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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. John P. Tarver

    It is all about the benjamins and God is only an excuse.

    September 1, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
  2. s

    Hi

    Amazing to think that the three are considered the only religions and that's only 3B of the 7B in the world who adhere to these. Judaism is of course a minot religion in the world(only about 50m) people. What abt all the other religions of the east which the author might not be so familiar with but which have different thinking about God- Hinduism, Budhism, Jainism, Taoism, Shintoism, Jainism, Shikism- all of which arguably have more adherents than Judaism and have completely different outlook to the Abrahamic religions?

    September 1, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
  3. tony

    Atheists don't need collection plates, yet "all-powerful, sea-parting, gods" do.

    I wonder why?

    September 1, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Atheists spend quite a bit on their fascist social political agenda.

      September 1, 2013 at 2:49 pm |
      • Just Call Me Lucifer

        Not enough apparently... you're still here.

        September 1, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
      • Douglas

        You mean all those things that Jeebus said we should do? Yep.

        September 1, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
    • William Bellah

      We all have bills to pay even non believers.

      September 1, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
  4. 1DirtyRat

    God is an invention of mankind to explain all of the things he couldn't understand and to also control the masses with fear. God does not exist. All religions are basically based on a lie. I'm all for freedom of religion but I'm also for freedom FROM religion. To each his own, keep your religion to yourself. Maybe we wouldn't have so many wars in the world if everyone did.

    September 1, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
    • bostontola

      Religions are lies even if a god exists.

      September 1, 2013 at 2:49 pm |
    • Donny

      Where is your proof that god does not exist? Some of the top scientists in the world believe in god while most others admit that there is no proof he does or does not exist. The universe is a extremely weird, unpredictable, and lots of unknowns, but what if? What if something is out there , something larger then life itself who created everything? I understand most scientists agree with the big bang theory but what no scientist can explain is what made the big bang. How did it happen? All im saying is people who say god does not exist are equally naive as the people who say god 100% DOES exist. You dont know, i dont know, NOBODY knows!

      September 1, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
  5. Lionly Lamb

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=qKgY5eOlhEc

    September 1, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
  6. Steve

    I am quite sure we all worship whatever we understood from whomever we inherited our ideas. This means we all worship a different God, even if we think we worship the same one. We just think the person next to us understands things as we do. Its all illusion, much like the God we are discussing.

    September 1, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
  7. Lionly Lamb

    Law enforcement against prohibition of reefer

    http://www.leap.cc/

    September 1, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
  8. wisconsin101

    What drives me nuts is that people worship an omnipotent being and then think they need to be the enforcer of their Gods wishes. If the being it that almighty, shouldn't the God be handing down the punishments or rewards. it has been a cover story for bad people to do bad things to others and for the power and control of others.

    September 1, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
    • Morgan

      Excellent statement. If people would get out of Gods instead of trying to impose their version of him on others, the world be a much better place. But many people are so insecure they can't stand it if someone disagrees with them. They have to have ear candy to be happy.

      September 1, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
    • Dan W

      Do you do everything for your children? Do you chew their food for them? Wouldn't it be easier for them if you did? On some level 'made in His image' let us know that it is possible to spoil a child. Parents that give their kids too much are often accused of this. So too would we spoil if handed everything so easily. We are here because we tried that before and we ate the apple. I often feel as though Atheists mock the 'omnipotent' aspect of God because they want God to do what THEY say is right, not what He says is right. God can do anything, but he chose to do it this way. Live with it and try to figure out why, it's not very hard. Just use physics. 🙂

      September 1, 2013 at 2:49 pm |
      • In Santa we trust

        Or more likely god is the name given by our priimitive ancestors to account for the randomness and uncertainty inherent in the flux of life. It's not atheists saying god should do this or that – they're saying that the bible makes claims for its omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent god that are not backed up by evidence.

        September 1, 2013 at 3:07 pm |
  9. Elena

    Atheist and religious are likely blind about truth. But I am going to educate you about it. however if you dont get it then is not your fault. Unfortunately, you were not giving a higher level of understanding to grasp such a profound concept. The reality you live in DON NOT EXIST, is not real. it is an illusion of the mind, which is the medium the souls uses to live a conscious experience!.

    All mater is made of rapidly moving energy buckets called quanta or particles. This energy buckets spread as waves. Light is a wave that carries information and when it hits the retina of an eye, what is called the wave function, where all possibilities are in superposition, collapses and then information is transfer to the brain as electromagnetic impulses where the brain translates the info it receives into images sounds and like. Just as a radio antenna only picks one of all the radio waves traveling through the air. So yeah that is how the mind creates the reality you think is real and solid!. Now go and do your own research in the matter!

    No wonder Einstein said " I prefer to think that the moon is the even if I am not looking at it" most atheist can not comprehend the meaning of this quote!

    September 1, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
    • What is going on? FREEDOM

      Only a fool would only believe Atheists don't understand that quote.

      September 1, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
    • jp0

      You are very confused about scientific principles. In particular a radio antenna picks up all kinds of signals. It is only the apparatus connected to the antenna that sorts them out. In some cases the signals overlap to the extent that they cannot be intelligibly separated. Life is a lot like that.

      September 1, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
      • Elena

        but your radio cant tuned to many signals at the same time, only to one!

        September 1, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
    • Gilbert

      wow, Elena, time to hit the books again and stay awake in class! I would also highly recommend stopping your daily intake of drugs and food for 1 to 3 days to help clear your head. Once you become adept at fasting you can shoot for 7 days of water, it will help your clarity a lot. Oh, and you have no soul and there is nowhere for "it" to go when you die. SORRY Honey!

      September 1, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
      • Dan W

        The brain is a radio receiver picking up a signal from my soul which is seated outside of our ability to perceive. The clarity obviously comes from a language barrier, but Gilbert is describing the first lessons in Kabbalah. This reality isn't real. It's a construct of our minds. If you were plugged into the matrix, how could you know? You only figure it out when you start looking really really hard at reality, then you can reveal where the cracks begin to show. Stop leaning on intelligence as the leading factor in one's belief or not. Debate, don't devalue.

        September 1, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
    • Just Call Me Lucifer

      I beg to differ... Don Knotts did exist, but now only on celluloid.

      September 1, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
    • Dan W

      Someones been studying their Kabbalah.

      September 1, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
    • bostontola

      Einstein was a great genius and yet wrong about much. Religious people are born followers.

      September 1, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
    • heehee

      Ok, wait a second. Your argument: light is quantized (sometimes – it's not always discrete, which you would know if you'd ever actually taken a quantum mechanics class), and eyes detect light... therefore, we aren't real?

      What on earth are you talking about?

      September 1, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
      • Elena

        what? you didnt know light is a wave?

        September 1, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
        • heehee

          Wow. Just – wow.

          Yes, that was my point. Light is not a wave. -sigh-

          Try reading the whole sentence.

          September 1, 2013 at 3:09 pm |
    • bostontola

      We see what we see and hear what we hear because those capabilities were selected for in the grand competi.tion of life, evolution.

      September 1, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
    • heehee

      Here is a quantum mechanics book:

      http://www.amazon.com/Quantum-Mechanics-2-vol-set/dp/0471569526

      The first volume is basic knowledge. Anyone claiming to understand quantum mechanics would at the very least be able to understand it and solve most of the exercises in the book. I've done this, and that's how I know your knowledge is light and fluffy. You'd better get to work.

      September 1, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
      • bostontola

        I know people who can do QM, I never met one who understood it.

        September 1, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
        • heehee

          I was replying to Elena, not you. Otherwise, my post would have been quite the non-sequitur.

          Yes, there are dissatisfying things about QM, I agree. Personally I don't share the pop science view that no one understands it – but that's another discussion altogether.

          September 1, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
        • bostontola

          Not pop sci, I literally never met anyone who understands it. I work in a semiconductor foundry with lots of QM physicists.

          September 1, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
        • heehee

          For some reason my posts are getting filtered. Don't know what word is causing it.

          anyway, I work in a university science department, and have published research in physics, and also interact with physicists regularly. In my opinion the whole meme about not understanding QM has been harmful to its progress. I respect your opinion but mine has some subtle differences. It can't be hashed out here.

          September 1, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
        • Cpt. Obvious

          Just because the mathematics of QM imply counterintuitive "reality" at a fundamental level does not mean the effects of QM are not understandable.

          September 1, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
        • bostontola

          Ok, we don't seem to be able to visualize dimensions above 4 either. Evolving in our scale gives us no reference to the very small or very large. I don't know if we will ever understand them, perhaps.

          September 1, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
    • jenni

      Next time you attempt to read the book "the complete idi0t's guide to science", don't just stop at second paragraph, but try to at least finish the first chapter.

      September 1, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
  10. isolate

    "Jewish tradition teaches that there is one and only one God, creator of everything..."

    Tradition does, but the Hebrew Bible does not. The earliest books depict YHWH as one preferred god out of many, which is called henotheism. (Think "E pluribus unum.) Other gods are referred to in the Ten Commandments, and the Hebrew word for god is plural, elohim. In Genesis VI the sons of these gods were marrying into human families and producing offspring, which is why YHWH decides to wipe out the human race with the flood.

    As late as Jeremiah there are appeals to the Jews not to sacrifice their children to Moloch/Milcom. Most of the Old Testament is devoted to stories about the Israelites worshiping other gods, which they apparently did with reckless abandon. YHWH even switches his allegiance to Nebuchadnezzar to punish them for worshiping other gods, the apologetics for the Babylonian Captivity in the aftermath of the destruction of Solomon's Temple.

    September 1, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
    • Dan W

      Elohim is just the name of God when you are referring to nature, which is plural. God has 72 names in the Hebrew bible.

      September 1, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
  11. tony

    Young attractive fundamentalist Christian hand maidens wanted

    September 1, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
  12. Edna Bucket

    We should mend ourselves before creating deities in our own image.

    The answer to the question "Why do we fight in the name of religion" is fairly obvious. We are the product of evolution, not divine inspiration. What we become next will not depend upon religion. It will depend upon whether our intelligence is sufficient to overcome our baser instinct. At the moment, it looks like the primate within us is winning.

    September 1, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
  13. Mike Wood

    WOW!!! I'm really impressed with the LACK of thorough differentiating of the 3 belief systems...

    September 1, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
    • Dan W

      The article was, do they worship the same God? Not.... 'Learn About The 3 Faiths of Abraham'.

      September 1, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
  14. tony

    Pray to me. you'll get at least as good results.

    September 1, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
    • Doc3072

      Dear God Tony, My car broke down and I need a new one (free preferably) I'd be grateful eternally if you'd help me out! I have faith!!!

      September 1, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
  15. jp0

    Since god exists only in the minds of individuals, there must be a unique god for every believer.

    September 1, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
    • Truth

      Its called a Brain Tumor,

      September 1, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
    • Andres

      I would think even in different religions, there will be different understandings of God, according to each individual's experiences and growth in faith. To some extent you are right, each one, unintentionally creates a God of their understanding in order to believe.

      September 1, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
  16. Truth

    Truth about your fairy tale

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPOfurmrjxo

    September 1, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
    • Grant

      Nice!

      September 1, 2013 at 3:10 pm |
  17. Kevin

    There is no God. Period. Never has been, never will be. There is NO evidence of ANY deity anywhere in our universe. God exists SOLELY in the mind of man.

    September 1, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
    • tony

      Individually. One unique god per each mind.

      September 1, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
    • Dan W

      This cliche is so easily destroyed. EVERYTHING we see is a construct of our mind. Why? Because EVERYTHING I experience is based on information being interpreted by my mind. Try again.

      September 1, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
      • In Santa we trust

        What objective evidence of a god do you have?

        September 1, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
    • Gilbert

      Well said! Now watch the Christian nut jobs try and say that reality is a construct of the mind, LOL! You can sure see why weak minded humans invented Christianity – your enemies burn in torture forever while you get to live in paradise forever regardless of what you had in this (REAL) life. No wonder so many murderers, war mongerers etc follow the path of Jesus. Hardly a sheep, more of a zombie wolf...

      September 1, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
  18. tony

    Let's see. Do they have rainbows in non judaic countries?

    September 1, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
  19. Lionly Lamb

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L7UXL_lJ0BA&feature=player_detailpage

    September 1, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
    • Rebbe Bupkis

      So, do you actually know how to read? Just curious.

      September 1, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
  20. Samuel Margolies

    The assumption of this article is in error in itself. The mere fact that we are speaking of God requires us to realize that there is only One God if we use the definitions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam;, therefore the three Abrahamic religions obviously are worshiping the same God, though at times obviously erroneously. Participants in these religions may argue that there are differences, but their texts inform otherwise as to the nature and Oneness of God. Believers of the three religions should not be attacking each other. Differences of interpretation do not equate being correct. "So do all three faiths actually worship the same deity, whether they call him God or Allah or Adonai?" These are words. They are words which refer to God by a Name. They are from different languages. They do not detract from the Reality. Since by definition there is One God, as all three religions inform, they worship the same God. God Is One.

    September 1, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
    • heehee

      "since by definition there is one god"...

      well all right then, now it's clear. There is one god by definition.

      September 1, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      So you're not a Hindu then?

      September 1, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
      • rabgem

        Hindus believe in many Gods and God is everywhere, But the religion preaches to respect everything that is life. And you can be a Hindu without believing in God, or you can believe in several Gods. There is no one castisizing you because of your belief or non-belief. It doesn't demonize you because you are a non-believer. It is one of the most progressive religion in the world.. Budhism and Jainism grew out of Hinduism, like Christianity and Islam grew out of Judaism.. Both Budhism and Jainism are aethistic religions. They just preach the right way to live with or without God.

        September 1, 2013 at 4:16 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.