Over a year ago, I heard something on James White’s podcast that I’ve been thinking about off and on ever since. It’s a clip of Yusuf Ismail, a Muslim, from a debate he did with a Christian, and it gives some insight into how Muslims view God and the Christian gospel. Dr. White explains in the podcast:
I think this is one of the best insights into the Muslim mind that is trying to interpret the gospel of Jesus Christ within a context that has no room for a suffering Messiah, has no room for the gospel message. This, to me, is a clear illustration of how...Mohammed never understood the very central aspect of the message of the gospel. He never understood it.
This was Yusuf Ismail’s objection to the gospel:
The idea, or the concept, of Jesus being God or being divine has raised for Muslims a number of issues pertaining to the theological mistrust. If Jesus is God, and God allows Himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross—and as John had suggested earlier on, it was the idea of God incarnate, coming down to earth, humiliating Himself, in a manner of speaking, and being crushed by his enemies, in a manner of speaking—now, if that’s the idea of God, if God allows Himself to be edged out of the world onto the cross, then our understanding of God is fundamentally a God who is weak and totally powerless in the world. He helps us, not through His omnipotence, not through His almightiness, but rather through His weakness and suffering.
We forget how entirely unexpected and shocking the humility and servanthood of Jesus is—how foreign it is to human expectations of God, and in this case, to Muslim expectations. Transcendence, power, judgment, and victory, they expect. But humility? Self-sacrificial grace? These seem obviously incompatible with deity to Yusuf Ismail.
But this is Christianity: God accomplished His purpose through the weakness, suffering, humiliation, and even death of Jesus, the divine second person of the Trinity. And even more shockingly, Jesus did this for people who were the cause of His suffering, and humiliation, and death. Because of this, it’s not by accident that Christians who live in gratefulness and awe of this don’t seek revenge on those who mock them and their God. We’re told in Philippians 2:
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Yes, God will accomplish perfect justice in the end. Justice is good, and we rest in that. But the most honored act of all time, for which Jesus was highly exalted by the Father, was not avenging His Name, but dying for those who disgraced it. He didn’t dismiss justice, but instead He upheld it by bearing it on His own shoulders. This central act of Christianity burrowed into our understanding of the virtuous life and slowly infiltrated all of Western culture—so much so that we in the West now take for granted the beauty of patient, gracious, self-sacrificial humility over an immediate exercise of punitive power. We forget that not every culture has seen this as desirable. It’s an echo of Christ, not something men naturally reason to on their own.
As with any ideal, neither individual Christians nor societies shaped by Christianity have always lived up to this. But the astounding truth is that our knowledge of Christ created this cultural ideal where it didn’t exist before.