Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Dialogue with a Muslim

The following is a response to an email I received from a Muslim curious about Christianity. The sad part is no one seemed to be able to answer these very sincere questions of this person. This person is to be commended for their level of honest inquiry and their desire to wrestle with the issues of Christianity. Here is the letter, edited only for anonymity's sake.

1. OK, so how can God be a man? How can God exist within space & time (which He did, apparently, when He was Jesus)? 

        You're right that God existed both in space and time as a man within the Christian view of Jesus. In order for him to become a man, he would have to be born to a human person (otherwise, he is not actually a man, but a man-like being, which won't do any good for the purposes intended). Now, this incarnation could not have been by sexual union; otherwise, God would be sinful (which on the traditional Christian conception of God is logically impossible). Hence, what Christians call the "virgin birth" took place. That is to say, Jesus Christ came, born of a woman with no sexual relations whatsoever. The person of Jesus, who existed within the Godhead was born on this earth. The contribution of the woman was the egg, but there was no sperm. I apologize for being graphic, but I feel I need to in order to disabuse ourselves of any false notions. God did not have sexual relations with Mary, and no one did. On a related note, God the Father is not God the Son; they are two separate persons sharing the same essence or substance. In any case, God became a man by a non-sexually fertilized egg in which Jesus' divine nature likely took on the position of the soul (though Christians debate among themselves exactly how it was done). In this way, Jesus was truly man, and truly God. Two separate natures (material/immaterial of man; the divine essence or being that is the Godhead the other).
2. You know how Jesus spoke in Aramaic and the gospels were written in Koine Greek? How do Christians know that something that Jesus said wasn't lost in translation? For instance, I speak two languages, and whenever I try to translate between the two, there's always something undefinable--sort of like a connotation--that's lost. So, what if the same thing happened with Jesus' words? Isn't that worrisome?
        Yes. We are very concerned with ensuring that the words of the Bible are the words Jesus spoke (where applicable). There are a few issues though. First, while it is true some connotations may be lost, it is not true (in most cases) that the ideas contained in the word cannot find a cognate in another language. For example, the Spanish "hola" finds its English equivalent in "hello," and the idea is preserved. Second, most of the New Testament is not the words of Jesus, and the doctrine accords with what he says. So no major doctrine is built upon his words only. Third, in the cases where Jesus does speak, no plausible translation from Aramaic to Greek results in a radically different teaching. Fourth, even the Jesus Seminar (who thinks Jesus is largely misrepresented) grants that quite a few sayings are plausibly or almost certainly authentic--and they are in the radical minority of scholarship today. The majority holds that Jesus' words are largely well-established through the plethora of early manuscripts we do have. If inauthentic translations were done (that is, pure fabrications), there were others who could have corrected it. Which leads to the fifth point: the eyewitnesses who did in fact write a majority of the New Testament would have acted as a check-and-balance against the false words of the mistranslated Gospels. Hence, the fact that these are not corrected (by either the apostles or any of their early disciples [who extend well into the second-century because of John]) leads us to conclude we do have his words after all. Finally, I must make the distinction that Jesus did not write any of the New Testament. These are merely his recorded words in parts of the Gospels almost exclusively. These sayings even differ slightly among themselves in the Gospels. The mere fact the idea is retained in all of them lends credence to the idea that we may be confident we have an accurate representation of what Christ spoke, while not misrepresenting anything he wrote (since Christ did not write these things). Excellent question!
3. Is there any specific reason that God is called "Father" and not "Mother"? I mean, does God have more father-like attributes or something? Or is that just, I dunno, the way it is?
        A little bit of both. :) But seriously, this is one I do not have a definitive answer to. I do know that God does not have gender, as gender seems to be a reflection of creatures, not the ultimate creator. So God the Father is not a literal male, but he has revealed himself as male for some specific reason (as there is no arbitrariness in God). In the model of the Trinity, the Father is the Father in his relation to the Son, so since the Son was God from eternity past, perhaps it is a necessary attribute for God to be the Father as such in that particular person.
4. This is just a general question. Why didn't God mention in the Old Testament (henceforth "OT") that He was triune? Wouldn't that be something He'd state in, like, the first commandment?
        That's another excellent question. In the Pentateuch, which Muslims at least acknowledge to a point if I remember correctly, the main thrust of the text is that God has revealed his law to people, and has begun the movement of reconciliation of sinful man to himself. Within that, God gave the OT Law. NT writers acknowledged with ease that the OT Law was insufficient. Jesus himself made this very same argument, sometimes directly, and sometimes indirectly, in his entanglements with the Pharisees. Yet it would be a mistake to say that Christianity views the OT Law as wrong or inaccurate. Why? Because God wisely revealed his ideal slowly, over time. In the OT prophets, Malachi says God hates divorce. Yet, in Isaiah God divorced Israel (for a short time), and in the Pentateuch provisions are made for the woman who was divorced from her husband! Is this a contradiction? No! Jesus said "for the hardness of men's hearts did Moses permit this" in reference to divorce. The idea of the Law is that God introduced a standard that was far short of the ideal, but pointed and worked toward the ideal: the one found in Jesus Christ. In the same way, God progressively revealed things about the coming Messiah (Jewish word for "chosen one" of God) slowly and not all at once. Since it is pretty much God's MO to do this, we should not be surprised he does the same thing as it relates to his nature. :)
5. Do Christians think Jews are going to go to Hell?
        No. But, of course, the answer is not that simple. Taken simply and woodenly, no entire class of people are going to Hell, save one: the class that rejects Jesus as Savior and Lord. That is quite offensive to some, but please understand I do not mean it that way. To expand on the answer, the Jews have rejected their Messiah for quite some time (with notable exceptions throughout history, of cours), but in the end times they will not. The whole idea of Revelation and Romans 11 is that there will be an entire, large remnant of Jews in the end times who will uniformly convert to Christ. But unfortunately, so many Jews have rejected their Messiah, and thus as they have died they have gone to Hell. :(
6. I asked my Christian friend about Hell and he said it was "eternal separation from God", and that the medieval Christians had, whoops-a-daisy, gotten that whole fire thing wrong. But Hell sounds like a pretty fundamental concept to me. So if those olden day Christians got their concept of Hell wrong, how do you know they didn't get other fundamental concepts wrong?
        This is a great question! I would respond by making one thing clear: the concept of Hell itself is not a fundamental truth-claim of Christianity. The Christian church has largely defined "fundamental" Christian truth is that in virtue of which Christianity is false if it is false. A little more clearly: if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then Christianity is false (1 Corinthians 15). The reason? Because if he did not rise from the dead he was not who he said he was. If he did not rise from the dead and if he was not who he said he was, then he cannot possibly rectify the issue of imputed sin. The idea of Hell is an important, but at best corollary, doctrine. Notice Christianity still rises and falls on the prior claims whether or not Hell is literal, or metaphorical, or even if annihilationism is true. The point? The Church has stood strongly on these matters since the founding of the Church (the central claims of Christianity), even if the peripherals have been debated. To answer your question more directly, however, I would say this: it does not follow if one concept is incorrect, then all other concepts become suspect. Consider Isaac Newton. Newton was incorrect about several things, but he was quite correct about gravity. Now one may protest that gravity is testable, but my point is that gravity did not become suspect because something else was suspect. Only in the case of supposed incompetence would we have said this. So, even if we were to depend on the medieval Christians' views on the central doctrines (which we do not, for what it's worth), the fact they were incorrect in one aspect (which I am not convinced their view was entirely wrong, by the way) wouldn't lead to a suspect view of all other teachings, unless there was evidence leading to that fact. I hope that helped on that one!
7. Does the Holy Spirit actually have a point? I mean, what is it? And does the "Son" have a point besides being a sacrifice for humans' sins?
        I love the honesty of these questions! If only I could get Christians to ask the same ones! Yes, they do have points. :) Keep in mind these are not creations of the Father, but God in their own being, sharing the essence with the Father. In any case, the Spirit does quite a bit (I am actually preparing a 15-page paper on the idea of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John). The Spirit convicts people of sin. This means he works in the hearts of unbelievers to show them their guilt, and, if they will receive it, that Jesus is the Christ. Next, the Spirit was active in creation. In Genesis 1:2, God's spirit prepared the formless earth for God's creative work. The Spirit also empowers believers with spiritual gifts, such as mercy, serving, and teaching. It's amazing to see mean-spirited people suddenly transform into the most empathetic, loving people you've ever seen. It's happened. :) As to the Son, he does have a point. Hebrews 1 says Jesus is the radiance of God's glory, and the exact representation of his [the Father's] being. Here's the point: John 4:24 says God is a spirit. The Bible also says no man can see God and live (because of his glory cf. Isaiah 6). Jesus is the visible image of God himself. If you have seen him, you have seen the Father. Not because he is the Father, but because he is the image of the Father, the same in substance and being but differing in personhood only. He lived a perfect life, healing people physically and spiritually. Jesus functions as an extreme example for all believers to emulate in his lived life (otherwise, Jesus could have died as an infant). Jesus will rule and reign as king on David's throne, because as God he is the rightful ruler (showing that even Israel's theocracy and subsequent theocratic monarchy were insufficient when compared to rule by God himself, physically present).
8. Does God exist in a triune specifically for humans, so that the whole Jesus thingy could happen? Why is God "tailored" to fit our needs (i.e. the whole lamb/scapegoat thing)? 
        No it would not be for humans. God's triunity is part of his nature. The Christian view of God is that he is a logically necessary being, which means that he was always triune and his triunity could not fail to be! So rather than God being tailored to humans, we may instead view humans being tailored to fit God! He did, after all, choose to create man knowing exactly how he would act.
9. Is life on earth a punishment? A Christian told me it was "to develop a loving relationship with God", but the creation story doesn't make it sound that way.
        I could see how many people could view it this way. The poor, the hungry, the abused, the diseased, the beaten and downtrodden of the world. But this is more of an Eastern outlook than a Christian one. Life on earth, originally, was for man to glorify God by being in a relationship with him. After the Fall of Adam and Eve, the main goal remained the same, but the way of getting there involved the plan of redemption. Why was this necessary? A perfect and holy God cannot abide in fellowship with sin, no matter how much he wants to (for then he is not perfectly just). But if that is the case, then every person must die in their sins and be punished. However, God is also all-loving, and this omnibenevolence cannot come at the expense of justice. So Jesus came, God in the flesh, as a man. As a man, he could represent man in the same way Adam represented mankind in sin. Because Jesus was perfect and sinless, his death and resurrection paid for and guaranteed salvation for all of those who would believe it and ask for their sins to be forgiven. Why belief? Because there is nothing that can be done. It is eminently logical: once an action is done, it cannot be undone. This is why we can never pay for our sins; we can never undo that which we did, otherwise we would not have done it! Jesus died for my sins. He died for your sins. You can be saved. It's not easy; for what I am asking you to believe is not easy. I'm not saying all of your problems will go away. But you will be reconciled to God, something that money cannot buy, and no other worldview can offer in direct comparison. The idea of Christian salvation is not merely reward or avoidance of punishment, but the knowledge of God himself. That is not meant in a New Agey-sense, but rather just in the sense of a deep love and respect. If you believe that Jesus Christ was who he said he was, lived a perfect life, died for your sins, and was resurrected the third day, and you confess that to him and ask him for forgiveness, you will have it. You will be saved.
10. If God loves His son so much, why didn't He have more? Why stop at one, I mean? (My parents had five, haha.) And how can the father and the son exist from the same moment in time? I mean, logically speaking, don't kids come after their parents?
        Interesting that you should ask this, given my most recent answer! :) When someone is saved, he is referred to as a son (or "child") of God (John 1:12)! Indeed, the NT says Christ was meant as a son to be "firstborn among many brethren." As to the second part of your question, God is viewed as a logically necessary being, so neither of them "began to exist" as it were. Rather, they have always been. This can make a huge difference. Also, it is only empirical evidence that suggests a parent-child relationship is differentiated in time. Rather, I think that time is an incidental feature. It is also important to reiterate that the Father-Son relationship between God the Father and Jesus is just that; a relationship of persons sharing their essence in how they relate to each other (this is also the reason the Holy Spirit is not a Son; it is all in the functions of the person, not in inherent nature). This is a very complex topic and I don't want to confuse you, but the simple answer is that the relationship is not causal, but functional (i.e., "you do this, I do that, but we're both equal").
Finally, in reference to the kalam (an Islamic argument you know!), the first cause must be personal because we have specific characteristics. It must be very powerful, timeless, and immaterial. While abstract objects can be timeless and immaterial, they cannot cause anything (that is exactly what it means to be abstract; not able to affect changes in the actual world!). It cannot be some physical process, for then it would not be immaterial (and arguably not timeless). The only thing remaining is a personal force. But this person would just be the standard, traditional, definiton of God! I love the kalam in its simplicity.
I hope I have answered these questions for you, and I hope I have been clear. Any lack of clarity is unintended by me, is my fault, and is likely a result of my wanting to answer adequately and completely these questions to the best of my ability.
God Bless,

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please remember to see the comment guidelines if you are unfamiliar with them. God bless and thanks for dropping by!