You might think such a question should be simple. Yes. No. But answers about God and his nature have never been able to fit on the bumper of a car.
The Bible is full of of descriptive passages as to God’s character, often using anthropomorphisms to describe him. We call him Father. He has a Son. Jesus is both fully divine and fully man. God’s very nature is love. He is both distant and unknowable and yet fully present – God with us, in Jesus. Alive within us by his Spirit. One God, triune in nature. Omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient.
The God (Allah, in Arabic) of the Quran is similar in many ways. But significantly he is not triune in nature and Jesus is neither his “son” nor divine. For many Christians, these two distinct differences are enough to proclaim that the Allah of the Muslims is different than the Jehovah of the Christians/Jews.
But let’s look more closely. First at the semantics of the word “Allah” and then at the two big disagreements between the two books and their interpreters.
God. Dios. Allah.
We all agree that there’s only one God. He has different names in different languages. In Spanish he is called Dios. But we would never say that Dios is the God of the Spaniards, or the Catholic God. It’s simply God’s name in Spanish.
The English word for God is derived from the German name of a pagan deity. God’s name is not G.O.D. In fact, the Ancient Jews, and still some today, won’t even spell or pronounce his name as it would be blasphemy to presume you knew his true name.
Surely our disagreement isn’t over the word “Allah” versus the word “God.” It has to be about his nature. And how people of the Bible and people of the Quran perceive him. Which leads us to discussing the two big differences.
The word “trinity” doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible. The theological construct for understanding God’s nature as Father, Son and Spirit has been much debated by theologians for 2000 years. But all Christians for all time have always and only believed in One God. We have said that he is Father, Son and Spirit in nature, but is just one, in three. And three in one. Confusing? Yes. But then it’s God we’re speaking of.
Here’s how I help my Muslim friends understand it while staying within Orthodox Biblical interpretations. There is only one God. I believe in God as one. Jesus said “the Lord our God is one.” So he also believed God is one. Anyone who believes in three God’s is a polytheist – which is what I believe the Quran was speaking against (to which we agree).
God created us all and loves us all. Like a good Father. That’s why we call him “our Father.”
God spoke so powerfully that his words became flesh – in Jesus. The Quran calls Jesus the “Word of God” several times. Jesus was not a “son” in the same sense that I have a son. He was a “Son” by title. Not by birth. The Quran condemns saying that God had a baby boy (physically) and we agree.
God is not physical in nature – he is a spirit. His Spirit is everywhere. God is Holy. So we call him the Holy Spirit.
There are not three beings. God is one. Our disagreement here is not as big as we might have thought.
The Divinity of Jesus
Obviously, this issue is related to the first, but has more specific implications to other potential differences (the Cross, our need for a savior, etc). So this is a big one. And no Muslim believes that Jesus is God. Period.
However, when I’m asked by someone “Do you believe that Jesus is God” my answer is something like this: “I believe everything the Bible says about Jesus. And since Jesus has the power to heal and save and create life (all things the Quran teaches about Jesus), I’ll stick with that for now. By the way, the Bible does not have the words “Jesus is God” anywhere in it.”
Now before I lose you, can we correctly surmise his divinity from the pages of the scripture? Yes. Did his first disciples? Probably not until after his ascension. So it’s my opinion that we should not be so quick to simply say “Jesus is God.” (Remember my opening point that we might want to be careful about reducing complicated theology about the nature of God to a bumper sticker – it’s just not helpful.)
So I would say this is a real difference, but again, not insurmountable when it comes to having productive conversations with Muslims about the nature of God. It doesn’t need to sidetrack our love for each other or our theological conversations with each other – at least not in the beginning stages.
Finally. a spiritual contextual argument about the issue.
Think of when you didn’t know God as your father. When you didn’t have a friendship with Jesus. Think back to that first time you cried out to God. You were still “dead in sin” (to quote Paul). You weren’t spiritually alive and you did not know God. Not only did you not know his name, you didn’t know Him at all.
Yet God heard you and responded. Right? He loved you when you were still far from Him. That’s what He does. That’s who He is. It doesn’t matter what his name is. The syllables you string together that make a sound over your vocal chords is irrelevant when pronouncing his name above all names. God. Theos. Allah. Or as Jesus cried out on the cross, Allahi Allahi (my God my God) in Aramaic. Doesn’t matter when cried from a heart wanting to know God.
As often happens, asking the wrong questions leads to the wrong answers. “Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?” is a bad question. It doesn’t really make sense. The better question – the one that’s fair to ask is, “When Muslims think of God and when Christians think of God, are they thinking of the same being?”
And the answer is: who knows? I grew up thinking God was a big mean guy with a long white beard who was angry at me all the time just waiting for me to screw up so he could punish me. Is that the real god? Nope. So how do we know what the 2.2 billion people who call themselves “Christians” think about God and his nature. And who can tell what the 1.6 billion Muslims think about God and his nature. You cannot know that. Only God knows.
It does seem that to know God intimately as Father (Abba – “daddy,” to be exact) can only be done through a personal relationship with Jesus.
So Muslims and Christians do think differently about God and his nature in some respects. But is it a different God? Historically no. The God of the Jews (who are even further away in their thinking about who Jesus is than Muslims are), the God of the Muslims and the God of the Christians is the same being. All powerful, all knowing and all present. The creator and sustainer of all things. We probably all see this awesome almighty being differently, but that doesn’t mean we have different Gods in our heads.
Several times Paul addressed crowds in Greece who knew neither the Biblical God nor Jesus the Christ and yet he never once downplayed their understanding of God. In fact, quite the opposite, he honored where they were currently at in relation to their understanding of the divine.
Finally, to say to our Muslim brothers and sisters in humanity that they believe in another God is unhelpful at best and arrogant at worst. Let’s be humble servants of the most high looking to honor the other and think more highly of them than ourselves. In so doing, we might truly know God.