You might be asking yourself, “Is this really a question?” And depending on your background you’d be asking that question for different reasons. Let’s look at why this question matters.
The Sahih International translation of the Quran translates Surah 4:157 as follows,
“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.”
It doesn’t get much clearer than that; according to the Quran, Jesus himself did not die. The Study Quran’s commentary on this verse provides a good overview of historical perspectives on how this took place.
Although the verse only directly criticizes a Jewish claim to have killed and crucified Jesus, it is widely understood in the Islamic tradition as meaning that Jesus was not crucified or killed at all; it only appeared so unto them, that is, to the Jews as well as to most of Jesus’ followers. Various accounts are given to explain how it appeared so unto them. According to some commentators, when the Jewish authorities came to arrest Jesus, he was among a group of his followers. They did not know who among them was Jesus, because a Divine ruse had made them all appear the same, and one of Jesus’ followers was thus taken and killed in his place (IK, Ṭ, Z). Some accounts indicate that one of Jesus’ followers in particular volunteered to sacrifice himself by assuming Jesus’ likeness (IK, Ṭ, Z). According to one account, this follower was crucified (i.e., publicly exposed) after being killed (IK). This follows the order mentioned in the verse itself: they did not slay him; nor did they crucify him, and in general, Muslims understood crucifixion as a punishment carried out after death in most, though not all, cases.
It seems quite limiting to declare this to be Christianity’s perspective only. It is, after all, the majority perspective of Historical Jesus studies regardless of faith background. It has been the overwhelming view of history, including the accounts of first-hand eye witnesses. Nevertheless, at its root this is a Christian issue because of the meaning behind the death of Jesus. For more on this, please see our post on Sacrifice.
To begin, Jesus himself said that he was going to die. Mark 8:31 says, “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.” John, the disciple of Jesus, was with Jesus when he was arrested, tried, and crucified (John 18-19). Ancient writers such as Josephus and Tacitus recorded that Jesus died. Enemies and friends alike all declared that Jesus died.
Further, the Scriptures (what we now know as the Old Testament) said that Jesus would die. Isaiah 53, which is a prophecy about the Messiah who was to come, says this:
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. 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, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.” Isaiah 53:4-9
As an interesting side note here, the Scripture is using past tense language to speak of a future event. The language itself is showing the certainty of God’s plan for the Messiah to come and die.
What’s The Problem?
Let’s start with what the problem is not: it is not a problem of someone in history dying on a cross. Islam affirms that someone died. The issue is a theological issue first and foremost. In Islam’s perspective God deceived people, even the disciples of Jesus (who many Muslims say were Muslim as well). Some have argued that those who crucified Jesus deserved to be deceived. That doesn’t really solve the problem of a deceptive God and overlooks the problem that, according to Islam’s own religious teaching and tradition, God deceived Muslims (ie, the followers of Jesus). There were innocent people affected by this, too. If God deceived his loyal followers, can he really be trusted?
Is It True?
At the core of any person’s search for God should be a pursuit of truth. Our Christian position is that Jesus himself did die. We trust the Scriptures which prophesied of the death of Jesus, the testimony of Jesus himself, the testimony of the eye witnesses, and the testimony of history – both from friend and foe alike. We reject a deceptive God who intentionally misled his own followers who had devoted their lives to him. We find that position untenable, especially considering its source is a man who is six hundred years removed from the actual events. While we can see how Muhammad might have been trying to honor Jesus as the Messiah (Christ) by denying that the Jews gained the upper hand and murdered a prophet, his possible good intentions have led billions of people astray from a plain and simple fact of not only world history, but God’s redemptive history. We pray that all people everywhere, especially Muslims, will come to know this truth.