Who was ruling the universe when Jesus died?

Posted by on 08/30/2016 in: ,

The following excerpt is taken from the newly released book
No God but One:  Allah or Jesus? By Nabeel Qureshi

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In the summer of 2012, I spent eight weeks in Oakland, California, studying Arabic through Middlebury College. I had just graduated from Duke University, where I had focused on the Gospels and the Quran for my master’s degree. Even though my mother had taught me in my childhood how to recite Arabic, I could not use the language to communicate, so I knew that greater familiarity with Arabic would go a long way in my future graduate studies. I entered Middlebury just beyond the introductory level, which meant I would be prohibited from communicating in any language other than Arabic for the entire eight weeks. The program was so serious about this rule that we had to sign a contract the day we arrived. No English whatsoever, at any point, for two whole months. Not even during the evenings and weekends!

Until that time, I had not realized just how important language is for relieving stress. No jokes, no storytelling, very little fellowship—just a lot of hand gestures and listening to upperclassmen jabber away. It was a very trying time, but it forced us to quickly learn how to get by. Within a month, we were able to communicate with one another in what I am sure was horribly poor Arabic.

Thankfully, I had a friend near Oakland who was also a student of Arabic, and she regularly reached out to immigrants in the area. She asked me if I would be willing to meet a Muslim friend of hers from Saudi, and I gladly agreed. Anything to spend time with a friend and get away from the campus! That afternoon, I met a lively young student named Sahar. She told me about life as a woman in Saudi, including that the government required her to get her younger brother’s permission so that she could study in America. When I asked what would have happened if he had refused, she replied, “He knows better than to say no to me!”

Soon the conversation turned to religious matters. Sahar indicated that she was resolutely Muslim and was not considering conversion, but she had questions about what Christians believed. After asking many questions, she at last asked me one that seemed to have been the most problematic for her. “How can you believe Jesus is God if he was born through the birth canal of a woman and that he had to use the bathroom? Aren’t these things below God?”

This question is a very common one, but we should now be able to see why Muslims ask it: Allah does not enter into this world in Islam, whereas Yahweh has repeatedly done so. Allah remains behind a veil and sends messengers, whereas Yahweh is intimate and walks among us. When we remember that Yahweh is different from Allah, and that Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, the answers to many similar questions become readily apparent.

How Can God Die, And Who Was Ruling the Universe When Jesus Died?

These two questions were the first ones I asked David about Jesus’ deity when I was a Muslim, and they are the most common ones that Muslims ask me now. Since Islam does not have a concept of divine incarnation, these are understandable questions. Truly, they are ques- tions that Christians should ask themselves at some point, but they are not difficult to answer when we keep in mind what we have learned in this chapter.

 When someone asks me, “How can God die?” I ask for clarification, because the question can be asked from multiple angles. Almost always the questioner says something along the lines of, “God is immortal, so he cannot die.” To that, I respond with a question in turn. “I see what you mean, but let me ask you a question: When humans die, do our souls stop existing?” Of course, Muslims respond, “No, our souls do not die,” to which I respond, “So even when we die as humans, it is the body that dies. It is not that we stop existing altogether. So it was with Jesus: He was killed with respect to his earthly body, but God did not stop existing.”

Sometimes, though, by asking, “How can God die?” Muslims are essentially asking, “Who was ruling the universe?” There are many possible responses to this question, but the one I prefer is the simple one: the Father. This is why, if Muslims wish to engage in these kinds of questions, it is essential that Christians adequately explain the Trinity to them. The Father is not the Son, and the Father did not die on the cross.

IT IS UNJUST FOR GOD TO PUNISH JESUS FOR THE SINS OF MAN

This leads to another kind of question, one which even well-informed Muslims will ask. During the closing statements of my 2015 debate, Dr. Shabir Ally used the most caustic terms I have ever heard to challenge the gospel. He said that if the Father sent the Son to die for the sins of the world, then this was “cosmic child abuse.” What kind of a Father is God if he punishes his son for the sins of others?

By this point, we should be able to readily see the problem with this assessment: Christians do not believe that God is punishing a random victim. Jesus is God. The Judge is himself voluntarily paying on behalf of the criminal. Against Dr. Ally’s caricature, a more apropos illustration is shared by Brennan Manning in his book Ragamuffin Gospel.1 In 1935, Fiorello LaGuardia, the mayor of New York, presided over a court case in which an old woman had been caught stealing bread to feed her grandchildren. Although LaGuardia wanted to offer her mercy, the shopkeeper demanded justice. LaGuardia judged her guilty and imposed a fine of ten dollars, but in the same moment he took ten dollars from his own wallet and paid the fine on her behalf. Acknowledging the woman’s guilt, the judge himself paid the penalty and let her go free. This is a beautiful illustration of mercy and justice, but if we tweak one minor detail it will accord better with the gospel: if LaGuardia had not just been the judge but also the shopkeeper from whom the woman stole. When we sin, we sin against God. He has to judge us guilty, but then he pays for what we have done. It all makes sense when we remember the Christian view of Jesus: He is God.

NO ONE HAS SEEN GOD

Many Muslims have asked me how Jesus could be God if the Bible says “no one has ever seen God” (1 John 4:12). It makes sense that Muslims would ask this question, interpreting John’s epistle in light of tawhid, a monadic view of God. But John the disciple, the man through whom God authored this Bible verse, is also the author of the Gospel of John, and he interprets it for us in John 1:18: “No one has ever seen God; the only begotten God, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known” (my trans.). In other words, when the Bible says “no one has ever seen God,” it is referring to God the Father. Jesus, who is God and at the Father’s side, has made him known. That is why Jesus is able to say to his disciple Philip, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Seeing Jesus is seeing God, tantamount to seeing the Father. So although no one has seen God the Father, people have seen God the Son. This means that every time someone in the Bible saw God, they were seeing the second person of the Trinity, Jesus. When we remember that Jesus is the second person of the triune God, this otherwise problematic verse is easy to understand.

 

THE MAJESTY OF A KING

Sahar’s question to me that summer afternoon in Oakland intuitively captured a sentiment that I think many Christians can learn from: God is King of the universe, unimaginably holy, and it is far beneath his majesty for him to be born on this filthy earth. So I affirmed her question, but then asked her one in turn. “Sahar, let’s imagine that you are on your way to a very important ceremony and are dressed in your finest clothes. You are about to arrive just on time, but then you see your daughter drowning in a pool of mud. What would you do? Let her drown and arrive looking dignified, or rescue her but arrive at the ceremony covered in mud?”

Her response was very matter of fact, “Of course, I would jump in the mud and save her.”

Nuancing the question more, I asked her, “Let’s say there were others with you. Would you send someone else to save her, or would you save her yourself?”

Considering this, Sahar responded, “If she is my daughter, how could I send anyone else? They would not care for her like I do. I would go myself, definitely.”

I paused for a short moment before continuing, “If you, being a human, love your daughter so much that you are willing to lay aside your dignity to save her, how much more can we expect God, if he is our perfectly loving Father, to lay aside his majesty to save us?” She considered this for a moment, and the conversation moved on. As the dinner ended, my friend returned me to my immersion Arabic program, where the idea of drowning was perhaps a bit too real for me.

During my last week in Oakland, as the program was coming to a fruitful and merciful end, I received another text message from my friend inviting me out to dinner, this time to meet a new Christian from a Muslim background. When I arrived, I was met by a beaming Sahar! The message of God’s selfless love had overpowered her, and she could no longer remain Muslim. A few days after our dinner, she had accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior. Now it was time to rejoice with her, share stories about our amazing God, and point the way forward for her discipleship.

Taken from Chapter 11 of  No God but One:  Allah or Jesus? A Former Muslim Investigates the Evidence for Islam & Christianity by Nabeel Qureshi
Copyright © 2016 by Zondervan. Used by permission of Zondervan.

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