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Muhammad Ali and the Exclusivity of the Gospel

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The recent death of a World Heavyweight Icon has brought about an endless flood of tweets and Facebook posts in memory of Muhammad Ali. It is truly very rare that a pugilist can attain such sports achievement with 56 wins, 37 of which were knockouts.

Born as Cassius Clay to a Baptist mother and Methodist father, Muhammad Ali converted to Islam at the age of 22 and became very outspoken about his monotheistic political alignment with the Nation of Islam. Ali thrived on controversy as it seemed to fuel his popularity, but over the years he seemed to mellow into a quieter version of Sufi Islam that emphasized the virtue of charity. Up to his last days, he was a missionary for Islam with boxing as his mission field. And although several evangelical preachers shared the exclusive Christian Gospel with the fighter, he was adamant about his rejection of Jesus as the only Savior.

Muhammad Ali in 1966, photo courtesy of Dutch National Archives. Muhammad Ali in 1966, photo courtesy of Dutch National Archives.

In an interview with an Israeli newspaper, Ali clarified his ecumenical religious belief that just being a good person is enough to enter heaven. Apparently there was no confusion within Cassius Clay as to which side of the soteriological ring he chose to fight; he stood against the exclusive claims of Jesus.

And yet there seems to be theological confusion in the media among some who claim to follow Christ. This week’s stream of internet tributes are filled with eulogies wishing to immortalize that for which the Bible paints a different, more morbid, picture. Even if he is a monotheist, a man who dies without receiving Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior will enter into eternal punishment.

In hell there is neither rest nor peace, and Jesus’ claim for salvific exclusivity limits eternal rest and peace to only His followers. According to God’s Word, Jesus is the only way, the only truth, and the only source of eternal life. So although it may feel good to console the bereaved with quips like “Rest in Peace,” in reality we are muddying the very hope of the Gospel that they could receive.

Follow the hashtag #RIPMuhammadAli, and you will find an assortment of posts from all walks of life, religions of all flavors, and a vast array of ethnicities. Former President Bill Clinton will deliver a eulogy on Friday in Louisville, KY. Speaking of his friendship with Ali, current President Barack Obama expressed his gratefulness to God along with the traditional Christian eulogy, “Rest in peace, Champ.”

While no true follower of Christ finds any joy in the heartbreaking loss of an unsaved man, there is nonetheless a celebratory opportunity to share a Christocentric Gospel with any person’s passing from life to death. That appointment with death is one we all will keep, and there is no peace without Christ.

The Gospel of Jesus is clear. Jesus alone offers the gift of eternal life through a relationship that begins before death and judgment. Muhammad Ali was truly an extraordinary boxer, and according to those who knew him, he was a fantastic friend and family member. He was apparently a philanthropist, and he was loved as a celebrity and public speaker.

Ali was quoted as wanting to be remembered as a great boxer, as a leader, and as good-looking. He was all three. But publicly Muhammad Ali made a choice to reject the Gospel. We all pray for Ali’s death-bed conversion to Jesus, but all we’ll know on this side of eternity was his rejection of Jesus’ plan for salvation.

The conversation has to be more than about a simple conversion between religions. In his book Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary, J.D. Greear recounts an experience he had while serving as an IMB journeyman in an Islamic country. After Mahmud had a dream about escaping an endless field, he approach J.D. with questions about Christianity.

J.D. shares Mahmud’s response, “If Jesus Christ is God, and God gave Himself like that for me on the cross, I will go anywhere with Him. If I lose my job, my family, or my life, it is OK. I’d go with Jesus anywhere.” The Gospel is summed up in that kind of acceptance of the exclusive Christ.

Over the past few months, there have been many cultural losses of well-known celebrities. Some of them have been tragic deaths by drug overdose; others have been the result of sudden illness, suicide, or human menace. None of these deaths has been welcome news. But each of these deaths is an opportunity to share the Good News that Jesus Christ will save anyone who calls upon His Name as the solution to their sin problem. Watering down the exclusive claim of the Gospel of Jesus might soothe another’s bereaved heart, but it will condemn another lost soul.

boxing, death, eternity, evangelism, salvation, sports

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