Is it possible for Christians and Muslims to live side-by-side without trying to convert each other? My marriage is living proof that the answer is Yes.
Conservative Christian readers: I challenge you to give this a chance. It is not standard conservative theology, and it took me decades of study and prayer – while I was a conservative – to discover it.
I have been married to a Muslim man for 35 years now, and I’ve had the privilege of traveling with him through much of the Muslim world. It troubled me deeply that the millions of people in these lands had literally no chance of meeting Jesus in their lifetimes – and those few who would encounter a Christian missionary were unlikely to convert.
I’d been taught that anyone who is exposed to the Gospel, and then rejects it, is hell-bound. (I know a lot of you are nodding and saying “obviously!“) “If they want to go to hell, then the loving thing for God to do is let them go.”
I’d also learned that regarding the eternal fate of those billions who never cross paths with the Good News, well, “God is merciful” (i.e. they may or may not fry).
Guess what? Many conservative Muslims were taught exactly the same/opposite thing! (I’ve written about it before, here.)
“We can’t both be right”
My husband and I struggled with this issue for years. We were steeped in our orthodoxy, each one convinced of its correctness, and we strove to convert each other. It didn’t work. We both refused to settle for a “convenient” doctrine of eternity that would supposedly allow us to both get to heaven without one of us converting. We were committed to the beliefs of our upbringings.
Apparently there was no resolution.
But then, when conservative Christianity utterly failed me, I began a journey outside that box – just to see what it looked like. My faith in God was still intact, but my faith in conservative Christianity was shredded.
I started to read the books that I’d been told to avoid, to listen to black-listed speakers.
After a while, something in me began to change. I was surprised when I stopped seeing Islam as a barrier standing between my husband and God. For the first time since our wedding day, I began to have real peace. It took my husband a little while to get on board, but he’s there now too.
This answer is something that lifelong Progressives (both Christian and Muslim) have always known. I never knew Progressive Christians, so I had to discover it all by myself.
It’s not about being “right”
Granted, this answer doesn’t fit with conservative theology (Christian or Muslim). As a Christian, verses like Acts 4:12 were drummed into my head as though that’s all the Bible had to say on the subject: “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
It took me awhile to get comfortable with the fact that my holy book has more than one take on salvation. But now I can say with confidence that there are lots verses in the Bible that don’t put theology in the center of salvation.
To repeat: the Bible doesn’t always tie salvation to a specific belief in Jesus. It just doesn’t.
Two examples will suffice for now:
1. In Luke 10, someone asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, and then says, “Go and do likewise” – i.e. “and that’s how to inherit eternal life.”
Jesus’ parable-answer could be summarized as, “Here’s how to inherit eternal life: remember that guy from the story who practices a different religion from yours? I want you to live like him. Those other guys from the story who practice your religion – they are getting it wrong.”
Another way to say it might be, “Eternal life is not about theology. It’s about love.” (Read more here.)
2. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats. To the sheep, he says, “take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”
How do you get to be a sheep? How do you “inherit the kingdom”?
We know the answer. Jesus explained, “When I was hungry, you fed me…When you did it for the least of these, you did it for me.” (Read more here.)
In the conservative church, we were taught that both of those parables end with an asterisk – something God intended, but didn’t take the time to instruct the Gospel writers about.
*Good Samaritan: be kind to others, but also ask Jesus into your heart. Otherwise, the kindness is, eternity-wise, a waste of your time.
*Sheep and Goats: feed the hungry – but include a serving of the Gospel. If you don’t, the food just goes to waste, eternity-wise. (Alternate reading: those people are hungry for the Gospel. Actual food is optional.)
How many times had I read those parables and put words in Jesus’ mouth? How many millions and millions of young believers have been taught this?
I discovered a “new way” to understand not just a couple of parables, but the whole mission of Jesus.How many times had I read those parables and put words in Jesus’ mouth? How many millions and millions of young believers have been taught this?
I discovered a “new way” to understand not just a couple of parables, but the whole mission of Jesus.
Jesus pointed us to God, and then showed us how it looks to please God. It looks like love – I mean, what did Jesus really do during his ministry but show love, especially to the marginalized? (He also spoke truth to power – called out the hypocrisy of those who demanded holiness but neglected to love.)
When I saw this, there was no un-seeing it. What’s more, there was no longer space for evangelicalism inside me. Or rather, there was no space for me inside evangelicalism.
I was able to see my husband and all Muslims in a completely new light. Progressives have been doing this for a long time, but until I broke free, I was incapable of that kind of seeing. I was forbidden to see that way.
Here’s the thing
Right now, today, something like a billion Muslims are seeking after God (to a greater or lesser degree). The vast majority had no control over this trajectory: they were born into a Muslim-majority country, or to Muslim parents. Some of them have heard the Christian message (like my husband). If they rejected it, it’s not because they reject God—it’s the exact opposite: they are staying faithful to God as they know Him. They have faith in God as they understand Him, and their faith remains unshaken in the presence of the Christian message.
Likewise, a billion Christians are seeking after God (to a greater or lesser degree) today, and the vast majority had no control over this trajectory either. Some have heard the message of Islam (like me), but rejected it because it doesn’t resonate with them. They have faith in God that remains unshaken in the presence of the message of Islam.
(Let’s not be self-centered by assuming that “we” are just being steadfast by rejecting Islam, but when “they” reject Christianity, it’s because they’re brainwashed.)
“Great is your faith”
Keeping the faith, whatever faith it may be, is called persistence. What does Jesus think of persistence?
- And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon… even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” (Matt. 15:22-28)
- Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside…[He] began to cry out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus stopped and said…“What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:46-52)
- “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘…I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” (Luke 18:2-5)
- And [Jesus] said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’;…I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” (Luke 11:5-10)
God rewards persistence and faithfulness, not just in Christian believers, but in everyone.
Does this perspective make you uneasy?
If you feel the need to resolve the tension between the above verses and John 14:6, try not to worry about it. The Bible contains difficult passages – even, perhaps, contradictions – and that’s ok. We don’t have to fix it. We need to let the Bible say what it says, not make it say what we think it should say. (More about this topic another day. Subscribe to my newsletter?)
Christians and Muslims need to keep seeking and pursuing God as He really is, not just as we’ve come to know Him—because we all have a distorted view of Him. We all need to see more clearly, love more dearly, follow more nearly, day by day.
If we are all truly seeking God, we will begin to converge.
Next time you read your Bible, I challenge you to expect to be surprised by what you see!
(Now, if you want to attack this point of view, be my guest. But please don’t tell me I’m “wrong” – tell me you “disagree” with me.)
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FEATURED IMAGE: “Whooper Swan inflight, on a foggy day at Martin Mere, January 2010” by Gidzy is licensed under CC BY 2.0