What Christianity and Islam Teach about Jesus
Jesus Christ and his life and death as highlighted by Good Friday and Easter are critical parts of the faith Christians confess.
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.
He descended into Hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead.
– The Apostles Creed (early Christian confession)
The question of what Christianity and Islam share in common versus what separates them came to a head at Wheaton College, a prominent Christian higher education institution in Illinois. Larycia Hawkins, an associate professor of political science at Wheaton, will be leaving the institution following months of controversy. She had donned a hijab to show solidarity with Muslims. But the main controversy was her statement that Christianity and Islam worship the same God.
In my talks on Christian social activism one key word of advice I give is: “Get the facts, get the facts, get the facts!”
Without “the facts” you are flailing at the wind, missing the key issues, knocking down “straw men”, accepting fictions. Perhaps feeling good about it.
A commitment to accuracy is absolutely essential if there is to be honest communication between people of differing faiths. Not the only essential, but without it there is little to be said between us. I should be able to express the beliefs of another person with such accuracy that the other person will say, “Yes, that is what I believe.”
It is important for Muslims and Christians to understand each other because we must learn to inhabit this finite world together in shalom-salaam and because many of us live together in America. Christians must relate to Muslims as those who share the likeness of God through our common humanity (Genesis 1:27; Acts 17:28-29) and, if we share a common American citizenship, as those who possess with us the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and the free exercise of religion (without having an established religion).
Now, what can we say about Christianity and Islam?
These two common grounds are shared by the two faiths and also by Judaism:
- Monotheism – the belief there is only one true God.
- Abrahamic Roots – Judaism, Christianity and Islam trace their origin to the biblical Abraham.
But Christianity must be distinguished from Islam on several critical points, especially those that relate to what orthodox Christianity teaches about Jesus. I will limit my comments to this subject, with the caveat that what one teaches about Jesus influences what one teaches about God. When I use the word “Christianity” I am referring to the Christian faith as it embraces the teachings of the New Testament and the confessions of the ecumenical creeds, not to everything that might wear the title.
Both religions teach that Jesus was born to Mary who was yet a virgin. And Jesus performed many miracles, as the Christian Gospels state. Interestingly, the Qur’an (19:27-33) goes further by actually having Jesus speak from the cradle somewhat in defense of his mother (this may be seen as a prolepsis).
Both religions believe Jesus was a prophet. Islam sees Jesus as a prophet in a long tradition of prophetic voices culminating in Mohammed. Christianity sees Jesus himself as the culmination of the prophetic office—the Second Moses, God’s Final Word (see the quotation from Hebrews 1, below).
While Christianity sees Jesus as a prophet (and while the ethical teachings of Jesus can be a great starting point for discussions with non-Christians), Christians confess Jesus to be more than a prophet. He is, according to the Bible’s best-known verse (John 3:16), God’s “only begotten son.”
Islam cannot accept this. Its belief in God’s absolute uniqueness abhors any notion of him having a son. This is a core understanding of Islam.
Say, “He is Allah, the One;
Allah, the Eternal, Absolute;
He begets not, and neither is He begotten;
And there is nothing that can be compared to Him.” – Qur’an 112:1-4
Furthermore, according to Islam, Jesus is not “from the beginning” for he lived a finite, short life 2000 years ago. Nor should he be worshipped.
Christianity’s understanding is that Jesus, as the unique Son of God, specially revealed God to us as none other could do (John 1:1, 2, 14, 18 ESV):
In the beginning was the Word [Jesus Christ], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
No one has ever seen God; the only God*, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. [* Some Greek texts read “only begotten son”.] [end quote]
Christianity teaches that Jesus died on the cross, and his death was “for our sins.” Christians debate exactly how this “works” – the doctrine of Jesus’ atoning death that removes our sins raises many points of discussion. But the fundamental confession “Christ died for our sins” is biblical, critical and non-negotiable—a sine qua non of The Faith.
Islam rejects the crucifixion of Jesus and, with it, any thought that his death was redemptive. I have read this Muslim explanation: while it appeared to many that Jesus died on the cross, in reality Jesus was miraculously protected by God and the crucifixion was the death of another.
This brief discussion scarcely does justice to the topic. And there are other important comparisons to make and issues to raise. Three examples:  the nature of Holy Scripture,  the divinely-appointed position of Isaac, son of Abraham and father of Israel as compared to Abraham’s other son, Ishmael (see Genesis 17),  the propriety and right of Arabic-speaking Christians to use the name “Allah” when referring to the Deity of Christian belief.
I conclude with an extended quotation from the New Testament’s “Epistle to the Hebrews” (1:1-12) and its classical, definitive statements about Jesus:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.
He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”?
Or again, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son”?
And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.”
Of the angels he says, “He makes his angels winds, and his ministers a flame of fire.”
But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”
And, “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment, like a robe you will roll them up, like a garment they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will have no end.”