Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

A Heart for Eternity

Roland Clarke


Most of us are familiar with the story where Jesus met a Samaritan woman at a well. He began the conversation by simply asking for a cup of water and then unwrapped the gift of God – eternal life. Isn't it amazing how he did this in such a gracious and seasoned-with-salt manner? Undoubtedly, Christ's example inspired Paul to write Colossians 4:4-6. “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”

The story continues to unfold with Jesus explaining salvation to the woman and then also to many people from her village. Jesus taught them while staying on for two days. The Bible doesn't tell us what he said but probably he quoted Isaiah 49:6, which foretells the Messiah would “bring God's salvation to the ends of the earth.” This makes perfect sense because they responded by acknowledging, “he is indeed the Savior of the world!” (v. 42)

Let me tell you some vital background information that will help us understand this story. The Samaritans were staunch believers in one God, apparently, the God of Moses. There are several other things in this passage that provide clues to their religious beliefs. The Samaritans expected the Messiah to come and worshipped at a temple on Mt Gerazim. In actual fact, it rivalled the original temple which God instructed David to build on Mt. Zion. So, obviously this would evoke much debate and generate intense conflict and distrust between Jews and Samaritans.

You don't have to be a scholar to realize that corresponding to each clue is a similarity with Islam. Let me summarize these parallels in six points.

1) Like the Samaritans, Muslims believe in one God.

2) Like the Samaritans, Muslims take pride in claiming an ancestral link to Abraham (Samaritans focused on Jacob, whereas Muslims trace their connection through Ishmael).

3) Muslims and Samaritans expect the Messiah will come. One minor difference is that Muslims believe at his first coming Jesus already was the Messiah (Al Masih) and they expect him to come again near the end.

4) Both religions believe God revealed his will through the prophets (e.g. Abraham, Isaac Jacob, Joseph, Moses)

5) Samaritan religious rituals were similar to what the Jews practised, e.g. circumcision, clean vs unclean meat, animal sacrifice, etc.

6) Both Samaritanism and Islam emerged as a religious cult that twisted the original revelation from God to suit their own purposes. The changes which each cult introduced evoked accusations and heated debates with God's people. For example, Jews and Samaritans accused each other of corrupting the Torah – similar to debates between Christians and Muslims. It is not surprising to see how the Samaritan woman asked Jesus his opinion about a longstanding debate regarding the two rival worship centres, at Mt Gerazim and Mount Zion. It is noteworthy that the Samaritan Pentateuch adds to the 10 commandments, an instruction to worship the Lord God on Mount Gerazim!

In spite of the many similarities between the Jews and Samaritans they were deeply polarized and did not associate with each other. (see v. 9, 27) Seeing these similarities helps us understand the long history of debates and the deepening polarization in modern times between Christians and Muslims.

Christ sets an example so that we can dialog and build bridges in our polarized world. As he related to the Samaritans, so too we should show love and respect to the Muslim neighbors whom we meet in the various circumstances of daily life – the wells of life.

Let's read John 4 and see how Jesus showed a radically different attitude than was typical of his fellow Jews.

Jesus left Judea and returned to Galilee. He had to go through Samaria on the way. Eventually he came to the Samaritan village of Sychar, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there; and Jesus, tired from the long walk, sat wearily beside the well about noontime. Soon a Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Please give me a drink.” He was alone at the time because his disciples had gone into the village to buy some food. The woman was surprised, for Jews refuse to have anything to do with Samaritans. (John 4:3-9, NIV)

Naturally she was startled by the gracious and respectful attitude Jesus showed. As a Samaritan, she was used to being shunned by Jews. Not only so, Jesus stimulated her curiosity by offering her living water. This idea appealed to her. At the same time she was perplexed and intrigued.

She said to Jesus, “You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan woman. Why are you asking me for a drink?”

Jesus replied, “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water.”

“But sir, you don’t have a rope or a bucket,” she said, “and this well is very deep. Where would you get this living water? And besides, do you think you’re greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us this well? How can you offer better water than he and his sons and his animals enjoyed?”

Jesus replied, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.”

“Please, sir,” the woman said, “give me this water! Then I’ll never be thirsty again, and I won’t have to come here to get water.” (John 4:9-15, NIV)

The woman struggled to grasp what Jesus meant by 'living water.' It eluded her and she became thirsty for more! She was drawn deeper into conversation by two things: Jesus was full of grace and his conversation was stimulating, seasoned with salt!

As the story unfolds it wasn't long before Jesus gently but firmly probed her personal life showing her some embarrassing truths about her character. Was she perhaps beginning to feel a need for salvation? Not surprisingly, Jesus began to explain salvation. (v. 22) Jesus told her that you Samaritans worship what you don't know. In order to really know him she needed to know salvation. This meant learning who the Messiah really is.

Jesus continued explaining these things to the villagers over the next two days which convinced them that “he is indeed the Saviour of the world.” (v. 42)

Jesus explained two themes – eternal life and salvation – but actually they are just different ways of describing the same basic truth. Eternal life is the most common synonym for salvation in the NT. The remainder of this message will focus on living water, that is, eternal life. It was this puzzling word picture that sparked the woman's curiosity and drew her into a journey of seeking to fulfil the longing for eternity that God had planted in her heart.

Glimpsing Eternity in Ecclesiastes 3 & 7

We read in Ecclesiastes,

“For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die ... Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God's work from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1,2,11)

This wise saying of Solomon rings true worldwide. It appeals to people from all cultures and religions. While it resonates with all kinds of people, I've seen how it is especially relevant to Muslims. We will explore this timeless, proverbial truth starting from the OT showing how it unfolds and finds fulfilment in the NT. This approach is in keeping with Psalm 119:130, “The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.” The outline follows four steps, four Scripture passages, two from the OT and two from the NT.

I have given Ecclesiastes 3:11 to hundreds of people, including Zulus, Hindus and Muslims. (Bear in mind that according to the Qur'an, Suleman was gifted by Allah with much wisdom.) Once I shared it with a Muslim and he replied enthusiastically, “We Muslims take death seriously. We must think about it twenty five times a day.” You may think this is morbid, but Muslims feel it helps instil fear of God and deters them from wrong doing. Virtually every Muslim I have shared this proverb with has appreciated it, sometimes very enthusiastically.

Ecclesiastes chapter seven begins with another thought provoking proverb about death that can stimulate further conversation.

A good reputation is more valuable than costly perfume. And the day you die is better than the day you are born. Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties. After all everyone dies – so the living should take this to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for sadness has a refining influence on us. A wise person thinks a lot about death, while a fool thinks only about having a good time.

It is interesting that Muslims find such proverbs very appealing. Perhaps this is because Solomon seems to endorse their practice of thinking much about death. It is also interesting to notice at the end of verse 11 a hint of a riddle, where it says that “people cannot see the whole scope of God's work from beginning to end.” People relate to this almost intuitively, holding out an elusive hope that somehow they will attain a good outcome in the hereafter.

Let me share a story that shows how these ideas resonate with the innermost longing of humans. On one occasion I shared with an Imam a short meditation on this, entitled, Homeward Bound. He was so touched by these insights that he included them in his sermon in the mosque!

I suggest that after sharing these verses with your friend you ask what he thinks of them. Notice the mention of sorrow and tears. Try drawing out his feelings. Every Muslim admits death is an unpleasant test en route to the day of judgement and the hereafter. Of course, their hope is that Insha'Allah (God willing), they will be admitted to Paradise. Death is a frightful, painful and even tearful experience although Muslims generally frown on shedding tears. This is how Muslims think: as one pauses to realise that today could be our last, we will stoically brace ourself to accept death as the ultimate test and we'll be motivated to avoid wrong doing.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Muslims are impressed with this proverb. Not only do these proverbs mention death repeatedly, they contain an elusive thought, “the day you die is better than the day you are born.” God has wired us so that we instinctively try to figure out puzzles and mysteries. Here indeed is a riddle worth solving.

In keeping with this, Solomon introduces the book of Proverbs by highlighting the importance of searching for ways of solving proverbs, parables and riddles. We read in Proverbs 1:5-7,“Let the wise listen to these proverbs and become even wiser. Let those with understanding receive guidance by exploring the meaning in these proverbs and parables, the words of the wise and their riddles. Fear of the Lord is the foundation of true knowledge...”

I suggest you take the opportunity afforded by these riddles. Encourage your friend to freely express his thoughts and feelings after reading Ecclesiastes 3:1,2,11; and 7:1-4.

You might want to solve the riddle faster by going immediately to Philippians 1:22-23. Using this passage we can explain how death for a Christian means being with Christ, which is “far better.” Although this might be quicker, I doubt that it would be as effective.

A more helpful passage to read as we begin to explore the proverbial wisdom in Ecclesiastes 3:11 is Psalm 49.

A meditation on immortality: Psalm 49

Now let's continue unwrapping the gift of eternal life by reading the sayings of another wise man, named Asaph. Like Solomon, the Psalmist meditated much on death. He also regarded death as a proverb or “riddle” that needs to be solved. The first 15 verses of Psalm 49 read as follows;

For the choir director: A psalm of the descendants of Korah.

Listen to this, all you people! Pay attention, everyone in the world! High and low, rich and poor—listen!
For my words are wise, and my thoughts are filled with insight. I listen carefully to many proverbs
and solve riddles with inspiration from a harp.

Why should I fear when trouble comes, when enemies surround me? They trust in their wealth and boast of great riches. Yet they cannot redeem themselves from death by paying a ransom to God. Redemption does not come so easily, for no one can ever pay enough
to live forever and never see the grave.

Those who are wise must finally die, just like the foolish and senseless, leaving all their wealth behind.
The grave is their eternal home, where they will stay forever.
They may name their estates after themselves, but their fame will not last. They will die, just like animals. This is the fate of fools, though they are remembered as being wise. Interlude

Like sheep, they are led to the grave, where death will be their shepherd. In the morning the godly will rule over them. Their bodies will rot in the grave, far from their grand estates.

But as for me, God will redeem my life. He will snatch me from the power of the grave. Interlude

As you unravel this riddle with your friend, I suggest you ask him/her a number of questions. You might begin by asking, “What do you think of this meditation?” You may be pleasantly surprised to see how much it resonates with him. Eventually you will want to guide the discussion to consider the theme of ransom-redemption in verses 7-9 and verse 15. (notice the words in bold font)

Ask the Holy Spirit to enable you to leverage these key terms (ransom, redeem) as clues pointing to the coming rescuer, the Messiah. Trust the Spirit to help your friend connect the dots between redemption and the cross, but don't exert undue pressure as though you can force-feed him or speed the learning process.

You need to make allowance for your friend to think through the implications of this riddle/proverb. This may mean asking questions to stimulate his thinking. At other times you ought to give him space so he can ask questions that arise in his own mind.

A young man who yearned for eternity: Mark 10:17-31

A third stepping stone that helps us understand our heart-longing for eternity is in Mark chapter ten. Here a young man approaches Jesus with an earnest question.

As Jesus was starting out on his way to Jerusalem, a man came running up to him, knelt down, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked. “Only God is truly good. But to answer your question, you know the commandments: ‘You must not murder. You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. You must not cheat anyone. Honor your father and mother.’”

“Teacher,” the man replied, “I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young.”

Looking at the man, Jesus felt genuine love for him. “There is still one thing you haven’t done,” he told him. “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God!”

This amazed them. But Jesus said again, “Dear children, it is very hard to enter the Kingdom of God. In fact, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!”

The disciples were astounded. “Then who in the world can be saved?” they asked.

Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God.”

Then Peter began to speak up. “We’ve given up everything to follow you,” he said.

“Yes,” Jesus replied, “and I assure you that everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News, will receive now in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and property—along with persecution. And in the world to come that person will have eternal life. But many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then.”

Notice how the disciples reacted when Jesus said it is difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. “They were amazed.” Jesus explained that inheriting eternal life is as difficult as putting a camel through the eye of a needle. They were even more amazed, in fact, they “were astounded” and exclaimed, “Then who in the world can be saved?”

Notice how incredulous and perplexed they were. This reaction shouldn't surprise us considering how Solomon and the Psalmist posed proverbs designed to prod people to seek to fulfil their longing for eternity. Like Solomon, Jesus encrypted truth in wise sayings that were sometimes hard to grasp, especially for those blinded by pride or deceived by their self-righteousness.

The story of the rich young ruler contains some fascinating insights but space doesn't allow us to detail them here. Let me encourage you to rely on God's Spirit to gain understanding. After you discuss eternal life from Mark 10, you will be ready to take the next step by reading John chapter 4.

A woman who was thirsty for living water: John 4

We have already skimmed a few highlights in John 4. We saw how Jesus sparked the curiosity of the Samaritan woman, igniting her heart-longing for eternal life. In fact this is what Jesus was referring to when offered her the gift of God. Now let's connect the dots between eternal life and the gift of God.

As we review John 4 keep in mind the story we have just read about the religious young ruler who failed to find what he was so desperately looking for. What prevented him was simply this: he couldn't bring himself to admit he was a sinner. He thought he had kept the whole law but in fact he hadn't even kept the first commandment. He clung to his wealth which showed that he was not worshipping God but money. He couldn't be saved until he admitted this simple fact.

Here is the point Jesus made when he told the parable of the camel going through the eye of the needle: It is impossible for humans to save themselves. We cannot earn eternal life. But for God this is possible. He saves us by giving eternal life as a gift.

I have read Mark 10 and John 4 to many Muslim friends and they've found these stories thoroughly enjoyable and stimulating. This shouldn't surprise us because, like the earlier passages, these also contain a mysterious or hidden element. In Mark 10 Jesus recounts the cryptic parable of the camel and the eye of a needle. In John 4 Jesus evokes the woman's curiosity by describing eternal life using a perplexing and elusive word picture – living water. I cannot emphasis it enough that the story of the Samaritan woman is a fascinating read for Muslims. There are many facets of this story that can stimulate very meaningful conversation.

You also recall Colossians 4:4-6 where the apostle Paul talks about clarifying the mystery of the gospel as we make the most of every opportunity, seeking to engage unbelievers in conversations that are gracious and seasoned with salt.

Final word of encouragement

You recall Psalm 119:130 which says, “The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.” God tells us plainly that this method of unfolding the truth gives understanding to the simple. This should encourage us, especially those who may feel daunted by the prospect of solving riddles, thinking that it must be complicated and difficult.

Not only so, many Christians are prone to excuse their reluctance to become involved with Muslims, reasoning that reaching Muslims is a special ministry requiring specially gifted or trained people.

Believers have been using this kind of excuse ever since the time of Gideon. He felt utterly inadequate for the daunting task God commissioned him to do. However, the angel encouraged him to be strong in the Lord and by God's grace he accomplished a mighty deliverance.

The NT gives us encouragement where it tells the story of a new believer, who was untrained and seemingly unqualified. He wanted to be with Jesus but Christ told him, “Go and tell your family everything the Lord has done for you and how merciful he has been.” Amazingly this man who was set free from demonic possession obeyed the Lord. He “started off to visit the ten towns of that region and began to proclaim the great things Jesus had done for him.” (Mark 5:19,20)

There is another story in Acts 8 that shows how ordinary believers spread the Gospel among 'a daunting people'. We read that God allowed a great persecution to fall on the church in Jerusalem causing them to flee to the surrounding regions of “Judea and Samaria.” Up until this point in the book of Acts these areas had not been reached, though Christ had specifically included them in the Great Commission (Acts 1:8). Scripture says these ordinary folk “preached the Good News wherever they went.” Notice who was scattered and did the preaching, “all the believers except the apostles.” (Acts 8:2, NIV bold font added for emphasis) In other words, it was ordinary believers who shared their faith with those 'hard-to-reach' Samaritans!

We cannot be absolutely certain why the apostles didn't join the mass exodus of Christians out of Jerusalem, but we do know they had a longstanding negative attitude which likely made them reluctant to go and preach in Samaria. This is consistent with John four where the disciples seemed reluctant to engage with Samaritans. On another occasion James and John wanted to call fire down from heaven against a Samaritan village for a relatively small offence. (Luke 9:51ff) When we consider the long-standing history of debates between Jews and Samaritans, the fiery outburst of John and James suggests they held a deep-seated prejudice against Samaritans – an attitude that had characterised the Jews for more than 600 years. (see the article Reluctant Messengers)

Feel free to ask me any questions you may have which are relevant to this article.

All Bible quotes are taken from the New Living Translation unless otherwise noted.


1) Answering a common misunderstanding

When unbelievers read Mark 10:17-31 many presume that Jesus was denying his deity. Sam Shamoun provides a very helpful answer here and here.

2) Connecting the dots to the cross

So far our exploration of the “heart for eternity” theme has lead us to conclude, with the Samaritans, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Saviour of the world. (John 4:42) But how can we take the next crucial steps of the journey to the cross? One of the most important prophecies is Isaiah 25:7-9 as explained in two articles, Is Death the End? and Timeless Truth Encrypted in Ancient Wisdom:

3) You may also want to read a short mediation, entitled, Homeward Bound