This article was originally posted on June 9, 2016 as an adaptation from a Christian Worldview Thinking Podcast interview with Alan Shlemon. The full audio interview is available here.
Aaron Atwood: Alan, thanks so much for your time. I want to dive in. Today I want to ask you this question: Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?
That’s a great question. There’s been a lot of discussion about that recently, amongst both Muslims and Christians, precipitated by the professor at Wheaton who claimed that, “Yes, we do worship the same God.” Of course, that created a big stir.
Before I answer that question, I want to say that however we come down on this issue, it’s not necessary for Christians and Muslims to worship the same God for us to get along and to be at peace with each other. It’s perfectly OK if it turns out that Christians and Muslims have radically different theologies on the nature of God; we can get along. When you think about it, that’s the true definition of tolerance. Tolerance isn’t agreement. Tolerance is disagreement with somebody, with someone who doesn’t share your beliefs or practices, but you still respect them as an individual. I think that Christians and Muslims, if it turns out that we actually don’t worship the same God and we have radically different theologies, we can still be at peace. We can still get along and we don’t have to demonize each other.
I say this because there is this tendency amongst some believers to say, “We’ve got to have some sort of common ground, some sort of commonality, to bring our theologies closer together so that there can be harmony between Christians and Muslims.”
Having said that, let’s turn our attention to this question of whether or not Muslims and Christians worship the same God.
The word “god” is actually not God’s name. “God” is more like the title of a position than the name of a person. The position of God is a “what,” but the person who fills that position is a “who.” Imagine a political office, like the presidency of the United States. Right now, we’re in an election cycle where there are many people who are trying to become the next President of the United States. The President of the United States, that position, is a “what,” but the person who occupies that position is a “who.” It’s a specific person, a specific name.
In the same way, “god” is the title of a position or an office. It turns out that, yes, both Christians and Muslims believe in the same “what” in that they believe in a God who creates, who answers prayer, who judges, etc., but each of them believe a different person occupies that role.
That’s a great analogy.
If you ask, then, who occupies that role, Muslims would say that the person who occupies the office of God is Allah, and Christians would say it is Yahweh. When you look at these individual persons, you’ll find they’re different on fundamental levels. For example, Muslims believe Allah is a unitarian God — there is only one person who is God — whereas Christians believe Yahweh is Trinitarian — three persons who all are God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There’s a huge difference between Allah and Yahweh.
Muslims believe Allah is impersonal. Christians believe Yahweh is personal. Muslims believe Allah is transcendent, meaning he’s created the universe but he is separate from that universe and doesn’t interact and come into the universe. Whereas Christians would say, “No, Yahweh is transcendent but He’s also immanent.” He enters into his creation (of course, Jesus is the perfect expression of this) and dialogues and interacts with his people. Muslims would never call Allah Father, but yet Christians would definitely call God Father.
These are fundamental differences. For Christians to deny the trinity would be heresy, but for Muslims, to affirm the trinity would be blasphemy. These aren’t just minor, superficial details. They’re fundamental to each religion. When you look then at the identity of Allah and Yahweh, you realize these are two different persons who are vying for the office of God. That’s why I say Christians and Muslims both believe in the same “what” — a God who creates and demands worship and so on and so forth — but we are worshiping a different “who” — that is, whoever we believe is the person that occupies the office of God.
That makes sense, absolutely. Another question — don’t Muslims, though, consider parts of the Bible to be revelation? How does that affect this question?
That’s right. The Koran, it teaches there are three divine revelations in the Bible that are true revelations from Allah. They believe the Torah [the first five books of the Old Testament], the Psalms, and the Gospel are true revelations given by Allah to different prophets. They believe that Moses was a prophet of Allah and given the Torah. They believe King David was a prophet of Allah who was given the revelation of the Psalms. And they believe that Jesus was also a prophet of Allah who was given the revelation of the Gospel.
Having said that, though, they would say that the Torah, the Psalms, and the Gospel, although they were true revelations at one time, have since been corrupted either intentionally or unintentionally by Muslims and Christians and are not trustworthy in the form they exist in today. So while there are some similarities — for example, they would look to Jesus as a prophet, but they don’t believe him the son of God, nor the second person of the trinity, not God incarnate — they are not true revelations.
One further point on whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God — All you have to do is ask one simple question: If Jesus appeared in downtown Detroit today, what would happen? While Christians in that area would see Jesus and would bow down to worship him, no Muslim in Detroit would bow down and worship Jesus as God. For Christians to worship that man Jesus would be a great act of devotion, but for Muslims to worship that man Jesus would be to commit the greatest sin in Islam, the sin of shirk, which is unpardonable and guarantees you go to hell. Based on that alone, I think it’s clear that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God. It’s an easy way to distill the whole idea of “who” and “what,” the office of God and the person of Yahweh or Allah.
That’s really helpful. As a follow-up, Alan, it’s common to hear the claim that “all roads lead ultimately to the same God.” How would you respond to something like that?
This reminds me of an illustration I heard J.P. Moreland use. He asked the people he was speaking with if they had ever seen or met his mother. These three people said, “No,” and he asked one person, “What do you think my mother is like?” One person said, “I don’t know. Maybe she’s five foot three, weighs 130 pounds, has blond hair.” Then he asked the other person, “What do you think my mom is like?” “Five foot five, maybe 150 pounds, got brown hair.” Then he asked somebody else, “What do you think my mother is like?” The person says, “I don’t know, five foot nine, 190 pounds, black hair.”
Then he said, “OK, can all three of you be correct? Can my mom be five foot three, five foot five, and five foot nine at the same time?” They say, “No, she’s only got one height.” “Can my mom be 130, 150, 190 pounds all at the same time?” “No, she’s only got one weight.” “Can she have blond hair, brown hair, black hair, all at the same time, without going to a salon” The answer is, “No, she’s only got one color hair.”
In the same way, different religions have different ideas about the nature of God. Some say God is personal. Some say God is impersonal. Some say God is triune. Some say God is not triune. Some say there’s one God. Some say there are many gods and some there’s no God. Different religions have different, contradictory ideas about the nature of God. They can’t all be correct.
That’s great Alan. Let me ask one more question: What if someone retorts with the claim that while all religions are off by a little bit, ultimately God’s going to say, “Hey, you tried hard. You did the best that you could with what you knew, so OK.”
That presumes there is only one God who’s making a decision and not a thousand gods. It presumes that the God is personal, that he has thoughts, and that he is not a pantheistic God equated with the universe. All these presumptions are built into that one statement. You can’t assume they are true. You have to prove that they’re true.
Apologist Alan Shlemon is a speaker with Stand to Reason and a Summit faculty member. He regularly speaks to students at churches, colleges, and conferences across the country. Find him on Twitter at @AlanShlemon, and for more from Alan, visit STR.org. You can purchase Alan’s book, The Ambassador’s Guide to Islam, in the Summit Bookstore.