When I worked at a camp there were a few instances where I got various versions of the question, “how do we know that the Muslims aren’t right?” It’s an interesting question that I think requires us to think about the differences between the fundamental claims of various religions. In our culture, which often seeks to put all religions into the same basket, we need to be able to point out these kinds of distinctions that make a significant difference.
Mormonism and Islam
To answer this question I think it’s helpful to look at two religions we don’t normally associate together: Islam and Mormonism. When we think about Mormonism, we think about smiling white people in Utah who all went to BYU and have large families. When we think about Islam, we think about people in headscarves praying on mats and not eating pork. We think of Mormonism as a Christian cult or heresy and Islam as a separate world religion, alongside Hinduism, Buddhism, or Judaism. However, I would argue that Mormonism and Islam are both really just two different versions of the same sort of Christian heresy. You could go as far as to say that in certain respects Mormonism is just North American Islam.
Now obviously Mormonism and Islam are theologically quite different. But the epistemological foundation is the same, that is, how they know they what they know is the same. These Christian heresies make the same mistake about the nature of divine revelation.
We tend to think about revelation as God speaking to people. And of course when God speaks, we want to listen. However, how do we tell the difference between the cult leader and the Old Testament prophet? Both claim that God has spoken to them. We could just reject all prophecy, as a way of knowing about God, but that is intellectually dishonest and close-minded unless we are going to say that it is categorically impossible for God to communicate through prophets. We can’t just accept all prophetic claims, since different prophetic claims contradict each other. Therefore, to steal from C.S. Lewis, the essential question is whether the prophet in question is lying, crazy, or the real deal. After all, if what they say is not true, then we must reject them and what they’re teaching. However, if it is the real deal, we want to be sure to listen to them and what God would have to say to us through them.
So, what separates the false prophet from the true prophet?
The book of Deuteronomy is especially helpful here. As the Israelites were about to go into the promised land Moses gave them his final sermon, reminding them of what that had received at Sinai and how they would proceed in a new land with new issues. Particularly important is that Moses, God’s prophet to the people, would now no longer be with them to guide them and teach them.
In Deuteronomy 18:22, it says that if what the prophet predicts to come to pass does not, then that prophet is no prophet at all. They are a false prophet. This is the “prove-it” approach to vetting prophets. Closely related to this is the accompaniment of signs. Miracles are another way of pointing to the fact that a prophet is the real deal. This is what Elijah does on Mount Carmel with the prophets of Baal. This is also what Jesus and the apostles do in the New Testament.
In fact, Luther did this same thing with the Zwickau prophets when they came and visited Wittenberg. This trio of self-proclaimed prophets confronted him and demanded that he submit to their spiritual authority. Luther refused and in turn demanded that they show him their miracles. Naturally, they were either unwilling or unable to do this. Now of course, Luther had other reasons for rejecting these prophets, but this is the first piece of the puzzle. What a true prophet says comes true. And true prophets are usually able to authenticate their prophecy with signs.
Now one might object and say that Jesus warns that false prophets will come performing great signs and wonders (Matthew 24:24). And this is an important point to keep in mind. It means that even if a prophet could perform signs, that in itself would not mean that they are a false prophet. There’s more to it than that.
So then, let’s go back to Deuteronomy:
If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams.
Not only must a prophet be able to prove their prophecy, but what they preach/prophecy must be in accord with what God has revealed before. One of the central pieces of the revelation at Sinai is that Israel is not to go after false gods, thus if a prophet arises leading the people away from that, they must be a false prophet. God is not a liar and will not send contradicting messages to his people.
This is why Jesus makes it abundantly clear that he does not abolish the law and the prophets. This is also why the evangelists do so much work to demonstrate how Jesus fulfills Old Testament prophecy. His life and teaching is in harmony with previous revelation. Sometimes this harmony is surprising and unexpected, showing up in places and texts that one would not have expected, but the harmony exists nonetheless.
This is also why in Galatians, Paul can say, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8). Previous revelation is foundational for all other claims of revelation. God can reveal more things or different things than he has in the past, but he will not overturn what he has previously revealed about himself.
Mormonism and Islam: Rootless Prophecy
Mormonism and Islam both take a basic Christian groundwork and then supplement it with the teaching of their respective prophets. They read the rest of the Christian scripture and tradition through the lens of the revelation of their own prophet, either Joseph Smith or Muhammad. This is what makes them epistemologically so similar. They make the same move. A guy comes out of nowhere and claims that God talked to him and now you should listen to him. And then you decide whether you think he’s legit or not. There are no historical events that the prophecy is tied to, say like the Exodus with Moses. It’s just take-it-or-leave-it prophecy. So if you do decide that you think they’re the real deal, you have no real way to defend their prophecy to someone who rejects it or to reject any other prophet who comes with a brand new word from God. Why believe Joseph Smith or Muhammad and not David Koresh or Jim Jones?
However, their prophecy does not pass the test of Deuteronomy. Primarily, they fail the second test. What these two men taught is not in accord with what God has previously revealed. This alone is enough to reject them as false prophets. First of all prior revelation teaches us to not expect future prophets: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2). Jesus is the final culmination of the revelation of God. There is nothing else new to be revealed. This fact alone should make us highly suspicious of people who claim to have received a third testament of sorts in the manner of Joseph Smith and Muhammad.
If this weren’t enough, they taught that Jesus was not who he claimed to be, the fully divine Son of God, Yahweh of the Old Testament. They also deny that Christ’s sacrifice freely forgives the sins of all those who turn to him. Instead one’s status before God is earned by various kinds of works. This rejection of the person and work of the person to whom all of the scriptures point is most clearly a rejection of the testimony of prior revelation. This unequivocally disqualifies Joseph Smith or Muhammad from being true prophets.
Is Christianity Different?
But wait a minute, you might say. Don’t Christians take it on faith that Jesus is who he says he is and that the new stuff that he and his apostles taught is actually from God?
Good question. But no. There is a huge difference. First of all. Christianity does not purport to be a brand new revelation like Mormonism or Islam. Both of these claim that the church became corrupted. Now they have come to restore the real teaching. Christianity claims nothing of the sort. Jesus claimed to be the fulfillment of the Old Testament scriptures. They all point to him. He is not revealing anything new, but merely pointing to the unfolding of what had always been promised. This is why when the Pharisees and others oppose Jesus he demonstrates how their own teaching is not in accord with the scriptures. He always points back to what came before.
This then is the essential difference between the testimony of Jesus and the testimony of the latest cult leader. Cults tend to be stand alone phenomenon. A guy comes out of nowhere claiming revelation. However, Jesus is the culmination of thousands of years of revelation through numerous prophets. Jesus himself is even immediately preceded by a prophet who points to him, John the Baptist, and is followed by his apostles who occupy a semi-prophetic role in the first century church. Jesus did not come out of nowhere, but was a long time coming. The same cannot not at all be said for Joseph Smith and Muhammad.
Finally, Jesus authenticates his testimony in ways that Joseph Smith and Muhammad don’t even claim to come close to. In the Gospels, Jesus is doing signs and miracles left and right. Even his opponents admit that he performs miracles. They disputed whether this was the work of God or the work of Satan, not whether his miracles were real (Matthew 12:22-32). What’s more, he performs miracles of the highest caliber and even performs miracles never before seen in Israel. He raises long-dead Lazarus and others with only his words (John 11) and restores sight to the blind (John 9). Raising someone from the dead is not the same as a tent-revival Benny Hinn healing. The latter can be fudged and faked. You can’t fake it when they’ve been rotting in the tomb for several days. And more interestingly for a Jewish audience, while there were a few resurrections in the Old Testament, nobody restored sight to the blind. Nobody except Jesus. Which points to the fact that this Jesus is not only a prophet, but something even greater than anything seen before in Israel. He is the promised Messiah, the Christ. He is Yahweh made flesh. He is the Son of the Father who has come to announce the coming rule and reign of God.
Finally, if that weren’t enough, Jesus predicts that he will be killed and then come back to life three days later. And that’s exactly what he does (#Deut18:22). He then appears publically to groups of his disciples, even hundreds at once. He even appears to some who didn’t believe him at all, such as Paul and James. This kind of authentication is nothing like what’s going on with Joseph Smith and Muhammad. These guys can’t hold a candle to Jesus.
A good friend of mine once summarized it this way: In Islam Muhammad talked to God by himself in a cave and then told people about it. In Mormonism, Joseph Smith finds some golden plates that nobody else sees written in a language that doesn’t exist. In Christianity you have thousands of years of people saying that Jesus is coming. Jesus comes. Everybody sees it. He dies and rises from the dead and everybody sees it.
This is why we can reject all of the false prophets, the older ones (Muhammad) and the newer ones (Joseph Smith), while also affirming the great and final prophet, the revelation of God himself, the king of kings: Jesus.
(What’s the difference between the Confessions and the Book of Mormon or the Quran? See What’s the Point of the Confessions?)
Image Center: Codes Sinaiticus (public domain)
Image Left: Book of Mormon (public domain)