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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. Yoda

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1SRdt0dCLM

    September 1, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
  2. Yoda

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a1l4IjLWHo4

    September 1, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
  3. Yoda

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XU621SUisOc

    September 1, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
  4. Yoda

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lvXbR7Whjdk

    September 1, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
  5. Yoda

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xaUxC0WO9rA

    September 1, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
    • sick of christian phonies

      Sez Der Pope, "you wouldn't believe where this thumb has been!"

      September 1, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
  6. us_1776

    Ok. IF there was a god.

    How could there possibly be a different god for every religion?

    Did the earth get created a thousand times?

    See how ridiculous religion is?

    .

    September 1, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
    • militarymom777

      How was the world created?

      September 1, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
      •  Athy

        How was god created?

        September 1, 2013 at 5:43 pm |
      • Wan D.

        an unknown...

        but certainly not a reason to invent a very specific Mediterranean iron-age deity, with very specific rules and punishments 🙂

        Just be good. Religions and Deism in general is pretty much a poison for the planet, if only Humans spent as much time being peaceful, intelligent, and respecting Earth!!

        September 1, 2013 at 6:42 pm |
  7. Yoda

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c-QOadognwg

    September 1, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
  8. charles moffett

    Maybe all religious believers could stand to use a new hammer. One that is as close to the other as well. And yet, that is partially the problem. It's a babel so the same for one size doesn't fit all.

    September 1, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
  9. Mr.X

    Enough of this Abrahmic religions. Time to revive Indo-European religions by Indoeuropeans for Indo-Europenas. Love to see Indoeuropean Zorastrianism sweeping central asia, celti religions sweeping celtic regions, greek religion in Greek, Slavic religion in Eastern Europe and Noorse religions sweeping northern europe.

    September 1, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
  10. Non-Christians sux

    Reasons why atheism is horrible and unhealthy for our children and living things:

    – Atheists do not have any morality, are heartless, soulless and cold.
    – Atheists grew up in a bad family, not being loved and abused.
    – Atheism was brought upon during the French Revolution, one of the most evil time of history.
    – Communism – evil system created by atheists!
    – Atheists cannot prove God does not exist and how Earth was created.
    – No atheist org. contribute to charitable causes, unlike Christians, due to atheism beliefs in Darwinism.
    – Atheism making you agree with mass murder leaders like Stalin, Mao, Pot, Mussolini and even Hitler!
    – Atheists are mentally ill, that's why they have no faith and belief.
    – Countries with high rate of atheism = high suicide rate (Nordic nations).
    – Atheists tries to convert (young) people into their evil belief over the internet.
    – Atheists believe in evolutions, and want us to act like animals.
    – Atheists bash Christianity based on Jewish scriptures (Old Testament/Torah) and organized religion, and tend to ignore or forget how amazing, loving, friendly, supportive, and excellent the most influential person who has even walked on Earth, Jesus Christ, was. Christians found hospitals, universities, science, etc.
    – Atheists do not believe in Jesus Christ; therefore they must hate their neighbor and enemy. Remember the Sermon on the Mount?

    Atheists are minority in the U.S. and the world no matter what "secular" sources and polls voted by few thousands of people tells you that were made up by silly atheists dreaming about making America more atheist, unbiblical and unGodly than what it actually is. More than 90% of Americans believe in God. Period! Christianity is the world's largest religion, and the main religion in the western world. Christianity grows dramatically and goes global.. .

    September 1, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
    • tallulah13

      It's funny how you think you're fooling your god. Don't you think he notices when you break the big commandments, like the one about not telling lies ? You must think your own god is pretty stupid.

      If there's a hell, your lies will have you burning along with the atheists.

      September 1, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
    • Rob S

      Jesus would hit you over the head with a board if He saw what you wrote! You are NOT to judge people! If you never got anything from His teachings, certainly you must have gotten that?

      September 1, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
      • Doobs

        Jesus would hit you over the head with a board if He saw what you wrote!

        Nah, he preferred to macrame a scourge from cords when he got ticked off. More effective, and he got a nice upper body workout too.

        September 1, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
      • militarymom777

        When you read the word of God in the bible,what does he say about atheists?

        September 1, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
    • sick of christian phonies

      I was hoping to see some cogent arguments versus atheism and in support of religiosity- something to mull over.
      But you're just a troll, saying stupid things with no proof ("Atheists do not have any morality...", etc) to anger people.
      Or idiotic, patently incorrect statements ("Atheism was brought upon during the French Revolution..." ), showing your lack of intelligence- and with bad grammar to boot.
      You only reinforce my stereotype that people of faith are basically beings of low intelligence.

      September 1, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
    • wjshelton

      Are you serious? Please tell me you are being sarcastic because, otherwise, you are totally full of [expletive deleted].

      September 1, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
  11. shawbrooke

    Jews. Christians and Muslims think that they are part of one faith stream, particularly Jews and Christians. So they worship the same God. Christians follow Christ who they believe was God, but that belief is not shared by the other two. Muslims believe that Jesus was a Prophet (Issa). Other religions mostly do not have the concept of one God, however God may be represented, so they worship other things and many of them. Maybe it's correct to say that the Jewish, Christian and Muslim religions recognize a God and the question of one God is not answerable in other religions. The question may arise from an assumption that is applicable mostly in societies with Christian histories.

    September 1, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
  12. ItSoNlYmE

    The fact that such a large percentage of the earth's population care about the answer to this question is the root of about 98% of the world's problems. The answer is irrelevant and utterly unknowable, so what's the point of even asking?

    September 1, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      To find the actual truth. What if we never asked, what is that when dealing with infections, or broken bones, or why am I thirsty or why am I jungry. Where would we be without asking questions?

      September 1, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
      • Suzie

        lol, if we don't ask those things, we're simply Christian!

        September 1, 2013 at 6:44 pm |
  13. Mr.X

    Enough of this Abrahmic religions. Time to revive Indo-European religions by Indoeuropeans for Indo-Europenas. Love to see Indoeuropean Zorastrianism sweeping central asia, celti religions sweeping celtic regions, greek religion in Greek, Slavic religion in Eastern Europe and Noorse religions sweeping northern europe. Indoeuropean Budhism sweeping the rest.

    September 1, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
  14. Tori

    Is obviously not the same good, since the concept of the trinity in the cristinanity makes possible that every single person become's conected with god, aspect that is not allowed in Muslim or Jew religion. Quite interesting to undertand the Sufi muslins that intèrpret some precepts becomeing quite similar to the trinitary concept.

    September 1, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
  15. dialogue!

    Maybe we should concentrate on the similarities and get to know each other rather than trying to see how we are different and separate from each other.

    September 1, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
    • heehee

      Can I pursue truth and still be a nice person?

      September 1, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
      • Russ

        @ heehee: better to ask: is it really being nice if you do not pursue truth?

        September 1, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
        • heehee

          My post wasn't very good.

          What I was trying to say is: trying to find our similarities is a strategy which is designed to get along well with people at parties. Looking for the truth and plainly stating it is not.

          September 1, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
  16. Ho Tai

    Your description of atheists is so comprehensive and specific that I think you actually only know one atheist in the world, and I agree with you that one person is not very nice. If you talk to more atheists you would probably learn that they are as varied a group as any other group.

    September 1, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
    • Dan W

      And since you can say that about any group, I just choose not to say it about atheists. I judge them by their general demeanor, which is hostile and resentful.

      September 1, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
      • Tom, Tom, the Other One

        I'm motivated by concern for believers as individuals, and our society most of all. My demeanor is what it is, but we should oppose unfounded belief in the most effective way we can find.

        September 1, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
      • Doobs

        And since you can say that about any group, I just choose not to say it about atheists. I judge them by their general demeanor, which is hostile and resentful.

        If you choose not to apply the same criteria to atheists as you expect to have applied to you, then don't complain when you are treated with hostility.

        I thought only your god was allowed to judge people. You're a liar and a hypocrite.

        September 1, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
      • Wan D.

        wow I HATE ignorant deists like this one. You are an ostrich! Fast for 3 days on water and then read a scientific paper on anything! If you have a bible, use it for toilet paper on the 4th day 🙂

        September 1, 2013 at 6:39 pm |
  17. Islam dor

    Allahu Akbar

    September 1, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Admiral Ackbar!

      September 1, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
  18. Yoda

    aw damn.. I must be french ... since I am atheist .. oh well.. I guess being born in Texas must been colonized by the french

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FhHR1xmRtno

    September 1, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
  19. Mr.X

    Enough of this Abrahmic religions. Time to revive Indo-European religions by Indoeuropeans for Indo-Europenas. Love to see Indoeuropean Zorastrianism sweeping central asia, celti religions sweeping celtic regions, greek religion in Greek, Slavic religion in Eastern Europe and Noorse religions sweeping northern europe.

    September 1, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
  20. Mr.X

    Time to revive Indo-European religions by Indoeuropeans for Indo-Europenas. Love to see Indoeuropean Zorastrianism sweeping central asia, celti religions sweeping celtic regions, greek religion in Greek, Slavic religion in Eastern Europe and Noorse religions sweeping northern europe.

    September 1, 2013 at 3:45 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.