Chapter Four

The Crucifixion and the Atonement

The Historical and Spiritual Issues

4.1   The Consequences of Man’s Fallen Nature

Muslim: No one can bear the sins of another. Every man is accountable for his own life. You have to make an effort to obey the laws of Allah and trust in his mercy to forgive your failures. Sins are bad deeds that must be cancelled out by good deeds.

One of the greatest differences between Islam and Christianity is the concept each has of sin and the effect it has on a man’s relationship with God. According to the New Testament, the sin of Adam was not just an offence against God’s holy laws but an act of defiance which set the whole human race in opposition to God (Romans 3:9-18), leaving all men by nature spiritually dead in their transgressions and iniquities and bound to follow the devil as sons of disobedience (Ephesians 2:1-2). Islam, however, teaches that men are neutral beings, capable of doing good or evil as they choose. While the Qur’an regularly laments the instinctive tendency of man to turn away from God and to be ungrateful to him, preferring rather to follow indulgent passions (Surah 100:6-8), it does not regard the human failure to be perfectly obedient to God as a devastating chasm, separating God and man unless and until God should intervene and bring about a work of redemption as the Bible says he has done through the crucifixion, death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ.

Why the Atonement is Necessary

The ultimate question is not whether man is by nature as bad as the Bible makes him out to be, with a heart that is "desperately corrupt, deceitful above all things" (Jeremiah 17:9), but whether God is as good as the Bible declares him to be. According to Islam Allah is the Lord of the Universe whose attributes, such as righteousness, mercy and justice, are no more than that – just attributes. The Bible teaches, however, that God is, within himself, holy and righteous and that man, in breaking his holy laws, falls short of his absolutely holy character (Romans 3:23). How does one bring this across to a Muslim when he argues that Christianity has too pessimistic a view of human nature and that God does not need to save anyone, forgiving whomever he pleases as he chooses? One of the most effective ways is not to try to prove the doctrine of atonement but just to compare two men – Adam and Jesus, beginning with this passage:

For as by a man came death, by a man also has come the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive. 1 Corinthians 15:21-22

All Muslims accept that Adam and Eve were chased out of the Garden of Eden when they sinned. The consequence of their disobedience was not simply a bad deed that could have been cancelled out by a good one, nor was it simply a matter of being forgiven by God. They were never let back into the Garden, nor has any member of the human race which has descended from them. Muslims in fact believe that the Garden was in heaven itself because its name in the Qur’an, Jannatu’l ‘Adn, is also a name for heaven (Surah 9:72). In discussion with Muslims I have found they will freely agree that Adam and Eve would not have died had they stayed in the Garden and that it was only on this decaying earth to which they were sent down that death became an inevitable destiny.

Muslims, therefore, should be able to see that the first sin of Adam and Eve had disastrous and ruinous consequences. I have often asked them – if Adam and Eve were forgiven, why were they not allowed back into the Garden? Why were they and all their offspring left to die on this earth? There is no answer in Islam. Yet Muslims freely believe that Jesus was taken up to heaven and is the only man alive in heaven who has never died. How did he get in there when all other men born on earth – from Adam to Muhammad and beyond – have come to nothing?

It is easy from there to point out that Jesus taught he would go to heaven because he came from there in the first place. He was not just an ordinary human being and his unique birth proves this. As Jesus said:

No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. John 3:13

I came from the Father and have come into the world; again I am leaving the world and going to the Father. John 16:28

Muslims profess to prize logic, so use it with them. If we return to dust because we came from it, is it not logical to believe that Jesus went to heaven because he, too, came from there? I have found it very useful to go on to show that Jesus came down the first time to become like us, ordinary human beings, "in the likeness of sinful flesh" (Romans 8:3) to die as we do and to redeem us from our sins. He will come down from heaven the second time to make us like himself, in all his resplendent glory, so that we can live forever in the kingdom of heaven where he is. Just as he, when seen as he really is, could shine with all the glory of perfection, his face shining like the sun (Matthew 17:2), so we too will "shine like the sun" in the kingdom of our Father because of our faith in him and relationship with God through him (Matthew 13:43). If Christianity indeed has the most pessimistic view of human nature as it is – that it cannot redeem or save itself by any good work – then it also has the most optimistic view of what it can become! The only way back into the Garden from which Adam and all his offspring were dismissed is through Jesus who will return from heaven to take all his followers back there with him. Without his atoning work there is no other way anyone will ever get there.

The Fall of Adam in the Qur’an

It is important to emphasise this by pointing out that the Qur’an supports the Bible in teaching that Adam’s transgression was not just a mistake or misdemeanour, or that he simply forgot God’s command not to eat of the forbidden fruit (as Muslims often argue), but that he fell from his high estate and was driven out from the Garden:

But the Devil made them slip from it and caused them to depart from the state in which they were. And We said: Fall down from here, some enemies to the others. And on the earth there will be a dwelling and provision for a time. Surah 2:36

The key word here is ahbituu which comes from the root word habt meaning to go down an incline or to descend from a high place to a low one. "Fall down!" was the order, literally "Get out of here!". The consequences were also to be profound – enmity between men and an abode on the earth alone. It is very important to emphasise the fact that Adam and Eve were never allowed back into the Garden. Death was the ultimate consequence of their sin – hence the need of a Saviour, Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead to give us the hope of eternal life.

In passing it is also important to point out to Muslims who try to minimise Adam’s offence by saying he "forgot" the Lord’s command that, not only is it highly unlikely that he would forget the only negative command God gave him (Surah 7:19), but that the Shaitaan, the Devil, actually reminded Adam of God’s command when tempting him to sin:

Your Lord has only forbidden you this tree lest you become like the angels or those who live forever. Surah 7:20

Adam’s sin was an act of defiance against God. The tree stood in the middle of the Garden as a symbol of God’s authority over man and, when he ate of it, Adam defied that authority and plunged the human race into a state of perpetual rebellion against God. Only Jesus Christ can redeem us from this state.

Muslims sometimes talk about the tomb they have prepared in the Masjid an-Nabi (the Prophet’s Mosque) in Madina, Arabia, where they say Jesus will be buried forty years after his return to earth. I have pointed out that I have already visited two tombs of Jesus in Jerusalem, one in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the old city and the other in the garden just below Golgotha where Jesus was crucified. It is remarkable, I have concluded, that this man has three tombs but fills none of them and never will! They are all totally empty. He dwells in everlasting life in heaven above, never to die again.

Jesus’ life began uniquely, being born of a virgin woman because he came from heaven, and ended uniquely, being taken up again to heaven after his resurrection from the dead. Another point of emphasis here I have found useful is to point out to Muslims that Jesus was alive in heavenly glory before Muhammad was ever born, remained so throughout their Prophet’s life, and has remained alive in the same glory for fourteen centuries since Muhammad died and was buried in Arabian soil.

4.2   Do Christians Enjoy a License to Sin?

Muslim: If Christ died for all your sins, past, present and future, then you can sin freely. Is this not why the Western world today is so corrupt? You just have to ask for forgiveness and you have it! We Muslims will never believe this – it is too easy.

This is one of the commonest arguments Christians will encounter when witnessing to Muslims. To them the favour of God has to be earned through a succession of good works and religious devotions. They cannot understand how salvation can be a gift or how forgiveness of all sins can be received simply by faith in Jesus.

Paul’s Teaching in Romans 6

This subject is dealt with very deliberately by the Apostle Paul in the sixth chapter of his Epistle to the Romans. The argument he anticipates and answers in the first part of the chapter is slightly different to the general Muslim one, namely: "Surely, if you are forgiven purely by grace, you should sin as much as you can so that God’s grace may abound" (v.1). The second part, however, includes the classic Muslim objection: "Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace?" (Romans 6:15). His answers go right to the core of what the Christian Gospel is and whenever Muslims raise this subject Christians have a real opportunity to witness to them of the effects of God’s saving grace in Christ.

1.   Being Dead to Sin and Alive to God in Christ

The first response of the Apostle is to ask how believers can even contemplate the possibility of living in sin with a free conscience when the effect of their faith in Jesus is to share in his death and its victory over all the forces of darkness:

How can we who died to sin still live in it? Romans 6:2

The whole thrust of Paul’s argument is that those who put their faith in Jesus become united to him in his death and resurrection. He died to conquer both the guilt and power of sin and rose again to impart his life-giving power to all who choose to follow him. In turn they identify with his death to sin and become alive to God and the whole fulness of his righteousness. No one can receive the forgiveness of God in Christ unless his desire is to repent of his sins, forsake them, and be transformed into the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

The death he died he died to sin once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Romans 6:10-11

2.   God’s Grace Delivers Believers from the Power of Sin

Perhaps the most important point to emphasise here is the fact that Jesus Christ died, not only to free us from the guilt of sin but also from its power. Jesus once said that whoever commits sin becomes a slave to sin (John 8:34). So often in conversation with Muslims I have asked them, if sin is merely a choice a man makes, why they cannot simply say to God "I know you want us to follow the right path (Siratal-Mustaqim). So from this day I choose never to sin again". Invariably they have smiled bemusedly at the suggestion, freely admitting that no one can make such a decision for the rest of his life, let alone for a single day. Often they say "We do not even know sometimes when we are sinning. What often appears to be right in our eyes can be wrong before God".

Many Muslims struggle with the painful awareness that the tendency to sin is a compelling force, an unfortunate reality about human nature. This where the effect of redemption comes into a Christian’s life:

But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. Romans 6:17-18

Faith in Jesus not only brings us the forgiveness of our sins but also gives us the power to overcome them in our lives. As the Apostle Paul said in another epistle Jesus came not only to "redeem us from all iniquity" but also to "purify for himself a people who are zealous for good deeds" (Titus 2:14). For many Muslims the prospect of an indwelling power to conquer sin is very attractive.

3.   Being Filled with the Holy Spirit

Anyone who commits his life to Christ simultaneously receives the Holy Spirit. This is the third person of the Trinity who does not take control of our lives (God is too gracious to do this) but who gives us a love for God’s commandments at the root of our being and, insofar as we submit to him, will deliver us from the powerful tendencies in our souls to pursue our own, sinful desires. I have found the following incident very useful when seeking to impress this fact on Muslims:

When they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. John 19:33-34

John made much of this in the next verse, saying he had definitely seen it and recounted it so that his readers might believe. Believe what? Merely that it had happened? Not likely, especially as the word "believe" is loaded with meaning throughout his Gospel. He meant so that you might live by faith in Jesus. It was the two liquids which poured from Jesus’ side which impressed him.

The blood symbolised the forgiveness of sins just as the shedding of blood of bulls, lambs and goats in times past at the Temple had been the means by which God had overlooked the sins of the people. The water, however, symbolised the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the rivers of new life which believers also receive. Water is a common symbol of divine power in the soul in this Gospel (John 4:14, 7:38). It should be obvious that this is a very useful illustration supporting Paul’s teaching in Romans 6.

In conclusion it is also appropriate to challenge any Muslim who raises the argument that "if Jesus died for you, you can sin as you like" to quote from the Bible to prove exactly where he got this idea from. Alternatively you might gently suggest that, in expressing such a fallacy, the Muslim shows a painful ignorance of what the Bible really teaches and needs a brief explanation of what salvation is actually all about.

4.3   The Young Ruler and the Commandments

Muslim: It is strange that you should say salvation comes through faith in Jesus. After all, Jesus himself taught that if you want to receive eternal life you must keep God’s commandments. This is precisely what Islam teaches about true religion as well.

Many Muslims are familiar with the story of the rich young ruler who approached Jesus and asked him what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus replied "If you would enter life, keep the commandments" (Matthew 19:17). They argue that Jesus never taught atonement but, as in this statement, called on all men to observe the commandments of God if they were to enter his kingdom. How does one answer this?

No One is Good but God Alone

At times Muslims will also argue that Jesus also denied, in his discussion with the young man, that he had any goodness within himself because he was just an ordinary human being like everyone else. When the ruler called him a "good teacher", Jesus responded:

Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. Mark 10:17-18

Here is another excellent opportunity to turn an objection into an opportunity for witness, this time to the deity of Christ. He never denied that he was good, on the contrary he called himself the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:11), echoing the statement of God himself at an earlier time "I myself will be the Shepherd of my sheep" (Ezekiel 34:15). There can be very little doubt that Jesus had this very statement in mind when he assumed the title Good Shepherd.

What he was in fact saying was "Why do you call me good?". He was not denying goodness. The young ruler had, in the Hebrew language, called him a good rabbi (as in John 1:38). There were many such rabbis and teachers of the law in Israel at the time and, if the young man thought he was no more than any of them, he could well be asked why he had called this one "good" when God alone is good in an eternal sense. The response of Jesus is a challenge to him to declare whether he regarded Jesus as just one of the many teachers who gave their interpretations of religion as they derived them from their religious studies, or whether he saw in Jesus a divine uniqueness by which he would be able, with divine authority, to disclose the secret of eternal life. This comes out even more when one looks at the rest of the discussion between the two men.

If you Would be Perfect, Follow Me

When Jesus told the young man that he could enter life by keeping the commandments, he asked "Which?". Jesus then mentioned five of them, all of which dealt with a man’s relationship with his fellow man, but excluding the tenth "You shall not covet". The young ruler responded that he had kept all of them since his youth – what did he still lack? Jesus, knowing his love of riches and covetous spirit, then challenged him:

If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. Matthew 19:21

At this he went away sorrowful, unable to part with his great possessions. We see in this story, not that anyone can enter life simply by keeping the ten commandments, but rather that no one can do so perfectly as they must be kept if anyone wishes to enter life by them. God is perfect and his laws must accordingly be kept perfectly if they are to be kept at all in the true sense of the word. As another verse says:

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. James 2:10

What Jesus was telling the young man, who thought he had kept all of God’s laws from his childhood, was that he needed to keep every law of God always, perfectly, continually. That is why Jesus told him that, if he would indeed be perfect, he needed to sell all his possessions and to renounce his materialistic spirit. Relative piety is unacceptable to a "holy God who shows himself holy in righteousness" (Isaiah 5:16). Instead, therefore, of finding eternal life through keeping God’s commandments the young man discovered that those laws could only convict him of sin. As the Apostle Paul said:

The very commandment which promised life proved death to me. Romans 7:10

Jesus gave the young man a clear hint as to where salvation really lies when he said "If you would be prefect, ... follow me". It is only in the atoning work of the Christ that perfection and salvation can ultimately be found. Far from being a denial of the deity of Jesus and the atonement this passage is a very definite affirmation of it.

Other Proofs of the Atonement

The charge that Jesus never taught atonement can be met on other grounds as well. In a number of his statements he made it plain that he had come to earth expressly to save us from our sins and you will do well to quote them in conversation with Muslims on this subject:

The Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. Matthew 20:28

The bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. John 6:51

I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. John 10:11

Perhaps the most obvious incident in Jesus’ life that clearly points to the atonement as God’s way of salvation is the Last Supper which he had with his disciples the last night he was with them just before his arrest, trial and crucifixion. Here he took bread, broke it and gave it to them saying "Take, eat, this is my body". Then he took the cup of wine and gave it to them to drink, saying "This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:26-28).

It is virtually impossible to understand how anyone can suggest that Jesus never taught atonement in the face of such an event. It was the very thing he commended to his disciples on the last occasion he was with them before his death. Christians have, in response to Muslim objections such as those surrounding the story of the rich young ruler, tremendous opportunities to share the whole message of the Gospel with them at the same time as refuting their arguments.

4.4   The Substitution Theory in the Qur’an

Muslim: God would never have stood by watching while his enemies crucified his Son. To us Jesus was only a great prophet, yet Allah delivered him from the Jews who wanted to kill him. He was saved from the cross while another was crucified instead.

Only one verse in the whole Qur’an deals with the subject of Jesus’ crucifixion. The event is strongly denied as a calumny of the Jews against him. Their intention to kill him is not discounted, but Allah is said to have honoured his prophet by saving him from their hands while a bystander, whose appearance Allah changed so that he might look like Jesus, was crucified instead. There is no mention of the relevance of the event to the Christian faith, a surprising oversight considering the fact that the Bible teaches that Jesus laid down his life willingly for the salvation of all men and that this was the express purpose for the appearance of the Son of God in human form. Without the death and resurrection of Jesus there would have been no Christianity and the fact that it is central to our faith makes the omission of any reference to its Christian context in the Qur’an all the more remarkable. The verse is:

They said: "We killed the Messiah Jesus, son of Mary, messenger of Allah; but they did not kill him, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them. Those who dispute about this are full of doubts, they have no certain knowledge but follow only conjecture. Assuredly they killed him not, but Allah raised him to himself. And Allah is the Mighty, the Wise. Surah 4:157

Implications of the Substitution Theory

The very interesting little expression, wa laakin shubbiha lahum – "but so it was made to appear to them", has led the Muslim world to believe that the physical features of another person were changed to look like those of Jesus and that he was substituted by God in the prophet’s place. Jesus, instead, was taken up to heaven where he remains alive until he will return to earth shortly before the end of time. The Qur’an comes tantalisingly close to admitting the Christian position – it accepts that the Jews came to arrest Jesus, that they intended to crucify him, that someone was indeed crucified, that to all intents and purposes the victim looked like Jesus, and that all who stood at the foot of the cross were persuaded that it really was him. In truth the expression "so it was made to appear to them" is somewhat vague and has led to some disputes in the Muslim world over what really happened to Jesus, but there remains a general consensus that someone else was transfigured to look like him and was accordingly crucified in his place.

In addition the Qur’an offers another striking coincidence – it makes the life of Jesus on earth end the same day that the Bible says it did. This ironically gives the substitution theory its only possible credibility – it wisely concludes Jesus’ natural life the same day history draws it to a close. Yet, as we shall see, the theory has very little substance and can be ruthlessly challenged on many grounds. The important thing here is to answer Muslim denials of the crucifixion by first establishing the facts we hold in common. The only point in dispute is this – was it actually Jesus who was crucified (as the Bible teaches) or was it someone else (as the Qur’an teaches)? Once you have levelled the playing-field it becomes much easier to focus on this one supreme issue.

A Critical Analysis of the Theory

Not only is the Qur’anic teaching on what happened that day embarrassingly vague but the Muslim interpretation of it, the substitution theory, is extremely vulnerable on moral grounds and does not withstand the acid test of critical analysis. The following points can effectively be raised in discussion with Muslims on this subject:

1.   Why Should God have Victimised an Innocent Bystander?

If it was God’s intention to save Jesus alive by raising him to heaven, why should anyone have been crucified at all? It makes no sense. The very act of misrepresenting one man as another is a form of impersonation and we cannot accept that the "holy God who shows himself holy in righteousness" (Isaiah 5:16) would ever have done such a thing. Some Muslims say it was Judas Iscariot who was crucified (to remove the charge that an innocent bystander was crucified) but there is no identification of the victim in the Qur’an. The fact is, whoever was crucified was innocent of whatever wrongdoing Jesus was supposed to have done to warrant his death. The choice of Judas is simply an expedient to justify what God is supposed to have done that day. The Bible, however, records very clearly what happened to Judas – when he saw that Jesus was going to be crucified, in great remorse he went out and hanged himself (Matthew 27:5. See also Acts 1:18).

2.   Did God not Consider Jesus’ Family and Disciples?

The second obvious objection to the Muslim theory is the effect the crucifixion would have had on those who were gathered around the cross. His mother Mary, her sister Mary the wife of Clopas, and two of his closest disciples Mary Magdalene and John the son of Zebedee, were "standing by the cross of Jesus" (John 19:25). If the person crucified was made to look exactly like Jesus, surely they would all have presumed it really was him? Why did God put the people who were closest to Jesus through the agony of watching him die? Would God have allowed his mother, revered in Islam as Bibi Maryam and the only woman mentioned by name in the Qur’an (Surah 3:36, 19:16), to have endured such torment purely because of an illusion of his own making? It is useful, at this point, to add that Jesus actually addressed Mary and John from the cross:

When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, "Woman, behold your son!" Then he said to the disciple, "Behold your mother!" John 19:26-27

This is only one of seven sayings of Jesus from the cross and it clearly shows that the person crucified not only looked like Jesus but also talked as if it was him. Only Jesus himself could have shown such compassion for his mother. Anyone else would have spent his time crying from the cross that he had been crucified by mistake. To get to the truth Muslims only have to acknowledge one thing – that it was indeed Jesus himself who was crucified!

3.   Was Christianity Founded on a Hoax of God’s Making?

The third objection to the Muslim theory is that, if the man crucified was made to look like Jesus, can you blame his disciples for actually thinking it was him? They went out and preached Christ crucified, being willing to lay down their lives for the Gospel message that Jesus died to save the world from its sinfulness. Did they found the whole Christian faith on a hoax, an illusion of which God himself was the deliberate author? The substitution theory makes God out to be the source of the greatest deception in religious history. The irony is that it is this theory which is perhaps the greatest of all historical delusions, one which has bound hundreds of millions of Muslims for fourteen centuries in unbelief. Under close analysis it is found to be riddled with improbabilities.

It is important in witness to Muslims to emphasise that the Bible emphatically teaches that Jesus was crucified, that he died on the cross, and that he was raised from the dead on the third day. These two declarations, proclaimed by an angel to some of Jesus’ female disciples the day of his resurrection and by the Apostle Peter to thousands of Jewish bystanders, set forth these great truths very concisely:

I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here for he has risen, as he said. Come see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead. Matthew 28:5-7

This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. Acts 2:23-24

God is glorified in the Christian Gospel. The crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, his only Son, is the greatest evidence of his love for us. It is the door to eternal life. It is the source of our complete forgiveness and ultimate redemption. The Muslim theory that someone else was crucified in Jesus’ place, on the contrary, is meaningless. The event served no apparent purpose other than to victimise an innocent man, traumatise the followers of Jesus, and result in the formation of a religion based on a fallacy – all of Allah’s own scheming and devising. Highly unlikely indeed!

4.5   The Swooning Theory of Muslim Apologists

Muslim: It can be shown from the Bible that, even if Jesus was put on a cross, he did not die on it, but was taken down alive though in a swoon. Afterwards he recovered and appeared to many, hence the illusion that he had been raised from the dead.

The untenable nature of the substitution theory and its obvious weaknesses has led some Muslim writers to attack the Biblical records of Jesus’ crucifixion instead, attempting to prove what has become known as the alternative swooning theory. This is an old heresy, one which the Ahmadiyya branch of Islam first adopted through the teaching of its prophet, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who lived in India in the nineteenth century. It is important to know that, in 1974, followers of the Ahmadiyya Movement were declared non-Muslims in Pakistan. Their theory, however, has occasionally been taken over by mainstream Muslim authors as a convenient means of assaulting the Christian Gospel.

Typical Evidences for the Ahmadiyya Theory

Conveniently ignoring every statement in the Gospels to the effect that Jesus died on the cross, these writers fasten on to certain passages, distort them out of context, and then re-interpret them to suggest that Jesus survived the cross. Let us consider a few prominent examples.

1.   Jesus Prayed that God would Save him from Death

In the Garden of Gethsemane, shortly before being arrested, Jesus prayed "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless not as I will, but as you will" (Matthew 28:39) and in response an angel was sent to him to strengthen him (Luke 22:43). It is argued that Jesus was reluctant to die and that the angel was sent to him to comfort him that he would be saved from death.

It is hard to see how Jesus could have been comforted by the knowledge that he would endure the horrors of the crucifixion right to the point of death itself and be saved only because, to all intents and purposes, he appeared to be dead when taken down from the cross. Here even the substitution theory makes more sense! Surely, if God had wished to save him from death, he would have delivered him completely from it? Why save him only after an unnecessary, tragic delay? In any event Jesus could have fled that night from Jerusalem and avoided arrest for he knew exactly what Judas Iscariot was doing in preparing his arrest (John 18:4). Jesus recoiled at the prospect of separation from his Father as he took God’s wrath against our sins on himself, a holy fear that made him sweat blood (Luke 22:44). The very prospect of being forsaken of his Father and left in the realm of sin and its consequences made Jesus momentarily withdraw in horror, yet he deferred to his Father’s will. The strength the angel gave him was to endure this ordeal, unparalleled in human history. The glorious resurrection of Jesus from the dead three days later was a much greater deliverance.

2.   The Centurion Did not Ensure that Jesus was Dead

Much is made of the fact that when the Roman soldiers came to break the legs of the three men crucified that day, they left Jesus alone when they saw he was already dead (John 19:33). It is argued that they relied purely on a perception and made no attempt to ensure that Jesus had actually died. On the contrary, the soldiers would never have left such a thing to chance or their impressions. Consider this passage:

And Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph. Mark 15:44-45

The Roman governor was quite happy to accept the centurion’s confirmation because it was fatal for a Roman soldier to make a mistake in such a situation. When the Apostle Peter escaped from prison some time later in the same city, the sentries appointed to guard him were summarily executed (Acts 12:19). When a jailer supposed that Paul and Silas had also escaped from prison, "he drew his sword and was about to kill himself" (Acts 16:27). Death was the penalty for allowing prisoners to escape – what could the centurion expect if he allowed a condemned man to escape because of some careless observations? No one but he could have been such a reliable witness to Jesus’ death on the cross! In fact one of the soldiers thrust a sword right into Jesus’ side (John 19:34) to make totally sure. This act alone would have been sufficient to kill him.

3.   The Jews Doubted that Jesus was Dead

Another typical argument is that the Jewish leaders were concerned that Jesus was still alive after being brought down from the cross and went to Pilate to have his tomb properly sealed to ensure that he could not escape. It is based on their statement to the governor:

Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, "After three days I will rise again". Matthew 27:63

Once again the argument conveniently ignores clear statements in the context of the incident which show that, far from thinking Jesus might recover his health, the Jews were concerned that Jesus’ disciples might come and steal his body away and that they might proclaim that he had risen from the dead (Matthew 27:64).

There are two points that make it obvious what they really feared. Firstly they spoke of what Jesus had said while he was "still alive", implying that they were clearly satisfied he was now dead. Secondly they acted on a prophecy Jesus had often made, namely that after he was killed, he would rise on the third day (Luke 9:22).

The swooning theory has no substance whatsoever. It relies on reading between the lines (which some Muslim proponents actually admit) rather than a careful study of the lines themselves. The theory serves only one purpose – to show how embarrassing the substitution theory is to many Muslims and to what lengths they will go to attack the Biblical records instead.

4.6   What Really was the Sign of Jonah?

Muslim: Jesus spoke of the Sign of Jonah as the only sign he was prepared to give the Jews. Yet it is obvious that Jonah did not die in the stomach of the fish and Jesus did not spend three days and three nights in the tomb as he said he would.

Muslims fasten on to the Sign of Jonah to further the swooning theory and to challenge the parallel Jesus brought between the time Jonah spent in the depths of the ocean and the time he would spend buried in the earth. Let us consider the two arguments they produce, especially as they are quite commonly advanced in the Muslim world.

Was Jesus Dead or Alive in the Tomb?

No one doubts that Jonah was alive throughout his ordeal, nor has it ever been suggested that he rose from the dead when he was released on dry land. If so, Muslims argue, Jesus also must have been in the tomb without dying until the stone was rolled away from it. Otherwise, how could Jesus use Jonah’s experience as a sign of his own resurrection from the dead? When one reads the whole statement of Jesus, however, it is obvious that the likeness was confined to the time-factor:

For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. Matthew 12:40

It is quite clear that the likeness is in the time each would spend hidden from public view from which a reappearance was most unlikely, Jonah in a fish and Jesus in a tomb. The issue is the time-period of three days and three nights. It cannot be stretched to include the state each was in, namely to say "if Jonah was alive, then Jesus too must have been alive."

This comes clear from another similar statement of Jesus where he again, in the context of his coming crucifixion, drew a comparison between his coming death and an Old Testament incident:

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. John 3:14

Here the likeness is clearly confined to the state of being lifted up and impaled, the serpent on a pole and Jesus on a cross. The first had been publicly lifted for the healing of the Jews bitten by serpents, the second for the healing of the nations bound in sin. In this case, however, the serpent was a brass object. At no time had it ever been alive. It was dead when nailed to the pole and dead when it was taken down. If you apply the same Muslim logic here it means Jesus must have been dead before he was ever nailed to the cross!

It is quite obvious that, in each case, the living state or otherwise of the objects compared to was not relevant to the point Jesus was making. The likeness was clearly confined to the actual point of similarity he mentioned – in Jonah’s case the time-period of three days and nights, and in the case of the brass serpent to the action of being lifted up.

The Three Days and Three Nights

It is universally agreed among Christians (with a few exceptions) that Jesus was crucified on a Friday and that he rose from the dead early on the following Sunday morning. Muslims argue that, if that was indeed the case, the Sign of Jonah has no meaning because Jonah was three days and three nights in the stomach of the fish. Jesus was, quite obviously, only two nights (Friday and Saturday) in the tomb and hardly three days as well. The time-period of three days and nights is 72 hours, but Jesus could not have been more than 33 hours in the tomb (3pm Friday to 6am Sunday).

What these Muslims fail to appreciate is that there is a major difference between Hebrew speech in the first century and English speech in the twentieth century. In those days Jews counted any part of a day as a whole day when calculating consecutive periods of time. Jesus was laid in the tomb of the Friday, lay in it throughout the Saturday, and only rose sometime before dawn on the Sunday. As the Sunday actually started at sunset the previous evening according to the Jewish calendar Jesus was in the tomb for a very definite period of three days according to Jewish reckoning. The question is why there were only two nights in between.

One needs to understand the Hebrew colloquialisms of the time. The expression three days and three nights is the sort of expression we never use in the spoken English language today. Its meaning must therefore be sought in the context of its first-century Hebrew use. Today we will say "I’ll be away for two weeks" or for a "fortnight", never intending this to mean a precise period of fourteen days and fourteen nights. Yet the Bible often uses this figure of speech. Moses fasted for forty days and forty nights in the wilderness (Exodus 24:18) while Job’s friends sat with him for seven days and seven nights during his illness (Job 2:13). No Jew would ever have spoken of "three days and two nights" or "seven days and six nights" even if this was the exact period he was describing. It was a general period of three days that Jesus was speaking of and, incidentally, which Jonah spent in the depth of the sea.

A fine example of this is found in the Old Testament where it is said that Queen Esther commanded that no one should eat for "three days, night or day" (Esther 4:16) but on the third day, after only two nights, she went into the king’s chamber and the fast was ended. The expression three days and three nights was a Jewish colloquialism meaning any period of time covering three days. This is really obvious from how the Jews reacted to Jesus’ saying once he had been buried. When they said to Pilate that they remembered how Jesus had said he would rise again after three days, they requested him to secure the sepulchre until the third day (Matthew 27:64). It was after only one night, on the day after his crucifixion (Saturday), that they urged the governor to act immediately. In our speech today we would have taken Jesus’ statement that he would rise after three days to mean sometime on the fourth day.

The Jews, however, knowing their own colloquialisms, took Jesus to mean he would rise on the third day, namely Sunday, after only two nights. This is why they were only concerned to have the tomb secured until the third day. They knew he did not mean he would be buried for an exact period of 72 hours but only for a portion of three days. The important thing is to interpret the saying in first-century terms and not according to our forms of speech today.

When the disciples of Jesus boldly declared that Jesus had risen from the dead on the third day (Acts 10:40), no one ever attempted to counter this testimony by claiming they were contradicting Jesus’ statement that he would be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

In conclusion it must be said that, when Muslims raise the subject of the Sign of Jonah, they create a wonderful opportunity to witness to them of precisely what it was – a symbol of Jesus’ crucifixion, death and resurrection from the dead three days later.

Facing the Muslim Challenge [Table of Contents]
Materials by John Gilchrist
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