Dimensions of the sanctuary for seekers of the straight path1

How can people from various faiths come to a mutual understanding of who God is despite mounting differences?

Yelena Muzykina, PhD, is associate professor of the humanities and social science at Zaoksky Christian Institute, Zaoksky, Tula Region, Russia

Our societies are rapidly changing. Procedures that governed social relations before have to give place to new rules that tend to umbrella seemingly irreconcilable things. An illustration can be drawn from a new turn of interreligious dia­logue, also referred to as “interfaith dialogue.” This used to be a platform for people of different faith traditions to come to a mutual understanding and a sense of respect that allowed them to cooperate, despite their different religions.

Though much has been done, more needs to be, especially among mono­theistic faiths, whose interactions need to climb to a new stage, to take a new stand, switching the focus from professional proclamation and debates to practical actions and more visible interactions.

Instead of trying to answer questions about differences and deconstructing the opponents’ dogmatic set of beliefs, it would be better to consider contributions to each other’s spiritual dimension and the enhancing of our mutual understanding of God in theological and ethical terms. The most productive way to do this springs from referring back to the holy texts, reading and rereading them together, while trying to catch the perspective of one’s interlocutor. It is not by chance that many common themes flow through the Jewish-Christian-Muslim tradition, presenting the same heroes and events from different angles. They are like bits of a heavenly stained-glass window that needs to be reconstructed to give us a better view of the Creator.

In this article, I am going to exam­ine a specific topic, often considered a “testing truth” of the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Church, but which may have a much broader application. It should serve, not as a tool to divide, but rather; to be a uniting factor in Muslim-Christian relations.

The day of judgment for Muslims

Among biblical topics that might have some parallels with qur’anic texts (and thus ring a bell for Muslims), the theme of the day of judgment stands out.2 This topic can be pivotal for the whole Qur’an, because all other themes, directly or indirectly, point to and find their fulfillment in it.

The sacred text of Islam clearly says that the earthly life is a temporary one. A special day occurs when every human being is resurrected to face the state­ments and deeds said or done during their earthly life. The day is referred to under different names in the holy book of the Muslims: yawm al-qiyāmah (the day of resurrection), yawm al-hisāb (the day of judgment), and al-yawm al-ākhir (the final day)—the transition point to a new reality. Belief in life after death, with either eternal reward or endless punishment, is a fundamental article of faith in the Qur’an.

At the same time, the idea of an inevitable segregation of people between paradise and hell is constantly rehearsed in the qur’anic context, and this gives rise to many fears among adherents of Islam. The notion that divine justice will be based on precise measures scares many believers. While the Bible simply mentions that on this day of judgment, God “will render to every man according to his deeds” (Rom. 2:6), the Qur’an speaks of plac­ing one’s deeds on the scales.3 Deeds would be weighed rather than counted. The idea makes the qur’anic day of judgment frightening because no one knows for sure the weight of their good or bad deeds.

Additional fear comes into the picture by mentioning the detailed and complete record of people’s earthly choices and deeds, so that nothing, large or small, escapes notice. For some, this will be an unpleasant and horrible surprise.4

Another source of fear centers around the mystery of the procedure of the judgment, for the Qur’an remains silent about the details of the process and mentions only weighing and the reading of books. In an attempt to con­struct a complete picture, the Hadith literature includes many different narratives on the matter. Among them one can read the following, “Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah’s Apostle said, ‘The deeds of anyone of you will not save you (from the [Hell] Fire).’ They said, ‘Even you (will not be saved by your deeds), O Allah’s Apostle?’ He said, ‘No, even I (will not be saved) unless and until Allah bestows His Mercy on me.’ ” In this case we can see an attempt to unite two seemingly incompatible attributes of God: Ar-Raḥīm (The Exceedingly Merciful) and Al-‘Adl (The Utterly Just). 

The idea that “God, and God alone, is the final arbiter and judge, and for that all humans must be grateful”6 is inferred in Muslim theology. The notion that the segregation of people between hell and paradise is required by the qualities of the Divine, such as mercy and justice, is traced throughout the Qur’an, for instance in surah An’am 6:12.7 Yet it seems that Islamic tradition and theology lack a tool for harmonizing those divine attributes.

Sāfī points out: “It is not quite apparent, and might be counterin­tuitive to many, as to how the day of judgment could be a sign of divine mercy, when the outcome of that day will set a significant number of human beings on a course to eternal suffering and anguish. The judgment is so grave and the calculations are so complex that humans may not be able to appreciate all aspects of the divine judgment.”8 The statement points to the problem of reconciliation between mercy and justice, indicating that both Islamic theology and interpretation complicate the procedure, thus confus­ing the reader.

The Judeo-Christian tradition and the sanctuary

In order to clear up the complexity and solve the dilemma, one can look into the religious heritage of two other Abrahamic traditions that also profess a belief in the day of judgment.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the concept of the Judgment Day is an indispensable part of eschatology, and this is closely connected to the sacrificial practices of the sanctuary, a visual model where ancient believers were taught how to be reconciled with God. The sanctuary showed how reconciliation and redemption can come together and complement each other.

From its beginning, the Hebrew sanctuary revealed how God could exercise justice and mercy simultane­ously. The sacrificial system, with its different offerings, culminating on the Day of Atonement, also called the day of judgment, helped believers to be ready for the final events of human history. The nature of the sacrifices granted assurance and confidence to individuals as well as the society. 

The detailed description of the ritual system contained in the Hebrew Bible helps us visualize the process and, even more importantly, gives special insight into the role of the heavenly sanctuary, where the final stage of the sacrificial epic will unfold. The existence of a heavenly sanctuary, or temple, is assumed throughout the Bible.9 Ancient Jewish writings reveal that some rabbis also believed in the reality of a heavenly sanctuary.10

In the New Testament, Hebrews and Revelation talk about the heav­enly sanctuary. In Revelation, the whole narrative is composed of visions given to the apostle John about it. Thus we see that all those themes— the day of judgment, the sanctuary, and sacrifices—are closely connected and cannot be considered separately if we want to obtain a full and compre­hensive picture.

The sanctuary and the Qur’an

Though the theme of the sanctuary is not elaborated in Muslim literature, the idea is present in the Qur’an, where 13 verses speak about a “special/ancient house.”11 In this list there are two groups of Arabic words, translated into English as “sanctuary”: ḥaramun (28:57; 29:67), and al-bayt (2:125, 127, 158; 3:96, 97; 5:2, 97; 8:34, 35; 22:25, 26, 29, 33; 106:3). The important characteristic used for the place is expressed through a word āminun that applies the idea of safety and security:

They say: “If we were to follow the guidance with thee, we should be snatched away from our land.” Have we not established for them a secure sanctuary, to which are brought as tribute fruits of all kinds,—a provision from Ourselves? But most of them understand not.12

The first House (sanctuary) desig­nated for men, for the one in Bakka, [was] blessed and a guidance to mankind, and it has miraculous signs, the place Ibrahim stood. Whoever entered it was safe.13

Islamic theology does not elaborate why the first sanctuary was a secure place and why that place was estab­lished, but its construction is always linked to Abraham.

Both Abraham and the sanctuary are the assets of the holy history of the spiritual pilgrimage of humanity after humanity was expelled from the Garden of Eden. Being a forefather of all believers, Abraham was granted the privilege of foreseeing by faith the final event in the heavenly temple—an event depicted in Scripture as the time when its cleansing is performed through the holy blood of the Lamb of God, for the sake of reconciliation of humanity with its Creator (Heb. 11:17–19, John 8:56). The two qur’anic passages noted above can serve as a starting point for parallel biblical research on the sanctuary as a secure place, a place of refuge and safety (e.g. 1 Kings 2:28, 30), thus lead­ing Muslims to consider it safe ground for awaiting the final judgment.

A new perspective on Jesus For Muslims

The ministry of Jesus in the heavenly sanctuary completes the picture of the Judgment Day and clarifies the alliance of mercy and justice. Jesus’ roles as both High Priest and Sacrificial Lamb bring a new perspective to His true nature. For Muslims the stumbling block in their interaction with Christians is the idea of a “substitutionary sacri­fice,” actively promoted by the latter, for the Qur’an (as well as the Bible) clearly states that no one should be respon­sible for the guilt of someone else.14 So, instead of a dialogue taking the well-trodden path that leads to the same dead end, the sanctuary offers a new perspective on Jesus as the one minis­tering in the Holy Place of the heavenly temple, the primary dwelling place of God. This concept complements and unfolds those qur’anic passages that speak about the ascension of Isa to Allah’s presence.15

The priest’s role in the earthly sanctuary draws attention to the need for mediation between humans, who transgressed God’s precepts and shamed themselves, and God, who is Holy and above all evil. Jesus’ role as our High Priest shifts the focus from a blasphemous idea for Muslims of the unjust death of a saint (“dying instead of a guilty person”) to an honorable ministry in God’s presence. The sanctuary does not ratify injustice but asserts fairness. Jesus is able “to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25).16 The reconciliation theme perfectly fits the shame-honor paradigm of the Muslim worldview.

As for the role of Jesus as the Lamb of God, this symbolism again proves the idea of divine mercy and justice merged and revealed in one Person. Every sanc­tuary sacrifice revealed the fact that “without shedding of blood there is no remission” (Heb. 9:22). The earthly sacrifices illustrated the overarching truths: (1) God’s judgment on transgressions is inevitable (Rom. 6:23); (2) God Himself provides the reconciling sacrifice (Rom. 3:24, 25; 2 Cor. 5:21); and (3) Christ acts as the Reconciliator, re-establishing unity between God and human beings (1 Cor. 15:3). Interestingly, the Qur’anic story of Ibrahim (Abraham) sacrificing his son also mentions an unusual great sacrifice that helped save human life (37:103–107).

Another important but rarely men­tioned dimension of the sanctuary is an ethical aspect of vindicating God’s character on the day of judgment. For example, the Qur’an mentions that on the day of judgment certain people considered evil by their fellow human beings will be saved.17 In the biblical context, the different phases of priestly ministry in the sanctuary help construct the full picture of God’s final judg­ment and its ethical dimensions, thus confirming that God’s decisions and sentences are always true, just, and fair.

Summarizing our brief overview of the validity of the biblical teaching on the sanctuary, we can conclude that this theme should not be overlooked by Adventists. Like a real and divine gem, the truth about the sanctuary can enhance our communal understanding of who God is and what He has been doing for humanity.

1 This article is adapted from a paper presented at the Biblical Interpretation in Islamic Context conference organized by the Center for Muslim-Christian Studies, Oxford, United Kingdom, September 1–3, 2015.
2 See the Qur’an 1:4; 2:281; 3:9, 25, 106, 161, 185, 194; 4:87, 109; 5:14; 6:12, 16, 22, 23, surahs 81–84, etc.
3 Qur’an 21:47, 23:102, 103.

4 Qur’an 18:49.

5 Sahih Buhary, vol. 8, bk. 76, “To Make the Heart Tender,” no. 470, i-cias.com/textarchive/bukhari/076 .htm.

6 Lu’ayy Ṣāfī, The Qur’anic Narrative: The Journey of Life  as Told in the Qur’an(Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008), 188.

7 Say: “To whom belongeth all that is in the heavens and on earth?” Say: “To Allah. He hath inscribed for Himself (the rule of) Mercy. That He will gather you together for the Day of Judgment, there is no doubt whatever. It is they who have lost their own souls, that will not believe.” Text copied from DivineIslam’s Qur’an Viewer software v2.913.

8 Ṣāfī, The Qur’anic Narrative, 184.

9 Pss. 11:4, 102:19, Mic. 1:2, 3, etc.

10 See Midrash Rabbah, Numbers, repr. ed., vol. 1, chap. 4, sec. 13 (London: Soncino Press, 1961), 110.

11 Qur’an 2:125, 127, 158; 3:96, 97; 5:2, 97; 8:34, 35; 22:25, 26, 29, 33; 28:57; 29:67; 106:3.

12 Al-Qasas 28:57, emphasis supplied.

13 Al-‘Im’rān 3:96, 97, emphasis supplied.

14 See Ezekiel 18.

15 Qur’an 5:117; 3:55; 19:33.

16 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture is quoted from the New King James Version of the Bible.

17 “And they will say: ‘What has happened to us that we see not men whom we used to number among the bad ones? Did we treat them (as such) in ridicule, or have (our) eyes failed to perceive them?’ Truly that is just and fitting, the mutual recriminations of the People of the Fire!” (Sad 38:62–64). 

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Yelena Muzykina, PhD, is associate professor of the humanities and social science at Zaoksky Christian Institute, Zaoksky, Tula Region, Russia

May 2016

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