From my earliest days as a Christian, when I began to follow Christ out of a personal commitment (due to God’s regenerative work upon my heart and mind), I have enjoyed learning about the doctrines of Christianity. My study of Christian doctrines was and is accompanied by (and largely facilitated by) learning the history of doctrinal development and expression.
Bible-believing Christians have always believed the same foundational things (though great differences have existed in regard to secondary and tertiary doctrines), but they have articulated them in different ways and argued for them against different opponents over time. Whatever else might come from the exchange of ideas, one would be hard-pressed to argue that healthy and thoughtful debate doesn’t benefit everyone in search for genuine truth.
I am a convictional, Bible-believing Christian. I mean to say that I am a kind of 21stcentury fundamentalist. I believe in the virgin birth of Christ, His divinity, His physical death and resurrection, and the exclusive nature of His offering of grace to guilty sinners. These beliefs (among others) compel me to engage those who believe differently with thoughtful arguments and patient dialogue. I do not want to merely build a bunker and survive with like-minded separatists.
To that end, I recently had a conversation with Zahir, a self-proclaimed Ahmadiyya Muslim. His views do not represent the beliefs of all Muslims, just as mine do not represent all Christians. But the exchange was (I think) an honest and helpful dialogue about important beliefs, which form the overall worldviews we each possess.
What follows is part of the phone exchange between me and Zahir. I don’t know Zahir outside of our 3-hour interaction as transcribed below, but I pray that our dialogue might continue and that God might use it to benefit us both. I am making this a public post in order that the exchange might benefit others as well.
Note: Admittedly, the transcript below is from my (Marc) perspective, but I checked each of my recordings of Zahir’s answers with him to ensure an accurate record of his thoughts.
What religion do you associate yourself with?
Zahir: Zahir is an Ahmadiyya Muslim (a brand of Sunni Islam), which is possibly the newest sect of 73 different sects of Islam. Ahmadiyya Muslims understand themselves to be going back to the original sources and teachings (though, of course, Sunni and Shia Muslims disagree). Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was the self-proclaimed Messiah in modern times, and his teaching is carried forward by the Ahmadiyya Muslims by the phrase, “Love for all, hate for none.”
Marc: I am a Christian, but I should clarify that label. I understand myself to be in line with historical Christianity that would trace its lineage from the earliest days of the first century – to the teachings and practices of the prophets and Apostles. While there have been many misapplications of Christian belief and practice, I generally find my Christian heritage coming down from those Middle Eastern and Hellenistic Christians who subscribed to the Apostle’s Creed (circa 200 C.E.) and the Church Councils of Nicaea (325 C.E.) and Constantinople (381 C.E.).
From there, I would claim the side of the West at the schism of 1054 C.E., though I do not necessarily endorse the battles or wars that were fought in the name of Christendom. These roots are deep and nourishing for me, but I most easily associate myself with the Protestant church tradition, which began in the 1500s. The Reformers (such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli) understood themselves to be going back to the sources (namely the Bible) for Christian belief and practice. Of the many Protestant denominations, which share this basic heritage, I gladly join with the Southern Baptists (founded in 1845 in the USA, but now has adherents in many countries).
When and how did you become an adherent to that religion?
Zahir: Zahir was born and raised as an Ahmadiyya Muslim, but at an early age Zahir was encouraged to explore spirituality and religious texts (including the Bible and the Quran). Zahir’s father was a very spiritual man, and he was a leader in the home and the community. Through personal study and experiences, Zahir has come to believe a sort of amalgamation of religious teachings, but he claims to be a true Ahmadiyya Muslim.
Marc: My father left my mother when I was young, but my mother taught me some of the basic beliefs of Christianity. She is joined with a different branch of the Protestant churches, the Assemblies of God, but I did not decide to follow Jesus Christ for myself (become a true convert to Christianity) until I was away from home at 19 years old. I was alone in my college dorm room, reading the Bible, when I believed the gospel (the story about Jesus) and trusted in Jesus Christ as my God and Savior.
What would you say are the top 2-3 benefits you get from participating in your religion?
Zahir: One: Zahir claims a direct connection with the creator, without intermediary, including guidance and direction. God is more of a reality to Zahir than his own parents. Dreams of prophets have played a major role in Zahir’s religious experience. Two: Zahir has a relationship with God’s creation. He feels closer to creation and other humans, a connectedness through his religious beliefs.
Marc: Christians may answer this question quite differently if asked, but I believe the top benefits of Christian believers are as follows: (1) gracious favor from God; (2) knowledge of the nature and character of God; and (3) intimacy with God. Christians know, like everyone else, that we are not as morally good as we should be. Christians also know that God is holy and that He will judge all disobedience and immorality.
In the Bible, we learn that God has demonstrated grace towards guilty people by sending His Son (Jesus Christ) to live obediently, die as a substitutionary sacrifice for the guilt of those who would trust Him, and conquer death so that those who trust Him could hope to do the same. Christians know that God should judge them for being guilty, but the Bible teaches us that God offers gracious favor to those who will hear His words and believe and obey.
Once a person believes the gospel (the story about Jesus, as I expressed above), he or she is then a Christian. The Christian who reads the Bible can learn much about who God is and what He is like. As the Christian learns about God, he or she also learns much about himself or herself. The exploration of what and who God is provides both intellectual and emotional stimulation beyond compare.
Moreover, the Christian who studies and applies the Bible’s teaching to everyday life will discover that God Himself becomes known. It is hard to explain here, but the Christian who seeks God in the Bible and lives according to God’s precepts in life somehow comes to know an intimate relationship with God Himself. The Bible teaches that this is the doing of God’s Spirit who comes to live with and in those who believe and follow God’s words.
What does your religion teach about other religions? Are other religions valuable? Are they bad?
Zahir: “There is not a place or people on earth to whom a messenger has not come.” Muhammad is the latest in a long line of prophets, and Zahir believes that even Socrates and Buddha are valuable prophets. Therefore, all religions have value, but some of the modern forms are corrupted. God created all religions for diversity, not for infighting.
Marc: Here again, you will likely get many different answers from different Christians. I will answer by saying that the Bible teaches that God cares very much about how humans live, how humans worship, and what humans think about God. The Bible teaches that God has revealed Himself in nature and in the special revelation of the Bible itself. In nature, we may learn much about God, and this includes deductive and experiential reasoning within ourselves.
Therefore, various religions may have some (even many) things in common, because what can be known about God in nature is plain to all who observe it. However, any approach to living, worshiping, or thinking about God that is contrary to or aberrant from what the Bible teaches about such things is not good. The Bible teaches that all humans deserve dignity, respect, and even love; therefore, religious tolerance is perfectly in keeping with Christian belief and practice. But any religious system that would seek to dissuade someone from the clear teaching of the Bible is not to be followed.
What does your religion teach about the afterlife?
Zahir: When a soul is freed from the shell of the human body, it is like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. The soul/spirit endures an intermediate stage before the final judgment, and all souls (good or bad) get a taste of a lesser paradise or lesser hell. This state lasts for an undefined period of time that does not necessarily have a direct correlation with the time experienced on earth. All people will have the opportunity to turn to God during this intermediate state. Hell is not eternal, but a place of cleansing, making one ready to enter paradise. Eventually, all people will be in paradise… “even Satan himself.”
Belief in God and doing good are the only necessary prerequisites to entering paradise. Intentionality is the only important matter for judgment so God will judge people according to the light or understanding they had on earth. Zahir seemed to believe that very few people would fit into the category of intentionally wicked people who had any form of judgment to come in the afterlife.
Marc: The Bible teaches that all humans will eventually face God and be judged for all that they thought, spoke, and did in this world. Those who live wicked lives, disobeying God’s laws, will be judged as guilty and suffer the penalty of God’s eternal wrath. Of course, as I said above, Christians know that all humans are guilty of disobeying God’s law, but the hope of the Christian is the gracious favor of God. As I said, Jesus Christ lived a perfectly obedient life, He died under God’s judgment (not because He was guilty, but as a substitute for all who would trust and follow Him), and He conquered death in order to demonstrate that He could do the same for those who believe or trust in Him.
The promise of God is that all those who believe or trust in Jesus will pass from judgment to peace and life everlasting. Despite their guilt, those who believe will avoid God’s judgment because it has already been poured out on Jesus Christ in their place. Therefore, in the afterlife, Christians will enjoy a new creation without the presence of wickedness or evil, in which God Himself will abide with humanity in gracious blessing and peace forever.
What does your religion teach about your purpose in the world or your responsibility to other people?
Zahir: Our primary reason for existence is to recognize God, to meet God, and to unify with God – represent God in the world. The person must overcome individualistic thinking, taking on the “color of the Holy Spirit.” Every person must treat creation with love and respect, looking for beauty and good in the world. Everyone and everything in creation is to be treated as an extension of God Himself. The protection of personal religious freedom and practice is paramount, and Zahir repeatedly affirmed the value of all beliefs from all religions.
Marc: The Bible teaches that Christians must show love for all people, especially for other Christians. The Christian is responsible to live in community and fellowship with other Christians, learning to follow God more faithfully and to love one another more honestly and meaningfully (such as sharing material resources, depending on one another in times of difficulty, and distributing the various responsibilities of life among one another).
The Christian is also responsible to meet the needs of those in his or her broader community (Christian and non-Christian alike) as he or she is able. In many ways, the Christian is to show love for neighbor (such as teaching, maintaining social order, developing healthcare resources and efforts, cultivating food, manufacturing clothing and shelter, and a host of other things) by living as a productive member of society for the benefit of all people. Additionally, the Christian is to show love for neighbor by helping those with some deficiency of a human good (such as food, water, clothing, shelter, companionship, education, social capital and/or the ability to maintain any of these).
Some Concluding Thoughts
I have always enjoyed thoughtful dialogue with those with whom I disagree. Zahir and I discussed more than the questions above, and the topics ranged from biblical textual criticism to the Trinity and substitutionary atonement to personal sinful desire. Zahir was a pleasant and thoughtful dialogue partner, but he and I obviously disagreed at some major points of theology, Christology, soteriology, and hamartiology.