April 2003 Bible Trail Conference for Youth of Singapore YFC
I remember a time when the bumper sticker, “Smile, God loves you!” was very popular in the West. It was about 25 years ago, and Christians assumed that people knew what they meant when they used the word God. When we began to concentrate on ministering among non-Christian youth in Sri Lanka we realised that this is an assumption we could not make. I think it was an assumption that should not have been made in the West 25 years ago. But today it is much more evident that when we speak of God in the West our hearers may understand something very different to what we understand.
This study will look at three of the most important understandings of God that Christians encounter as we seek to share the gospel today.
PANTHEISM: ALL IS GOD
Perhaps no view of God grew so rapidly in the twentieth century to rival the Christian view as much as pantheism. This is not to say that this is a new view. Varieties of pantheism have been in existence for millennia in both the East and the West. Much of early Greek philosophy and Stoicism were pantheistic, so are most forms of Hinduism and some forms of Buddhism.
Today pantheism is found in various different forms, but at the base of most of these forms is what we call monism, which is a philosophy that views everything in the universe as being the extension of one reality. It is often described with the words “all is one.” When we bring in the concept of God, then monism extends to pantheism, the idea that “all is God.” The term is derived from the Greek pan meaning “all” and theos meaning “God;” that is literally, “all-god.” As David Clark and Norman Geisler explain, in pantheism “there may be forms or levels of reality, but in the final analysis, all reality is unified ontologically, that is, in its being. No qualitative distinctions can differentiate kinds of real things.” God is the ultimate reality, and we are all part of God. But so are all things. Plants, animals, and inanimate objects like books and tables are all part of God. We can see how with an approach like this “the idea of a personal God is abandoned in favour of an impersonal energy, force or consciousness.”
Pantheism is a vast topic, but I have decided to confine my discussions to only four areas, which I think are important for us in understanding its present popularity.
The Appeal of Divinity. Over 50 years ago when most observers had not detected the growth of pantheism in the West, C. S. Lewis highlighted both its popularity and its appeal in his book Miracles. Lewis’ comments are so good and so prophetic that I am going to quote them extensively here. His point is that natural humanity does not like the holy God of the Bible with his plans for us and demands upon us. They like instead an ethereal life force that makes no such demands but gives us the satisfaction of having some sort of religious experience without the confines of the demands of a holy and purposeful God. He presents the appeal of pantheism thus: “Speak about beauty, truth and goodness, or about a God who is simply the indwelling principle of these three, speak about a great spiritual force pervading all things, a common mind of which we are all parts, a pool of generalised spirituality to which we can all flow, and you will command friendly interest.” He contrasts this with the response to the biblical idea of God: “But the temperature drops as soon as you mention a God who has purposes and performs particular actions, who does one thing and not another, a concrete, choosing, commanding, prohibiting God with a determinate character. People become embarrassed or angry.”
We must remember that the basic sin of the human race is that of rebellion against the supreme God who makes a claim to be Lord of our lives. In his Areopagus address Paul presented God as Lord of heaven and earth (17:24), as sovereign over the nations (17:26), as impossible to be represented by idols (17:29). Then he said that God calls all people to repent (17:30) in order to be ready for the coming judgement (17:31). All this can be summarised under the designation “the transcendence of God.” This is a sharp challenge to rebellious human beings. In their rebellion they would prefer a view of the divine that is not so specific as to its character and demands. Pantheism not only meets these requirements, it also proclaims that we are God.
Swami Muktananda, an Indian Guru who is popular in America, says, “Kneel to your own self. Honour and worship your own being. God dwells within you as you!” That certainly sounds better to self-sufficient people rebelling from the lordship of God than a call to repentance from sin and to submission to God. Therefore Lewis says that Pantheism “is the attitude into which the human automatically falls when left to itself.” So we must not be surprised that pantheism is growing in the West among those who have rejected the biblical idea of God.
Yet the transcendence of God described above must be balanced with what Paul says of the immanence of God. Immanence is the term that is used to represent the nearness or presence or indwelling of God in creation. Here, of course, we are little closer to the pantheist, and this could become a point of contact for witness. Paul tells the Areopagus that God is accessible to humans (“…he is not far from each one of us,” 17:27), that we depend on God for our existence (“…in him we live and move and have our being,” 17:28a), and that we derive our life from God (“We are his offspring,” 17:28b).
In biblical religion the combination of the transcendence and immanence of God results in the only relationship which truly satisfies the deep yearning of the soul. This is our main argument in our discussion of spirituality. We enter into a loving relationship with a God who is higher than we are. Here there is freedom from the guilt of sin because our sins are forgiven. There is great peace and security because the God who is committed to us is greater than all the challenges of life. There is joy emerging from the experience of God’s love, forgiveness and acceptance. And there is bright hope for the future because we know that the one who holds the future holds our hands also.
Yet the benefits of the transcendence and immanence of God are for those who humble themselves before God. As Isaiah 57:15, “For this is what the high and lofty One says—he who lives forever, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.’” Our task is to show this to the world. Indeed pantheism is attractive to natural people. But as the proverb says, “All that glitters is not gold.”
A Reaction to Radical Individualism. Indian Christian apologist and social reformer Vishal Mangalwadi has connected the growth of pantheism with the radical individualism of the West that many are reacting against. In Pantheism there is a natural undermining of individuality that comes because individuals are identified with the divine. Mangalwadi shows how Hindu mystics compare the oneness of humans with the divine with the oneness of the wave with the ocean. He explains, “The ocean is real, but the wave’s individuality is only a temporary phenomenon of the ocean. It is not really real.” Sometimes the individual will have a mystical experience through something like transcendental meditation. Then his or her consciousness merges with the divinity that is at the heart of everything. This is sometimes called samadhi. This is like the wave merging back into the ocean.
This understanding of the relationship between the individual and the whole gave rise to the idea “that our individuality was ultimately an illusory, limited experience. The wave seems real while it lasts, but it disappears back into being the ocean.” This lies at the base of the Hindu idea of maya which is used to describe the illusory nature of the everyday reality. Geisler and Clark explain, “Maya does not imply… non-existence. Rather, maya acknowledges that the world is something, but it is not what it appears; it is really Brahman [or the Absolute God, the Ultimate Reality].”
The biblical understanding of the person is very different to this. We are creations of God, but are distinct from God. In Paul’s Areopagus speech he agreed with the pantheist that God is creator (17:24) and that we are totally dependent on him for our existence (17:28). But the pantheist says that God created the world out of himself. As C. S. Lewis puts it, the pantheist thinks that we are parts of God or contained in him, whereas the Christian sees the relationship with God in terms of Maker and made. We know that we are distinct individuals because the Bible says that we retain our identity after death. We recognise others and we know who we are. We are conscious of the fact that the judgement we receive is based on the way we lived our life on earth. No such permanent individuality is found in the pantheist understanding. When people are reincarnated in another life, they have no memory of their past lives.
In the West, however, individualism seems to have been taken to an extreme. Even in the church there is little understanding of the glorious truth of the body of Christ through which we share solidarity with other Christians that is so deep that the theologians described it as a “mystical union.” Unfortunately, many Christians like to guard their individuality so much that they do not know the type of spiritual accountability, inter-dependence and unity about which the New Testament speaks. Radical individualism was a feature of the modern era that post-modern people are reacting against. And it seems that along with a new stress upon community some have gone to the extreme of espousing pantheism, which, as we saw, undermines individuality.
The damage caused by the undermining of the individual is seen in the East where the religious environment permitted some people to be treated as “untouchables” resulting in the depriving of basic human rights to millions. Though today much of the West has rejected Christianity, its present emphasis on human rights grew during its Christian era and was certainly influenced by the Christian emphasis on the value of the individual.
Yet the critics of Christianity would point to the slavery and apartheid that co-existed with Christianity in many western nations. I would simply say that these two scars upon the history of Western civilisation are alien to Christian belief and indeed hostile to it. They could only have been tolerated in the church through selfishness, which blinded people’s eyes to the truth, or through ignorance or misrepresentation of God’s Word, which gave them the license to pursue these unchristian practices. Often it is Christians, like William Wilberforce in England and Desmond Tutu in South Africa, who battled to rid their nations of these terrible practices.
In biblical Christianity we see the beautiful combination of the recognition of the worth of an individual with the recognition of the importance of community for healthy living. I am convinced that Christian community life is the only form that will answer the postmodern quest for community in the West. In the East, where community solidarity was so strong for centuries, we are suddenly faced with social changes that are shaking the existing community structure at its roots. Both Buddhism and Hinduism have little concept of community to help people tide this. I do not think the socio-religious ties that powerfully bind the Muslim community together will be sufficient to enable the next generation of Muslims to find an authentic life in this postmodern world with its complex moral, ethical and social challenges.
I believe that Biblical community is the answer for the groping for authentic community that we are seeing in both East and West in this twenty-first century. During the time of the early church, people would comment on how Christians loved each other, and this was a powerful means of attracting people to Christ. The present world-wide search for community could be a great opportunity to the church. If we practice true biblical community people would realise that this is what they are looking for, and an evangelistic harvest could result. But we must first get our act together. Often our church structures are derived from the corporate world. So we may be exhibiting the very problems that people are trying to find a solution to. If we are to seize this opportunity we will need to restore Biblical Christian community life. That will attract the world. Such community life will be characterised by the value placed on each and every individual and also by the solidarity which will enable Christians to be truly helpful to each other.
The Deification of Nature. As nature is also a part of the divine in pantheism, there is a very high view of nature in Western pantheism. It is very fashionable now for people to claim that they worship nature. In fact Western New Age analysts like Theodore Roszak are blaming Christians for pronouncing nature dead and desacralizing it. They blame us for the development of secular humanism because we made God so distant making it possible for people to forget him entirely. This opened the door, they say, for the present ecological crisis. Besides, the Protestant work ethic was so productivity oriented that in the process we exploited nature to such an extent that the environment was neglected. So New Age people are in the forefront of ecological activism today.
This concern for the environment is not something that I have seen so much in Eastern pantheism. In fact Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal which is the only officially Hindu nation in the world, is one of the most polluted cities in the world. Of course, many Hindu holy men in the Indian sub-continent live very close to nature (often in jungles and caves) as part of their ascetic lifestyle. But by and large, the people in less technologically advanced cultures, especially in rural areas, live much closer to nature and relate to it more intimately than those in technologically advanced cultures.
How do Christians respond to this situation? As I approached this problem I did so with the conviction that the gospel and God’s full revelation to humanity must give the fullest answer that meets the aspirations of people represented in the various approaches to nature found in the world today. I reckoned however that we as a church might have missed out chunks of this revelation owing to our cultural blinds.
How should Christians view nature? Canadian poet Margaret Clarkson in the preface to a book about nature says, “Everything I see around me shouts to me of God, whether at the river or around the ravine at my suburban home in Toronto.” She is echoing one of the most important things that the Bible says about nature. Nature is the mouthpiece of God through which he communicates with humans.
In his evangelistic message in Lystra, Paul described the voice of nature as the testimony to God: “Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:17). In Romans he said that people have a responsibility to respond to this knowledge communicated through nature: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). The classic statement on this is Psalm 19:1-6 which begins with the words: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”
Virginia Stem Owens in a provocative book, And the Trees Clap Their Hands, says that many Christians have a “moralistic stewardship” approach to nature. We are like moralistic monitors of society protecting something we call the environment. It is certainly an improvement of the old approach that looked at nature as something to be exploited and resulted in much damage to the environment. But Owens says that the moralistic stewardship approach is inadequate as it fails to take into account the fact that matter is permeated with meaning.
In the Bible nature has special “meaning” because it is God’s creation which tells us about God, but even more significantly because it is a thing of beauty to be delighted in. Nature’s role as a medium of God’s voice is beautifully discussed in C. S. Lewis’ book, Reflections on the Psalms. He points out that because the Psalms emerged from an agricultural society we find the psalmists approaching nature from a gardeners or farmers interest. So we find references to rams, grass, vine and oil. But they go beyond this. “Their gusto, or even gratitude, embraces things that are no use to man.” So God is praised for things like lions and whales. Lewis says that because Christians view all of nature as God’s creation, to us nature is more that a resource for a fruitful life. It is a thing of beauty to delight in, a means through which God himself speaks to us.
The Jewish Psalmists then had a very high view of nature, higher that that of their neighbours who viewed nature as divine. But this divinity was not as high as the biblical understanding of God, for all nature was part of it. The Jews, on the other hand, saw nature as the creation of and bearer of messages from the supreme and almighty Creator of the universe. So as Lewis says, “The same doctrine which empties Nature of her divinity also makes her an index, a symbol, a manifestation, of the Divine.” And because we have such a high view of the Divine we say that our view of nature is higher than that of the pantheists. I would add that we have a higher view of nature than that of the naturalists also. By refusing to go beyond the confines of scientific study they reduce nature into a datum to study whereas we view it as an achievement to be delighted in.
The present interest in creation therefore could be a stepping stone to presenting the gospel of Christ. Without scoffing at the interest in nature, but also without affirming the deification of nature, we could seek to turn the attention of people to the messages that God gives through nature. We saw that Paul used creation in evangelism (Acts 14:17) and taught that the creation should lead people to seek God (Rom. 1:19-20). A young unbelieving Australian, who had adopted the hippie lifestyle which was popular a few years ago, went on a holiday to New Zealand. During her long journeys by bus and train she was struck by the beauty of nature, and though she was an irreligious person this made her think about God. It also seemed that wherever she went on this trip, she met Christians. She says that through the witness of nature and through the witness by word of the Christians she became a Christian. She subsequently became a staff worker in Youth for Christ.
Nature could also be used effectively in evangelism among non-Christians in the East who often live closer to nature than those in the West. It is not difficult to impress them with the glory of nature. This is what happened to a high school science teacher in Sri Lanka. As a Buddhist she did not believe in God, but as she studied science she came to believe that such a complex universe could not have just happened. This made her look for answers to the meaning of nature which led her and her husband to discussions with some Christians and finally to faith in Christ. Today they are both active Christians.
Pantheistic Spirituality in a Pluralistic Environment. Religious Pluralism has swept the world, and the trend is to unite religious traditions rather than divide them, to look for the “inner unity” of all religions rather than “the external details that divide them.” Pluralism has been the basic approach that has influenced inter-religious relations during many eras in many parts of the world. This was the background from which the Christian church did its pioneering evangelism in the first century. And I think it is enormously significant that the church proclaimed an absolutely unique Christ in that pluralistic society. The West was not religiously pluralistic till recently as it was influenced by Christianity which believes in an absolutely unique Christ. Pantheistic spirituality goes a long way in affirming the new ideal of inter-religious unity, and because it fits in so well with the way society is headed, we can expect its popularity to grow.
An experience of one of India’s most famous gurus Sri Ramakrishna (1936-86) shows how pantheistic spirituality fits in with the pluralistic mood of today. Ramakrishna “recorded that he meditated on a picture of the Madonna with child and was transported into a state of samadhi, a consciousness in which the divine is all that really exists.” Kenneth Woodward comments, “For that kind of spiritual experience, appeal to any god will do.” Woodward quotes Deepak Chopra, the Indian medical doctor who has done much to popularise New Age thought in the West, who says, “Christ-consciousness, God-consciousness, Buddha-consciousness—it’s all the same thing. Rather than ‘love thy neighbour,’ this consciousness says, “You and I are the same beings.” We can see how this type of thinking will appeal to those seeking a new world order based on pluralistic principles.
What I have said above about Pantheism and Christianity and in the study on spirituality will I hope give a Christian answer to Pantheistic spirituality. Here we will simply note that the religious milieu in which we live in both the East and the West is very friendly to Pantheism and we can expect to see it grow even more in the years to come.
THE MAGICAL VIEW OF GOD
I think that the most popular approach to religion in the world today is that which looks at divine beings as entities to go to for a favour. The deities are believed to have special powers, which make it advisable to worship them pray to them and appease them. It seems that this view was found it Athens too for it was full of idols and there were many temples including one to the unknown God. The reason for this was that they had gods for the various eventualities they faced and they wanted to be on the good side of all the gods. But they knew that they might have overlooked some god. And that would result in harm to the city. So they had an altar to the Unknown God, to cover all the possible gods. We have called this approach that looks at the gods as means of receiving blessings, the magical view of God.
Gunapala Dharmasiri, a Buddhist writer, begins his book critiquing the Christian concept of God with the words, “The Buddha did not accept the existence of God.” The learned Buddhist monk, Narada Maha Thera says, “There are no petitionary or intercessory prayers in Buddhism…. The Buddha does not and cannot grant earthly favours to those who pray to him. A Buddhist should not pray to be saved, but should rely on himself and strive with diligence to win freedom and gain purity.” These are both scholars belonging to the more Orthodox Theravada brand of Buddhism. But most Buddhists in most Theravada Buddhists countries go regularly to shrines of various deities and to other practitioners of supernatural divine arts in times of need and for help and support for life. Many Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka have shrines to the gods right beside the temple. The chief officer of the most sacred Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka, which houses the tooth relic of the Buddha, once said that the temple lands “are dedicated to the Buddha and the gods.” Some observers claim that despite Buddhist claims to being non-theistic (gods are not necessary) there has never been a time when most Buddhists (at least in Sri Lanka) did not worship the gods.
Mahayana Buddhism is the largest branch of Buddhism and is practised in countries like Japan, China, Korea and Tibet. Mahayana Buddhists worship and address prayers to the Buddha and to the Bodhisattvas like they would to a god. A Bodhisattva is one who has postponed his final enlightenment and the attaining of the final state of bliss, Nirvana, so that he could aid other beings in their quest for enlightenment.
If one were to go to a Taoist temple one would be struck by how much it is influenced by the idea that favours can be granted through the performance of certain rituals. Again this may not have been a form of the original Taoism founded by Lao-Tse in the seventh century BC. But with time “Taoism evolved a pantheon of innumerable spiritual beings, gods, or celestials and immortals, as well as deified heroes and forces of nature.” These deities cover everything imaginable and they have accompanying priests, sacrifices, and temples.
While most Hindus would consider one temple as their regular temple there are many Hindu temples which are dedicated to different gods who are said to be effective in answering specific kinds of prayers. So in Sri Lanka we have a temple considered effective when one wants to go abroad. Another is deemed helpful for those who want to take revenge against another. Businessmen frequent another because that is said to help in prosperity.
Traditional Muslim prayer is quite ritualistic and is not essentially petitionary. Yet in many places in Asia there are special shrines, which are usually the tombs of holy people where people go to make vows and present their personal needs. I was surprised to read in a recent article in Newsweek magazine that in popular devotions many Muslims ask Jesus or Mary or John the Baptist for favours. It must be noted, however, that, according to some observers, these practices like going to tombs has been getting less popular with the growth of Islamic fundamentalism.
And what about the West! Most newspapers and magazines have pages for horoscopes, psychic counsellors and the like. Many westerners are going to witches, wizards, spiritual healers and the like so that they could tap their supposedly supernatural powers for their own good.
In the Roman Catholic Church many saints are viewed as having power to grant favours. In Sri Lanka sometimes when I have tried to talk to a non-Christian about the gospel, I receive a response something like, “I also believe in Christianity.” When I pursue the matter further I find that what they mean is that they believe in the power of St. Anthony. The St. Anthony’s Church in my city attracts thousands of people each week who come there to have favours granted. Among those attending are Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Protestant Christians.
In most places where the Christian church is growing among non-Christians we see that what attracts people most to the Christian God is the knowledge that he is powerful—more powerful than all other gods—and able to meet their personal needs through his power. The American leader John Wimber even popularised the term “power evangelism” which seeks to attract people to Christ through the demonstration of God’s power. Often when I ask a convert to Christianity from Buddhism or Hinduism what was it that attracted them to Christ, they say that it was a miraculous answer to prayer.
How should biblical Christians respond to this immense popularity of the idea of the divine being or beings as having the power to meet personal needs? The first thing we have to say is that this clearly indicates that there is a felt need in people for the sense of getting help from a divine being. The immense popularity of this form of religion is sufficient evidence of that. The book of Acts also shows us that the early evangelists used this felt need as a means of attracting people to the gospel. Often it was a miracle that opened the door to a gospel proclamation. When people realise that the God of the Christians is able to meet their personal needs they would be open to hearing about this God. Otherwise they would not be interested in God at all because they belong to another religion and becoming a Christian involves such a radical change that it would at first seem too costly and unnecessary for them.
But there is more to evangelism than just attracting people through meeting felt needs. In the chapter on “Being sensitive to people” we said that in Acts those performing miracles were also apologists. They argued for the truth of the gospel facts in addition to demonstrating the power of God through healings etc.
Another important thing that we see is in Acts is that the evangelists gave considerable attention to introducing God to their audience. The evangelistic messages of Acts shows a God who is fuller and greater than one who simply responds to individual needs with a display of power. The fuller picture of God emerges especially in the emphasis on the sovereignty of God. His sovereignty over history recurs often in these speeches. Special attention is given to proclaiming God’s sovereignty in the death of Christ and in the raising of Christ from the dead. Five purely evangelistic speeches in Acts are given to Jews and God-fearers (Gentiles attracted to the Jewish religion who had not yet become full Jews or proselytes). Of these five speeches, four contain references to the fact that the death of Christ was a fulfilment of God’s purpose or of prophecy (2:23; 3:18; 8:32-35; 13:27, 29). Four of these and the only full message to a purely Gentile audience (in Athens) mention that God raised Jesus from the dead (2:24; 3:15; 10:40; 17:31). Three times it is stated that the resurrection or reign of Christ was predicted in prophecy (2:25-31; 3:21-26; 13:32-37).
God’s sovereignty in Israel’s history is presented twice when speaking to Jews (3:22-25; 13:14-42). In both the messages to Gentile audiences, that is, in Lystra and Athens, God is presented as the sovereign Creator and Lord of the universe and of history (14:15-17; 17:24-27). The coming judgement by God or Christ is also proclaimed in five of the seven evangelistic messages of Acts (2:40; 3:23; 10:42; 13:40-41; 17:31).
The sovereignty of God is presented in various other ways too: for example, in the election (2:34), the appointing and sending of Jesus (3:20; 26), and the call to audiences to repent which appears in four talks (2:38; 3:19, 26; 14:15; 17:30). The last of these is an all-inclusive command to “all people everywhere to repent” (17:30). In his two evangelistic talks to purely Gentile audiences Paul attempts to give a full introduction to who God is (14:15-17; 17:23-31).
All this shows that though the thing that attracted people to listen to the message was the demonstration of power in a personal and individual way, when the apostles proclaimed the gospel they gave a much fuller picture of who God is. I think we have a lot of homework to do today in presenting Christ to people who are attracted by what I have called the magical view of God.
The need to present this fuller picture of God is urgent especially because those with a magical view of God who are converted to Christianity could simply transpose their original view of God to their Christian belief system too. The result could be that they think of God as one who answers prayer and can be appeased through certain rituals and keeping certain rules like tithing. They may miss out on having their lives influenced by the glory and majesty and holiness of God. Most non-Christians come from what may be called “shame cultures” where sin is often defined as “losing face.” There isn’t a strong sense of holiness which comes from the concept of a holy and supreme God to whom we are accountable. This will increasingly be true in the West too where the belief in a supreme and holy God is being replaced by a pantheistic understanding. If we do not pay special attention to this need we may end up with a church of nominal Christians who have been converted to Christianity through seeing God’s power, but who have not fully grasped the fact that followers of this God are expected to live holy lives.
There are other evangelistic values in presenting this “other side” of God. If what we say about God is true, if he is indeed sovereign over history, if he is holy and judges sin, then the wisest thing that one could do is to align himself or herself with this God. We said above that the power of God to meet personal needs could arrest someone who is uninterested in the gospel. But this may not impress some non-Christians. The sovereignty and holiness of God may instead, impress them. Some years ago I wrote a book on the doctrine of hell. I was amazed at the number of people who, when they heard what I was doing, told me that it was the doctrine of judgement that led them to commit their lives to Christ. Let’s then include the full picture of God to our Christian witness.
THE TRANSCENDENT GOD OF ISLAM
How often we hear people say today that Muslims and Christians worship the same God and they accept the same book, the Old Testament. Therefore there is no need to try to convert Muslims because their religion is so similar to ours. Yet a closer look at Islam would show that the difference is very marked. Actually it is not correct to say that the Muslims accept the Old Testament. The Qur’an cites incidents and names that appear in the Old Testament. But that is not the same as accepting it as a book of doctrine. The Muslim understanding of God is also very different to the Christian one.
One of the controversies presently among evangelical Christians is on whether Allah, the God of Islam, is the same as the Christian God, and whether it is appropriate to call God Allah when working with Muslims. Some say Allah is an unbiblical spirit and not the God of the Bible. Others—and I fall into this category—say it is the same God that we worship though the worship of God in Islam does not square with the biblical teaching on how God should be worshipped. This is reminiscent of Paul’s words to the Athenians that he was introducing to them the “Unknown God” whom they worshipped in ignorance (Acts 17:22-23). In chapter 3 we showed that Paul did not say here that God accepted this worship because he later called the people to repent of their old ways and turn to God.
The Qur’an explicitly states that their God and the Christian’s God is one: “We believe in what has been sent down to us and what has been sent down to you. Our God and your God are one and to him we are submissive” (Sura 29:45) Christians in countries like Egypt have no other name for God. When Islam originated there were a lot of deities round about Mecca. But the people also knew and worshipped Allah to whom they gave a tithe and prayed for safety. William Miller explains that “In the Arabic language ‘Allah’ means ‘The God,’ and it seems that the Arabs recognised him as the Supreme God. Whether they learned of him from the Jews or inherited this knowledge from their ancestor Abraham, is not evident.”
Like Christianity, Islam would emphasise the transcendence of God and in this way stand it sharp contrast to pantheism. The basic concept of God in Islam is his oneness. This does not only mean that he is a unity, but that he is distinct from all else, wholly other, indescribable and not to be compared with anything else in creation. The unforgivable sin in Islam is ascribing equals to God and is called shirk which means “associating.” This is applied to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The foundation of Islam is the confession of faith (shahada) which again shows the focus on the oneness of God:
I bear witness that there is no God but God;
I bear witness that Muhammad is the Apostle (Prophet) of God.
The Muslims speak of the 99 names of God that they call the excellent or beautiful names of God. Though there is no unanimity about the exact names in this list there is unanimity about the number 99. Muslims are often seen with their rosary that has either 99 or 33 beads representing the names. In the case of the latter they need to go round three times, adding up to 99, to complete the ritual. Some recite the names while moving the beads. Abd-Al-Masih has given a listing of the 99 names and included an indication of the frequency of their occurrence in the Qur’an. The qualities that occur most are those expressing his greatness and mercy. The focus on God’s greatness is well expressed in the statement Allahu Akbar (God is Greatest) which is repeated with each set of prayers in the mosque and on numerous other occasions.
The emphasis on the transcendence of God in Islam is taken way beyond the Christian idea to yield a very different understanding of God. Ida Glaser has written such an insightful article on this topic that I will use her insights in much in this discussion. Glaser’s main point is that the main difference in the Christian and Muslim ideas of God is that whereas the former focuses on relationships the latter focuses on the otherness of God. At heart the Christian God is one who relates and this is what makes the Trinity possible and even necessary. Relationship is so much a part of the Godhead that it was there from eternity.
We often summarise the Christian understanding of God as holy-love. The Muslims would use the same words to describe God, but they understand something very different. There is such a strong emphasis on the will of the sovereign God in Islam that “he can therefore be tied down to no law, not even one that he has made.” Therefore sin can affect only people and not God. Christian think of sin as breaking a love relationship, and of God being grieved because of that (Eph. 4:30). We view sinners as being enemies of God who are reconciled to him at salvation (Rom. 5:10). But in Islam there is no such relationship with God, and while humans may be injured by human sin God is not. In the Bible there are so many instances where the pain of God over human sin is described. This is not a characteristic emphasis of Islam.
The focus in the Muslim idea of love is his mercy in granting the possibility of salvation. It is a sovereign act that God who is bound to no one grants to humans. Whereas the Christian idea of salvation has at its heart the establishing of a relationship with God (John 17:3), the Muslim idea of salvation is “an escape from judgement and an entry into paradise.” In Christianity God has chosen to act within his laws of justice in forgiving humans, therefore it was necessary for a penalty to be paid and the punishment to be borne by Jesus. There is no such need in Islam. The Muslim would say that nothing is necessary for God. He is able to forgive without having to do anything to enable that. There is therefore no need for God to have to provide an atoning sacrifice. And the idea that God became incarnate in order to be such a sacrifice is particularly revolting to them. Of course, we know that each year during the Hajj festival the Muslims sacrifice animals. They say this is to commemorate how Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son and how God provided a substitute. We hope that this could be a point of contact towards them seeing this idea of a substitute in their thinking about God.
A relationship between God and us is possible because humans are made in the image of God. Glaser explains, “There is likeness between creature and creator. This likeness includes the quality of personhood: the essential characteristic of God that implies the ability to relate is present in man also.” So we can relate to God. In fact, it is for this relationship that God made us. In Islam the relationship is “more like between potentate and subject than that between father and son, since man is made primarily for worship rather than relationship.” It is interesting that both the idea that humans are like God and that we can have a relationship with God is found in the mystical, more experiential, branch of Islam, Sufism. This is why some people feel that Sufism is a bridge to Islam as it directly expresses aspirations that Christianity fulfils. The growth of Sufism in the Twentieth century suggests that the need for a personal relationship with God is an acknowledged felt need of many Muslims. This could give us keys to witnessing to Muslims. For example, when we share a testimony of some experiences of the beautiful relationship we have with God, it could give to a Muslim the message that we have what they are searching for.
With the growth of Islamic fundamentalism Sufism seems to have been on the decline in the past 20 years. The religious life of many Muslims has to do more with the religion of Islam with its systems and practices and with the solidarity of the Muslim community than with God. Yet there are people in the Muslim community who want to please and know God and to be close to him. Perhaps these people will be more receptive to the Christian message of salvation as including an intimate relationship with God.
The Christian view of human nature as bearing the image of God makes it easier for us to understand the mystery of the incarnation. God can take a human form because humans are made like God. “In Jesus God himself comes among his creatures and relates with them. Not only does he speak to them, guide them and judge them: he also touches them, weeps with them, rejoices with them and eats with them.” But the Muslims do not emphasise the likeness of humans to God. Therefore Glaser explains, “If there is no likeness between God and man, this [incarnation described above] cannot be. The very thought of it is blasphemy.” So we can understand why it is so difficult for Muslims to accept the incarnation.
This paper would have shown how different popular understandings of the divine are from that of the Bible. The challenge now before us is to understand these views of non-Christians, to look for ways in which we can answer their objections, to get them to understand the Christian view of God and to demonstrate its supremacy over other views.