Moral Objections to Christ’s Death
|By: Dr. Norman Geisler; ©2004|
|Many critics of Christianity reject the doctrine of salvation through the cross on moral grounds. Dr. Norman Geisler cuts through the arguments to get to the Gospel message.|
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Muslim Rejection of the Crucifixion
- 3 Crucifixion Is Rooted in Original Sin
- 4 Jesus Had to Repent for Sins
- 5 God Can Forgive without Punishing
- 6 Liberal Rejection of the Cross
- 7 Conclusion
- 8 Notes
Many critics of Christianity, including Muslim and Liberal scholars, reject the doctrine of salvation through the cross on moral grounds. One reason Muslims give is that, according to Islam, the major prophets in history have always been victorious against their enemies. If the Christ of God was killed on the cross by his adversaries, then what would have become of the constant Qur’anic theme that those who did not obey God’s prophet did not triumph? Isn’t admission of the cross an acknowledgment that the unrighteous ultimately triumphed over the righteous?
Liberal Christian scholars object to the cross because it seems eminently unjust to punish an innocent person for the guilty. Indeed the Bible itself declares that “the son shall not bear the guilt of the father…” (Ezek. 18:20).
Muslim Rejection of the Crucifixion
Islamic disbelief in the crucifixion of Jesus is centered around their understanding of him as a prophet. Islamic distaste for the crucifixion of a prophet is based on their concept of the sovereignty of God and rejection of belief in human depravity.
Crucifixion Is Contrary to God’s Sovereignty
All orthodox Muslims agree that God would not allow one of his prophets to suffer such an ignominious death as crucifixion. Muffasir summarized the view well when he said “Muslims believe that Jesus was not crucified. It was the intention of his enemies to put him to death on the cross, but God saved him from their plot.”
Several passages in the Qur’an teach that Jesus was not crucified on the cross for our sins. Sura 4:157-58 is a key text; at face value it seems to say that Jesus did not die at all. It certainly denies that he died by crucifixion. It reads: “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.”
A sovereign God has control over all things, and he would not allow his servant to suffer such a death. Rather, a sovereign God, such as Allah is, would deliver his servant from his enemies. Abdalati, in a typical Muslim fashion asks, “Is it consistent with God’s mercy and wisdom to believe that Jesus was humiliated and murdered the way he is said to have been?” The Qur’an states, “When Allah said: O Jesus! Lo! I am gathering thee and causing thee to ascend unto me, and am cleansing thee of those who disbelieve and am setting those who follow thee above those who disbelieve until the day of resurrection” (sura 3:55).
A Response to the Muslim View of Sovereignty
The Islamic belief in God’s sovereignty defeats their own objection to the cross. If God can do anything he wants, then he can allow his own Son to die by crucifixion. The Qur’an declares:
- God! There is no god but he—the living, the self-subsisting, eternal…. Nor shall they [his creatures] compass aught his knowledge except as he willeth. His throne doth extend over the heavens and the earth, and he feeleth no fatigue in guarding and preserving them for he is the most high, the Supreme (in glory) (sura 2:255).
Many of the ninety-nine names for God express his sovereignty. Al-Aziz, “the Sublime,” mighty in his sublime sovereignty (59:23); Al-Ali, “the High One,” who is mighty (2:255-56); AlQadir, “the Able,” who has the power to do what he pleases (17:99-101); Al-Quddus, “the Most Holy One,” to whom all in heaven and on earth ascribe holiness (62:1); Al-Mutaali, “the Self-Exalted,” who has set himself high above all (13:9-10); Al-Muizz, “the Honorer,” who honors or abases whom he will (3:26); Malik al-Mulk, “Possessor of the Kingdom,” who grants sovereignty to whom he will (3:26); Al-Wahed, “the One,” unique in his divine sovereignty (13:16-17); AlWahid, “the Unique,” who alone has created (74:11); Al-Wakil, “the Administrator,” who has charge of everything (6:102).
Allah can do what he jolly well pleases, so he could allow his Servant to be crucified if he wished. Indeed, one passage in the Qur’an seems to apply this very truth to Christ: ‘Who then can do aught against Allah, if he had willed to destroy the Messiah son of Mary, and his mother and everyone on earth? Allah’s is the sovereignty of the heavens and the earth and all that is between them. He createth what He will: And Allah is able to do all things” (sura 5:17).
Granting God is sovereign, it is utterly presumptuous to determine what he should or should not do. As the prophet Isaiah informs us, God said, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways my ways” (Isa. 55:8). The prophet Isaiah instructs us that God did indeed approve of the ignominious death of his Servant:
- He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him…. we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted…. But, he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. [Isa. 53:2-5]
So Jesus’ crucifixion was not only approved by God, it was predicted (cf. Ps. 22:16; Zech. 12:10). It should be no surprise to a reader of the New Testament that the message of the crucifixion is offensive to unbelievers. Indeed, Paul even referred to the “offense of the cross” but added that “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21). For “the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom” (vs. 25).
Then too, the idea of God allowing his servants to be insulted is not uncharacteristic. Muhammad’s biographer, Haykai, tells of insulting experiences suffered by Muhammad. He notes, for example, that “the tribe of Thaqif, however, not only repudiated Muhammad’s call but sent their servants to insult him and throw him out of their city. He ran away from them and took shelter near a wall…. there he sat under a vine pondering his defeat with the sight of the sons of Rabi’ah.”
What is more, even if it is assumed with Muslims that God would deliver his prophets from their enemies, it is wrong to conclude that he did not deliver Christ from his enemies. Indeed, this is precisely what the resurrection is. For “God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24). According to the Scriptures, God raised Christ up because, as he said: “You are my Son; today I have become your Father” (Acts 13:33). Further, the Scriptures declare that God kept his promise to his people (in Ps. 16:10) and saw to it “that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay.” Thus, he was “exalted to the right hand of God” (Acts 2:31, 33).
Indeed, it was by Christ’s death and resurrection that “death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54) and we can say, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55).
Contrary to Islamic teaching, the death and resurrection of Christ did manifest God’s mercy. Indeed, without it there would have been no mercy for a sinful world. Paul wrote: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” Thus “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6, 8). He adds elsewhere that it is “not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” (Titus 3:5). As Jesus himself said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Yet he died for us when “we were [his] enemies” (Rom. 5:10).
Crucifixion Is Rooted in Original Sin
Another Muslim reason for rejecting the crucifixion is based on their rejection of the doctrine of depravity, Islamic scholars are quick to connect the Christian claim that Jesus died on the cross for our sins and the doctrine of depravity.
A. R. I. Doi notes that “connected with the Christian belief in crucifixion of Isa [Jesus] is the irreconcilable concept to original sin.” He adds categorically that “Islam does not believe in the doctrine of the original sin. It is not Adam’s sin that a child inherits and manifests at birth. Every child is born sinless and the sins of the fathers are not visited upon the children.” Further, “Islam denies emphatically the concept of original sin and hereditary depravity. Every child is born pure and true; every departure in afterlife from the path of truth and rectitude is due to imperfect education.” Citing the prophet Muhammad, Doi affirms that “Every child is born in a religious mold; it is his parents who make him afterward a Jew, a Christian, or a Sabaean…. In other words, good and evil is not created in man at birth. Infants have no positive moral character.” Rather, “every human being… has two inclinations—one prompting him to do good and impelling him thereto, and the other prompting him to do evil and thereto impelling him; but the assistance of God is nigh.”
Response to the Argument against Depravity
The orthodox Christian also connects the atoning death with human depravity. If God were not unchangeably just, and mankind not incurably depraved, the death of Christ for our sins would not have been necessary. However, contrary to Muslim belief, mankind is depraved and, hence, the suffering and death of Christ was necessary. Islamic rejection of total depravity is without foundation—as is even implied in Islamic teaching.
Even Muslims acknowledge that human beings are sinful. Otherwise, why do they need God’s mercy? Indeed, why have so many (including all Christians) committed the greatest of all sins (shirk), attributing partners to God (sura 4:116)? Why did God need to send prophets to warn them of their sin, if they are not constant sinners? The whole prophetic ministry, which is at the heart of Islam, is occupied with a call to repentance from the sin of idolatry. But why does humankind have this insatiable appetite for false gods if people are not depraved?
What is more, why are the unbelievers sent to hell to suffer forever? This seems to imply great sinfulness to deserve such a severe penalty as eternal suffering. It is both unrealistic and un-Qur’anic to deny the inherent sinfulness of humankind.
“Some Muslim theologians have held to a doctrine of Hereditary Sin…. Also, there is a famous tradition that the Prophet of Islam said, ‘No child is born but the devil hath touched it, except Mary and her son Jesus.’” Qur’an texts support the doctrine of human depravity. Humankind is sinful or unjust (sura 14:34/37; 33:72), foolish (33:72), ungrateful (14:34/37), weak (4:28/32), despairing or boastful (11:9/12-10/13), quarrelsome (16:4), and rebellious (96:6) The Qur’an even declares that “If God were to punish men for their wrong-doing. He would not leave, on the (earth), A single living creature” (sura 16:61). Ayatollah Khomeini went so far as to say that “man’s calamity is his carnal desires, and this exists in everybody, and is rooted in the nature of man.”
Jesus Had to Repent for Sins
Muslim denial of Christ’s death by crucifixion is based on a misunderstanding of repentance. 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?”
Response to the Charge That Jesus Had to Repent
Nowhere in the Bible does it say that Christ repented for our sins. It simply says that he “died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3). Judicially, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21). But at no lime did he confess anyone’s sins. He taught his disciples to pray. “Forgive us our debts” (Matt. 6:12), but he nowhere joins them in that petition. This is a total distortion of the concept of a substitutionary atonement.
The Bible teaches that Jesus took our place; he paid the penalty of death for us (cf. Mark 10:45; Rom. 4:25; 1 Peter 2:22; 3:18). This concept of life for life is the same principle behind Muslim belief in capital punishment. When a murder takes another’s life, he must forfeit his own as a penalty. Several doctrines regarding God’s justice and God’s forgiveness, heaven and hell make no real sense apart from substitutionary atonement.
God Can Forgive without Punishing
Another misconception underlying the Islamic rejection of the crucifixion is that a merciful God can forgive sin without justly condemning it. This is reflected in Abdalati’s question “Was God the Most Merciful, the Most Forgiving and the Most High unable to forgive men’s sins except by inflicting this cruel and most humiliating alleged crucifixion on one who was not only innocent but also dedicated to his service and cause in a most remarkable way?”
Response to a Forgiveness Without an Atonement
Two basic mistakes are at work here. First, it is implied that what Jesus did was not voluntary, but was merely inflicted upon him. The Gospels declare that Jesus gave his life voluntarily and freely. 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).
Muslims seem not to appreciate the basis on which the just and holy God can forgive sins. While God is sovereign, he is not arbitrary about right and wrong, Muslims, like Christians, believe that God will punish forever in hell those who do not repent (cf. suras 14:17; 25:11-14). But if God’s holy justice demands that those who do not accept him be eternally punished for their sins, then it would follow that God cannot arbitrarily forgive without a just basis for this forgiveness. In Muslim theology there is forgiveness but no basis for this forgiveness. For they reject Christ’s sacrificial payment for sin to a just God by which he can then declare righteous the unrighteous who accept Christ’s payment on their behalf (cf. Rom. 3:21-26)
A truly just God cannot simply close his eyes to sin. Unless someone capable of paying the debt of sin owed to God does so, then God is obligated to express his wrath, not his mercy. Lacking the Crucifixion, the Muslim system has no way to explain how Allah can be merciful when he is also just.
The theological blind spot in the Muslim system created by a rejection of Christ’s atoning sacrifice leads to other unfounded statements, such as Abdalati’s rhetorical question: “Does the [Christian] belief of crucifixion and blood sacrifice appear in any religion apart from pagan creeds or the early Greeks, Romans, Indians, Persians, and the like?”
The answer is a clear “Yes.” It is the very heart of historic Judaism, as even a casual acquaintance with the Old Testament reveals. Moses told Israel: “For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life” (Lev. 17:11). This is why the children of Israel were asked to sacrifice the Passover lamb, commemorating their deliverance from bondage (Exod. 12: 1f.). This is why the New Testament speaks of Christ as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). And the apostle Paul called “Christ, our Passover lamb, [who] has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). The writer of Hebrews adds, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22).
Of course, Muslim scholars argue that the original Old Testament was distorted too. However, like the New Testament, the ancient Dead Sea manuscripts of the Old Testament reveal that the Old Testament today is substantially the same as the one in the time of Christ, over 600 years before Muhammad. Therefore, since the Qur’an urges the Jews in Muhammad’s day to accept God’s revelation in the Law (sura 10:94), and since the Jewish Old Testament is substantially the same today as it was in Muhammad’s day, then Muslims should accept that blood sacrifices for sins was a command of God.
Liberal Rejection of the Cross
With Muslims, non-orthodox “liberal” Christians reject the absolute justice of God; the depravity of man, and substitutionary atonement. Liberals do not generally reject the historicity of the cross, but rather what they regard as its immorality. They insist that it is essentially irrational and immoral to punish an innocent person in the place of the guilty.
The Cross is Irrational
Nothing seems more contradictory or irrational than the idea of salvation by substitution. Even the apostle Paul hinted at this when he said “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18). In fact, did not the early church father Tertullian (ca. 160s-ca. 215-20) say of the cross “I believe because it is absurd”?
Few if any past Christian scholars have ever claimed that the cross was irrational. Certainly, Tertullian never said the death of Christ was absurd, which would have been the Latin word absurdum. He said it was “foolish” (Lat.: ineptum) to those who were perishing—unbelievers— exactly as Paul said. Tertullian everywhere promotes the use of reason and rational consistency in his theology. He said, “nothing can be claimed as rational without order, much less can reason itself dispense with order in any one.” Even when speaking of the mystery of human free choice, Tertullian declared that “it cannot even in this be ruled to be irrational.”
Even regarding the Trinity and incarnation of Christ, orthodox Christians have insisted that Christian teachings are rational. The “mysteries” of faith may go beyond our reason to attain by special revelation, but never against our ability to apprehend with logical consistency. The Trinity, for example, is not held to be a contradiction. It does not affirm three persons in one Person but three persons in one essence.
The Cross Is Immoral
Liberals have extolled the virtues of Christ’s death as an example of sacrificial love. But both Muslims and liberals loathe the idea of a substitutionary punishment for sin. This view seems to them to be essentially immoral. How can an innocent person be punished for the guilty? Does not even the Bible itself affirm “The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him” (Ezek. 18:20)?
A virtually universal human practice is to consider commendable the actions of one who dies in defense of the innocent. Soldiers are honored for dying for their country. Parents are called compassionate when they die for their children. But 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 God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:7-8).
Sacrificial death is not alien to Islam. 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. Muslim soldiers who sacrifice their lives for the cause of Islam are awarded Paradise (sura 3:157-58; 22:58-59). Neither is it without human precedent for one person to pay a debt for another, even by the sacrifice of his life for them.
If Allah could call upon his servants to die for Islam, why is it so strange that God could call upon his Son to die so salvation can be offered to Muslims, and the rest of the world? The Qur’an gives a beautiful example of a substitutionary atonement in describing Abraham’s sacrifice of his son on Mount Moriah. Sura 37:102-7 reads:
- He said: “O my son! I see in vision That I offer thee in sacrifice…. So when they had both Submitted their wills (to God), And he laid him Prostrate on his forehead (For sacrifice). We [God] called out to him, “O Abraham!… And We ransomed him With a momentous sacrifice.” [emphasis added]
The use of the words sacrifice and ransom are precisely what Christians mean by Christ’s death on the cross. Jesus used such words of his own death (Mark 10:45). So the sacrificial death of Christ is not opposed to the Qu’ran.
As noted, the weight of this critique of the cross rests on the false premise that Jesus’ death was involuntary. But it was not forced upon him. Looking forward to the Cross, he said to the Father “yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Earlier in the Gospel of John Jesus referred to the giving of his life in saying, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18). The book of Hebrews records Jesus’ words “Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—I have come to do your will, O God’” (Heb. 10:7).
There is no other way for the debt of sin to be paid than for the sinless son of God to do so. As Anselm argued (in Cur Deus Homo?) the penalty for sin must be paid to God, God’s justice demands that sin be atoned for (cf. Lev. 17: 11; Heb. 9:22). So, rather than being unjust, it is justice that demands the substitutionary atonement of Christ. The Qur’an teaches God is just (see sura 21:47-48). Absolute justice means that God cannot simply overlook sin. A penalty must be paid, either by the persons themselves or by someone else for them which enables them to go to heaven.
It does not break a moral absolute to punish an innocent person for the guilty provided he is willing and a higher moral law calls for the suspension of the lower law. In the case of the cross, it is the salvation of the world for which Christ the innocent voluntarily accepted the injustice of dying on a cross.
The moral critique of the cross relies on circular reasoning. It makes no sense to claim that a substitutionary atonement is essentially im-moral unless something is essentially moral, an unchangeably moral nature of God. But the unchangeably just and holy nature of God requires that sin be punished. Unless God’s justice is satisfied by someone else on behalf of lawbreakers, the essential moral and eternal principle used by liberals would demand that everyone be eternally punished for their sins in hell. But that doctrine liberals also find repugnant. So if God is loving, as liberals do happily admit, then he must find a way to pay for our debt of sin and set us free. Christ volunteered and satisfied God’s justice, “the just for the unjust” (1 Peter 3:18), so as to release God’s redeeming love and set us free of the guilt and consequences of our sins (John 3:16; Rom. 5:8). There was no other way.
- Richard Bell, The Origin of Islam in Its Christian Environment ((Frank Cass, 1968), p. 154.
- Sulaiman Shahid Muffasir, Jesus, A Prophet of Islam (American Trust Publications, 1980), p. 5.
- Hammudah Abdalati, Islam in Focus (Indianapolis: American Trust, 1975), p. 160.
- Muhammad Husayn Haykal, The Life of Mohammed (Indianapolis: North America Trust, 1976), p. 137.
- A. R. I. Doi, “The Status of Prophet Jesus in Islam-II,” Muslim Magazine World League Journal, June 1982, p. 19.
- Ibid., p. 20.
- Michael Nazir-Ali, Frontiers in Muslim-Christian Encounter, p. 165.
- J. Dudley Woodberry, ed., Muslims and Christians on the Emmaus Road ((Monrovia, March 1989), p. 155.
- Ibid., p. 159.
- Abdalati, p. 160.
- Ibid., p. 162.
- See Norman L. Geisler, Christian Ethics: Options and Issues (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1989), pp. 136-37.
- Abdalati, p. 160.
- See N. L. Geisler and W. E. Nix, General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody, 1986), chap. 21.
- Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ, p. 5.
- Ibid., p. 1.25.
- See Geisler, Christian Ethics.