Recently I presented on the above topic at the first public health conference since the shootings in San Bernardino (which were perpetrated at a social gathering of public health officials). I spoke alongside a couple of muslim scholars representing biblical scholars who are also interested in the Qur’an and Islam. I suggested that Muslims and I share three core convictions that are pertinent to the issue of combating terrorism. I sense that my Muslim co-panelists agreed with me enthusiastically.
The first conviction is that there is a cosmic conflict, or cosmic jihad as Muslims might call it, between good and evil, God and Satan. In texts like Revelation 12, Isaiah 14, Ezekiel 28, Genesis 3 and Job 1 and 2, the Bible draws back the curtain to reveal behind the conflicts of this earth a universe-wide conflict over God’s character and government. Various aspects of this cosmic “jihad” are also clearly expressed in the Qur’an (1:1-4; 7:11-15, 20-22; 15:39; 17:62-65; 25:52; 26:94-98; 30:11-14; 59:19), building on the earlier prophetic revelations in the Bible. This large theme tells me that there is a battle between good and evil at the heart of every religion, including Islam. Every religion has the capacity for good or for evil. To simply say Islam is a religion of peace or Islam is a religion of violence is not an adequate analysis. Islam is part of the battleground in the cosmic conflict or jihad. Any analysis of the history of Christianity will affirm the same there. All religions here on earth are battlegrounds in the cosmic conflict.
Second, God is a God of love and love requires freedom in order to be truly love. So human beings have been created with the freedom to love God and each other or to be rebellious and violent. That means that there is no compulsion in true religion. The religion that has God’s approval is one that values human freedom and does not coerce. And a God of love and freedom does not normally intervene to interrupt the consequences of human rebellion. Hence the terrorists have the freedom to do their work with all of its horrible consequences for the innocent as well as the guilty (Gen 2:17-17; 3:11; Deut 30:19; Josh 24:15; John 8:32-36; 2 Cor 3:17; Gal 5:1, 13; Qur’an 2:256; 4:115; 16:125-128; 17:62-65). Furthermore, the lack of religious freedom in most muslim countries is the work of the evil one rather a manifestation of true faith.
Third, it is a law of life that we become like the God we worship. If we believe that God is arbitrary, punitive, judgmental and severe, we ourselves will become more and more like that. If we believe that God is loving, gracious, forgiving and merciful, we will become more and more like that. In their actions the terrorists betray a horrific view of God, and since they believe that their theology is right, their actions reveal what they think God is like and what God approves. While there are many texts in both the Bible and the Qur’an that have been used to justify such a violent God, both sacred texts climax with a very different picture. The high point of the Bible on this question is John 14:9. There Jesus affirms, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” The life of Jesus, in its love, mercy, kindness and self-sacrifice, is a picture of what the Christian God is truly like. Likewise, in the Qur’an, the high point is in The Opening to the Qur’an (al Fatiha), 1:1-4. The character of Allah is there summarized in two words, merciful and compassionate (compare with Exodus 34:6-7). The God of the Qur’an is not a monster, but is gracious and compassionate toward humanity. In fact, this description of God is at the head of all but one of the suras (chapters) in the Qur’an and the rest of the Qur’an needs to be read with that picture of God in mind. The two high point passages referenced above have many counterparts in both sacred texts. Violent humans have cherry-picked sacred texts for centuries to justify evil actions. But at the core of the Bible and the Qur’an are affirmations of a gracious God. How one reads is a choice, and we become like the God we worship.
Followers of ISIS and al Qaeda might be comfortable in general with the first point. They would see themselves as God’s true warriors, fighting the cosmic jihad for Him on this earth. But the God that they are fighting for is nothing like the God introduced in the opening phrase of the Qur’an. And they certainly do not respect the freedom of any who disagree with them. Their use of sacred texts is selective in the extreme, and the God they worship has all the characteristics of Satan: He is punitive, judgmental, violent, and hates His enemies. In the service of God it is possible to behave like the Enemy (compare Rev 16:2).