Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

How Were the Ninevites Really Saved?

Sam Shamoun

In a desperate attempt to undermine the centrality and necessity of substitutionary atonement for the forgiveness of sins, some Muslim dawagandists have started to appeal to the example of the inhabitants of Nineveh, i.e. the Assyrians, whom God pardoned when they heeded Jonah’s warnings and repented from their wicked ways:

“Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: ‘Get up! Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah got up and went to Nineveh according to the Lord’s command. Now Nineveh was an extremely large city, a three-day walk. Jonah set out on the first day of his walk in the city and proclaimed, ‘In 40 days Nineveh will be demolished!’ The men of Nineveh believed in God. They proclaimed a fast and dressed in sackcloth—from the greatest of them to the least. When word reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, took off his royal robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he issued a decree in Nineveh: By order of the king and his nobles: No man or beast, herd or flock, is to taste anything at all. They must not eat or drink water. Furthermore, both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth, and everyone must call out earnestly to God. Each must turn from his evil ways and from the violence he is doing. Who knows? God may turn and relent; He may turn from His burning anger so that we will not perish.’ Then God saw their actions—that they had turned from their evil ways—so God relented from the disaster He had threatened to do to them. And He did not do it.” Jonah 3:1-10

These Muslims argue that God forgave the Ninevites on the basis of their sincere repentance, and didn’t require vicarious sacrifices to do so, just as the foregoing passage illustrates. They view this as evidence that Jesus’ death wasn’t necessary for salvation since God can simply overlook the transgressions of people, provided that they repent from their evil ways and turn to God in faithfulness.

Such arguments illustrate that these Muslim taqiyyists are either ignorant of what the Holy Bible teaches concerning this vitally important topic, or could care less about interpreting the sacred scriptures in the light of their immediate and overall contexts.

For instance, had these polemicists simply bothered reading the previous chapter of Jonah, they would have soon discovered that the reason why God could graciously accept the repentance of the people of Nineveh is because of the vicarious sacrifices that were being offered on their behalf in his holy Temple at Jerusalem:

“Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from inside the fish: I called to the Lord in my distress, and He answered me. I cried out for help in the belly of Sheol; You heard my voice. You threw me into the depths, into the heart of the seas, and the current overcame me. All Your breakers and Your billows swept over me. But I said: I have been banished from Your sight, yet I will look once more TOWARD YOUR HOLY TEMPLE. The waters engulfed me up to the neck; he watery depths overcame me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. I sank to the foundations of the mountains; the earth with its prison bars closed behind me forever! But You raised my life from the Pit, Lord my God! As my life was fading away, I remembered Yahweh. My prayer came to You, TO YOUR HOLY TEMPLE. Those who cling to worthless idols forsake faithful love. But with the voice of thanksgiving I WILL SACRIFICE TO YOU; I will fulfill what I have vowed. Salvation is from the Lord! Then the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.” Jonah 2:1-10

Jonah speaks of turning towards God’s Temple, and of his prayer coming to God there, with the promise that if God delivers him he will offer sacrifices with a thankful heart.

The reason why Jonah turned his attention to this sacred location is because this was the very house which Solomon built as a place of prayer and sacrifice on behalf of the sins of the nations, not just Israel. As Solomon himself prayed:

“But will God indeed dwell with man on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built! Yet have regard to the prayer of your servant and to his plea, O Lord my God, listening to the cry and to the prayer that your servant prays before you, that your eyes may be open day and night toward this house, the place where you have promised to set your name, that you may listen to the prayer that your servant offers toward this place. And listen to the pleas of your servant and of your people Israel, when they pray toward this place. And listen from heaven your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive… Likewise, when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for the sake of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm, when he comes and prays toward this house, hear from heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your nameNow, O my God, let your eyes be open and your ears attentive to the prayer of this place. And now arise, O Lord God, and go to your resting place, you and the ark of your might. Let your priests, O Lord God, be clothed with salvation, and let your saints rejoice in your goodness. O Lord God, do not turn away the face of your anointed one! Remember your steadfast love for David your servant.” 2 Chronicles 6:18-21, 32-33, 40-42

God even answered Solomon in a dream in order to reassure him that he had accepted this place as a house of sacrifice:

“Thus Solomon finished the house of the Lord and the king's house. All that Solomon had planned to do in the house of the Lord and in his own house he successfully accomplished. Then the Lord appeared to Solomon in the night and said to him: ‘I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself AS A HOUSE OF SACRIFICE. When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place. For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that my name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there for all time. And as for you, if you will walk before me as David your father walked, doing according to all that I have commanded you and keeping my statutes and my rules, then I will establish your royal throne, as I covenanted with David your father, saying, “You shall not lack a man to rule Israel.”’” 2 Chronicles 7:11-18

In fact, God appeared in a cloud, and filled the Temple with it, as a visible sign that he had come to make this place his residence where his name and presence would dwell in the midst of his people. The LORD even brought fire down from heaven in order to consume all the sacrifices which Solomon, the priests and the people offered in the Temple to the Lord their God:

“… and when the song was raised, with trumpets and cymbals and other musical instruments, in praise to the Lord, ‘For he is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever,’ the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.” 2 Chronicles 5:13b-14

“When Solomon had ended his prayer, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. And the priests could not enter the house of the Lord, because the glory of the Lord filled the Lord’s house. When all the children of Israel saw the fire come down and the glory of the Lord upon the temple, they bowed down with their faces to the earth on the pavement, and worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying, ‘For he is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever.’ Then the king and all the people offered sacrifice before the Lord. King Solomon offered as a sacrifice twenty-two thousand oxen and a hundred and twenty thousand sheep. So the king and all the people dedicated the house of God. The priests stood at their posts; the Levites also, with the instruments for music to the Lord which King David had made for giving thanks to the Lord—for his steadfast love endures for ever—whenever David offered praises by their ministry; opposite them the priests sounded trumpets; and all Israel stood. And Solomon consecrated the middle of the court that was before the house of the Lord; for there he offered the burnt offering and the fat of the peace offerings, because the bronze altar Solomon had made could not hold the burnt offering and the cereal offering and the fat.” 2 Chronicles 7:1-8

The prophet Isaiah himself referred to God’s Temple as a house of prayer for all nations where even the Gentiles could come to offer sacrifices to Yahweh their God:

“Thus says the Lord: ‘Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my righteousness be revealed. Blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.’ Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and let not the eunuch say, ‘Behold, I am a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: ‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in MY HOUSE OF PRAYER; THEIR BURNT OFFERINGS and THEIR SACRIFICES will be accepted on my altar; FOR MY HOUSE SHALL BE CALLED A HOUSE OF PRAYER FOR ALL PEOPLES.’ The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.’” Isaiah 56:1-8

All of these examples demonstrate that the reason why God could accept the repentance of the citizens of Nineveh is because God had ordained vicarious sacrifices be made in the Temple for the salvation of the Gentiles, so that the sins of anyone of them that truly repented and turned their direction to God’s house in Jerusalem, as a sign that they had come to believe in the God of Israel, would be completely forgiven.

Hence, this in turn becomes a perfect picture of Christ’s substitutionary death for all peoples, not just the Israelites, since it pleased God to save the world through the vicarious sacrifice of his beloved Son:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD is my flesh.” John 6:47-51

“This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, the testimony to which was borne at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.” 1 Timothy 2:3-7

“My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin; but if any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous One; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” 1 John 2:1-2

“In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning for our sins… And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world.” 1 John 4:10, 14

“and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.” Revelation 1:5-6

“And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints; and they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.’” Revelation 5:8-10

“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, AND TO THE LAMB!’ And all the angels stood round the throne and round the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’ Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, clothed in white robes, and whence have they come?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you know.’ And he said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white IN THE BLOOD OF THE LAMB. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night within his temple; and he who sits upon the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’” Revelation 7:9-17

What makes this all the more ironic is that the men who threw Jonah overboard are said to have presented a sacrifice to Yahweh in order to appease him, showing that even the Gentiles knew the important role that vicarious offerings played in procuring forgiveness from sins!

“So they picked up Jonah, threw him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging. Then the men feared the LORD greatly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.” Jonah 1:15-16

So much for the desperate tactic of appealing to the example of the Assyrians to undermine the necessity of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice for redemption and forgiveness of sins.