Sunday, February 8, 2015

Promoting Religion through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness?

 By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            Throughout the Bible, light is a symbol of God’s presence and darkness a symbol of the absence of God or the presence of Satan.  In Gnosticism, light and darkness represent the opposing forces of good and evil in a great and unending cosmic battle.  For Christians and Muslims, evangelism is about promoting their religion as a light shining in a world of darkness; but it is a light visible only to believers, with unbelievers condemned to eternal darkness. 

            Jesus taught his disciples to follow him and spread the good news of the Gospel, like a lamp spreading light into the darkness: “Do you bring in a lamp and put it under a bowl or a bed?  Instead, don’t you put it on a stand?  For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out in the open.  If anyone has ears, let him hear.”  The good news was that the light of God’s transforming love and mercy could dispel the darkness of sin and give people new spiritual life, reconciling and redeeming them into the universal family of God (Mark 4:21-23; see Matthew 5:14-16; 10:26-28; Luke 8:16-17; 11:33-36; 12:2-5; John 3:19-21; 8:12). 

            Jesus was a Jew who never promoted any religion, not even his own; and he never taught any belief that provided only one way of salvation and condemned all others to hell.  That came later with Church doctrine and dogma that limited salvation to those who believed in Jesus Christ as God’s one and only Son, and that believers were saved from the ravages of hell through the crucifixion of Jesus as a blood sacrifice for the atonement of their sins. (Romans 3:21-26; Hebrews 2:14-18)  It was only natural for Paul and other Jews in the early Church to understand the crucifixion that way since Mosaic Law provided for the atonement of sin through blood sacrifice.  But Jesus was critical of blood sacrifice, and like prophets before him Jesus taught that God wanted mercy, not sacrifice.    

            Jesus taught his disciples to follow him as the word of God, not to worship him as God’s only Son, and the word of God—the good news of the Gospel—was that sinners could repent of their sin and be reconciled and redeemed as children of God based on the transforming power of God’s forgiveness, love and mercy.  God’s blessings were not limited to Jews and were not dependent on obedience to Mosaic Law as taught by the Pharisees.  The good news that had been hidden and that was meant to be disclosed was that God’s love fulfilled Mosaic Law.  It was now love over law.

            The Qur’an, like the Hebrew Bible, emphasizes holy law as a standard of righteousness, and like Christian church doctrine it limits salvation to believers.  In Islam it is belief in the Qur’an as the immutable word of God, while in Christian doctrine it is belief in Jesus as God’s one and only Son.  Both the Qur’an and church doctrine assure believers that they will have eternal life in heaven and condemn all unbelievers to eternal damnation in hell. The Qur’an states that Jews and Christians are People of the Book, but it also condemns as blasphemers and unbelievers all those who believe that God had a son. 

            The Qur’an gives Muslims the evangelical mission to promote Islam by word and sword, and the violent evangelism of radical Islam today seems to be to expedite divine judgment and dispatch all unbelievers, including Jews, Christians and non-conforming Muslims, to hell.
            Christianity and Islam are competing religions that measure their success by the number of their believers, who now represent over half of the world’s population.  While Christians now outnumber Muslims, Muslims are growing faster than Christians.  But even as globalization has brought Christians and Muslims closer together than ever before, their evangelical competition for converts with exclusivist claims for salvation has prevented better interfaith relations. 

            The exclusivist claims of Christianity and Islam are based on fundamentalist religious beliefs that defy knowledge and reason and generate more darkness than light.  If it is God’s will to reconcile and redeem all people into a universal family of God, and Satan’s will to divide and conquer God’s people, history has shown that Satan has done a superb imitation of God using fundamentalist religious beliefs to divide and conquer people of faith by encouraging believers to condemn unbelievers, and Satan has done some of his best work in the church and mosque.    

            Both Islam and Christianity claim to embrace the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors, including our unbelieving neighbors.  With Jews, Christians and Muslims now living closer together than ever before, evangelism needs to shift its priorities from condemning and converting those of other religions to reconciling with them.  If Christian and Islamic evangelism can promote religious reconciliation rather than exclusivism, then it can bring the light of God’s reconciling love into a world of darkness and be a force for good rather than evil.

Notes and References to Resources:

This topic is related to Lesson #7, Lamp on a Stand, at pages 43 and 44 of the J&M Book.

Related blogs are those on Religion and reason, posted on December 8, 2014; Salvation and reconciliation into the family of God, posted on January 4, 2015; The greatest commandment posted on January 11, 2015; and Love over law posted on January 18, 2015.          

Jesus echoed the prophets Hosea and Amos when he said: But go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice. (see Matthew 9:10-13; 12:7; Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21, cited in Jesus came to save sinners, not the righteous at page 17 of the J&M Book)  On blood sacrifice as a Jewish ritual for atonement of sin, see Leviticus 17:11, and those Jewish sacrificial rituals at pages 603-651 in the Appendices of the J&M Book.

On Christian beliefs that distort the teachings of Jesus, see Robin R. Meyers, Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus, Harper One, 2009.

On the lack of Biblical evidence that God condemns unbelievers to eternal damnation in hell, see Robert H. Bell, Jr., Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every  Person Who Has Ever Lived, Harper One, 2011.

For provisions of the Qur’an on belief, unbelief and rewards and punishments for Jews and Christians, see pages 469-485 in the Appendices to the J&MBook; on the morality of violence in defending and promoting Islam, see pages 498-502 in the Appendices to the J&M Book.


  1. I'm totally with you on the value of dropping the will to convert unbelievers. A good case can be made that the best hope for converting them, anyway, is by offering testimony/witness with your behavior: that is, by doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.

    But based on my listening to BBC news podcasts, at least, I don't think Muslims are at war with anyone for the purpose of sending unbelievers to hell. Isn't it more the case that, for ex., Iraqi Shiites kill Iraqi Sunnis because there is a score to settle from when the Ba'ath party was in power? I mean, no doubt the religious doctrine gets highlighted in the propaganda for recruits, but it seems to me that the story is really about--as it is always about--political and economic dominance. (Which is why the "we're doing this to spread democracy!" justification, another kind of violent evangelism, also sounds thin to my ears when the US uses it to maintain its position in the global pecking order.)

  2. You know that I'm also skeptical toward those who emphasize visible witness over quiet acts of mercy (because the visible witness can be a means of self-promotion at least as much as gospel-promotion). But you may want to rethink some of what you say in the third paragraph. Jesus may not have wanted to convince people to become Jews (though James seems to have wanted to), but he does commission his followers to baptize. As for one way of salvation, there's "No one comes to the Father except through me" and other pretty clear exclusivist teachings.

    Why would it be "only natural" for Paul to think of the crucifixion in blood-sacrifice terms, but not Jesus? They're both Jews of the same era. Matt. 26:28 sounds like an acknowledgement of blood sacrifice, doesn't it? John the Baptist (Jn 1:29) also seems to be thinking of Jesus in terms of blood sacrifice.

    1. My point is that all of your claims can be met with counter-claims, and that's because scripture is complicated. The hard work of theology is not just listing things you must believe; it's the work of trying to make sense of the complicated and conflicting testimony of scripture. The best theology takes this complexity seriously.

    2. Ashley: Thanks for your comments. I agree that doing what God requires of us is best summarized in Micah 6:8. As to what motivates radical Muslims to kill Jews, Christians and other Muslims who don’t meet their standards, my impression is that they truly believe that they are doing the will of God/Allah, and would not be killing others—certainly not by killing themselves—if they did not believe that. While we tend to separate our motivations based on religious, political or economic considerations, remember that Islam makes no distinction between religion and those other categories of concern. Religious people may admire the dedication of those who “submit” without question to the absolute and immutable truth of the Qur’an and its comprehensive laws that leave no room for individual freedom, but like Thomas Jefferson I believe that God gave us the ability to use reason in matters of faith, as well as the inalienable rights to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness asserted in our Declaration of Independence together with the freedoms of religion and speech in the First Amendment to our Constitution. I hope we don’t have to fight a holy war to preserve those libertarian rights as a matter of faith.

      Jon: Like you I have spent most of my adult life trying to make sense of the complicated and conflicting testimony of scripture, and have taken its complexity seriously. In seeking God’s truth I have found scripture to be invaluable but not inviolable. Reason and experience have led me beyond the boundaries of church doctrine, especially its insistence that Christianity is the one true faith. On those provisions of John’s Gospel that are most often cited to support the exclusivity of the Christian religion (John 3:16 and 14:6), I read them as belief in the teachings of Jesus as the word of God, or the Logos, rather than belief in Jesus as God’s one and only Son. I have tried to explain those unorthodox views in The Teachings of Jesus and Muhammad on Morality and Law found in the Resources on the website under two topics from the Gospel of John: Faith and eternal life (John 3:16-18) at pages 394-398, and The way, the truth and the life (John 14:5-14) at pages 416-418. Those topics reflect my struggle to make sense of the symbolism in John’s Gospel; I hope they adequately explain my rejection of Christian exclusivity.