In the name of God, Most Merciful and Compassionate
Dear Brothers and Sisters in the Ukraine: Greetings of Peace.
My friend Usama al-Majdhub of Damascus called this morning and asked me to answer a question he had heard from some people in the Ukraine. He is flying to Kiev tomorrow, and wanted to pick up the answer tonight. To introduce myself, I am an American living in Jordan who converted from Christianity to Islam some years ago. My thoughts on this subject are many, but my answer can only be brief, so please excuse the shortcomings you find in it. The question Usama related to me was: “As Christians, we believe in One God, and that Jesus is God. Why then do Muslims say we will go to hell?”
In answer, we may note that both you as Christians, and we as Muslims, hold that a human being must believe in One God to attain salvation in the next world. God, for Muslims, is one in being without partner, unique without peer, ultimate without opposite, alone without equal. He is the Master of All Existence, the Creator of time, space, matter, and energy, of the physical and spiritual worlds, and of all else. All that is, exists through Him, while He needs absolutely nothing through which to exist, and has no need of any of His creation, for if He were to need something, He would be lacking, not perfect, and something imperfect could never be God.
In this respect, He is quite different from anything in the universe that He has created, whether earth, sky, land, or sea, because it all exists only through His creative act, and if this were to stop for a moment, they would simply disappear entirely.
To “believe in God” means to believe in His existence, His oneness, that He has all attributes of perfection, and is exalted above any imperfection. Now, if we were to discover a group of people somewhere and asked them about their religion, and they said, “We believe in the One God, Lord of Everything,” we would agree with this. But suppose after being asked for more details, they said, “We are very fortunate in that God lives right here. In fact, He is that mountain over there. That mountain is God Incarnate.” Now these people are sincere, and they believe in One God, whom they worship. Yet this is not in itself sufficient, because they have mixed their belief in the One God with something that is not God; namely, thousands of tons of rock making up the mountain, which relies for its existence upon such things as the atmospheric pressure upon it, the gravity that holds it to the earth, the structural strength of its component parts-in all of which the mountain is a physical entity bound by time, space, matter, and energy; bound by a thousand constraints. A single asteroid from space, disrupting these, would leave nothing of the mountain except a memory.
It is plain, upon reflection, that all created things are like the mountain in this respect: radically dependent upon the circumstances around them. Because of their essential need, they cannot in any sense be God, who is the Lord of Existence, the Creator of time and space and all the rest, who rules these things and is not ruled by them.
Someone who affirms the One God, but identifies Him with some particular thing in the universe, such as a mountain, a tree, or a human being, has associated something with God that is not of Him. Muslims believe that God’s divine message to all the prophets-from Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and all the others, to Jesus and Muhammad-was to declare the pure Divine Oneness, and free mankind from associating others with God. The prophets (upon whom be peace) were sent by God to teach people that it is His right to be worshipped as He is: One, without admixture of anything else with Him. Indeed, He created mankind that they might know and worship Him in this way.
Each messenger came to tell us that God alone has the right to be worshipped, that all we were worshipping besides Him must now be left aside, because it is other than Him, and only a physical manifestation of His almighty power, whether it be a mountain, a star, or even Jesus Christ.
As to my own upbringing, I was raised as a Christian, and in catechism class we were taught the question and answer:
Q. What is the chief teaching of the Catholic Church about Jesus Christ?A. The chief teaching of the Catholic Church about Jesus Christ is that He is God made man. (A Catechism of Christian Doctrine: Revised Edition of the Baltimore Catechism, No. 2. Paterson, New Jersey: St. Anthony Guild Press, 1941, 15)
But when I later went to a Catholic university, I could not help reflecting that man was limitary and finite, while God was not, and I asked myself why I believed that Jesus was God.
If one could point in answer to the scriptures, I found that modern textual studies of the New Testament had raised large question marks as to that book’s authenticity. In a course in theology, I read a work by Joachim Jeremias, one of the foremost exegetes of the New Testament in this century, who after a lifetime of study of the original, finally agreed with the German theologian Rudolph Bultmann that “without a doubt it is true to say that the dream of ever writing a biography of Jesus is over” (The Problem of the Historical Jesus, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972, 12), meaning that even the chronology of the life of Jesus could not be established from the New Testament. So how then, I wondered, with the question of whether or not he was God?
Indeed, although ordinary Christians seem quite unaware of the revolution that has taken place in New Testament scholarship by Christians over the past thirty years, if we look at the literature, we find such paragraphs as the following, from a textbook by James D.G. Dunn for university students in their third year of New Testament studies. The italics are his: Similarly the thought of Jesus’ deity seems to be a relatively late arrival on the first-century stage. Paul does not yet understand the risen Christ as the object of worship: he is the theme of worship, the one for whom praise is given, the one whose risen presence in and through the Spirit constitutes the worshipping community, the one through whom the prayer prays to God (Romans 1.8; 7.25; II Corinthians 1.20; Colossians 3.17) but not the object of worship or prayer. So too his reticence about calling Jesus “God”. Even the title “Lord” becomes a way of distinguishing Jesus from God rather than identifying him with # God (Romans 15.6; I Corinthians 8.6; 15.24-28; II Corinthians 1.3; 11.31; Ephesians 1.3, 17; Philippians 2.11; Colossians 1.3). Paul was and remained a monotheist. That reticence in calling Jesus “God” is only really overcome towards the end of the first century with the Pastorals (Titus 2.13) and again with Fourth Gospel (John 1.1, 18; 20.28). (Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity. London and Philadelphia: SCM Press and Trinity Press International, 1990, 226).
If the “thought of Jesus” deity”-which I had been taught was the chief teaching of Christianity about Jesus-was “a relatively late arrival on the first-century stage,” meaning not taught by Jesus himself, then we might legitimately wonder where it came from. The answer seems to lie in the “Imperial cult” proclaimed throughout the Roman Empire shortly before the era of Jesus, a cult which enjoined the worship of Rome and the emperor. In the words of Hugh Schonfield, a translator of the New Testament, The cult had developed in the reign of Augustus [Ceasar], who for reasons of State policy accepted deification, and authorised the building of temples in which he was worshipped. He was formally decreed Son of God (Divi Filius) by the Senate. . . .
Gaius Caligula (A.D. 37-41) [also] became obsessed with the notion of his deity, and his sycophantic officials played up to him. . . .
A later emperor, Domitian (A.D. 81-96), insisted that his governors commence their letters to him, “Our Lord and our God commands.” It became the rule, says [the Roman historian] Suetonius, “that no one should style him otherwise in writing or speaking.”
Among Gentile believers in Jesus as the true emperor it was not possible to hold him to be inferior in dignity to Caesar. So we find in the Gospels the term Son of God (the Imperial Divi Filius) conjoined with the Jewish royal title of Messiah. The late Gospel of John, composed not long after the reign of Domitian, even borrows the words of address which that emperor demanded, and makes Thomas address Jesus as “My Lord and my God [John 20.28].” (The Passover Plot, Shaftesbury: Element Books, 1993, 199-200).
If the idea of Jesus being God was not part of original Christianity, but only an accretion added to it later, this was still (for me) secondary to the fact that Jesus’ deification contradicts the nature of God. God is absolutely free of need for anything He has created, while the historical Jesus, as a human with a body, needed time and space, and was bound by a thousand other necessities. I left Christianity because I clearly saw that the two natures, divine and human, are mutually exclusive, like that of a circle and a square. To ask whether God can “become a human being” is like asking if God can “create a square circle”-that is, they refer to nothing meaningful, such that we could ask if it could exist, but rather are a simple confusion of words.
To answer your original question, returning to the example of the people worshipping the One God, while identifying Him with their local mountain, the question of whether they will go to hell is answered by Islam according to two possibilities:
(1) There are some peoples who have not been reached by the message of one of the prophets of God that we must worship the One God alone, associating nothing else with Him. Such people are innocent, and will not be punished no matter what they do. As the Qur’an says, “We do not punish until We send a Messenger” (Qur’an 17:15). These include, for example, the Christians who lived in the period after the spread of the myth of Jesus’ deification until the time of the next messenger, the prophet Muhammad (God bless him and give him peace), who renewed the call to the pure, original religion of all the prophets: “Your God is One; none has a right to be worshipped with Him.”
A great Muslim scholar, al-Ghazali, adds to this category of people those who have only been reached with a distorted picture of Islam. In al-Ghazali’s view, such people are excused until after they have had an opportunity to learn the truth (Faysal al-tafriqa, Majmu’a rasa’il al-Imam al-Ghazali, 3.96).
(2) A second group of people consists of those who turn away from God’s divine message of monotheism, rejecting the command to make their worship God’s alone; whether because of blindly imitating the religion of their ancestors, or for some other reason. These are people to whom God has sent a prophetic messenger and reached with His message, and to whom He has given hearing and an intellect with which to grasp it-but after all this, persist in associating others with Allah. Such people have violated God’s rights, and have accepted to go to hell, which is precisely what His messengers have warned them of, and because of which, they have no excuse:
“Truly, Allah does not forgive that any be associated with Him in worship; but He forgives what is less than that to whomever He wills” (Qur’an 4:48).
I hope you find this answer sufficiently clear and detailed.
I remain at your service,
[Nuh Ha Mim Keller]
25 June 1995
© Nuh Ha Mim Keller 1995