Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Timeless Truth Encrypted in Ancient Wisdom

Roland Clarke

An ancient wise saying attributed to King Solomon reads,

For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die ... Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God's work from beginning to end ... A good reputation is more valuable than costly perfume. And the day you die is better than the day you are born. (Ecclesiastes 3:1,2,11; 7:1,2)

Birth is usually an occasion for happy celebration while death evokes mourning and sad feelings. No one likes to die. They pay doctors huge sums of money to be cured from life threatening illnesses. Can this proverb really be true?

People from every culture around the whole world feel a longing to live beyond the grave. This yearning is often expressed as a belief in a better place in the 'hereafter'. It is natural for humans to hope that we will see our loved ones beyond the grave. This shows Solomon's cryptic saying has an undenial ring of truth, that transcends all cultures and all time.

This longing for immortality can be likened to the homing instinct in a racing pigeon. If you take a homing pigeon far from its home and release it, what will it do? It will instinctively return home. God has implanted this instinct like a built-in-compass orienting the pigeon to its home! In a similar way, human beings have an uncanny awareness – that there is another better place we can look forward to in the hereafter.

It is not surprising to see how Solomon, spoke of death as a home-going, “Remember God before you near the grave, your everlasting home … the dust will return to the earth and the spirit will return to God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:5-7) In a similar way the Quran says, “To God we belong and to Him is our return.”

Solving a Puzzling Proverb

While death is supposed to be a doorway to a better existence we realise that everyone does not automatically end up in a better place. There are perplexing aspects to Solomon's riddle but this much is clear: If you rely on perfume to give your dead body a pleasant aroma you can be sure it will be short-lived. But if you have been righteous, i.e. you have a good reputation that is much better. A good reputation will last longer than costly perfume.

At the end of the day, Solomon purposely composed this proverb as a riddle to prompt us to think deeply about death. This purpose is emphasized in the next sentence,

Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties. After all everyone dies – so the living should take this to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for sadness has a refining influence on us. A wise person thinks a lot about death, while a fool thinks only about having a good time. (Ecclesiastes 7:3,4)

Solomon was not the only one who composed riddles to stimulate people to ponder death and eternity. Notice how Psalm 49 begins,

Listen to this all you people! ... For my words are wise and my thoughts are filled with insight. I listen carefully to many proverbs and solve riddles with inspiration from a harp... [People] cannot redeem themselves from death by paying a ransom to God. Redemption does not come so easily. For no one can ever pay enough to live forever and never see the grave. (Psalm 49:1-9)

Our best efforts to attain immortality are blocked by the grim reality of death. We cannot avoid the grave. The psalmist observes that those who take pride in their wealth take nothing with them when they die. In fact, they are no better off than animals. But thankfully, that is not all. The psalmist provides a glimpse of hope, in fact it is more than just a glimmer – he confidently states,“But as for me, God will redeem my life. He will snatch me from the power of the grave.” (Psalm 49:15; compare Job's testimony in Job 19:25-27)

Death poses a daunting dilemma to all humans. Each culture has its own way of describing this hurdle. The Waodani Indians, for example, portray this challenge in terms of “jumping the Great Boa”. Other cultures use different images to describe death but one thing is certain: our gut reaction is one of fear and deep dislike.

The early prophets were not the only ones who posed riddles about death and immortality. Jesus Christ also talked about man's heart for eternity. We read how he engaged a woman of Samaria in a discussion about ‘living water’. It so happened that he was sitting by a well after a long walk and she had come to draw water. As the story unfolds it becomes clear what Jesus meant by this unusual figure of speech – he was kindly offering her ‘eternal life’.

This peculiar phrase perplexed the woman. She knew he was thirsty from traveling a long distance. So when he asked her for a cup of water she assumed he meant well water. She became more puzzled when he offered a different kind of water. He explained that “those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.” (John 4:14)

Perceiving that Jesus was a godly man, she asked him to give an opinion about a controversial issue – a topic of debate which had long polarized Samaritans and Jews. She asked Jesus which worship center was the correct one – Mount Zion or Mount Gerazim? Jesus declined engaging this centuries old debate and focused her attention, instead, on something far more important. He replied,

You Samaritans know very little about the one you worship, while we Jews know all about him, for salvation comes through the Jews. But the time is coming ... when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. (John 4:22,23)

Could this provide a clue to understanding ‘living water’? Could this ‘salvation’ that Jesus talked about have anything to do with ‘eternal life’?

Another chapter in the story unfolds as the inhabitants from her village invited Jesus to stay with them for a couple more days. The Samaritans eagerly listened to him but it wasn’t until near the end that they said to the woman,

Now we believe, not just because of what you told us but because we have heard him ourselves. Now we know that he is indeed the Savior of the world. (John 4:42)

We are not told what they talked about but we can well imagine there was considerable discussion. We've already glimpsed the kind of theological controversies that alienated Samaritans from their Jewish half brothers. And we've seen how Jesus focused on the core issue of salvation and true worship. Judging from how the story ends it is clear that these Samaritans had an open mind. They received “guidance by exploring the meaning in these proverbs ... riddles.” (Proverbs 1:5,6) The italicized words are part of the introduction to Solomon's proverbs yet they fit the situation where Jesus posed a riddle while teaching the Samaritans.

In the next paragraph we see how important it is to explore the meaning of wise sayings. Solomon says,

Tune your ears to wisdom and concentrate on understanding ... Search for them as you would for hidden treasure. (Proverbs 2:4)

Seeking for hidden treasure is a theme we also find in Jesus teaching. He compared the Kingdom of heaven to “hidden treasure” and concluded by emphasizing that if you want to find this hidden treasure you must search diligently for it.

It seems fitting to apply this to the Samaritans. Their search for truth yielded a rich discovery – the Messiah Jesus is indeed the Savior of the world. This discovery was no doubt a surprise to the Samaritans. It was not easy for them to admit that the Savior of the world was Jewish because, for so long, they had been suspicious and hostile towards the Jews.

Clues to Unravel the Riddle

You will recall that Jesus invited the Samaritan woman to “worship the Father in spirit and in truth” but we must also appreciate the importance of knowing salvation which, Jesus pointed out, has Jewish roots. This theme of salvation is repeatedly mentioned in the writings of the prophets. It was the consistent practice of the prophets to acknowledge God as Savior. Moreover, they prophesied that the Lord's Servant, the Messiah, would one day bring God's light and salvation to the whole world.

But what does salvation mean? As we examine it, we will come to understand how closely linked it is to “living water”, that is, eternal life which is the main focus of our discussion.

One of the greatest epic rescue stories mentioned in both the Bible and the Qur'an is the Exodus from Egypt. This story shows that deliverance from enemies is a crucial aspect of the meaning of salvation, especially when deliverance comes at the critical moment when lives are threatened.

Jonah faced a different kind of life threatening situation – not a human enemy but a sea monster. He praised God saying, “my salvation comes from the Lord alone.” (Jonah 2:9) In a similar way, David sang,

Praise the Lord: praise God our savior! For each day he carries us in his arms. Our God is a God who saves! The sovereign Lord rescues us from death. (Psalm 68:19,20)

Isaiah is another prophet who worshiped God as Savior. Unlike David, who reflected on past deliverances, Isaiah prophesied a day of future deliverance when death and tears will be no more,

In Jerusalem the LORD ... will swallow up death forever! The Sovereign LORD will wipe away all tears. ... In that day the people will proclaim, “This is our God! We trusted in him and he saved us! This is the LORD in whom we trusted. Let us rejoice in the salvation he brings!” (Isaiah 25:7-9)

This intriguing prophecy glimpses a future day when “there will be no more death or sorrow” as recorded in Revelation 21:4.

Jews, Christians and even Muslims agree with Isaiah's description of God as One who comforts and “wipes away our tears”. It is interesting to see how the Qur'an describes the place of salvation where true believers will live forever. It says paradise is a place where there are no tears and no death. (Surah 39:61; 44:56)

This corresponds to the Biblical description of heaven as a place of 'salvation' and also a place where 'tears are wiped away'. We read in Revelation 12:10,17:

a vast crowd too great to count from every nation … were shouting with a mighty shout, ‘Salvation comes from our God who sits on the throne and from the Lamb’. … For the Lamb on the throne will lead them to springs of life-giving water and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

This verses in Revelation show that Isaiah’s prophecy about death being destroyed will be fulfilled. Not only so, they are consistent with God's intention to fulfill the longing for eternity that we saw in Ecclesiastes 3:11 – a longing God has planted in our heart. God promises that he will one day overcome death and free us from the grip of the grave. Understanding this promise helps us see death as a doorway to a much better life – eternal life. Now we are able to make sense of Solomon's riddle, “the day you die is better than the day you are born”.

After reflecting on Isaiah’s prophecy we see Solomon's riddle from a wider perspective. We are better able to grasp "the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end" (Solomon's words). It is intriguing to see “life-giving water” in the heavenly vision of Revelation 12, which corresponds with the "living water" Jesus promised the Samaritans. This cannot be a coincidence, as it fits beautifully like a puzzle piece into the wider picture.

However, salvation and eternal life are not something automatically experienced by everyone. People experience salvation because God "saves" or rescues us.

The psalmist testified to this fact, saying, “God will redeem my life. He will snatch me from the power of the grave.” (Psalm 49:15)

The consistent message of the prophets is that God alone is worthy to be worshiped because he is the only one who can save. (Idols cannot save). Understanding this helps us realize that ‘living water’ is eternal life, as Jesus said to the woman of Samaria. Now let us take a closer look at how death will come to an end. The question before us is, “How will God end death and fulfil his saving purpose?”

A clue to this is found in Isaiah chapter forty nine verse six which clarifies that God's salvation will come through His servant the Messiah. The Lord says,

You will do more than restore the people of Israel to me. I will make you a light to the Gentiles and you will bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.

This prophecy helps us understand what Jesus meant when he told the Samaritan woman that salvation comes through the Jews. Since the Messiah was Jewish, God’s salvation would come through the Jews.

There is a saying, “history repeats itself”. Two thousand years ago, Jews and their half-brothers, the Samaritans, were embroiled in a family feud. In a similar way today, we see Jews and their Muslim 'cousins' deeply alienated from each other. Consider this question: “As with the Samaritans of Sychar, will Muslims in our day acknowledge that salvation comes through the Jews? A clue to answering this can be found in a name that was revealed by God/Allah through an angel.

What’s in a Name?

Seven hundred years after Isaiah prophesied death’s destruction, God sent his servant the Messiah. His special birth contains another clue to unlock eternity in man’s heart and finally solve the riddle of how the day of death can be better than birth.

The Messiah was born through a virgin named Mary. Both the Bible and the Qur'an record the essential elements of this nativity story, including how the name Jesus was revealed through an angel of God. It is particularly important to notice how Jesus' name reinforces the saving purpose God had revealed through Isaiah, i.e. that God’s salvation would come through him. God imprinted his plan to ‘save’ the world by choosing a special name for Mary’s (Maryam’s) baby, namely, Yeshua (Jesus, Isa) meaning 'God is salvation'.

Some readers may doubt this, suspecting perhaps, that it is only a biased opinion of Christians. On the contrary, this meaning of Jesus name is acknowledged by language experts and even by highly respected Muslims, such as Mufti Muhammad Imraan Ashraf Usmani (see p. 77, Islamic Names)

Furthermore, it is significant that the Messiah described his own mission in terms of 'saving the world' (John 12:47; Luke 19:1-10). Is there any clearer way Jesus could have indicated he was fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy to "bring God’s salvation to the ends of the earth"?

Muslims and Christians agree that Jesus Christ healed terminally ill people. In this way he showed saving power. We also believe in common that Jesus raised the dead, which lends credibility to Christ’s claim to “hold the keys of death and the grave.”  (Revelation 1:18)

We have compiled a series of clues that fit together like pieces of a puzzle. However, there is one detail which is worth examining more closely. Some readers might be uncomfortable with how Isaiah seems to describe God as being opposed to death. How can God ‘destroy’ death or be violently opposed to it, we know that death only happens by the will of Almighty? Is it not true that death is simply ‘God's will’?

Is it really necessary for God to “destroy” death?

Death has been in this world for so long that we tend to think it is 'normal'. All generations before us have died so it seems natural that people die. We assume God made things this way. In other words, death is simply God’s will. However, according to the Bible and the Qur'an, man did not die while he was living in the original paradise garden of Eden. Adam and Eve died only AFTER they were banished from this place. (Genesis 2:17-3:19 compare Surah 2:23-25) Death has deeply negative overtones. It happened after people sinned and is associated with interpersonal strife. All these facts imply that death is not really a 'natural' part of the world as God originally made it.

This point is worth pondering in more detail. Think for a moment about Eden as a completely pure place, where man experienced intimate fellowship with God. The moment Adam and Eve became defiled by sin they were banished from Eden and separated from God. This meant that when they died, (somewhere outside of the Garden) their corpses did not defile this pure place. If they had been in paradise their dead bodies would have contaminated it.

This principle applies the Tabernacle, where Israelites came to worship God. Scripture tells us that God barred people from entering his Tabernacle if they had been in contact with death, in any way.

Scripture makes it very clear: God is repulsed by death and maintains a strict rule, keeping a distance between Himself and anyone who came into contact with death. For example, under the law of Moses a person became defiled if they touched a bone, a corpse, or even if they had just been in the home of a relative who died and was waiting to be interred. (Numbers 19)

When we consider how repulsive and defiling death is, we realise why there was no death in the first paradise and why there will also be no death in the final paradise, called heaven.

We read in the Bible how God issued a death sentence against a whole generation of Israelites in the time of Moses because they rebelled. In this sense, death is an act of God, i.e. a punishment. However, if we want to speak of God's 'will' in terms of his motivation and intention, it is not proper to speak of God 'wanting' to put people to death.

This is very clear in the writing of Ezekiel the prophet. “Why will you die, O house of Israel… I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live.” (Ezekiel 18:31,32) This compassionate attitude of God is evident in another scripture which says, “[God] is patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent.” (2 Peter 3:9)

In a similar way, Isaiah speaks of God's willingness to restore repentant sinners. The prophet explains this in terms of God's forbearance, “I will not always be angry. If I were, all people would pass away – all the souls I have made.” (Isaiah 57:16)

Thoughtful Muslim readers will call to mind a similar verse in the Qur'an which says, “If God were to punish men for their wrong doing he would not leave on the Earth a single living creature; but He shows respite...” (Surah 16:61)

Let me summarize why scripture describes God as being violently opposed to death, i.e. he will destroy it. Sin is the root cause of death. Indeed, death by its very nature, is repulsive and defiling. God does not ‘wish’ destruction or death of anyone. Therefore Isaiah’s prophecy fits the pattern of God’s attitude to death as seen in the other writings of the prophets.

There are other evidences that point to a negative meaning implicit in death. When people die, loved ones typically feel sorrow. Death is perceived by almost everyone as undesirable, frightening and painful. Sick people seek to obtain a cure to avoid (or postpone) dying as long as possible. This instinctive, 'gut' reaction to resist the threat of death is often described in news reports where it says that ‘so and so’ lost his fight against cancer/AIDS. Humans are not alone in feeling a deep resistance against death – God does too. He has promised to destroy death forever and wipe away tears.

Jesus also resisted the forces of death. All through his life scripture portrays him as fighting against the forces behind death. He “came to destroy the works of the devil” -- the most vicious and evil work of Satan is, of course, murder. Notice how Jesus told the Jewish leaders who wanted to kill him, “you love to do the evil things the Devil does. He was a murderer from the beginning.” (1 John 3:8; John 8:44)

These words of Jesus call to mind how Satan enticed Adam and Eve to sin which resulted in their death. In this way he became the ‘murderer from the beginning’. Whereas Satan is the murderer, God is the life-giver. Listen to Jesus' words,

I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does the Son also does... For just as the Father gives life to those he raises from the dead, so the Son also gives life ... I tell you the truth, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life... The Father has life in himself, and he has granted that same life-giving power to his Son. (John 5:24-26)

In a similar way, it is written, “Because God's children are human beings – made of flesh and blood – the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the Devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free those who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying.” (Hebrews 2:14,15) However, some people may not think this makes sense.

How could Jesus Christ conquer the Devil by dying?

Isaiah prophesied the exact place where death would be destroyed, that is, Jerusalem. Jesus also predicted this would be the place where he would confront death -- and rise victoriously. Jesus said,

Listen we're going up to Jerusalem, where all the predictions of the prophets concerning the Son of man will come true. He will be handed over to the Romans and he will be mocked, treated shamefully and spit upon. They will flog him with a whip and kill him, but on the third day he will rise again. (Luke 18:31-33)

Scripture explains how this was fulfilled, “He broke the power of death and illuminated the way to life and immortality through the Good News.” (2 Timothy 1:10; compare Acts 2:23,24)

The Resurrection Unravels the Riddle

We began by observing that people of all races and cultures hope for a better life in the hereafter, be it ever so vague or elusive. We have traced this theme as it unfolds through scripture and we've seen that this hope focuses on the Messiah, especially his death and resurrection.

As we conclude our discussion let's re-examine the ancient riddle about death being better than birth. This time, however, we want to consider how this riddle applies to Jesus Christ. Did he believe this riddle was relevant to his own death?

As Christ approached the end of his earthly life he prophesied:

Now the time has come for the Son of Man to enter into his glory. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels – plentiful harvest of new lives. Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity... And when I am lifted up from the earth I will draw everyone to myself. He said this to indicate how he was going to die. (John 12:23-25,32,33)

Jesus predicted his death using the familiar symbol of a kernel of wheat dying. Christ did not cling to his earthly life but was willing to give it up in order to accomplish a greater good. In essence, he regarded his death as being more valuable than birth. The greater good he would accomplish by his death is clearly spelled out: He will “produce many new kernels – a harvest of new lives.”

Not only did Jesus anticipate being able to give others eternal life he saw his death as a gateway “to enter his glory”. As it is written, “Jesus endured the cross disregarding its shame ... because of the joy awaiting him” (Hebrews 12:2)

What was this joyous occasion that Christ looked forward to after his crucifixion? The next sentence tells us, “Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God's throne.” We also read that Jesus "offered himself to God as one sacrifice for sins, good for all time. Then he sat down at the place of highest honor at God's right hand." (Hebrews 10:12) These verses confirm that Jesus' death paved the way for his glorious exaltation.

Ponder this Question: How important is a good reputation?

Solomon's riddle underscores the importance of having a good reputation, but how many good deeds must we do to gain this reputation? A similar question arises when we read Proverbs 12:28, “In the way of righteousness there is life; along that path is immortality.” We might ask ourselves,“Am I righteous enough in order to make the passing grade for entrance into heaven/paradise?”

This concern is reinforced in the minds of some people when they read the words of Jesus Christ,

a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out - those who have done good will rise to live and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned…. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. (John 5:28,29; 6:40)

Again we might ask a question that focuses on good deeds, “How many good deeds must one do?” This was the main concern in the mind of the Jewish religious leaders. They asked Jesus, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” (John 6:28 NIV) The idea in the back of their minds was that good works contribute merit points towards the supreme objective of entering heaven. Jesus surprised them when he simply said, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6:29 NIV).

According to Jesus, belief precedes works. Moreover, having true faith in the Messiah is what is most important. True belief will ultimately result in eternal life. The problem with the Pharisees was: they refused to believe in Jesus as God's Messiah. In fact they rejected him adamantly to the bitter end. They argued at his last trial that he was worthy of the death penalty. His crime was that he claimed to be the Messiah, the Son of God. (Luke 22:67-71)

On another occasion a young man asked Jesus a question about eternal life. He asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17)

The answer Jesus gave hinged not so much on “how much good one has to do” as it did on, “whether one truly believes in the Messiah.” The underlying issue behind this man's question was somewhat similar to the Pharisees. He failed to believe in Jesus for who he really is. He did not accept Christ's absolute goodness. Ultimately this proved to be the stumbling block for this likeable, outwardly upright, young man. Interestingly this issue also troubles many Muslim friends. Sam Shamoun has written an excellent short article explaining how this young man missed the mark.

If a self confident, outwardly godly person can miss eternal life what chance does a criminal have? This is answered in Luke 23 where we read how Jesus met a man who was condemned to die. This encounter provides another clue to help answer the question, “How much good must I do in order to qualify to enter paradise?” This criminal was one of two men crucified on either side of Jesus. As the conversation unfolded between the two criminals, one of them humbly admitted,

“We deserve to die for our sins but this man hasn't done anything wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus remember me when you come in your Kingdom.” And Jesus replied, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:41-43)

This repentant criminal had no opportunity to do any good deeds before his death. If judgment involves weighing up good deeds against wrongdoing do you think he would have a chance of entering paradise? Jesus assured him he would be in paradise. This is preposterous, is it not? But this was not the first time Jesus had made this kind of statement, implying a divine prerogative. He forgave people of their sins which evoked an objection from the Pharisees. They argued, “This is blasphemy! Only God can forgive sins!” (Mark 2:1-7)

Do you agree with the criminal? (who admitted, “We deserve to die for our sins.”) I urge you to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Let us now reconsider the question that the Jewish leaders asked Jesus, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” If they really knew their scripture they would have understood that they “cannot redeem themselves from death by paying a ransom to God. Redemption does not come so easily, for no one can ever pay enough to live for ever and never see the grave.” (Psalm 49:7,8) God, however, does redeem us if we truly believe and repent. (verse 15).

Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who provided the ransom payment. He said, “I, the Son of Man came ... to serve others and to give my life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) You may want to read more about how Jesus Christ fulfilled God’s ancient promise of a lamb as revealed through Abraham.

Based on what we've been saying some readers may infer that the Bible gives Christians the license to live however they wish because salvation is purely by grace and God is always ready to forgive. This is definitely not what the Bible teaches as you will see if you carefully read Romans 6:1-4.

At the end of the day, the Bible teaches that if one has genuine faith this will “show itself by good deeds.” (James 2:17ff; see also Matthew 7:15-23) In a similar way, we read that, “He [God] will give eternal life to those who keep on doing good, seeking after the glory and honor and immortality that God offers.” (Romans 2:7) Notice, God “gives” eternal life. We don't earn or deserve it.

Another article which lists many prophecies of the Lamb in the Bible can be found here.

Note: All Biblical quotations (unless specified otherwise) are taken from the New Living Translation.

If I can be of any further assistance please contact me.