Sunday, February 21, 2010

Assurance of Salvation in Islam and Christianity

In this post, I argued that the God of the Qur'an is capricious, since he transcends our moral and rational categories. To demonstrate this, I gave a couple of examples from the Qur'an of God deceiving people to accomplish his objectives. By way of contrast, the God of the Bible does not and cannot lie (Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29; Titus 1:1-2; Hebrews 6:13-20).

Another aspect of God's caprice in the Qur'an pertains to salvation. Whether one goes to Heaven or not is based on God's arbitrary will, and we can never have any confidence as to whether we will be rewarded or punished. In The Qur'an and the Bible in the Light of History and Science, William Campbell discusses this at the end of this chapter, demonstrating it with multiple passages from the Qur'an.

The only instance in the Qur'an (that I'm aware of) where God promises to send people to heaven is in Sura 9:111, which states,

Surely Allah has bought of the believers their persons and their property for this, that they shall have the garden; they fight in Allah's way, so they slay and are slain; a promise which is binding on Him in the Taurat [Torah] and the Injeel [Gospels] and the Quran; and who is more faithful to his covenant than Allah? Rejoice therefore in the pledge which you have made; and that is the mighty achievement.

This sounds like God will only promise to send someone to heaven if they kill and are killed while fighting for Allah's cause. So the only way to be assured of being heavenbound in Islam is if you're fighting (on the right side) in a holy war, in which you kill some of your enemies, and are killed yourself. Thus it is to one's soteriological advantage to make sure there is always a holy war going on and that one is, in some sense, participating in it, to the extent of killing people. As such, this is one of the Qur'anic passages focused on most frequently by Muslim terrorists.

Yet even this is not enough. After all, keeping a promise is a moral issue, and according to Islam God transcends our moral categories. If God could lie to Muhammad about the battle of Badr, why couldn't he be lying here?

The anxiety over one's eternal destiny in Islam goes all the way to the top. After saying or writing "Muhammad", Muslims add the phrase, "peace be upon him". They are praying that God grant Muhammad peace in the afterlife because God may choose to do otherwise. If Muhammad doesn't have assurance of salvation, what hope does an average Muslim have? A fascinating book by Christian missionary Jens Christensen, which can be read online, entitled Mission to Islam and Beyond gives an excellent exposition of the anxiety of salvation in Islam, illustrating it with some of the rightly guided Caliphs and other early Muslims (starting from the bottom of page 277).

One of the things that often surprised me in my first studies of Islam was the note of despondency and insecurity that is found in the deathbed utterances of so many of Islam’s great men. For example: Abu Bakr was a prince among men, of sterling character and a true Muslim. It is said of him that he was so fearful of the future and laboured so much under distress that his breath was often as of a roasted liver. According to two traditions he is supposed to have said to Aisha on the day of his death: ‘Oh my daughter, this is the day of my release and of obtaining of my desert—if gladness it will be lasting; if sorrow it will never cease’.

Do you see those two ‘ifs’? Nothing in Islam can remove them; not even the fact that Abu Bakr was given the title Atik (Free) because Muhammed is supposed to have said to him: Thou art free (saved) from the fire.

Likewise, when Umar was lying on his deathbed he is reported to have said:

‘...I am none other than as a drowning man who sees possibility of escape with life, and hopeth for it, but feareth he may die and lose it, and so plungeth about with hands and feet. More desperate than the drowning man is he who at the sight of heaven and hell is buried in the vision ... Had I the whole East and West, gladly would I give up all to be delivered from this awful terror that is hanging over me.’ And finally touching his face against the ground he cried aloud: ‘Alas for Umar, and alas for the mother of Umar, if it should not please the Lord to pardon me’.

Do you see Umar’s difficulty? It is the uncertainty expressed in the ‘if’ of the last sentence. That ‘if’ does not express any feeling of uncertainty regarding Umar’s faith, Umar’s belief in one God, Umar’s trust and confidence in the prophet, or Umar’s lack of the good life. All of these things were in order as far as a human being could do that which is right. No. The ‘if’ refers to God; ‘if’—it should not please the Lord to pardon him. When Yazid was burying his father he is quoted as saying:

I will not magnify him before the Almighty in whose presence he has gone to appear. If He forgive him it will be of His mercy; if He take vengeance on him, it will be for his transgressions.

Here again you have the two ‘ifs’:

(a) If God forgive ...
(b) If God take vengeance ...

This remark of Yazid’s seems to me to epitomise the whole of Islam. When you for years have worked through the great and imposing structure of Islamic thought, it is desponding beyond words to find that the foundation of it all is that little word ‘if’. That ‘if’ is the feet of clay of the colossal and awe-inspiring image, known as Muslim theology. It comes out even where the author’s intention is just the opposite. For instance regarding Sura 39:53, which was mentioned before (see paragraph 11), in which it says Allah’s servants are not to despair for He forgives their faults altogether, Muhammed Ali comments as follows: ‘The mercy and love of Allah, which are much talked of in other religions, find their true and practical expression in Islam. No religion gives the solace and comfort which we find in this verse. It discloses the all-comprehensive mercy of Allah, before which the sins of men become quite insignificant. He is not a mere Judge who decides between two parties, but a Master who deals with His servants as He pleases, and therefore He can forgive the guilty without injustice to anybody’.

Note the last sentence: A Master who deals with His servants AS HE PLEASES, and therefore He can forgive, etc. Even the Ahmadiya, Muhammed Ali, with his very careful choice of words would not presume to say that this Master of whom he speaks does forgive, for He does as He pleases, and Muhammed Ali like all others cannot know what His pleasure will be.

As you have seen, it is ridiculous to tell a Muslim that his religion is a law-religion. It is, no doubt, in the sense that he feels it incumbent upon him to abide by a great number of rules and regulation as an expression of God’s will. And yet for the Muslim it is not really a law religion, for his obedience has no bearing on his final condition before Allah. On the other hand it is not an evangel, that is, the publishing of good news, for what good news can there ever be in that awful, uncertain, unpredictable ‘if’; and yet no man, from Muhammed himself right down to the lowest aboriginal Muslim, would ever presume to know or dare to predict what ‘if’ will mean for him.

This raises another issue for me: does the uncertainty of God's decision about whether a believer makes it to heaven extend to whether they get to stay in heaven? If one's salvation is completely subject to God's capricious judgment, why wouldn't his caprice extend to whether those who are in heaven remain there? I don't know enough about Islamic theology to answer this question. If this is the case, though, heaven could hardly live up to its name. One would be constantly wondering whether God will cast him out of heaven at any moment for no reason whatsoever.

The Bible states that our eternal destinies are entirely in God's hands as well, but states further that as long as certain conditions are met (genuine repentance and genuine faith in God), then God promises that we are Heaven-bound. And since he can't lie, we can trust him to keep his promises. One of the passages mentioned above, Titus 1:1-2, states this well: "Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ for the faith of God's elect and the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness -- faith and knowledge resting on the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time..." Of course, one can always engage in introspection and question whether one really has genuinely repented and accepted God; but this is not the same thing as knowing that God may arbitrarily send you to hell regardless of what you do, say, or believe. Christensen draws the distinction between the Islamic and Christian conceptions of salvation well:

There is also an ‘if’ in Christianity, but the great difference between it and the ‘if’ of Islam is that that ‘if’ is never predicated of God. The whole content of the Gospel is simply this one thing: to show mankind that God is faithful towards His creation. He has restricted Himself with pacts, covenants and promises; He has revealed Himself in a perfect union with manhood; He has carried the burden of man’s fall on Himself—all so that we may know Him and trust Him as the ‘Faithful One’, that is, as the One who keeps faith with His creation. The ‘if’ in Christianity is always predicated of man: if you will believe, if you will trust, if you will accept, then God is faithful, you can always count on Him.


JSA said...

"the if is always predicated of man"

Is this really true? It seems to come very close to Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism. I've always thought that the Islamic commentators on Quran seem a lot like Calvinists, but even proper Arminians would agree that it's God who does the drawing, and man's only contribution is his lack of resistance,

Jim S. said...

That's a very good point. Let me say two things in response:

1. Lack of resistance would still entail the "if" being predicated of man. If you stop disbelieving, if you stop rebelling, if you let me save you, etc.

2. Theological fatalism is present in both Christianity and Islam. The difference is that in Christianity it's the exception to the rule (Calvinism), while in Islam it's the rule, and denying it is the exception (the Mu'tazilite school).

JSA said...

To your second point, Islam certainly makes it harder to avoid the theological fatalism. Where the Bible seems to deliberately keep things ambiguous, the Quran is pretty insistent on fatalism.

In reading al-Banna and Maududi, I often had the reaction that "this insanity turns man into a beast!" (and thought of Nebuchadnezzar), just as when I read some of the atheist materialist reductionists like Dennet.

However, since I "err on the side of Calvinism" if forced to take sides, I would defend Calvinism against such charges. But I note that Islam also seems to make a similar defense as Calvinists: "it's about God's sovereignty".

Anyway, it's a really strange situation, IMO. In Christian soteriology, it's usually the Arminians or Catholics who are portrayed as being uncertain about their salvation, while the Calvinists are represented as having a higher level of confidence ("once saved always saved" and all that). However, the same fatalism in Islam produces a very un-Calvinist anxiety and uncertainty. On the one hand, I would agree that it's because the God of the Quran doesn't make covenants. But on the other hand, one wonders if Calvinists truly respect God's sovereignty as much as they claim to, if they go to their deathbed so confidently, never saying "if it be your will, God".

(for the record, I don't agree with that last point, but Muslim anxiety about salvation seems pretty consistent with a Calvinist's professed respect for God's sovereignty)

jacob longshore said...

Pope Benedict XVI gives a similar consideration in the Regensburg lecture of 2006 - he speaks on the reasonableness of God, which is strongly tied to the question of this post.

For what it's worth, I posted what I think clarifies an important aspect of the matter. I don't think the Bible is ambiguous on fatalism, it's just not in-your-face articulate about the reasons for Christianity's position. I could well be way off base, but that's how it seems to me right now.