There was an exquisitely beautiful house in the woods. It had obviously been built hundreds of years ago, but its exact origin was controversial. The identity of the builder was in dispute, and some said no one really knew, and a few even denied the house had a builder. Two men were discussing the matter, and they happened to agree that a man named Mr Devine was indeed the builder, and they were both admirers of him and his work. As they continued their conversation, one of them commented that Devine was from Edinburgh, but the other insisted that he had come from Heidelberg. “No, I assure you, Mr Devine and his family moved here from Edinburgh in 1787, and they built the house that year.” The other replied: “Family? What family? Mr Devine was a lifelong bachelor, and he moved here from Heidelberg in 1792, and that is when the house was built.” “Well,” the first man replied, “while Mr Devine indeed designed the house, his two sons played vital roles alongside him in crafting and constructing it.”
There is an ongoing controversy involving Wheaton College and its decision first to suspend, and then to proceed with plans to terminate Larycia Hawkins, a tenured political science professor, for her statement that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. For many observers, her statement is obviously true, while for others it is just as obviously false and no Christian teacher should even think it, let alone declare it in public. Both within the secular media, as well as the Christian community, still others see the debate as a matter of quibbling over words that betrays Wheaton’s true legacy, or that reflects excessive rigidity.
This controversy continues to generate confusion and misunderstanding largely because putting the question in terms of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God conflates a number of questions that need to be kept clearly distinct. While some of these have a straightforward answer, others do not. Here are four of the questions that must be distinguished to avoid perpetuating confusion: 1) Do Christians and Muslims believe essentially the same thing about God? 2) If they do not, are these differences of belief about God necessarily reflected in essentially different forms and expressions of worship? 3) Can persons who subscribe to other religions besides Christianity be in a saving relationship with God? 4) Can persons who knowingly and persistently reject Christ be saved?
The answer to the first question is clear, for obvious reasons. There is only one God, and he cannot possibly have logically incompatible properties or attributes. While Christians and Muslims share some beliefs about God, such as the belief that he created our world and revealed himself to Abraham, they also have several beliefs that are simply irreconcilable with each other. Claims that are logically contradictory in this fashion cannot both be true of God. The hard rock of logical impossibility shatters any claim that the essential beliefs of both Christians and Muslims can be true. Consider these examples.
Either Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins, or he did not.
Either Jesus was raised bodily from the dead, or he was not.
Either Jesus is the Son of God, or He is not.
Either Jesus is God’s final definitive revelation, or He is not.
Either God exists eternally in Three Persons, or He does not.
Christians affirm the first of each of these logically incompatible claims, and Muslims affirm the second. But more importantly, each of these claims is absolutely essential to Christian belief and theology. It is disrespectful to both Christians and Muslims to downplay or trivialize these differences. The hard reality that must be faced is that either Christians or Muslims are deeply mistaken in some of their essential beliefs about who God is and the way of salvation.
To put this in terms of our parable, while there is nominal agreement that the house had a builder, and that his name was Devine, that is hardly sufficient to support the claim that the men in our conversation agree in any substantive sense, even about who built the house.
This brings us to the second question, which also has a fairly straightforward answer. These differing truth claims about God do in fact lead to profoundly different forms and expressions of worship. Muslims engage in certain patterns of required prayer that are not required of Christians for instance. And obviously, many aspects and components of Christian worship cannot be shared by Muslims without denying their own theology.
Differences in theology pervade our worship, and it is difficult to find common ground for shared worship. Consider for instance theses lines from a classic hymn. At first glance, it might be thought that Muslims could perhaps sing the first three lines of this classic hymn, even if they obviously could not sing the fourth:
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God Almighty
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee.
Holy, Holy, Holy merciful and mighty
God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity.
Does the fact that Muslims might sing the first three lines suggest any sort of agreement with Christians in worship? It is doubtful since for Christians, the One referred to and worshiped in the first three lines is precisely the “blessed Trinity.” The Trinity is always the referent when Christians sing about the “Lord God Almighty.”
Moreover, the heart of Christian worship flows out of gratitude for the love and grace of God as expressed in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Again, consider these lines from another classic hymn.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
Christian worship, whether expressed in the sacrament of Holy Communion, or in classic hymnody, is premised on gratitude for an act of sacrificial love that Muslims reject by virtue of denying not only the incarnation, but even that Jesus died on the cross. These distinctively Christian beliefs not only inspire Christian worship and devotion, but also define its content.
The third question, however, is more complicated. While not all Christians agree, noted thinkers ranging from some of the Church Fathers, to John Wesley, to CS Lewis have contended that the answer is yes. Consider, for instance, this passage from John Wesley in which he discusses various forms of faith, ranging from materialism and deism to fully formed Christian faith. Speaking particularly of Muslims, he wrote:
I cannot but prefer this before the faith of the deists; because, though it embraces nearly the same objects, yet they are rather to be pitied than blamed for the narrowness of their faith. And their not believing the whole truth is not owing to their want of sincerity, but merely to their want of light….It cannot be doubted that this plea will avail for millions of modern ‘heathens.’ Inasmuch as little is given to them, little will be required. (“On Faith”)
In another sermon, he wrote similarly about those who have not heard the gospel and their prospects for salvation.
…we are not required to determine anything touching their final state. How it will please God, the Judge of all, to deal with them, we may leave to God himself. But this we know, that he is not the God of the Christians only, but the God of the heathens also; that he is ‘rich in mercy to all who call upon him’[Rom 10:12], ‘according to the light they have’; and that ‘in every nation he that feareth God and worketh righteousness is accepted of him.’ [Acts 10:35](“On Charity”)
This is the line of thinking that also appears in the famous scene near the end of C. S. Lewis’s book The Last Battle, where Emeth, the worshiper of Tash, is accepted by Aslan. Unknowingly he was actually serving Aslan because his worship was motivated by a love for truth and righteousness. The point is that Christ died for all persons, whether they know it or not, and the Holy Spirit is working to draw them to Christ, whether they know it or not, and they may be responding truly to the “light” they have and consequently be on the way to final salvation.
We come now to the fourth question, which is at the heart of each of these questions. The answer to this question is straightforward for orthodox Christians, and the reason is clear. If God is a Trinity, and Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity, and salvation is a right relationship with God, then salvation requires accepting Christ and confessing Him as Lord. Just as it is true that to persistently reject Christ is to reject the only God that exists, so it is true that to know him is to know the one true God. Jesus insists that because He and the Father are one that knowledge of God is inseparable from knowing Him, and that to know Him is to know His Father. “If God were your Father, you would love me,” Jesus says (John 8:42). This Trinitarian logic runs especially through the Gospel and Epistles of John. Notice: this implies it is possible to know God before knowing Christ explicitly, but it also means that anyone who truly knows and loves the Father will also love Jesus when they are truly introduced to Him. Emeth was serving Aslan before he was aware of it, but his final salvation involved an explicit encounter with Aslan and knowledge of who He was.
But this is where our knowledge stops because we are in no place to judge how clearly the “light” of Christ has come to adherents of other religions who know little or nothing of the gospel. Even those we may think have heard of Christ quite clearly may not have done so because of various factors that may prevent them from fairly or accurately hearing the gospel. Only God knows who has truly heard and seen, and how they have responded.
So where does this leave us? With respect to the original controversial claim, there is no unequivocal sense in which it is true that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. To avoid this equivocation, it is crucial not to confuse the first two questions with the latter two.
The first two questions pertain to objective public truth about what Christianity and Islam teach about God, and the inescapable fact that both the beliefs and the worship practices of these religions are mutually incompatible; therefore, both of them cannot be true. The third question pertains not to straightforward facts about Islam and Christianity, but to individual Muslims (as well as adherents of other religions) and their relationship to God. Here we are poorly positioned to judge. We may hope and even have reason to believe that many of them are worshiping God faithfully according to the light they have, as Wesley would put it. The fourth question pertains to a central, non-negotiable claim of Christianity. While we can be clear about that claim and what it entails, only judgment day will definitively show who has knowingly and persistently rejected Christ.
In the meantime, let us muster as much clarity as we can while engaging these issues, even as we pray for charity on all sides, starting with ourselves. However, we should not confuse grace and love for all persons with Christian fellowship, nor should we assume or state that those who do not profess Christ as Lord are our brothers and sisters in a common faith. That fails to advance genuine respect and understanding just as it does when we presume to know the hearts of others or their eternal destiny.