Answering An Islamic Objection: The Justice of Penal Substitution

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Frequently, in dialogues with Muslim polemicists, one will encounter the charge against Christianity that the doctrine of penal substitution is unjust. How, after all, can the blame of all humanity be laid on an innocent? How can an innocent be made to carry the burdens of mankind? In this article, I want to offer a responses to this objection.

First Problem: Penal Substitution According to Islam

The first issue is one of inconsistency. I dare say that most Muslims who make this objection are not familiar with the concept of penal substitution in Islam, which most assuredly is the paradigm of injustice. Let’s take a look at a few passages from the hadith literature.  One sub-category of hadith is Hadith Qudsi (meaning, “sacred hadith”). Muslims see the Hadith Qudsi as the words of Allah himself, which are repeated by the prophet Muhammad. It is thus significant that the following passage is excerpted from the 110 Hadith Qudsi (8):

Narrated Abu Musa: Allah’s Messenger said: On the Day of Resurrection, my Ummah (nation) will be gathered into three groups, one sort will enter Paradise without rendering an account (of their deeds). Another sort will be reckoned an easy account and admitted into Paradise. Yet another sort will come bearing on their backs heaps of sins like great mountains. Allah will ask the angels though He knows best about them: Who are these people? They will reply: They are humble slaves of yours. He will say: Unload the sins from them and put the same over the Jews and Christians; then let the humble slaves get into Paradise by virtue of My Mercy.

There you have it. Allah will place the burdens of Muslims on the shoulders of Jews and Christians at the day of judgment. But this isn’t the only reference to this doctrine in the hadith literature. Consider the following ahadith from book 37 of Sahih Muslim:

6665 Abu Musa reported that Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) said: When it will be the Day of Resurrection Allah would deliver to every Muslim a Jew or a Christian and say: That is your rescue from Hell-Fire.

6666 Abu Burda reported on the authority of his father that Allah’s Apostle (may peace be upon him) said: No Muslim would die but Allah would admit in his stead a Jew or a Christian in Hell-Fire.

6668 Abu Burda reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: There would come people amongst the Muslims on the Day of Resurrection with as heavy sins as a mountain, and Allah would forgive them and He would place in their stead the Jews and the Christians.

As I have said before, the application of double standards is the surest sign of a failed argument. Why are Muslim polemicists so quick to argue that the Christian doctrine of penal substitution is unjust, and yet on these passages, which teach the repugnant doctrine that the sins of Muslims will be placed on the shoulders of Jews and Christians, there is complete silence?

Second Problem: The Injustice of Forgiveness Without Retribution

There is a story in Sahih al-Bukhari (Volume 4, Book 56, no. 676) that I think illustrates quite well the concept of Justice and forgiveness according to Islam:

Narrated Abu Said Al-Khudri: The Prophet said, “Amongst the men of Bani Israel there was a man who had murdered ninety-nine persons. Then he set out asking (whether his repentance could be accepted or not). He came upon a monk and asked him if his repentance could be accepted. The monk replied in the negative and so the man killed him. He kept on asking till a man advised to go to such and such village. (So he left for it) but death overtook him on the way. While dying, he turned his chest towards that village (where he hoped his repentance would be accepted), and so the angels of mercy and the angels of punishment quarreled amongst themselves regarding him. Allah ordered the village (towards which he was going) to come closer to him, and ordered the village (whence he had come), to go far away, and then He ordered the angels to measure the distances between his body and the two villages. So he was found to be one span closer to the village (he was going to). So he was forgiven.”

Do you see the problem? The man has murdered 100 men (including the monk) and Allah simply turns a blind eye to it and forgives without any form of retribution. Where is the justice in that? How can a perfectly Holy and righteous God freely acquit the guilty? Indeed, that is the great enigma of the Old Testament that is addressed, as we will see, only in Christ.

There is also an element of arbitrariness in Islam. Sahih al-Bukhari narrates a story relating to the death of Uthman ibn Mazun (not to be confused with the third Caliph Uthman ibn Affan, who died by assassination). When the narrator (Um Al-Ala) addressed the dead Uthman, saying “May Allah be merciful to you. I testify that Allah has blessed you”, Muhammad is reported to have said, “How do you know that Allah has blessed him?”  The narrator replies “I do not know O Allah’s Apostle! May my parents be sacrificed for you.” Muhammad’s response is “As regards Uthman, by Allah he has died and I really wish him every good, yet, by Allah, although I am Allah’s Apostle, I do not know what will be done to him.” The first of the Caliphs and close friend of Muhammad, Abu Bakr, moreover, is reported to have said “I would not rest assured and feel safe from the deception of Allah even if I had one foot in paradise.”

The Qur’an talks about a set of scales that weigh your good deeds against your bad deeds (Surah Al-Anbiya 47; Al-Mumenoon 102). But can any amount of good deeds really wash away your sins? According to the Bible, the answer is an emphatic “no”, with even our most righteous deeds being described as being like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). In a court of law, it doesn’t matter how many deeds of kindness or charity you have done. What matters is that you have violated the law and are therefore guilty.

God’s Solution To The Problem Of Sin

The Bible teaches that God, in His mercy, has provided a solution to the problem of sin. Since God is perfectly Holy, he demands that all sin be punished with perfect righteousness and justice. No sin can ever be overlooked or forgiven. Where Christianity differs from Islam and other religions is in the teaching that sin is always punished justly — it is either on the head of the sinner or on the head of Christ. Christ, the eternal Son of God who is co-equal with the Father, had no punishment due to Himself. Voluntarily, he laid aside the divine privileges (Philippians 2:5-10) and took to Himself flesh, being born of a woman and under the law (Galatians 4:4), fulfilling each and every requirement of the law. Then, according to the foreordained plan of God He went to the cross and bore the sins of all those who would trust in Him. God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). To quote the second century epistle by a Christian author (about whom little is known) to a pagan named Diognetus,

Accordingly, when our iniquity had come to its full height, and it was clear beyond all mistaking that retribution in the form of punishment and death must be looked for, the hour arrive in which God had determined to make known from then onwards His loving-kindness and His power. How surpassing is the love and tenderness of God! In that hour, instead of hating us and rejecting us and remembering our wickedness against us, He showed how long-suffering He is. He bore with us, and in pity He took our sins upon Himself, and gave His own Son as a ransom for us — the Holy for the wicked, the Sinless for sinners, the Just for the unjust, the Incorrupt for the corrupt, the Immortal for the mortal. For was there, indeed, anything except His righteousness that could have availed to cover our sins? In whom could we, in our lawlessness and ungodliness, have been made holy, but in the Son of God alone? O sweet exchange O unsearchable working! O benefits unhoped for! — that the wickedness of multitudes should thus be hidden in the One holy, and the holiness of One should sanctify the countless wicked!

Thus, God was able to satisfy His justice and yet be the justifier of those who place their hope in the completed work of Christ (Romans 3:21-26). There’s nothing that we can add to what Christ has done, and thus we have nothing to boast about. The Muslim might object that this doctrine gives a license to sin. But this would be to misunderstand the Christian teaching. Those who are in Christ are made new creatures (2 Corinthians 5:17). Paul also responds to this objection in Romans 6: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” Indeed, those who are in Christ have been supernaturally regenerated and thereby empowered to walk in a newness of life. As Ezekiel 36:26-27 says, God has removed from us a heart of stone and given us a heart of flesh, and put a new spirit within us that moves us to obey His laws.

Conclusion

In conclusion, we have seen that there is a concept of penal substitution in Islam, but it can hardly be regarded as a just substitution. In Christianity, God Himself in the person of Christ has assumed upon Himself the penalty destined for people. Christianity is unique insofar that it is the only theistic worldview that consistently upholds both God’s justice and His mercy. For this reason, Christianity stands apart from all man-made legalistic religious systems of self-effort and works-righteousness.

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