You have probably heard the well-worn parable of four blind men touching different parts of the same elephant. Each blind man defines the elephant by describing what he feels. The one clutching the tail says an elephant is like a snake, while the one touching the tusk says it is like a spear, and so on and so forth. The parable intends to reinforce the idea that all religious claims about what is ultimately true are limited to one’s perspective. Therefore, many contemporary Americans understand all religious claims to be but partial attempts to define the same reality.
In this relativistic milieu, then, suggesting that two faiths are irreconcilable is offensive. The offense is especially heightened when the two faiths share a great deal of readily observable similarities. Such is the case with the world’s two largest monotheistic faiths: Islam and Christianity. The unbelieving world would happily encourage Muslims and Christians to downplay their differences and join hands around their commonalities. Likewise, many well-intentioned missiologists argue that it is more relationally productive to seek common ground than to expose differences of doctrine.
Yet, as Christians who long for our Muslim friends to understand the gospel, we cannot ignore the irreconcilable differences between Islam and Christianity. The reason we cannot ignore them is not that we prefer dogma to harmony. Rather, it is because the differences lead away from God’s purposes in creation. We point out our differences because we have been called to love our neighbors. Embracing superficial similarity while ignoring damnable differences is not an expression of neighbor love.
For that reason, this brief article focuses in on three foundational places that Islam and Christianity exhibit divergent teachings. I am aware that discussing differences can be done from a dismissive and polemic posture, so I want to caution against the temptation to weaponizing this material in conversation with your Muslim neighbor. The purpose of this article is to help Christians lovingly engage with their Muslim neighbors in order to demonstrate the beauty of the gospel. When wielded by compassionate Christians, these differences can lead to deeper conversation with Muslim friends and neighbors than can be achieved through focusing on superficial points of agreement.
Guidance instead of God
If you were to ask a Muslim what is wrong with the world, chances are they would reply, “sin.” On the surface, this appears similar to the Christian answer. In fact, many of the same actions that the Bible would deem to be sinful are also prohibited within Islam. Lest this superficial similarity obscure the underlying differences, however, one must consider what a Muslim means when using the word “sin.”
In the Qur’an, sin is primarily understood as the result of human forgetfulness of the ways of God and disbelief. Humans are, by nature, weak of memory and will, and most Muslims view life as a test of their ability to remember God’s commands. In fact, according to Qur’an 67:1-2, God created life and death to test humanity to see if they would remember to do his will. Those that do remember and believe hope to receive God’s mercy on the day of judgment.
In light of the human problem of forgetfulness, the Qur’an presents itself as a reminder and a guidance towards God’s will. The doctrine of revelation within Islam teaches that the Qur’an offers guidance to those seeking to follow God’s will. While it claims to reveal God’s will, it does not claim to reveal God himself. This stands in sharp contrast to Christian theology which sees in Christ the revelation of God himself (John 1:14–18).
Reminder instead of Redeemer
Since Islam teaches that humanity’s great failure is one of memory and will, it follows that the remedy to such a problem is a reminder. The Qur’an and the reported teachings and actions of Muhammad present themselves as reminders of how one should live according to God’s will. Once one remembers God’s will, they must follow it by offering obedient submission to God’s instructions.
While the Bible is filled with commands not to forget the things that God has done (cf. Deut. 4:9-10), remembering and obeying the law is insufficient to remedy the human sin problem. In fact, as Paul reflects on the law, he sees it as producing further condemnation of human sinfulness (Rom. 7:7-13). The revelation of God’s law in the Bible is not the answer to the human plight. Rather, it exposes the human’s inability to perfectly uphold the law. The Bible’s remedy for the sin problem is not to send a reminder, but to send a savior who can satisfy justice and mercifully put away the effects for sin once for all (Heb. 9:12).
Paradise instead of Presence
The reason that Islam has such a different theology of revelation and of rescue is that the end of Islam’s story is different than that of the Bible. In Islam, one hopes to escape from hellfire and by God’s mercy to receive admittance into gardens of delight known as paradise. Though Muslims cannot know for certain whether or not they will obtain paradise, following God’s will and remembering to submit to his ways are thought to contribute to one’s account on the day of judgment.
What may already be clear is that according to Islam, moral perfection is not expected of a human being. Repentance and remembrance are important ways to add merit to one’s account, but total perfection is never required. The simple reason for this is that most Muslims do not expect Paradise to be characterized by the immediate presence of God. If paradise is not the place of the perfect and holy God’s dwelling with humanity, then one’s imperfections do not pose as great a danger to a person as they do within the biblical account.
According to the biblical story, all of creation is heading towards the day recorded in Revelation 21:3, when we will hear the triumphant declaration from the lips of Jesus: “Look! God’s dwelling place is with humanity, and he will live with them. They will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them and will be their God” (Rev. 21:3b). Since God himself is holy and righteous, and since he will dwell among his people, the Bible demands human perfection (Matt. 5:48). Yet since the third chapter of the Bible, humanity has been sin-stained and guilty of rebellion. In order for God’s dwelling-with-humanity purposes to be realized, then, humanity needs something much greater than the law.
What humanity requires, then, is not a reminder of their sinfulness, but a savior who will satisfy God’s righteous wrath and provide humans with a once-for-all cleansing from the guilt and stain of sin. Jesus as the once-for-all sacrifice satisfies God’s wrath in a way that the law is unable to do. Likewise, in his resurrection and session at the right hand of God, Jesus provides his own eternal blood to cleanse those who, by faith in him, obtain the rewards of his substitutionary perfection. By faith in his sacrifice, a believer anticipates the day of new creation when we will be presented safely and triumphantly in the presence of a holy and righteous God.
While there are many other elements of Islam and Christianity that might be compared, these three highlight the core differences that make the faiths definitively different. At the same time, these differences can prove to be incredibly fruitful topics of discussion with your Muslim neighbor.
Presented charitably and kindly, these differences can actually help a believer to gain traction in explaining why Jesus’s death is so important to Christianity. Not only that, but they help to illustrate the beauty of the Bible’s story.
That the creator God would freely purpose to be “God with us” is both scandalous to Islam, and compelling to the human heart. It is scandalous because it tells of a God who would not remain aloof but would condescend to relate with his creation. It is compelling because it is what the human heart was made to understand.
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