Yearning for Mercy: A Christian Reaction to the Death of Non-Believers

Abu Akleh and the Religious Other
June 2, 2022
“In Christ” in Crisis: Lessons from Paul
June 16, 2022

by Nabil Habibi

My colleague, Abed, reflected last week on the death of the Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and the subsequent debate among Muslims about whether it is acceptable to wish mercy on a dead Christian. Building on his own research of the effects of attitude on relationships, Abed concluded that we need to treat the religious other with respect.

In many ways this blog is a continuation of that argument. I begin with Abed’s final statement: “Perhaps the death of Abu Akleh (as well as the results of my studies and so many others) reminds us that mutual respect, accompanied by wise communication, are vital as we aim to build healthy relationships with our MENA neighbors.” In the previous sentence Abed had answered “yes” to the question of wishing mercy on the dead of a different tradition. I wish to further explore this notion, especially the soteriological (salvation-related) implications of our theology towards the deceased from faith traditions different than our own.

The words of the Muslim apologist Daniel Haqiqatjou below showcase a negative Muslim reaction towards wishing mercy on Abu Akleh, and it’s representative of views unleashed in a religious debate that went on over the past weeks throughout the Arab Muslim social media world:

I was struck while reading this post by the way Haqiqatjou channels a very Christian sentiment.  A simple “conversion” of the wording to Christianity and this could sound like your everyday Evangelical pastor arguing that a good atheist or Muslim will not go to heaven because they have not accepted Christ as their personal savior. Is our view of salvation any more gracious than that of a zealous Muslim apologist?

A reading of our scriptures at any level will reveal that, regardless of your view on hell, there are people on the inside and people on the outside in God’s final plan for humanity. One text clearly says as much. Towards the end of Revelations, John says: “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by its gates. But outside are the dogs, the sorcerers, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (22:14-15). The second coming of Christ will pronounce life for some and judgement for others.

Moreover, a reading of our scriptures at any level will also reveal that God is active in redeeming the world through Jesus the Messiah. Jesus’ incarnation, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension form the basis of the Christian claim that Jesus is Lord. In Jesus there is victory over sin and death. Again, one representative text declares this explicitly in a clear expression of a Christian theology of salvation, the Apostle Paul says the following about how one moves from death to life: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).

So, we do indeed believe in an exclusive salvation model. Salvation is in Christ. At the same time, I feel unease at the traditional Muslim reaction to Abu Akleh’s death. Just as I feel unease about believing that all my dead non-believing neighbors have missed out on salvation. I assume that many other people of my faith share this unease with me. What do we do then with our unease? How do we harmonize between this general human feeling of mercy and love towards members of our community, especially heroes who live a life of service to others, and the clear teaching of Scripture that salvation from death and judgement is found in Christ alone?

I do not have a definitive answer, but I do think we can work with two premises, frameworks if you may, for our thinking on this matter.

Firstly, we cannot escape the exclusivity-nature of our faith. Just because there are thousands of other religions does not mean that our faith must be wrong (or that all faiths must be wrong as atheists claim). Christian faith is exclusive. The apostles pronounced the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all the universe in a society replete with religions, gods, and philosophies. I do not believe that running away to some form of soteriological universalism (where all people will be eventually saved) is the way forward. We must hang on to the Christological core. This mysterious life we enjoy stems from Christ!

Secondly, (and very importantly) the exclusivity of our faith does not mean we can play the role of God. It is up to God to pronounce judgement or mercy as He sees fit. The greatest evangelist of the past generation, Billy Graham, in an interview with Robert Schuller once said that, “I think everybody that loves Christ, or knows Christ, whether they’re conscious of it or not, they’re members of the Body of Christ.” John Wesley, a prominent English theologian and evangelist of the 18th century, had a very harsh view of other religions (and a rather similar view of unfaithful Christians). But in his sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 he claims that God is “rich in mercy to all who call upon him,” according to the light they have; and that “in every nation, he, that feareth God and worketh righteousness is accepted of him” (see bottom of page 6 in attached paper). We are not God.

What then do we do when a “good” person of another faith dies? What do we do when any person dies, even if they choose to surrender to the ways of evil during their time in this world? The first premise above keeps us from giving false hope about what can save us. Salvation is in Christ. The second premise, however, allows us to yearn for mercy with a generous hope.

At the very core of our being is a God-given desire for mercy. What would make me happier, to know that God in his wisdom has chosen to condemn my neighbor who did not confess Christ as Lord or to know that God, in his wisdom, has chosen to show mercy to my unbelieving neighbor? I settle in the latter.

Therefore, we press on. Our first and foremost task is to live lives of holiness that issue forth the person of Christ. As Wesley noted, the “grand stumbling block” for non-Christians is the “lives of the Christians.” What is God’s final judgements to us? We proclaim Jesus as Lord in word and deed. Let’s leave the rest to Him.

“But God has helped me to this very day; so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen— that the Messiah would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would bring the message of light to his own people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:19-29).

Lord, have mercy on all.

Nabil Habibi is a lecturer in New Testament Studies at ABTS who loves exploring the theological and cultural discourses actively unfolding in the Arab world.

Leave a Reply