Was Jesus crucified for our sins or did he only appear to be crucified?

by Luke Wayne
7/6/17

One of the most unique assertions in Islam is the idea that Jesus did not actually suffer crucifixion. They insist that Jesus did not die on the cross, but instead, God only made it appear that he did, fooling those who aimed to kill Jesus. This claim comes straight from the Quran:

"That they said (in boast), 'We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Apostle 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; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise," (Surah 4:157-158).

The idea that Jesus did not die for our sins on the cross is central to Islam and one of the crucial divides between Muslims and Christians. It is, therefore, important to have an answer for this peculiar Muslim objection. The clear and unanimous historical record of Jesus' crucifixion alone is not sufficient to refute the Islamic claim, but it is an important starting point. Muslim's claim that God worked a miracle that made it falsely appear to Jesus enemies that they had nailed Him to the cross. When we present the unanimous testimony of the early witnesses, the Muslim can say that such testimony is exactly what one would expect to see if God really did work such a miracle. This forces them, however, to admit that there is no evidence outside the Quran itself that points to their position. Their entire case thus stands or falls on the reliability of these two verses in one passage of the Quran over against all other evidence.

The Historical Evidence

The historical evidence for Jesus' crucifixion is quite vast. The summary offered here is not exhaustive but is sufficient to prove the point.

The four gospels, of course, are early and thorough witnesses to Jesus' crucifixion. They provide great detail on the suffering, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus and place it squarely in observed history. The other New Testament authors also provide a clear witness to this truth. In Acts, for example, we read that Peter proclaimed:

"let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by this name this man stands here before you in good health," (Acts 4:10).

While the Muslim might reasonably point out that Acts was written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke, and thus it does not really represent an additional witness, the fact is that Luke preserves the testimony of far earlier witnesses. Even the critical scholar Bart Ehrman writes:

"Some of the speeches in Acts contain what scholars call preliterary tradition: oral traditions that had been in circulation from much earlier times that are found, now, only in their written form in Acts."1

Ehrman goes on to explain:

"These traditions are quite emphatic that Jesus was a Jewish man who lived, did spectacular deeds, taught, and was executed"2

So even staunch critics of Christianity admit that Acts preserves very early accounts that testify to Jesus' crucifixion. We also have the words in Peter's letters like:

"He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed," (1 Peter 2:24).

And:

"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).

The author of the Book of Hebrews writes:

"fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God," (Hebrews 12:2).

And Paul preserves for us a Christian Creed that scholars agree goes back to the earliest days of Christianity:

"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve," (1 Corinthians 15:3-5).

Thus, the New Testament preserves diverse, early testimony that Jesus did, indeed, die on the cross. In addition, the earliest Christian writings outside the New Testament also affirm this truth. For example, Ignatius of Antioch (35-107 AD) writes things like:

"He was truly born of a virgin, was baptized by John, in order that all righteousness might be fulfilled by Him; and was truly, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch, nailed for us in His flesh. Of this fruit we are by His divinely-blessed passion, that He might set up a standard for all ages, through His resurrection, to all His holy and faithful [followers], whether among Jews or Gentiles, in the one body of His Church," (Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrnians, Chapter 1).

And the letter of Clement of Rome, written around 95 AD, is filled with phrases like:

"Let us look steadfastly to the blood of Christ, and see how precious that blood is to God, which, having been shed for our salvation, has set the grace of repentance before the whole world," (Clement of Rome, Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 7).

And:

"On account of the Love he bore us, Jesus Christ our Lord gave His blood for us by the will of God; His flesh for our flesh, and His soul for our souls," (Clement of Rome, Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 49).

Justin Martyr makes clear that the crucifixion of Jesus was not merely affirmed by Christian witnesses, but was a matter of public record, stating:

"Jesus Christ stretched forth His hands, being crucified by the Jews speaking against Him, and denying that He was the Christ. And as the prophet spoke, they tormented Him, and set Him on the judgment-seat, and said, Judge us. And the expression, 'They pierced my hands and my feet,' was used in reference to the nails of the cross which were fixed in His hands and feet. And after He was crucified they cast lots upon His vesture, and they that crucified Him parted it among them. And that these things did happen, you can ascertain from the Acts of Pontius Pilate," (Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 35).

Likewise, the first-century Jewish historian, Josephus, wrote:

"When Pilate, because of an accusation by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross," (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3, Section 3)3

While many scholars question portions of the passages about Jesus in Josephus' work, this particular phrase is widely accepted by experts as part of the genuine original.4 The Roman historian, Tacitus, also reports:

"the persons commonly called Christians, who are hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius," (Tacitus, Annals: XV, 44)5

And the Greco-roman author, Lucian of Samosata, stated:

"the Christians, you know, worship a man to this day - the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account," (Lucian, The Death of Peregrine, 11-13)6

Other sources could be added, but these show that Jesus' crucifixion was a well-established fact of history observed by many witnesses.

The Prophetic Evidence

Such eyewitness testimony could be the result of a miraculous deception that God used to protect Jesus from the crucifixion, but what if God specifically told us that this was not His plan? Through the ancient prophets long before Jesus' earthly ministry, God actually made it clear that the Messiah was supposed to die on the cross for the sins of the people. God had no intention of delivering Jesus from the cross. The cross was the reason Jesus had come! Isaiah, for example, wrote:

"Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him," (Isaiah 53:4-5).

He made it clear that this suffering was unto death:

"By oppression and judgment He was taken away; And as for His generation, who considered That He was cut off out of the land of the living For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due? His grave was assigned with wicked men, Yet He was with a rich man in His death, Because He had done no violence, Nor was there any deceit in His mouth. But the Lord was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering," (Isaiah 53:8-10a).

And again:

"Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, And He will divide the booty with the strong; Because He poured out Himself to death, And was numbered with the transgressors; Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, And interceded for the transgressors," (Isaiah 53:12).

The Messiah was to suffer and die for the transgressions of others. He was to dies as a guilt offering. That was, in fact, the whole point. Jesus death on the cross was not a failure of God to protect His Prophet. Instead, it was a glorious grace upon God's people. The Messiah took their sins upon Himself and died their death. This was the purpose and plan of God all along. So the claim of the Quran does not vindicate Jesus or honor God. Instead, it makes God out to be a liar who failed to fulfill His promise! God said the Messiah would die, and thus it is right to believe that the Messiah did die just as God said He would and just as everyone plainly saw happen. This is why the early Christian creed quoted above does not merely say that Christ died for our sins, rather it says that He died for our sins according to the Scriptures. Jesus Himself, after His resurrection, explained to His disciples:

"'Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?' Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures," (Luke 24:26-27).

And:

"Now He said to them, 'These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled,'” (Luke 24:44).

All of this was predicted by God through the prophets long before it happened. Jesus' death on the cross for the sins of the people was God's explicit plan.

Jesus' Own Words

Jesus also predicted His own death by crucifixion. To deny the crucifixion makes Jesus a false prophet. For example, we read plainly:

"And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again," (Mark 8:31, see also Matthew 16:21, Luke 9:22).

And again:

"For He was teaching His disciples and telling them, 'The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and when He has been killed, He will rise three days later,'” (Mark 9:31, see also Matthew 17:22-23, Luke 9:44).

Jesus also explained:

"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," (Matthew 12:40).

And as he came to Jerusalem:

"When Jesus had finished all these words, He said to His disciples, 'You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man is to be handed over for crucifixion,'" (Matthew 26:1-2).

When a woman anointed Jesus with fragrant oil and His disciples objected, Jesus pointed again to His coming death, explaining:

"But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, 'Why do you bother the woman? For she has done a good deed to Me. For you always have the poor with you; but you do not always have Me. For when she poured this perfume on My body, she did it to prepare Me for burial," (Matthew 26:10-12, see also Mark 14:6-8, John 12:7).

The very institution of the Lord's supper at Jesus final meal with His disciples was also a declaration that His body would be broken and His blood shed to atone for sins and establish the new covenant, (Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:14-20, 1 Corinthians 11:21-26). The Muslim can, of course, dismiss all of this widely attested material as myths and Christian corruption of Jesus' words, but then they are hard pressed to defend the historicity of claims made about Jesus' 600 years later in a completely different part of the world in only one tiny passage in the Quran. Indeed, we have far better reasons to dismiss Surah 4:157-158 as a myth.

Problems in the Quranic Account

Against the testimony of History, Prophecy, and Jesus Himself, the only evidence the Muslim can offer is a few words in the Quran. These words, however, are fraught with problems. The passage, again, reads:

"That they said (in boast), 'We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Apostle 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; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise," (Surah 4:157-158).

First of all, as is documented more fully HERE, this passage is a repetition of known Gnostic myths from over a century after Jesus' death and resurrection. For example, we read the words of the early Gnostic heretic Basilides:

"He did not himself suffer death, but Simon, a certain man of Cyrene, being compelled, bore the cross in his stead; so that this latter being transfigured by him, that he might be thought to be Jesus, was crucified, through ignorance and error, while Jesus himself received the form of Simon, and, standing by, laughed at them. For since he was an incorporeal power, and the Nous (mind) of the unborn father, he transfigured himself as he pleased, and thus ascended to him who had sent him, deriding them, inasmuch as he could not be laid hold of, and was invisible to all," (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book I, Chapter 24, Section 40).

We know from numerous Gnostic writings that they believed this because they rejected the Old Testament prophets and, believing matter to be evil, thought that Jesus did not have his own physical body and could not suffer real crucifixion. Ironically, they also blasphemed the God who created the physical universe as an ignorant demiurge, worshiping a different God who they claimed to be the true heavenly Father. These are the only reasons they rejected Jesus' real crucifixion. Thus, if one is going to write something here off as a mere myth, it is not the Gospel accounts, rooted as they are in history and former prophecy. It is, instead, the Quran and its unfortunate reliance on the false narrative of the Gnostics.

Further, the Quran claims that Jews were boasting "We killed Christ Jesus [literally, 'Jesus the Messiah'] the son of Mary, the Apostle of Allah." But no Jew was saying any such thing. The Jews did not consider Jesus to be the Messiah or a messenger of God. They also were only indirectly the ones who killed Jesus, having turned Him over to the Romans, and there is no evidence that Jews were bragging about having done this. It also says that those who claimed that Jesus had been killed were "full of doubts," but this simply is not so. As we saw in the sample above, the one thing everyone was certain of, whether they believed in Jesus or not, is that Jesus did indeed die on a Roman cross. The only people who doubted this were Gnostic heretics from long after Jesus' day, but this passage isn't addressing Gnostics who agreed that Jesus didn't die. It is addressing those who claim Jesus did die, particularly the Jews. Such people were not full of any doubts about Jesus' death. On every level, therefore, the Quran shows itself to be unreliable in this passage. And since these few sentences from one passage in the Quran are literally the only thing to which a Muslim can appeal over against the evidence of history, prophecy, and Jesus' own testimony, there is simply no basis for the claim that Jesus did not die on the cross for the sins of all who repent and turn to God through Him.

 

Inside the Bible

Jesus says
Matthew 20:18-19, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, 19 and will hand Him over to the Gentiles to mock and scourge and crucify Him, and on the third day He will be raised up."

Paul says
Romans 5:8, "But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."

John says
Revelation 5:9, "And they sang a new song, saying, 'Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.'"

 

Inside CARM

Islam and the Crucifixion of Jesus
Alternative theories of what happened to Jesus simply do not adequately account for the evidence.

The Quran, the Crucifixion, and the Gnostics
The Quran plainly teaches that Jesus did not die on the cross, but that it was made to appear that He did. While the Quran does not say exactly how this happened, many Muslims have understood it to mean that another man was made to look like Jesus. This other man was then crucified in Jesus' place. As with many other passages in the Quran, this idea did not appear out of thin air. It actually comes from earlier sources, in this case, Gnostic myths.

Does Hebrews 5:7 deny the Crucifixion of Jesus?
The Book of Hebrews is consistent with the rest of the New Testament which emphatically affirms Jesus' death by crucifixion.

 

  • 1. Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? (Harper One, 2012) 109
  • 2. ibid, 110
  • 3. As cited in Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? (Harper One, 2012) 61
  • 4. ibid
  • 5. As cited in Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999) 120
  • 6. ibid