In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, Franklin Graham (son of the famous evangelist Billy Graham) opined on NBC Nightly News that Muslims pray to a “different God” than do the Christians. Around the same time the Reverend Jerry Vines, former pastor of the large First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida and past president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said that “Allah is not Jehovah”, and that it was wrong to equate all religions as some forms of pluralism attempted to do. What are we to make of such assertions (often repeated since made by Graham and Vines)? Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?
The question is not as simple as it may appear, and defies a quick and easy response. Moreover, one must first deal with the underlying issue of what that question might possibly mean. Does the question ask whether the two groups, Christians and Muslims, claim to worship the same God? Or does it ask whether or not they really do worship the same God regardless of the differences between the two religions? And if the latter, how could one know this? On what basis could one determine that persons practising different religions were in fact worshipping the same God, apart from a pluralistic and ecumenical desire that it be so? That both religions were technically monotheistic? What about such fundamental differences as the lack of Trinitarian theology in Islam and its assertion that Jesus was never crucified? Are these differences fundamental enough to justify the assertion that Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God? Let us try to approach the question of whether or not differing religions worship the same God from the standpoint of the Scriptures. Obviously the New Testament does not talk about non-Christian Islam, but it does have something to say about non-Christian paganism.
In one sense, it is true that everyone directing their prayers and devotions to the supreme deity is worshipping the same God, for monotheism declares that in fact there only is one God and so there is no other deity up there to receive such prayers. Presumably that is what St. Paul meant when he declared that God is not the God of the Jews only, but also the God of the Gentiles also “since God is one” (Romans 3:29-30). Though the pagan Gentiles might claim to worship not Yahweh but Zeus, still Yahweh was in some sense their God too. A pagan Athenian might have sent up his prayers addressed “To Zeus, with love”, but the heavenly mail nonetheless ended up in the in-box of the God of Israel. St. Paul makes precisely this point when he addressed such an Athenian on Mars Hill. Whether an altar was dedicated to Zeus or to an unknown God (the latter being a pagan attempt to cover all their polytheistic bases) it was the Jewish God who actually received their prayers. “What you worship as unknown,” Paul declared in his sermon, “this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23). The God whom Paul proclaimed made the world and everything in it, including every nation of men living on all the face of the earth. God’s intention in creation was that all should “seek God, in the hope that they might feel after Him and find Him”. Up until then most men stupidly imagined that God was served and fed by human hands, and that He was like their gold and silver idols. Such “times of ignorance God overlooked”, but “now He commands all men everywhere to repent” and come to Him through the risen Christ (v. 25-30). From this sermon, it is clear that according to St. Paul anyway, God has some sort of relationship with all people, regardless of their religion.
It is also true, as St. Paul elsewhere declared, that pagan religions contained an element of the demonic. Though a devout, ignorant, well-intentioned, and righteous Athenian’s prayers to Zeus may have been received by the God of Israel, this did not imply that his Athenian paganism was more or less interchangeable with Judaism or Christianity. While the Athenian’s heart and intention may have been acceptable to God, his actual religion, cultus, and sacrifices were not. Paul also affirmed that “what the pagans sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God” (1 Cor. 10:20). Idolatrous worship, though intended for and aimed at the Most High God, was intercepted and used by the demons, and Christians in the early centuries always regarded pagan religion as infected with the demonic. That is why at his baptism the converting pagan did not simply renounce his former pagan religion, but did so with the words, “I renounce you, Satan, and all your service and all your works” (from the Apostolic Tradition, ascribed to Hippolytus in the early third century). By “all your service”, the new convert meant “all my former religious rites”. The well-intentioned pagan Athenian of course did not consciously intend to have communion with demons. He aimed his prayers at the heavenly God, but his sacrifices were received by the demons anyway. That is why the Church in her liturgy referred to pagan religion not just as idolatrous, but as a delusion.
Did this involvement with demons mean that the pagan would be damned on the Last Day? St. Paul does not say so. In fact he said that to the pagan who “by patience in well-doing sought for glory and honour and immortality” God would “give eternal life”, for there would be “glory and honour and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek, for God shows no partiality” (Romans 2:7-10). Though the pagan Greek may have had no knowledge of divine revelation or of the Law, when he did by nature what the Law required, he was a law to himself, and showed that what the Law required was written on his heart (Romans 2:14-15). But God’s mercy on the Last Day does not entail His delight in unenlightened paganism in this age. A pagan seeking the true God in ignorance may be spared at the end, but idolatry was still idolatry and was still to be shunned. All religions were not equally valid, true, or saving. In the second chapter of his epistle to the Romans St. Paul was not talking so much about ecumenism as about mercy.
Whether or not a non-Christian religion like ancient paganism could connect one with God seems therefore to have depended upon the amount of light that the ancient pagan had received. If he or she didn’t know any better and sought to please God by “patience in well-doing”, they might be spared on the Last Day. In that case, they would not be saved through their pagan religion but in spite of it. If on the other hand they knew and understood the Gospel and yet still rejected Christ, they could not be saved. For the words of Jesus are plain: “He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings has a judge; the Word that I have spoken is what will judge him on the Last Day” (John 12:48). It all therefore depends upon the amount of ignorance in the non-Christian (what western theology used to call “invincible ignorance”). We are not in a position to know such inner mysteries hidden in the heart of another, but we do know that all will be judged according to the light which they have received. “From everyone who has been given much shall much be required” (Luke 12:48).
So what about our Muslim neighbours? An analogy with paganism would suggest that the religion of Islam does not connect its practitioner with God, and so in this sense Allah cannot be identified with Yahweh or with the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if a Muslim has no real exposure to or understanding of the Christian message, he might still be spared on the Last Day after all if his heart was in ignorance seeking the true God. C.S. Lewis wrote about such a possibility in the last volume of his Narnian series: a worshipper of the god “Tash” (a thinly-veiled version of Allah) finds himself in the presence of the true God, the lion Aslan, an image of Christ. He realizes that his life-long worship of Tash was the worship of a false god, and that Aslan was the true God after all. In his own words, “Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc [or, King] of the world and live and not to have seen Him. But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine, but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service to me… But I said also, Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”
“All find what they truly seek”: that seems to be the crux of the matter. Let all seek for the truth as best they can. As for us Christians, our mandate remains the same in all ages—to preach the Gospel and to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Trinity. We call all men to a saving confession of Christ our God, to sonship and forgiveness in this age, and to glory in the age to come. If a Muslim in his ignorance had truly been seeking the eternal truth of God, and recognizes that truth when we share the Gospel with him, we have water for baptism. We can bring him home.