Answering an Atheist: The Problem of "Evil"

The question of suffering has exercised philosophers and theologians for centuries. The issue has always been: “If God is good and almighty, he would not allow his creatures to suffer, and there would be no evil in the world.” However, the statement of the question is problematic, for it presupposes that we can determine what a good and almighty God should do. The answer of the Christian is not to philosophize about what God should do, but to ask what God has revealed about himself in his Word. 

Before I explain further, I should point out that atheism has no answer to this question. According to atheism, the entire universe is the result of a random movement of molecules over countless billions of years. During that incredibly long period of time, life forms supposedly emerged from non-living chemicals (no scientist has demonstrated how that is even possible), and by means of a long process of “natural selection” (commonly called “Survival of the Fittest”), we have arrived at the present state of affairs with man at “the top of the evolutionary tree.” However, man is only “at the top of the tree” because he is the most advanced and developed life form, not because he is the most significant or the most important. In fact, man is, according to the atheistic worldview, of no greater significance than a tree frog, an elephant or a slug. 

To you, your mother or your friend might be more significant than a slug, but you, your mother, and your friend have no transcendent meaning if atheism is true. If atheism is true, the impersonal, indifferent universe does not care that you exist. Your life has no meaning beyond the few years you exist here, and after you are gone you will return to the earth to be “worm food,” until another life form comes along to take your place. Therefore, if you, your family, and even millions of your fellow humans suffer and die, it has no real significance. Unless you are famous (or infamous)—and most of us are not—no one will remember that you existed one hundred years after your death. You might exist in the records of a government bureaucracy from which you will eventually be deleted, or you might exist in the memories of your descendants—if you leave any—but in the grand scheme of things your life is basically meaningless. 

Given such a worldview, why even care about suffering? Why devote your life to alleviating suffering? Why try to make the world a “better place”? As one man put it, “If you decide the purpose of your life is to discover a cure for cancer and I decide the purpose of my life is to discover the tastiest doughnut, the universe really doesn’t care one way or the other. The same goes for the guy who decides the purpose of his life is to get as much pleasure as he can at other people’s expense, even if it causes immense suffering. It’s all ultimately arbitrary” (James N. Anderson, Why Should I Believe Christianity? [Christian Focus, 2016], p. 100). Atheist Richard Dawkins expressed it in these words, “In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference” (Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life). 

Therefore, the question of evil and suffering is not really a “question” for atheism. “Evil” (especially moral evil) presupposes an absolute, transcendent, objective moral standard. If it is not “evil” for a cat to kill a mouse (because morality is a meaningless concept for a cat), then it is not “evil” (if atheism is true) for a man to kill another man, especially if killing that man gives him an “evolutionary advantage” over other men. If evolution is true, then why should a man be subject to moral norms, while a cat is free to kill mice without being judged as “evil”? What makes a man’s life any more valuable than the life of a mouse? Why do we punish manslayers as murderers, but we reward mice-killers as “pest control experts”? And if it is not absolutely, objectively wrong to kill one man, why is it absolutely, objectively wrong to kill many men, or indeed a whole race of men?

The answer many atheists give is that society functions better with moral standards or that something becomes morally wrong when society judges it morally wrong. However, why should we care how society functions? If one man is meaningless, why should a society of men have any meaning? Why should human society have any more meaning than an anthill or a beehive? If there is no absolute moral standard according to which all men are judged (i.e., the law of the transcendent Creator God), then cannibalism is acceptable in one society and “honor killings” are acceptable in another society simply because “society” approves of them.

The Christian’s answer to evil and suffering is to begin with God, who is absolutely and perfectly good. Since God is good, the creation he made was good. In fact, when God created the universe, he surveyed his handiwork and “Behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). The original “goodness” of the creation included the absence of suffering and death. Death, which atheists view as natural to the evolutionary process and struggle for life, was not part of the good creation that God made. 

Therefore, when an atheist denies God because of the presence of suffering and death in creation, he must first understand that such suffering and death were not part of the original creation. (He must not complain about the creation that God made, but join the Christian in lamenting what the good creation has become). In addition, mankind was good, which means that the first humans (Adam and Eve) were created in holiness and righteousness in God’s image. Adam and Eve were not created sinners: they became sinners. (Incidentally, this means that Christians do not accept the idea of macroevolution, because we do not accept the idea of death before sin. Therefore, the world is not the product of billions of years of evolution, but the creation of a good and wise God).

Adam and Eve were created as God’s friends in a covenant relationship with him, which is why God made them rational, moral creatures (unlike cats, dogs and chimpanzees, which are not rational, moral creatures, and which therefore cannot relate to God). The Heidelberg Catechism—a document written at the time of Reformation—explains it this way, “God created man good, and after his own image, in true righteousness and holiness, that he might rightly know God his Creator, heartily love him, and live with him in eternal happiness to glorify and praise Him” (A. 6). 

Adam and Eve did not remain for long in the state of holiness in which God had created them. They disobeyed God in the famous account of the “forbidden fruit.” That act was not a matter of “just eating a piece of fruit.” God had given them a rich abundance of fruit in the Garden of Eden. They enjoyed fellowship with him. He even walked and talked with them in the cool of the day. When God placed a restriction on their activity (do not eat of this one tree), God was perfectly righteous. As the Creator, God determines good and evil, not man. The devil persuaded Eve to assert her “autonomy” and to decide good and evil for herself, and Adam quickly followed her. That act was deliberate rebellion against God. 

From that one act, all forms of evil, suffering, and death have entered the creation: “By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin” (Romans 5:12a). God in judgment inflicted death upon the creation because of man’s rebellion. The blame or guilt for sin, suffering and death must not be imputed to God, but to man, the rebellious creature. All human evil, from theft, to dishonesty, to violence and murder, as well as war, genocide and every form of depravity and vice, is a consequence of Adam’s first transgression. 

That does not seem fair to many people, for why should the sin of one man, Adam, affect the whole human race? The answer is found in the identity of Adam. Adam was not merely one individual. God created him to be the head of mankind, not only the biological or organic source of mankind, but also the legal representative of mankind. In other words, Adam represented all of us in the Garden of Eden. We might not like that representation, but it does not change the fact. When Adam fell into sin (and it was not so much a “fall” as a deliberate “leap”), we fell with him, which is why we are all subject to death: “Death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Romans 5:12b). “For by one man’s disobedience [the] many were made sinners” (Romans 5:19a). And do not think that, had you been there, you would have fared better than Adam. You would not. Your representative in Adam was perfect: he was created in the image of God, he had the warning of God ringing in his ears, and he had every incentive to remain faithful to God, and yet he fell. You would have done the same. 

But there is also mercy in God’s dealings with Adam. The headship of Adam prepared for a better headship. Jesus Christ represents his people. What he accomplished in his perfect obedience, suffering, and death was not for himself: it was for the people whom he represented. “By the obedience of one [Christ] shall [the] many be made righteous” (Romans 5:19b). If it is unfair for God to punish all men for the sin of one representative (Adam), then is it also unfair for God to save all believers for the obedience of one representative (Christ). 

Why, then, is there suffering and death in the world? Why is there evil? First, because God is righteous, and a righteous God punishes sin. He punishes sin in various ways, at different times, and to different degrees in this life, and finally and fully on the day of judgment and in the world to come. Second, evil, suffering, and death serve God’s purposes in history: God’s main purposes are the gathering of his people and development of evil in the world, with the ultimate purpose the glory of his own name. Third, suffering serves the salvation of his people, for God uses suffering to test, purify, and prepare them for the life to come. Fourth, God used the greatest of all evils, the death of his Son, to accomplish salvation, to purchase forgiveness of sins and eternal life for his people. If God ended evil today, he would have to destroy all human beings on the face of the earth. But God is not ready to do that, for important events planned by God must still occur before the end can come. The world has not only an origin, but also a goal, another truth denied by atheism.

God does not give us specific answers to the problem of specific “evils.” Why did this war occur? Why did that person suffer in that particular way? Why did my friend get that disease? Why did that man commit that atrocity or crime? Christianity provides general answers that we can apply to the big questions. Atheism, which views all things including “evil” as meaningless, does not.

God commands you through his Word to cease your rebellion against him, to turn from your sins (whatever they are), and to believe in his Son. If you continue in your sins, you will perish, but the one who believes will receive eternal life. 

The Bible says, "Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man [Jesus] is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses. Beware therefore, lest that come upon you, which is spoken of in the prophets, Behold, ye despisers, and wonder, and perish: for I work a work in your days, a work which ye shall in no wise believe, though a man declare it unto you (Acts 13:38-41).

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. 

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Islam (13)

On January 13 (blog post: Islam 11), we considered the death of Jesus on the cross, explaining why only he is qualified to be the Mediator and substitute for his people. On February 2 (blog post: Islam 12: Christianity Quiz), we reviewed the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and sin and salvation.

Christianity would not be good news if Jesus had remained in the tomb. A dead Lord Jesus is neither Lord (for a Lord rules) nor Savior (remember: Jesus means Savior, and a dead Jesus cannot save). The Qur’an is somewhat ambivalent on the subject of the resurrection of Christ, for in the Qur’an the infant Jesus speaks from the cradle in defense of his mother:

“I am indeed a servant of Allah: He hath given me revelation and made me a prophet; and He hath made me blessed wheresoever I be, and hath enjoined on me Prayer and Charity as long as I live; (He) hath made me kind to my mother, and not overbearing or miserable; so Peace is upon me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised to life (again)!” (Surah 19:30-33).

Elsewhere, Allah makes this promise to Jesus: “O Jesus! I will take thee and raise thee to Myself and clear thee (of the falsehoods) of those who blaspheme; I will make those who follow thee superior to those who reject faith, to the Day of Resurrection: then shall ye all return to me, and I will judge between you of the matters wherein ye dispute” (Surah 3:55).

Most Muslims, however, deny that Jesus died, and therefore they also deny that he rose from the dead. (The day of resurrection in Surah 3:55 probably refers to the general resurrection of the dead at the end of the world, a belief shared by Muslims, Jews, and Christians, although obviously they do not agree on every aspect of that doctrine).

The Bible teaches emphatically and clearly that Jesus rose from the dead. Therefore, in witnessing to a Muslim we must not end with the cross. The four gospel writers agree that Jesus rose from the dead, and although (without contradiction) they vary in the details, they teach the same basic truth.

First, Jesus rose from the dead in the body. At the point of Jesus’ death on the cross, his soul was separated from his body, which is the experience of all who undergo physical death (although Jesus is the only one who had the power [authority] to lay down his own life): “And Jesus cried with a loud voice and gave up the ghost” (Mark 15:37); “And having said thus, he gave up the ghost” (Luke 23:46); “And he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost” (John 19:30).

Jesus’ soul departed from his body and went to be with his Father in paradise: “Into thy hands I commend my spirit,” cried Jesus (Luke 23:46). Jesus’ body hung lifeless on the cross, and to prove that Jesus was really dead, a Roman soldier pierced his side with a spear: “But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water” (John 19:34). Later, Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus buried the lifeless body of Jesus in a tomb.

But Jesus’ death (with the separation of his body and soul) did not bring about the end of the incarnation. The human and divine natures in the one person of the Son of God were not separated. There was no severing of the hypostatic union. The Belgic Confession explains:

And though he hath by his resurrection given immortality to the same, nevertheless he hath not changed the reality of his human nature; forasmuch as our salvation and resurrection also depend on the reality of his body. But these two natures are so closely united in one person, that they were not separated even by his death. Therefore that which he, when dying, commended into the hands of his Father, was a real human spirit, departing from his body. But in the meantime the divine nature always remained united with the human, even when he lay in the grave. And the Godhead did not cease to be in him, any more than it did when he was an infant, though it did not so clearly manifest itself for a while.

While the dead body of Jesus lay in the tomb, it was still united to the person of Jesus, whose divine person was also still united to his human soul! (Although his human soul and body were separated, and are finite, his divine person is infinite and omnipresent). Nothing can separate the human and divine in Jesus—not even death!

On the third day, when Jesus rose from the dead, he did not rise as a disembodied spirit. At the point of his resurrection, his body and soul were reunited, and he rose in the body. His body was glorified as a real human body. We see that in his post-resurrection appearances in which, for example, he ate food and permitted his disciples to touch him: “Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have…And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them” (Luke 24:39, 42-43).

Second, Jesus’ resurrection was attested by many witnesses. These witnesses are significant because none of them expected him to rise from the dead. The women who came to anoint his body on the first day of the week expected to find a dead body. Mary Magdalene in particular was devastated not to find Jesus’ body: “They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulcher, and we know not where they have laid him” (John 20:2). The initial reaction of the disciples to Jesus’ resurrection was fear and even unbelief. Especially Thomas would not be convinced until he saw Jesus: “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). On seeing Jesus, Thomas’ response was worship: “And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).

Not only did these same men boldly proclaim Christ’s resurrection, but they were so convinced about it that they were willing to die for the truth of it! The disciples were neither gullible fools nor deliberate deceivers. They knew that Jesus had risen because they were eyewitnesses of his resurrection!

Third, there are “many infallible proofs” of the resurrection. Apart from the compelling eyewitness accounts, we mention two: the empty tomb and the position of the grave clothes. Incontrovertible is the truth that on the third day, against all the expectations of his friends and enemies alike, the body of Jesus was not in the tomb. In addition, the grave clothes in which Jesus had been wrapped were lying in the tomb intact. Grave robbers could not have left the grave clothes behind so neatly, and grave robbers do not unwrap bodies before they carry them away. Besides, no one had the motive, means or opportunity to steal the body, which was guarded by armed soldiers on the orders of the Roman governor!

Fourth, the resurrection is significant both for Jesus and for his people.

The resurrection was vindication and glory for Jesus. He had been condemned, but God, in raising him from the dead, attested that he is the Son of God. “[He was] declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection of the dead” (Rom. 1:4).

The resurrection proves that Jesus has conquered death. If Jesus had remained dead, we would have to conclude that death had permanently conquered him. And if that were the case, we would have no hope, for if Jesus could not conquer death for himself, neither can he conquer it for us.

The resurrection of Jesus is the way of eternal life for God’s people. Jesus died for sin, bearing in his body and soul the punishment due to the sins of his people. If Jesus did not rise, we can only conclude that he failed to satisfy the justice of God. Therefore, we are still in our sins. Paul writes,

And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept (I Corinthians 15:17-20).

Finally, because Jesus rose from the dead, we have the confidence that our bodies will also one day rise from the dead. That is the hope that a Christian has at the funeral of a believing loved one, a hope of which the unbeliever is altogether devoid.

That is the Christian gospel—the Son of God became a man; the Son of God was made under the law whose curse he suffered when he died on the cross; the Son of God was buried; and the Son of God rose again from the dead, triumphant over death!

The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach; that if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the scripture saith, whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed (Romans 10:8-11).

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. 

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N. T. Wright’s “New Perspectives”

Introduction

Calvin College (Grand Rapids, MI) hosted its thirtieth “January Series” in January 2017. Appearing, he informed his audience, for the fifth time, N. T. Wright, former Bishop of Durham in England, and current research professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrew’s in Scotland, gave a speech in connection with the (Henry J.) Stob lecture series with the title, “The Royal Revolution: Fresh Perspectives on the Cross,” on Tuesday, January 24.

Wright is the most popular contemporary proponent of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP), so it is not surprising that he is now offering a fresh (or new) perspective on the cross of Jesus Christ.

Wright’s “New Perspective” on Paul

I report on his latest speech in the “All Around Us” rubric of the Standard Bearer (possibly the March 1, 2017 issue). In this blog, I will briefly review the main tenets of Wright’s NPP.

First, Wright redefines the concepts of “justification” and “righteousness.” The Reformed, biblical, and creedal explanation is that righteousness is a legal status in which one is in harmony with, or in conformity to, the standard of God, which is summarized in God’s law. To be justified is to be declared righteous, that is, to be declared, on the basis of the perfect work of Jesus Christ, to be in harmony with God’s standard. The righteousness of Jesus Christ, his lifelong obedience and his atoning sufferings and death, is imputed, or reckoned to the account of, the sinner, and that righteousness is received by faith alone without works.

Wright denies the possibility or the necessity of the imputation of God’s righteousness. For Wright righteousness is simply God’s covenant faithfulness by which he puts right what evil has done in the creation and keeps his promises to his people. Justification for Wright is not so much a matter of personal salvation, but it is to be declared, on the basis of faith, to be part of the covenant community—the New Israel—which God vindicates now and on the last day.

Moreover, Wright understands Paul’s fierce polemic against the Judaizers in Galatians and elsewhere not as a battle between justification by faith alone versus the notion of justification by the works of the law (because, argues Wright, Paul and his Jewish contemporaries never believed in salvation by works in the sense that the Reformers understood), but as a controversy over how one is declared to be part of the vindicated (or justified) community. Therefore, according to Wright’s reading of Paul, the apostle argued that one is declared a member of the church on the basis of faith, while the Judaizers insisted that one cannot be declared a member of the church—that is, justified—without circumcision and obedience to the (ceremonial) laws of Moses. Therefore, argues Wright, when Paul disputed about circumcision—even to the point of anathemas—he was not disputing about salvation, but about who was a member of the church.[1]

How, then, is one personally justified according to Wright’s NPP? By believing that Jesus is Lord, one is brought into, and declared to be a member of, the new covenant community, the church. At that point, on the basis of faith, one is “justified.” However, to remain one of God’s people, a believer must continue to believe and to be faithful, that is, continued justification and salvation and final justification and salvation depend on good works. On this point, Wright writes:

This declaration, this vindication, occurs twice. It occurs in the future, as we have seen, on the basis of the entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit—that is, it occurs on the basis of “works” in Paul’s redefined sense. And near the heart of Paul’s theology, it occurs in the present as an anticipation of that future verdict, when someone, responding in believing obedience to the call of the gospel, believes that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead.[2]

Thus Wright’s position, which includes a denial of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believing sinner, is simply a scholarly version of the old heresy of justification by faith and works.

Wright is an eloquent and engaging speaker, and undoubtedly many at the Calvin series hung spellbound on his every word, but for all his rhetorical flourishes Wright leaves us with no real atonement, no gospel, and, consequently, nowhere to hide on the day of judgment.

In view of the popularity of Wright, even in Calvin College, where he is hailed as a hero of the faith, those who love the biblical and Reformed truth of justification by faith alone will welcome the imminent publication of a new book by Prof. David J. Engelsma, The Gospel Truth of Justification.

Expect to hear more about Engelsma’s book soon (DV).

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[1] Notice Wright’s avoidance of the phrase “by faith alone,” a fatal omission, and his use of prepositions—justified on the basis of faith. The Reformers, following scripture, teach that justification is by or through faith alone. Faith is not the basis. Faith is the means or instrument of justification.

[2] N. T. Wright, “New Perspectives on Paul” in Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges, ed. Bruce L. McCormack (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 258; cited in John Piper, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright (Nottingham, IVP, 2008), 100. Notice the basis of justification is “the entire life a person has led in the power of the Spirit”—Believing reader, the life that you lead in the power of the Spirit is the imperfect obedience which you, out of sincere love, but in much weakness, have rendered to God in gratitude for your salvation. Will you dare appear before God on that basis, instead of on the basis of the perfect obedience and atoning sufferings and death of Jesus Christ? That is where Wright’s theology would lead you, which will issue in damnation on the day of judgment.

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. 

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Islam (2)

In the last blog post on this subject we noticed that many Muslims do not understand the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. This is because their book, the Qur’an either deliberately or ignorantly misrepresents the doctrine. We call this a “straw man” argument—a “straw man fallacy” occurs when a person creates a misrepresentation of his opponent’s position and attacks it instead of the true position of the opponent. Christians must not be guilty of such fallacies. The Ninth Commandment of God’s Law forbids “falsify[ing] any man’s words” (Heidelberg Catechism, LD 43).

When the Qur’an presents Christians as worshipping Jesus and His mother “in derogation of Allah” (Surah 5:116) or presents Christians as joining “other gods with Allah” (Surah 5:72-73), the Muslim’s supposedly inspired text grossly misrepresents what Christians believe. The Trinity does not consist of Allah, Jesus and Mary, and the Trinity does not consist of many gods. Consider another text from the Qur’an: “They do blaspheme who say: Allah is one of three in a Trinity: for there is no god except one God” (Surah 5:73).

Two concepts in Islamic theology make it very difficult for the Muslim to understand the Christian doctrine of the Trinity—in addition, of course, to the natural depravity of the human heart. Those two concepts are tawhid and shirk.

Tawhid is the absolute oneness of Allah—Islam is a religion of absolute, non-negotiable, Unitarian monotheism. Muslims view other religions (except Judaism) as polytheistic. Hinduism, for example, is polytheistic, for Hindus do indeed worship many gods. Christianity, however, is not polytheistic, for Christians worship only one God. However, when Muslims hear that Christians worship Father, Son and Holy Spirit (or when they imagine that Christians worship Allah, Jesus and Mary!), they conclude wrongly that Christians are polytheistic.

Shirk is the unforgivable sin (in Islam) of associating others with Allah. Muslims fear the sin of shirk above all other transgressions. Allah can forgive adultery, murder and every other sin, but Allah will not under any circumstances forgive one who has died in the sin of shirk: “Allah forgiveth not that partners should be set up with Him, but He forgiveth anything else to whom he pleaseth; to set up partners with Allah is to devise a sin most heinous indeed” (Surah 4:48). “Whoever joins other gods with Allah—Allah will forbid him the Garden, and the fire will be his abode. There will for the wrongdoers be no one to help” (Surah 5:72).

No wonder that the Muslim is especially prejudiced against Christianity—it has been ingrained into him that Christianity is shirk! What the Christian needs to do, therefore, in witnessing is to demonstrate to the Muslim neighbor that the doctrine of the Trinity has nothing to do with shirk. And the Christian must pray that the Spirit of God might open the heart of the Muslim neighbor to receive the truth. Ultimately, we can only present the truth. We cannot convince anyone of the truth. That is the work of God’s Spirit, who blows where He wills in the hearts of God’s elect (John 3:8).

The word Trinity is not found in the Bible, but that should not disturb us, for every field of knowledge has technical vocabulary and terminology. The word Trinity is shorthand for theological concepts that are found in the Bible. The word Trinity explains who God is—in a certain sense, He is one; and in another sense, He is three. He is one God in three distinct persons. This is basic Christianity, but the Muslim will find it confusing.

The Bible teaches that there is only one God. This is the teaching of the Old Testament. When the Gentiles worshipped many gods, Israel confessed and worshipped only one God. “Before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me. I, even I, am the LORD, and beside me there is no Saviour” (Isaiah 43:10-11). This is also the teaching of the New Testament—Christians did not jettison their monotheism even when they confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord. They continued to confess and worship only one God, the same God as the God of the Old Testament. The Greeks and Romans worshipped many gods, but the church steadfastly remained monotheistic. “There is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (I Timothy 2:5).

Nevertheless, the Bible does not hesitate to give the name of God, ascribe the attributes of God, attribute the works of God, and present the worship of God to three individuals—to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.

The Bible gives the name of God to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. The Bible ascribes the attributes of God to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. The Bible attributes the works of God to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. And the Bible presents the worship of God to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.

Many texts could be cited to prove the points above, but I forbear for lack of space. The point, however, is this—the Father is called God, the Son is called God, and the Holy Spirit is called God, and yet there is only one God. (Notice, by the way, contrary to the misrepresentation of the Qur’an, that it is not that Allah is called God, Jesus is called God and Mary is called God. Nor is that the Son is called God and joined as a secondary God to Allah. Nor is that others are worshipped as gods alongside Allah. The doctrine of the Trinity means that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are equally God).

To explain the truth of the Trinity, the early church needed to use terminology. In what sense is God one, and in what sense is God three? The theological terms on which the church settled were being or essence, and person. Of course, the early church used Greek terms (ousia and hypostasis). These terms became all the more important because of the presence of false teachers in the church. For example, a heretic called Arius (d. 336) agreed to call the Son of God homoiousion, which means of a similar essence or being to the Father, but he baulked at the word homoousion, which means of the same essence or being as the Father. (The astute reader will notice that the difference between those two words, and therefore the difference between heresy and orthodoxy, is one letter—the smallest Greek letter, iota!). These theological debates occurred long before Mohammed’s birth, as I explained in the last blog post on this subject.

The being or essence of something makes it what it is, and distinguishes it from every other being. Everything apart from God is creature. The divine being of God is unique—and one. There are not two, or three beings called God. There is one God, one divine being, or one indivisible Godhead.

A person is a conscious, intelligent, active individual distinct from other persons. The writer of this blog post is a person. The individual reader is another, distinct person. This world has billions of human persons in it.

The difficulty is this—in our human experience, one human being is also one human person. No analogy or illustration exists in which one being is more than one person. Yet that is who God is—He is three distinct persons subsisting in one divine being. To understand something of that, or to grasp that, is to understand the doctrine of the Trinity. The Father is not the same person as the Son or the Holy Spirit, yet He shares the same being as the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Son is not the same person as the Father or the Holy Spirit, yet He shares the same being as the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not the same person as the Father or the Son, yet He shares the same being as the Father and the Son.

Is that deep and mysterious? Absolutely! Is that illogical, contradictory and impossible to reconcile with human reason? Absolutely not!

There are two more significant truths about the Trinity that we must bear in mind.

First, the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity is one of equality. Christians do not worship one person “in derogation” of the other persons. Christians view the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as coequal in power, glory and majesty—there is no gradation of being or difference of rank. The Father is not more divine than the Son or the Holy Spirit, for example. The Father is not higher, and the Son is not subordinate to the Father in the being of God. Remember the word homoousion—of the same essence. There is also no time in the Trinity—the Trinity is eternal, which means that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are co-eternal. The Father is not before the Son or before the Spirit.

Second, the relationship between the persons of the Trinity is one of perfect love and fellowship. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are not rivals, but holy family. The Father loves the Son in the Holy Spirit, and the Son loves the Father in the Holy Spirit. God, therefore, is not a lonely deity, but He is the living God, full of life, love and fellowship, within Himself, within His own being. It is because of this love of God within the being of God that God is capable of loving the creature.

This God—the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit—is the God of our salvation.

Next time, DV, we will explain what we mean by the Christian confession that Jesus is the Son of God, something about which Muslims have many misconceptions.

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. 

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Islam (1)

Because of multiculturalism and increased immigration, especially in Europe, Muslims are increasingly common in the post-Christian West. This makes Muslims our neighbors, those whom God has placed on our path. Many Christians view Muslims as their enemies. Nevertheless, the command of Christ is clear—love your neighbor, and even love your enemy.

Part of the love that the Christian owes his Muslim neighbor is to present the gospel to him. Many Christians are ill equipped to do so. In a series of blog posts, I intend to introduce the reader to the doctrines of Islam, so that we can better understand our Muslim neighbor, and so that we can witness to him about Jesus Christ. You might find that the Muslim is more interested in hearing the gospel than the hardened “lapsed Christian.”

One problem in witnessing to Muslims is that Muslims misunderstand what Christianity is. They have wrong notions about the Trinity, the Son of God, and other Christian truths. Not only do they reject them, but their Qur’an misrepresents them. This is a formidable barrier, but it can be overcome when we plainly state the truth.

A good place to begin is with history. The Qur’an was written during the lifetime of Mohammed (c. 570-632 AD). A lot of very significant church history took place before Mohammed’s birth. First, the Christian church defined from the scriptures the doctrine of the Trinity (the Council of Nicea in 325 AD and the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD). Second, the Christian church defined the relationship between the one person and the two natures (human and divine) of Jesus Christ (the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD).

The reason that these dates are significant is simple—the church had defined from the New Testament who God is and who Jesus Christ is over a century before Mohammed’s birth. (We do not mean that the church invented these doctrines, but that the church officially defined them out of the inspired scriptures). Therefore, the Qur’an, which Mohammed allegedly received as divine revelation, should accurately reflect what the church had defined. If the Qur’an shows evidence of ignorance of Christian doctrine or deliberate misrepresentation of it, the Muslim is faced with very serious questions about the authenticity of his “sacred book.”

Consider the following citations from the Qur’an against the Trinity:

 And behold, Allah will say: ‘O Jesus, the son of Mary! Didst thou say unto men, ‘Worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of Allah?’ He will say: ‘Glory to Thee! Never could I say what I had no right (to say). Had I said such a thing, Thou wouldest indeed have known it. Thou knowest what is in my heart, though I know not what is in Thine. For thou knowest in full all that is hidden’ (Surah 5:116).

O People of the Book! Commit no excesses in your religion: nor say of Allah aught but the truth. Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, was (no more than) a Messenger of Allah, and His Word, which He bestowed on Mary, and a Spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in Allah and His Messengers. Say not Three: desist: it will be better for you: for Allah is One God: glory be to Him: (far Exalted is He) above having a son. To Him belong all things in the heavens and on earth. And enough is Allah as a Disposer of affairs (Surah 4:171).

 They do blaspheme who say: ‘God is Christ the son of Mary.’ But said Christ: ‘O children of Israel! Worship Allah, my Lord and your Lord.’ Whoever joins other gods with Allah, Allah will forbid him the Garden, and the Fire will be his abode. There will for the wrongdoers be no one to help. They do blaspheme who say: Allah is one of three in a Trinity: for there is no god except One God. If they desist not from their word (of blasphemy), verily, a grievous penalty will befall the blasphemers among them (Surah 5:72-73).

The reader will notice that the writer of the Qur’an views the Trinity very differently from the official statements of the Christian church. “Worship me and my mother in derogation of Allah.” The Qur’an’s “Trinity” is not Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but Allah, Jesus and Mary! Moreover, the Qur’an views the Trinity as “join[ing] other gods with Allah.”

This misrepresentation of the Trinity is inexcusable because the church defined the Trinity as one God in three distinct persons centuries before Mohammed wrote one word of the Qur’an. No Christian has ever defined the Trinity as the Qur’an does. It is, however, easy to imagine how Mohammed could have jumped to such a conclusion. Mohammed observed churches; he saw statues and icons; and he conversed with Christian merchants of various heretical sects. There is no evidence, however, that he was familiar with the Nicene or Chalcedonian creeds. In fact many believe that Mohammed was illiterate.

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father by whom all things were made … And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life; who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.

How could Mohammed have been unaware of a theological controversy that had been resolved in the Christian church two centuries before the Qur’an was written, if he is (as Islam claims) the prophet of God, and if the Qur’an is (as Islam claims) the inspired word of the all knowing, all seeing Allah? For Mohammed to disagree with Christian orthodoxy is one thing; for him to be ignorant of or deliberately to misrepresent it is quite another.

Next time, DV, we will explain what we mean by the Trinity so that we can properly present the truth that Jesus is the Son of God to our Muslim neighbor.

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. 

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