Last winter, the Internet was abuzz over the question “Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?” A cacophony of largely Christian voices exhausted themselves arguing these complex issues, to almost no one’s satisfaction. This isn’t the first time people have debated this question, and unfortunately, it may not be the last.
One reason opinions flew in every direction is this: That question is not only unhelpful but perhaps worse than unhelpful. The question appears incapable of generating a satisfactory answer, and when well-intentioned people try to answer it anyway, as they often do, the typical result is turmoil and confusion.
How could it be otherwise? Any question that can only be answered with a “Maybe, maybe not—it depends on what you mean” is doomed from the outset. It is so hopelessly ambiguous that every attempt to address it only raises further questions. What is the question really asking? What do we mean by “worship”? What do we mean by “the same”? How much “sameness” is required to answer yes? How much difference to answer no? What kind of “sameness” qualifies? What does Christianity mean by God? What does Islam mean by God? Which version of Christianity? Which version of Islam?
The primary problem is that the dispute is focused on the wrong question.
Understanding what Islam and Christianity do and do not hold in common is an important task these days, but asking whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God will not get us there. If our goal is to compare these two religions we need to shift our focus to a much more illuminating question: How do Christianity and Islam differ? With the answer to this question in hand, ironically, we are in a better position to address the “sameness” question.
During the contentious debate, Trinitarianism was often offered up as the core difference between Islam and Christianity: Christianity embraces it, Islam does not. But this observation, while accurate, does not automatically locate the decisive issue. Neither the Old Testament faithful nor even the earliest Christians could have articulated orthodox Trinitarianism as we understand it, which as a doctrine wasn’t fully worked out by the church until the fourth century. So reducing the question to the presence or absence of historic Trinitarianism is not a helpful way of getting at the key difference between Islam and Christianity.
So, what is that key difference?
The decisive issue between Islam and Christianity is, quite simply, the gospel—the Bible’s account of what God has done, is doing, and will yet do through his Son to redeem his creation. It is this “good news” story of the Creator’s eternal, Son-centered plan of redemption that reveals to us who our Creator truly is. This gospel story is the watershed issue that exposes the dramatic difference between Islam and Christianity. It is not until this difference is grasped that the question of what Christianity and Islam may or may not hold in common can even be addressed.
Before the term Christian was applied to those who believed Jesus was the Son of God, early believers called themselves followers of “the Way” (Acts 9:2; 16:17; 19:9, 23; 24:14). There’s a clear reason for this, Christianity is about “the Way” which the Creator—revealed now through his plan to be a loving heavenly Father—has graciously opened for his estranged, mutinous creatures to be reconciled to him.
According to the New Testament, God sent his eternal Son into the world to embody that “Way.” From the Father’s Son-centered redemptive purposes from “before the creation of the world” (Eph. 1:3–4; Matt. 25:34); to the Son’s creation of all that exists (Col. 1:16; John 1:3); to the primeval promise of the Son’s incarnation in the protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15; through Israel’s unfolding story in the Old Testament, all of which, Jesus said, was ultimately about him (John 5:39; Luke 24:27, 44–47); to the plan’s full flowering in the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension and exaltation of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament; to the plan’s outworking ever since in the Spirit-empowered building of Christ’s Kingdom (Acts 2:32-33); to the grand eschatological crescendo of the Son’s second coming; all the way to the Son’s final delivery of a fully redeemed and refashioned creation to the Father (1 Cor. 15:24–28)—through it all a triune God has been working his Son-centered, Spirit-empowered plan of redemption. This more or less fully elaborated story is what the Bible calls the gospel.
It is this gospel that informs the gaping divide between Christianity and Islam. Christianity recognizes, embraces, and proclaims this Son-centered plan and the triune God it reveals to all who will hear. Islam repudiates this Son-centered plan and the divine triunity it reveals and substitutes a dramatically different proposal in its place. If our goal is to compare Christianity and Islam, this is the difference we need to grasp.