The crucifixion of Jesus Christ recorded in the four Gospels is supported by impeccable testimonies of multiple eyewitnesses. The historical factuality of the cross is further attested by reports found in authoritative non-Christian historical sources like Josephus and Tacitus. The Christian witness to the crucifixion is plausible since it is inconceivable why Christians should invent the crucifixion which declares that their founder died an accursed death under divine judgment on the Cross. As such, an outright denial of the crucifixion would amount to a willful blindness to historical reality. Some Muslim critics therefore grudgingly acknowledge that historically a crucifixion did occur. However, they suggest that someone other than Jesus was crucified. They argue that Christians have misunderstood the significance of the Cross because they are victims of an illusion. God, they claim, replaced Jesus with someone that bore his likeness.
Muslim scholars bypass the historical record with an appeal to the Quranic revelation:
Surah 19:33. “So peace is on me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised up to life (again)!”
Surah 3:55. “Behold! God said: “O Jesus! I will take thee and raise thee to Myself and clear thee (of the falsehoods) of those who blaspheme; I will make those who follow thee superior to those who reject faith, to the Day of Resurrection: then shall ye return unto me, and I will judge between you of the matters wherein ye dispute.”
Surah 4:157-159. “That they said (in boast), “We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of God”– but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not – Nay, God raised him up unto Himself; and God is Exalted in Power, Wise – And there is none of the People of the Book but must believe in him before his death; and on the Day of Judgment he will be a witness against them.”
Synthesizing these verses, Muslims conclude that God took Jesus to himself (in heaven) and replaced Jesus with someone else to be crucified on the Cross. But the problem with this substitution theory was not missed even by Muslim themselves. For example, the great Muslim commentator al-Razi wondered if such a denial would not put Muslims on a slippery slide, for if we deny incontrovertible eyewitness reports then surely, all human testimony regarding divine laws and prophecy would be equally questionable. If we reject what the normal human senses perceive, then we are denied all possibility of attaining the truth. Equally problematic would be a question of divine integrity. A God who makes the onlookers misperceive the person on the Cross to be someone else must be a God of deception. /1/
The substitution theory suggests that Islam was influenced by early Gnostics who denied the crucifixion. /2/ It is therefore ironic that some Christians have stepped forward to defend the integrity of the Quranic witness by suggesting that the substitution theory represents a misreading of the Quran by later interpreters. David Brown offers a suggestion that would make the Quranic witness more rational:
These verses are intended to be a rebuke to the Jews, and particularly to Muhammad’s contemporaries in Medina, for various acts of unbelief…the reference to the crucifixion does no more than dispute the claim made by the Jews that they had disposed of the Christian Messiah and repudiated his claims to be an apostle of God by crucifying him. In particular, the phrases ‘they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him’, do not necessarily mean that there was no crucifixion, but that, even if there was, it was God who was responsible for all that happened during the last hours of the Messiah’s life and that the Jews had done whatever they did only by permission of God’s will…These verses, therefore, do not explicitly deny the Christian story of crucifixion, for they refer primarily to Jewish claims against the Christians. /3/
Such an exegesis of the Quran takes history more seriously and opens new grounds for dialog. But it is doubtful that this approach will be well received by Muslims. Indeed, the persistence of the substitution theory in Islamic tradition only confirms its theological consistency with central Islamic doctrines. In particular, the denial of the crucifixion arises from the Muslim belief that God does not need ‘intercessors’ or atonement or crucifixion. There can be no intercessor or mediator since, a priori, such a mediator would share common qualities (‘association’) with God. In any case, there is no need for drastic intervention on God’s part since the human predicament is not so serious in Islam. According to Islam, all human beings are born fitrah (sinless). To be sure, one cannot deny human failings before God. But in contrast to Christianity which teaches sin to be a rebellion against God, Islam teaches sin to be ignorance of God. Adam sinned because he misunderstood God’s commands. Ismail Faruqi stresses that “Adam therefore did commit a misdeed, namely that of thinking evil to be good, of ethical misjudgment. He was the author of the first human mistake in ethical perception, committed with good intention, under enthusiasm for the good. It was not a ‘fall’ but a discovery that it is possible to confuse the good with the evil, that its pursuit is neither unilateral nor straightforward.” /4/
A second reason why Muslims reject Jesus’ crucifixion arises from Islamic faith in divine justice. In particular, God cannot abandon his prophet to a tragic and unjust fate. That is to say, allowing the Messiah to be crucified suggests that God not only allowed failure to beset his divine mission. But worse still, God abandoned his prophet who ended up executed. But surely this is unbefitting of the divine Lord since even earthly kings do their utmost to protect their ambassadors.
Indeed, as the Quran testifies, God gives victory to those who seek to further his cause (S22:40; 40:51):
O you who believe!
If you will aid (the cause of) God,
He will aid you, and plant your feet firmly (S47:7);
Nay, God raised him up unto Himself; and God is Exalted in Power, Wise (S4:158).
Herein lies an ironic twist in the denial of the cross or the messiahship of Jesus. For the Jews, Jesus could not be a prophet sent by God since he was crucified. The Muslims reverse this logic – if Jesus was a prophet sent by God then he could not be crucified. Muslims appeal to other examples of God’s protection of his prophets such as Abraham and Lot (S21:71), Noah (S 21:76-77), Moses (S28:18-28) and lastly Muhammad (S28:18-28). God will protect his prophets. Hence, there is no place for the crucifixion in the arena of history.
The third reason why Muslims reject the cross is because they cannot accept that Jesus accomplished a definitive work of salvation by dying on the Cross. Jesus’ mission was merely preparatory in comparison to the work of the final prophet, Muhammad. The Quran asserts in Surah 61:6 – And remember, Jesus, the son of Mary, said: “Children of Israel! I am the messenger of God (sent) to you, confirming the Law (which came) before me, and giving Glad Tidings of a Messenger to come after me, whose name shall be Ahmad.” Likewise we read, “We sent Jesus the son of Mary, confirming the Torah that had come before him: We sent him the Gospel: in it was guidance and light and confirmation of the Torah that had come before him: a guidance and admonition to those who fear God” (S5:46 cf. S3:3).
It is evident that such a theological framework does not allow for the Cross to be the locus for the finished work of salvation. In other words, if Jesus himself anticipated a later ‘seal’ of the prophet, he could not have accomplished salvation and divine reconciliation on the Cross.
Christians need to help the Muslim appreciate the deeper logic of salvation. God may not have prevented the crucifixion, but he did vindicate Christ by raising him from the dead and glorifying him in heaven. First, God allowed the crucifixion in order to deal with the problem of sin – sin according to the Bible being rebellion against God and not just forgetfulness of the law as taught in Islam. As such, forgiveness without punishment of sin is an affront to the holiness of God and undermines the integrity of divine law that governs the cosmos. Consequently, the requirements of forgiveness of sin cannot be set aside by a simple decree, as that would be indulgence rather than forgiveness. The necessity of atonement that was foreshadowed in the Old Testament sacrificial system explains why Jesus died on the Cross.
Finally, the atoning death of Christ on the cross is not an outcome of God’s failure to protect his prophet because he has lost his sovereign rule and control over history. On the contrary, the apostle Peter testified to the Jews in the first Christian sermon preached in Jerusalem, “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.” (Acts 2:22-24). Indeed, it is the fulfillment of a prophecy declared by the prophet Isaiah 700 years earlier before it took place. “But He was pierced because of our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment for our peace was on Him, and we are healed by His wounds. We all went astray like sheep; we all have turned to our own way; and the LORD has punished Him for the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:5-6. CSV)
/1/ For discussion on the view of al-Razi, see Chawkat Moucarry, Faith to Faith (IVP, 2001), pp. 134-137.
/2/ While the Jesus of the Quran is not docetic, the Quranic narrative which denies the crucifixion suggests the possible influence of 2nd century Gnostic texts like the Apocalypse of Peter and the Gospel of Peter. The Apocalypse of Peter reads, “He whom you saw on the tree, glad and laughing, this is the living Jesus. But this one into whose hands and feet they drive the nails is his fleshly part, which is the substitute being put to shame, the one who came into being in his likeness. But look at him and me.”
/3/ David Brown, The Cross of the Messiah (SPCK, 1969), p. 31, quoted in Colin Chapman, Cross and Crescent 2nd ed. (IVP, 2007), pp. 211-212.
/4/ Ismail Faruqi, Islam and Other Faiths (Islamic Foundation, 1998), p. 120.
This post is adapted from Dr. Ng Kam Weng’s book published by Kairos Research Centre, Christian Doctrine and Dialogue Under the Shadow of Islam.
To order the book click on the link – https://tinyurl.com/bdfx85d9
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