NASHVILLE – The Arabic word for God is Allah, and missionaries wrestle with what to say in evangelism. For instance, should they track with the classic Campus Crusade opening, “Allah loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life”?
It seems odd, since a lot of baggage goes with that word, including its frequent use by terrorists, who shout “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is great) as they kill innocents. So some translators prefer to use the Arabic expression for “the Lord” – Al-Rabb.
Of course, the same name can be used for two different persons, as when we find a batch of John Smiths in the phone book. Similarly, the “Allah” whose nature and works are revealed in the Bible is distinguishable from the Allah of the Quran. There are many ways to demonstrate this, but let’s take the case of God’s agape love – as in “God is love” (1 John 4:8b).
This is not simply the acquisitive desire of eros; the friendship love of phileo; or the instinctual mothering, familial love of storge. It is the self-sacrificial love of a Father who gives up His “only begotten Son” to murderous torturers in order that a host of unsavory characters might be spared destruction.
Muslims speak of the “99 names of God,” which include references to his kindness – expressed, for instance, as “exceeding beneficence” (Ar-Rahman), “exceeding mercy” (Ar-Rahim) and “generosity” (Al-Karim).
But these are the virtues of a potentate who has plenty of resources to spare injury to himself. In contrast, the God of the Bible exhibits a costly love not just in terms of how big a splash His generosity makes on the recipients but also in terms of the pain it causes Him in the giving.
Consider Romans 5:8, which teaches that, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ [God’s Son; God incarnate] died for us.”
While the Quran’s Allah shares the Christian God’s capacity to “avenge” (Al-Muntaqim) and “afflict” (Ad-Darr), he does not provide a self-sacrificial way of escape. The Muslim Jesus (Issa) is only a prophet, and his suffering no more injures God than, say, the death of John the Baptist.
Not surprisingly, this plays out in contrasting Christian and Muslim ethics. Consider the Christian, Paul, who wrote, regarding his fellow Jews, who were missing salvation, “… I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3).
Notice that Paul was not saying he was willing to martyr himself for entry to paradise, but rather to forego paradise if necessary.
Yes, Arab peoples are known for their hospitality to the stranger who comes to their home. These people, many of whom are Muslims, will share their food and drink even when these provisions are in short supply.
They may have to miss a meal of lamb because of their generosity. But this is a far cry from the generosity-unto-personal-ruin of which Paul speaks.
In this same vein, Christian saints and Muslim saints are of a different stamp. Muslims are inclined to venerate the warrior Mahdi, buried in Omdurman, Sudan, or the pious Sufi mystic Ali Hujwiri.
Christians, on the other hand, more readily turn to a Gianna Beretta Molla, who refused both cancer treatment and an abortion so that her child rather than she might live.
Or the missionary Jim Elliot in the book Through Gates of Splendor, who fired his pistol in the air to scare away his native attackers in Ecuador. His refusal to turn the pistol on these “infidels” meant the loss of his own life, since they weren’t ready to face God on high.
When your god is not willing or able to suffer real loss to help his enemies, it is not surprising when his disciples follow suit. What a difference it makes to worship the God whose personal sacrifice was horrendous, the God who set the template for self-forgetful love in service to sinners, even those who would do believers harm.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – This column first appeared at the blog of Bible Mesh, a website that teaches the Bible as a unified story pointing to Christ. Mark Coppenger is director of the Nashville extension center for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and professor of Christian apologetics at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Ky.)