Atonement: Can You Really Be Certain of Salvation?
I often hear my Christian friends say that one of the chief attractions of Christianity is the guaranteed salvation and atonement of sins offered to Christians. The Christian Doctrine of Salvation stipulates that the death of Christ on the cross was a sacrifice that atoned the sins of believers in Jesus divinity and crucifixion for their sake. Some have suggested that the absence of assured salvation in Islam is a serious handicap and a clear proof of the superiority of Christianity over Islam and of Jesus over Muhammad. Does Islam offer a solution to the problem of sin? Do we have an answer to the Doctrine of Atonement? How can a Muslim be sure of Salvation? they ask.
I will start by saying the belief that one will be saved is NOT in itself sufficient to guarantee salvation. The doctrine itself must be true before it can be used as a blank cheque and a season ticket to Paradise. It is, therefore important that the doctrine of salvation is scrutinised to determine its legitimacy and authenticity.
There will be nothing worse than a person indulging himself sure in the knowledge that he will be saved, only to discover that he was deluded and that he will have to answer for his deeds.
I have a few problems with this doctrine that I would like to discuss:
- Can we trace the doctrine reliably to Jesus himself? In other words, has Jesus himself ever said he was going to be crucified to atone for the sins of his followers?
- What is the fate of the righteous followers of previous prophets, like the older generations of Israel who lived and died without knowing Jesus? Why are they denied salvation? What about the Patriarchs themselves? They have never professed the trinity nor the doctrine of atonement.
- This doctrine in particular is very alien to natural justice and the universal virtue of individual responsibility. I mean, what would you say of a justice system that punishes the innocent and reward the guilty?
- What, according to the Gospels, are we to be saved from? Many New Testament passages speak of the saved entering the kingdom of God, so what is the fate of the non-saved? It appears to me that, there is a distinct lack of clarity with regard to the unsaved.
The real teaching of Jesus on Salvation is in full agreement with the teaching of Islam, both advocate personal responsibility and obedience to God. According to the synoptic Gospels, when a man asked Jesus saying Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus replied … You know the commandments.. Mark 10: 17-25, Mt 19: 16-24, Lk 18: 18-25
Why didn’t Jesus say to the man Just have faith in me as your lord and Savior, and rest assured that I will die for you to be saved?
The renowned biblical scholar and Dead Sea Scrolls expert Geza Vermes wrote in his excellent book “The Resurrection”:
In sum, whilst the idea of the resurrection lay in the periphery of the preaching of Jesus, based on the idea of the kingdom of God, St. Paul turned it into the centrepiece of his mystical and theological vision, which was soon to become the essence of the Christian message.
I believe what Vermes said here to be accurate. This doctrine was invented by Paul who was attempting to make sense of the perceived crucifixion and ascension of Jesus. Because of its human origin, it was liable to have holes in its integrity. Paul convinced his early followers that the risen Christ will return during their lifetime and they will all join him in the kingdom. When some of the faithful died without realising their hope of joining Christ, it became a problem that needed the doctrine to be fine tuned. So Paul made amendments and included the dead early Christians in the proposed salvation. Later, when the question of what will happen the righteous of older generation including the Patriarchs, another fine tuning was necessary, and a passage in 1 Peter suggested that during his stay in the tomb, the dead Jesus went and saved the prisoners of sheol ‘The domain of the Dead’.
Islam has a very simple and logical doctrine: Everyone will be raised from the dead to be judged according to his own deeds. Those who believed in The One God, and believed his messenger and were righteous will be saved. Others will be punished in proportion to their “balance sheet”. Forgiveness of sin is subject to the Will of God alone, and is only possible, though not guaranteed, for those who did not worship other gods besides The One God.
These principles are universal, and they apply to all human past and present, fairly and justly.
There is an incentive for people to act righteously and a deterrent for those who indulge in evil.