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Saint Augustine
Christianity and Islam: The Differences in the Societies They Create - The Fourth Major Difference: How do people get to heaven?
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Article Index
Christianity and Islam: The Differences in the Societies They Create
The First Major Difference: What is God?
The Second Major Difference: What is Man?
The Third Major Difference: How does man relate to nature?
The Fourth Major Difference: How do people get to heaven?
The Fifth Major Difference: What is the ideal future?
The Sixth Major Difference: What is divine revelation?
Conclusion and Endnotes
All Pages

The Fourth Major Difference: How do people get to heaven?

In both Christianity and Islam, salvation depends upon an exclusive faith-based identity. Muslims believe that forgiveness comes exclusively through Islam,15 and Christians believe that forgiveness comes exclusively through Jesus (John 14:6). But the similarity stops there.

Muslims believe an angel on the right shoulder records good deeds, and angel on the left shoulder records bad deeds. Going to heaven instead of hell depends upon being a Muslim and upon God's mercy in evaluating one's good and bad deeds.16

In Christianity, people cannot mitigate their own sins with words and deeds. Only God can mitigate sin. Theologians call the process “atonement.”17 It happens through the historical sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. God forgives sins, people repent, and a broken relationship 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" (see 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, Christians have assurance that God won't punish them when they confess and repent of 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. Forgiveness and repentance are both essential to a restored relationship.

How does belief about salvation affect civic structures?

The 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). In societies that follow the pattern for reconciliation set by God in Jesus Christ, people expect to be forgiven when they repent – that is when they take responsibility and promise to change. They expect mitigated consequences when they sincerely apologize.

In my experience among Muslims, 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. 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.

Apologizing for accidentally burning Qur’ans18 or for the existence of videos and cartoons that insult Muhammad19 is a mistake. So is apologizing for past offenses like the Crusades or Colonialism.20 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, then the greater the admission of responsibility, and the greater the admission of responsibility, then the costlier the settlement.

Also, among Muslims, potential for reconciliation is higher for insiders than for outsiders. In the 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 who will receive it, whether Christian or non-Christian. The Muslim God treats Muslims and non-Muslims differently. Like their God, Muslims categorize insiders and outsiders differently.

Actually, Muslims often ask each other for forgiveness. In fact, requesting forgiveness from friends and relatives is an important part of Muslim holiday celebrations.21 In my experience of Muslim cultures, however, personal 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 out of 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 people 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. It puts the offender rather than the offended in control. It turns justice and divine sovereignty upside down.

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

Last Updated on Saturday, 27 April 2013 20:30