We’re more than a little concerned by Christian critiques which attempt to “expose” Islam as a religion of violence*. This leaves the question: what exactly is your problem with Islam, then? Why are you not Muslims? Or why do you not worship with Muslims? And our answer is “Islam does not have the way, the truth and the life!” We’re not foolish enough to believe that an entire religion can be defeated in one brief article. However, we think that the standard Muslim objections to Christianity are very weak; and we believe that Islam has to answer some very serious challenges from Christianity.
1) Above all, Muslims must honestly confront the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection and his claims to be God. They do not have a bias against miracles, so this evidence should be more than persuasive. (The notion that Jesus did not die on the cross, or that the Gospels are forgeries, is laughable at best!)
2) Islam underestimates God’s love when Muslims dismiss the atonement or the incarnation as too dishonouring for God.
3) Islam is based on commands and submission to the will of God. By way of contrast, the Bible is about covenants and fellowship with God. A covenant is more than a contract or a set of laws. A covenant is like a marriage – it creates a deep bond, a permanent relationship. Christians believe that God seeks to know us, to transform us, and to be known by us.
4) Islam says that we can know little more of God than what his will is. But why should we think that? If he can reveal his will, why can he not enter into a more personal relationship with us? We may not be able to know or experience everything about God; but that does not mean we that he could not reveal some important facts about who he is, that he could not act to demonstrate his love, and that we could not be thoroughly transformed by a relationship with him. If this is what God wants to do there is nothing to stop him from doing it.
5) Islam rejects the need for atonement. Therefore, Islam underestimates the gap between God and man and underestimates God’s Holiness. Muslims typically believe that we are weak-willed, but have it in our own power to choose God and the good. Christianity teaches that this underestimates our problems significantly: something has gone wrong with human nature. Our problem is not just that we fail in some of our moral obligations, but that we wrong God, not least by turning away from him and going our own way. We have cut ourselves off from the very source of goodness and so are no longer able to meet God’s standards.
6) How could we please a Holy God by our own efforts? God would know every thought, motive and emotion that we keep hidden from others: could we bear the shame of having our sins uncovered? And could a perfectly good God simply overlook wrongdoing without punishment? Wouldn’t that, in effect, condone wrongdoing? Wouldn’t it fail to do justice to the seriousness of the wrongdoing? In that case, wouldn’t forgiveness come at the expense of justice.
7) Islam suggests that we can cross the gap between God’s expectations and our moral failures through our own effort and obedience. But isn’t God owed perfect obedience by everyone, always? How, then, can our obedience make up for our wrongdoing? Wouldn’t it amount to God turning a blind eye to our wrongdoing? We are hardly doing God a favour—working up extra merit as it were – when we worship him or choose to be good. This is just what God should expect from us; it is exactly what we were made for.
8) Christianity teaches that we are unable to meet God’s standard on our own but that God has come to our assistance. The Father’s heart broke when he gave his only Son. The Son suffered the punishment that we deserved. They carried the consequences we ought to have suffered. So, because the demands of justice are met, God can cancel the debt that we owe him. He can then forgive us: God does not merely let us escape the consequences of our wrongdoing, but brings us into a new transformative relationship.
9) There is no ethical difficulty with Jesus taking responsibility for another’s wrongdoing. We can take responsibility for others if they allow us to and if we are in the appropriate relationship with them. A parent can accept the consequences for a child’s actions; an officer can make himself accountable for the actions of the men under his command. But a parent is not responsible for a stranger. We can only be accountable for those who have united with us in some way. On the Cross, the Son of God took responsibility for those who admit that they have a debt to pay God, and depend on Jesus to be their Lord and Saviour.
10) If physics has taught us anything, it is that the world seldom turns out as we expected. Of course, physics is a rational discipline which makes sense of the world; but it regularly surprises us with its discoveries. God’s foolishness would be wiser than our wisdom- even the wisdom of physicists. Part of the problem with Islam is it rejects the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation and the Atonement as too strange. Yet these doctrines are not logically incoherent. Theologians have proposed so many logically consistent models for these doctrines they can expend quite a bit of energy arguing over which is best!
11) It is surely arrogant to claim that God could not be Triune, or that God could not become incarnate, or that God could not die for sins, or that God could not make himself known to us through his Spirit. It would take a rather exhaustive knowledge of the divine nature (and human nature!) to rule these possibilities out.
12) Simply declaring Christian doctrines illogical and incoherent on face value, without examining these doctrines carefully, closes minds prematurely. It prevents us from searching for evidence to see if they are true.
13) Christians do not deny that there is only one God. The Trinity simply means that there is only one God who is Father, Son and Spirit. Father, Son and Spirit are three persons – each is self-aware, free and loving. However, they are one because they all share the same limitless, loving power. They know one another thoroughly. Sharing the same knowledge and motivation, they co-operate fully.
What does it take to qualify as God? God is meant to be the being most worthy of worship. If there was a being greater than God, it would be most worthy of worship. So God would be a perfect being, the greatest being we can conceive. God would have perfect power; this power would be unconstrained by laws or physical limitations. His knowledge would not be limited: his choices would be fully informed. Finally, God could not be limited by irrational, destructive desires. So his goodness – that is to say, his love- must be unlimited. A simple way to sum this up is to say that God has limitless, loving power.
14) Christianity avoids the problem of the lonely God. I can only truly love another person if another person exists! Islam has a problem – God cannot love until God creates another person to love. So God cannot be perfect until he creates someone. The Trinity explains why God did not need to create anything to be morally perfect. Father, Son and Spirit knew each other completely, and shared their life fully, from all eternity. Each would not be God if the other two persons did not also exist in a Triune relationship with them.
15) The Father has unlimited power and love; the same can be said for the Spirit and the Son. So it is proper to call each of them God (each has the quality necessary to be God). However, we do not understand the Father fully until we understand the Son; we do not understand the Son until we understand his Father. Until we understand that God is Triune we do not understand why the Godhead is truly worthy of worship.
16) What would it mean for the Son of God to become incarnate? The Son of God is a person with limitless, loving power: he is God. To become incarnate the Son of God adds a human nature: he takes on all the properties essential to being a human. The Son of God adds a human body and a human mind; because the son of God is personal, this human nature will be a human person. But the son of God will not be merely human: he will retain his divine power. The Son of God did not cease to have limitless loving power; but Jesus did not use all that power and knowledge while he was on Earth. Again, there are different models of the incarnation to explain how this might have worked in practice.
*Why do we reject arguments that Islam is essentially violent? For one, generosity, responsible citizenship, intellectual honesty and (frankly) good-manners dictate that one should engage with the most reasonable exponents of a world-view before dismissing it. But more fundamentally, there are many ways of being a Muslim and the Christian cannot say which represents true Islam. For Christians, God never spoke through Muhammad; the Koran is not a revelation from God. We shouldn’t have to point this out, but Christians do not believe that there is an authoritative version of Islam which God expects Muslims to be faithful to! There is only a series of human responses to human traditions.
If Islam has a core, it is a strong commitment to a particular version of monotheism, a belief that Muhammad is God’s final messenger, and that the Koran is the supreme revelation from God. (Generally, it is these commitments we are arguing against above). One might add some attempt to perform the practices prescribed by the “Five Pillars”. Now, a liberal reformist, a Sufi Pir, and an Islamist radical will interpret the Koran in very different ways. Islam simply does not prescribe one form of government or one form of political engagement. Islamic communities evolve and change; they can continually renegotiate their relationship with the state. Indeed, many Muslims have eagerly embraced concepts like human rights and democracy. Christians should not respond to an imaginary “Islam”; we should respond to our Muslim neighbour, and his or her particular beliefs.