“So what would you say are the main differences between Islam and Christianity?” asked Hamid*, taking a bite of the cheesecake we were sharing. One welcome development over the past decade has been a tremendous increase in the availability and quality of cheesecake in our Central Asian city.
Hamid, Darius*, and I had gathered at a nice local cafe in order to field Hamid’s many questions. A new teacher of history and comparative religion at an elite local high school, Hamid often found himself at a loss when students asked detailed questions about Christianity. His personal studies on the internet yielded some clarity – as well as a lot more questions.
Darius and Hamid were good friends, and Darius had shared the gospel with him several times. Though neither of us were sure to what extent Hamid’s questions were for his students or actually to satisfy his own curiosity. But we didn’t find it necessary to press. In an honor-shame culture, this sort of “I have a friend who” framing of a conversation allows seekers to explore hard questions as they weigh the risk of admitting that they themselves are having potentially explosive doubts. If the questions were for Hamid himself, then that’s great. And if they’re only for his students? Still great. At the very least, the truth shared now might serve to create in Hamid’s mind what locals call a “brain-worm” that could lead to more searching down the road.
“I mean, other than what you have already described about salvation by faith instead of by good deeds,” Hamid went on to clarify. “I think I understand that point.”
I sipped my hot drink and mulled on how to respond. We had already discussed the key difference Hamid had mentioned, Islam and Christianity’s mutually-exclusive answers to how a person can be saved. I decided to proceed in a slightly different way than I normally would.
“Well, let’s frame the differences in light of three central tenets of Islam’s worldview: the oneness of God (tawhid), prophethood, and the last day.”
Darius and Hamid leaned in. The three aspects of Islamic teaching that I mentioned are so central to Muslims’ worldviews that they are what a certain historical American document might call self-evident – so obvious to locals that they feel that no logical and honest person can ever deny them.
“When we speak of tawhid, or the oneness of God, Islam teaches a simple unity. There is only one God and he exists eternally as one person. However, the Bible teaches something that contradicts this understanding of God’s nature. It teaches that God is actually a complex unity. Yes, there is only one God, but he exists eternally as three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three persons, or three distinct consciousnesses, are equally divine, and completely one in their nature, essence, and will – yet they have distinct roles and they have real relationships of love and communication and glory with one another. In this way, the God of the Bible is totally different from the God of the Qur’an. You would agree that a disagreement about the very nature of God is about as big a disagreement as you can have, right?”
Here Hamid and Darius nodded their heads. Hamid and I had previously spoken of the Trinity while on a picnic together, where he had asked a great question, one which I had never heard before, “Do the members of the Trinity ever compete with one another?” “In only one respect that I can think of,” I had responded after a while, “In giving one another glory.”
“OK, so the Trinity is a big difference,” Hamid continued, “But why do you say there’s a difference in prophethood? Aren’t prophets just men sent by God with a book, preaching God’s message to their people?”
Here I decided to be a little more blunt than usual.
“Well, the writer of the Qur’an, for his own purposes, took Mohammad’s story and did a copy-paste over the story of all the other prophets. So, yes, in Islam all the prophets seem to follow the same script. They are spoken of as basically-sinless holy men who are sent by God to their own people with the message of God’s oneness and the coming judgment of the last day. The message is often communicated to the prophet directly via an angel or some kind of verbal revelation. Many of the prophet’s people reject their message and go on to suffer the consequences. The formula is very simple and is repeated over and over, whether the Qur’an is talking about Moses, Lot, or others. God is claimed to have sent countless prophets to their own peoples in this same formula until sending Mohammad as the final ‘seal’ of the prophets, with a message for all humanity and an incorruptable book. This is why Muslims think that the Injil is one book, given to Jesus, later corrupted, and why most are unaware that there are actually four Injils (gospels), none written by Jesus himself, and unaware that they are only one part of the twenty seven books of the New Testament.
“The prophets in the Bible are very different from prophets according to Islam. They are presented as sometimes very sinful men, chosen by God’s grace to display and communicate God’s message to his people. Yes, this message involves coming judgement and turning from idols to follow the one true God. But it centers around God’s covenant faithfulness toward sinners – including the sinful prophets themselves whose failures demonstrate that we need someone who is more than a prophet. Prophets also receive many different kinds of revelation, whether seemingly more ‘spiritual’ like angels, dreams, or visions, or whether seemingly more ‘natural,’ like doing historical research or writing proverbs. Some prophets write multiple books. Other prophets don’t write any books at all. For many of our books of the Bible we don’t even know who the author was!
“The difference in prophethood between Islam and Christianity is a big one. When it comes to Jesus, rather than him being the final prophet in a long line of sinless men, each with their own people and book, Jesus is the Word of God and the Son of God himself, the only sinless one after many flawed and sinful prophets, whose coming is the climax of God’s revelation to men. All the earlier prophets point to him positively through their inspired writings and faithful deeds, as well as negatively through their sin and failure – kind of like shadows or signs that point us to the real thing.”
“OK,” nodded Hamid, “That’s prophethood. So how is the understanding of the last day different?”
“Well this one connects again to how a person is saved. In Islam, a person is judged based on a scale which weighs their good or bad deeds. The heavier side determines their eternal destiny, though no one can ever know for sure since God’s mercy is presented as unpredictable and mysterious. So in Islam, the last day motivates people to obey based out of fear that their scale will condemn them, or that God may condemn them for some other reason, simply because he is God. There is no certainty about that day of judgment, and a lot of fear.”
Here Hamid nodded his head. Whatever internet Islamic scholars may say, this is very much what Central Asian Muslims on the street believe and live by. Fear is necessary because it keeps us from sinning which will (hopefully) keep us from hell. God can be won over by just enough good deeds (hopefully) – unless he plays a divine joker card and sends some of the undeserving to heaven and others to hell, simply because he’s God and he’s beyond our understanding.
“However,” I continued, “the key for the last day, according to the Bible, is that we are known by God and by Jesus. That we have a relationship with him based on faith in his promises. And that all our good deeds on that day stand as evidence that he knows us already and we know him. They’re not the basis for our acceptance, done out of fear, but the evidence of it, done out of love and gratitude. The last day for a true believer is not something with an uncertain outcome, but a time when we are promised acceptance and welcome by God, who never breaks his promises.”
Hamid sat thoughtfully, “Thank you,” he said, turning to me. “These differences are much clearer for me now.”
I sat back, grateful that some of that I had shared had been understood, maybe even accepted. Believe it or not, convincing local friends that Christianity and Islam really do fundamentally disagree with one another is one of the most stubbornly-difficult tasks we face when we seek to do evangelism. It was interesting to use the Islamic worldview of oneness-prophethood-judgment as a familiar framework for illustrating these crucial differences. Like the scale vs. sacrifice approach, it might be a way to present gospel truth in a concrete fashion Muslims are better able to understand.
We had been talking for a while by this point and I though we had probably given Hamid enough food for thought for one evening. The cheesecake was gone. Likely, he would want to switch topics to something a little lighter.
“OK, then!” Hamid said as he rubbed his hands together. “Next question. Explain to me the different branches of Christianity – and how to keep them all straight. Google was no help on this one.”
We were going to need some more cheesecake.
*names changed for security