Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

The suspension last month of Wheaton professor Larycia Hawkins for stating that Christians and Muslims are both “people of the book” and “worship the same God” has sparked quite a debate over the merits of her position. The question, of course, is more than academic. In a world where ecumenism is the highest virtue, rejecting distinctions between Christianity and Islam carries very practical implications for outreach and evangelism.

If we’re going to ask whether Muslims worship the same God, we ought to start by considering where the Muslim idea of God originated. When Muhammad founded his religion in the early Seventh Century, he drew heavily from Judaism and Christianity, overlaying and modifying that foundation in line with his own ideas and emphases. Because Muhammad’s image of Allah started with a basically Judeo-Christian sketch, the Muslim God does remain recognizably similar in many ways. Surah 112 states, “Say: He is Allah, the One. Allah, the Self-Subsisting. He begets not, nor is He begotten, and there is none like unto Him.” With the exception of verse 3, an intentional contrast with Christian Trinitarianism, this surah would be unobjectionable as a summary of Jewish or Christian monotheism. But that caveat about the the third verse goes right to the heart of the matter, in more ways than one.

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Why the 30-year gap before the Gospels were written enhances their credibility

Jesus Christ died, rose again, and ascended into heaven around 30 AD, give or take a few years. The church he left behind was preaching, growing, and spreading within weeks, but the written gospel accounts which describe Jesus’ life and teaching for us today were not put on paper for another several decades. Our best evidence suggests the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) were written at the very end of the 50s AD and into the early 60s, with John following a few decades later. This leaves a striking gap of around thirty years after the events recorded by the gospel writers before they first decided to put pen to paper. Unsurprisingly, this gap has become a popular target for skeptics who argue that it represents a period during which the gospel narrative could have changed substantially, with whole new episodes or ideas–perhaps even the notions of the divinity and resurrection of Christ–drawn out of imagination rather than history.

It’s easy to understand why the disciples would not have written down their accounts initially, living as they did in a fairly localized community within a society used to oral histories. And it’s equally easy to understand why, as the disciples aged and the church spread, the need for a more lasting and portable gospel record led them to write down the accounts that form the historical core of our modern New Testament. But whatever the reason, that period before the written gospels may seem like a vulnerability; an unfortunate happenstance which can only raise questions about the reliability of the gospel narrative. In fact, though, that divinely-ordained gap ought to be embraced by Christian apologists as yet another reason to be confident in the truth of the gospel narrative.

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Apologetic arguments aren’t perfectly conclusive, and that is okay

Apologetics is the reasoned, intellectual defense of the Christian faith, responding to attacks and offering reasons for belief. It is the responsibility of every Christian to be ready to offer that sort of thoughtful answer to the best of our ability (I Peter 3:15), because such conversations are one tool that God uses to draw unbelievers to himself, encourage the faith of his people, and create a culture that is open to the claims of Scripture.

In many ways, everyday modern Christians can be better prepared for difficult apologetic discussions than any previous generation. The printing press and the internet offer Christians almost limitless resources to equip ourselves to challenge false ideas, and that is a very good thing. However, I am afraid that this wealth of resources has contributed to false and counterproductive ideas about what apologetic arguments can and should accomplish. Our misunderstandings are leaving Christians disappointed and frustrated after their exchanges with unbelieving skeptics, while the skeptics themselves evade the force of arguments that should be much more effective and compelling.

The basic problem is that many of us–whether consciously or not–expect apologetic arguments to be conclusive; to leave no rational option but belief. We expect the cosmological argument to leave absolutely no defense against the idea of a supernatural creator. We want our design argument to demonstrate the need for a universal designer with perfect clarity. We are disappointed if a historical argument leaves any room whatsoever for doubt about whether the modern Bible reflects actual first-century events. And so on. Because we know that God exists and the claims of Christianity are true, we expect our arguments to conclude with the same sort of conviction we ourselves feel. Unfortunately, there is both a theological and a tactical problem with such inflated expectations for our apologetic arguments.

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Yes, some Bible stories sound like myths, and that’s a beautiful thing

The late, great, and aggressively atheistic Christopher Hitchens compiled (or plagiarized) a list of ancient myths which featured what he described as virgin births, and he loved to rattle it off at every opportunity. Other skeptics point to “dying and rising gods” that appear in mythologies from around the world. The point? That Christianity is just one of many man-made stories which rely on what Hitchens called “the wiring of legend in our mammalian, primate history,” adding, “Apparently, if you want to have a prophet, it’s better if his mother is a virgin.” In other words, there is something in human nature which finds the idea of a virgin-born savior, or a dying and rising god, appealing. Therefore, the motifs pop up in myths around the world, including in Christianity. There is nothing special about the Christian story and there is a perfectly natural explanation for how it came about.

One problem with this argument is that the case is tremendously overstated. In fact, most of the stories of “virgin births” cited by Hitchens, aren’t. Some of the stories do feature a woman, previously a virgin, being impregnated by a god, but accounts such as the origin myths of Perseus and Romulus all include physical intercourse between the god and the woman. The story of the miraculous impregnation of Mary, with new life created in her womb by the Holy Spirit, appears genuinely unprecedented, even in mythology.

Similarly, the “dying and rising god” mythological motif appears noticeably and consistently different from the biblical resurrection account. Some of the mythological gods die but do not rise again, like the Norse Baldr. Other gods die and then rise symbolically, or in some other form, like the Egyptian god Osiris, who was temporarily reconstructed from his dead body in order to impregnate his wife before dying again and becoming lord of the underworld. He became associated with the cycles of rebirth seen in nature, of spring crops and the life-giving flooding of the Nile, but he himself was “Lord of Silence,” king of the dead. A number of other ancient religions featured gods or goddesses who “died” and were “reborn” in the seasonal agricultural cycle, but there was no hint of a physical body which literally resurrected in this world. The idea of a personal God who died and then actually rose again in a tangible body is, again, unique to Christian theology.

So, there is a very real sense in which the Christian story truly was unprecedented, even in myth. But today I am actually more interested in the real and striking similarities between the biblical accounts and these recurrent mythical themes of virgin birth and a resurrected god.

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Comparing religions? Scriptures matter, even if nobody follows them perfectly

I was reading a book on presuppositional apologetics the other day. It started, as such books usually do, by differentiating between classical and presuppositional apologetics and arguing in favor of the latter. It was a thoughtful book and a good argument. However, as the author mapped out the parameters of his presuppositional apologetic, I was struck by how close his approach was to what I have read from my favorite classical apologists. In fact, the best presuppositional apologists end up sounding surprisingly similar to the best classical apologists, and vice versa. There are important differences between the two perspectives, but it seems as if some sort of metaphysical gravity draws both camps back from the extremes to which they might otherwise fly: presuppositionalists blindly ignoring any extrabibical evidence, or classical apologists attempting salvation by logic rather than Jesus Christ.

In a world where ideologies are always slippery-sloping away to their worst extremes, it is striking how, if we look at the history of the Church, this “gravity” seems to be constantly at work. It pulled the martial impulse of the Crusades back to earth, so today no part of the Church seeks to spread our faith by the sword. It checked the burgeoning ecclesiastical authority of Medieval Catholicism by restoring the solas of the Reformation. Today, it keeps Calvinists from losing human responsibility and Arminians from losing divine sovereignty.

It is, in a word, the Bible.

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Naturalism and morality: The only thing that’s wrong is everything you know

In my post a couple weeks ago, I considered whether naturalism is as exclusively and objectively scientific as its proponents suggest. We saw that naturalists typically begin with an a priori assumption that there is no God, which, if true, would mean the naturalistic worldview is true by default. Since the nonexistence of God is an unprovable starting point rather than an empirical conclusion, the naturalist’s foundational assumption is, in a sense, unscientific. However, it would be unwise to press that point too far. If we want to challenge the naturalistic worldview, we need to offer something more compelling than “but you can’t prove God doesn’t exist.”

There are two main ways in which a Christian can respond to the challenge of naturalism. The first is to avoid the sphere of science altogether and focus on other reasons for belief in God. After all, if theism is true, naturalism must be false, across the board. To the degree that faith or experience or historical evidence or anything else give reason to believe there’s a God, naturalism is undermined. The Holy Spirit crying with our spirit “Abba Father” offers an absolute refutation of naturalism before even a shred of scientific evidence is considered.

If naturalism is false, though, we can expect it to falter even in the scientific realm. And if there’s further evidence which might sow seeds of faith in someone’s life, why not offer it? This brings us to the second possible response to naturalism, attacking it on its own ground.

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A bit of theodicy from alien-invasion sci fi

I went to see Edge of Tomorrow yesterday (that sounds more confusing than I expected) and thought it was one of the better movies I’ve watched recently. The movie is set amid an alien invasion during which, for rather obscure science fiction-y reasons, Tom Cruise’s character finds himself trapped in a time loop, reliving the same day over and over. Every time he is killed, his life resets back to the day before, which he then re-experiences until he’s killed again, because that’s what happens in an alien invasion. (Edge of Tomorrow is basically Groundhog Day if the groundhog was millions of aliens trying to exterminate all human life.)

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Is naturalism ideology or science?

It’s almost always a simplification to point to a single ideology as being “what the culture believes.” With that caveat, however, it is not inaccurate to say that the opinion-makers of America–academia, media, scientists, etc.–have nearly unanimously embraced the naturalistic worldview. While even its supporters struggle to define naturalism precisely, at its heart is the simple idea that everything in the world (both what exists and what happens) can be explained through purely mechanistic cause and effect. Everything from planets to animals to ideas is ultimately the product of a chain of exclusively material “dominoes” stretching back into the unknowable past. The theory really came into its own in the 19th Century, as Darwinian evolution purported to fit the diversity and apparent design of biological life into that same impersonal progression of cause and effect.

Naturalism matters to a Christian because it is what is left over when theism is discarded. Throughout history, humans have assumed there are two fundamental sorts of “stuff” in the universe: mental/spiritual existence (things like gods, angels, ideas, and values) and material/physical existence (things like elements, molecules, and atoms). Christianity and most other theistic worldviews assume that the spiritual existed before and was the cause of the material: “In the beginning was the Word… All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” Atheism, on the other hand, by definition cannot accept a preexistent and creative Mind. This leaves the atheist with a world in which everything begins with impersonal, material being; naturalism, in other words.

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‘The way is narrow’: Thinking about exclusivism

When sharing the gospel, Christians are guided by Jesus’ words, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). It doesn’t matter if you’re a good person; it doesn’t matter if you follow the Quran better than I’ve ever followed the Bible; it doesn’t matter if you are a devout Hindu or Buddhist or Jew: the only way to be saved is through belief in Jesus Christ. When Jesus said “the way is narrow that leads to life,” He was putting into words what most of us have felt at one time or another when witnessing.

For anyone who has really challenged an unbeliever with the truth that “there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12), it’s hard not to feel intolerant, especially in a culture where “religious exclusivist” is an epithet practically on level with “racist.” Worse, it’s hard not to feel that God Himself might be a little–dare we say it?–closed-minded. If He wants to save people, why be so restrictive? Why not throw open the gates all the way?

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