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Do Christians, Muslims and Jews worship the same God?
September 1st, 2013
03:26 AM ET

Do Christians, Muslims and Jews worship the same God?

Opinion by Jeffrey Weiss, Special to CNN
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(CNN) - Pope Francis surprised Israeli and Palestinian leaders last month when he invited them to a special prayer ceremony at the Vatican this Sunday - not least because religion has often been the source, not the salve, of the region's conflicts.

Still, Pope Francis offered his "home" - the Vatican - as the perfect place to plea for some divine assistance, and Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas dutifully agreed to attend.

"The Pope has placed it in this perspective: Prayer is like a force for peace,” Vatican Secretary of State Archbishop Pietro Parolin told Vatican Radio.

"We hope that there, where human efforts have so far failed, the Lord offers to all the wisdom and fortitude to carry out a real peace plan."

But Sunday's special ceremony at the Vatican raises an interesting question: When Francis, Peres and Abbas bow their heads in prayer, will they be talking to the same God?

After all, Jews, Christians and Muslims all trace their faiths back to a fellow named Abraham, whom they all claim was chosen for special treatment by the Almighty.

Not academic

The “same God” question is one theologians have hammered at for as long as there have been enough religions for the query to make sense.

The question is hardly academic, though. In fact, a number of politicians, religious leaders and scholars have expressed hope in recent years that a convincing answer on the God question might dampen the violence committed in His name.

Yale Divinity School theologian Miroslav Volf recently edited a book titled “Do We Worship the Same God? Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Dialogue.”

In the introduction, Volf explained why the title question matters:

"To ask: ‘Do we have a common God?’ is, among other things, to worry: ‘Can we live together?’ That’s why whether or not a given community worships the same god as does another community has always been a crucial cultural and political question and not just a theological one."

On the other hand, there’s CNN Belief Blog contributor and Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero.

His book on this subject is titled “God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run The World.”

Prothero writes:

“For more than a generation we have followed scholars and sages down the rabbit hole into a fantasy world where all gods are one … In fact this naive theological groupthink – call it Godthink – has made the world more dangerous by blinding us to the clash of religions that threaten us worldwide.”

In the world of politics, President George W. Bush asserted the unity side of the argument more than once in the years after the 9/11 attacks - often as a way to deflect accusations that America was at war with Islam.

Bush told Al Arabiya television, “I believe there is a universal God. I believe the God that the Muslim prays to is the same God that I pray to. After all, we all came from Abraham. I believe in that universality.”

Pope Francis invites Israeli, Palestinian leaders to Vatican peace talks

Pope John Paul II drew from the same rhetorical well several times.

“We believe in the same God, the one God, the living God, the God who created the world and brings his creatures to their perfection,” he first said in a speech to Muslims in Morocco in 1985.

Looking for a more recent example? Consider the plight of Vatican envoy to Malaysia.

Shortly after he arrived there last year, Archbishop Joseph Marino said that is was fine by him that Christian translations of the Bible into Malay use the word “Allah” for “God.”

“Allah” is, of course, the Arabic word for God and is found in the Quran. The Christian translators explained that since most Malaysians are Muslim, it’s the word they’re most comfortable with and therefore the best choice for the translation.

But many Muslim authorities in Malaysia were furious. They say Christians are slipping in the familiar word as a way to convert Muslims. And conversion of Muslims is all but illegal in Malaysia.

There’s a lawsuit ongoing about the translations. Marino had to apologize for pushing into Malaysian politics.

Points of disagreement

So what do the “Abrahamic” religions disagree about?

Among other things: the purpose of humanity, the relationship of God and humanity, sin, forgiveness, salvation, the afterlife, Jesus, Muhammad, the calendar, and the religious importance of Abraham himself.

Plus the nature of God.

Any summary will leave out enormous nuance. Internal divisions within religions have fueled some of the worst examples of human violence. Consider the long and frequently bloody history of troubles between Catholics and Protestants or the growing death toll of Muslim-on-Muslim attacks.

But there are common elements about God widely accepted in each tradition.

Judaism

Start with Judaism, since it came first and established roots that carried into the other two.

Jewish tradition teaches that there is one and only one God, creator of everything, and He established physical and moral laws. As Judaism’s preeminent prayer says: “The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

This God walks and talks directly with His creations – for a while.

Eventually, He chooses one particular nomad (Abraham) to father a mighty nation that God sets up as an example to other nations.

This God likes the smell of burning meat and demands other extremely specific physical offerings as evidence of obedience and repentance. And He gives His chosen people a particular set of laws – but doesn’t mind discussion and even argument about those laws.

A famous rabbinic saying implies that every word in Judaism’s sacred texts can be understood in 70 correct (but related) ways. And human reasoning can even trump divine intention. (No kidding. It’s in the Talmud)

This God judges His people every year. Tradition says he’s willing to accept imperfection, as long as it comes with repentance.

He’s big on obedience, not so much on faith. He’s not nearly as attentive to the behaviors of non-Jews. (There’s a famous Jewish joke with the punch line “Would you mind choosing somebody else once in a while?”)

Tradition holds that there’s a World To Come after death where moral accounts will somehow be settled. But this God is vague on details.

Christianity

The most obvious differences in the Christian God are the traditional teachings about the Trinity and Jesus. God is three separate persons who are also one. How? Christianity says the Trinity is a “mystery” of faith.

According to Christian tradition, God begets a son who is somehow also Him but not Him to atone for Original Sin. He sacrifices that son though a brutal death and thus achieves humanity's salvation.

But the son, who also is God, rises from the dead. And that sacrifice redeems eternally all who accept and believe in it. Faith, not behavior, is the essential measure of salvation.

This God is willing to vastly expand what it means to be among His “chosen people.” He’s also willing to cancel many of the laws that had applied to that chosen group for this expanded membership.

Orthodox Jews say that God prohibits them from eating a cheeseburger; Christians say God has no problem with them wolfing down Big Macs.

Unlike the Jewish God, whose instructions are almost all about this world, the Christian God is focused more on eternal salvation: heaven and hell.

Finally, for this God, much of the Jewish scriptures (which are all God’s word) are actually about foreshadowing Jesus. Including Abraham.

Islam

The Muslim God is a bit more like the Jewish God.

There is no Trinity in Muslim tradition. Jesus was a prophet, but no more divine than other prophets.

God has never has had anything like physical attributes and has no gender. (Some Muslim commentators say that the noun “Allah” is masculine, but only in the way that all nouns in some languages include gender.)

Muslim tradition holds that God wants one thing from humans: Submission. The word “Islam” is defined as “submission to the will of God.”

For Muslims, all true prophets in Jewish and Christian traditions were actually Muslim because they knew to submit correctly to God. Differences between Muslim, Jewish and Christian interpretations of God are due to errors that crept into the other two faiths, Islam teaches.

The Muslim God, like the other two, initially demanded that Abraham sacrifice a son. But the Muslim God wanted Abraham’s son Ishmael, not Isaac, who Jewish tradition holds was offered as a the sacrifice.

The Muslim God also designated, from before the world began, a perfect man to be his final prophet: Muhammad. God’s perfect truths are found only in the Quran and in the sayings of Muhammad, the hadiths.

And the Muslim God, like the Christian God but unlike the Jewish God, will welcome believers to paradise and condemn many non-Muslims - exactly which ones is a matter of much discussion - to eternal torment.

Final answer

So do Christians Muslims, and Jews, really all worship the same God?

In two major volumes on the subject recently published by scholars from various faiths and traditions, including Volf’s, the most inclusive response from these scholars is basically: Yes, and it’s our God.

This is not a new way of answering the question.

In 1076, Pope Gregory VII wrote this to a Muslim leader: “We believe in and confess one God, admittedly, in a different way…”

But like many other religious leaders on all sides of the argument, Gregory insisted that his version of the Almighty is the one whom the others are unknowingly and incompletely worshiping.

A less exclusivist set of religions might shrug off the differences. But all three claim to have the only “True Faith.”

So do all three faiths actually worship the same deity, whether they call him God or Allah or Adonai?

God only knows.

Jeffrey Weiss is an award-winning religion reporter in Dallas.The views expressed in this column belong to Weiss. A version of this story first ran in September 2013. 

CNN's Daniel Burke contributed to this article. 

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • History • Islam • Judaism • Muslim • Religious violence • Torah • Vatican

soundoff (7,438 Responses)
  1. GOD Gathering of Dumb

    People making you believe stupidities can make you commit atrocities.....

    September 1, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
    • Matt Slick

      Interesting... so the atheists Stalin and Mao murdered many millions. Does that mean their atheism is the height of stupidity?

      September 1, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
  2. Elena

    Of course we dont worship the same God! I am christian and i could not worship the God of the Jews, a god that calls to exterminate human because he gave their land to the Jews and many more killings.

    September 1, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
    • rick

      no, elena, you worship a god who would punish someone for disbelief

      how is that just?

      September 1, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
  3. Danny

    I love how athiests say we are judgy, yet go on any article on cnn, even one having nothing to do with religion and they are on here, always looking for a reason to bash believers and leave the rudest comments. Sorry you got picked on in school by some kid who claimed to be christian. Get over it and quit being haters.

    September 1, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
    • truthprevails1

      Feeling persecuted??? It's a belief blog, not a christian blog. If you don't wish to read our comments FOX news might be more your speed and mentality!

      September 1, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
      • Danny

        No, I do not feel persecuted, that is my point, it is athiests that doth protest too much. And fox is not my cup of tea, I voted Obama and Clinton (both christians).

        September 1, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
        • truthprevails1

          Keep it out of the public square; mind you own business when it comes to LGBT and other rights (abortion; birth control to name a couple) and we won't have reason to speak out against you...until then intolerance of intolerance is a good thing.
          And if you weren't feeling persecuted you wouldn't have come on an anonymous blog whining about us commenting!

          September 1, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
        • Danny

          I am all for gay marriage and birth control, you know what they say about people who assume.

          September 1, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
    • Elena

      Atheist are the most hypocrite and arrogant people I have ever own! Just look what they have done in places like Russia or China

      September 1, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
      • truthprevails1

        Pot meet kettle. We don't tell people who they can and can't love; we don't tell women not to use birth control or not to have abortions; we don't use prayer to heal our sick...the hypocrisy is funny.

        September 1, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
      • deanq

        You owned an atheist? Sweet.

        September 1, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
      • rick

        Arrogant? As opposed to inbred fvcks who feel they know the mind of god?

        September 1, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
    • [Atheists] leave the rudest comments...

      The gleeful and triumphant way so many christians like to repeatedly tell atheists on this board that they are going to burn in hell strikes me as pretty high on the rudeness scale. And don't give me this BS about christians doing it out of love and concern for their fellow man

      September 1, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
  4. bob

    Christianity is a refinement of Judaism and Islam is a refinement of Christianity. Everyone creates their own god anyways regardless of the teachings of the first creators of god.

    September 1, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
  5. myway

    Religion is a tool for tribal segregation. Often tribal conflicts are based and land use and border conflicts going back further than monotheism or anyone can remember. Islam was the antidote to Christianity that once adopted by the Romans as a state religion was seen as a European religion, even though originally it was a Jewish sect. However the seat of Christianity was and still is Rome and later Constantinopel. Bitter wars were fought by the Middle Eastern natives against Christian invaders from the north. How better to defend yourself as a Middle Easterner than by creating an equally powerful religion claiming to be a purified version of Christianity and Judaism. That concept still stands today since Islamism is used as a uniting force holding together a network of Middle Eastern nations against Western interests. They're known as the Arab Leage plus a few additional countries. For centuries the Middle East was occupied by various Northern powers. During the past century oil reserves have given Islamist countries new power and influence over their traditional enemies. Unfortunately Islam has been corrupted by centuries of wars and is now seen as an anti Christian movement. There is some truth to that but does not reflect the najority view of Muslim believers. Judaism on the other hand has been a religion without a country for most of the past 2000 years. The fact a country was created for Jews by entirely Christian interests implanted in Muslim territories without local approval is going to be the source of conflict for many more centuries. Do all 3 religion believe in the same God? Yes, as long as one realizes the monotheistic Jewish God we all know from scriptures was only created about 500 b.c. Before then Jews were basically not monotheistic. Does it matter for current Middle Eastern or other affairs? Absolutely not. It only matters for defensive purposes where for example Muslim nations appear to be united against Western or Christian interests. Putting most Middle Eastern interests under the hst of Islam nakes it easier for Middle Eastern countries getting political messages to the citizens of Muslim countries with similar interests. The same is true for Christian countries in the West. However, the division of political interests has nothing to do with religion. It is the politicians who use religion as a divisive tool to really support for their geo political interests. Using religion this way has an added benefit that the winners of any conflict can proclain their version of God as being more powerful.

    September 1, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      I don't know... There's something about firing my weapon in the air while shouting "God is great!" at the top of my lungs that makes me feel connected to the vast benevolent intelligence that stands at the origin of all things.

      September 1, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
    • Elena

      You couldn't be more wrong the seat of Christianity isn't Rome, that is that seat of the fake Christianity. the seat of the real Christianity is the soul?

      September 1, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
  6. crob1664

    If only people kept there religion to themselves.... The world be a much better place. Someone once told me that religion is like having a p3n1s. It is great that you have one, but you cannot pull it out in public and shove it down peoples throats.

    September 1, 2013 at 12:28 pm |
    • Danny

      If only people kept their athiesm to themselves. See, it goes both ways.

      September 1, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
      • rick

        atheists are not seeking to deny others their civil rights, danny boy

        September 1, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
        • rick

          at least not in the united states

          September 1, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
        • Danny

          I am all for civil rights, gay marriage, birth control etc. As I recall the biggest figure in civil rights history was a reverand named mlk.

          September 1, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
        • rick

          i don't know that he was the biggest. but he was certainly very well known

          September 1, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
  7. dm lane

    The definition of God is derived from individual perception...how many perceptions of God are determined by the number of individuals...There may be areas of similarity and areas of difference...

    September 1, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
  8. revbates

    How can we expect religions to come together when sects within each religious group still hang onto their own differences? There are 41,000 different Christian sects in the world ... and one Jesus. Does this not reek of "man-made-religion"? Jesus, Buddha and Krishna did not foster religion, only a search to discover that part of God within us.

    September 1, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
    • Lionly Lamb

      Each embodiment of organic Life contains a treed family of God's sons along with their wives and all mannerisms of godly children unbeknown to the commonwealths of humanisms... As mankind views the microscopic nomenclatures of biological life formations, we see machined subcellular structures but fail quite miserably to understand that such machined subcellular structures need living operators to control such machineries in order for each and every celestially terrestrial Life augmentation to remain congruently enamored and whole within the atomically beneficiaries of reasonable atomized structures...

      September 1, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
  9. Lionly Lamb

    What many folks seem to consciously or subconsciously overlook is to "seek first" the kingdom domains upon the son's of God's real whereabouts which are internally upon all of celestially terrestrial atomized cellular life species from a single celled organism to the most complex cellular organisms known to be mankind...

    September 1, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
  10. mike

    All claim to have the truth, thus none can. Death to religion.

    September 1, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      How can everyone be wrong, mike?

      September 1, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
  11. Darwin was right

    Further evidence that RELIGION CAUSES INSANITY:

    An off-duty Israeli soldier was walking to visit relatives in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem last month (June 2013), when suddenly he came under attack. Dozens of local men, incensed over the sight of a strictly religious Jew in uniform, started cursing at the soldier and shoving and beating him. The police had to send special units and anti-riot officers to the scene to rescue the soldier amid a hail of stones and rubbish. The soldier was unharmed, but six men were arrested.

    The Ultra-Orthodox Jews don't even recognize the existence of the State of Israel, because it was not established by the MESSIAH. Hey, I'm glad I don't believe in any of these magic guys with beards who live in the sky!

    September 1, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
  12. Mike in SA

    Many here are forgetting the one true God of the far left – Obama and his sycophantic worshipers.

    September 1, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
    • heehee

      zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

      September 1, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • rdeleys

      Nice try, but Obama is hardly far left. I should know because he's far to my right - and if you're farther right than that, you need professional psychiatric help.

      September 1, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
    • rick

      wow, mike, what an edgy political statement.

      get back on your knees, punk

      September 1, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
  13. Ajay

    God is One !. And his messengers were many. They were existed in different area during different periods just for one reason : Reminders 1 2 3 4 ...... If I were born as a christian, I support christianity till my last breath. Likewise If I were labelled Muslim or Hindu I support it. In my case, I wish everyone take and follow the best of all religions i.e same concept with different presentations. Mom, Maa, Amma gives the same meaning Mother. However its the middlemen or some individuals make this system complex with their narrow mindedness for their selfishness. They can't hide or kill the truth.
    I suggest everyone stick to your label or religion. And there is no need of changing your religion. If you do it it would be like same old wine in new bottle. You need to understand the same concept and follow it sincerely. God don't appreciate or admire you for switching to other religion. He may forgive us for our ignorance.

    September 1, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      God is many. How do we know this? One is the loneliest number. Two can be as bad as one: it's the loneliest number since the number one – and so on.

      September 1, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • heehee

      That was an amazingly transparent rationalization for clinging to your beliefs.

      September 1, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
  14. paul

    The question is not whether God exists, the question is whether I exist. Whatever exists and whatever does not exist, all your imaginations and reality, things that are movable and immovable, is pervaded by God.
    "I envy no one, nor am I partial to anyone, but whoever renders devotional service unto me is a friend of mine, and I am a friend -to him"-God

    September 1, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
  15. Greg Shaffer

    This is an inescapably weird question. It seems to me to be a bit like asking if Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan were both telling stories about the same Batman.

    September 1, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
    • Anonymous

      This is probably the best way to think about it. "Batman?" "Caped Crusader?" "Dark Knight?"

      Are they the same? Or are they different?

      Personally, I think Nolan's Batman is a different interpretation of a common archetype, just as I view each interpretation of the Abrahamic origins.

      September 1, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
    • Al

      What I like about what you said is that both batman and religions are works of fiction.

      September 1, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
  16. S.R

    Religion the biggest lie humans have ever told...... God exists but not through the lies of religion!

    September 1, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      I don't see how you can know that God exists.

      September 1, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
  17. Spuds Mackenzie

    The answer is simple. There is no God. As soon as the world starts realizing this the sooner we can have peace. There is something really wrong when people who worship the same God fight and kill each other. But then again, violence is the root of all of these religions.

    September 1, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
  18. Daniel

    Yes and No. Yes, false Jews, false Christian and Muslims worship the same god. the devil. No. True Christians and true Jews worship the Living God. The creator of heaven and earth. Mat 7.13-15. Majority (and all) Christians who worship on Sunday including the Witnesses worship Satan. All Muslims worship the god of this world Satan. Go to internet and check out the god of islam, it is the old pheonician Baal.

    September 1, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      I'm fairly certain religious Jews don't believe in your incarnate God, Daniel. Or in a God that was satisfied by a human sacrifice.

      September 1, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
    • bostontola

      He splintering continues, what a joke.

      September 1, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
    • moas786

      wow...what a bunch of lies.....may God help and guide your misguided mind. AMEEN.

      September 1, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
    • deanq

      If it's on the internet it has to be true. Great reasoning. Keep up the good work.

      September 1, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
  19. master ying

    Funny the author posits himself above the pope John II.

    September 1, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
    • truthprevails1

      If the author is not hiding away peds then he is above the pope.

      September 1, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
  20. Curwen

    Your puny gods are nothing.

    September 1, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.