Islam and the Crucifixion of Jesus

The Muslim religion is one of the fastest growing religions of the world, if not the fastest.  Among its many differences with Christianity is that it denies the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  Whether Muslims believe in a substitution theory (another person was crucified in Jesus' place), ascension theory (Jesus was rescued from the cross and ascended to heaven), or swoon theory (Jesus did not actually die while on the cross and survived the rigors of the crucifixion), each one of them clearly denies the death of Jesus by crucifixion.  This Islamic belief is not just something that Muslims conjured up in response to Christianity.  Instead, the Qur’an clearly denies the crucifixion of Jesus in Surah 4:157-158 which says:

“. . . they [the Jews] said (in boast), ‘We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah’ – But they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so 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, Allah raised him up unto Himself . . . .”1

The Muslim View

Commenting on the above verses, the renowned Qur’anic translator and commentator, Yusuf Ali states, “The Qur’anic teaching is that Christ was not crucified nor killed by the Jews . . . .”2  The Muslim apologist and author Ahmed Deedat agrees, “On the subject of the crucifixion the Muslim is told in no uncertain terms in the Holy Qur’an . . . that they did not kill Him, nor did they crucify Him.”3  Therefore the Qur’anic teaching is that Jesus did not die by crucifixion, which is in direct contrast to Christianity which says there is no salvation apart from the cross, (Mt. 26:28; Mk. 14:22-24; cf. 1 Cor. 1:18). Putting all theological assumptions aside, what does the evidence suggest?  Did Jesus really die by crucifixion or did he just appear to be dead?

The Historical Evidence

#1. Eyewitness Sources

There are many streams of evidence from which one can argue for the historicity of Christ’s death by crucifixion, of which I will use only a few.  The first line of evidence for Jesus’ crucifixion is from the testimony of eyewitness sources.  Many Muslims do not believe there is eyewitness material in the accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus.  In fact, one Muslim claims that:

“Not a single one of the Christians was a witness with them [the Jews]. Rather the apostles kept a distance through fear, and not one of them witnessed the crucifixion.” 4 

This argument primarily points to Matthew 26:56 which says, “Then all the disciples forsook him, and fled.”5  Though the disciples forsook Jesus, some of them were still witnesses from a distance (Mark 14:54).  Also, there was an anonymous disciple whom Jesus, while on the cross, commanded to take care of Mary, (John 19:26-27).  The Gospel of Luke reports that while Jesus was carrying the cross:

“. . . there followed him a great company of people, and of women, which also bewailed and lamented him," (Luke 23:27).

In addition to these people already mentioned, the Gospels also reference Jewish leaders (Mt. 27:41; Mk. 15:31), Roman centurion (Mt. 27:54; Mk. 15:39; Lk. 23:47) and soldiers (Mt. 27:35; Mk. 15:24; Lk. 23:35; and John 19:18, 23) who all witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion.  For Muslims to argue that the crucifixion is not historical simply does not square with the historical data because there were multitudes of witnesses to the fact that the Romans crucified Jesus.

#2. Medical Evidence

In light of the eyewitness evidence from the gospels, there is strong medical evidence that confirms the historicity of Christ’s death as presented in the Gospels.  Before examining the medical evidence, as a general point, the Romans knew how to crucify their victims.  To suppose that the Romans would have allowed Jesus to escape the cross is nonsensical.  The Romans knew how to kill someone, and they knew when someone was dead. 

Concerning the medical evidence, the Gospels report specific conditions that a crucified victim would have experienced.  First, in Jesus’ pre-crucifixion experience in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Gospel of Luke reports that Jesus sweated “great drops of blood” (Luke 22:44).  According to Alexander Metherell an M.D. and Ph.D., “This is a known medical condition called hematohidrosis.” 6  He later acknowledges that tremendous stress like the kind that Jesus suffered could have produced this effect. 

Second, Jesus’ desire, while on the cross, to receive a drink confirms the fact that he likely was experiencing another known medical condition called hypovolemic shock, which would have been caused by his beating. According to Metherell, hypovolemic shock:

“. . . does four things. First, the heart races to try to pump blood that isn’t there; second, the blood pressure drops, causing fainting or collapse; third, the kidneys stop producing urine to maintain what volume is left; and fourth, the person becomes very thirsty as the body craves fluids to replace the lost blood volume.” 7 

Third, the evidence from the spear thrust confirms the idea that Jesus did indeed die on the cross.  Concerning this, Matherell states that hypovolemic shock causes a rapid heart beat which results in fluid around the heart called a pericardial effusion.8  The Gospel of John testifies to this fact in John 19:34 which says:

“. . . one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water.”

Metherell continues:

“The spear apparently went through the right lung and into the heart, so when the spear was pulled out, some fluid – the pericardial effusion and the pleural effusion – came out.  This would have the appearance of a clear fluid like water.”9 

Therefore, given the above specific medical evidence, the Journal of the American Medical Association is justified to conclude:

“. . . interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.” 10

#3. Early Statements of Belief

In addition to the medical evidence for the historicity of the gospel accounts, there is evidence from early Christian creeds which are located in various places in the New Testament including Luke 24:34, parts of Philippians 2, and 1 Corinthians 15.11  The creed that provides the strongest evidence for the death and resurrection of Jesus is from 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 which says:

“For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve.”

These few verses are just a sample of a much longer statement by Paul on the resurrection appearances of Jesus.  Verses 6-8 go on to describe 500 people, James, the apostles, and Paul himself.  Some scholars doubt the fact that the creed continues past verse 5; however, as Gary Habermas notes, “. . . it is agreed by virtually all scholars that the creed includes at least verses, 3, 4, and 5.” 12

Scholars believe that 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 is pre-existing Christian creed that Paul is quoting for several reasons.  First, there are certain words in the text that indicate someone was passing on tradition.  For example, William Lane Craig notes that the three fold use of “and that” are such an indication.13 Other words also point to the communication of earliar tradition, such as “delivered” and “received.” 14 

Second, there are mny phrases in this text that Paul does not normally use in his writings, such as “for our sins,” “according to the scriptures,” “he has been raised,” “third day,” “he was seen,” and “the twelve.” These seem to indicate that Paul did not compose this portion of the text on his own, but is rather quoting someone elses words.15  These are just a few of the reasons why scholars think that this text is a creed, and “. . . numerous critical theologians date it from three to eight years after Jesus’ crucifixion.”16

Though there is compelling evidence that 1 Corinthians 15 contains an early creed, yet the question arises: How do scholars find the date of the creed?  They generally start from the crucifixion of Jesus which is dated at 30 A.D. and then move to the fact of Paul’s conversion which took place around 33-35 A.D.17  They then proceed to Paul’s personal testimony in Galatians 1.  In this passage, Paul states:

“Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days,” (Galatians 1:18).

By the simple fact that Paul tells the time when he went to see Peter, one can date this event to around 36-38 A.D.  While at Jerusalem, Paul probably received the creed included in 1 Corinthians.  Habermas agrees: “. . . the presence of both Peter and James in the list of appearances (1 Cor. 15:5, 7) indicates the probability that Paul received this creed from the apostles when he visited Jerusalem.18  Therefore, given the above evidence, the creed of 1 Corinthians is from within eight years of Jesus’ crucifixion.  On top of that, if one adds to the idea that Peter had the creed for a while before delivering it to Paul, one has to acknowledge that it goes back practically to the events themselves.”19

In addition to the fact that this creed is early, the evidence from the creed points to eyewitness accounts of the resurrection appearances of Jesus.  Verse 5 states, “. . . he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve.”  This verse implies that the disciples saw Jesus collectively.  Habermas states, “. . . even if we take the shorter creed and quit at verse 5, we still have an eyewitness report of a collective experience – an appearance to the twelve.”20  Therefore, this is strong evidence for the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  Not only is the creed early, but it likely contains eyewitness accounts. 

Furthermore, the fact that the creed acknowledges Jesus’ death and resurrection is strong evidence for the death of Jesus by crucifixion.  Since the material is undeniably early, it shows the fact that the followers of Jesus believed that Jesus died very early in Christianity.  In light of this early testimony to the resurrection of Jesus, this points to a death of some sort.  Without the death of Christ, there is no resurrection of Christ, as a resurrection presupposes a death.  Therefore, the resurrection appearances in 1 Corinthians 15 provide strong evidence that Jesus really died by crucifixion.

Along with the early creed in 1 Corinthians 15, there is also early preaching material which attests to the crucifixion of Jesus in the book of Acts.  In his summary of the creeds in the New Testament, Habermas mentions five specific places in the book of Acts that refer to the crucifixion.21  Concerning some of these passages in Acts, John Drane states, “. . . there can be no doubt that in the first few chapters of Acts its author has preserved material from very early sources.”22  These several verses, in addition to the creed in 1 Corinthians 15, provide specific evidence for Jesus’ death by crucifixion.  Among the many reasons that scholars believe these are creeds, is the undeveloped theology in them.23  In Acts 2:23 Peter states, “Him [Jesus], being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain.”  Peter again makes his point in Acts 2:36, “Therefore let all of the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.”  Therefore, not only is there early testimony that hints at the crucifixion, but from the preaching of the apostles, we have clear references to Jesus’ crucifixion.

#4. Transformation of the Disciples and Emergence of the Church

Another evidence for the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus is the transformation of the disciples and the emergence of the early church.  It is a historical fact that the Christian Church originated in the first century.  This is something on which Christians and Muslims can agree.  However, the hypothesis that Jesus never really died on the cross does not account for this phenomenon.  As has been shown, many people witnessed Christ’s death, and the disciples then saw him risen. If Jesus had not really died, He could have set the disciples strait (as any good prophet would do, right? Muslims certainly do not beleive that Jesus was a malicious deciever trying to fool the disciples and start a false religion!) Instead, Jesus seems to have affirmed their believe that he had died and come back to life  The disciples then began preaching a crucified and risen Messiah, and none of the other eyewitnesses came forward to refute them by denying Jesus' death, nor by producing a body to show he had not risen. The disciples' lives were completely changed by their absolutel certainty that they had seen Jesus die and that they had seen Him alive again afterward, and no one else in the crowds that had also witnessed the events could refute them. Indeed, none of them even tried to refute their belief that Jesus had died on the cross. They all saw it too! Any non-crucifixion theory just does not make sense.

#5. Failure of Alternate Theories to the Crucifixion

In conclusion, alternative theories of what happened to Jesus simply do not adequately account for the above evidence.  For Muslims to believe that Jesus did not really die on a cross does not explain well the emergence of the Christian Church.  It has been shown that the Christians preached the death and resurrection extremely early in the history of the church and many of them died for their beliefs.  To suppose that the disciples did not know that Jesus really died on the cross and arose from the dead does not go well with the fact that there is extremely early eyewitness creedal material that indicates Jesus died and arose from the dead.  Second, to suppose that the disciples knew Jesus did not die on the cross and then boldly proclaimed that it happened is simply absurd.  People certainly die for things that they believe to be true, but for them to die for something they know to be false is beyond credulity.  Thus, due to the eyewitness testimony, the medical evidence, the appearances of Jesus, and the emergence of the early church, this makes the historicity of the crucifixion a historical fact that every Muslim needs to consider.

  • 1. Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an, Tenth Ed. (Beltsville, MD: Amana, 1999), 235-36.
  • 2. Ali, 236.
  • 3. Josh McDowell and John Gilchrist, The Islam Debate (San Bernardino: Here’s Life Publishers, 1983), 143.
  • 4. Ibn Taymiyya, A Muslim Theologian’s Response to Christianity, ed. and trans. Thomas F. Michel (Delmar, NY: Caravan Books, 1984), 110, in Norman L. Geisler and Abdul Saleeb, Answering Islam: The Crescent in Light of the Cross, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 280.
  • 5. See also Mark 14:50.  All Biblical quotations unless otherwise noted are from the King James Version.
  • 6. Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 195.
  • 7. Ibid., 196.
  • 8. Ibid., 199.
  • 9. Ibid.
  • 10. The Journal of the American Medical Association (March 21, 1986), 1463, in Geisler and Saleeb, 236.
  • 11. Gary R. Habermas, The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1996), 145, 149, 153.
  • 12. Gary R. Habermas and Antony G. N. Flew, Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?, ed. Terry L. Miethe (San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1987), 161.
  • 13. William Lane Craig, “The Empty Tomb of Jesus,” in In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History, eds. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 1997), 249.
  • 14. Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 153.
  • 15. Ibid., 154.
  • 16. Ibid.
  • 17. Ibid., 155.
  • 18. Ibid.
  • 19. Ibid.
  • 20. Habermas and Flew, 85.
  • 21. Acts 2:23; 2:36; 4:10; 5:30; 10:39 in Habermas, 151.
  • 22. John Drane, Introducing the New Testament (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986), 99, in Habermas, 149.
  • 23. Habermas, 149.