Islam or Christianity: Reflections on God’s Greatness
How is God great? That is Islam’s Grand Central Question. In the years of my life when I followed Islam, two special Arabic words were so important that they almost appeared to take on a physical form when spoken. When the resonant voice of the muezzin said the words in the not-quite-musical, not-quite-atonal call to prayer, the words seemed to hang in the air like smoky vapors in the serpentine Arabic script. “Allahu Akbar,” the muezzin’s voice would call out—“God is great.” As the words left his throat, he would draw them out in a long atonal chant that steadily rose in pitch and ended suddenly, almost as if it were a defiant declaration.
“Allaaaaaah Akbar . . . Allaaaaaaahu Akbar!”
So begins the Islamic call to prayer as the muezzin sits atop the minaret and calls to the faithful. Upon hearing the words, Muslims who take their devotions seriously stop what they are doing, look toward the sound, rise and begin washing themselves for the ritual prayer. To me, the sound of those words was haunting and inspiring. The tone of the muezzin’s voice, coupled with the words’ meaning, beckoned reverence.
Those words—Allahu Akbar—literally mean “God is greater.” So important to Islam is this phrase that it actually has a name—Takbir. Many Westerners have heard these words uttered, especially since September 11, 2001. What was once unheard to Western ears has now become familiar. Perhaps there is no religious verbal expression that creates such opposite reactions. For many non-Muslims, the words have become associated with violence and acts of terrorism, shouted by robed men with long, straggly beards who shoot bullets in the air to proclaim their intentions to dominate the West. They shout “Allahu Akbar” as a means of proclaiming to non-Muslims that Allah is greater than Western imperialist powers and that Islam will subdue them one day. And save for a few exceptions, the media has not worked hard to disabuse us of the association.
It is true that some Muslims use those words as a battle cry. But for many other Muslims, the words have a far different association. They do not inspire dread, fear, rage or violence. For most (but not all) Muslims, the words inspire reverence, awe and humility. Allahu Akbar, “as the briefest expression of the absolute superiority of the One God, is used in Muslim life in different circumstances, in which the idea of God, his greatness and goodness is suggested.” The Takbir “is a part of the call to prayer repeated five times a day, and faithful believers may use it as an exclamation in response to anything out of the ordinary, whether good or ill.”
I can recall those close to me saying “Allahu Akbar” as they walked into someone’s home as a way to ask for a blessing on those who lived there. Many Muslims I know and love use the words to express delight when surprised by a pleasant turn of events. And when told of bad news, perhaps that they or a loved one are facing a grave illness, they say Allahu Akbar as a declaration that God is greater than their daunting circumstances. So to most Muslims, the Takbir, the proclamation that God is greater, is both an expression of praise and a short prayer. Those words express the most elemental beliefs of every Muslim, not just that God is great but that he is greater—he is greater than anything we can conceive. He is the Greatest Possible Being.
Divine Greatness as the Root of Islam
Like Christianity and biblical Judaism, Islam is a monotheistic faith. But to the Muslim mind, the Islamic version of monotheism is what distinguishes it from all other such faiths. In Islam, God is an absolute oneness in his nature and in his personhood. His mind, will and actions have no separation or differentiation. “The Unity of Allah is the distinguishing characteristic of Islam. This is the purest form of monotheism, i.e., worship of Allah Who is neither begotten nor beget nor had any associates with Him in His Godhead. Islam teaches this in the most unequivocal terms.”
Like the Takbir, the doctrine of God’s oneness has a name: Tawhid. God is one and only one, and that oneness is an element of his majesty. As one Muslim scholar puts it: “God is the essence of existence. His Arabic name is Allah. He is the First and the Last. He is unique and nothing resembles Him in any respect. He is One and The One. He is self-sustained, does not need anything but everything needs Him.”
This is a concise summary of the ideas that come directly from the most important chapter of the Qur’an, Sura 112, which says in its entirety: “Say: He is Allah, the One, the Only. The Eternal, the Absolute. He begets not, nor is He begotten. And there is none like unto Him.”
The well-known Muslim commentator Zamakshari tells us that when Muhammad was asked to describe Allah, this sura was revealed to him as the perfect description. The Islamic traditions tell us that Muhammad viewed Sura 112 as worth one-third of the entire Qur’an and that its recitation remits sins.
Sura 112 is so important because it weaves two fundamental Islamic doctrines together. It declares that God is an absolute, un- differentiated unity. And it declares that God, in his unity, is utterly independent of anything; he is self-subsisting and self-sufficient. But Takbir is the foundation for all of this:
The unequaled greatness of Allah becomes the linchpin of all further considerations of his nature. Anything that could conceivably be construed as detracting from his greatness must be considered to be false, or even offensive. The worst sin in Islam is shirk, which is commonly translated as “idolatry,” but literally means “association” and thus implies far more than the common understanding of idolatry, such as worshiping statues of deities. Shirk means to conjoin Allah with any of his creatures, to ascribe a partner to him, or to understand him to possess limitations that are characteristic of his creatures but not of him.
Thus even the fundamental doctrines of Tawhid and God’s self-subsistence have still a deeper root—God’s greatness—which permeates them. In other words, God is one and self-subsistent because God is the Greatest Possible Being.
The conception of God’s greatness is so central to the Islamic way of life that it is a virtuous act for a Muslim to know and recite God’s Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names. These names are meant to approximate in the mind of the believer who God is and what he does. The fact that God has such attributes and is described in those “names” comes from the Qur’an itself:
Allah is He, than Whom There is no other god; Who knows (all things) both secret and open; He, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Allah is He, Whom there is no other god; the Sovereign, the Holy One, the Source of Peace (and Perfection), the Guardian of Faith, the Preserver of Safety, the Exalted in Might, the Irresistible, the Supreme: Glory to Allah! (High is He) above the partners they attribute to Him. He is Allah, the Creator, the Evolver, the Bestower of Form (Or Colours). To Him belong the Most Beautiful Names: whatever is in the heavens and on earth, doth declare his Praises and Glory: And He is the Exalted in Might, the Wise. (Sura 59:22-24)
The Hadith, the Muslim traditions about Muhammad’s life and sayings apart from the Qur’an itself, tell us that Muhammad said, “Verily, there are ninety-nine names of God and whoever recites them shall enter Paradise.” This is how fundamental God’s greatness is to Islam. To recite a list of his great attributes is tantamount to achieving everlasting life in paradise. Indeed, one of those “beautiful names” is that God is great—Al-Kabir (Sura 22:62).
For the devout Muslim, even to say the word for God in Arabic— Allah—requires reverence and ritual. Muslims will follow the word Allah with the subhana wa ta’alah, meaning “God: glory to Him the exalted or High,” which is taken from Sura 17:43 of the Qur’an. The notion of God’s infinite greatness comes through at the very mention of God. For Muslims, God is above everything we can think about him, and Muslims are reminded of that every time they say the Arabic word for God.
God’s greatness forms the way Muslims can (or, more accurately, cannot) relate to him. Islamic classical theology holds that God is so great that it is impossible for the human heart and mind to grasp anything about him beyond the superficial. This makes it impossible to have a relationship with him. Although God is personal in that he is conscious and expresses a will, no one can know his personality to any meaningful degree. We can only catch imperfect glimpses of God’s character through the commands he gives in the Qur’an. In that way, we can know about God. But in no real sense can we know God.
This fact may trouble some Muslims who feel that they have a relationship with God to some degree. But one of Islam’s premier theologians and philosophers, al-Ghazali, tells us that those with the most knowledge of God know that they have no way to really know him at all: “The end result of the knowledge of the arifin [those who have knowledge] is their inability to know Him, and their knowledge is, in truth, that they do not know Him and that it is absolutely impossible for them to know Him.”
There is something in this with which the gospel agrees, of course. In Christianity, God is transcendent and above humanity in infinite ways that make it impossible to ever know him in an exhaustive sense. God’s ways are higher than our ways, the Bible tells us, and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9). So great, so incomprehensible is God that should anyone see God in his full glory, he would die, because the infinite glory is simply too much for the finite mind to grasp (Exodus 33:18-20). Even in the instance in which Moses saw a mitigated glimpse of God’s glory, his face glowed with the aftereffects of having seen something so grand (Exodus 34:29-35).
For Christians, this gives a picture of our existence in heaven, where we will have eternity to learn new things about the infinitely searchable God. That never-ending exploration of the divine fulfills the very purpose of our existence. Yet despite God’s transcendent and unfathomable grandeur, the Bible tells us that God condescends to allow us to know something profound: not just his qualities, but also his personality. Indeed, the very incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth is an expression of that condescension as the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). But there will be more on that later.
In orthodox Islam, however, God does not condescend so that we can encounter him personally. Islamic scholars tell us “it is even difficult to find an appropriate Arabic or Persian expression for ‘experience of God’ without running the risk of encroaching upon the absolute transcendence of the God of Islam, of anthropomorphizing him.”
So great, so wholly other is Allah that language fails us because there is no analogy in human experience to use to understand him. Duncan Black McDonald sums it up well:
This is one of the most fundamental and characteristic points in Muslim theology. No terms applicable to a created being may be applied to him [God], or if they are—as so often in the Qur’an—it must be clearly understood that their meaning as applied to created things is no clue to their meaning when applied to Allah.
This is the idea, again sprouting from the root doctrine of God’s greatness, that God is so different from creation that we cannot make any analogies with which to mentally apprehend God, except for what God says in the Qur’an.
Though in Islam God is a personal being, he is not worshiped and obeyed with any personal interaction. He is more of a will to be followed, a master to serve. In Islam,
law is more central, broadly speaking, than theology, and knowledge of the divine will and our obedience more crucial than knowledge of the divine nature and our experience. Worship, in Islam, even though phrased in the divine Names, is concerned with God’s sovereignty over our wills, rather than his fellowship with our spirits.
This shows itself in the everyday life of Muslims. They pray at specified times of the day (five, to be exact). And they perform those prayers ritualistically, prostrating, kneeling and bowing a certain number of times, placing their hands in certain places when they say certain phrases. Even the content of their words is prescribed with limited room for deviation. Most Muslims recite Sura 112 during their prayers to get the benefits of praising God’s oneness and self-dependence through a sura worth one-third of the whole Qur’an.
There is an interesting fact about Islamic prayer that hearkens back to the Mosaic laws of physical purification and uncleanness. Muslims must cleanse themselves in a specifically prescribed manner before praying and submitting to God. Looking back on it now, having come out of Islam and into the Christian idea of praying “just as I am,” I am struck by the fact that Muslims must clean themselves before they can even prostrate before God. In a way, the humility is admirable. But there is a strange paradox that diminishes the worship experience, is there not? A person is penitent before God and humble in supplication because he recognizes his uncleanness—a state that only God can fix. Yet in Islam, Muslims bear the responsibility of cleaning themselves up to approach the great God, even in a state of abject humility.
In the Old Testament, the faithful had to purify themselves before they could come to God to sacrifice animals to atone for sin. But those purification laws served to foreshadow a time when God himself would provide a lasting sacrifice that would wash sin away. Now the follower of Christ enjoying the grace of the new covenant comes to prayer realizing her sullied state and realizing that God makes her clean spiritually rather than physically. When accused of irreverence for not washing his hands before a meal, Jesus responded that the physical does not defile the spiritual. Rather, it is the other way around (Matthew 15:1-20).
Jesus and the religious authorities of his day clashed quite often. Jesus’ claims to divinity generated the most noise. John the apostle records a particularly noisy incident in which Jesus faces off with the Pharisees in the temple treasury. “I am the light world,” he pro- claimed. “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). It’s an audacious enough statement, claiming to be the “light of the world” who bestows life. The ubiquitous Pharisees pounce on his claim, chiding his testimony as self-serving.
The noise increases as Jesus gets bolder. “Unless you believe that I am he,” Jesus says, “you will die in your sins” (v. 24, emphasis mine). “I am he” is ego eimi in Greek, which literally translates to “I am,” meaning that Jesus identifies himself with the very name that God gave to himself when speaking to Moses in Exodus 3:14. As they begin to see the divine authority Jesus was claiming for himself, they ask him, “Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?” (John 8:53, emphasis mine).
The volume rises even higher with Jesus’ response: “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad” (v. 56). Finally, the Jews see where this is going. “You are not yet fifty years old,” they protest, “and you have seen Abraham?” (v. 57). Jesus responds with a trumpet blast: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (v. 58, emphasis mine).
His accusers are incensed. They pick up stones to kill him for the blasphemy. They understand that Jesus is equating himself with deity—and not just any deity, mind you. He claims to be the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jesus orchestrated the entire discussion at the temple treasury to crescendo to the point where he appropriated the “I AM”—God’s very name in Exodus 3:14—for himself. Indeed, Jesus was claiming to be greater than Abraham. He was claiming to be the incarnation of the Greatest Possible Being.
Muslims deny that Jesus ever claimed to be God. Show me one place in the Bible where Jesus says, “I am God, worship me,” they protest. Those exact words do not exist in the ink of holy writ. But humans don’t get to dictate how Jesus formulates his claim to divinity. That is Jesus’ prerogative. And in John 8:58 he clearly claims to be more than just a god. He claims to be the God.
The common Muslim response is to reject Jesus’ words in John as fabricated corruptions. They argue that the earlier Gospels record little to nothing about Jesus claiming divinity, but as more Gospels were written, the writers put greater and greater claims on Jesus’ lips until he claims to be God in John’s Gospel. A careful reading of the Synoptic Gospels, from Mark to Luke, shows that this is just not the case.
Others have detailed the biblical data demonstrating Jesus’ deity, and so I will not make an exhaustive case here. Let us just consider the Gospel of Mark, the first Gospel written. In chapter two, Jesus claims to have the authority to forgive sins—the authority reserved for God alone (Mark 2:1-12). Later in Mark’s Gospel, he says that he will later return as “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26), making a direct connection between himself and the divine Son of Man of Daniel 7. In the same Gospel (Mark 14:62), Jesus again claims to be that divine Son of Man as well as the One sharing authority with God, referenced in Psalm 110. So in the very first Gospel we see several accounts of Jesus’ claim to divinity. There was no embellishment or exaggeration as the Gospels were written. And, as we have already seen, Muslims simply cannot claim that the Bible was corrupted with tales of Jesus’ divinity if Muslims are still to believe in an all-powerful and trustworthy God.
But what are Muslims to make of the Qur’an’s unequivocal rejection of Christ’s divinity? The Qur’an specifically says in many passages that God has no son and is not incarnate in Christ:
They say: “(Allah) Most Gracious has begotten a son!” Indeed ye have put forth a thing most monstrous! At it the skies are ready to burst, and the earth to split asunder, and the mountains to fall down in utter ruin, That they should invoke a son for (Allah) Most Gracious. For it is not [worthy of] the majesty of (Allah) Most Gracious that He should beget a son.” (Sura 19:88-92)
The Jews call ‘Uzair [Ezra] the son of Allah, and the Christians call Christ the son of Allah. That is a saying from their mouth; (in this) they but imitate what the unbelievers of old used to say. Allah’s curse be on them: how they are deluded away from the Truth! (Sura 9:30)
And should there be any doubt that the Qur’an utterly denies that Jesus is God, we need only look to Sura 5:17: “In blasphemy indeed are those that say that Allah is Christ the son of Mary. Say: ‘Who then hath the least power against Allah, if his will were to destroy Christ the son of Mary, his mother, and all everyone that is on the earth?’”
The meaning is quite plain. According to the Qur’an, belief in the incarnation is “a thing most monstrous.” And why? The context tells us. It is simply not worthy of God’s majesty to have an incarnate son. But we must be careful here. Muslims revere Jesus not just as a prophet, but as a great prophet, a sinless, virgin-born person who performed great miracles. Yet he is not so great as to be God. And to think of God as incarnate, for Muslims, would be to impermissibly sully God’s greatness. Kenneth Cragg notes that in the Muslim world, “there runs a great tenderness for Jesus, yet a sharp disassociation from his Christian dimensions. Islam registers a profound attraction [to Jesus] but condemns its Christian interpretation. Jesus is the theme at once of acknowledgement and disavowal. Islam finds his nativity miraculous but his Incarnation impossible.”
But is it impossible? What is so impossible about it? Is it logically impossible? Does the impossibility stem from a fear that the incarnation lessens God’s grandeur and sovereignty? If we properly understand what it means for God to be incarnate in Christ, barriers of logic fall away. And when we see the beauty and power of the incarnation, we can see that there is every reason to believe it as the expression of God’s profound greatness.
Intuiting the Incarnation
As with the Trinity, objections to the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth are based mainly on misconceptions. Again, under- standing what the incarnation is not will help us to understand what it is. We should accept or reject the notion of God’s incarnation based on the real thing, not a caricature or façade.
The classical understanding of the incarnation is that the second Person of the Trinity—God the Son—took on a human nature, and together those two natures were shared by one person, Jesus of Nazareth. It is critical that we come to terms with this, especially in light of what we’ve already seen: that nature is different from personhood. Belief in the incarnation is not belief that Jesus has only a divine nature, nor that he has only a human nature. Moreover, it is not the belief that Jesus is half-man and half-god, akin to mythological characters like Hercules. The incarnation is Jesus full humanity and full deity.
We must pause here, however, to make sure we understand this formulation, because it is easily given to misunderstanding. What it means to say that Jesus is fully human and fully God is that Jesus has 100 percent of the qualities of what it takes to be human and 100 percent of the qualities necessary to be God.
But, one might object, isn’t this still a contradiction? Isn’t it the case that being fully divine is to be infinite in knowledge, power and existence and to be fully human is to be finite in knowledge, power and existence? The answer, logically, is no, and theologian Thomas V. Morris helps us here. In The Logic of God Incarnate, Morris explains the difference between something’s essential properties and its nonessential, or common, properties. An essential property is, well, essential to what a particular being is. If an essential property is taken away, then that being is something else. Roundness is essential to being a ball, for example. Without roundness, something cannot be a ball; it is something else.
Omniscience, omnipotence and necessary existence are essential to being God. If we take any of these properties away, then we are not talking about God, but something else. But this does not mean that a lack of these properties is essential to humanness. To be sure, on a logical level, it is common for humans to lack omniscience, omnipotence and the like. But just because it is common for humans to lack these properties does not mean that it is essential that humans lack them. It is common for humans to have hair, but, as Morris puts it, “one can certainly be fully human, exemplify human nature while lacking this adornment.”
This helps us understand the distinction between Jesus’ human nature and our humanness. Jesus is fully human while we are merely human. One is fully human if one has all the properties essential to being human. But “an individual is merely human [if he or she] has all the properties for being fully human (the component properties of human nature) and also some limitation properties.” Every human that we encounter is merely human—he or she has everything necessary to be human, plus he or she has the common human property of being limited in power, knowledge and existence.
But Jesus is not like every mere human we meet. He is fully human, but he doesn’t have the common properties of limited existence, limited power or limited knowledge, and so he is not merely human. He has 100 percent of the properties necessary to be human. And without the nonessential limitations, he has 100 percent of the qualities necessary to be God, like an eternal existence, omniscience, omnipotence and the like. So there is nothing inherently contradictory in the idea of the incarnation, and, be- cause there are no limitations in the incarnation, there is nothing in the idea of the incarnation that would limit God’s greatness. If it is true that God incarnated himself in Jesus, God remains great, so Muslims need not fear going against their reverence for God.
But what of Jesus’ apparent limitations throughout the Gospels? He gets tired, he hungers, he thirsts, he bleeds, he even dies. Are those not limitations showing that Jesus is merely human and that even if the incarnation is possible, it is not actual? Again, the answer is no, when we take into account two things. First, Jesus was physically human, with a human body. Absent intervention from his divine nature, his body would naturally get fatigued, experience hunger and die. But the divine nature persists and does not experience hunger or any lack.
Second, the Bible explains that when God the Son incarnated himself, he willingly “emptied Himself” to take on the form of a human servant (Philippians 2:5-11 NASB). He did not divest himself of divine attributes, because then he would not be able to display the divine power and authority we see in the Gospels—that is, God cannot stop being God. Rather, as Douglas Groothuis points out, he “temporarily suspended the employment of some of his divine attributes, but without ontologically losing these attributes.”
When my nine-year-old son and I wrestle, I suspend the full use of my strength, but I don’t divest myself of it. And so when Jesus exhibits seeming limitations, it can easily be no more than the mere suppression of his power and knowledge. Is this difficult to under- stand comprehensively? Certainly. But is it impossible to understand meaningfully? Certainly not.
The point to see here is that Muslims need not fear that the incarnation detracts from God’s utter majesty. But may I suggest something more? If we claim that it is impossible for God to become incarnate in a human being, does that not place an unwarranted limitation on God? If we shackle him because of what we don’t fully comprehend, then perhaps we don’t have such a high view of his greatness after all. Far be it from us to shackle God’s power with the limitations of our full understanding. Every devout Muslim would (correctly) deny that God is limited to our ability to fully comprehend him. And so the next question to ask is this: if the incarnation does not limit God’s greatness, does it demonstrate that greatness? Indeed it does.
The Greatest Possible Revelation of the Greatest Possible Being
God has chosen to reveal himself to humanity at least to some degree. On this both Muslims and Christians can agree. But it is the degree to which God has revealed himself that is at issue. In Islam, God reveals himself in only a mitigated way. He reveals his will but only a glimpse of his personality. And even his will is revealed through mediators. Orthodox Islam teaches that God sent his message to the prophets of old through angels—specifically the archangel Gabriel. The messages—the revealed texts of the Torah, the Psalms, the Gospel and the Qur’an—were given to humans through an angel because God would not condescend to deliver the message directly. Such a thing would detract from his majesty. Al-Faruqi makes it quite clear how limited God’s revelation is in Islam:
He does not reveal Himself to anyone in any way. God reveals only his will. Remember one of the prophets asked God to reveal Himself and God told him, “No, it is not possible for Me to reveal myself to anyone.” . . . This is God’s will and that is all we have, and we have it in perfection in the Qur’an. But Islam does not equate the Qur’an with the nature or essence of God. It is the Word of God, the Commandment of God, the Will of God. But God does not reveal Himself to anyone. Christians talk about the revelation of God Himself—by God of God—but that is a great difference between Christianity and Islam.
Indeed, that is a great difference. The Bible tells us that God did not hold back from us the intimacy that comes with true self-disclosure. The author of Hebrews unfolds the story of God’s revelation, from written code to the very revealed Word of God incarnate. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Hebrews 1:1-2). These words illumine the precious New Testament theme that God’s very Word was always meant to be revealed intimately.
John’s Gospel opens by telling us that in the beginning “was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” and that Word—God himself—became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth (John 1:1, 14). And Hebrews tells us that the Son through whom God speaks to us is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3). How sweet is the intimacy of such a revelation? God has spoken to us not just of his will and not even just of his Son. No, God has spoken to us by his beloved Son, the very Son who is the radiance and glory of God. Majesty and tenderness, glory and warmth, all converge in the incarnate Word.
Think for a moment about how we disclose ourselves to those we care about. If someone is to understand us in the greatest possible way, do we just send that person letters, text messages or emails? Do phone calls suffice as the best possible revelation of another person? Not even a book, as long and as revealing as it might be of an author’s thoughts, qualifies as a true self-disclosure. Can a relationship be anything but superficial if it subsists on nothing more than partial disclosures and mitigated communiqués?
Personal, direct interaction is the greatest way—arguably the only way—to reveal one’s character and personality to another. Islam knows no such revelation; it has only words, brought to it by messengers other than God, concerning God’s will. And while the gospel is given to us in the revealed text of the Bible, there is something intimately revealed as well. The Bible is the written revelation about the personal revelation. It is the revealed Word of God about God the Word.
Caution is in order here. I dare not say that God fully reveals himself to humanity. Our finite capacities (as mere humans) make a full understanding of God impossible, and Scripture makes the case as well (Moses could not see God’s glory and live, says Exodus 33:20). But must God be chained by our limitations, narrowing his revelation to only his commands in a written text, but not more? Shouldn’t it be the case that the Greatest Possible Being can find a way to make an intimate disclosure of himself to those he loves to the greatest extent possible? The incarnation, as described in the Bible and as each of us can personally experience, provides that way.
The gospel is an interlaced revelation. Throughout the written Word, we see God engaging human history through prophets, laws, angels and even directly. In the very beginning, he walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day (Genesis 3:8). He later visited with Abraham at the oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18:1-21). God manifested himself in the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud that ac companied the Hebrews out of Egypt. And he wrestled with Jacob, giving him a redeemed identity (Genesis 32:24-30). God manifested himself to cut the original covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15:1-19). And God the Son, incarnate in Jesus, sat at a dinner table with his disciples and told them of the new covenant in his blood and body (Luke 22:14-20).
The interlacing revelation of the written Word and the incarnate Word shows us how God fought for us on battlefields, delivered laws from atop mountains and ate among us in a quiet room. We can know God in the beauty of a life lived in a person, Jesus of Nazareth—someone each one of us can relate to. The fact that God devised a way to make that kind of disclosure, despite our limitations, testifies to his great ingenuity and great affection.
The Crux of Greatness
This new covenant is quite the stumbling block for Muslims. If Jesus is the incarnation of God, how can God die on the cross? And some Muslims would protest that regardless of the possibility of the incarnation, Jesus’ death by humiliating crucifixion is unthinkable, because it is not befitting God’s majesty. Hammudah Abdalati protests, “Is it consistent with God’s Mercy and Wisdom [for us] to believe that Jesus was humiliated and murdered the way he is said to have been?”
There are rather easy responses to both objections. In the Christian view, Jesus did not die as God or in his divine nature. That nature transcends his physical body and did not cease to exist just because Jesus’ brain activity may have stopped for a time. Rather, Jesus physically died as a man. The physical death would not necessarily result in the death of the transcendent any more than the sudden loss of every Qur’an in the world would mean that the message itself would somehow cease to exist. More happened on the cross, to be sure, and we will address that shortly. Suffice it to say for now that God did not die, because, as a necessary being, he cannot die.
The second objection—that God would not allow one of his prophets to be killed—has always puzzled me, even when I was a Muslim. The Qur’an specifically acknowledges the fact that unbelieving Jews killed the prophets of old (for example, Sura 3:183). So, what makes Jesus’ death at the hands of his enemies any more impossible?
These theological objections stem from the Qur’an’s historical objection. The Qur’an denies, as a matter of history, that Jesus died by crucifixion:
That they said (in boast), “We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah,”—but they killed him not, or crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not: - Nay, [sic] Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise. (Sura 4:147-148)
According to the Qur’an, Jesus was neither crucified nor killed. But there must have been a cross, and there must have been someone on that cross, for it to be “made to appear to them.” Muslim traditions about what actually did happen are quite varied. Wahab Bin Munabih first posited in the eighth century that an unnamed individual or a “simulacrum” was substituted for Jesus on the cross. Since then, Muslims have advanced other candidates for Jesus’ substitute, who were made to look like Jesus, from Simon of Cyrene to Judas Iscariot to a willing young follower who wanted to save Jesus the pain of death.
There are, of course, various problems that arise, especially for Muslims who cling to God’s greatness. Historical problems are the most obvious. Based on the corpus of historical data, both Christian and non-Christian scholars agree that it was Jesus on that cross, crucified under Pontius Pilate. Even John Dominic Crossan, a liberal scholar and theologian of the Jesus Seminar, concedes this fact. “That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.” To deny the crucifixion, one has to rely on theological bias and discard historical evidence.
But there is something more fundamentally troubling, isn’t there? The Qur’an acknowledges that there was a cross, it seems to acknowledge that someone died there, and it even acknowledges that it was “made” to appear to others that it was Jesus. Strongly implied, of course, is that God made it seem like it was Jesus. Who else could have done so? But in light of the fact that every one of Jesus’ disciples believed the crucified man to be the very one to whom they devoted three years of their lives, how could it be that God fooled not only Jesus’ enemies but also his closest followers—those the Qur’an calls “inspired” and victorious to the day of resurrection? (See Suras 3:55; 5:111; 61:14.)
Given that the very basis of Christianity is Jesus’ death on the cross—as the means of payment for sin—and his resurrection (which necessarily would follow his death), it follows that God would be responsible for starting the largest false religion in history. The disciples, after all, wrote and preached and gave their lives for the message that every person must believe in Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice and resurrection to be saved. Billions have died believing that message. But if it is false, then it is monstrously false.
I can think of no Muslim who would agree that a truly great God would be the author of such a malicious deception. That would turn Abdalati’s own words on their head: Is it consistent with God’s mercy and wisdom to believe that God lied to everyone about one of the most theologically important facts in history? Exactly how is God great in such a case? Allow me to sustain the fact that the crucifixion and resurrection did happen to Jesus, the incarnation of the second Person of the Trinity, not in derogation of his greatness, but in a display of it.
Two of God’s Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names in Islam are Al-Adl, “The Just,” and Ar-Raheem, “The Merciful.” As such, these attributes are fundamental to who God is. Thus, it follows that God, as the maximally perfect being, would be maximally just and maximally merciful. And because God is immutable, there can be no com- promise in either his maximal justice or his maximal mercy. If there were, he would cease to be maximally perfect and thus he would cease to be great; he would cease to be Allahu Akbar. On this, Christianity and Islam agree.
But a problem arises based on another thing on which both Islam and Christianity agree. Under both systems, humanity is deserving of punishment for its sin. The Bible tells us that “there is none who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:3) and that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The Qur’an similarly characterizes humans as sinful and deserving of God’s punishment: “If Allah were to punish men according to what they deserve, he would not leave on the back of the (earth) a single living creature” (Sura 35:45).
Is it not fascinating that, according to the Qur’an, humanity’s sin is so pervasive that it pollutes the whole Earth, such that even lions, cockroaches and amoeba would be obliterated for it? In his theological treatise Nahjul Balagha, Imam Ali, the fourth khalifa (leader of the Muslims), wrote,
O my Allah! Forgive me what Thou knowest about me more than I do. If I return (to the sins) Thou return to forgiveness. My Allah forgive me what I had promised to myself but Thou didst not find its fulfillment with me. My Allah forgive me that with what I sought nearness to thee with my tongue but my heart opposed and did not perform it. My Allah forgive me winkings of the eye, vile utterances, desires of the heart and errors of speech.
Failed promises, winkings of the eye and errors of speech are affronts to a maximally holy God. All of us have been guilty of these and thus deserving of punishment and in need of mercy.
If God is maximally just, then he necessarily punishes sin. If God is maximally merciful, then he always wants to forgive it. But how can he do both without compromising either? One might say that God, as the Almighty, can just forgive sin as an exercise of sheer power. But this presents an incoherent view of omnipotence leading to logical absurdities, like saying that God has the power to create square circles or can cause himself to cease existing.
John R. W. Stott says that when we say that God can simply forgive sin, we rob him of his place as the holy Judge: “For us to argue ‘we forgive each other unconditionally, let God do the same to us’ betrays not sophistication but shallowness, since it overlooks the elementary fact that we are not God.” Thus, to think of God in these terms is to make him too much like us—to make God in our image, as it were. It is to make us more comfortable with the level of our own merit by lowering the level of God’s. No, divine power must be thought of in terms of God’s very nature to be coherent. God’s nature is consistently just. To say that God can exercise raw power to forgive sins—to not act justly—is to posit a God who can defy himself. In other words, by exercising raw power to act contrary to his nature, God ceases to be himself. He ceases to be great.
The gospel—specifically the cross—flies in the face of our efforts to debase God and exalt ourselves. In committing sin, we incur an eternal debt to God. No penalty that we can endure in our temporal state can pay for that debt. Only a punishment that transcends time and a payment that comes from the eternal can right our wrongs. We are not capable of taking such a punishment or making such a payment without the cost of our very souls and eternal separation from God. What solution can there be then, if our sin is to be punished but God is to be merciful? The gospel, and the gospel alone, offers the solution.
We cannot help but see in the Bible’s pages that God allows for atonement for sin through the shedding of blood. But that shed blood comes from a substitute, a proxy for God’s wrath. This is a detail often overlooked, but in the very beginning, when Adam and Eve rebelled in the garden, they became ashamed of their nakedness in the midst of sin. They tried to cover themselves by sewing together fig leaves. But it took God’s provision of clothes, in the form of animal skins, to hide their shame (Genesis 3:7, 21). In other words, to address the sin, blood had to be shed, because a serious payment—life—had to be made for a serious debt.
This continued through the sacrifices of Abel, Abraham and the Mosaic law. Psalm 49 tells us that a ransom is needed to redeem us: “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me” (v. 15). In the preceding verses, the psalmist tells us that “no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice” (vv. 7-8). A human soul is so valuable that the price for it is beyond our capacity. In other words, no human can pay a high enough ransom to redeem a soul. But a ransom must be paid. And only God can pay it. In fact, if God is both just and merciful, it seems that God must.
The Qur’an at least implicitly recognizes the need for a redemptive ransom. In Sura 37:102-107, we read a story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his (unnamed) son at God’s command. As Abraham went to complete the act, God stopped him, telling him that it was all a trial and that Abraham had passed. But that was not the end. God did not just stop the sacrifice of Abraham’s son. God provided an animal as a sacrificial substitute. In the words of the Qur’an, “and We ransomed him with a momentous sacrifice.” Why the ransom for Abraham and his son? The answer is self-evident: because sin must be paid for, even the sin in the life of one with a sincere heart.
But the ransom provided by animals, lesser beings than us, can amount only to a temporary atonement. To effectuate the everlasting atonement, something more—someone more—is needed. An eternal ransom is necessary for eternal atonement. And on the cross of Christ, we find it.
God incarnate condescends to be on that cross and give himself as a ransom. Jesus tells us that he came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). In that act—Jesus’ death on the cross— God’s maximal justice and maximal mercy are expressed without compromise. Justice demands that our sin is paid for, and Jesus died to pay for it. Mercy demands that our sin is forgiven, and Jesus died in our place for that too. This is what philosophers have called the compossibility—the harmonious and uncompromising existence of seemingly inharmonious things. As Baggett and Walls put it, God in Christ is “the greatest possible being who exemplifies all the great-making properties to the greatest maximal degree and to the greatest extent to which they’re mutually consistent with one another; in other words, to the ‘greatest compossible degree.’”
But a question still remains: How is the payment of an innocent person—Jesus—for what the guilty have done maximally just? Perhaps an illustration that I have used elsewhere will help us understand the intricacy and profundity of the cross. Every day we see justice meted out when one pays the debt owed by another. As a lawyer, I encounter this all the time in dealing with guarantors. The guarantor on a loan agrees to pay back money she did not borrow if the borrower cannot pay it back. Someone with bad credit, someone who has defaulted on other loans perhaps, will have a difficult time getting another loan given his financial history. But if someone with impeccable credit tells the lender that she will pay back the debt if the credit-challenged borrower defaults, then the lender just may make the loan after all.
Would it be unjust in such a situation to demand that the guarantor pay the loan when the borrower welshes? Of course not. The guarantor knew what she was getting into and willingly pays the price. Justice is served because the lender is made whole, yet there is an element of forgiveness because the borrower is no longer on the hook. There simply is no miscarriage of justice in having the innocent party pay if she is truly innocent and if she willingly agreed to it.
Something even greater happened on Calvary’s hill and continues in the spiritual transaction that is the gospel. Jesus, as a person with a human nature and a divine nature, lived the perfect, sinless life. He had no debts of his own to pay. Thus, when we incur a debt to God, the debt of sin, Jesus is qualified to pay for it on our behalf. In fact, he is the only one qualified to do so. And sin is a debt, isn’t it? A convicted criminal who serves his sentence is said to have “paid his debt to society.” The Qur’an implies that sin is debt in saying that “those who earn sin will get due recompense for their ‘earnings’” (Sura 6:120). And Jesus himself likens sin to a debt (Luke 7:41-50).
But the payment for that debt cannot be our performance of good deeds. How could it be? We are required to perform those deeds in the first place, so performing them cannot make up for what we have failed to do in the past. As the psalmist says, the price is too “costly” for our lives (Psalm 49:7-8). The payment is death—separation from God. Being unable to make that payment, we are in desperate need of a guarantor. And Jesus, as the Messiah, the Deliverer, the one who has no sins and needs to make no atonement for himself, can be our guarantor, having our debt transferred to him for payment (Hebrews 7:20-28). The Qur’an, after all, allows for sin to be transferred from one person to another (Sura 5:29).
Jesus willingly goes to the cross on our behalf, declaring, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:17-18). Laying down his life is the payment for our debt, which is why in his last moments on the cross, Jesus breathes out the words “It is finished” (John 19:30). The Gospel records his words in the Greek as tetelestai, which is a term used to signify the closing of a transaction, that a bill is paid in full.
But the believer in Christ does not walk away without consequence. The Son willingly pays the debt to the Father but gets something in return. He gets to dominate our lives, our very beings, should we embrace the payment he made for us. Part of what it means to embrace Christ’s sacrifice is to understand that God will transform us and sanctify us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
In this one amazing feat, God untwists the paradox of maximal justice and maximal mercy. Again Stott captures the essence so well:
God overcame our evil by justifying us only because he first condemned it in Christ, and by redeeming us only because he first paid the ransom price. He did not overcome evil by re- fusing to punish it, but by accepting the punishment himself. At the cross human evil was both punished and overcome, and God’s mercy and justice were both satisfied.
As only the Greatest Possible Being can do, he takes what seems to be impossible and makes it possible.
Hail to the Victor
Transformation is at the heart of what the cross is about. It turns a paradox into a solution. It changes death into life. It takes a debt owed and makes it a gift given. And it turns a seeming defeat into a victory. This is critical for Muslims, because they see the cross as an unthinkable defeat of the transcendent God at the hands of lowly creatures.
Consider Islam’s claim about what happened at the cross. Jesus was rescued from the cross, according to Islam, by having someone substituted for him. In Muslim traditions, that substitute is unnamed, or he is Simon of Cyrene or Judas Iscariot. Ibn Kathir, one of Islam’s most respected scholars, tells us that the Jewish authorities, seeking to kill Jesus, enlisted the help of the local authorities to arrest and crucify Jesus. As they came to the house in which Jesus was staying, Jesus asked one of his followers to be trans- formed into his likeness and die on the cross in his stead:
“Who volunteers to be made to look like me, for which he will be my companion in Paradise?” A young man volunteered, but ‘Isa thought that he was too young. He asked the question a second and third time, each time the young man volunteering, prompting ‘Isa to say, “Well then, you will be that man.” Allah made the young man look exactly like ‘Isa, while a hole opened in the roof of the house, and ‘Isa was made to sleep and ascended to heaven while asleep. . . .
When ‘Isa ascended, those who were in the house came out. When those surrounding the house saw the man who looked like ‘Isa, they thought that he was ‘Isa. So they took him at night, crucified him and placed a crown of thorns on his head.
Regardless of who took Jesus’ place, does that even remotely ring of victory? Or does it seem more like slinking away? The Islamic substitutionary theories are photo negatives of the reality. Where the Bible tells us that Jesus died on the cross in our place, Islam says that someone died on the cross in his.
What lacks in these theories (besides any historical evidence whatsoever) is divine power. Is it not more satisfying for God to conquer through the cross rather than scheme his way around it? God’s power is displayed in his transformation of the ugly into the beautiful. In the movie The Passion of the Christ, there is an obscure line that left its mark on me. As Jesus proceeds on the Via Dolorosa, a bloody mess carrying his cross, he appears to be hugging it. One of the thieves about to be crucified with him mocks, “Why do you embrace your cross, you fool?”
Indeed, he did embrace it, because of what it meant for us. The payment Jesus wrought at the cross grants us eternal life. He turned the sinful act of nailing the innocent One to an instrument of torture on its head not by escaping from it, but by embracing it. Hiding from persecuting authority is not triumph; it is not might. Breaking its back is true triumph. The single greatest enemy of humanity is death, particularly the spiritual death that separates us from the Divine. In the greatest strategy of victory ever, God used sinful humanity to accomplish his goal of cleansing us of our sin. And in Jesus’ resurrection, God arrays his power over death. Basking in the victory, Paul gloats, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).
Can any other worldview claim that the living, though they will one day die, presently have victory over death and sin because of what God has done? Not even the worst execution the Romans could devise had power over the Lord of life. James Stewart, the Scottish writer, marvelously expressed God’s victory and glory through the cross of Christ:
The very triumphs of his foes . . . He used for their defeat. He compelled their dark achievements to serve his ends, not theirs. They nailed Him to the tree, not knowing that by that very act they were bringing the world to his feet. They gave Him a cross, not guessing that He would make it a throne. They flung Him outside the gates to die, not knowing that in that very moment they were lifting up all the gates of the universe, to let the King come in. They thought to root out his doctrines, not understanding that they were implanting imperishably in the hearts of men the very name they intended to destroy. They thought they had God with his back to the wall, pinned and helpless and defeated: they did not know that it was God Himself who had tracked them down. He did not conquer in spite of the dark mystery of evil. He conquered through it.
God majestically took an instrument of death and transformed it into an instrument of life. And he did that because God is greater.
The Greatest Possible Way
Nearly everyone would say that the fundamental ethic that undergirds all other ethical considerations is love—whether love of a romantic sort, a filial love for fellow humankind in general or love of neighbor. Our entire society is built on ethical rules and social structures that stem from the supreme and fundamental ethic of love. Without some form of love, there is no charity, no justice, no forgiveness and no relationships. Love is, in a very real sense, the greatest possible ethic.
The Bible specifically affirms this truth. In writing the famous “love chapter,” Paul tells us that we can have the gift of prophecy, understanding and faith to move mountains, and it all means nothing without love (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). Love supports all other ethics and imbues our actions with meaning. The essence of love as a component of a good existence is expressed in the Bible’s declaration that the one who creates our existence is, himself, love (1 John 4:8).
The Qur’an recognizes the fundamental importance of love in its proclamation that God is Al-Wadud, full of loving kindness. In their everyday lives, Muslims display how important love is to them. Fathers and mothers saturate their homes with love for their children, and they lavish generosity and hospitality on those who visit their homes. But the Islamic text tells us that God’s love has its limits. His love is only for those who deserve it. Consider just a few examples of the Qur’an’s description of God’s love: “God does not love the ungrateful sinner” (Sura 2:276); “God does not love those who ignore his commands” (Sura 3:32); and “God does not love evil-doers” (Sura 3:57). And so while God is “full of loving kindness,” ultimately that loving kindness is for only some of us.
And so a question arises: if God is the Greatest Possible Being, and love is the greatest ethic, where do we find love expressed in the greatest possible way?
The divine expression of love as the Qur’an describes it very much mirrors human expressions of love. We love those who love us; we love those who are lovable; and we lavish our affections and give of ourselves to those who love us. At best, we act lovingly toward strangers. But we do not love our enemies. We do not love the unlovable. Our love, in general terms, does not transcend the bounds of what is deserved. But the gospel tells us not just of God’s love as an uncommon love, or even a great love, but as a uniquely great love. Luke preserves Jesus’ startling teaching on what a true expression of love requires:
If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:32-36)
It is these kinds of teachings that have made Jesus the marvel of history, even for those who have rejected his claim to divinity yet have called him a good moral teacher (in fact, the paragon of a moral teacher). In this passage, Jesus is talking about unconditional love, especially for those who do not deserve it. He is telling us to express love in a way contrary to our human intuitions, to love the unlovable, to extend grace. But think for a moment about who is saying this to us. It is not a mere moralist or religious leader who utters these words, one who would like to put into practice what he preaches but sometimes misses the mark. No, in uttering these words, Jesus is telling us to mirror the very act of God’s great love in the incarnation itself. In the brushstrokes of this passage we see the masterpiece of grace.
The incarnation’s fundamental end is the cross. God the Son takes on human nature, lives among us and sacrifices himself for us. He makes the payment to God the Father on our behalf. The amount of self-giving in all of this is staggering. Is the incarnation, culminating in the cross, not the very epitome of what it means to love enemies? Is it not a grand expression of unconditional love? But a mere expression of unconditional love in and of itself is hardly compelling without context or purpose. And the purpose of Jesus giving his life is to rescue ours.
Before we continue, it is critical that we understand fully what happened at Calvary—what price was really paid and what sacrifice was really made—so we can understand the fullness and greatness of the love that the Gospels describe.
In the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest, Jesus was wracked by intense agony as his crucifixion grew near (Matthew 26:38; Mark 14:34). We read further that in his emotional anguish, Jesus cried out to God, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). But what was so intense about the cross that caused Jesus to cry out to his Father and sweat blood? Although he asked if the Father could take away the “cup,” he remained resolute in his mission to offer himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. Indeed, in his second prayer, Jesus said, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (Matthew 26:42).
Jesus was not shrinking from the physical pain of the cross. Stott is right when he says that Jesus’ indomitable physical and moral courage displayed during his ministry precludes such a possibility. The Gospels record that as Peter tried to protect Jesus violently from those who seized him, Jesus ordered Peter to stand down and allow his arrest. “Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” he said to Peter (John 18:11). No, Jesus was agonized over a particular suffering that would befall him as he fulfilled the very purpose of his incarnation.
In coming to Earth and taking on a human nature, God gave of himself. The person of Jesus of Nazareth, a person with a human nature and the divine nature of God the Son, willingly died in our place. When Jesus was dying on the cross, he cried out something that some Muslims have found troubling. He said, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sebachthani?” meaning “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). I have elsewhere addressed this question, but allow me to highlight something here. In asking this question, Jesus was quoting the opening verse of Psalm 22, which begins with this question but ends with the proclamation that God has been victorious and a deliverer of his suffering servant. Nevertheless, there is something more about Jesus’ question. He is pointing out, using Psalm 22, that in fact he is—at that moment—being forsaken by the Father. He had to be forsaken at that moment because he was taking our place, as forsaken sinners, on that cross.
But that meant more than any mere human can possibly imagine. There had never been even the remotest disruption in the relationship of the Godhead. But in that moment, when the Father turned his back on the Son and let him die that ignominious death, there was a momentary rupture in the relationship. There wasn’t a severing of the relationship—that would be impossible within God. But there was a true forsakenness. As an earthly father might have to forsake the safety of his son if it meant saving the lives of others, so God the Father had to forsake his Son for our salvation. And if the anguish an earthly father feels over having to allow his son to be sacrificed, though finite, is terrible, then we can only ponder the exquisite and infinite agony of the forsakenness at the cross. There, in that act and at that moment, was an act of giving that we can never fully understand.
As we draw this part of our discussion to a close, let’s consider something that we simply must grasp if we are ever to understand the heart of the incarnation and the cross as they display God’s greatness. Growing up, I was taught to admire and emulate the self-giving of those who had gone before me. From my ancestors of old to my grandparents and parents, I was raised in a culture of sacrifice. Some gave up their dreams and others their lives to ensure a better future for their families, including me. Is there a culture on Earth that doesn’t admire sacrifice? When we hear the story of a soldier who gave up his body to save his comrades, we feel the goose bumps and the tingles in awe of such selflessness. In fact, we see such acts as the ultimate expression of the greatest ethic we know of: love. Can we imagine a greater ethic than love? And can we imagine a greater expression of that ethic than one’s self-sacrifice for those who love him? Self-sacrifice is the very hallmark of love.
But if that is the case, then shouldn’t God be capable of such an expression of love? In fact, I will be so bold as to say that not only must God be capable of such an act, but God must express love this way. He is, after all, the Greatest Possible Being. Muslims and Christians agree on that very thing. But if that is the case, then he must act self-sacrificially. It simply follows that the Greatest Possible Being would express the greatest possible ethic in the greatest possible way: through self-sacrifice. And there is no other place in this world’s theologies or its history where God has acted that way except at the cross of Christ.
But there is one more thing to consider. If God is the Greatest Possible Being, then his love and his expression of love cannot just be equal to ours—it must be greater. As humans, we sacrifice ourselves for others all the time. We give of our time or talent, our treasure and even our lives for those we love and for those who love us in return.
And rarely we might sacrifice ourselves for a complete stranger.
But we do not sacrifice ourselves for the sake of those who hate us. We don’t give of ourselves for our enemies. And there lies the great distinction between our expression of love and God’s. The Trinity reveals God’s love in creating us to be selfless and gratuitous in that he created us to have relationship with him without having to fulfill a lack in his own sense of relationship. But the incarnation and the cross demonstrate that his love is not just selfless, but selflessly self-giving. Jesus did not die on the cross for those who loved him. No, he died for those who hated him.
I can vividly recall sitting at a table reading the fifth chapter of Romans as a Muslim, trying to understand the gospel. And as I came across Paul’s words starting at verse 6, telling me that Christ died not for the strong in faith or the righteous, but for the “un- godly,” I suddenly understood how amazing, pure and great God’s love is. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Does any other worldview know or speak of so great a love as that?
Al-Ghazali said that love as applied to God is different from love as applied to humanity. But he is wrong. Love is love. Love is, by definition, others-centered and self-giving. Our expressions, even our highest expressions, are but a shadow of the real thing. God’s expression of love is the reality. This brings to mind C. S. Lewis’s observation about the extent of God’s true love compared to ours:
“But the great thing to remember is that, though our feelings come and go, his love for us does not. It is not wearied by our sins, or our indifference; and, therefore, it is quite relentless in its determination that we shall be cured of those sins, at whatever cost to us, at whatever cost to Him.”
God’s love is not different from our love. God’s love is just truer, and so it is greater. The incarnation and the cross of Christ are the greatest possible demonstration of the greatest possible love from the Greatest Possible Being.
The True Submission of a Grateful Heart
The hymn writer Charles Gabriel captured the beauty of God’s act in the incarnation and his self-sacrificial love on the cross, weaving the awe, beauty and greatness into our understanding of what God has done in expressing his greatness:
I stand amazed in the presence
of Jesus the Nazarene,
and wonder how He could love me,
a sinner condemned, unclean.
For me it was in the garden
He prayed, “Not My will, but Thine”;
He had no tears for his own griefs
but sweat drops of blood for mine.
In pity angels beheld Him,
and came from the world of light
to comfort Him in the sorrows
He bore for my soul that night.
He took my sins and my sorrows;
He made them his very own;
He bore the burden to Calv’ry
and suffered and died alone.
When with the ransomed in glory
his face I at last shall see,
’twill be my joy thru the ages
to sing of his love for me.
How marvelous! How wonderful!
And my song shall ever be:
How marvelous! How wonderful
is my Savior’s love for me!
For Muslims who have lived a life affirming that “God is greater,” who have sought to understand and exemplify that, there is the gospel that tells us of a God who loves in the greatest possible way. Consider again the words of Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib, one of the earliest Muslim leaders, in his book of sermons: “A group of people worshipped Allah out of desire for reward, surely this is the worship of traders. Another group worshipped Allah out of fear, this is the worship of slaves. Still another group worshipped Allah out of gratefulness, this is the worship of free men.” This was meant to describe a sincere Muslim. However, the believer who affirms God’s greatness finds it in the God who is so great that he protects his self-revelation, which tells us of his great self-subsistence in the community of the Trinity, through which he incarnates himself on Earth to express the greatest possible ethic in the greatest possible way, his self-sacrifice. For Muslims’ search, there is the treasure of the gospel.
 While I firmly believe that the Muslim and Christian conceptions of God are quite different, I will use the words “Allah” and “God” in this section somewhat interchangeably. First, “Allah” is the Arabic word for “God” and is used in Arabic Bible translations and by native Arabic speaking Christians to refer to Yahweh. Second, for our purposes, I am comparing Islam’s view of the one and only Supreme Being to Christianity’s view of the one and only Supreme Being. To repeatedly qualify the use of “Allah” and “God” would be distracting.
A. J. Wensinck, “Takbir,” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online, 2012,
Winfried Corduan, “A View from the Middle East: Islamic Theism,” in James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalogue, 5th Ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 247-248.
 Alhaj A. D. Ajijola, The Essence of Faith in Islam (Lahore, Pakistan: Islamic Publications, Ltd., 1978), 55.
Muhammad Abdul Rauf, Islam: Creed and Worship (Washington, D.C.: The Islamic Center, 1974), 2-3.
Cited by Samuel M. Zwemer, The Moslem Doctrine of God (New York: American Tract Society, 1905), 31.
Kenneth Cragg, The Call of the Minaret (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 39. See also Al-Bukhari, The Translation of the Meanings of Sahih Al-Bukhari, trans. Muhammad Muhsin Khan (Al-Medina: Islamic University), vol. 6, 493-95.
Corduan in The Universe Next Door, 248-249.
 Zwemer, 34.
For a comprehensive list of the names, see Tasbih Asma Allah al-Husna by Muhammad al-Madani and cited in Arthur Jeffrey, Islam: Muhammad and his Religion (New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1958), 93-98.
Fadlou Shehadi, Ghazali’s Unique Unknowable God (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1964), 37.
 Annemarie Schimmel and Abdoldjavad Falature, We Believe in One God (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), 85, quoted in Norman L. Geisler and Abdul Saleeb, Answering Islam: The Crescent in Light of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), 30.
 Duncan Black MacDonald, “One Phase of the Doctrine of the Unity of God with Some Consequences,” The Hartford Seminary Record, Volume XX, No. 1 (Hartford, Conn.: Hartford Seminary Press, January 1910), 29.
 Kenneth Cragg, Jesus and the Muslim: An Exploration (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1999), 223.
 For an excellent and detailed case for the Bible’s affirmation of Jesus deity, I recommend J. Ed Komoszewski and Robert Bowman, Putting Jesus in his Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007).
Jesus and the Muslim, 278 (emphasis added).
 Thomas V. Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 63-67.
 Ibid, 63.
 Ibid, 65 (emphasis mine).
 Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 525.
 Ismail R. Al-Furuqi, Christian Mission and Islamic Da'wah: Proceedings of the Chambesy Dialogue Consultation (Leicester: The Islamic Foundation, 1982), 47-48.
 Hammudah Abdalati, Islam in Focus (Indianapolis: American Trust Publication, 1975), 160.
 Abdiyah Akbar Abdul-Haqq, Sharing Your Faith with a Muslim (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1980), 135-136, taken from F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 178.
 John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991), 145.
 Ali Ibn Abi Talib, Nahjul Balagha: Sermons, Letters, and Saying of Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib (Elmhurst, NY: Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an, 1986), Sermon 77.
 John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 90.
 David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls, Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 51-52.
 See my article, “Jesus, Justification, and Justice: Answering Objections to the Justness of Jesus’ Substitutionary Atonement,” www.4truth.net/fourtruthpbworld.aspx?pageid=8589953013.
 Stott, 301.
 Ibn Kathir, Tafsir of Ibn Kathir, Vol. 3 (New York: Darussalam, 2000), 25-27.
 James Stewart, The Strong Name (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing House, 1972), 55.
 Stott, 76-78.
 Abdu H. Murray, Apocalypse Later: Why the Gospel of Peace Must Trump the Politics of Prophecy in the Middle East (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009), 112-117.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Harper Collins ed (San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco, 2001), 133.
 Charles Hutchinson Gabriel, “My Savior’s Love,” 1905.
 Imam Ali Ibn Abu Talib, Nahjul Balagha, 619.