One of the most fascinating Christian apologists of the Medieval time period was Pierre Maurice de Montboissier, better known as Peter the Venerable. One of many observations he made about Christianity and Islam has to do with the ultimate destinations of the respective believers of each religion. He had much to say on the topic, pointing out striking difference between the two versions of heaven, and the implications of those differences.
But before we dive in to his theology, consider the time in which Peter the Venerable lived. During the Medieval period, Western Europe was woefully ignorant about Islam and its tenets. It was the early part of the twelfth century when Peter the Venerable, the head of the monastery of Cluny, became interested in Islam. He began to investigate the religion in order to evangelize Muslims. All he found were fables, rumors, or old wives tales about what Muslims believed. In an attempt to win Muslims, he found himself grossly handicapped by lack of knowledge. This frustrated him to action. Peter himself said
“I was indignant that the Latins did not know the cause of such perdition and, by that ignorance, could not be moved to put up any resistance; for there was no one who replied [to Islam] because there was simply no one who knew [about it]” [i]
Unlike previous Christian Arab apologists, Peter takes a more irenic tone throughout his treatise. Yet he did this without compromising core Christian values. His emphasis was on understanding and evaluating Islamic doctrine in a fair and educated way. Yet his criticisms of Islam were well thought out and humbly delivered. What a great role model for us today.
One of the specific items Peter the Venerable discussed was the Christian and Islamic views of heaven. In Islam, there is a certain specificity about what paradise will be like. For example, in this verse of the Qur’an, those who go to heaven are rewarded with fine jewelry, nice clothes, and get to relax on comfortable sofas.
[18.31] These it is for whom are gardens of perpetuity beneath which rivers flow, ornaments shall be given to them therein of bracelets of gold, and they shall wear green robes of fine silk and thick silk brocade interwoven with gold, reclining therein on raised couches; excellent the recompense and goodly the resting place.
In other parts of the Qur’an, such as chapter 37:39-49 there are more descriptions of paradise, which include fruits, people being held in high regard, and chaste companions provided for the pleasure of those rewarded in paradise. Some people may argue that these descriptions of comfort, rest, and abundance are analogous to those references in the Bible, such as Revelation 7:16 and Revelation 22:2. Indeed, there are some similarities between Christianity and Islam.
However, there is one major difference, and it’s critically important. Actually, it isn’t even a difference, but rather an omission. What we learn about the Islamic view of heaven isn’t so much about what we are told about it, but rather what is left out. What is glaringly absent in any descriptions of the Islamic heaven is the worship of God.
In Christianity, the worship of God in heaven is mentioned extensively. What the Bible describes regarding heaven isn’t so much about what rewards will be given to us, but what our worship will be like toward God. Whole chapters of the book of Revelation describe the worship scene. Revelation 4:11 presents a snapshot of the kind of praise we will be able to give God. In Revelation 7:9-10 we get a picture of a massive throng of worshippers coming out of every people group on the planet! What rewards believers do get, we will give back to Jesus out of gratitude, just as the twenty four elders do (Revelation 4:10). To some, these extensive description of worship don’t sound enjoyable, but that is because such aspects of our heavenly existence don’t appeal to the satisfaction of our flesh.
Let’s get back to our medieval predecessor, Peter the Venerable. He picks up on this omission and hints at the fact that Islamic heaven misses the spiritual components of worship. He notices that Islam only discusses those aspects of heaven correlated to earthly pleasures.
“He painted a paradise not of angelic society, nor of the vision of God, nor of that highest good which neither eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man (Isaiah 64:4, 1 Corinthians 2:9), but actually in such a way as he wished it to be prepared for himself. He promises to his followers there the eating of meats, and all kinds of fruits, there rivers of milk and honey and gleaming waters, there the embrace and sensual satisfaction of the loveliest woman and virgins, in which things his whole paradise is comprehended”. [ii]
In Islam, the focus is on the rewards God gives to us. In Christianity, the focus is on the worship that we will be able to give back to God. Heaven is much less about what we get; it’s much more about who is there with us.