For more than a decade I taught philosophy and religion courses at a public college in Southern California. One of the courses I enjoyed teaching most was the world religions class. Most students who took the class were interested in more than just fulfilling their humanities requirement. I was pleased to discover that the majority of these students were genuinely interested in learning about the various religions of the world.
Though I had many fine students over the years and lots of provocative discussions in and outside the classroom, one particular exchange with two students stands out in my memory. This dialogue challenged me to think carefully about how Christianity differs from two of the other major religions of the world.
One semester I had two bright, religiously devout young women in my class–one Jewish, the other Muslim. Both of them were interested in learning how their own respective religions compared and contrasted with other religions. When I lectured on Judaism and Islam, the two students shared helpful insights about their particular religious beliefs and rituals. The Jewish student had lived in Israel for part of her life, and the Muslim had grown up in Egypt. After one of my lectures on Christianity, the two students approached me and asked a pointed question: “Exactly how does the God of Christianity differ from the Jewish and Muslim views of God?”
I explained to them that historic Christianity, like Judaism and Islam,1 affirms the existence of one true and living God. I pointed out that Christianity enjoys a unique and special relationship with Judaism. However, I also emphasized three distinctive ways in which the Christian God differs from the conception of God found in these two other Middle Eastern monotheistic religions. In fact, I said that these three doctrinal distinctives set the Christian faith apart from all other religious systems, not just Judaism and Islam. The three tenets (in a sense) express the theological heart of historic Christianity.
The first way in which Christianity is distinct is in its special conception of monotheism. Unlike traditional Judaism and Islam, the God of Christianity possesses a unique and mysterious plurality of personhood within its single divine essence. In other words, while God is one in being, he nevertheless exists as three distinct persons (or centers of consciousness). One way of expressing this special form of monotheism is to say that God is “one what and three whos.” That is, in terms of what God is, God is one and only one divine being. But in terms of who God is, God is three distinct persons. No other religion conceives of God in this way, by distinguishing between God’s single essence on one hand and his mysterious plurality of personhood on the other.2
A second difference lies in Christianity’s unusual and extraordinary way in which God has revealed himself in the world. Central to Christian belief is the view that one of those divine persons (namely the Son) took a genuine human nature and became a man. Unlike all other religions, historic Christianity affirms that God came to the earth in human flesh. The historical person Jesus of Nazareth is designated as none other than the “God-man.” To the Christian, to encounter Jesus is to meet God face to face. The God who made the heavens and the earth has personally visited this planet. I explained to the students that Muslims and traditional Jews reject historic Christianity’s bold claim that Jesus was God Incarnate.
The third distinctive feature of the Christian view of God describes how this holy and righteous God brings about the forgiveness of sinful and rebellious human beings. Unlike the gods of virtually all other religions, the Christian God does not accept people based upon a preponderance of good deeds done in life. Rather, God the Son, Jesus Christ, took upon himself-while on the Roman cross-the just punishment for the sinful acts perpetrated by human beings and thus appeased God’s appropriate wrath. Jesus’ atoning sacrifice made a way for God to express his mercy and forgiveness to repentant sinners. Redemption or salvation then is provided by God’s grace alone, exclusively through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I concluded my answer to the students by stating that these three great doctrinal truths illustrate the uniqueness of the historic Christian concept of God. They asked me many more good and difficult questions that semester, and they also taught me a thing or two about their respective religions. Frank and healthy discussions like this one underscore the truth that a person’s view of God makes a critical difference to one’s overall world-and-life perspective.
This article has been adapted from Kenneth Samples’ upcoming book on worldviews, due to be published in 2007.
- For an evangelical Christian assessment of the religions of Judaism and Islam, see Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths: A Christian Introduction to World Religions (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998); see chapters 2 and 3 respectively.
- 2 For more on the historic Christian doctrine of the Trinity, see Kenneth Richard Samples, Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), chapter 5, “How Can God be Three and One?” 63-76.