Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 8, Number 4, January 22 to January 28, 2006

Ben and Yousef

An Apologetic Dialogue

By David Rogers

Ben: Ah, hello my friend. I see you have returned. How was your journey?

Yousef: The Hajj was a truly extraordinary experience. As thousands upon thousands of us circled the Ka'bah in the Mosque of Masjid Al-Haram, I felt closer to God then ever before in my life. My faith has been strengthened and I pray that God will teach me to keep his Law. There is so much history there in Mecca and in Medina. To climb the same mountains as Abraham, to stand where he offered his son Ishmael...

Ben: You mean Isaac?

Yousef: The corrupted Torah mistakenly records Isaac as being the one whom Abraham offered to God. We know from the Holy Koran that it was in fact his first born son Ishmael whom Abraham offered.

Ben: Well, I suppose that is a discussion all of its own, but tell me more of the sacrifice. What is it that you believe as a Muslim regarding that fateful night?

Yousef: It was one of the most significant moments in all of history! It is the reason why we commemorate it as a central part of the Hajj. Abraham loved his son more than anything in the world. And so God, to test Abraham's faith and devotion to him, commanded him to sacrifice his son there on the mountain. But just as Abraham was about to slay his son, an angel stopped him, and God provided a ram for the sacrifice instead.

Ben: That's fascinating Yousef, because as I Christian, I also recognize that moment as being very significant for human history.

Yousef: How so?

Ben: Well, we would both consider Abraham to be a great prophet; and this moment has prophetic significance. When God spared Abraham's son and substituted a different sacrifice, he was showing us what he intended to do also with the descendants of Abraham. Instead of allowing them to die, God would provide another sacrifice.

Yousef: What sacrifice? What do you mean?

Ben: I mean that just as God provided a substitute for Isaac (or Ishmael if you prefer), he also provided a substitute for all of Abraham's descendants. It is the covenant that God made. And the substitute that God provided was his own Son Jesus or "Isa," as you call him.

Yousef: Friend, I respect your beliefs. But I'm afraid that I must take issue with many things that you have said. First, Isa is not the Son of God, for God is one and has no children. It is blasphemous to say such a thing. Second, Isa was not crucified and did not die, but was taken up to heaven. And finally, even if Isa died as you say, what has that to do with me? Each of us must obey the Law of God and live righteously if we want to enter heaven. For Isa to die or not to die has nothing to do with my obedience.

Ben: Let me see if I can answer some of your objections, from my perspective as a Christian. Perhaps we may be able to come to an understanding. Your first issue is one that is very difficult to resolve, and one in which there has been much debate between Muslims and Christians. Let me begin by saying that we are monotheists, just as you are. We believe in one God only; not three as it is sometimes reported.

Yousef: Sorry to interrupt you there, but that simply isn't true. The Prophet, peace be upon him, has written that Christians believe in three Gods, and your belief of Trinitarianism confirms this. Christianity is a form of polytheism.

Ben: Please let me explain why that isn't the case. It is true that I am a Trinitarian. But that doesn't mean that I believe in three Gods. I believe in one God, with three persons.

Yousef: You are playing word games.

Ben: Consider this: How great a being is the one true God?

Yousef: He is the greatest being in existence. Next to him all else is as nothing.

Ben: Including you and I?

Yousef: Absolutely, we are nothing before the one holy and true God.

Ben: Then what makes you so confident that you who are nothing can know the nature of the very being of God? Why should God himself be simple and understandable to mere creatures like you and me? Is it not far more reasonable to conclude that the nature of God is so far above and beyond us, so cloaked in mystery and majesty, that foolish beings like ourselves can only understand in pieces and with analogies?

Yousef: Yes, it is true that God is difficult for us to understand, and that we understand him by analogies. But we use those that he has revealed to us in his Word. And his word tells us that there is only one God.

Ben: Yousef, since God is a person infinite in wisdom, power and majesty, with whom can God converse with as an equal?

Yousef: No one but himself, I suppose.

Ben: Then why would it be unreasonable to conclude there exist within God different persons who share fellowship with one another? Wouldn't that actually be a necessity for him since he is a person?

Yousef: I don't believe that God has necessities; he simply is. And also it seems to me that you are taking human needs and experiences and trying to force them on to God.

Ben: It is true that God needs nothing from us. But I think it may be wrong to conclude that he needs nothing from himself. Also, let's try and look at this another way. You say that I am forcing human relationships upon God, but who is it that created human relationships? You say that God has no Son, we only think this because we have sons. But what if we have sons because God also has a Son?

Yousef: How do you mean? It would be blasphemous to say that God has children as we do.

Ben: What I mean is this: Since God is beyond our understanding, he has created us with relationships that help us to understand him. He created the relationships between human fathers and sons to help us understand the relationship between God and his Son. As with any analogy there are parts that apply, and parts that do not. It's not a perfect picture, but since we are incapable of understanding perfectly, we would not be able to understand a perfect picture. What he has provided is good enough for us, and appropriate to our understanding.

Yousef: But what does this have to do with the sacrifice of Ishmael?

Ben: God gave Abraham a son, whom he dearly loved. Then God brought him to a place where he asked Abraham to take his son and offer him as a sacrifice. It broke Abraham's heart, but such was his love for God that he was willing to do so. But God did not require him to take that final step; he provided the sacrifice. All of this is a picture for us, human beings, to be able to understand what it was that God did to forgive our sin! The sacrifice must still be made for Abraham's descendants, but God does not require it of them. He provides it himself, and it is his Son.

Yousef: It seems like you're reading a lot into that one event, when there may well be another interpretation. What you must also remember is that the Holy Koran says that Isa did not die on the cross. He was taken up to heaven, and there was another who died in his place.

Ben: You are right, and if Abraham's sacrifice were all that I had to base this interpretation on, it might be a bit thin. But that event was only one in a whole series of events all pointing to the death of Christ. Now, I understand your objection from the Koran, and I'll address it in just a moment. But first let me present you with some more links of the chain between Christ and Abraham.

Yousef: By all means…

Ben: The descendants of Abraham through Isaac were soon to become slaves in Egypt. When God led them out, he commanded another sacrifice: the Passover lamb. This sacrifice is an even clearer picture of Christ than was Abraham's. God had promised to send judgment on Egypt, and the judgment was very significant: he would kill their firstborn sons! The only way that they could be spared was to offer the Passover lamb as a sacrifice, and mark their doorposts with the blood. The lamb was to be perfect and spotless. In the very same way that God provided a substitute for Abraham's son, he provided a substitute for all the firstborn sons in Israel. This sacrifice continued year after year as a symbol for the Jewish people until Christ came, who was offered as the final sacrifice! Don't you see? He came to Jerusalem, and there at the Passover the high priest offered him up to the Romans to be crucified. He was the sacrifice of which all the others were merely shadows.

Yousef: I see that there is a connection in the Christian tradition between all of these things, but what does any of this have to do with you and me, practically speaking? How does the death of Isa, which as I have told you the Holy Koran denies, help me to be more righteous?

Ben: Yousef, let me explain a few things with respect to the Koranic interpretation of Christ. According to the Koran, ‘Isa was the Messiah. He was supported by the "Holy Spirit" (Al-Baqarah 2:87; Al-Ma'idah 5:110). He is also referred to as the "Word of Allah" (An-Nisa' 4:171). Now, even within Christianity, debates have raged for millennia over the meaning of these very same ideas. Let me explain some of the conclusions, and perhaps these will be of use to you. We believe that Jesus was a unique being, in that he was both a man and God at the same time. I know this sounds blasphemous to you, but we believe that the two natures were distinct from one another. By that, I mean the divine nature did not become mixed with the human nature. We freely admit that this is perhaps the greatest mystery of the Christian faith, and we humbly submit to you that we do not have the means by which to understand it, apart from what we are told in our Scriptures. The Koran says that Christ did not die, and that another was substituted in His place. We believe that Christ in his divine nature did not die, for we know that God can not die. But we do believe that his human nature and body died upon that cross so that he could fulfill the role of the Messiah, as even the Koran proclaims him to be.

Yousef: An investigation into the natures of Isa may shed some light on this source of contention between Islam and Christianity, but an issue that we have yet to resolve is that of salvation. The west has become so wicked and corrupt because they believe that they do not have to follow the Law of God. And it seems that you are saying the very same thing to me. If Isa is our messiah, we do not need to obey. Instead, he obeys while you Christians are free to live however you please. As a Muslim, I must be faithful in life and practice, to be acceptable to him.

Ben: But my dear friend, have you been faithful? When you stand before God, and he is on his throne of judgment, will he have no grounds to accuse you?

Yousef: Allah is merciful. I can only hope for his mercy, because it is true that I have often broken his law.

Ben: It is true that God is merciful. But he is also perfectly just. Would it be just to let your sins go unpunished?

Yousef: No. But would it be just to let another be punished for me instead? That also is unjust. Each of us must stand before God on our own, according to our own obedience to him.

Ben: If that is true, then there is no hope for any of us. For who of us is righteous enough to stand before God? But here now we finally see the significance of sacrifice: one man who willingly dies for the sins of another. Yousef, there must be death to atone for sin. And the reason God commanded Abraham to slay his son was that he and all of us would know the price of sin — a price that God himself paid on our behalf. You and I are both in need of that sacrifice, for we cannot stand before God on our own righteousness.

Yousef: If what you say is true, then why are Christians so wicked in their behavior? Does God forgive us so that we can then ignore his holy Law?

Ben: Sadly, I must confess that the Christian world is not living in such a way as to honor God at this time. Jesus says that at the final judgment many will come to him, but he will turn from them, saying, "I never knew you." The mark of a true Christian is a heart-felt obedience to God's Law. If we have been saved by Christ, then our hearts have been turned away from sin and we have a longing to serve God. The question that every Muslim must consider is: Why does God command Abraham to sacrifice his son, and then offer a substitute? Why did Israel offer the Passover lamb to save their sons from death? And why was Jesus given up by the high priest to the Romans for crucifixion? If we are Abraham's children, then where is the ram that God has given for us?