception of Allah reveals that his grace is limited, that he is not all-merciful. It seems that he is unable to forgive sins that reach a certain level. And where would any of us be if we were judged based on our performance? How could we ever know we have reached an acceptable level for a perfect God? This is why grace is needed for all of us, whether one is a hardened criminal or not.”
Why Be a Muslim?
Since I didn’t have a car while a college student, I borrowed one from a kind friend to get to the mosque. After a gathering at the mosque one Friday, my friend Tamir was wondering how he could get home since his car was in the garage, and I said I’d give him a lift.
On the way to his home, I asked him, “Tamir, why should I become a Muslim?” He clearly hadn’t been asked this question before, and he strained to give a few answers: “because Islam gives me a purpose”; “because Islam gives me community”; and so on. I told him that the Christian faith provided these for me. So he finally asked me, “Paul, why should I become a Christian?” I told him, “Tamir, I thought you’d never ask. You should be a Christian because the Christian faith is true—not because it works or makes us happy or gives us purpose or because my parents believed it.”
I hasten to add here that for many non-Western Muslims, a lot more is at stake in becoming a believer than it is for more individualistic Westerners. For a Muslim to embrace the gospel is to cut oneself off from family, friends, a job, a social network, from honor and status. I’ve met Muslim-background believers who lost everything, and their parents often disowned them and even had a funeral for them. So we must remember this as we present the truth of the gospel, which brings with it a significant cost.
I mentioned to Tamir that the gospel should be believed because it is true. But of course it’s good news to the Muslim for other reasons. Islam provides no confidence of Allah’s acceptance since heaven or hell is up to Allah’s capricious decision. But unlike Islam, divine love and justice come together in the gospel. Through Christ’s substitutionary death on our behalf, we are accepted and declared “not guilty” by God. And through embracing the gospel by God’s grace, God becomes our loving Father. Islam, however, does not view God as Father. And in Islam, God loves only those who love him whereas in the Christian faith, God loves his enemies and lays down his life for them.
The gospel is good news for the Muslim—for reasons of the mind and the heart. Perhaps some of these thoughts I’ve presented will prove helpful in sharing about Jesus with them.
— Paul Copan is the Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University. Learn more about Paul and his work at paulcopan.com.
Reclaiming the Space Between Doubt and Dogmatism
The Christian life requires faith. That means that believers are sometimes faced with uncertainty. But is all uncertainty bad?
Theologian Joshua McNall encourages readers to reclaim the little word “perhaps” as a sacred space between the warring extremes of unchecked doubt and zealous dogmatism. To say “perhaps” on certain contested topics means exercising a hopeful imagination, asking hard questions, returning once again to Scripture, and reclaiming the place of holy speculation as we cling to a faith that stands distinct from both pervasive skepticism and abrasive certainty.
Read our recent excerpt from Perhaps here.
“In a polarized world with the rigidity of fundamentalisms on the one hand and the nihilism of skepticisms on the other, McNall enters to sketch a way forward for the holiness of intellectual humility. This is a creative book that not only argues winsomely from Scripture, theology, and literature, but also invites the reader into a narrative that portrays how the weight of its claims press on everyday life. Perhaps will be especially helpful for the student wrestling with the challenges of Christian orthodoxy, and all looking for breathing room to wonder, hope, and ultimately, trust.”
— James M. Arcadi, associate professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
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