Islam and the crucifixion: a theological dilemma

The Quran claims that Jesus did not die on the cross. It insists that God made it appear to those trying to kill Jesus that they had crucified Him, but that He didn't actually go to the cross and was instead caught up to God.  All of this comes from only one brief passage in the 4th chapter (Surah):1

"And [for] their saying, 'Indeed, we have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah .' And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but [another] was made to resemble him to them. And indeed, those who differ over it are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it except the following of assumption. And they did not kill him, for certain. Rather, Allah raised him to Himself. And ever is Allah Exalted in Might and Wise," (Surah 4:157-158).

This passage contradicts history, divine prophecy, and even Jesus' own words. It also shows a clear dependence on Gnostic myths that developed long after Jesus' lifetime. Such reasons are more than sufficient to reject these words of the Quran outright. There is another matter, however, that the Muslim should also pause to seriously consider. These verses present Islam with a theological dilemma that demands a careful answer.

The passage seems to imply that only those who sought to kill Jesus were made to see Jesus as crucified. This, however, does not make sense out of why Jesus' own followers became convinced that He had died on the cross and risen again from the dead. These verses explain why those who wanted to kill Jesus believed they had succeeded, but it does not explain the rise of Christianity among the Jewish eyewitnesses who loved and believed in Jesus. Why were they convinced Jesus had died and risen again. Indeed, why were they so convinced that they were willing to die and stake their entire eternity on this reality?

Indeed, let's say for a moment that the Quran, while only explicitly mentioning the Jews who thought they had killed Jesus, means to say that it was made to appear to everyone that Jesus died on the cross, even Jesus' disciples and those who believed and followed Jesus' teachings. If this is so, it means that God sent Jesus with a message, but then intentionally undermined that message by miraculously deceiving the very people who embraced that message into believing in Jesus' death and resurrection. Indeed, it was only this deceptive miracle that gave rise to Christianity among the followers who had listened to and believed Jesus' teachings. If the Islamic claim were true, it would mean that Allah went out of his way to undo everything that he had sent Jesus to accomplish and instead Allah convinced all of Jesus' followers that Jesus was a crucified and risen savior. The Jewish leaders who wanted Jesus dead continued to reject Him just the same, so this ruse made no particular difference to them. Its only effect was to cause Jesus' own Jewish followers to believe that Jesus died for their sins and rose again. If we were to accept the Quranic account, we would have to conclude that the only meaningful result of Allah's miracle here was to give rise to the very religion that Islam came into the world 600 years later to denounce as a sinful excess!

Many Muslim's I have talked to have attempted to explain this by saying that Allah had to do this because he could not allow his prophet to suffer such an indignity. "God would not allow his prophet to be put to death by his enemies," they say. This explanation has two problems. The first is that the Quran itself disagrees with it. The Quran frequently points out that many of the prophets had been wrongfully killed by their enemies. For example, the Quran rebukes the Jews in words like:

"...they [repeatedly] disbelieved in the signs of Allah and killed the prophets without right..." (Surah 2:61).

"And when it is said to them, 'Believe in what Allah has revealed,' they say, 'We believe [only] in what was revealed to us.' And they disbelieve in what came after it, while it is the truth confirming that which is with them. Say, 'Then why did you kill the prophets of Allah before, if you are [indeed] believers?'" (Surah 2:91).

"Those who disbelieve in the signs of Allah and kill the prophets without right and kill those who order justice from among the people - give them tidings of a painful punishment," (Surah 3:21).

"...And they have drawn upon themselves anger from Allah and have been put under destitution. That is because they disbelieved in the verses of Allah and killed the prophets without right. That is because they disobeyed and [habitually] transgressed," (Surah 3:112).

"We had already taken the covenant of the Children of Israel and had sent to them messengers. Whenever there came to them a messenger with what their souls did not desire, a party [of messengers] they denied, and another party they killed," (Surah 5:70).

A particularly striking passage states that:

"Allah has certainly heard the statement of those [Jews] who said, 'Indeed, Allah is poor, while we are rich.' We will record what they said and their killing of the prophets without right and will say, 'Taste the punishment of the Burning Fire. That is for what your hands have put forth and because Allah is not ever unjust to [His] servants.' [They are] those who said, 'Indeed, Allah has taken our promise not to believe any messenger until he brings us an offering which fire [from heaven] will consume.' Say, 'There have already come to you messengers before me with clear proofs and [even] that of which you speak. So why did you kill them, if you should be truthful?'" (Surah 3:181-183).

Even according to the Quran, the fact that Allah is "not ever unjust to His servants" does not mean that those servants are never killed in this life. Instead, it means that there will be recompense in the life to come. Ironically, by specifically mentioning the prophet who had validated his prophetic status by calling down heavenly fire to consume an offering and then counting this prophet among those who the Jews killed, this passage actually denies the deliverance of Elijah, a prophet that the Bible explains was caught up to heaven alive without facing death! Clearly, the Quran does not teach that God will deliver all his prophets from death at the hands of their enemies. In another Surah, we read:

"And We did certainly give Moses the Torah and followed up after him with messengers. And We gave Jesus, the son of Mary, clear proofs and supported him with the Pure Spirit. But is it [not] that every time a messenger came to you, [O Children of Israel], with what your souls did not desire, you were arrogant? And a party [of messengers] you denied and another party you killed," (Surah 2:87).

This passage does not, of course, claim that Jesus Himself was killed, but it does include Jesus among the prophets, a party of whom were killed. It does not place Jesus in a special higher status of prophets that Allah would never allow to be killed. Indeed, only two verses before Surah 4:157, the passage that denies that Jesus died, we read:

"And [We cursed them] for their breaking of the covenant and their disbelief in the signs of Allah and their killing of the prophets without right..." (Surah 4:155).

So there is nothing in the Quran that says Allah would never allow a prophet do be shamed and killed in this life. Indeed, the Quran repeatedly makes it clear many prophets have been wrongfully killed. God's justice for this is future and eternal. Prophets have no promise of deliverance in this life. In fact, according to Islamic tradition, Muhammad (supposedly the greatest of all prophets) was himself poisoned to death. If Allah would allow even Muhammad to be murdered by his enemies, Muslims have no good reason to say that Allah would never allow Jesus to die on a cross.

But, for the sake of argument, let's say it was true. Let's say that Allah would never allow Jesus to be shamed and killed. Why didn't He just strike down Jesus' enemies or take Jesus alive to heaven without faking His death? Either of these options would have vindicated Jesus' without leading His disciples (and countless others through their preaching) into supposed error and excess. No, it is insufficient to claim that God deceived the world just because He did not want Jesus to die. So, why did it happen? Why did all of Jesus' followers come to believe that He had died on the cross for their sins? Why did God allow them to believe and preach this if it was all a misunderstanding based on a miracle meant only to fool Jesus' enemies? The best explanation is that the Old Testament prophets and the followers of Jesus were right and that the author of the Quran is wrong. God did not undermine Jesus teaching by deceiving His disciples. He validated Jesus by raising Him from the dead! Just as the early Christians repeatedly affirmed:

"Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know— this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power," (Acts 2:22-24).

"For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit," (1 Peter 3:18).

"And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, 28 so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him," (Hebrews 9:28).

Jesus Himself referred to "My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins," (Matthew 26:28) and foretold explicitly that, "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and be raised up on the third day," (Luke 9:22). Jesus' followers thus believed that Jesus died and rose again because He told them that He would and because they then saw it happen. God did not deceive them, rather, God prepared them to understand these things and to turn from their sins and live in light of them. Christianity is not an error or excess that God accidentally or maliciously created through deceptive miracles. Christianity is the truth. Surah 4:157 has it wrong.

  • 1. All Quranic quotes in this article are from the Sahih International version