Does Matthew 12:38-42 prove that Jesus wasn't really crucified?

by Luke Wayne

No, contrary to some Muslim's claims, Matthew 12:38-42 does not deny Jesus' crucifixion. Indeed, it is one of several times that Jesus powerfully foretold His coming death on the cross and resurrection three days later.

One of Islam's most distinctive claims against Christianity is its insistence that Jesus not only never rose again, but that He, in fact, was never crucified in the first place. Muslim's believe this "fact" was divinely revealed in the Quran (Surah 4:157-158), but many popular Islamic apologists will also scour the New Testament for verses that they claim "prove" that Jesus never actually died on a cross. Probably the most popular appeal is to the "sign of Jonah" passage in Matthew 12:

"Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, 'Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.' But He answered and said to them, 'An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, one greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise up with this generation at the judgment and will condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, one greater than Solomon is here," (Matthew 12:38-42).

It is ironic that a passage that so plainly asserts the death and resurrection of Jesus would actually be used to deny both those events, and it is easy for Christians to simply laugh at the silliness of such an argument and just leave it alone, letting its absurdity speak for itself. However, because so many street-level Muslims take this kind of polemic seriously, it can be worthwhile to take the time to demonstrate precise reasons why this argument doesn't hold any water. Further, answering this objection to a Muslim who sincerely raises it can actually be a fantastic gateway into the gospel message.

A Preliminary Question

An important place to start with the Muslim is to clarify if they genuinely believe that Jesus ever said these words. Is this an actual prophecy that Jesus really proclaimed? Are you willing to say that these words in Matthew 12 are the true words of Jesus? If the Muslim claims that the gospels are completely corrupt and that Jesus never really said any of this, then they have no right to appeal to it to prove their point. For their argument to carry any weight, they have to be willing to affirm up-front that these are real words that Jesus actually said. If Jesus really said the words recorded in Matthew 12, then the Muslim is bound by them, even if they turn out to affirm the death and resurrection of Jesus. If the Muslim insists that they are not real words of Jesus and are not binding, then he has already given up the argument. If the words of Matthew 12 are fiction, then they can't be used to prove the Muslim's belief that Jesus never died. If the Muslim is willing to say that Jesus really did say this, you can proceed to show them that, in words that they have now admitted are authentic, Jesus really did predict His own death and resurrection.

The Muslim Argument and a Christian Response

So what is the Muslim's point that we are trying to answer? The Muslim turns to this passage and draws attention specifically to Jesus words:

"just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth."

They point out that Jonah was preserved alive in the fish and delivered without dying. This, they claim, proves that Jesus also must have been preserved alive without dying. That, however, isn't the parallel that Jesus makes. Jesus says that His experience will be like Jonah's specifically in that it will be a descent into the depths for three days. He does not say that it will be like Jonah's in any other way. The Muslim does not believe, for example, that Jesus would be fleeing from God's mission in an act of sinful rebellion. They do not believe that the earth would open up and literally swallow Jesus to deliver Him from the cross where He had been cast just as the fish swallowed Jonah to deliver him from drowning in the sea where he had been cast. Jonah was in the fish as a punishment until he repented, but no Muslim believes that Jesus was in the heart of the earth as a punishment until He repented. So The parallel between Jesus and Jonah is not total. It is specific. Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days. Jesus would be in the heart of the earth for three days. That is the parallel.

Now, we know where Jonah was for three days and nights. He was in the belly of a fish in the depths of the sea. But where did Jesus descend for three days and nights? He says He was in "the heart of the earth." When someone descends into the "heart of the earth," that does not mean he is caught up to a peaceful rescue in heavenly bliss. It doesn't mean hiding in a cave while your enemies crucify someone else they think is you. For one to descend into the heart of the earth means to die. That is the literal use of the phrase. It is to enter Sheol, the grave, the realm of the dead. Jesus said He was going to die for three days and then come back to life. He made a comparison between that and Jonah's experience of three days in the depths of the sea in the stomach of a fish and used the comparison to call the people to repentance.

Now, someone might argue, "Sure, the phrase literally means death, but in this context, it's just a figure of speech for being in a tough situation, perhaps for being near death." But that's no more true than to say that, in this context, being in "the belly of the sea monster" is just a figure of speech for Jonah's tough situation, for Jonah perhaps being near the insides of an aquatic animal. Jesus compared Jonah's time in the literal entrails of a fish to His own literal death and resurrection. Indeed, Jonah's situation is actually a very good analogy for death. If you're going to pick any situation to which one might compare the idea of literally dying and rising again, it doesn't get much better than Jonah's! Indeed, both Jewish and Christian commentators have often seen in the Jonah story a great analogy for the grave and for God's ability to restore our bodies to fullness of life on the future day of resurrection. In fact, even the Quran draws a comparison between Jonah in the stomach of the fish and a man in the grave awaiting resurrection:

"And indeed, Jonah was among the messengers. [Mention] when he ran away to the laden ship. And he drew lots and was among the losers. Then the fish swallowed him, while he was blameworthy. And had he not been of those who exalt Allah, He would have remained inside its belly until the Day they are resurrected," (Surah 37:139-144).1

Jesus drew on that clear parallel to show that, like Jonah's descent into the belly of the sea creature, Jesus' actual death and decent to the "heart of the earth" would be a prophetic sign, and just as Nineveh then repented, the people of Judea ought also to repent. In the words of one very early commentator writing from the region of Samaria, not far from where the events of Jesus life transpired:

"it was to be understood by the audience that after His crucifixion He should rise again on the third day. And He showed that your generation was more wicked and more adulterous than the city of Nineveh; for the latter, when Jonah preached to them, after he had been cast up on the third day from the belly of the great fish, that after three (in other versions, forty) days they should all perish, proclaimed a fast of all creatures, men and beasts, with sackcloth, and with earnest lamentation, with true repentance from the heart, and turning away from unrighteousness, in the belief that God is merciful and kind to all who turn from wickedness; so that the king of that city himself, with his nobles also, put on sackcloth and remained fasting and praying, and obtained their request that the city should not be overthrown. And though all the men of your nation knew the incidents in the life of Jonah, and though Christ said amongst you that He would give the sign of Jonah, exhorting you to repent of your wicked deeds at least after He rose again from the dead, and to mourn before God as did the Ninevites, in order that your nation and city might not be taken and destroyed, as they have been destroyed; yet you not only have not repented, after you learned that He rose from the dead."2

All of this makes perfect sense of Jesus' words, but what about the Quran's account? Can it give us a plausible counter-explanation of what Jesus meant? It says:

"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).

So, according to Jesus, He would descend into the heart of the earth for three days and this would be a sign to the Jews of that generation for them to repent. According to the Quran, the Jews were miraculously deceived into believing that Jesus died while, in fact, Jesus was secretly raised to Allah without the Jews realizing it. No descent into the heart of the earth. No sign to the Jews. Nothing that Jesus promised. Some Muslims have started to claim that Jesus really was nailed to the cross and put in a tomb for three days but that He miraculously survived it all and was then caught up into heaven, but that version contradicts both the Quran and Jesus. The Quran says that they neither killed him nor crucified him, leaving no room for crucifying him even without killing him. Jesus said that His going into the heart of the earth (which, again, means dying) and rising out would be a sign to that generation of Jews, but a secret bloody survival in a tomb and subsequent whisking off to heaven couldn't serve as such a sign. Even in Muhammad's day, long after the generation of which Jesus spoke, the Jews still weren't aware of such a thing. So, no matter how one contorts them, the Quran's account and Jesus' words in Matthew 12 don't fit.

Another Problem for Muslims

These words of Jesus also present Muslims with another challenge. According to the Hadith, Muhammad said:

"One should not say that I am greater than Jonah," (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 55, Hadith 608).

Jesus, however, says in this passage:

"for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, one greater than Jonah is here," (Mathew 12:40-41).

Muhammad was clear that he was not greater than Jonah. Indeed, Muslim tradition generally takes Muhammad's words to mean that all prophets are equal. Jesus, however, explicitly states that He is one greater than Jonah. If Muhammad is not greater than Jonah and Jesus is greater than Jonah, then Jesus is greater than Muhammad. If all prophets are equal and yet Jesus is greater than the prophet Jonah, then Jesus is something more than just a prophet. So this passage not only testifies to Jesus' death and resurrection, but it also shows that Jesus is greater than Muhammad and, in fact, is more than a mere prophet. These are the real words of Jesus, and therefore the superiority of Jesus must be acknowledged, and to this the true follower of God must yield. Jesus died, rose again, and is greater than all the prophets. This is a call to repent and believe the gospel.

  • 1. All citations of the Quran in this article are from the the Sahih International Version, including the bracketed words
  • 2. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 107-108