An encounter with some Muslims
Walking through Trafalgar Square with my girlfriend, we came across a stall manned by some Muslims who were handing out copies of the Quran. Here is a summary of what happened and what I learned about Islam, Muslims and witnessing to them.
Trained to catch Christians out
The conversation began with them asking if we follow any religion. Upon learning of our Christian faith, the man we were speaking to asked us if we thought the Bible was divinely inspired and hence free of errors. I replied affirmatively, knowing where this was going. He proceeded to ask us whether Judas hanged himself or jumped off a cliff, to which I gave a reply explaining the lack of contradiction between Matthew 27:3-8 and Acts 1:16-19, and the reason for the apparent contradictions in the Gospels and how they are all reconcilable, which he didn't seem to address.
I asked him about the contradiction between the Bible and the Quran, and he deferred to his friend who was
good with this sort of thing. He disputed the reliability of the Gospel manuscripts, quoting Bart Ehrman (
one of your scholars), and displayed a remarkably thorough knowledge of the various codices (Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, etc.). When I pointed out the unrivalled accuracy of the manuscripts and the notable lack of discrepancy between the several thousand copies, he moved onto disputing Jesus' death on the cross — a bold move considering its status as one of the best attested events in ancient history.
They were quoting scripture like seasoned Christians, and I was really quite impressed. This changed later on, when we brought up the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus' walking on water, and, despite these being arguably two of the most famous miracles beyond the resurrection, they had never heard of them. They were also not familiar with the Israelites' exodus from Egypt, which we were using to explain the purpose of the crucifixion.
It is quite clear that they have been studying only with the intent of sowing doubt in Christians' minds, to then present the ‘certainty’ of the Quran, with its simple declarations about Allah. Of course I understand why they do this, but it is a great shame that their familiarity with the Bible is limited to a few ‘gotcha’ verses. It is up to us to change that by presenting the Gospel clearly and faithfully, the Gospel which they have danced around but never actually read! We must plant the seed of Gospel, and pray that it will land in fertile ground, trusting that God will grow those seeds into true faith, if He wills it.
Jesus never said
I am God
I am God
We attempted to move the conversation away from back-and-forth apologetics to the Gospel. A common theme through the rest of the discussion was their rejection of the Trinity, based on the fact that Jesus never uttered the words
I am God, a statement they repeated many times.
Granted, the Trinity is a difficult doctrine, a mystery in the Biblical sense. But it is also an absolutely crucial doctrine. Not only is it crucial to our salvation to acknowledge the divinity of each person in the Godhead, but it also provides a proper understanding of other vital doctrines. For instance, the efficacy of the crucifixion depends on the hypostatic union, Jesus being fully God and fully man. Nothing less than an infinitely holy God can provide sufficient atonement for infinitely grievous sin, and He had to take on flesh in order to take on our sin. If Jesus was just a man, or even an archangel, as the Jehovah's Witnesses believe, then His atonement was inadequate.
Another objection they had to the crucifixon also stemmed from misunderstanding the Trinity. When I explained how sin must be paid for, that crimes must be punished, they stated that it wasn't fair to kill a man for someone else's crimes. They repeatedly phrased this as
I wouldn't kill my son. This is an understandable objection if you don't believe Jesus is divine, as without this belief, you won't understand the magnitude of the crucifixion and so it'll seem like petty revenge from God, rather than divine justice. Furthermore, they missed out on the fact that the crucifixion was also a willing sacrifice by Jesus, laying down His life for His people — He wasn't coerced into it by the Father, but in this act He demonstrated His obedience to His Father and His love for His bride. It is such a wondrous doctrine, but loses all of its real significance if you don't believe in the triune God.
Acknowledging the Trinity separates Christians from other false religions; Jews, Muslims, Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses all have beliefs which bear some semblance to ours, but without faith in Jesus as Lord, it is all worthless. It's for this reason that I think it is important to be able to defend the Trinity scripturally and to be able to articulate the beauty and importance of the doctrine when speaking to non-believers. They'll never be saved if they don't have faith in Jesus as Lord and Saviour!
While discussing the fact that sin must be paid for in blood, I quoted Romans 6:23, namely
For the wages of sin is death. I did this to summarise the precedent set throughout the Old Testament, which I explained to them. They then made the claim that we do not follow Christianity, but rather a
Pauline religion. This is an interesting statement, because it is true to some extent, in that a great deal of our understanding of the Scriptures is aided by Paul's exposition throughout His letters. However, nothing Paul says is contrary to principles and doctrines established throughout Scripture.
In addition, after a while of discussing the Trinity, they ended up resorting to repeatedly stating that we only believe it because the Church taught it to us. This is, of course, not true. I learned about the Trinity through the Church's historic teaching, but I believe in it because of Scripture — see the evidence. Unfortunately, when you approach this topic with a pre-conceived rejection of the Trinity, you can pick and choose verses to agree with you, and ignore, alter or misinterpret ones which disagree. They offered no explanation when I presented John 1:1, nor when I pointed out that God speaks in the plural in Genesis 1:26, nor when we explained the significance of the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on the water then referring to Himself as
I am. When my girlfriend pointed out that Thomas exclaims
My Lord and My God in John 20:28, their suggestion was that he was using it as an expression of shock, taking the Lord's name in vain as many do nowadays — what an absurd defence!
Allah is not worthy of worship
Their portrayal of Allah did not impress me. From very early on in my Christian life, I saw that our doctrine of God is essentially ‘optimal’, by which I mean that any other doctrine would make Him less impressive and less glorious.
Take, for instance, the doctrine of the Trinity. An implication of it is that outside of time, God is not static and navel-gazing, but that He is engaged in an eternal demonstration of love, meaning that God does not just show love to us, but that it is a fundamental part of His nature — as are order and structure. By contrast Allah, outside of time and space, is doing nothing, with no eternal display of love.
Another example is how they described Allah's forgiveness. We explained how God demands nothing short of perfection, and how that leads to the necessity of justification through Christ and sanctification through the Spirit. Their view of Allah's forgiveness essentially boiled down to him just forgiving whomever and however he wants. They stated that he doesn't demand perfection, but that he forgives sins continually and with no repercussions; hence, no need for atonement. What a low view of your deity! God is so perfect that He cannot dwell with any imperfection, but Allah is lax and just puts up with disobedient creatures.
Based on this, we remarked that it appeared that they had a low view of sin. Interestingly, their response was that we Christians have too high a view of sin and too a low view of mercy. How absurd! Firstly, a perfect God has such immense repulsion from sin that we cannot even begin to fathom it. Secondly, a high view of sin necessarily implies a high view of mercy! If Allah doesn't care that much about sin, then his mercy is less wondrous. God detests sin and demands that it be paid for, and yet steps in as a sacrifice in our place. What mercy He shows in that action!
Muslims do not believe in original sin and certainly not in total depravity. When I described man's fallen state and utter unworthiness in the presence of God's holiness and perfection, and our complete inability to contribute to salvation, they had no real response. I hope that in the pause that followed, that statement was taking root.
I could have come up with Islam
One of the things which struck me most about Islam, as they presented it at least, was that it just feels very man-made. Of course, there is the fact that the Quran is not based in historically-verifiable facts and eye-witness testimony, but rather on secret revelation to one man. I won't go down that apologetical path here.
What I am referring to by it being ‘man-made’ is that in terms of doctrines, scriptures and practices, it is like a religion I could have come up with if I wanted a following and had a surface-level understanding of the Old Testament.
Their doctrines of forgiveness and of unitarianism are very simple and straightforward. Allah forgives because he's merciful. The Old Testament says there's one God, so there's one God. And that's it — I could have come up with that quite easily. This isn't to say that there isn't one God, or that God doesn't forgive because He's merciful: my point is that Muhammad appears to have taken the easiest reading of the Old Testament and based a religion off it, missing out on the deeper attributes of God which require more careful study of the Scriptures. Would you have come up with the Trinity if you were developing a religion based on some texts which state that there is one God? Probably not: you'd instinctively jump to one essence, one person, not three persons. Yet a deeper reading of the Old Testament reveals that God is not one person, and the New Testament expounds on that in a consistent manner.
While Christianity is simple on the surface, and that simple understanding is sufficient for faith, the waters are infinitely deep, complex and beautiful. However, Islam is not simple, but simplistic, and this leads to Allah being unimpressive. Its religious rituals and dogmas may give it an air of wisdom and complexity (Colossians 2:20-23), but like every other man-made religion, its deity is imperfect, unimpressive and simplistic.
With regards to the artificial nature of the Quran, they were very keen to show us one of its chapters, which contained what was essentially a bullet-point list of what to believe about Allah. How convenient! Of course, this is not proof that it is man-made, but it is certainly something I would consider including in my false religion in order to gain followers.
Their practices betray an artificial nature too. Any false religion naturally gravitates to some form of works-based system — it makes sense to us and it's an easy doctrine to explain and understand. My girlfriend told them she'd heard that Muslims didn't have personal relationships with Allah, to which they stated that they certainly do, and to prove this they told us how they diligently perform the five pillars of Islam. How revealing! Why would a perfect deity care about specific rituals, by people, as the only way to be relational to him? God cares not about our external presentation of obedience, but about our hearts; is that not what you expect from He who is just, righteous and holy? God doesn't care if we don't ritually wash our hands in the right way; what a trifling matter.
To summarise, Christianity appears simple, but has inredible depth and complexity for those who probe further, whereas Islam appears complex, wise and deep but is in fact rather shallow, and exhibits many characteristics which we ourselves would probably introduce into a religion.
Their debating style
Throughout the conversation, it became clear that their approach was largely one of trying to catch us out, and they were fairly well trained in pointing out difficulties in Scripture. However, they didn't seem particularly capable of responding to our explanations, seemingly not expecting us to push back. When I asked them why the disciples would die for something they knew to be false, I received no response but rather brief pause followed by a change of topic. Even in responding to their alleged contradictions, they appeared to almost stick to a script, not taking on board any of my explanations of the non-contradictory nature of the verse they presented us with — I'm not convinced they even heard what I said!
For this reason, I think it was very valuable to not resort to defensive apologetics the whole time, but to guide the conversation towards active statements of our faith. In doing so, we could present the Gospel to them and force them to engage with it, rather than letting them plough on with their patter.
When we brought the Gospel to them, their responses were far less articulate and well-structured than their apologetical attacks. The only doctrine that they were able to offer any real resistance to was the Trinity, quoting Matthew 24:36,
But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only and asking us, if Jesus is God and hence omniscient, why does He not know? It is a good question, but as I explained the hypostatic union and Jesus' role in the Trinity, their only response was to attempt some mind games, saying things like
ooh, it's a difficult one and
you're doing your best. This was annoying, but it's important not to get frustrated — remember to be salt and light. This behaviour, coupled with their lack of any response to my explanation, betrayed how they expected these encounters to go: they'd quote some contradictions, then say Jesus never claimed to be God, then jump on a confused Christian with the ‘certainty’ of the Quran.
I can back this up further: the only doctrine they were able to discuss with any knowledge was the Trinity. As mentioned before, our presentation of the crucifixion was met with the argument that it wasn't fair because they wouldn't do that to their sons. Any further explanation on our part was met with the same retort; they seemed incapable of properly pushing back and instead instinctively clung to the one argument they had.
In all this, I don't wish to suggest that they were rude or coarse. They were generally pleasant to talk to, other than the attempted mind games, and even offered us some food at one point. I merely wish to point out that they were not at all prepared for Christians to actually push back, and so when it did happen, they were much less capable of presenting an argument.
So, Christian, bear this advice in mind if you find yourself in a similar situation. From my experience, and the experience of friends, they will attempt to present you with alleged contradictions to sow doubt. Do not sit on the defensive, refuting supposed contradiction after supposed contradiction. You will get nowhere and they will not hear the Gospel.
It is up to you to tell them the Good News — and make it clear that it is Good News! Don't just defend it with Scripture, also explain why it's so great: remember that they probably aren't actually familiar with the Gospel, even if they appear to know some Bible verses. Explain how we have assurance of salvation, how marvellous the crucifixion and resurrection are, and how holy and perfect the triune God is.
They will probably attack the doctrine of the Trinity. Again, it is worth being able to defend it from Scripture, particularly from the Old Testament, which they seem to respect more than Paul's letters. But in addition, make sure you can demonstrate its importance and beauty. Illustrate how the doctrine underpins justification and sanctification, and how it shows us that God is love.
On the topic of their view of Paul, it is of course true that all God's words have power, so do not shy away from the epistles nor the New Testament in general. However, be cautioned that if they know you are quoting Paul, you will probably end up having to defend Paul. It is probably more fruitful to be able to expound from the Old Testament, and then to quote Paul to summarise what you've explained. For instance, to explain why sins must be paid for in blood, demonstrate the principle laid out by the Levitical law, and then to explain why Jesus had to die, speak in terms of the Passover. This seemed to be quite effective, but when I quoted Paul, they jumped on that.
Their debating style didn't impress me and was frustrating at times. Do not be like that: we are to be salt and light. Speak with love, you're there to plant the seeds of faith, not win debating points. Furthermore, do not be intimidated if they seem to be very knowledgable about Scripture or apologetics: chances are, they just know about a few specific topics — and they certainly don't know the Gospel. Speak clearly, avoid jargon (or explain it), and don't let them keep changing the topic: press your points and questions home.
A cheeky one: if you have time, keep them occupied so they're not leading others astray! We had all three of them occupied at one point.
Pray afterwards! We prayed for God to open their hearts, that the seed we sowed would land in fertile soil, and we implored Him to keep others from being led astray by them. If you're in a pair or group, while one is speaking, the others can be praying. I also prayed a great deal about my faith afterwards: God used this encounter to strengthen it, and it led me to examining other religions more. What I learned only strengthened it further — the deep simplicity and beauty of Christianity compared to the very obviously artifical false religions has become much more apparent to me, and my awe at God has only increased, having considered Him side-by-side with Allah and other idols. Give glory and praise to the One True Living God!