Prodigal Love for a Prodigal World

Dr. Mateen Elass has a commanding knowledge about Islam. He grew up in Saudi Arabia. Was a muslim for 20 years before converting to Christianity and fleeing from Saudi Arabia. He has been a Presbyterian pastor for the last 30 years. He writes:

Nowhere do the different theological visions of Islam and Christianity appear more starkly than in the Muslim denunciation of the gospel as reflected in its assessment of John 3:16, which Christians often speak of as “the gospel in a nutshell”:

God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

In its rejection of this message, Islam declares instead:

  • God has no offspring, so Jesus cannot be His Son. One of the most famous Suras in the Qur’an declares of Allah, “He begets not, nor was He begotten” (112:3). As a corollary of this, the concept of the fatherhood of God in any sense is forbidden.

  • To believe in Jesus as God’s Son (and hence Savior of the world) is to inherit everlasting fire rather than everlasting life, for it is to commit the unforgivable sin of “shirk,” associating something from the created order with the inimitable Creator.

  • God has given prophets to the world for guidance and warning. Human beings must do their best to follow His threats and admonitions, for there is no Savior or Mediator between God and man to atone for our sins. In the end, our fate rests in Allah’s inscrutable will.

  • The “world” is not hopelessly lost apart from God’s sacrificial grace seen in the gift of His Son</u>; rather it is misguided and forgetful and just needs to be reminded of God’s absolute sovereignty and man’s proper response of submission.

  • God does not love the whole world, but only those who do what pleases Him.

From the point of view of an outsider seeking to assess the comparative theologies of Islam and Christianity, this last point is perhaps the most stunning. There can be no question in the New Testament that God’s nature is defined as love, and that His love is granted freely to the unworthy. God has sent His Son into the world to seek and save the lost. As we read in 1 John 4:10, “This is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” His desire is to draw human beings into a personal, eternal love relationship that transforms us from transitory, sinful creatures into eternal children of God, perfected in Christ. The gospel is God’s open-armed invitation to enjoy this divine love.

In Islam, on the other hand, Allah’s heart does not brim over with love for human beings. Instead, he seems strangely detached from the fate of individuals. “Salvation” is completely in his hands, yet he saves whom he wills and damns whom he wills. Six times the Qur’an declares, “Whomsoever Allah will, he leads astray, and whomsoever he will, he guides him rightly” (6:39; 13:27; 14:4; 16:93; 35:8; 74:31). This cold-hearted double predestinarianism is underlined twelve more times in the Qur’an with a statement that nothing can avail against God’s damnation: “Whom Allah leads astray, for him you will not find a way” (4:88, 143; 7:178, 186; 13:33; 17:97; 18:17; 39:23, 26; 40:33; 42:44, 46. I include all these references so that you may check them out for yourself!). All of this callous indifference to the eternal destinies of human beings is summed by Allah himself in 32:13 – “If we had willed, we would have given every soul its guidance; but now my word will come true: I will fill hell with jinn and men all together.

Where is the love of God in all of this? It’s hard to find. The Qur’an is roughly the length of the New Testament, and yet the principal Arabic word for love (hubb) is used in its verbal form with Allah as the subject/actor only 40 times. But even this number is misleading, because 22 of these occurrences are negative declarations, indicating the kind of people whom Allah does not love. For example:

Allah loves not those who transgress the limits of his will;

Allah loves not those who make corruption in the land;

Allah loves not those who reject Islam;

Allah loves not those who do wrong / the unjust;

Allah loves not the arrogant or proud;

Allah loves not those who rejoice in their wealth;

Allah loves not the treacherous, criminals, and those with evil tongues;

Allah loves not the prodigals (those who waste his resources).

On the other hand, there are 18 places in the Qur’an where Allah describes those whom he loves:

Allah loves those who do good;

Allah loves the pure and clean (i.e., those keeping the ritual purity laws);

Allah loves the righteous, the just, the persevering, the trusting;

Allah loves those who love him and follow his prophet;

Allah loves those who go to battle in his cause.

From all of this it seems pretty clear that the god of the Qur’an is very much like a fallen human being in his exercise of love. We by nature love those who please us and dislike those who displease us. But this is a pretty low bar of achievement. As Jesus says in Matt. 5: 46-47, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” But the God whom Jesus reveals loves even His enemies – those who have rebelled against Him. In the words of the apostle Paul, “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8), as Peter says, “the righteous for the unrighteous” (1 Peter 3:18).

The contrast that stands out most to me today has to do with prodigals. Twice Allah declares in the Qur’an that he does not love prodigals (6:141; 7:31), those who waste what he has provided them. On the other hand, Jesus tells a parable of an irresponsible son who demands his portion of the inheritance from his father, and then goes off to a far country to spend it in “riotous living.” This son represents rebel human beings, willing to live off God’s generosity but not under His roof so to speak. The father represents God. The natural ending to the story should be that when the prodigal son returns to his father with his tail between his legs, the father should refuse to see him or help him out – “You made your bed; now you can lie in it.” The son has dishonored his father; it is justice for him now to live in dishonor. Were Allah to be the God represented in this parable, such would be the result (of course, the son would be recast as a slave): “I don’t love prodigals. Depart from my presence!” But the true God, whom Jesus reveals, has such a heart for sinners that even though He has been so shamelessly treated by prodigals like us,  His love compels Him to search the horizons for us, and to run to embrace and welcome us into His love before we can even express our rehearsed repentance.

Such is one of the gaping differences between Allah and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Which vision of God would you rather have your life informed by? That’s not a hard choice. Unfortunately, some 1.5 billion Muslims know nothing of this gracious, unconditional love of God, laboring instead under the crushing burden of trying to please a god whose love they can never quite merit, whose heart remains impassive toward them.

If we who have experienced the reality of God’s love nevertheless refuse to share it with those drowning in the despair of Islam, what does that say about our own hearts?

Perhaps that they reflect more the callousness of Allah than the compassion of the Father?

What a travesty that would be! May the Lord fill us with the same love that led to His Incarnation, that we may bear His love and message to all the world, especially to downcast Muslims.