The Atonement

December 2020

Atonement and the Doctrine of Sin and Salvation

For many Muslims the thought of salvation is in terms of escaping from Hell-fire. Yet in reality the problem is not so much to achieve an escape from hell, desperate though that need is, as to have one’s sinful nature changed and so to become reconciled to the God from whom, by sin, we are, in fact, estranged. The very springs of man’s nature, on its physical as well as its moral side, need to be cleansed and directed into right channels.
It needs to be seen clearly by us, and explained no less clearly to the Muslim, that it is not God who requires to be reconciled. He is always anxious for the breach to be healed, for He is love. It is, entirely erroneous to think that Christ, by the sacrifice of Himself, was trying to extract something for men from a reluctant God. On the contrary, man is the obstacle to reconciliation for he is self-willed and rebellious enslaved in sin. The problem involved in salvation is to change, not God, but man, so as to cause him to desire to be reconciled to God, the Heavenly Father. It is in the face of this stark fact that we see how far from reality many a Muslim is when he declares there is no need for any such divine intervention as the death of Christ implies.The task of the Christian is to lift God’s character out of the category in which Islam keeps it.  We need to lead them to a worthier view of the divine being, by stressing His holiness, righteousness and love. The Islamic conception of God is so one-sided that they fail in consequence to grasp the truth about man, sin and salvation; and it is for this reason, primarily, that they fail to see the profound significance of Jesus Christ for sinful men.No need of atonement based on the nature of Allah The most emphatic and dominating feature of Islam’s means of salvation depends in the arbitrary will of God. For this primary reason the Muslim sees no place, and no necessity, for any atonement.a) God is Almighty – He does whatever He pleases, and is answerable to no one: ‘He forgiveth whom He pleaseth, and He punisheth whom He pleaseth’ (Al-Maidah 5:18)b) God is Merciful – He forgives whomsoever He pleases: ‘Allah forgiveth not that partners should be set up with Him; but He forgiveth anything else, to whom He pleaseth’ (An-Nisa’ 4:48)No need of atonement because man was created weak
Man is represented in the Quran as universally sinful but this is due not to a nature which is radically sinful but to one that is weak: ‘For man was created weak (in flesh).’ (An-Nisa’ 4:32) – he may have lost paradise but he is not thereby estranged from Allah. Thus the Quran does not admit that sin was innate in human nature, and that man was, by his own actions, incapable of freeing himself from its bondage.No need of atonement because of Islam’s teaching about sinSin is usually represented as rebellion against, and opposition to the commands of Allah – the doing of that which is forbidden (haram) or the omission of duties that are obligatory (fard or wajib). A prayer in frequent use among Muslims is, astaghfiru’llahu rabbi min kull-I-dhanbim wa atubu alaihe, “I ask forgiveness of Allah, my Lord, for all my sins, and I repent before Him”.The Quran does make mention of some grave sins – covetousness, pride, envy, extravagance, niggardliness, ostentation, cheating, suspicion, slander, theft, etc; and doctors of the law have compiled, lists of these “great” sins. It is significant that the offence of shirk invariably heads these lists. But, for the rest, popular Muslim literature bears eloquent testimony to the fact that it is the interminable regulations about things “allowed“ and “forbidden“ that weigh like a yoke on the necks of the common people.It becomes necessary at this place to consider the real nature of sin. Rightly understood, it is an attitude of antagonism to the proffered love of the all-holy and all-loving God, and indifference to His will. It is an  estrangement, and it involves sin’s punishment. Sin itself punishes in that it degrades and destroys man. Part of that punishment is first observed by others, in the depravity of soul and lack of self-respect in the sinner – a kind of death in life; but as he becomes aware of his true condition the sinner himself suffers the most awful torments of shame and agony of mind.

No need for atonement because of fatalistic teaching

It asserted in the Quran that the fate of man, whatever happens, great or small, has been fixed by the eternal and unalterable decree of Allah. This doctrine is often urged, quite legitimately, as the ground of resignation and patience under misfortune, or composure on the occasion of success, as well as of calmness in circumstances of danger. Unfortunately, however, Quranic teaching is not always restricted to such innocent purposes. Consider what must be the effect of such pronouncements as these: ‘whom Allah willeth, He leaveth to wander: whom He willeth, He placeth on the way that is straight.’ (Al-An’am 6:39);

‘And those whom Allah leaves to stray, no one can guide.’ (Ar-Ra’d  13:33); ‘Every man’s fate We have fastened on his own neck: On the Day of Judgement We shall bring out for him a scroll, which he will see spread open.’ (Al-Isra 17:13); ‘If thy Lord had so willed, He could have made mankind one people: but they will not cease to dispute. Except those on whom thy Lord hath bestowed His mercy: and for this did He create them: and the Word of thy Lord shall be fulfilled: “I will fill Hell with jinns and men all together.’ (Hud 11: 118,119)

What are the means provided in Islam for the salvation of the wicked in Islam?When the Quran does say anything about ‘salvation‘ (and it isn’t often, e.g., the substantive, salvation, occurs but once Al-Ghafir 40:45) it does not convey the idea of moral and spiritual regeneration for the way of salvation in Islam is found in a different way.a) It is found in a salvation by works and for this abundant support is to be found in the Quran: ‘The believers must (eventually) win through, Those who humble themselves in their prayers; Who avoid vain talk; Who are active in deeds of charity; Who abstain from sex, except with those joined to them in the marriage bond or (the captives) whom their right hands possess, ……….. those who faithfully observe their trusts and their covenants; And who (strictly) guard their prayers; These will be the heirs, Who will inherit Paradise: they will dwell therein (for ever).’ (Al-Muminun 23:1-11); ‘Those who (in charity) spend of their goods by night and by day, in secret and in public, have their reward with their Lord: on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.’ (Al-Baqarrah 2:274); ‘Then those whose balance (of good deeds) is heavy, they will attain salvation: But those whose balance is light, will be those who have lost their souls, in Hell will they abide.’ (Al-Mumun 23:102,103)b) The orthodox masses put their faith in resignation to God and obedience to Muhammad: ‘It is such as obey Allah and His Messenger, and fear Allah and do right, that will win (in the end)’ (An-Nur 24:52); ‘But those who believe and work deeds of righteousness, and believe in the (revelation) sent down to Muhammad for it is the truth from their Lord, He will remove from them their ills and improve their condition.’ (Muhammad 47:2)Conclusion
It is not by way of finding fault with the Quran – that is not our business – but to show how next to impossible it must be for the average Muslim, brought up on such ideas, to perceive that sin is, essentially, wrong doing. Allah is depicted as, and believed to be, so utterly ‘other.’ He is an arbitrary being, overbearing. He does what He likes, and favours whom He pleases. As for man, he is the ‘abd,bandai.e. slave, of Allah: and his very offences are believed to have been predetermined, by an inexorable fate – even the offence of shirk, that awful bogey which towers over all as it is tantamount to idolatry.Nor does one find in the Quran such words of reassurance for men in sin, as these: “As I live, saith the Lord, I have no pleasure In the death, of the wicked, but that the wicked should turn from his way and live,” (Ezekiel 33:11); “(God) willeth that all men should he saved,” (1Timothy 2:4); “The Lord is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance,” (2 Peter, 3: 9).The chief significance of the atonement is that it is God’s chosen means for reconciling the sinner to Himself:  ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself‘(2 Corinthians 5:19). And if we were to compress the teaching of the atonement in the New Testament into a single phrase, we would say it was that ‘He suffered on our behalf‘ or ‘in our place’.An extract from entitled “The people of the Mosque” by L. Bevan Jones – Copyright © 2016 “Message 4 Muslims” All rights reserved.