“Christianity and Islam worship the same God and are fundamentally the same at their core.”
I regularly encounter this assertion in my church-planting efforts in Dearborn, Michigan. (Dearborn has the distinction of having the highest concentration of Arabs in North America.) Most commonly I hear this phrase, or one like it, coming from the mouths of young Muslim men and women. Their intentions are wonderful. They’re trying to bridge the gap between our cultures and religions. Indeed, there’s much need for mutual understanding and respect between our faiths.
However, this assertion comes from a misunderstanding of the foundational principles of Christianity.
“I’m curious,” I often say. “What’s the ‘core’ that Christianity and Islam share? What makes our religions so similar?”
“Well, at the end of the day,” the response usually goes, “we’re all trying to live the best lives we can to please God and get into heaven.”
“What if I told you,” I reply, “that Christianity is far, far too pessimistic to believe that? In fact, I think Christianity is the most pessimistic religion in the world.”
Pessimism at the Heart of Christianity
This response often piques curiosity. They genuinely want to know why I think Christians are so pessimistic. The conversation usually goes something like this:
Them: “What do you mean, Christians are pessimistic?”
Me: “Well, you said we’re all trying to please God. Christians don’t think that’s possible. Because of sin, we’re entirely incapable of pleasing God.”
Them: “So how in the world do Christians think people end up in heaven?”
If you’re not careful, you might mistake a question like that as an evangelistic opportunity.
I jest, but it should be noted: this isn’t a difference merely between Christianity and Islam. Our deep-seated pessimism about human nature sets Christianity apart from nearly every other worldview. Most non-Christian faiths and philosophies offer various strategies for striving toward perfection (or at least adequacy). Only Christianity insists we must throw up our hands in utter defeat at any attempt at self-justification.
Bad News Makes Good News Make Sense
Once this foundational distinction is established, many of the differences between Christianity and Islam can be explained. Here are two examples.
Our deep-seated pessimism about human nature sets Christianity apart from nearly every other worldview.
First, Muslims hold that Jesus wasn’t the Son of God but was simply another prophet (in a long line) whom God sent to instruct his people. Based on the Muslim view of human nature, this makes perfect sense. If we’re able to please God on our own, all we need is a messenger to come and tell us what God requires so we can carry it out. It would be overkill in the extreme for God to come down and give that instruction.
Second, Muslims don’t believe that Jesus died on the cross. After all, Jesus was a great prophet—God certainly wouldn’t allow him to be dishonored in that way. Someone else must have died in his place, or perhaps he only appeared to die and later revived.
Again, this is a perfectly rational view if people can please God on their own. Christ’s death on the cross makes absolutely no sense outside Christianity’s pessimistic view of human nature.
Can you imagine a person sacrificing his or her life to save someone who isn’t in danger? It wouldn’t be heroic; it would be nonsensical. To Muslims who don’t share the Christian view that humans can’t please God on our own, Christ’s death on the cross sounds nonsensical.
Laying out this difference can open the door to fantastic conversations.
Light Bulb Moment
“Wait a minute,” my friend Hassan interrupted during one such conversation. Hassan is a Lebanese college student I met on a campus in Dearborn. “Are you saying Christians do good things not so they can get into heaven but because they’re so grateful God is already letting them into heaven because of Jesus?”
Christ’s death on the cross makes absolutely no sense outside Christianity’s pessimistic view of human nature.
This was an entirely new idea for Hassan. He’d assumed Christianity and Islam were foundationally the same: paths to please God and enter paradise. Any differences were simply in the details of how to follow that path.
I told him his assessment of Christianity was correct. He paused before blurting out, “That’s way better!” He continued, “I mean, if I do good works to get into heaven, my motivation is selfish. But in Christianity, people can do good works without thinking about themselves.”
Hassan didn’t become a Christian that day, but he did finally grasp what Christianity—and more importantly what Christ—was offering him. For the first time, he saw the gospel as desirable, even beautiful.
This discussion is relevant beyond the confines of Dearborn. The view that Christianity and Islam are more similar than different is mainstream within the Muslim community. And though many Americans live in areas with relatively small Muslim populations, that’s likely to change in coming years. It’s important to be ready to engage our Muslim neighbors in meaningful conversations about our faith. A helpful first step in any such conversation is to explain just how pessimistic Christians are about human nature.
Who knows, maybe God will give you the opportunity to show someone why the bad news can make the good news of the gospel make sense.
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