We owe so much to our Creator. Our eyesight, for example, is something that we could never repay God for. Since God bestowed countless gifts on humanity without us even asking for them, what does this tell us about God’s attributes? The very act of creation bears witness to God’s abundant love and mercy. This is why when we worship God, we should do so with a feeling of love and gratitude. Unlike God however, our expressions of love and gratitude are flawed. We inevitably fall short in our worship because of our sins.
Does our Creator’s love and mercy extend itself to the forgiveness of our sins? This is the key question of this article, and as we will see, Islam and Christianity provide very different answers. Before getting into the specifics of what Islam and Christianity teach on this subject, let’s reflect on the following point. If we think about it, during the act of creation we were the recipients of God’s love and mercy without even asking for it, so how could it be denied from us when we ask God for it directly? Belief in God doesn’t just entail an acknowledgement of His existence, but it also includes the affirmation of His attributes. Denying any of God’s attributes is in fact an act of disbelief. This is why we have to be very careful when it comes to atonement as our understanding of it has serious implications on the attributes of God such as His love, justice and mercy.
ATONEMENT IN ISLAM
Islam teaches that God created man in the best of states; each baby that is born is pure and sinless:
However mankind is prone to making mistakes because we are fallible beings, an inevitable consequence of the free will that God gifted us. When God created man He did not expect us to be angels, He already had countless angels, perfect in their compliance, to do His bidding. In the creation of Adam, God wanted to bring about something different: a creature of free will, submitting to Him out of choice. A consequence is that we commit sins, and God knew we would fall into sin even before He created us. In fact if God expected us to be infallible and never fall into sin, then He would effectively be expecting us to be God-like. In Islam it is up to every human being to take responsibility for their own sins, as long as they have reached the age of discernment and are of sound mind:
Not having the safety blanket of another person carrying our sins means that Muslims have to strive in bettering themselves from the cradle to the grave, in turn making the true believer a force for good in society. In Islam two of the names of God are Al-Wadud and Al-Raheem, “The Loving” and “The Most Merciful”. These attributes manifest themselves in God’s attitude toward our sins. The Qur’an tells us:
God condemns the sins we commit, but He waits for us to repent, and when we do He welcomes us. That is the part that God loves: the repentance, the voluntary return. Prophet Muhammad taught that:
In Islam, God’s love and mercy transcends all other types of love and mercy. His love and mercy is greater than all worldly and human forms of love and mercy – even motherly love and mercy. God is an independent being who is self-sufficient and perfect. He doesn’t need or require anything. A mother’s love and mercy, although selfless, is based on her internal need to love her child. It completes her and through her sacrifices she feels whole and fulfilled. However, God’s love and mercy is not based on a need or want; it is therefore the purest form of love and mercy, because He gains absolutely nothing from loving and being merciful. Prophet Muhammad said:
ATONEMENT IN CHRISTIANITY
By comparison, Christian theology teaches that sin is like a debt that must be repaid, it cannot simply be forgiven by God:
God is portrayed as a Being whose mercy is contingent on the shedding of blood:
The Church teaches that this is why Jesus was sent to die on the cross, his sinless life represents the ultimate sacrifice to appease God’s wrath and wash away the sins of the whole of humanity, reconciling us with God. The theology that underpins the crucifixion is that humanity is inherently sinful, a consequence of Adam eating from the forbidden tree. So when Adam violated God’s command not to eat from the tree, sin entered into humanity and has remained ever since:
The solution according to the New Testament is thus: Jesus died on the cross in order to undo Adam’s “original sin”:
So we can see that the Christian concepts of atonement and divine mercy are diametrically opposed to Islam. In Islam, we are responsible for our own sins and God grants forgiveness to all who call upon Him and sincerely repent. Whereas in Christianity we have the paradoxical situation of the whole of mankind being held accountable for something we didn’t do – Adam’s original sin – and forgiven for something someone else did – Jesus’ sacrifice at the crucifixion. When you factor the Trinity into the atonement equation, things get stranger still. If Jesus is God, then the crucifixion effectively amounts to God incarnating Himself into the creation and committing suicide in order to forgive sinners from Himself. God can only forgive sin if He punishes Himself first, even though He is the one who the crime was done against. Imagine someone wronged you. If we follow this doctrine, the only way you can forgive that person is if you punish yourself first. How much sense does that make? If Jesus died on the cross for our sins, then we already have our golden ticket to heaven. There’s no need for us to strive, no need to repent, because Jesus has already done the hard work for us.
BLOOD ATONEMENT COMPROMISES GOD’S ATTRIBUTES
God’s love for mankind lies at the heart of the Gospel message:
However the crucifixion of Jesus would be a gross act of injustice on the part of God. In Christian theology, God effectively demonstrates His love by torturing and killing His son. Such a system of justice is one that we human beings ourselves wouldn’t use in an everyday practical setting. Suppose one day a judge throws you into prison for no apparent reason. Upon questioning your arrest and imprisonment, the judge says that although he knows you are innocent, he decided to punish you as a substitutionary atonement for the crimes of another who had now been set free. Would you accept the judge’s ruling? No one would accept such a situation, we would all protest and ask why we are being punished when we are innocent. Such a system is anything but just; if anyone is to be punished then it should be the guilty party. A human court that punished the innocent in place of the guilty would be considered corrupt, a miscarriage of justice. How much more unjust then would it be if God were behind such a system? Yet such a system is exactly what we have with the Christian theology of blood atonement.
If God must always get what is coming to him in order to forgive, namely a kill, then the question has to be asked whether God ever really forgives. Imagine if someone punched you and gave you a bloody nose. You have two options; in the spirit of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth you could punch them back and that would be justice, or you could just forgive them. Both these options are valid in Islam. What is not logical is that you punch the person back and say “now I forgive you”. That’s not forgiveness, because you took out your anger and got your revenge. In a similar way, the Christian portrayal of God is one of getting His blood payment, His ransom, and only then does He let you go. So we can see that with the crucifixion, forgiveness is not being fulfilled by God.
By comparison the Qur’an’s concept of divine justice and forgiveness is natural. God can forgive our transgressions without blood atonement if we ask him to, simply by calling upon Him and sincerely repenting. No one has to die; no blood has to be spilt. God doesn’t require blood to forgive; He can simply forgive, just as we forgive each another when we wrong one another in everyday life. Shouldn’t God, the creator of the love and mercy that exists among His creation, be even more capable of love and mercy? The reality is that the concept that “Jesus paid the price for our sins” is an alien creed which is incompatible with God’s love and mercy. To claim that mankind has only been able to properly access God’s forgiveness the moment Jesus shed his blood on the cross is an intolerable challenge to the principles of God’s love and mercy. We now know that the human story is so old, going back tens of thousands and perhaps hundreds of thousands of years, that to say it’s only been 2,000 years since a proper relationship between man and God has been made possible, makes a mockery of the idea of divine love, because that’s not loving. A God who coherently shows mercy, compassion and forgiveness for His creation doesn’t stuff all of salvation into a single moment in human history at the crucifixion. The Qur’anic vision is very different:
In Islam the salvation offered through all of the Prophets has been the same throughout history; submission to our Creator and forgiveness granted through sincere repentance. That’s the true understanding of God as having love and mercy inscribed on His very nature.
DOES BLOOD ATONEMENT HAVE A FOUNDATION IN THE BIBLE?
The foundation of the crucifixion stands on the doctrine that the blood sacrifice alone expiates sin and reconciles man with God. At face value, the notion of Jesus sacrificing himself to redeem mankind may appear to be a noble act and undoubtedly is an aspect of Christianity that resonates deeply with its followers. But we have to ask the question, is it Biblical? When we look to the Old Testament, we find that the notion that only unblemished sacrificial blood can appease God’s wrath and atone for sin is explicitly denounced by the prophets of Israel. One such example is King Solomon. While dedicating the Temple of Jerusalem to God Almighty, Solomon makes a special plea on behalf of the Israelites:
This entire passage seems to have foreshadowed the exile of the Israelites into Babylonian captivity which took place in the 6th century BCE. The words of Solomon represent a total refutation of the Christian theology of God’s forgiveness being contingent on blood atonement – the exiled Israelites would be able to attain forgiveness through repentance and prayer.
If we fast forward to the time of Prophet Ezekiel we find the Israelites living in exile in Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem, just as foreshadowed by Solomon. The entire chapter of Ezekiel 18 is devoted to sin and atonement. The Jewish people, perhaps under the influence of Babylonian pagan practices and beliefs, had the misapprehension that God punishes the innocent for the sins of the guilty. They ask Ezekiel:
This idea that an innocent can die as atonement for the sins of the wicked was widely known throughout the world as a practice among pagan communities. Prophet Ezekiel’s response to his people is a clear rejection of such beliefs:
So we can see that God is pleased when the guilty stop sinning and make sincere repentance. Much like God’s nature being purely One and not a Trinity, the Old Testament concept of a loving and merciful God agrees with Islam; it’s Christian theology that is the odd one out. Furthermore, in the Old Testament God’s love and mercy is not just restricted to the Jewish people, even Gentiles (non-Jews) were freely forgiven by God through sincere repentance. For example, the Old Testament describes the people of Nineveh as a wicked nation. God sent Prophet Jonah to warn them:
This was a nation of considerable size, numbering over 120,000 inhabitants:
This entire nation was spared God’s punishment in the end because they repented from their wicked ways:
“By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened. [Jonah 3:6-10]
“By the decree of the king and his nobles:
Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”
When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened. [Jonah 3:6-10]
An entire nation of over 120,000 condemned to destruction, were forgiven by God when they simply repented and fasted, without ever offering any sacrifice. In fact even though they had many animals at their disposal, which God could have easily commanded them to sacrifice, they weren’t sacrificed, but rather the animals were made to fast along with the people. From these examples we can see that the Christian theology that only unblemished sacrificial blood can appease God’s wrath and atone for sin has no foundation in the Bible.
Christian theology claims that without the cross, without the innocent blood of Jesus being spilt, mankind is cut off from God’s forgiveness. These claims bear a striking resemblance to the pagan blood sacrifices of old. In fact there are all kinds of pagan deities throughout history who needed the blood of an innocent human to appease them. If Christian atonement theology is true, then God is actually a lot like these pagan gods and goddesses. If one believes that God’s wrath at sin necessitated the blood sacrifice of Jesus in order to calm his wrath, we are not describing a god who is fundamentally different– we are simply describing another version of an angry god who needs a virgin thrown into the volcano. By comparison, Islamic theology paints a picture of God that is loving, just and merciful. No sin is too great to be forgiven; the doors of mercy are never shut. All we have to do is turn to God in repentance with a sincere heart and our sins will be washed away. Such a positive outlook on the nature of God in turn instils in us a deeper and further love for God. Significantly, this should make us want to love Him by being one of His servants. A Muslim never despairs of the love, justice and mercy of God.
1 – Riyad as- Salihin, Book #1, Hadith #23.
2 – Sunan of Abu Dawood, Hadith #1359.