An issue that is often controversial and critical to dialogue between Christians and Muslims is the Christian doctrine of God and the incarnation of Jesus Christ. This is because according to the Christian faith, the incarnation lies at the center of the salvation of mankind, whereas in Muslim theology, it is altogether denied. The following discussion seeks to clear up some misconceptions concerning the doctrine of the incarnation, and then seeks to explain why it was necessary, and how it was efficacious. The paper concludes with a contemporary illustration that paints a picture of why God came in human form.
Before turning to the question of "why did God appear in the flesh?," I feel it is necessary to clear up some common misconceptions surrounding this topic. First of all, the concept of incarnation in Christianity does not assume, nor even hint at the idea that God had sexual relations thereby producing a son by physical means. No; the incarnation of Christ occurred through a spiritual act whereby God's spirit came upon the virgin Mary, she conceived and gave birth to a son. The Qur'an, as well, describes the account of the birth of Jesus (Isa) in Surah 19. Mary (Mayram) was told by the angel of the Lord that she would bear a "holy son" who would be a "Sign unto men" and a "Mercy" (Surah 19:19, 21).
In the Arabic translation of the Bible there are two words for son: ibn and walad. The passages dealing with the birth of Jesus, such as Luke 1:26-38, call Jesus ibn of Allah, referring to him as the "spiritual" son, or one identified with the father. These passages never use the word walad, "child", which refers to a physical relationship in which the son is "born of" his father. The Luke passage explicitly states (vv. 32 and 35) that He will be "called" the "Son of God", so as to identify Him with God in heaven, rather than indicate a physical relationship. Furthermore, the phrase "son of.." in Arabic is frequently used as a mark of identification with something; for example "son of Algeria," to describe an inhabitant of Algeria. Even "son of education" is used to describe a student, among Arabs. Therefore, referring to Jesus as the "Son of God" is for the purpose of expressing the Jesus' spiritual identification with God the Father (CCC, 9-10).
In a similar vein, the term "Son of God", referring to Jesus, does not assume a multiplicity of gods. Deut. 6:4 says "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord." Jesus' incarnation then, is not a "second" god, but rather God in the flesh for the sake of the salvation of the world. God is one in essence but is manifested in three different ways. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, can be likened to water manifested in three ways: solid, liquid, and gas. Light offers another example as it is by definition, a wave-particle duality. Light is simultaneously a wave and a particle. God then, is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Now that these misconceptions have been briefly addressed, we will turn to the principal issue of this paper. Why did God appear in the flesh? To explain the reason for God's incarnation, we must first tackle a fundamental issue of human nature which was introduced the first time man deliberately went against the word of God. When Adam and Eve (Hauwa) gave in to Satan's (Iblis') temptation to eat from the tree of which God had forbidden them, they sinned they rebelled against God's explicit commandment. Christians believe that this sin was not merely against their own souls, but against God Himself. The Psalm of David (Psalm 51) demonstrates this point when David cries "against You alone have I sinned."
While Muslims see Adam and Eve's sin as a simple mistake that was completely forgiven after their repentance and had no further effect on mankind, Christians view Adam's sin as the fundamental turning point in man's relationship to God. They were not merely thrown out of the garden (physically separated) but they were separated from God spiritually as well, due to their sin. Genesis 2:17 explains the punishment for breaking the commandment as death: "in the day that you eat from it you will surely die" and Genesis 3:23-24 records Adam and Eve's banishment from the garden of Eden. The punishment of death here refers to spiritual death, for at the moment of their sin, they were separated from God spiritually. Isaiah 59:2 says "But your iniquities have separated you from your God." Such is the fate of all mankind; for once sin entered into the human race through Adam's sin (see Romans 5:12), all men became guilty of sin.
The Bible says "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23) and reminds us that there is "none righteous, not even one (Romans 3:10) Both the Hadith and the Qur'an also seem to affirm the sinfulness of man. The Hadith records the prophet of Islam as saying, "No child is born but the devil hath touched it, except Mary and her son Jesus." (Woodberry, 154) The Qur'an as well, speaks of human nature in negative terms. Surah 12:53 says, the "soul of man is incited to do evil." Surah 14:34 states "man is given up to injustice and ingratitude" and "is in most things, contentious" (Surah 18:54) (Woodberry, 155) And Surah 11:116 reveals that there were only "a few" among previous generations who were righteous. The Qur'an also gives evidence of Muhammad's sins for he asks God for forgiveness, as in Surahs 40:55, 47:19, 48:2.
The reason sin has caused a separation between God and man is because of God's perfect righteousness and holiness. Isaiah 8:13 reveals that it is the Lord of Hosts alone who should be regarded as holy and who should be feared, and numerous verses throughout the Bible call Him the "Holy One of Israel". The Qur'an as well, affirms the holiness and justice of God. Surah 62:1 "..Allah the Sovereign, The Holy One, the Exalted in Might, the Wise," and Surah 6:57 calls him the "best of judges." Because God is perfectly holy and righteous, He cannot tolerate sin. For God to condone sin would defile His holiness. In order for man have fellowship with God, he too must be perfectly holy and righteous. But because man is naturally sinful (as discussed above), he cannot be perfectly righteous, nor can he do anything of his own effort to make himself acceptable to God. Man is therefore in need of reconciliation.
The Qur'an seems to indicate that doing good deeds will expiate most wrongdoing that if someone prays, gives alms, fasts and the like, he will be forgiven. The Bible however does not take such a stance. James 2:10 says that "whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, has become guilty of all." No one can possibly do enough good deeds to make up for violating the entire law. Furthermore, the Bible reiterates that "by the works of the law shall no man be justified" (Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16). How then can man be reconciled to God?
The answer to that question is precisely the reason for this entire discussion. For it is the incarnation itself which reconciles man to God. God took it upon Himself to reconcile us, and by His mercy and grace made a provision for us through Jesus Christ. In administering His mercy and grace however, God cannot compromise His moral character. He cannot break the law of justice which He has instituted. As the Perfect Judge, He must enact His perfect justice. Deuteronomy 32:4 says "He is the Rock, his work is perfect: for all his ways are judgment: a God of truth and without iniquity, just and right is he. God's justice includes the punishment of death for sin (Romans 6:23). But rather than putting us to death for sin, He sacrificed Jesus (Isa), the sinless One, in our place. Romans 5:9-11 says
Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
But why was Jesus on the cross an acceptable sacrifice to God?
Jesus was the only one who was sinless. I Peter 2:22 says "He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth." Hebrews 4:15 also affirms that Jesus, "has been tempted in all things as we are, yet [is] without sin." The Qur'an affirms this in the reference quoted above that Jesus was "untouched" by the devil's power and Surah 6:85 includes Jesus in the "ranks Of the Righteous." Muhammad on the other hand, cannot be said to be sinless as already noted above. God needed a perfect sacrifice in order to satisfy His righteous justice. God therefore made Jesus that perfect sacrifice, the only One fit to save mankind. "He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Isaiah 53:4-6 describes Jesus' work;
Surely our griefs He Himself bore ... He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed ... the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him."
Jesus' work on the cross did not only forgive us for our sin, but has made us (those who believe in Him) perfectly holy and blameless. Colossians 1:21-22 affirms Jesus' work in reconciliation, "But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation."
Jesus was not only the perfect sacrifice to satisfy God's judgment, but because He came in human form, He was able to identify with mankind. Hebrews 2:14-18 says
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death - that is, the devil - and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death ... For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
In summary, God came to earth in the form of Jesus Christ, in order to take the punishment for sin upon Himself, by dying on the cross on our behalf, so that we may be forgiven of sin and have righteousness imputed to us. Christ's resurrection (victory over death) proves that His righteousness was transferred to us, because it shows that Christ's death was an acceptable sacrifice to God. Because it was acceptable, all who believe by faith, in the truth of the resurrection, will be reconciled to God.
Because this discussion hinges upon this relatively complicated theological issues of which I am not so adept at explaining, I would like to close with an illustration that I hope will better communicate the reason behind God's incarnation. There once was a young man who, in a moment of weakness, stole something from a store. He was caught in the process and was subsequently arrested. He went before the judge with fear and trepidation. When he walked into the court, he discovered that the judge who was presiding was his father. The young man relaxed under the assumption that his dad would get him off the hook. The judge looked at his son and said, "You have been caught stealing. How do you plead?" The young man looked around anxiously and admitted "well, ... I was caught red-handed. I'm guilty." The judge looked at him and said, "as a judge, I need to be just." The young man started to get nervous. "And though I love you," the judge continued, "I sentence you to a $100 fine of reparation or one month in jail." Nervous and downcast, the young man fumbled through his pockets, knowing that he only had a couple of dollars. In the meantime, the judge had risen from his seat and taken off his judges robe. He walked around and stopped in front of his son. Then he pulled a $100 bill out of his wallet and offered it to his son. "If you accept the money, son, your debt is paid."
The point of the story is this: we need perfect righteousness, but we don't have it and can't get it by our own effort. The wages of sin is death. In the "account transfer" on the cross, our sin went into Christ's account and He died. His perfect righteousness came into our account and we live. The transfer is secured by faith. Therefore, those who believe by faith, are considered holy and blameless (see Ephesisns 1:4) and are therefore reconciled to God.
The doctrine of the incarnation is mysterious and complex, and has been the topic of much discussion and many books. This paper does not claim to have fully explained this doctrine. In fact, it has only scratched the surface of the discussion, but with the hope of helping Muslims better understand what is meant by incarnation and why it was necessary, so that they might consider the truth of Christianity.
Ali, Abdullah Yusuf. The Meaning of the Holy Qur'an. Beltsville, MD: Amana Publications, 1996.
St. Athanasius. The incarnation of the Word of God. Translated by a religious of C.S.M.V. S.TH. New York: The Macmilan Company, 1946.
Jones, Bevan. Christianity Explained to Muslims. Calcutta: Baptist Mission Press, 1937.
CCC = Campus Crusade for Christ. Sharing Christ With Muslims (pamphlet used in orientation materials for Muslim Evangelsim author's name withheld for security reasons)
Geisler, Norman L. and Abdul Saleeb. Answering Islam: the Crescent in the Light of the Cross. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993.
Woodberry, Dudley, J. ed. Muslims and Christians on the Emmaus Road. Monrovia, CA: MARC, 1989.
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