Apostasy: What is the Real Issue?


Muhammad Ridzwan Rahmat has recently published an article regarding the killing of apostates in Christianity in light of the recent controversy over Abdul Rahman’s conversion from Islam to Christianity (for some information on that see here).

Rahmat writes:

The saga of Abdul Rehman's conversion to Christianity may be over but the aftermath is far from settled. Like a clockwork of hate, the episode has brought upon yet another wave of criticisms against Islam and its record for religious tolerance. But what few would realise is that the West has a history of religious tolerance and persecutions that would put Muslim Afghanistan to shame.

The author later lists historical examples of the Church persecuting and destroying Jews and also the Albigensian Crusade. Other than to correct the point that, of the incidents listed by the author, only the latter could possibly be an example of actual "apostate-killing" (as "apostasy" implies that the victims were former Christians), we will not interact with his material on the subject. We shall also resist the temptation to respond in kind by listing numerous historical examples of Islamic persecutions of non-Muslims and apostates. The reason is simply that this is not the issue that needs to be addressed.

Also what is NOT at issue is why apostate-hunting seems to be more of an Islamic phenomenon nowadays than a Christian one. The author writes:

The point is to compare the attitude of Christianity towards apostasy then and now. Christianity today has none of these violent characteristics against apostates. People who leave the religion are not given death threats nor persecuted violently at the edge of a sword - unlike what happened before during the medieval times. It is now a largely peaceful religion and has taken few qualities of its earlier practitioners from the earlier periods.

But this peaceful nature of Christians towards apostasy took time and a considerable amount of evolution over the centuries. Education, tolerance and enlightenment did not find its way into Christianity overnight. It took an awful part of 2000 years for Christianity to be where it is today.

Apostasy is still a very touchy subject in much of the Muslim world, similar to Christianity during the times of the crusade. Different interpretations may exist, but Islam is definitely not a religion of violence nor murder towards any group including apostates who leave the religion peacefully and mean no harm.

Already beacons of tolerance and excellence can be seen emerging in a handful of Muslim communities around the world, such as Singapore, the United States and the United Kingdom. The rest of the Muslim Ummah must be given that same chance.

While not wanting to give the readers the impression that the Church is worthy of exoneration of all of the proposed wrongs commonly asserted by its critics, we do believe that the author greatly overstates reality in saying "It took an awful part of 2000 years for Christianity to be where it is today". Nevertheless, even if this were true, it is still beside the point. The only thing that matters when evaluating the role that "apostate-killing" has in Islam and Christianity is to study the relevant authoritative literature of each of the two religions. If it can be demonstrated that apostate-killing has no basis in the Bible, particularly the New Testament for Christians, then this quite simply is not part of the correct practice of Christianity. Demonstrations that this has been done on the part of the Church then become historical examples of those claiming to follow Christ yet acting contrary to his actual teachings and is therefore irrelevant to the core issues in this debate. The same could be said of the cases of apostate-killing in Islam today (and historically) if a solid basis for the practice cannot be established from the Qur’an and/or Hadith.

The author thinks that he provides a solid basis for this practice on the part of Christians by citing a couple of passages from the Old Testament. Below are the two passages by the author, with verses added in each case for the purposes of context:

If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, "Let us go and worship other gods" (gods that neither you nor your fathers have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. You must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone him to death, because he tried to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again. (Deuteronomy 13:6-11)

If a man or woman living among you in one of the towns the LORD gives you is found doing evil in the eyes of the LORD your God in violation of his covenant, and contrary to my command has worshiped other gods, bowing down to them or to the sun or the moon or the stars of the sky, and this has been brought to your attention, then you must investigate it thoroughly. If it is true and it has been proved that this detestable thing has been done in Israel, take the man or woman who has done this evil deed to your city gate and stone that person to death. On the testimony of two or three witnesses a man shall be put to death, but no one shall be put to death on the testimony of only one witness. The hands of the witnesses must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. You must purge the evil from among you. (Deuteronomy 17:2-7)

The author then writes:

Despite all the staunch criticisms they make about Islam, that was not a verse from the Quran. In fact, the Quran is void of any instructions to murder apostates.

The problem with citing these passages to support the author’s case for establishing an apostate-killing law in Christianity is that these commands were for the Israelite nation alone, particularly within the confines of the Israelite theocracy. Put simply, this was a command limited to the Israelite nation, both temporally and geographically. Inherent within the Torah is a great number of governmental rules and regulations that would not be applicable outside of a governmental setting. In the case of apostasy, God wished to establish a nation consisting of worshipers only of Him. Those who wanted to practice another religion could have simply left Israel. Some Muslims may respond by stating that the same is the case for the Muslim nations of today that do apply or have applied the death penalty for apostasy, and perhaps that is largely true. But, if this is conceded, and the death penalty for apostasy is still applied in such nations, then the concept of "freedom of religion" is severely compromised in such lands, especially as far as former Muslims are concerned. Furthermore, if we are correct in asserting that the death penalty for apostasy is firmly embedded within the most authentic Islamic authoritative literature (and hence Sharia law itself), then it is difficult to share in the author's optimism that Islamic governments the world over will one day reform themselves to the point where the application of this law is no longer a problem. It also has to be remembered that Islam is a religion with aspirations of global expansion and ideals of establishing Sharia universally. If this is achieved, then where could apostates go to be free? This is unlike ancient Israel who was given a piece of land with no instructions to expand its governmental rule elsewhere.

On the other hand, the practice of the tenets of the New Covenant established by Jesus is the "law" under which Christians reside, not the laws established by God for governing the Israelite theocracy. There is of course much (though clearly not total) overlap with the Old Testament as the Old Testament contains many moral laws which are universally applicable (e.g. most of the Ten Commandments). But, these particular verses that the author appeals to are irrelevant for demonstrating that apostate-killing is required in Christianity. Indeed, no reputable priest, pastor, or Biblical scholar in Christianity TODAY wants to impose this old law in Deuteronomy, nor are the practices of the Medieval church authoritative on such matters.

The fact that the author has to search in the Old Testament and then the history of the Medieval Church demonstrates that he has lost the proverbial game. Are there any instances in the whole New Testament that command the death penalty for apostasy (see the appendix below)? For more thorough analyses of the relationship between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, see the following articles:


Getting back to Islam, we disagree with the author regarding the freedom of apostates in the Qur'an and Hadith (and other authoritative Islamic literature), but we won’t try to reinvent that particular wheel here since it has been done adequately elsewhere. For more on that, as well as for some more material regarding wars and the Bible, see the following links:


These links reveal two deeper issues or errors that Muslim polemicists frequently commit. First, they quote the Old Testament as if all aspects are binding on Christians and as if they practice every part today. Second, Muslim polemicists refuse to compare Founder (Jesus) with Founder (Muhammad). Instead, they compare Muhammad or his four rightly guided Caliphs with the Medieval Church or some other Christians or historical event. Both strategies are misguided.

Polemicists should quote from the New Testament (see Appendix, below) if they want to find a book that is binding on Christians. And Muslims should compare Jesus and the Apostles with Muhammad and the Four Caliphs. If the Muslim missionaries follow these two steps, then they will no longer waste their time and ours with their articles.

APPENDIX: Romans 1

At least one Muslim writes that there is a passage in the New Testament that supports the death penalty for apostasy. Here is the relevant passage, with the most important portions emphasized:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature-have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator-who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. (Romans 1:18-32; emphasis added)

First of all, it is not clear at all (nor probable for that matter) that Paul is speaking here of apostasy from Christianity, or necessarily even Judaism. Paul is talking about those who, despite knowing that there is a God because of His "invisible qualities", have instead turned to worshiping idols. Of course, one could still argue that Paul's thinking could apply to Christians who turn away and start worshiping idols as well. Second, Paul writes that those that do such things are deserving of death. Absent from this passage or any other passage in the entire Pauline corpus is any indication of an actual command from Paul that the death penalty be imposed on apostates. At best then, one can only state that Paul thought that those that turned back to idol worship were worthy of physical death, but one goes way too far in turning this in to an actual command to execute apostates. But, it is doubtful that Paul even had physical death in mind here in the first place. Consider what he wrote immediately after the above-quoted passage:

"You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God's judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God's judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God's kindness leads you toward repentance? But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the DAY OF GOD'S WRATH, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God "will give to each person according to what he has done." To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism." (Romans 2:1-11; emphasis added)

Notice that the wrath of God in this context is clearly speaking of Judgment Day when the righteous will receive eternal life and those that follow evil will receive God's wrath and anger. Consider also that later Paul contrasts "death" with "eternal life":

"I put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves. Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness. When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 6:19-23; emphasis added)

Thus it is virtually certain that Paul here by contrasting "eternal life" with "death" is referring to "death" in the spiritual sense, and this is confirmed by Paul's telling the Romans of God's unleashing of His wrath and anger on the day of judgment in Romans 2. In this light, the reference to "death" in Romans 1 is best understood in a spiritual sense as well.

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