We huddled like men about to die.
Nothing about this activity felt right, but that did not matter. To witness to strangers about the message of the Gospel raises more questions than it answers, breaks more social norms than a person should be allowed to break in a day. As our group gathered, ready to leave for an afternoon at the mall, we prayed like men about to die.
Gurnee Mills Mall unfurls across a square kilometer of capitalism. Shoppers bounce into and out of each store, avoiding the center aisle venders. Some occasionally realize they walk too slow, and apologize to me for impeding my business. The greatest aspect of this mall (the food court, as in any mall) produces and distributes to the mall’s lesser aspects a cacophonous blend of smells, just wretched enough to repulse me, just wicked enough to attract me.
But in the two preceding paragraphs, as in the time thus spent at the mall, I have meandered around my point without taking the action necessary to execute it. In such a bind Brennan, the group leader, gives me an ultimatum: he will go to the restroom, and I must be in an evangelistic conversation with the Watch Repair vendor when he returns. He does not specify the consequences for disobedience.
And I circled and I circled and I circled without the gusto to act, but eventually I realized my time was likely passing, and I walked up to the booth to start the conversation. It was awkward, he didn’t know enough about American culture to understand my movie-themed conversation starter, and it ended rather abruptly as well.
Nearing 10 minutes later Brennan and I approached a high school student named Jose who loved Jesus and loved the things of this world. (The unexamined life is not worth living). That conversation almost worked, with an incoming comparison between his wrestling tournament that week and Jacob who WRESTLED with God but his girlfriend finally came and they scampered away into glory.
So I found a man eating a pulled-chicken sandwich across the food court and decided he was next. That decision is always easy, but what followed was more difficult.
And I circled and I circled and I circled without the gusto to act, but eventually I realized my time was likely passing, and I walked up to his table to start the conversation.
I’m here for a school project, and I’m required to strike up conversations with strangers about their views on religion. I’m wondering if you’d like to chat for a few minutes?
Ali is a Muslim man in his late 20’s who moved from Pakistan to the U.S. several years ago. As a discussion partner he is cordial and tended to compliment, even when asserting his position. His views are well-informed, and yet he still cautioned that it takes years of study to understand a religion, to get the facts straight, to understand which facts are significant on balance, and to see the cultural and historical impact on and from that religion. So while he knows about Christianity, he can’t speak definitively.
Oh really? What if I could, in less than a few minutes, give the entire narrative arc of the Christian faith? What if I could do that, and then give you permission to speak as definitively or indefinitely as you like?
Here comes the gospel. Over a few minutes I explained the bits of the gospel message. That God created us to be with him, but Our sin separates us from him. Moreover, the scriptures tell us that Sin cannot be removed by good deeds. Thankfully for us, Paying the price for sin, Jesus died and rose again, so that Everyone who trusts in him and him alone can have eternal life. This eternal Life with Jesus starts now, and lasts for an eternity. G. O. S. P. E. L.
It was much more conversation than that. He was constantly nodding and agreeing with the points, or at least, agreeing with the articulation that those points are, in fact, what Christians do think. He even agreed that that was an insight summary that successfully left aside the minor issues to just focus on the big picture. My approach included stopping after each two points to ask clarifying questions and check for comprehension, and to speak as smoothly and fluidly and not I-learned-this-script-at-an-Evangelism-conference-when-I-was-fourteen as possible.
But there was one issue, he said.
Why would God’s love motivate him to construct that system? Isn’t the more straightforward system of God rewarding us for deeds done more just?
His point is well taken. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement is unjust. If we define justice as everyone getting as they deserve — no one guilty getting set free, and no one innocent getting punished — then, yes, it is inescapable that God is not doing that definition of justice through the atonement. The proper theological response is that God does punish people for their deeds through eternal torment in Hell. He agreed with that, but says that his objection is more specific than that.
Say that a person, by faith, believes in God and trusts him with their life. They are saved! What then is the justice of God? His objection pits eternal security against God’s justice, not simply the whole system of the atonement. What is to stop me, as a Christian, from doing some extremely evil thing? Sure, there may be temporary punishment, like going to jail. But in the long run, we’re all dead and I’m in heaven celebrating with the Angels, seeing and experiencing the radiant glory of eternal life.
I have no answer to this. I had no answer then and I have no answer now. We both understand exactly what he is talking about, so there is no ask clarifying questions or fill the air with my voice. Anything off-topic or distracting that I say will only embolden his confidence in this critique.
He has pitted the logic of the Greeks against the stumbling block of the Cross and reduced the disagreement to a subjective preference. Which system do I like better, the system that operates logically or the system that inverts logic?
He was gracious and after a few moments released the tension. He mentioned that he had to go back to work, and I had seen Brennan walk behind Ali a few minutes before and give me a wrap it up gesture. We both agreed, peacefully, to leave, each with more knowledge about the other’s beliefs and an understanding of our differences.
He mentioned the name of an Islamic scholar who publishes in English about some of these things. Zakir Naik, his name is, and it would greatly benefit me to look into his work.
I tentatively agree, but on one condition. Ali must go read some of the writings of a scholar of my choice. William Lane Craig, his name is, and it would greatly benefit him to look into his work.
I mentioned in particular Craig’s article on the Trinity.
I reached out to shake his hand, he twisted it sideways and allowed me to shake his limp wrist (which all happened too fast for me to recall that some Muslims cannot shake hands with non-Muslims in most contexts, as a matter of social procedure).
My group reassembled near the eastern medicine shop, headed through the wacky mirror hallway, piled into Brennan’s slightly broken-down car, and began to discuss each conversation. Matt Phelps and Joe McHugh had talked with a group of high school atheists for almost an hour. Brennan and I went over our conversations. The car was pindrop silent as I explained that I agreed with Ali that there isn’t a satisfactory logical answer to his dilemma. Or, it would have been pindrop silent, had the carburetor not squealed every few moments.
As we left, everything about the past few hours felt right. We had casted aside the social norms that so easily entangled, we gladly raised more questions than we answered, and we prayed like men truly living.
Campus now came into sight, and we started praying for the people we encountered.
We got out of the car and left.
We left like men prepared to live.