Since Wheaton College suspended professor Larycia Hawkins for her statement that Christians and Muslisms worship the same God, there has been a firestorm in the media and in evangelical Christianity over whether Hawkins is correct. Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? Are Yahweh and Allah in fact one and the same? Francis J. Beckwith, Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University, argues from a philosophical perspective that Jews, Muslims, and Christians do in fact worship the same God. If this were merely a philosophical issue, Beckwith’s argument would hold sway. But its weakness is that his perspective is merely philosophical, while the question at hand is very much a theological question.
Beckwith argues that even though Jews, Muslims, and Christians refer to God by different names, it doesn’t mean they’re worshiping different Gods. The same person may be known by multiple names (e.g., Muhammad Ali, a.k.a. Cassius Clay).
The fact that Christians may call God “Yahweh” and Muslims call God “Allah” makes no difference if both “Gods” have identical properties. ~ Francis J. Beckwith
Here is where the argument begins to break down. Beckwith assumes that both “Gods” have identical properties. But clearly Yahweh and Allah do not have identical properties. Are there similarities? Sure. But there are also some fundamental differences.
Similarities between Yahweh & Allah
Like Christians, Muslims believe in a God who created the universe and rules over it as the Creator King (Surah 7:54). Allah is said to be all-knowing, all-gracious and all-merciful, the cherisher and sustainer of the universe and the master of the day of judgment (Surah 1:1-7; 6:101). Muslims claim Allah is the same God Adam, Noah, and Abraham worshiped.
Differences between Yahweh & Allah
Unlike Christians, Muslims deny that Jesus is the Son of God. Allah cannot have any partner, nor does he beget any son (Surah 17:111). Whereas Christians believe that Jesus was himself God (Colossians 2:9), Muslims deny that Jesus was divine. The Qur’an says it is blasphemy to say that Jesus is God, punishable by being sentenced to Hell (Surah 5:72). Instead, Muslims see Jesus as no more than an apostle of Allah, and they deny that God is Trinity (Surah 4:171). There are other differences between Yahweh and Allah, but the ones I’ve listed here are sufficient to call into question the claim that Yahweh and Allah are the same God.
Beckwith addresses the differences between Yahweh and Allah with the argument that two people can believe different things about the same person.
The fact that one may have incomplete knowledge or hold a false belief about another person – whether human or divine – does not mean that someone who has better or truer knowledge about that person is not thinking about the same person. ~ Francis J. Beckwith
I find it interesting that Beckwith’s argument is essentially the same logic used by Oprah, the Dali Lama, and other religious pluralists to suggest that all religions worship the same God. They just know him by different names and in different forms. They just believe different things about the same God. Some believe he’s one, others believe he’s many, and still others believe we’re all part of God as a Universal Soul. But, as the pluralistic argument goes, ultimately everyone is worshiping the same God, even if one group thinks they have (or actually has) better or truer or more complete knowledge than another.
This perspective presupposes that all the “Gods” throughout human history have simply been fragments of human knowledge about the real God. And all the religions throughout human history have simply been attempts to worship the one true God based on fragmentary (and often incorrect, therefore conflicting) knowledge of the actual God. Therefore, every act of worship is really directed to the actual God, even if the worship act is misguided due to faulty or limited knowledge of the real God. This pluralistic view has become increasingly popular in our tolerance-driven postmodern society.
However, according to the Bible, when someone worships a god other than the one true God, that person is actually worshiping a different spiritual being (Deuteronomy 32:16-17; 1 Corinthians 10:20). There is only one “God” who is a maximally great being worthy of worship. But there are many “gods” who exist as lesser spiritual beings and often seduce the worship of humans. In fact, the Old Testament uses rather graphic descriptions of adultery to illustrate the sin of worshiping other gods (Jeremiah 3:20; Isaiah 57:8). This is why the first of the Ten Commandments is “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3)… because it is possible to worship a god who is not the one true God.
Not every “God” in human history is an alternate depiction of the one true God, not every religion in human history seeks the same “God,” and not every act of worship in human history is a partially misguided act of devotion to the real God. Contrary to popular opinion, not all paths lead to the top of the same mountain.
Beckwith’s Thomas Jefferson Analogy
Using Thomas Jefferson as an illustration, Beckwith asks us to suppose “Fred” believes that historical evidence shows Thomas Jefferson fathered children by one of his slaves named Sally Hemmings. Meanwhile, “Bob” believes the historical evidence is not convincing, and therefore denies that Jefferson fathered the children. These two men believe different things about the same person, Thomas Jefferson.
However, Beckwith’s analogy falls short. First, Fred and Bob are working with the same source of information–the historical evidence regarding Thomas Jefferson. The discrepancy in their beliefs lies in their varying interpretations of the data. However, Muslims and Christians are not interpreting the same data in different ways; we are working with altogether different sources. A better analogy would be comparing historical evidence about Thomas Jefferson with a novel about Thomas Jefferson–two completely different datasets. One presents evidence about the actual Thomas Jefferson; the other presents evidence about a constructed Thomas Jefferson, a character in a story. While the constructed Jefferson may bear striking resemblance to the actual Jefferson, it’s important to note that the character and the person are not one and the same.
Second, there is a difference between historical evidence about a person and direct testimony from that person. Both Christians and Muslims hold that our sacred books are the inspired Word of God. Yahweh audibly, publicly declared that Jesus was his Son (Luke 3:22; Mark 9:7). Yet Allah, speaking through the angel Gabriel, said that Jesus was not his son (Surah 4:171). We are not dealing with historical or philosophical conjecture about whether or not God has a Son, but rather with verbal testimony directly from God himself. We have two contradictory sources of verbal testimony both claiming to be from the God of Abraham. Unless God is a liar, both testimonies cannot be from the same God.
Third, Fred and Bob are speculating about a historical figure they have never known, and will never know. Thomas Jefferson is dead. However, God is not dead. Furthermore, he can be known and interacted with. Worship is not simply believing something about God. Neither is it merely a set of religious rituals to be performed on a regular basis. Worship is a personal and very intimate interaction with God. God describes himself as a husband, his people as his wife, and worship as the intimate expression of love shared between a husband and wife. This is why the Old Testament links idolatry with spiritual adultery and not simply spiritual ignorance or misguided practice.
A Better Thomas Jefferson Analogy
It may help to reframe Beckwith’s Thomas Jefferson analogy. Suppose Fred receives a letter from someone claiming to be Thomas Jefferson. The author of that letter writes that he fathered children by his slave, Sally Hemmings. Bob also receives a letter from someone who claims to be Thomas Jefferson. In Bob’s letter, the author denies fathering any children by Sally Hemmings. Did the same person write both letters? If so, then the writer is a liar. Or, perhaps the two letters were written by two different people, both claiming to be Thomas Jefferson.
Now, suppose that both Fred and Bob write back. They correspond with the author(s) of their letters on a regular basis. Both men believe the person they are corresponding with is Thomas Jefferson. If you ask them, “Who is Thomas Jefferson?” they will answer, “The person who has written me these letters.” But unless Thomas Jefferson is a liar, then regardless of what Fred and Bob believe about their correspondant, they are not both receiving letters from Thomas Jefferson. They are both thinking of the same person, but not corresponding with the same person. In fact, it is possible that neither letter is from Thomas Jefferson, and that neither Fred nor Bob has ever heard from, written to, or interacted with the real Thomas Jefferson at all. Of course, it is also possible that Fred’s letter really is from Thomas Jefferson, and that Bob’s letter is a fake, written by an imposter who is claiming to be Thomas Jefferson, but is lying. Bob believes he is writing to Thomas Jefferson, and he believes he has interacted with Jefferson, but the real person he is corresponding with is not Thomas Jefferson.
In a sense, Christians and Muslims have each received a “letter” from a “God” who claims to be the God of Abraham. And both Christians and Muslims have “corresponded” through worship with the “God” who sent each their letter. If you ask a Christian or a Muslim who the one true God is, the answer would be, “The God who has revealed himself in my Scriptures.” Yet the Bible and the Qur’an make contradictory claims about God that cannot both be true. So if both books are from God, then God is a liar. Since God cannot lie, then both books cannot be from the same God. Regardless of who Christians and Muslims believe is the “God” who produced their Scriptures, both groups have not received a sacred book from the same God. And in spite of the fact that Muslims believe they worship the same God Christians do, since Christians worship Yahweh of the Bible and Muslims worship Allah of the Qur’an, we do not worship the same “God,” but different “Gods” who each claim to be the God of Abraham. We should note that just because someone claims to be the God of Abraham does not mean that person is actually the God of Abraham. Christians and Muslims may be thinking of the same God, but we are not personally, intimately interacting in worship with the same God.
So, if the Qur’an and the Bible are both products of a “God,” then we are dealing with two different “Gods.” Perhaps one of them really is who he claims to be, the God of Abraham, and the other is merely an imposter who has led an entire group of people to believe he is someone he’s not.
If neither book is the product of a “God,” but simply human speculation about who the real God is, then perhaps Beckwith is correct in that Muslims and Christians speculate different things about the same theoretical God, whom neither group actually knows or interacts with. But his argument that both groups worship the same God still fails because of the intimate, personal, relational aspect of worship. For Beckwith’s argument to have any grounds at all, we must reduce worship to nothing more than intellectual speculation about a person we have not ever known or engaged.
Or, if one of the books is from God and the other is simply the speculation of a man, then we still have two different “Gods.” One is the actual God while the other is a constructed character who may in some ways bear resemblance to the real God, but who is most certainly not the real God.
Faith and worship are not merely intellectual exercises, but relational interactions. They are not merely philosophical, but theological in nature. The question, Do Muslims and Christians believe they are worshiping the same God? is a philosophical one. But the question, Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? is a theological one. As an evangelical Christian, I believe Yahweh is the God of Abraham, a Triune spiritual being who inspired the Bible in order to reveal himself to all who come to him in faith. One of the persons of this Trinity became a human being named Jesus, and I worship Jesus as God. I also believe that although Muslims reject Jesus as God, they desire to worship the true God, and sincerely believe that the “God” who gave them the Qur’an was telling the truth about being the God of Abraham. Unfortunately, sincere belief does not truth make, which is why we need to bring the gospel to the Muslims in the spirit of the Apostle Paul when he preached to the Greeks in the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-34).
For another great blog post on this topic, visit http://rzim.org/global-blog/do-muslims-and-christians-worship-the-same-god.