The Concept of God in Islam and Christianity
Dr. Craig was invited to address the National Religious Broadcaster's convention on this topic. He summarizes the nature of God, religious pluralism, and the doctrine of the Trinity as well.
The Concept of God in Islam and Christianity
KEVIN HARRIS: Welcome to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. I’m Kevin Harris. You are in for a real treat today. This was a terrific speech that Dr. Craig gave recently at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention – the NRB. The NRB represents the most influential Christian broadcasters across the country and across the world. Dr. Craig was invited to speak on Islam. We’ve done many podcasts on Islam, but I think you will get a lot out of this podcast because Dr. Craig in this presentation just really brought things into focus on Islam, was very concise, summarized some key concepts, and also talked about religious relativism. He gave some illustrations on the doctrine of the Trinity. And he was very well received at this convention. Here now, Dr. Craig at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention speaking on the concept of God in Islam and Christianity.
DR. CRAIG: I’ve been studying the religion of Islam for over thirty years. My interest in Islam was originally sparked by my study of the so-called kalam cosmological argument for the existence of God. Early Christian thinkers living in Alexandria, Egypt developed this argument in response to Aristotle’s doctrine of the eternity of the universe. They argued that the universe had a beginning and was therefore brought into being by a transcendent Creator. When Islam swept across North Africa this argument was taken up into Islamic theology and developed during the Middle Ages to a high degree of sophistication by Muslim theologians. Because of the contribution of Muslim theologians to this argument, I dubbed it the kalam cosmological argument – kalam being the Arabic word for Islamic theology. I believe that this is a sound argument for God’s existence, and it has served me very well as a means of building a bridge with Muslims for sharing the Gospel.
When I did my theological doctoral studies in Munich, Germany, I chose Islam as one of my side areas of specialization. When I did so, I never dreamt at that time that it would some day become a topic that would be of interest to popular audiences. But with the attacks of 9/11, Islam suddenly burst into public consciousness in the West. Its profile has risen with each succeeding year as Islamic terrorism has spread across the globe. This heightened awareness of Islam has peaked people’s interest in Islam and has given me the opportunity to speak about the commonalities and the contrasts between Islam and Christianity. I’ve had the privilege of debating some of the world’s top Muslim theologians at American and foreign universities.
Today, I’ve been invited to speak about the concept of God in Islam and Christianity. The question that drives our inquiry this morning is not merely one of comparative religion. Rather, it is whether the Christian or the Muslim concept of God is true. In our day of religious relativism this is an incredibly politically incorrect question. All religions are supposed to be equally true. Right? So what’s the fuss all about? Well, the answer to that question, it seems to me, is that religious relativism (which is almost unthinkingly accepted by many people today) is simply not true. In fact, religious relativism is logically incoherent, and therefore it cannot be true. For the world’s religions conceive of God (or gods) in so many different contradictory ways that they cannot all be true. In particular, the concept of God in Islam and Christianity is so different that both religions cannot be right. Islam and Christianity have different doctrines (or teachings) about God that make them irreconcilable.
For example, Christians believe that God is tri-personal – that there are in the one God three persons whom we call the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Muslims deny this doctrine, or teaching. They believe that God is a single person. So we cannot both be right. We could both be wrong. Maybe it is the Buddhists who are right – that God is impersonal. But we cannot both be correct.
Therefore, part of the job of evaluating the competing claims of Islam and Christianity will be assessing their differing concepts of God. Accordingly, in this morning’s talk, I want to first look at the principal Islamic critic of the Christian concept of God, and then second to examine critically the Muslim concept of God with a view toward determining its adequacy.
Let’s look first at the Christian concept of God and ask ourselves why Muslims find it rationally objectionable. Christians believe that God is an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-holy, eternal, spiritual being who has created the universe. Muslims agree with all of these attributes (or properties) of God. This isn’t really surprising since Islam is historically speaking an offshoot of the Judeo-Christian tradition. So naturally our understanding of what God is like is in many respects similar. But the major objection lodged by Islam against the Christian concept of God concerns the doctrine of the Trinity. In particular, Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and shares the same divine nature with God the Father. Muslims reject this doctrine because they believe that it commits the sin they call shirk which is the sin of associating anything with God. Since God is thought to be incomparable or without peer he cannot have a Son as Christians claim. Thus, the Qur’an denounces anyone who holds that God has a Son as an unbeliever and consigns him to hellfire for such a blasphemous assertion. The Qur’an states, “They are unbelievers who say, 'God is the Messiah, Mary’s son.'. . . Surely whoever associates anything with God, God shall prohibit him entrance into paradise and his home shall be the fire. None shall help the evildoers” (V. 72).
Unfortunately, the Qur’an’s denunciation of the doctrine of the Trinity seems to be based upon a gross misunderstanding of that doctrine. First, a bit of history here. Early Christian creeds adopted the language of speaking of Mary as “the mother of God” because she bore Jesus Christ. Now, to someone who is not familiar with the theology of the early church fathers, such an expression as “the mother of God” is bound to be misleading. What the church fathers meant by this expression is that the person whose human nature Mary bore is a divine person. Mary did not give birth to the divine nature of Christ but she could be called “the mother of God” since Christ (whose human nature she bore) was a divine person. But Muhammad evidently thought that Christians believed in a Trinity composed of God, Mary, and their offspring Jesus. It is no wonder that he was revolted by such a ridiculous doctrine.
Muhammad’s understanding of the Trinity is evident in passages such as the following found in the Qur’an. “God will say, ‘Jesus, Son of Mary, did you ever say to mankind, “Worship me and my mother as gods besides God?”' 'Glory be to you,' he will answer, 'I could never have claimed what I have no right to'” (V. 116). Again the Qur’an says, “The creator of the heavens and the earth, how should he have a son seeing that he has no consort. And he created all things” (VI. 101). The doctrine that Muhammad rejected (namely, that God the Father should consort with a human female to sire a son, and that these three should then be worshiped equally as gods would be rejected by any Christian. According to the Bible, Jesus is called God’s Son because he had no human father but was miraculously conceived of a virgin. In the Gospel According to Luke, the angel says to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and God’s power will rest upon you. For this reason, the holy child will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).
What makes this ironic is that the Qur’an affirms the virgin birth of Jesus! In the Qur’anic account, the angel says, “I am but a messenger of your Lord and have come to give you a holy son.” Mary answers, “How shall I bear a son when I have neither been touched by any man nor ever been unchaste?” The angel replies, “Thus did your Lord speak, 'That is easy enough for me. Our decree shall come to pass.'” (XIX. 19-21). Whereupon, Mary conceives Jesus. Thus no Muslim should object to calling Jesus the Son of God in the sense of his being miraculously conceived of a virgin.
If the doctrine of the Trinity is not the caricature rejected by Muhammad, what is it? It is the doctrine that God is tri-personal. It is not the self-contradictory assertion that three gods are somehow one God. Or that three persons are somehow one person. That is just illogical non-sense. Rather, it is the claim that the one entity we call God comprises three persons. That is no more illogical than saying that one geometrical figure which we call a triangle is comprised of three angles. Three angles in one figure. Three persons in one being. Perhaps the best way to think of this is to say that in God there are three centers of self-consciousness. I am a being with a single self-consciousness that I call “I.” God is a being with three centers of self-consciousness, and each of these three persons is equal in glory and divinity. But we call them the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit because of the different roles that they play in relation to us. The Father is the person who sends the Son to Earth. The Son is the person who takes on a human nature and becomes incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth. The Holy Spirit is the person who stands in Christ’s place until Christ’s return. Although this doctrine may seem strange to Muslims, once it is properly stated there is nothing illogical about it. It is a logically consistent doctrine, and therefore rationally unobjectionable.
In fact, I’d like to finish out my first point by offering an argument for why it is plausible to think that God is a Trinity. To begin with, God is by definition the greatest conceivable being. If you could conceive of anything greater than God then that would be God. Every Muslim who dies with the cry, “Allahu Akbar!” on his lips recognizes this point. God is the greatest being conceivable. Now, as the greatest conceivable being, God must be perfect. If there were any imperfection in God then he would not be the greatest conceivable being.
A perfect being must be a loving being, for love is a moral perfection. It is better for a person to be loving than unloving. God, therefore, must be a perfectly loving being.
It is the very nature of love to give one’s self away. Love reaches out to another person rather than centering wholly in one’s self. So if God is perfectly loving by his very nature then he must be giving himself in love to another. But who is that other? It can’t be any created person since creation is a result of God’s free will, not a result of his nature. It belongs to God’s very essence to love, but it does not belong to his essence to create. God is necessarily loving, but he is not necessarily creating. So we can imagine a possible world in which God is perfectly loving and yet no created persons exist. So created persons cannot be the sufficient explanation of whom God loves. It therefore follows that the other to whom God’s love is necessarily directed must be internal to God himself. In other words, God is not a single isolated person, as Islam holds. Rather, God is a plurality of persons just as the Christian doctrine of the Trinity states. On the Islamic view of God, God is a person who does not give himself away essentially in love for another. He is focused essentially only on himself. He cannot therefore be the most perfect being. But on the Christian view, God is a triad of persons in eternal self-giving love relationships. Thus, since God is essentially loving, the doctrine of the Trinity is more plausible than any unitarian concept of God such as Islam. Why? Because God is by nature a perfectly loving being. A being of self-giving love.
In summary of my first point, we’ve seen that the classical Muslim rejection of the Christian concept of God is based upon a drastic misunderstanding of the doctrine of the Trinity. Once that doctrine is correctly stated, it is not only rationally unobjectionable but quite plausible as well. Therefore, the Christian concept of God is rationally unobjectionable.
That brings us to my second point – the Muslim concept of God is rationally objectionable. Now in claiming this, I'm not trying to put anybody down or attack someone personally. I'm just saying that it seems to me that the Islamic conception of God has real problems which makes it rationally objectionable. Let me share just one of those deficits, namely: Islam has a morally deficient concept of God.
We've seen that Muslims and Christians agree that God by definition is the greatest conceivable being and that besides being all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present, and so forth, the greatest conceivable being must also be morally perfect. That means that God must be a loving and gracious being. Therefore, God, as the perfect being, must be all-loving.
And this is exactly what the Bible affirms. The Bible says, “God is love, . . . In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His son to be the sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:8, 10).
Or again it says, “God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Jesus taught God's unconditional love for sinners. We see this, for example, in his parables like the prodigal son and the lost sheep, in his practice of table fellowship with the immoral and unclean, and in his sayings like those of the Sermon on the Mount. He said, for example,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends his rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, . . . what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).
The love of the Heavenly Father is impartial, universal, and unconditional.
What a contrast with the God of the Qur'an! What I am going to tell you now is something that you will never hear in the media or from our public officials for they dare not say such things. They cannot risk alienating hundreds of millions of Muslims by saying anything critical of Islam. But honesty compels me to say candidly and without rancor that the God of the Qur’an is not the loving God revealed by Jesus. According to the Qur'an, God does not love sinners. This fact is emphasized repeatedly and consistently like a drumbeat throughout the pages of the Qur'an. Just listen to the following passages:
“God loves not the unbelievers” (III. 33)
“God loves not the impious and sinners” (II. 277)
“God loves not evildoers” (III. 58)
“God loves not the proud” (IV. 37)
“God loves not transgressors” (V. 88)
“God loves not the prodigal” (VI. 142)
“God loves not the treacherous” (VIII. 59)
“God is an enemy to unbelievers” (II. 99)
Over and over again the Qur'an declares that God does not love the very people that the Bible says God loves so much that He gave His only Son to die for them!
Now this may seem paradoxical in light of the Qur’an's calling God “al-Rahman al-Rahim” – the All-Merciful – until you realize that according to the Qur'an what God's mercy really cashes out to is that if you believe and do righteous deeds, then God can be counted on to give you what you have earned plus a bonus. Thus, the Qu’ran promises,
“Work and God will surely see your work.” (IX. 105)
“Every soul shall be paid in full for what it has earned.” (II. 282)
“Those who believe and do deeds of righteousness and perform the prayer and pay the alms – their wage awaits them with the Lord.” (II. 278)
According to the Qur'an, God's love is thus reserved only for those who earn it. It says, “To those who believe and do righteousness, God will assign love.” (XIX 97).
So according to the Qur'an God’s love is reserved for the God-fearing and the good-doers; but he has no love for sinners and unbelievers. Thus, in the Islamic conception of God, God is not all-loving. His love is partial and has to be earned. The Muslim God only loves those who first love Him. His love thus rises no higher than the sort of love that Jesus said even tax-collectors and sinners exhibit.
Now don't you think that this is an morally inadequate conception of God? What would you think of a parent who said to his children, “If you measure up to my standards and do as I tell you, then I will love you”? Some of you have had parents like that, and you know the emotional scars you bear as a result of the fact that they did not give you unconditional love. But as the greatest conceivable being, as the most perfect being, the source of all goodness and love, God's love must be unconditional, impartial, and universal. Therefore, it seems to me that the Islamic conception of God is simply morally defective. Therefore I cannot rationally accept it.
Undoubtedly, the difference between Jesus’ heavenly Father and the God of Muhammad is most clearly exhibited in the attitude that believers are commanded to have toward unbelievers. Jesus said that we should love unbelievers just as God does, even if they are our enemies. Muhammad’s attitude and teaching were quite different. Early on in his career when he himself was part of the persecuted minority, Muhammad had a very positive attitude toward Jews and Christians whom he called “the people of the book” because of their allegiance to the Bible. He believed that once the Jews understood his message they would willingly convert to Islam. Passages in the Qur’an from this early period of Muhammad’s life are quite positive toward Jews and Christians. But when the Jews did not convert, but opposed Muhammad, he became increasingly embittered against them. As Muhammad acquired political and military strength, the persecuted prophet changed to the ruthless politician. He began to have the Jews in Medina where his base of operations was either killed or dispossessed. In the year 627 after an unsuccessful attack on Medina by the Arab army from Mecca, Muhammad rounded up hundreds of Jewish families in Medina. Seven hundred Jewish men were put to the sword. Muhammad had their wives and children sold into slavery. Muhammad realized that in order to unify the fractious Arab tribes, outward expansion was a necessity. So he turned his eyes toward Syria and Iraq as obvious targets. At this time he lifted all protection from pagans. Unless they submitted to Islam they were to be exterminated.
The ninth chapter of the Qur’an comes from this period of Muhammad’s life. It states that for four months the pagan idolaters shall be left alone unmolested. Then comes this chilling command: “When the sacred months are past, kill the idolaters where ever you find them. Arrest them. Besiege them. Lie in wait for them. Ambush them everywhere. But if they repent and take to prayer and render the alms levied, allow them to go their way. They are your brothers in the faith.” Not only pagans, but also Jews and Christians (the once-respected people of the book) now also came under Muhammad’s ban. Unless they submitted, they were likewise to be eliminated. Chapter 9 goes on to command Muslims, “Fight those from among the people of the book who do not embrace the true faith until they pay tribute out of their hand and are utterly subdued.” This chapter goes on to rebuke in the harshest terms any Muslim who refuses to go forth to fight. God will punish him and replace him with others. Muslims who refuse to fight will be smitten by God either directly or (ominously) at the hands of faithful Muslims who do fight. Wait if you will, the hesitant are told, we too are waiting. But those who go forth to fight in God’s holy war are promised either victory or martyrdom. Those who die in God’s cause are promised a paradise of sensual delights, green gardens with flowing waters, silk couches, abundant wine, and voluptuous dark-eyed virgins for their pleasure.
These are the last commands in the Qur’an with respect to unbelievers. Muhammad died shortly thereafter in 632 with plans before him for attacks on the neighboring nations. His successors carried out those attacks. In 633 the armies of Islam took Persia. In 635 Damascus fell. In 638 Jerusalem succumbed. In 640 Egypt was taken. And so one right across North Africa to the Atlantic coast.
We in the West with our democratic liberal values tend to think that every religion surely shares our values. American officials have repeatedly said that we should not refer to terrorists as Islamic fundamentalists because they are murderers, and no major religion advocates murder. I wonder if these officials have ever read the ninth chapter of the Qur’an. The truth of the matter is that Islam is a religion which enjoins violence and which historically has been propagated by violence. Contrary to what you hear tirelessly repeated in the media, the word “Islam” does not mean “peace.” That claim is simply linguistically mistaken. “Islam” is the Arabic word for “submission” or “surrender.” That is what Muslims are called upon to do – to surrender everything to God. Thus contrary to Western ways of thinking, Islam is not a church. It is crucial that we understand this. Islam is a total way of life. Everything is to be submitted to God. The government, the economy, social mores, every aspect of society is to be submitted to God. Islam is thus all-consuming. The Western idea of separation of church and state is meaningless in Islam for everything is to be submitted to God. What this means is that it is really the so-called moderate Arab states like Egypt and Turkey (where you have a secular government distinct from Islamic law; in effect a separation of church and state) which are in fact acting inconsistently with Islam. They’ve adopted a Western model of governance – a separation of church and state – which is fundamentally incompatible with Islam. That is why these Islamic fundamentalists hate these moderate Arab regimes and want to do everything to overthrow them. The fundamentalists have understood more accurately the true nature of Islam.
To wrap up then, we’ve seen first that the Christian concept of God as a Trinity is rationally unobjectionable, and secondly that the Muslim concept of God is by contrast rationally objectionable because the God of Islam is morally defective and therefore not the greatest conceivable being. That is why it is absolutely critical that we get our concept of God right. As one Christian theologian has said, “Thank God for God!”
MODERATOR: Before you step off, Dr. Craig, let me just ask you a question if I can because, again, this is in the news. I think it was last week that we saw Kareem Abdul-Jabbar say that radical Islam is to Islam as the Ku Klux Klan is to Christianity. This is the view that we are being told we need to embrace. I hear you saying something very different.
DR. CRAIG: What I would say is that moderate Islam is to Islam what nominal Christianity (cultural Christianity) is to Christianity. It is a mere cultural set of mores that one has adopted but isn’t representative in either case of the fundamental teaching of the original book of that religion – whether the Qur’an or the Bible.
MODERATOR: Very helpful. Would you again thank Dr. Craig for his presentation here.
KEVIN HARRIS: I am so glad you were here today with this podcast. As you can tell, Dr. Craig was treading some very politically incorrect waters in his presentation – a presentation that needed to be heard in a concise and intelligent way. That is exactly what Dr. Craig did. If you are a follower of Christ, please pray for Dr. Craig as Reasonable Faith is truly on the front lines today. You can also partner with us financially if you would like to. You can donate when you go to ReasonableFaith.org. Do it right there online. Get many more resources from Dr. Craig there as well at ReasonableFaith.org. I’m Kevin Harris. We’ll see you next time on Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig.
 Total Running Time: 30:55 (Copyright © 2015 William Lane Craig)