Nearly 6 in 10 evangelicals agree that God accepts the worship of Christians, Jews, and Muslims. But how does God answer the question?
By Michael Wittmer
According to the 2022 Lifeway Research State of Theology report, 97% of Americans with evangelical beliefs agree with the statement: “There is one true God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.” Yet nearly 6 in 10 evangelicals also agree with the statement: “God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.” A majority of evangelicals are traditional enough to believe in the Christian Trinity yet inclusive enough to believe worshiping the wrong God is not disqualifying.
In a previous article, I offered practical strategies for cultivating a gospel-rich soil in the church so that pluralism cannot take root. Here, I’ll examine the philosophical question: Do Christians, Jews, and Muslims worship the same God?
Reference and sense
Our question hangs on a definitional question: What do we mean by “same”? Philosophers break down “sameness” into two parts: reference and sense. Reference indicates the object we are pointing to, and sense is the content or meaning we assign to the object.
Peter Parker and Spiderman are the same referent yet possess different senses. Mary Jane may gush about Spiderman’s exploits to Peter without knowing she is talking to the same person. If she and Peter went on a double date with Spiderman and another woman, they would only need a table for three. Conversely, identical twins may share a similar sense yet different reference. A duped principal may think he is disciplining Billy when actually he is dealing with Bobby.
The distinction between reference and sense focuses our question. Do Christians, Jews, and Muslims share the same referent? Are they speaking about the same divine being? If so, does our sense of this being overlap enough to say we are worshiping the same God? Do we merely understand the one God differently, or are we speaking of an entirely different God?
Christianity and Judaism
The first Christians were Jews who insisted they shared the same referent. Paul explained to a Jerusalem mob, “The God of our ancestors has appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One, and to hear the words from his mouth” (Acts 22:14, CSB). Paul identifies their common reference (“the God of our ancestors”) with an expanding sense. The Hebrew God had now revealed Himself to be the Father who raised His crucified Son from the dead (Acts 13:16-41).
Judaism and Christianity shared the same divine referent and the same initial sense. Both agreed God is one, His name is Jehovah, and He sent prophets to warn His people whom He redeemed from Egypt. But Judaism rejected God’s unfolding revelation of His deeper sense. Judaism rejected Jesus, God’s most personal and climactic revelation of Himself. Judaism spurned the heart of who God is—a triune fellowship of Father, Son, and Spirit who sent the Son to become a man who died on the cross for our sin, rose again, and now rules the world at the Father’s right hand. So, Christianity and Judaism came to worship fundamentally different senses.“The advanced revelation of the Christian faith does not violate the initial revelation of Judaism. Christianity builds on Judaism.” — @MikeWittmer Click To Tweet
Christianity is to Judaism as a cube is to a square. A cube is more than a square, but it is not less. Likewise, the advanced revelation of the Christian faith does not violate the initial revelation of Judaism. Christianity builds on Judaism. But Judaism rejects Christianity’s higher revelation. If someone rejects the cube, can they still believe in their square? Not as before. Progressive revelation raises the bar of what we must believe about God. Judaism’s settled rejection of God’s most intimately revealed sense caused Jews to lose their grip on His reference. They knew less about God than before Jesus came.
Christianity and Islam
The gap between Christianity and Islam is far greater than between Christianity and Judaism. Unlike Christians, who followed the Jewish Scriptures and said their God was the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes, Muhammad highlighted the many doctrines he believed the Christians got wrong. He taught the Bible is a corrupted human book that cannot be trusted. According to Muhammad, Jesus is not God, God is not a Trinity, and Jesus did not die on the cross for our sins. Furthermore, he taught we are not born in sin, so we may achieve salvation through the discipline of good works and keeping the five pillars of Islam. The first of these is the Muslim profession of faith: “There is no god but Allah [the Arabic term for God], and Muhammed is his prophet.”“Muslims and Christians might superficially agree that God is uncaused and omniscient, but we fundamentally disagree about what it means for God to be one, loving, and all-powerful Creator.” — @MikeWittmer Click To Tweet
Is Allah the same God as the Christian God? Not when it comes to sense. Muslims believe God’s moral will is all we can know about him. We cannot tell whether he will be merciful to us. We can only try our best and hope he puts his thumb on the good works side of the scale when he weighs our works. How vastly different is the Christian God! Jesus reveals God is fully transcendent and immanent, powerfully ruling the world yet humbly becoming one of us to die for our sins, which earns His exaltation as the sovereign Lord of the universe (Philippians 2:5-11).
While Muslims and Christians might superficially agree that God is uncaused, eternal, and omniscient, we fundamentally disagree about what it means for God to be one, loving, merciful, and the all-powerful Creator (it makes a difference if God creates as a self-satisfied Trinity or as a singular, lone individual).
If Christianity is a cube and Judaism is a square, then Islam is a circle. It lacks the common foundation that Judaism and Christianity share (its holy book is the Qur’an), so its sense and reference are even further removed. Of course, all three religions intend to speak of God. This is important because their attempt to refer to God supplies enough common ground to have a conversation. If we did not mean to speak of the same being, how could we reasonably dispute about Him? Yet this partial reference is the most we can concede. Because neither Jews nor Muslims intend to speak of the triune God revealed in Jesus, the core of everything they say about God is untrue. The god they refer to does not exist. The errors in their sense of God prevent them from properly referring to Him.
The most important question
Do Christians, Jews, and Muslims worship the same God? This is an important philosophical question. But far more important is the practical, pastoral question: Whose worship does God accept?“Do Christians, Jews, and Muslims worship the same God is an important philosophical question. But far more important is the pastoral question: Whose worship does God accept?” — @MikeWittmer Click To Tweet
This question is easy because God answers it for us. The only worship He accepts comes through Jesus Christ of Nazareth (Acts 4:10-12). “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12, CSB).
For permission to republish this article, contact Marissa Postell Sullivan.