Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

Q: I have a Muslim friend who believes that we worship the same God, the God of Abraham. Is this right or wrong? How do I explain this to a Muslim?

A. This is a great question and one that must be addressed with great care and concern, especially in the fragile (and tragically, sometimes hostile) religious environment in which we live, but even more importantly, so that people who want to have faith in God may properly understand the object and substance of their faith.  Accordingly, three things come to mind in responding to this question.

FIRST, the nature of the question evidences a right and good desire to see that humanity is united - and not divided - in our understanding of who God is and the implications of that understanding in this life and the next. The simple concern that we (would/should) worship the same God - and, by extension, that there can only be one God - expresses this desire, and for this we should be thankful. But, we must be careful to see that what is presented on the surface also matches the substance that is underneath it, because the answer to the question drives to the real heart of the matter, which is the nature of Truth and divine revelation itself.

SECOND, it is curious that a Muslim would say to a Christian that "we worship the same God, the God of Abraham". More often, this is a sentiment expressed by (some) Christians, not Muslims, and here is why. Islam classically label Jews and Christians as infidels because we do not follow the teaching of the Qur'an. But, even more to the point, Islam knows itself to be a monotheistic religion and declares Christianity is polytheistic and not monotheistic because Christians say that we worship God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In fact, Muslims commonly criticize Christians when (some) Christians try to syncretize the two religions by saying we worship the same God, based on the common claim of Abraham. Muslims would much rather see Christians represent their faith with integrity and "let the chips fall where they may" so to speak.

Indeed, here are six texts from the Qur'an, written by Mohammed concerning Jesus and the Christian doctrine of the Trinity:

1. O People of the Scripture, do not commit excess in your religion or say about Allah except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, was but a messenger of Allah and His word which He directed to Mary and a soul [created at a command] from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers. And do not say, "Three"; desist - it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God. Exalted is He above having a son. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. And sufficient is Allah as Disposer of affairs. — Qur'an, sura 4 (An-Nisa), ayat 171

2. Those who say, "God is the Messiah, son of Mary," have defied God. The Messiah himself said; "Children of Israel, worship God, my Lord and your Lord." If anyone associates others with God, God will forbid him from the Garden, and Hell will be his home. No one will help such evildoers. Those people who say that God is the third of three are defying [the truth]: there is only One God. If they persist in what they are saying, a painful punishment will afflict those of them who persist. Why do they not turn to God and ask his forgiveness, when God is most forgiving, most merciful? The Messiah, son of Mary, was only a messenger; other messengers had come and gone before him; his mother was a virtuous woman; both ate food. See how clear We make these signs for them; see how deluded they are. - Qur'an, sura 5 (Al-Maida), ayat 72-75

3. And when Allah will say, "O Jesus, Son of Mary, did you say to the people, 'Take me and my mother as deities besides Allah?'" He will say, "Exalted are You! It was not for me to say that to which I have no right. If I had said it, You would have known it. You know what is within myself, and I do not know what is within Yourself. Indeed, it is You who is Knower of the unseen. - Qur'an, sura 5 (AlMaida), ayat 116

4. They say: "(Allah) Most Gracious has begotten a son!" Indeed ye have put forth a thing most monstrous! At it the skies are ready to burst, the earth to split asunder, and the mountains to fall down in utter ruin, that they should invoke a son for (Allah) Most Gracious. For it is not consonant with the majesty of (Allah) Most Gracious that He should beget a son. Not one of the beings in the heavens and the earth but must come to (Allah) Most Gracious as a servant. - Qur'an, sura 19 (Maryam (sura)), ayat 88-93

5. No son did Allah beget, nor is there any god along with Him: (if there were many gods), behold, each god would have taken away what he had created, and some would have lorded it over others! Glory to Allah! (He is free) from the (sort of) things they attribute to Him! - Qur'an, sura 23 (Al-Mumenoon), ayat 91

6. Say: He is Allah, the One and Only; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; He begetteth not, nor is He begotten; And there is none like unto Him. - Qur'an, sura 112 (Al-Ikhlas), ayat 1-4

THIRD, with the Islamic self-understanding in place, let us now articulate the Christian position. Here it is essential to remember that Christianity claims nothing for itself, but rests upon the claims Jesus Christ made of himself. And, as C.S. Lewis posits in Mere Christianity, we are only given three options concerning Jesus; that is, He is a liar, a lunatic, or the LORD. Here, we will find this statement in particular by Jesus most useful. Jesus says to the Jews, "Truly, truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I am," (John 8:58). A Jewish person living in Jesus' time would have understood this to be a claim of divinity. And, the Jews crucified Jesus for blasphemy for claiming to be God. Moreover, modern Jews still reject the idea that Jesus is God, as do Muslims, as do all other religions. However, we Christians declare emphatically, over and against every other religion, that Jesus is, in fact, God!

In the end, it comes down to truth and divine revelation. In his book Handbook of Christian Apologetics, Dr. Peter Kreeft posits truth as that which corresponds with objective reality. So, we ask the questions: how has God revealed himself? Is Jesus God, or isn't he? There is only one correct answer to the question. Either Jesus' claim to be God is true, or it isn't. Either Mohammed is right in saying that Jesus is not God, or he is wrong. And, by implication, either God is triune, or He isn't.

While our ability to fully understand how God is 3 in 1 remains a mystery, we cannot say that it is irrational. St. Patrick used the example of a clover leaf to show how God is three processions from one substance. Another helpful illustration is that the chemical compound H2O is one substance with three "processions". Of course, we cannot press the analogies too far, but they are helpful for a basic understanding of the triune nature of God.

Now, here are two more Christians Scriptures, which are most useful in drawing a conclusion:

1. "But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied." - I Corinthians 15:12-19

2. "No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also." - I John 2:23

With all of that said, we come back to the questions: "Do we worship the same God?" and "How do I explain this to a Muslim?" Concerning the first question, Islam itself commonly says we do not worship the same God. Therefore, why would we Christians cede something to Islam that it does not claim for itself? Moreover, when we Christians try and syncretize the two religions on the basis of Abraham, we inevitably must reject the words and the claims that Jesus made of himself; specifically, that is God! Moreover, we must also reject his deeds, how he endured death on the cross for us and for our salvation, and that he rose from the grave to demonstrate the hope of everlasting life! How can we do that with integrity and knowing what's at stake?! Indeed, let the Gospel be preached and let the chips fall where they may. God is big enough to handle it and Jesus is "man enough" to take care of himself, and strong enough to take care of us!

And so, perhaps the best way to answer the second question is to ask more questions: on what basis would a Muslim - or a Christian - say we worship the same God? On the basis of the claim to Abraham alone as a common "ancestor" in the faith? Then how would one resolve the contradictory claims of the two religions; specifically, is Jesus God, or isn't he? The difference between the claims of the Qur'an and the Bible are obvious enough that the conversation will take its natural course. If Jesus is not God, then we should convert to Islam immediately. But, if he is....

Thanks for asking. Keep the questions coming!

Fr. Chris Culpepper
Rector, Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church
Fort Worth, TX

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