Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Trinity in the Holy Bible Pt. 4

Addressing Some Objections to the Deity of Christ

Sam Shamoun

[Part 1 , Part 2, 2b, Part 3, 3b, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6]

We continue with our rebuttal by examining Joseph Islam’s interpretation of John 8:58 where Jesus stated that he has always existed even before Abraham came into being. 

Jesus as the Great I AM

Here is what Islam wrote:

The Greek word which has been translated as 'I am' is 'Ego eimi'. This is a common phrase in John’s Gospel and if one studies the Bible (which some Christians and many Muslims do not), they would appreciate that this term does not necessarily identify itself with God.

In John 5:43, the same term is used to signify that Jesus has been sent by God. In John 18:5, Jesus uses the same term to confirm that he is Jesus of Nazareth.  The term is even used by a blind man (John 9:8-9).

No disagreements with what is stated thus far with the one exception to his claims concerning John 18:5. Contrary to what he says here, John 18:5 is actually another example of Jesus using the phrase ego eimi to point to his divine identity. This can be seen from the reaction of the soldiers who fell down from the force and impact of Jesus’ words:

“So Jesus, knowing all the things that were coming upon Him, went forth and said to them, ‘Whom do you seek?’ They answered Him, “Jesus the Nazarene.” He said to them, ‘I am He.’ And Judas also, who was betraying Him, was standing with them. So when He said to them, ‘I am He,’ they drew back and fell to the ground.’” John 18:4-6

The only explanation for the reaction of the soldiers is that Jesus’ I AM statement was more than a simple affirmation that he was the One whom they had come to arrest. Rather, as the impact upon the soldiers proves, Christ’s use of the I AM was meant to be a divine self-disclosure intended to reveal to those who were there that Christ is the sovereign Lord who voluntarily lays his life down, since no one would be able to lay a finger on him if he didn’t want to die:

“For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father.” John 10:17-18

Such power and authority could only belong to One who is truly God in essence.  

Islam went on to say:

Now if we consult the context of the verse you share, one notes a discourse already in situ with regards Prophet Abraham and the emphasis the Jews placed on him with possible rebuke of Prophet Jesus’ ministry…

Such tension between the Jews and Prophet Jesus is also noted in other Gospels:

Matthew 3:9
“And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham”

Only a few verses earlier to the one you have shared, Prophet Jesus says (8:54), "Jesus replied, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me.". Therefore, there is no warrant to interpret a narrative a few verses later as supporting the Trinity. If the Biblical Jesus wanted to convey that he was God, he would have simply said it. There is no such explicit statement in the entire Bible.

The author makes several egregious errors and overlooks a few key points which need to be highlighted. In the first place, the author missed the fact that Jesus clearly says that God is his Father who glorifies him, a statement which he made on more than one occasion:

“Therefore when he had gone out, Jesus said, ‘Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in Him; if God is glorified in Him, God will also glorify Him in Himself, and will glorify Him IMMEDIATELY.’” John 13:31-32

Here Jesus claims to be the Son of Man whom God will glorify immediately just as God is glorified in him. Jesus even went on to say that the Father glorifies the Son in the same way that the Son glorifies the Father, and that he and the Father existed together in the same divine glory even before the world came into being:

“Jesus spoke these things; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You, even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life. This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do. Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.’” John 17:1-5

Comparing the above with the following OT reference shows just how astounding Jesus’ assertions truly are:

“For My own sake, for My own sake, I will act; For how can My name be profaned? And My glory I will not give to another. Listen to Me, O Jacob, even Israel whom I called; I am He, I am the first, I am also the last.” Isaiah 48:11-12 – cf. 41:4; 44:6

Yahweh shall not give his glory to another since there is no other god that has been there from the start and who will remain till the end of the age.

Amazingly, in both John’s Gospel and the book of Revelation Christ ascribes these very same titles of Yahweh to himself:

“When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man. And He placed His right hand on me, saying, ‘Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades.’” Revelation 1:17-18

“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: The first and the last, who was dead, and has come to life, says this:” Revelation 2:8

We thus have Jesus identifying himself as the “I AM” and “the first and the last,” just as Yahweh does, as well as claiming to have personally existed with the Father in the same divine glory from before the creation of the world! We will have more to say concerning Jesus’ glorification in pt. 6 of our rebuttal.

But that’s not all. Jesus says in John 17 that the Father has assigned to him the task of giving eternal life to every person whom the Father gives him, which is another assertion that he made on more than one occasion:

“For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear THE VOICE OF THE SON OF GOD, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself… Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear HIS [the Son’s] VOICE, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.” John 5:21, 25-26, 28-29

“‘All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, BUT RAISE IT UP ON THE LAST DAY. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, AND I MYSELF WILL RAISE HIM UP ON THE LAST DAY.’ Therefore the Jews were grumbling about Him, because He said, ‘I am the bread that came down out of heaven.’ They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does He now say, “I have come down out of heaven”? Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Do not grumble among yourselves.  No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.’” John 6:37-44

In these passages, Jesus not only asserts that he gives life (in fact, eternal life!) to whomever he chooses, he also states that he will be the One who will resurrect the dead at the last day and hour by the power of his sovereign and majestic voice!

Now this raises serious challenges to Islam’s position since the Quran denies that Allah is a father to anyone, even in a spiritual sense, seeing that Muhammad defined sonship along biological lines, e.g. a child is someone whom a person has physically sired. Muhammad even went as far as to threaten judgment upon any Christian who would dare say that Christ is God’s Son (cf. Q. 5:18; 6:101; 9:30; 19:88-93; 21:26; 72:3). 

Furthermore, the Quran emphatically denies that Allah glorifies any creature since all praise and glory belongs entirely to him:

The seven heavens and the earth and all that is therein, glorify Him and there is not a thing but glorifies His Praise. But you understand not their glorification. Truly, He is Ever Forbearing, Oft-Forgiving. S. 17:44 Hilali-Khan

Whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is on the earth glorifies Allah. His is the dominion, and to Him belong all the praises and thanks, and He is Able to do all things. S. 64:1 Hilali-Khan – cf. Q. 59:1, 24; 61:1; 62:1

Moreover, Islamic theology forbids anyone from ascribing the unique names and characteristics of God to anyone besides Allah, no matter how exalted. Since the titles “the first and the last” and “the Living One” happen to be some of Allah’s names, and since the Quran confirms that he is the one who gives life and resurrects the dead at the last hour,

That is because Allah, He is the Truth, and it is He Who gives life to the dead, and it is He Who is Able to do all things. And surely, the Hour is coming, there is no doubt about it, and certainly, Allah will resurrect those who are in the graves. S. 22:6-7 Hilali-Khan

All that is in the heavens and the earth magnifies God; He is the All-mighty, the All-wise. To Him belongs the Kingdom of the heavens and the earth; He gives life, and He makes to die, and He is powerful over everything. He is the First and the Last, the Outward and the Inward; He has knowledge of everything. It is He that created the heavens and the earth in six days then seated Himself upon the Throne. He knows what penetrates into the earth, and what comes forth from it, -- what comes down from heaven, and what goes up unto it. He is with you wherever you are; and God sees the things you do. To Him belongs the Kingdom of the heavens and the earth; and unto Him all matters are returned. S. 57:1-5 Arberry

This means that Islam has no choice but to admit that Jesus wasn’t a Muslim since he claimed to be God Almighty by ascribing the very unique epithets and functions of God to his own Person.  

Islam also conveniently overlooked the fact that Christ basically claimed to have actually seen Abraham, a man who had been dead for nearly two thousand years when Jesus uttered these words:

“The Jews answered him, ‘Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?’ ‘I am not possessed by a demon,’ said Jesus, ‘but I honor my Father and you dishonor me. I am not seeking glory for myself; but there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge. Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death.’ At this they exclaimed, ‘Now we know that you are demon-possessed! Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that whoever obeys your word will never taste death. Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?’ Jesus replied, ‘If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, IS THE ONE WHO GLORIFIES ME. Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and obey his word. Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; HE SAW IT and was glad.’ You are not yet fifty years old,’ they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!’ ‘Very truly I tell you,’ Jesus answered, ‘before Abraham was born, I am! (prin Abra’am genesthai ego eimi)’ At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.” John 8:48-59 NIV

The Jews understood from Jesus’ words that if Abraham saw Christ, and was glad because of it, then this meant that Christ must have actually been there with Abraham. This perplexed them since as far as they could tell Jesus wasn’t even fifty years old, and therefore it would have been impossible for him to have seen this great patriarch who had lived nearly two thousand years earlier. Instead of correcting them by telling them that they had misunderstood his point, Jesus explained how it was possible for him to have actually met Abraham… Jesus was there even before Abraham came into being since Christ exists timelessly!

This point is brought out by the two verbs used to contrast the difference in Jesus’ and Abraham’s modes of existence, namely, genesthai and eimi. Christ was basically telling his opponents that, whereas Abraham came into being (literal rendering and meaning of genesthai), he simply is, meaning he has always existed and will continue to exist forever.

The late renowned Greek NT scholar A. T. Robinson brings out this contrast in the two different verbs:

Before Abraham was (πριν Αβρααμ γενεσται — prin Abraam genesthai). Usual idiom with πριν — prin in positive sentence with infinitive (second aorist middle of γινομαι — ginomai) and the accusative of general reference, “before coming as to Abraham,” “before Abraham came into existence or was born.”

I am (εγω ειμι — egō eimi). Undoubtedly here Jesus claims eternal existence with the absolute phrase used of God. The contrast between γενεσται — genesthai (entrance into existence of Abraham) and ειμι — eimi (timeless being) is complete. See the same contrast between εν — en in John 1:1 and εγενετο — egeneto in John 1:14. See the contrast also in Psalm 90:2 between God (ει — ei art) and the mountains (γενητηναι — genēthēnai). See the same use of ειμι — eimi in John 6:20; John 9:9; John 8:24, John 8:28; John 18:6. (Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament; bold emphasis ours)

The following scholar concurs:

“This was the third and last of Jesus' solemn pronouncements in this discourse (cf. vv. 34, 51). If Jesus had only wanted to claim that He existed before Abraham, He could have said: ‘I was.’ By saying, ‘I am,’ He was not only claiming preexistence—but deity (cf. vv. 24, 28; 5:18; Exod. 3:14; Isa. 41:4; 43:13).396

It is eternity of being and not simply being that has lasted through several centuries that the expression indicates.’397

“Jesus existed ‘before Abraham’ came into being (Gr. genesthai)… The Jews understood that Jesus was claiming to be God. They prepared to stone ("picked up stones to throw at") Him for making what they considered a blasphemous claim (5:18; Lev. 24:16)…”

396See John A. Witmer, "Did Jesus Claim to Be God?" Bibliotheca Sacra 125:498 (April-June 1968): 147-56.

397Morris, p. 420 (Dr. Constable’s Notes, pp. 158-159; bold emphasis ours)

As such, Jesus was virtually identifying himself as Yahweh by echoing the words that Yahweh uttered to Moses when the latter asked him for his name:

“Then Moses said to God, ‘Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I will say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ Now they may say to me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM (ehyeh asher ehyeh)’; and He said, ‘Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, “I AM (ehyeh) has sent me to you.”’” Exodus 3:13-14

The Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, commonly referred to as the Septuagint (LXX), gives us an idea of how some Jews interpreted this particular name that Yahweh gave to Moses:   

“And God spoke to Moses, saying, I am THE BEING (ego eimi ho on); and he said, Thus shall ye say to the children of Israel, THE BEING (ho on) has sent me to you.”

The phrase “I am THE BEING” indicates that the translators of the Greek version took Yahweh’s words to be a reference to his timeless existence, to his eternal, uncreated, transcendent nature.

Therefore, by claiming timeless existence Jesus was basically making himself out to be Yahweh Incarnate, which explains why the Jews picked up stones to kill him since they assumed that Christ was nothing more than a man:     

“The reply of Jesus is strange. Literally it reads: 'Before Abraham came into being I am' (58). The same contrast of verbs is used that appears in 1:1 and 1:14. 'Came into being' involves a crisis in time, a definite act. 'Am,' like the other form of the same verb in 1:1 means timeless being. There never was a time when the Son was not. He could always assert, 'I am.' Three times in this context I am is used in the absolute sense: in verse 24, 'Except ye believe that I am he, ye shall die in your sins'; in verse 28, 'When ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am he'; and in verse 58, 'Before Abraham was born, I am.' In no one of these passages does the third personal pronoun he follow the I am in the Greek text. The italicized form shows that it has been inserted by the translators to complete the meaning in English. In actuality the phrase I am is an assertion of absolute, timeless existence, not merely of a personal identity as the English equivalent would suggest.

A comparison of the use of the phrase, ‘I am,’ with self-revelation of Jehovah in the Old Testament shows that much the same terminology was employed. God in commissioning Moses (Ex. 3:14) said: ‘Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.’ When the Jews heard Jesus say, ‘Before Abraham was born, I am,’ they took the statement to mean not priority to Abraham, but an assertion of deity. To them it was blasphemy, and they picked up stones to cast at Him (59).” (Merrill C. Tenney, John: The Gospel of Belief (Analytical Study of the Text) [William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Paperback edition 1997], pp. 149-150; bold emphasis ours)

And just in case Islam decides to appeal to ant-Trinitarian arguments such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses to call into question the translation and exegesis of John 8:58 and its connection to Exodus 3:14, we will let noted Evangelical scholar and apologist Robert M. Bowman Jr. show why appealing to such groups will not prove very helpful:

“First, while it is true that the expression in Exodus 3:14 is probably better translated ‘I will be what I will be,’ this is not the whole story. For one thing, this is really not that different in meaning from ‘I am who I am.’ Both imply that God is completely self-contained, that he alone determines what and who he is and what he will do, and that just being who he is will be sufficient to meet the needs of his people. Also, the Septuagint, in the main Greek translation of the Old Testament current in the first century, translated Exodus 3:14 ‘I am the One who is’ (ego eimi ho on), and readers of John’s Gospel who were versed in the Septuagint might easily have noticed a parallel to Exodus 3:14 in the Greek of John 8:58 where the words ‘I am’ are also ego eimi. So it is not at all unlikely that there is a connection between the two passages…

“In this context, Jesus does not merely claim to be older than Abraham. Gabriel or any of the angels, or even the devil, could have claimed as much. Are we really to believe that Gabriel or the devil could say, ‘Before Abraham came into existence, I am’? The truth is that this statement was a claim to be eternal, to exist without beginning, in contrast to Abraham, who had a beginning. This fits the context in which Jesus was claiming to be greater than Abraham (vv. 52-57). It also fits the precise language used, which contrasts ‘came into existence’ with ‘am.’ This same contrast, using even the same words, is found in the Septuagint translation of Psalm 90:2, which says to Jehovah: ‘Before the mountains were brought into existence… from age to age you are.’ As JWs recognize that in Psalm 90:2 the language used indicates that Jehovah is everlasting, so too they ought to recognize that Jesus’ language in John 8:58 indicates the same thing about himself.” (Bowman, Why You Should Believe In the Trinity: An Answer To Jehovah’s Witnesses [Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI, Seventh printing 1993], 7. Jesus Christ Is God, pp. 99-101; bold emphasis ours)

Nor is this a modern interpretation since the following reference shows that this has been the view of the early church fathers, men who were renowned for their scholarship and piety:

59. Perchance you will ask how I came to cite, as referring to the Incarnation of Christ, the place, The Lord created Me, seeing that the creation of the universe took place before the Incarnation of Christ? But consider that the use of holy Scripture is to speak of things to come as though already past, and to make intimation of the union of two natures, Godhead and Manhood, in Christ, lest any should deny either His Godhead or His Manhood.

60. In Isaiah, for example, you may read: A Child is born unto us, and a Son is given unto us; so here also [in the Proverbs] the prophet sets forth first the creation of the flesh, and joined thereto the declaration of the Godhead, that you might know that Christ is not two, but One, being both begotten of the Father before the worlds, and in the last times created of the Virgin. And thus the meaning is: I, Who am begotten before the worlds, am He Who was created of mortal woman, created for a set purpose.

61. Again, immediately before the declaration, The Lord created Me, He says, I will tell of the things which are from eternity, and before saying, He begot, He premised, In the beginning, before He made the earth, before all hills. In its extent, the preposition before reaches back into the past without end or limit, and so Before Abraham was, I am, John 8:58 clearly need not mean after Adam, just as before the Morning Star need not mean after the angels. But when He said before, He intended, not that He was included in any one's existence, but that all things are included in His, for thus it is the custom of Holy Writ to show the eternity of God. Finally, in another passage you may read: Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever the earth and the world were made, You are from everlasting to everlasting.

62. Before all created things, then, is the Son begotten; within all and for the good of all is He made; begotten of the Father, above the Law, Mark 2:28 brought forth of Mary, under the Law. Galatians 4:4 (Ambrose, Exposition of the Christian Faith, Book III, Chapter 9. The preceding quotation from Solomon's Proverbs receives further explanation; bold and underline emphasis ours)

That by the term begotten Ambrose didn’t intend to deny that Christ is an uncreated being is easily proven by what he wrote elsewhere:

1. Enough has been said, as I think, your sacred Majesty, in the book preceding to show that the Son of God is an eternal being, not diverse from the Father, begotten, not created: we have also proved, from passages of the Scriptures, that God's true Son is God, and is declared so to be by the evident tokens of His Majesty. (Ibid., Book II; bold emphasis ours)

Thus, contrary to Islam’s denials, the text of John 8:58 does supply conclusive and explicit support for the absolute Deity of Christ since it affirms that Jesus is an uncreated preexistent Being.

For more on the Lord Jesus’ use of the phrase “I AM”, we recommend the following articles and rebuttals:

Jesus as the Great I AM

Jesus as the Great I AM Excursus

The Early Church Fathers On John 8:58

‘I AM What I AM’: A Bible Commentary: [Part 1], [Part 2], [Part 3], [Appendix]

Rebuttal of their ‘I AM WHAT I AM’ Response: [Part 1], [Part 2]

‘I am’ or ‘I was’ 

John 8:58 and 10:30-33, "I am."

John 8:58, "Before Abraham came into existence, I have been."

The Meaning of Jesus' Words, I am in John 8:58

The Assembly of the Local Church & Jesus' use of "I AM" in John 8:58 

We are not done just yet since there are a couple of more arguments that we need to address starting in the next part of our reply.