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Monotheistic Religions - Their Similarities and Differences

One big set of questions I get - especially once we start discussing the Reformation - is about the similarities and differences between the major monotheistic, or religions. They are referred to as Abrahamic religions because all three trace their origins to a common prophet, Abraham.

Here's the bottom lines - from a historical standpoint. I am not nor do I purport to be a theological expert. Therefore my info here is in simple, non-religious language when at all possible.

Judaism - started as the religion of the ancient Hebrew civilization, when that population was held captive by Egypt. Its followers are called Jews.

Christianity - started as a radical offshoot of Judaism in the 1st century AD, when Judea was a province of the Roman Empire. Its followers are called Christians.

Islam - started as Mohammed gathered followers first in Mecca, then Medina, then in Mecca again. Its followers are called Muslims.

God's name is different in each religion, but each religion's name translates as God. Jews call god Yahweh or Jehovah. Christians call god Jehovah or, much more commonly, just God. Muslims call god Allah. All of these names mean the same thing and refer to a single divine entity.

Just as each religion calls god by a different name, so too does their evil entity have a different name... except for Judaism, which has no primary evil being. Christians call the evil being Satan (or "the Devil," which is like calling Santa Claus "the Toymaker" - it's discriptive, not a name). Muslims call him Shaitaan or Iblis. The concept is the same between Christianity and Islam, though - this evil being is not equivalent to God/Allah, but is rather a fallen being jealous of the attention lavished upon the humans.

Judaism's chief prophets were Abraham and Moses, though there were/are many more. Judaism does not recognize Jesus or Mohammed as prophets.

Christianity's chief prophets were Abraham, Moses and Jesus. Christianity does not recognize Mohammed as a prophet, but does recognize the whole of pre-Christian Jewish prophetdom.

Islam's chief prophets were Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed.

Christianity further recognizes Jesus as its savior, adhering to the belief that Jesus is God's son and was sent to Earth to be born of a human woman. Neither Judaism nor Islam recognize this aspect of Jesus' life.

The main holy book of Judaism is the Torah. Technically, the Torah coincides with the first 5 books of the Christian Old Testament - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. More broadly, the Torah is the entire lexicon of accepted Jewish writings and teachings. Additionally, Jews follow the lessons of the Talmud, which is a collection of oral interpretations of the Torah later recorded by scholars.

The main holy book of Christianity is the Bible, which includes 2 parts, the Old Testament (which is recognized by Judaism) and the New Testament (which is not). No other manuals are accepted, though many translations/interpretations of the Bible exist.

The main holy book of Islam is the Koran. Islam recognizes the Torah, Psalms and a book called the Gospel as well. The Gospel is not the Christian New Testament, which is a chronicle of Jesus' life, but rather the words of God given to and taught by the prophet Jesus, but subsequently lost to time.

Judaism - teaches that the Messiah, or Savior of humanity, has not come yet.

Christianity - teaches that Jesus was the Messiah and that he will one day return.

Islam - teaches that Jesus was the Messiah and that he will one day return.

Judaism - those who are saved go to Olam Haba ("world to come"); those who are damned will be refused resurrection on Judgment Day. There is no Hell or its equivalent in Judaism.

Christianity - those who are saved go to Heaven; those who are damned go to Hell.

Islam - those who are saved go to Jannah (Paradise); those who are damned go to Jahannam (Hell).


A brief word about Zoroastrianism

Zoroastrianism is the post-polytheistic religion of the ancient Persians. It came on the scene after Judaism, but before Christianity or Islam, which is why it's important - it's a heavy influence on the development of both Christianity and Islam!

Zoroaster, like any good prophet, wandered alone in the desert until God saw fit to speak to him and impart the truth, which of course he was then tasked with bringing to the rest of us.

Zoroaster's new truth was that the primary god Ahura Mazda was locked in immortal combat with Ahriman (aka Aura Mainyu). In this fashion, Zoroastrianism is monotheistic, but there's some debate as to the power of Ahriman - in our western ways, we want to subordinate him to Ahura Mazda in a Satan-like role, but Zoroastrianism doesn't make such a fine (clear) distinction.

What's important about these gods is that Ahura Mazda is the source of everything that is Good, while Ahriman is the source of everything that is Evil. Humans are given the free will to choose the path of Good or the path of Evil, and their immortal souls hang in the balance. 51% good? You spend the afterlife in heaven. 51% evil? Hell awaits.

Zoroastrianism's primary text is called Zend Avesta, and it lays out a lot of things that Christians and Muslims will find familiar - angels, demons, saviors, messiahs, heaven, hell, rituals, penance, burial rites, festivals and a whole lot more. Zoroastrianism is undoubtedly a heavy influence on the development of both Christianity and Islam.


I fully admit that my classes delve no further into either Judaism or Islam, as their histories are ancillary to the development of Western Civilization as it is taught to freshmen in college. The distinction then becomes between the different Christian sects, described below.

Ancient Christianity is commonly dated as after the lifetime of Jesus until 325 AD.

The first Christians were all converted Jews who followed Paul of Tarsus, one of Jesus' disciples and an early Christian organizer. Most early Christian beliefs were later rejected and deemed heresy by medieval Christian sects.

In 325 AD, the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the dwindling Roman Empire, ending that civilization's polytheistic run and ushering in a new period of theological distinctions.

In 325 AD, there was a big conference called the Council of Nicea. At this conference, the Roman Catholic Church was made the only acceptable "official" strain of Christianity (as far as the Romans were concerned, anyway) and all other sects were condemned, their followers forever to be known as heretics.

In 1054, a raging debate within the Christian world boiled over into the first great break, or schism, in the religion. The Christian Church split along doctrinal, theological, ethnic, language, political and geographic differences, leaving behind two distinct entities.

The Eastern Orthodox Church - commonly referred to as Orthodox Christians - became the religion of Greece, Asia Minor, the Balkans, Eastern Europe, Western Asia and North Africa.

The Roman Catholic Church - commonly referred to as Roman Catholicism - became the religion of Western Europe and everywhere it spread its colonies in the coming centuries, including (and especially) North and South America as well as parts of Africa and Asia.

In the 16th Century, Roman Catholicism underwent a schism from which new, or Protestant, religions emerged. Each of these was declared heretical by the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

Lutheranism - Martin Luther was a German lawyer-turned-Roman Catholic priest and a monk in the Augustinian order. He disagreed with several points of doctrine taught by the Roman Catholic Church, was excommunicated for teaching against these things, and subsequently gathered followers that established the new, Lutheran religion.

There are two basic - but major - differences between Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism.

  1. Roman Catholicism teaches that, to achieve salvation, a Christian must both have faith in God and Jesus and perform good works as a display of that love and faith. Lutheranism rejects this and says man is saved by faith alone.
  2. Roman Catholicism is held together by the primacy (in spiritual/doctrinal matters) of the Pope, who is considered the highest authority on all religious matters. Lutheranism rejects the primacy of the Pope, giving ultimate authority or religious matters over to the Bible - and man's interpretations thereof.

Calvinism - John Calvin was a French lawyer-turned-theologian and Roman Catholic pastor. He did the majority of his teaching in Switzerland, being forced to leave France by heightened religious tensions.

There are several major differences between Roman Catholicism and Calvinism.

  1. Calvinism, like Lutheranism, rejects the requirement to do good works as a part of salvation and says that faith alone is enough for salvation. However, Calvinism says that, once saved, a man will necessarily do good works because of his saved nature.
  2. Predestination is a central tenet of Calvinism. While Roman Catholicism does have a measure of predestination in its theology, it is conditioned on the merits of those predestined, bringing things back to faith + good works. Calvinism's version of predestination teaches that God has already decided who will be saved and who will be damned and there's nothing man can do about it. Furthermore, while the Roman Catholic version of predestination does not mute the concept of free will, Calvinism rejects the idea that man has any free will at all.
  3. Roman Catholicism teaches that there is a succession of doctrinal authority that can be traced back through the Popes to Peter, one of Jesus' disciples. Calvinism rejects this outright as well as the idea that there can be "one true church."
  4. Roman Catholicism teaches that the Pope can never make a mistake. Calvinism rejects this, saying it has no basis is the Bible.
  5. Roman Catholicism says that Church tradition is equivalent to the Bible in establishing theological and doctrinal data points. Calvinism rejects this, saying the Bible is the only true authority.
  6. Roman Catholicism teaches that the Pope is the ultimate authority on any interpretation of material contained in the Bible. Calvinism says there is no authoritative human interpretation of the Bible, so ultimate authority on Biblical matters reverts to God.

Anglicanism - England's King Henry VIII broke away from the Roman Catholic Church for political and economic reasons, not theological or doctrinal ones. To completely simplify this break, Henry VIII wanted to divorce his current wife Catherine, who was related to the (very Catholic) kings & queens of Spain. Because the Pope would not grant this divorce and due to Henry's untamable desire to have sex with Anne Boleyn, Henry broke from Catholicism, granted himself the divorce, satisfied his carnal urges, and got on with his life. He discovered he liked not answering to the Pope and subsequently seized all Roman Catholic Church property in England and disbanded all monasteries in England.

Perhaps the major difference between Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism is in their organization. Catholicism has a clear and clearly defined hierarchy that begins and ends with the Pope. Anglicanism has a much more convoluted and messy power structure that is often mired in conflict. The primary leader of the Anglican Church is the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Anglicanism is referred to as the Church of England in most parts of the world. However, in the United States it is referred to as the Episcopal Church.