Christ’s Death—Substitution Legend
|By: Dr. Norman Geisler; ©2004|
|Did Jesus really die on the cross, or was it Judas, Simon the Cyrene, or perhaps just a human figure (but not an actual person)? These are among the substitutes suggested by those who want to deny Christ’s death on behalf of sinners.|
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Substitution Legends
- 3 The Inadequate Basis
- 4 The Misunderstanding
- 5 Salvation in Christ
- 6 Conclusion
- 7 Notes
The death and resurrection of Christ are absolutely crucial to the truth of historic Christianity (1 Cor. 15:1-4). Indeed, orthodox Christianity stands or falls on whether Christ rose bodily from the dead (Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 15:12-19). But if Christ did not die, then he obviously did not rise from the dead. One of the ways skeptics and critics of Christianity have attempted to avoid the truth of the resurrection is to posit that someone else was substituted to die on the cross for Jesus at the last moment.
Forms of the substitution legend were offered as early as the second century by opponents of Christianity as an alternative explanation to the Christian affirmation that Christ died and rose from the dead. But the factual evidence for Christ’s death on the cross is substantial, and it stands on its own apart from any theological beliefs.
The substitution legend is now most commonly taught among Muslims, so their view will be answered in this article. This answer necessarily includes a rationale for the Christian position on salvation in the light of the cross. The effort to defend Christ’s death as both historical and theologically intelligible is partly undertaken in the article The Death of Christ (see Theological Dictionary, June 2000).
Reasons to Reject the Death of Christ
At one level, the Islamic reticence to accept the historical event of Christ’s death is odd. Not only is there a total lack of evidence for a substitution, but Islam historically teaches that:
- Jesus would die (sura 3:55; cf. 19:33).
- Jesus would rise from the dead (19:33).
- Jesus’ disciples who witnessed the event believed that it was Jesus, not someone else in his place, who was crucified.
- The Roman soldiers and the Jews believed that it was Jesus of Nazareth whom they had crucified.
- Jesus performed miracles, including raising people from the dead.
If all this is accepted by Muslims, then there is no reason they should reject the fact that Jesus died on the cross, or even that he was raised from the dead three days later.
Early Substitution Legends
Substitution legends are not unique to Islam. Some early opponents of Christianity offered similar speculations. According to the second century church father Frenacus, Basilides the Gnostic taught that “at the Crucifixion He [Jesus] changed form with Simon of Cyrene who had carried the cross. The Jews mistaking Simon for Jesus nailed him to the cross. Jesus stood by deriding their error before ascending to heaven” (Lightfoot, 156ff.). In the third century, Mani of Persia, founder of the Manichaean religion, taught that the son of the widow of Nain, whom Jesus had raised from the dead, was put to death in his place. According to another Manichaean tradition, the devil, who was trying to crucify Jesus, was himself the victim of this switch. Photius (ca. 820-ca. 895) referred in his writings to an apocryphal book, The Travels of Paul, in which it was said that another was crucified in Jesus’ place (Abdul-Haqq, 136).
Muslim Substitution Legends
Muslims have been drawn to the notion that Judas or Simon of Cyrene died in Jesus’ place on the cross. A competing view that he swooned on the cross and was taken down while still alive, does not help their hypothesis. Al-Tabari, well-known Muslim historian and commentator on the Qur’an, reports that Wahab B. Munabih, who lived around 700, propagated the lore that a human form but not a person was substituted. His version is reported:
- They brought him the gibbet on which they intended to crucify him, but God raised him up to himself and a simulacrum was crucified in his place. He remained there for seven hours, and then his mother and another woman whom He had cured of madness came to weep for him. But Jesus came to them and said, “God has raised me up to himself, and this is a mere simulacrum.” [Abdul-Haqq, 133-36]
Another example of the growth of this legendary tradition is the view of Thalabi, who lived some 300 years after Munabih. “The shape of Jesus was put on Judas who had pointed him out, and they crucified him instead, supposing that he was Jesus. After three hours God took Jesus to himself and raised him up to heaven” (see Bruce, 179).
More recently, A. R. I. Doi offers the hypothesis that, when the Roman soldiers came with Judas to arrest Jesus, “the two Jews got mixed up in the dark, and the soldiers mistakenly arrested Judas instead of Jesus. Jesus was thus saved and raised up” (Doi, 21). In support, Muslims often cite the spurious Gospel of Barnabas.
The Inadequate Basis
Substitution legends simply are not historically credible:
They contradict the extant record of eyewitness testimony that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified (Matthew 27; Mark 14; Luke 23; John 19).
They are contrary to the earliest extra biblical Jewish, Roman, and Samaritan testimony (Habermas, 87-118, Bruce, 31). In spite of the fact that all of these writers were opponents of Christianity, they agree that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified under Pontius Pilate. There is not a shred of first-century testimony to the contrary by friend or foe of Christianity. The earliest substitution legends begin in about 150 among those heavily influenced by Gnosticism. None is based on evidence of eyewitnesses or contemporaries to the events.
They are implausible, since they demand total ignorance on the part of those closest to Jesus, his disciple, and the Romans. They suppose that someone who looked like him was crucified and that they never informed the disciples nor corrected them as they promptly went out to preach under threat of death that Jesus had died and risen from the dead.
Since most Muslims reject the fact of Christ’s crucifixion and death, they understandably have great difficulty explaining the resurrection appearances and ascension of Christ. Since they believe Christ was merely a human being, they accept the fact of Christ’s mortality. They believe Jesus will eventually be resurrected with all other humans, but, after rejecting his death on the cross, they are forced to find some other place for Christ’s death.
This dilemma has encouraged ingenious speculation. Many Muslim scholars believe Jesus Christ was transported into heaven alive. His death still must happen sometime in the future, when he returns to the earth before the last day. This they take from a literal understanding of sura 4:157-58: “That they said (in boast), ‘We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the apostle of God’;—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, God raised him up unto himself; and God is exalted in power, wise.”
Others hypothesize that Jesus died a natural death at some unknown time after the crucifixion and remained dead for three hours, or according to another tradition, seven hours—after which he was resurrected and taken to heaven (Abdul-Haqq, 131). There is no historical testimony to support such speculation.
A few Islamic writers, like Ahmad Khan of India, believe that Jesus was crucified, but did not die on the cross. Rather, he merely swooned and was taken down after 3 hours (Abdul-Haqq, 132). Other Muslims in north India added the legend that Jesus visited Tibet. Abdul-Haqq notes that Ghulam Ahmad “home brew[ed] a theory that Jesus Christ took His journey to Kasmir… after His crucifixion. To further support his theory he conveniently found a grave in Sirinagar, Kashmir, which he declared to be the grave of Jesus.” However, the Ahmadiyyas sect’s “speculations have been condemned as heretical by the Muslim orthodoxy” (ibid., 133).
Abdalati notes that “whether he [Jesus] was raised alive in soul and body or in soul only after he died a natural death has not much bearing on the Islamic belief.” Why? “It is no Article of Faith, because what is important and binding to a Muslim is what God reveals; and God revealed that Jesus was not crucified but was raised to Him” (see Abdalati, 159). He cites sura 4:157 (quoted above).
Most Muslims, however, believe that Jesus will be physically resurrected from the dead in the general resurrection of the last day. Nothing else is essential to the Muslim faith. Therefore, rejecting Jesus’ death by crucifixion leads to a rejection of his resurrection three days later and leaves the enigma of the ascension before any death or resurrection.
The Muslim denial of Christ’s death by crucifixion is based on a theological misunderstanding. Abdalati, for example, lists the following among his reasons for rejecting the crucifixion of Christ: “Is it just on God’s part, or anybody’s part for that matter, to make someone repent for the sins or wrongs of others, the sins to which the repenter is no party?” (Abdalati, 160).
This, of course, is based on a complete misunderstanding of what Christians believe about the atonement of Christ. As noted in a previous article (Moral Objections to the Death of Christ, TD February 2004), he did not confess or repent of our sins. He died for our sins (1 Cor. 15:3). Judicially, he was “made to be sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21)—the substitution that Christians gladly admit. He paid the penalty of death in our place, so that we could stand before God without guilt (Mark 10:45, Rom, 4:25; 1 Peter 2:22: 3:18). This concept of life for life is not foreign to Islam. It is the principle behind their belief in capital punishment; a murderer who takes another’s life must forfeit a life.
Another misconception beneath the Islamic rejection of the crucifixion is that a merciful God can forgive sin without justly condemning it. Actually there are two basic mistakes here. Muslim theology makes the first error when it implies that what Jesus did was not voluntary but was inflicted upon him. Jesus said, “I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again” (John 10:17-18). When Jesus died, the Bible relates, “He [freely] dismissed his Spirit” (John 19:30).
The second error is that a sovereign God can be holy, yet arbitrarily change the rules about right and wrong. Muslims, like Christians, believe in hell for the unrepentant (sura 14:17; 25:11- 14). But if holy justice demands that those who do not accept him be eternally punished, then God cannot arbitrarily forgive anyone for anything without a just basis for forgiveness. Muslim theology has none. Muslims reject Christ’s sacrificial payment for sin to a just God, by which the unjust who accept Christ’s payment on their behalf can be declared just (cf. Rom. 3:21-26). Unless someone capable of paying the penalty for sin does so, God is obligated to express wrath, not mercy. Lacking the crucifixion, the Muslim system has no way to explain how Allah can be merciful when he is also just.
Salvation in Christ
Superficially, it would seem that salvation by grace through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ is incomprehensible to Muslims. This, we believe, is not the case. While the unbeliever does not receive (Gk.: dekomai) God’s truth (1 Cor. 2:14), nevertheless, he can perceive it. According to Romans 1:18-20, unbelievers are “without excuse” in view of God’s revelation in nature. The very fact that unbelievers are called upon to believe the Gospel implies that they can understand it (cf. Acts 16:31; 17:30-31). Jesus rebuked unbelievers for not understanding what he was talking about, declaring, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains” (John 9:41).
An Islamic Basis for Salvation by Substitution
Even from within Islam the Christian concept of the cross makes sense. Islam has several doctrines, God’s justice and God’s forgiveness, heaven and hell, that make no real sense apart from a substitutionary atonement. For Islam teaches that God is just. But absolute justice must be satisfied. God cannot simply overlook sin. A penalty must be paid for it which enables them to go to heaven, either by the persons or by someone else for them. In a letter to a friend explaining why he became a Christian, Daud Rahbar, argues, “the Qur’anic doctrine of God’s justice demands that such a God be himself involved in suffering and be seen as involved in suffering. Only then can he be a just judge of suffering humanity.” For “a God that is preserved from suffering will be an arbitrary and capricious judge” (Nazir-Ali, 28).
A Rational Basis for Salvation by Substitution
There is nothing contradictory or incredible about salvation by substitution. The Muslim mind should not have any more difficulty with this concept than any other mind. This concept is in accord with a virtually universal human practice in defense of the innocent. Warriors are hailed for dying for their tribe. Soldiers are honored for dying for their country. Parents are called compassionate when they die for their children. This is precisely what Jesus did. As the apostle Paul put it, “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But… While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:7-8).
Further, even in the Islamic understanding sacrificial death occurred. The Muslim practice of id ghorban (feat of sacrifice) features the sacrifice of a sheep in memory of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son. For some this is associated with the forgiveness of sins. Furthermore, Muslim soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the cause of Islam were awarded Paradise (3:157-58; 22:58- 59). If Allah could call upon his servants to die for Islam, why think it so strange that God could call upon his Son to die for salvation of Muslims, indeed of the world?
Much of the Islamic rejection of Christ is based on a misunderstanding of the facts about him. Since they believe in the divine inspiration of the original Old and New Testaments, Jesus’ virgin birth, sinless life, divinely authoritative leaching, death, eventual resurrection, ascension, and second coming, it is a tragedy that the rejection of his claims to be the Son” of God and Savior of the world are lost in the midst of all they do accept. The primary problem is the rejection of the authenticity of the Bible. Perhaps a better understanding of the factual basis for the authenticity of the Bible could open a way to take more seriously the Qur’an when it urges doubters to go to the Scriptures:
- If thou wert in doubt As to what we have revealed unto thee, then ask those who have been reading the Book [the Bible] from before thee: The truth hath indeed come to thee from thy Lord: So be in no wise of those in doubt (10:94).
H. Abdalati, Islam in Focus
A. A. Abdul-Haqq, Sharing Your Faith with a Muslim
R. Bell, The Origin of Islam in Its Christian Environment
F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins outside the New Testament
A. R. I. Doi, “The Status of Prophet Jesus In Islam-II,” MWLJ
W D. Edwards, et al., “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” JAMA 21 March 1986
Flavius Josephus, “Antiquities of the Jews,” 18:3
N. L. Geisler and W E. Nix, General Introduction to the Bible
M. H. Haykal, The Life of Muhammad
J. B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers
S. S. Muffasir, Jesus, A Prophet of Islam
M. Nazir-Ali, Frontiers in Muslim-Christian Encounter
“Sanhedrin,” The Babylonian Talmud