What do Muslims and Christians Believe Differently about Salvation?

By , February 20, 2013

(Fifth in a series comparing the social impact of theological differences between Christianity and Islam)

My last post covered implications of the differences between Islam and Christianity over how mankind relates to nature. This post will cover implications of the differences over how mankind relates to God.

For God so loved the worldIn both Christianity and Islam salvation depends upon an exclusive faith-based identity. Muslims believe that forgiveness comes exclusively through Islam, and Christians believe that forgiveness comes exclusively through Jesus (John 14:6). The similarity stops there. Muslims believe in two angels (the two kiraman katibin) who record good and bad deeds, words, feelings, and thoughts. Going to heaven instead of hell depends upon being a Muslim and upon God’s mercy in evaluating the record of one’s good and bad deeds and intentions.

In Christianity, people cannot mitigate their own sin with good words and deeds. Only God can mitigate sin. Theologians call the process “atonement.” It happens through the historical sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. God forgives sins, people repent, and a broken relationship with God gets restored. Repentance for Christians involves confessing and taking responsibility for sins, and then turning away from sin through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit. Christians call this “salvation by grace through faith not of works” (Ephesians 2:8-9). It means salvation is not affected by good deeds but is a free gift to all who reconcile with God through a faith allegiance to the identity and work of Jesus Christ. Because forgiveness starts with God and is guaranteed by God, Christians have assurance that God won’t punish them when they confess their sins (1 John 1:9). From a relational point of view, forgiveness is not yet a relationship. Forgiveness merely forgoes the right to demand justice, punishment, or restitution. It’s half of reconciliation. The other half is repentance.

relating to God and manThe concept that people relate to one another based upon the way that they relate to God is part of Christian tradition. Jesus taught his followers that they were to forgive one another just as graciously as their heavenly Father had forgiven them (Matthew 6:12-15). People in societies following the pattern for reconciliation set by God in Jesus Christ, expect to be forgiven when they repent – when they take responsibility and promise to change. They expect mitigated consequences when they sincerely apologize.

People in Muslim societies rarely apologize as an initial step towards reconciliation. Rather, the offender will usually work on restitution and try to reestablish relationship first. Think about it. If forgiveness from god is affected by merit, then forgiveness from one’s neighbor, will be too. The more responsibility one accepts for an offense, then the higher the price of restitution. Muslims will often ask for forgiveness without admitting responsibility. Muslims who want to be in relationship will often mutually blame uncontrollable circumstances, someone else, or even god as a way to reduce the price for restoring the balance of good and bad deeds between them.

Based upon these patterns, apologizing for accidentally burning Qur’ans or for the existence of videos and cartoons that insult Muhammad is a mistake. So is apologizing for past offenses like the Crusades or Colonialism. It’s like a doctor apologizing for accidentally sewing his scissors into a patient after removing an appendix. It just increases liability and the cost of settlement. Islam is a legal system as well as a religion. Forgiveness is earned. It may or may not follow restitution. Apologizing admits responsibility, so the more abject the apology, the greater the admission of responsibility, and the greater the responsibility, then the costlier the settlement.

Also, among Muslims, potential for reconciliation is higher for insiders than for outsiders. In Christian theology of salvation, people reconcile with God first, and then they become “true” Christians. In Muslim salvation, people become “true” Muslims first, and then they can be reconciled with god. The Christian God treats everyone the same. He offers forgiveness to everyone, whether Christian or non-Christian. The Muslim god treats Muslims and non-Muslims differently. Like their god, Muslims treat insiders and outsiders differently.

Maaf lahir batinActually, Muslims often ask each other for forgiveness. In fact, requesting forgiveness from friends and relatives is an important component of Muslim holiday celebrations. In Muslim cultures, however, maturity and good character don’t require admitting faults or taking personal responsibility for mistakes. Offenses are often forgiven without anyone ever admitting guilt. It’s like a legal settlement in court or no-fault insurance where money changes hands but no one admits that they were wrong.

From a Muslim perspective, it is the Christian pattern for reconciliation that miscarries justice. It requires that the offended party be ready and willing to forgive once a sincere apology is offered. It means you don’t actually need to do anything in order to be forgiven. It means that even the wickedest person can reconcile with God and have absolute certainty of eternal salvation. And it puts the offender rather than the offended in control. Ultimately, it appears to turn justice and divine sovereignty upside down.

This post has covered differences between Muslim and Christian beliefs about salvation. Christians believe that salvation to eternal life flows from a restored relationship with God through forgiveness and repentance that makes one a Christian. Muslims believe salvation into paradise happens only for Muslims as God mercifully considers their good and bad deeds. These differences profoundly influence human relationships resulting in different behaviors and social structures. In interpersonal relationships, Christians are expected to grant forgiveness for sincere apologies while Muslims grant forgiveness when it is earned.

The next post in this series will explore Muslim and Christian differences in beliefs about the future.

Link through the chart to other posts on the social impact of Muslim and Christian theology:

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2 Responses to “What do Muslims and Christians Believe Differently about Salvation?”

  1. Tim Bedsole says:

    I enjoyed the reading this post and wonder how this different paths to salvation also shapes our legal sector in civil society. I listened to a discussion on a Christian radio on Sharia law and wanted to step in on it to discuss some of the misperceptions on its application in the US. I really wanted to ask the commentator to gain a deeper understanding before rendering a judgment.
    That is what your discussion does for the Christian–and in some sense for the Muslim–by delving into deeper thought on differences/similarities and their effects on our theological and sociological views.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Seth George says:

    The insider/outsider description of forgiveness is an interesting comparison. Perhaps the Islamic denial of original sin may be one reason that only “insiders” can be forgiven? If all people are born ‘Muslim’ with a natural disposition towards righteousness (the concept of ‘fitra’), the Qur’an is primarily given to ‘remind’ us of who God is and to further teach us how he expects us to live as Muslims. In a sense, everyone is an “insider” unless God and the Qur’an are rejected or willfully forgotten in favor of the world, in which case the apostate is cast out of the community and no forgiveness is possible. By comparison, the Biblical teaching of original sin means that everyone is an “outsider” due to our sin. Therefore, God performs an act of atonement, independent of our choice so that outsiders/sinners may experience and understand forgiveness.

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