Islam vs Christianity

The occasion was that my friend invited his Muslim acquaintance "Blufor" (not his real name) to church. The preacher mentioned Islam in his sermon, and distinguished Christianity as "the only religion with grace." Over lunch, Blufor took exception. He had some interesting comments on the sermon, and on our respective religions, and defended his ideas well. Me, I think too slowly to keep up with new ideas in real time, so I sat back and listened and ate more than I should have. Today I am catching up.

Blufor offered a sequence of religions, first Moses and Judaism, then Jesus and Christianity, followed by Mohammed and Islam. I suggested Joseph Smith and Mormonism continues the progression, but he dismissed it -- for reasons that soon became apparent.

Blufor's idea is that Jews revere Moses as a true Prophet and dismiss all the successors as frauds. Christians accept Moses, but revere Jesus as better, and dismiss the successor[s] as fraud. Muslims accept Moses and Jesus as prophets but revere Mohammed as better -- and obviously, although he didn't say so at the time, dismiss Joseph Smith as a fraud (just as we Christians do). By the same analogy, Mormons accept Moses and Jesus (probably not Mohammed, but they could), but revere Joseph Smith as better.

It's not a bad analysis. Blufor proceeded to explain why each religion survives in the face of its successors and their claims. Blufor himself was an imam (Muslim preacher) for a while, so he's in a position to speak authoritatively about Islam, and he said that every preacher must tell his congregation two things: he must give them fear and hope. I don't recall his precise explanation, but it seems obvious to me that fear encourages the worshippers to be good, and hope keeps them from becoming discouraged. Blufor said that the sermons he preached as an imam, he could preach in any Christian church with the added words "in Jesus name" and they would be accepted, and vice-versa. I guess Blufor gave the Sunday sermon as an example, the hope of salvation and the fear for not evangelizing, but I missed it myself, both in the sermon and over lunch. There was a lot to think about, and I can't think and listen at the same time.

I also didn't catch exactly the reason Blufor gave for people staying in the religion they grew up in, but I gather it relates to the essential identity of all religions, that no religion offers any significant advantage over the others, so as to motivate the wrenching transition. At least that seemed to be how he saw it.

In particular, Blufor picked up on that morning's sermon, the claim that only Christianity offers grace. He denied it vigorously, and pointed out how the Qur'an repeatedly describes Allah as "most gracious". The problem is that in the Qur'an it is only empty words: the God Blufor implicitly described for us when telling us how he used "fear and hope" in his sermons, and when he described how he lived his own life, the Muslim Allah is not actually gracious like the Christian God is.

Some Christian preachers in history were famous for their fear-mongering, and most of them today put out hope, but it seems to me that Blufor missed the most important component of Christian doctrine, the atonement. You do not make it to the Christian Heaven by trying hard, because you cannot succeed. Christians can be (and many of them are) brutally honest about the nature of sin. Just look at a woman and imagine undressing her, and you have already committed adultery in your heart. Just flip somebody off in traffic, and you have already committed murder. Jesus said that.

The only way into Heaven, Jesus (and especially Paul) told us, is for Jesus to pay the punishment for our sin. No other religion offers that kind of atonement. Instead they offer a different kind of hope, that maybe we will do enough good to outweigh the bad, and God is merciful to overlook the negatives (if they are few enough). Blufor said that of his own faith. But his Allah is either unjust or unmerciful, either unjust because sin was committed and unpunished, or else unmerciful because it was punished by sending the sinner to Hell without regard to any mitigating good thus deemed insufficient. Blufor didn't say that, but another of my friend's acquaintances made the same (but in his case, false) accusation against the Christian God to explain why he is no longer Christian. Christians can be devastatingly honest about sin, because it's ALL PAID FOR.

Me, I have a problem with so-called Christians who rely on God's grace, thereby to sin with impunity, and I suspect God does too. I think they will be surprised on Judgment Day. God's grace may be free, but He does expect you to "stop sinning" (Jesus' words again). The Atonement erases past karma, but it's not a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card. You need to repent. Jesus said so.

"OK," Blufor said to me, "see? You grew up Christian, so there you stay." What he doesn't know is that my demographic all left their childhood faith and became atheists. I would have also, except that I was a late bloomer. Everybody else was pretty much out of the church in high school or freshman college, but I didn't start asking the questions until I was a senior in college. Then I took a class in apologetics under John Warwick Montgomery, and realized I didn't have to check my brain at the church door. I'm not a Christian because that's how I grew up, I'm a Christian because it's TRUE. Atheists become Christians because it's TRUE. Christians become atheists (or Muslims) because they didn't look at whether it's true, because Christian preachers do not preach that message. This guy didn't either, but the senior pastor there (sometimes) does.

The preacher on that Sunday morning needs to adjust his message. Everybody can say their god is gracious, but only the Christian God demonstrates it by sending His own Son to die on the Cross to pay for the sins of the world. The guy believes it (otherwise he would not have been allowed to preach there), but he didn't say it when the Muslim was listening. Muslims have a problem with the Atonement. If they didn't, they wouldn't be Muslims any longer, because their Allah does not offer that kind of grace. They have a wishful-thinking kind of hope, but we have the sure knowledge that Jesus rose from the grave, proving that my sins were paid for. "There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus," the great Apostle said. The Beloved Disciple tells us, "These things are written so that you may KNOW that you have eternal life" [emphasis added].

At the table I heard Blufor correctly identify two questions Muslims and Christians need to answer when comparing the two faiths:

1. Was Jesus of Nazareth truly deity?
2. Was Mohammed a true prophet of God?

and (I didn't hear Blufor say this, but my friend said he did)

3. Did Jesus really die on the Cross, and did that truly atone of the sins of humanity?

Ultimately, #3 is (ahem) crucial. If that didn't happen, and if he was not raised from the dead on the third day, then we are of all people most to be pitied, because we have believed a lie. If he was resurrected, then everything else he has to say matters, and #1 comes for free. Furthermore, because Mohammed did not bear witness to it, he could not be a true prophet (#2 is false). Moses did offer atonement (in a vague, forward-looking way, using animal sacrifices) consistent with the Christian message.

Fortunately, #3 is a historical thing. "All the religions have miracles," Blufor said, but not all of those miracles are open to public view. The resurrection was. The Muslim miracles Blufor offered over lunch were private, unverifiable. The atheists spend a lot of effort trying to debunk the Resurrection, because it was public; they don't waste their time on Mohammed's split moon (or whatever it was). Private miracles may convince their audience of one, but that's all they're good for. The unbelieving critics of Jesus demanded a sign, and he gave them the Resurrection. The empty tomb is still there, I stepped into it myself 31 years ago.

Blufor was an articulate defender of his faith. Unlike the Jihadists we hear about in the news, he is not ashamed of his God. He didn't hide his face for shame, and he wasn't killing people in the name of a god too weak to fight his own battles. I don't remember -- or maybe I couldn't hear it through his accent and over the restaurant noise -- whether Blufor volunteered, or if my friend asked him about where the Qur'an allegedly commands the killing of infidels, but he credibly explained it away the way I do for the so-called contradictions in the Bible. Obviously some people in his own faith tradition understand that text differently, and that's a bigger problem for him than for me -- because the most eager Christians (the ones who take the Bible text at face value) are not out there killing people -- but it's certainly not a show-stopper. Every religion, including the Darwinists and the Mormons, we all have hard problems the adherents need to explain away. The believers generally accept those explanations and the outsiders don't.

It was a most enlightening afternoon, but at the end of the day I am still a Christian. The Muslims have a much better understanding of the exalted nature of God and the proper posture for worship -- we talked about that too: one of the songs that morning repeated "Here I am to worship, here I am to bow down," while everybody was standing, some with their hands in the air above them; exactly one guy in the front row had his face to the ground the way "worship" is described in the Bible, and the way the Muslims do it -- but the Christian understanding of the devastation of sin is far more honest, and the Atonement is far more gracious of God in paying for it than the "hope so" wishful "most gracious" Allah.

Tom Pittman
2015 September 9