Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Qur’an or the Bible? Which one is the Word of God for All Humanity?

Many years ago, while I was still teaching Zoology in a Collage, on a bus journey from Bangalore to Mysore, I realized that the person sitting next to me was a foreigner and a Muslim. I had a sincere desire to initiate a conversation and to share the gospel. After some internal struggle, I was able to break the ice. I asked him for his name and then for the name of his country. He was from Jordan, a Muslim (my guess came true), and a student. He asked for my name and then asked what I was doing. We talked a little bit about education and slowly moved, quite naturally and smoothly into a discussion on religious matters. Initially he was a little guarded and was hesitating to talk. However, as we moved forward, he began to wax eloquent on why he believed in Islam and on why Qur’an was the only true and final revelation from God to all humanity.

After I listened quite carefully and attentively for some time, I said, “What you have been saying is very interesting and in some ways challenging too. But I have a few questions on what you have said so far. May I ask you some of those questions?” He responded positively and so I said, “You have claimed and tried to justify that the Qur’an is the final and perfect Word from God to humanity. Is it the word of God to all humanity?” “Of course,” he said, and then tried to support the claim this way: “There is only one true God and that God is the God of all humanity. Therefore, his revelation to humanity must also be the same for all humanity.” I said, “This sounds quite reasonable. But I have another question.” What is it?” he said. Then I summarized his claims and said, “You said just a little earlier that the Holy Qur’an was given in heavenly and the most glorious Arabic to Prophet Mohammad who was an illiterate, that he passed it on to his followers who then passed it on to their successors, and that it was finally written down just as it came down from heaven. You also mentioned that one has to read it in the Arabic language to know that it has come from Allah and that it is a miracle in itself. However, I am struggling with a few questions that popped up in my mind, as I was listening to you. Would you please answer my questions and clear my doubts?” With great excitement, he said, “What are your questions and doubts? I will be very happy to explain and clarify things to you.”

“If the Qur’an is God’s Word to all humans and is written in heavenly Arabic, and if one has to read it in Arabic to know that it has come down to us from God, through the Prophet Mohammad, then what about the vast majority of the people in the world who do not know the Arabic language?” I said, “and what has Allah been doing to let people know the truth?” This Muslim friend who was very fluent up to this point, suddenly got
into a reflective mode and became quiet. I had to gently bring him out of his long silence and ask him what his response was. He expressed his inability to respond and promised that he would think about it.

Then, I asked him if I could explain the reasoning that prompted my questions. He answered positively and here is the summary of what I said to him (of course with interruptions in the form of questions of clarifications from him):

I agree with you that there is only One True God of all humanity and that His revelation must be the same for all humanity. However, if the One True God has given one universal revelation to all humanity in one language, then He must do something to make sure that His revelation is translated into different languages so that all humans might come to know the truth about Him. Otherwise, the God of such a revelation that is limited to the people of just one language (the original language in which the revelation is given) and not of all humanity. This must be true, because the God of all humanity should love all humans equally and ensure that His revelation is available to all humans in their different languages. But many Muslim friends like you have told me over the years that in the process of translating the Holy Qur’an into any other language, the original meaning would be lost and hence reading any translation of the Qur’an is not equal to reading the Qur’an. This makes us wonder how the Qur’an could be God’s revelation to all humanity.
However, when we consider the Holy Bible that Christians claim is the true, final, and sufficient revelation of the one true God to all humanity, we know that it has been translated into over 1500 languages. It continues to be the one book that has been translated into highest number of languages, highest selling, most read and most influencing book. This is one reason why I am convinced that the Bible is truly the revelation of the One true God to all humanity and am experiencing its transforming power in my daily life, like many millions all over the world. I would encourage you to take a copy of the New Testament part of the Bible and read it in your own language and see for yourself if what I am saying is true or not.

This Muslim friend was very quiet, but attentive as I explained things to him and agreed to read the Bible. Our conversation ended on a friendly note. I was not able to share the gospel with this friend, but I was glad that I was able to present one important truth to him in a way that got his attention.

When I reflected on this dialogue, I realized yet another time that the principles of apologetics that I had learnt came handy and helped me in this dialogue with a Muslim friend. I would like to highlight just three of them: 1) Agreeing with the other person on some things that are true and agreeable makes her/him more open, 2) Raising Critical Questions that have the power of forcing people to open up with their assumptions, consider the evidence afresh, and to realize the errors that might be there in their thinking, and 3) Controlling and directing the discussion/dialogue towards truth by gently raising good questions that bring the real/main issues into focus. It is my prayer that you too might learn and use the principles of apologetics in your evangelistic and pre-evangelistic conversations.

Note: Not all Muslims would agree with us so easily. They would generally raise many tough questions about the reliability of the NT and a number of other Christian beliefs like the Holy Trinity, Deity of Jesus Christ, Death and Resurrection of Christ, etc. We have good answers to most of their questions and we will cover them in the future under some other column. Alternatively, you can visit Answering Islam.Org and find good answers to the many common questions that we get from our Muslim friends.

Does the Christian idea of God as Trinity make sense?

Some years ago while I was traveling in a train I struck a conversation with one of the fellow passengers. He was a medical doctor and a Muslim. I started the conversation with a desire to share the gospel with him. But he kept asking many questions and the discussion went on for a long time (more than two hours). Most of the questions were related to the reliability of the gospels and the deity of Jesus Christ. He controlled the discussion and took it in different directions. I was not able to share the gospel and was beginning to feel frustrated.

I started the conversation, he hijacked it, and I was feeling helpless. It was at this time that I began to pray and the Lord guided me to stop answering his questions and to start asking some questions instead. So I said, “Sir, you have been asking many questions and I have been trying to answer them. To me it appears that we have not been able to make much progress. I thought we should begin to talk about something that we can agree on. If you do not mind, I would like to ask you one question.” He responded positively and the question I asked him was this: “Do you believe that God is loving?” He thought for a long time and answered in the affirmative. Then I said, “If God is loving, has He always been loving?” This time he thought for a much longer time and became silent.

Then I sad, “Sir, I did not intend to silence you in our discussion. My intention in asking the question was to focus our discussion on the nature of God. Would you please let me know what your thoughts are on this matter.” He told me quite hesitatingly that he got stuck in his thinking. Then I told him that I would be happy to explain the reasoning behind my questions, if he wanted to know. He told me that he would be interested in knowing my reasoning. So I told him something like the following:
We cannot think of God who is absolutely one and loving at the same time. The reason is simple. If God is God, He must be eternal and must be eternally loving. This means that He must have loved something or someone even before He chose to create anything. This must be so, because’ love’ is other-centered and not self-centered. In fact, self-love is not a virtue and in plain language, we call it ‘selfishness’. This shows or necessitates that there must be some plurality in the personality of God, so that love might not just be a possibility, but be an actuality. This is why the Bible gives the teaching that God is tripersonal or that God is a triune being. In other words, God is one (essence) and three (persons) at the same time. If this is not the case, in eternity, God would have only had the potential to love and then He would have had to wait until He created something or someone to actualize His potential to love and such a being that depends on creatures to actualize a potential cannot be God (who must be self-sufficient and pure actuality). What God is, He is in totality and eternally. The Christian understanding of God as Trinity makes perfect sense, because the three persons of the Godhead – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit love one another eternally and such a triune being can be a loving God in Himself and can love or direct His love towards creatures like us as well. That is why the Bible says that God is love. God the Father loves God the Son through the medium of God the Holy Spirit and thus the God of the Bible is a Community of three Persons that share the same divine essence and are bound eternally by love. Only this kind of a God can be truly loving.

The Muslim friend listened very carefully and once again went into silence. I had to bring him out of the silence and back into conversation by asking him what he thought about my analysis. He told me that nobody had ever told him what I told him and promised that he would think more on this. At that point, I gave him the address of a Christian friend of mine who happened to be living in the same neighborhood.

You might be now wondering about my original intention of sharing the gospel. I could not share the gospel, because he was not prepared to take it. But I was glad that I could at least bring the discussion under control and lead it towards the truth, make a reasonable presentation of the biblical or Christian understanding of God, and thus could get a Muslim friend to listen to what I had to say about God. I do believe that God might have brought someone else like me across his path since then to present the gospel to him. As a result of our conversation, this Muslim friend must have become a little more prepared to take the gospel seriously and to understand it.

Note: A condensed version of this was originally published in Apologia: Reasoned Answers for Life (July – September 2003, pp. 27-28).

What is the sex of God? Is God a He or She or an It?

Many years ago, I was at a University in the State of Andhra Pradesh, India to speak in an Open Forum on the “Evolution-Creation Controversy.” The auditorium was packed with postgraduate students, some research scholars, and a few faculty members. The lecture went well. I presented evidence from different branches of biology – molecular biology, genetics, biochemistry, and paleontology that go against the theory of evolution and support the idea that God created the universe and everything in it, instead.

The Q&A time began and after I answered a few questions that were given in writing, the Head of the Department of Zoology stood up, made a brief comment, and then asked a question. He said, “Mr. Sudhakar, we cannot deny the evidence that you have presented to support your claim that the case for evolution is very weak and the evidence supports the conclusion that there must be a God. I do believe that there is a God. But I have a question. What is the sex of this God? Is it a He or a She or an It?

In response to this question, everyone present broke into laughter. I was a bit uncomfortable. I sent forth a telegraphic prayer and the answer came back almost instantaneously. God brought to memory a few things that I had learnt earlier that could help me answer the question. While thanking God in my heart, I was able to give an answer to the professor. I said, “Sir, if you do not mind, I would like to ask you a question, which would be a part of my answer.” The professor responded positively and so I said, “Sir, your question is exactly like that question that I am going to ask and the question is this – How many liters of love do you have for your wife?” The whole auditorium broke into laughter again. The professor was laughing as well, but was a little uncomfortable and I could see it. I then asked the audience if they understood the relationship or connection between the professor’s question and my question. The response I got was silence. They knew something was wrong with the question, but they did not understand. So I explained, saying, “We laugh at some of the questions because we know that there is something intrinsically wrong with them, whether we know it or not. If you consider my question to the professor carefully, you will know that liter is not a unit of measurement that we use when we talk about love. Liter is all right and relevant when we talk about liquids like water, milk, and oil. But you cannot use liter as a unit of measurement when we talk about love, which is not physical and liquid. This type of questions actually confuse categories and in philosophy they are referred to as nonsensical or meaningful questions.”

I pointed out to the professor very gently that just as liter is irrelevant when we talk about love; gender is irrelevant and does not make sense when we talk about God. Then I reminded him of what I had already explained: God was there before anything of the material-physical and time-space universe ever existed and He brought everything into existence. This means that God must be non-physical and non-temporal. If He is non-physical, then He must be non-biological as well, because gender is a characteristic of biological entities like animals, plants, or human beings that are a part of the physical-material universe. I explained further that God is trans-sexual and hence it becomes irrelevant to talk about that being’s gender. It does not make sense. We are mixing categories (the physical and the non-physical) here and making a ‘category mistake’, as it is described in logic. The professor nodded in agreement and sat down.

Then I went on to explain that the Bible uses the term, ‘He’ with reference to God both in the Old and New Testaments, not because He is a ‘male God’, but because God is a person and we are familiar only with male or female persons. This makes sense because the God of the Bible knew that there would be a point in human history when the trans-sexual and non-physical God, who is a Spirit, would come into the history in the form of a human being and that human being would be a man (for reasons well known to Him). So, I think, to maintain consistency throughout the Bible, even in the Old Testament God chose to use the personal pronoun ‘He’ with reference to Himself.

It is also interesting to note that in the Bible the traits that are there both in man and woman are found in God. This means that both men and women received some of those uniquely masculine or feminine traits or characteristics from the same God. God created both man and woman in His image and likeness and it is together that humans reflect the image of God. At this point, I saw people nodding their heads in agreement and the rest of the open forum went very well. I had an opportunity to clarify things further about God and how we could know God. You can see how the principles of apologetics (the principle of using questions that cause others to stop and think) can be put to effective use in our interactions with our non-Christian friends and lead the discussion in the direction of truth.

Note: A version of this was published in Apologia: Reasoned Answers for Life (April – June 2003, pp. 12-13).

Friday, June 22, 2007

Applied Apologetics: Conversations/Dialogues that Count

No. 1. Should we see God in order to believe that He exists?

It was an Open Forum on the Question of God’s existence in a Collage auditorium. The participants were all science students. During the Q&A time, one of the students posed these questions: Is God visible? Alternatively, can we see God? If not, how can we believe that God exists? By way of answering, I raised a few questions in return: Are you sure that your great-grandfather had existed? He answered, “Yes.” Then I asked, "Have you even seen him?" This time the answer was in the negative. Then I asked, are you still sure that you have a great-grand father who existed at some time in the past? He was apparently a little annoyed and stunned at the same time. He realized that although he had not seen his great-grandfather, he was sure that he existed. I gently pointed to him that he was sure about the existence of his great-grandfather whom he had not seen because he himself was in existence at that point of time and then made the point that ‘seeing’ is not the only basis for believing. He nodded in agreement and sat down.

Then I directed a question to the audience: How many of you believe that electrons exist? Everyone present responded in unison in the affirmative. I went on to raise another question: How many of you have ever seen an electron? The only answer I got was hush silence. It seemed that they got the point. I clarified the truth that though we cannot see an electron, we do not doubt its existence, because we have indirect evidence (its effects) that it exists. I also mentioned that there are many entities that are important in the scientific realm but they cannot be seen (they are invisible). They all nodded in agreement and I went on to make the following final comments.

The question of the origin of the universe brings the question of God’s existence to the surface. God is that invisible cause behind the cosmos who brought the universe into existence. Because He existed before space-time-matter existed, He must be non-physical and therefore we cannot see Him (He is invisible). This is not only reflective of God’s non-physical/material nature, but more of our own finiteness – our limited ability to see or perceive. We cannot or are not able to see God. However, there are many indirect evidences for God’s existence. Therefore, our inability to see something or someone does not prove that the entity in question does not exist. At this point, the student who raised the original question and almost everyone in the audience nodded in agreement. This is an instance of applying apologetics or principles of apologetics (particularly the art of asking right questions in dialogues and moving them towards truth) in a practical real life situation that is still fresh in my memory after many years.

Note: A shorter version of this was published in Apologia: Reasoned Answers for Life (January – March 2003, p. 19).

Monday, June 11, 2007

David and his Three Military Chiefs: Learning Some Spiritual Lessons from a Battle Scene

(1 Chronicles 11: 10-19)
- Rev. Sudhakar Mondithoka,
(Former National Director of RZIM-India and currently a Visiting Professor of Christian Apologetics, Ethics, and World Religions at SAIACS and SABC, Bangalore)

Introduction: Humans are busier than ever before – our generation is the busiest generation in history. Speed is good. Being busy is good. However, being too busy (busy beyond a healthy limit) has many baneful affects. We are all under tremendous pressure to perform that comes from outside and the unhealthy drive from within and we often end up in the ‘performance trap’. All this leads to increased levels of tension and anxiety (stress). No wonder that 40% of deaths in Urban India are due to life-style disorders or diseases. Look at this Psalm 23 parody – The 21st Century Busy Person’s Version of Psalm 23:
The clock is my dictator, I shall not rest.
It makes me lie down only when exhausted.
It leads me to deep depression. It hounds my soul.
It leads me in circles of frenzy for activity's sake.
Event though I run frantically from task to task, dawn to desk, I will never get it all done, for my "ideal" is always with me.
Deadlines and my need for approval, they drive me.
They demand performance from me, beyond the limits of my schedule.
They anoint my head with migraines.
My in-tray and in-box overflow.
Surely fatigue and time pressure shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the bonds of frustration and desperation forever.
[Lord, please help me to stay close to your Psalm 23 for me and not mine. My Psalm 23 leads me to destruction, yours leads me to peace, and all the good things you want me to enjoy in life. Amen]

With this as the backdrop, let us now look at the context of the text that I want us to consider closely.

Setting/Background/Context: It was a very crucial point in the history of Israel. Their first king, Saul started deviating (going away from God), although he started well and did well for some time. The Lord had chosen David, the youngest son of Jesse and turned the kingdom over to David. Samuel the prophet had already anointed David King of Israel, but Saul was haunting him and he was hiding from Saul. Saul just died, because of unfaithfulness in following/to the Lord (1 Chro. 11: 13-14). After Saul’s death, the elders of Israel anointed David king over Israel at Hebron. However, there was resistance coming from different quarters. David and his men conquer Jerusalem. The Philistines gathered for battle at Pas Dammim. David’s troops fled from the Philistines, but his mighty men, about thirty chiefs (who gave David’s kingship strong support to extend it over the whole land – v. 10) took their stand, struck the Philistines down, and the Lord borough about great victory. At that time King David, their Master (Commander in Chief) was in the stronghold - a rock at the cave of Adullam, while a band of Philistines was encamped in the Valley of Rephaim and the Philistine garrison was at Bethlehem.

A. David and the Three Military Chiefs – A Highly Dramatic Scene on the Battle Field that ends on an Anticlimactic note: While he was in the stronghold, David longed for water and said, “Oh, that someone would get me a drink of water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem!” (11: 17). It is like soliloquy, and not a request directed to someone. V. 15 says that three of the thirty chiefs came down to David, their master. We read in v. 18 that they heard their master’s words (as it is implied), broke through the Philistine lines, drew water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem and carried it back to David. Verses 18b and 19 say that when they brought the water, he refused to drink it and poured it out before the Lord, instead.
B. David’s Three Military Chiefs and the Spiritual Lessons we can Learn from them: I want us to now focus a little bit on these three mighty men of David. What can we observe and learn about them? We can learn two important things about them:
1) They were in Physical/Spatial Proximity to their Master and so could hear his words that expressed his longing, and 2) They were in such intimate love relationship with their King that they were willing to put their lives on the line (as we can see in David’s response – vv. 18b –19a) to satisfy the longing of their master. Their courageous/heroic action reveals that they were deeply dedicated/committed to their master. By the way, it was not/does not seem to be careless courage – not merely human, heroic courage, but courage engendered by love. It was not merely determination and drive to succeed in doing something, but doing that flowed out of their being men of love, dedication, and commitment, in their relationship to their master. It was not even something that they did to draw attention to themselves, because they had to break through the enemy lines and so, they must have done it all in a very low-key and unrecognizable/secret fashion. Being in the limelight was not the motivation. It was love.
What lessons can we learn from their example, about our relationship with our master, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, by way of application?
1) We should, like David’s men be physically, emotionally, and mentally in such a situation that we might be able to hear our master (C-in-C) and know his longing, and
2) We should, like David’s men, make ‘being in intimate love relationship with our Master’ the most important thing/top priority in life, so that we might know our king’s longing and do everything we can to satisfy that longing. We should love the Lord our God with all our beings and our dedication and commitment to Him should be such that we will not hesitate even to lay down our lives for Him. This is what we find in the words of Hanani, the seer to Asa in 2 Chro. 16: 9a – “For the eyes of the LORD range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to Him. . . .” Asa’s son, Jehoshaphat was commended in these words: “His heart was devoted to the ways of the Lord;” The text shows further that the ways of the Lord and the Word(s) of God are inextricably linked. And we know that no one is devoted to the ways of the Lord, unless he or she is wholeheartedly devoted to the Lord first. Verse 3 says that the Lord was with Jehoshaphat, because he walked in the ways of his father David, sought the God of his father, and followed his commands. Hear the word of David (his exhortation and warning) to his son Solomon (1 Chro. 28: 9): “And you my son Solomon, acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the LORD searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts. If you seek him, he will be found by you; but if you forsake him, he will reject you forever.” There are serious and godly instructions.
Friends, as far as our relationship with the Lord is concerned, the heart of the matter is still a matter of the heart (the core of our being). This is what we see in the teaching (that express his longing) of our Lord Jesus Christ. In Matt. 22: 34-40, we read that his archrivals, the Pharisees heard that he silenced the Sadducees and then they planned/schemed to test/trap him. One of them, who was an expert in the law tested him with a question as to which was the greatest commandment of the law. And Jesus responded saying, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and the greatest commandment.” This means that we should love the Lord with the totality of our beings and this should be our preoccupation in life, perhaps, the top or the only priority in life, for if this is in its place, everything else falls in place. Mark says in chapter 3: 14-16 that Jesus appointed the twelve apostles with twin purposes – first, that they might be with him and secondly, that he might send them out. Commenting on this, A. W. Tozer (the Prophet of the 20th Century), said, “Those that have no time to spend with the Lord, have no right to spend time for the Lord.” The first, our being with him and the second, our doing something for Him, be it preaching or teaching or whatever, should always be kept in that order. Friends, the main/most important thing in life is to keep the main/most important thing, the main/most important thing, as Lee Iacoca once said. This is what our Lord Jesus Christ, our C-in-C models for us – he never allowed this order to be reversed, as we can learn from both Lukan and Markan accounts of his life. He was very busy and popular. People were all the time looking for him. However, he never allowed himself to be driven by the tide of popularity nor by the business. He always ensured that his communion with the Father was sandwiched between two busy days of work. This is what Mark captures for us in 1: 35-39. Commenting on this, a lady (commentator) once said, “While others were still snoring, Jesus was soaring in his communion with the Father.” May the Lord help us all and particularly the graduating students to always keep the first thing, the first thing in life, knowing that if we fail here, our whole life would be topsy turvy/upside down.

C. David and the Lesson that we can Learn from him: Now what lesson can we learn from David’s response, which is anticlimactic, to what the three chiefs had done to satisfy his longing? The Bible says that when the three mighty men brought the water to David, he did not drink it. Instead, he poured it out on the ground before/to the LORD, and said, “Far be it from me, O my God, that I should do this! Shall I drink the blood of these men who have put their lives in jeopardy? For at the risk of their lives they brought it” (v. 19, NKJV). David’s deed and words both show clearly (at least to me) that he realized that such great (self-denying and sacrificing) love, loyalty, and dedication belonged only to the Lord and not to any man, however great that man might be. What a great leader! And what a great example for us! David, a man after God’s own heart, stands in contrast to many of the contemporary Christian leaders, who knowingly or unknowingly engage in excessive image building and in the process make loyalty of their colleagues to them of such high importance that some of them (some times) try to please them and show loyalty to them rather than to God. Pay close attention, as I quote words of profound wisdom coming from Ordway Tead:
“The leader may consciously enjoy a feeling of superiority and aloofness, showing itself in condescension, vanity, conceit, and self-pride. He may demand too much adulation and personal loyalty, and therefore, try to surround himself with sycophants, “yes-men” and ‘rubber stamps.” He may want his own way too much and too often, and be too opinionated and obstinate about taking counsel with his colleagues and followers.”[1]

Conclusion: May the Lord help us all to guard against this dangerous and deadly tendency in others and ourselves in leadership. Let us thank God for King David and commit ourselves to being like him in our leadership style. May the Lord help us to be like David’s three military chiefs in our relationship with our Commander-in-Chief and like David in our relationship with the Lord and other men and women that we work with. Let us pray and respond to God, who I believe has spoken to us from His Word.

[1] Ordway Tead, The Art of Leadership (New York: Mc Graw Hill, 1935), 215.