“And so for breaking their pledge, for rejecting God’s revelations, for unjustly killing their prophets, for saying ‘Our minds are closed’ – No! God has sealed them in their disbelief, so they believe only a little – and because they disbelieved and uttered a terrible slander against Mary, and said ‘We have killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the Messenger of God.’(They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, though it was made to appear like that to them; those that disagreed about him are full of doubt, with no knowledge to follow, only supposition: they certainly did not kill him – God raised him up to Himself. God is almighty and wise” (Qur’an 4:155-158; Abdel Haleem translation/interpretation).
I suppose it’s pretty clear by now that “despite” the fact that I am a Christian (though perhaps ‘loosely’ so, according to ‘orthodox’ standards), I have come to have a great admiration for Islam and its Qur’an (or Koran). The more I read in that book, the more spiritual beauty I see; and the more I desire to defend that overall delightful religion from slanderous attacks.
Yet for all my admiration, there are still things that ‘trouble’ me about Islam and the Qur’an. I mentioned a couple of these in the last paragraph of my article “Islam’s Relationship to Judaism and Christianity”: the emphasis on the torments of hell, and the emphasis on rituals such as formal prayers (and the ‘proper’ position and direction one must face), official days of fasting, and pilgrimage. The above quoted verses from the Qur’an are another source of ‘trouble’ for me. It would seem obvious that those verses deny the historical reality of Jesus’ crucifixion and death (and consequently of his resurrection from that death). Yet anyone the least bit familiar with Christianity will know that the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus are ‘part and parcel’ of the Biblical Christian message. Not only do all of the 4 Bible ‘Gospels’ contain accounts of those events, and according to the book of Acts and all of the letters of the apostles – as well as the book of Revelation – it was a basic, foundational element of apostolic preaching; but Jesus himself ‘prophesied’ his coming death and resurrection on a number of occasions.
As instances of this consider these passages from the Gospel of Mark (they all have their parallels in Matthew and Luke). Right after that famous response of Peter to the question, “Who do you say that I am?”, when Peter replied that Jesus was the Christ (Mark 8:27-29), we find this contrasting account: “And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He spoke the word openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when he had turned around and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter, saying, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men’” (verses 31-33). Peter fully believed that Jesus was God’s anointed messenger, and it was simply unthinkable to him that God would permit His anointed to be killed; rather God was going to set Jesus up on a throne to rule over all the nations, wasn’t He? So he actually rebuked the anointed one! Yet Jesus in turn rebuked him, saying that his denial of Jesus’ prophecy of his own death and resurrection was in fact opposition to the things of God.
Then Mark 9 records the ‘transfiguration’ scene, in which three of the disciples were given a foreshadowing of the glory of Christ which was to be revealed when he came in his kingdom within the lifetime of some of the disciples. Jesus then cast out a demon from a child – which the disciples had been unable to do. Then verses 30-32 say this: “Then they departed from there and passed through Galilee, and he did not want anyone to know it. For he taught his disciples and said to them, ‘The Son of Man is being delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And after he is killed, he will rise the third day.’ But they did not understand this saying, and were afraid to ask him.” Once again, Jesus has foretold his death and resurrection.
Again, in Mark 10:32-34, Jesus spoke of his coming death and resurrection: “…Then he took the twelve aside again and began to tell them the things that would happen to him: ‘Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and to the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him to the Gentiles; and they will mock him, and scourge him and spit on him, and kill him. And the third day he will rise again.’”
In Mark 12:1-12, Jesus told the story of a land owner who planted a vineyard and leased it out to others for them to take care of it. Then the land owner went away; but at various times he sent servants to collect some of the fruit of the vineyard from the lease holders (part of the lease payment). But the tenders of the vineyard treated those servants violently – beating them up, stoning them, and even killing some of them. Finally the owner of the vineyard sent his own son, thinking surely he would be respected. But instead the lessees murdered the son. Naturally, the owner killed the lessees in retaliation, and leased his vineyard out to others. The meaning of this story was obvious. The land owner was God; the servants were the prophets who had been sent to Israel in past years; the son was plainly Jesus. Just as the Israelites had murdered other prophets before Jesus, they would now murder Jesus himself. The resurrection was not explicitly stated by Jesus in the story; but it was implicit in the quotation from Psalm 118:22 and 23 which Jesus made in confirmation of his story (Mark 12:10 and 11): “Have you not read this Scripture: ‘The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This was the LORD’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” The ‘stone’ was first rejected by the ‘builders’ – which in this context included the murder of ‘the son’ – and then afterward exalted to the position of ‘chief cornerstone’. God’s retaliation against the ‘vinedressers’ was fulfilled in the violent conquest of Israel and Jerusalem by the Roman armies, which armies were seen as the agents of God himself. The other “vinedressers” to whom God ‘leases His vineyard’ are those people from every nation who honor and obey God, the ‘landowner’, and ‘bring forth fruit’ for Him.
The ‘trouble’ I have with the Qur’anic passage in ‘Sura’ (chapter) 4 is compounded though by this fact: not only is the death and resurrection of Jesus a basic and inseparable part of the Biblical ‘Gospel’, foretold by Jesus and proclaimed by all of the apostles; but the Qur’an itself speaks in at least 3 passages – and possibly a 4th – of the death of Jesus. Most of what I am about to say was suggested to me by ‘a friend of a friend’, who is a Christian missionary in a Muslim country. One of the things I particularly liked about this missionary is that, contrary to most missionaries with whom I am familiar, he was interested in showing that the ‘holy books’ of various religions (in this case specifically Islam and Christianity) are not actually in conflict, but teach essentially the same message from the One God. Apparently in his teaching, a Muslim should not have to repudiate the Qur’an in order to embrace the Biblical Gospel of Jesus Christ. There are no doubt things about his understanding of the Biblical message with which I would disagree, but I like that attitude.
The first of those 4 verses to which I will refer, I was already familiar with. The other 3 were directed to my attention by this ‘friend of a friend’. So first, in chapter (Sura) 19 of the Qur’an, the story is told of the birth of Jesus to the virgin Mary. In this story, after Jesus was born Mary made a vow of silence for the space of one day. So when her family or friends saw her with the baby, and exclaimed in horror that she must have sinned since she, being unmarried, has a child, the infant Jesus spoke up for her. This is what he said (I am using the translation/interpretation of Muhammad Asad for these quotations): “[19:30] [But] he said: “Behold, I am a servant of God. He has vouchsafed unto me revelation and made me a prophet, [19:31] and made me blessed wherever I may be; and He has enjoined upon me prayer and charity as long as I live, [19:32] and [has endowed me with] piety towards my mother; and He has not made me haughty or bereft of grace. [19:33] Hence, peace was upon me on the day when I was born, and [will be upon me] on the day of my death, and on the day when I shall be raised to life [again]!““ Now that obviously fits very well with the Biblical account of Jesus’ death and resurrection. So several months ago I wrote to a Muslim doctor whose blog I like to read to ask him if that wasn’t a contradiction with the statement in chapter 4 of the Qur’an that the Jews did not crucify or kill Jesus. He responded that it was Muslim belief that Jesus was taken up to God without dying; but that he will, sometime in the future, return to earth to live out a normal lifetime and die a natural death. He will then rise from the dead with everyone else at the Resurrection at the Last Day. Meaning no offense to my Muslim friends, I see that idea as pure invention on the part of the ‘interpreters’. There is, to my understanding, no place in the Qur’an that actually teaches such a future physical ‘return’ of Jesus, and yet future death. It is simply a resort to interpretive gymnastics in order to avoid what would otherwise seem to be a contradiction between statements in the Qur’an. It is the same sort of thing I have written against in Christian theology of the ‘Last Days’. Jesus, and his apostles, plainly taught that he was going to return in his kingdom while some of the then living disciples were still alive; within that existing generation. Because ‘interpreters’ have convinced themselves that he did not in fact return during the 1st century, they have resorted to all sorts of ‘gymnastics’ to explain how that coming of Christ is still future to us. As I have attempted to show in a number of my articles – on the last days, the Olivet Discourse, and ‘Second Coming’ passages in the letters of Paul – that kind of interpretation is really dishonest, and completely unnecessary. When the Biblical prophecies are interpreted in keeping with Biblical use of metaphor, it can be easily seen that the ‘Second Coming’ referred to events surrounding and leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army. The only difference is that there is in fact a clear historical death and resurrection in the 1st century to which this Qur’anic statement can refer. The Biblical statements of a ‘coming in his kingdom’ of Jesus Christ require an understanding of Biblical metaphor; there is no need to understand metaphor to understand the statements about Jesus’ death in the Qur’an. Perhaps a small amount of metaphor will be necessary to understand the passage in Sura 4 which says Jesus was not killed, in order to not have a contradiction. But the death of Jesus was a plain historical event, not a metaphorical event.
The other two references to the death of Jesus in the Qur’an, which are clear, are 3:55 – “Lo! God said: “O Jesus! Verily, I shall cause thee to die, and shall exalt thee unto Me, and cleanse thee of [the presence of] those who are bent on denying the truth; and I shall place those who follow thee [far] above those who are bent on denying the truth, unto the Day of Resurrection. In the end, unto Me you all must return, and I shall judge between you with regard to all on which you were wont to differ”; and 5:117 – “Nothing did I tell them beyond what Thou didst bid me [to say]: ‘Worship God, [who is] my Sustainer as well as your Sustainer.’ And I bore witness to what they did as long as I dwelt in their midst; but since Thou hast caused me to die, Thou alone hast been their keeper: for Thou art witness unto everything.” These verses, also, can be seen to be clear references to Jesus’ death at the hands of wicked men “bent on denying the truth” about 1980 years ago, and his consequent resurrection and ‘exaltation to the Father’s right hand’.
The other possible reference to Jesus’ death in the Qur’an – which is not so clear, though – is 2:87, “For, indeed, We vouchsafed unto Moses the divine writ and caused apostle after apostle to follow him; and We vouchsafed unto Jesus, the son of Mary, all evidence of the truth, and strengthened him with holy inspiration. [Yet] is it not so that every time an apostle came unto you with something that was not to your liking, you gloried in your arrogance, and to some of them you gave the lie, while others you would slay?” History would tell us that Jesus was one of the ‘apostles’ of God whom the Jews slew. The mention of 2 specific names in the verse – Moses and Jesus – would seem to be a deliberate reference to one prophet who was frequently denounced by the people of his own generation (Moses), and one who was killed by the people of his generation (Jesus). But it’s not clear enough in that passage to be pressed.
Are these 3 or 4 statements about Jesus’ death in the Qur’an, then, a contradiction to 4:157 unless one performs those ‘interpretive gymnastics’ to make them refer to a death still in our future after a physical ‘second coming’ of the Christ? While at first blush it might appear so, thanks to the comments of that ‘friend of a friend’ I mentioned I have come to believe it is not so in actuality.
Sura (chapter) 8 of the Qur’an tells of the battle of Badr, near Medina, two years after the Muslim believers had migrated from Mecca due to the intense persecution against them there. An army had come from Mecca to attack the Muslims who were now living in Medina. The Muslims, though greatly outnumbered, were able to defeat the Meccan army. Verse 17, though, says this: “And yet, [O believers,] it was not you who slew the enemy, but it was God who slew them; and it was not thou who cast [terror into them, O Prophet], when thou didst cast it, but it was God who cast it: and [He did all this] in order that He might test the believers by a goodly test of His Own ordaining. Verily, God is all-hearing, all-knowing!” Here was a battle in which the Muslim believers had fought and killed their enemies; yet Gabriel speaking through Muhammad says it was not they who did the killing, but God! The obvious teaching of the passage is that the believers were to recognize that it was not through their own strength or military prowess that they had gained the victory, but God had given them the victory. It’s a theological interpretation of a very literal battle. The Muslims killed their enemies, yet theologically speaking they didn’t do it – God did.
This is how I believe 4:157 and 158 should be understood. The Jews did reject Jesus and have him crucified. As the Christian apostles said, they ‘crucified the Lord of glory’ (1 Corinthians 2:8). Yet, theologically speaking, it was not they who did it, but God. (Remember, those Qur’anic verses spoke of God causing Jesus to die). It only appeared to the Jews that they had crucified and killed the Messiah, because it was God who was behind it all the while. The Christian apostle Peter brought both aspects together when he said: “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But 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 2:23 and 24, NIV). Again, the Christians said this when they were praying together after the release of Peter and John from prison: “Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen” (Acts 4:27 and 28 NIV). I believe what Gabriel was saying was that while it appeared to the Jews that they had triumphantly put this man whom they considered an impostor – a false Christ – to death, it was not really they who had done so at all. It was God who brought about the crucifixion and death of His anointed, in keeping with His predestined purpose and the prophetic Scriptures; and then when all had been accomplished he raised Jesus to Himself thus triumphing over all the opponents of the anointed Prophet. And that gives a second, though related, meaning to the statement that it was only made to appear that the Jews had killed the Messiah: it looked like it for 3 days, but then God raised him from the dead because it wasn’t possible that the Christ should remain in its grip. God turned their victory into defeat.
While this way of looking at 4:157 and 158 may be quite strange to my Muslim friends, and Christians also who are familiar with those verses, it does fit the two Scriptures (the Bible and the Qur’an) together very nicely – removing the ground of conflict between Islam and Christianity. One doesn’t have to renounce either Scripture to accept the other. A Muslim who might accept this explanation, and therefore acknowledge the historical reality of the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, would still not have to accept the traditional theological explanations of the significance of that death. That is, he wouldn’t have to accept the idea of ‘substitutionary, vicarious atonement’ – that Christ took the punishment of our sins in our place. I am aware that the Qur’an teaches that no person can bear another person’s punishment, and no one can be given the reward for another person’s righteousness (although I don’t have enough familiarity with the Qur’an to be able to point out specific references, and I don’t have a concordance of the Qur’an to help me). But the Bible also teaches this truth. For instance, Ezekiel 18:20 says: “The soul who sins is the one who will die. 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.” The only way in which Christ bore men’s sins is that he willingly endured the unjust ‘punishment’ which their wickedness inflicted upon him, without defense or retaliation; it was ‘wicked hands’ that crucified him. For the prophet Isaiah to say in chapter 53 that “the LORD laid on him the iniquity of us all” is simply an affirmation that the actions of wicked men were brought about by God’s determined counsel and foreknowledge. God caused Jesus’ death, as the Qur’an says, but it was the wicked hands of men that accomplished what God caused.
I ask any Muslims who read this to please accept this as a friendly challenge to reexamine a traditional understanding of certain verses in the Qur’an, and traditional teachings; not as an antagonistic attack. The Qur’an says to argue with the people of the Book only in a good way; and that is what I am attempting here. I have certainly challenged traditional Christian Biblical understanding many times, and will no doubt do so again. (Actually, I did so at the end of this article, didn’t I? I challenged the doctrine of vicarious atonement. But I’ve done that before also). I guess it’s about time I challenged someone other than ‘orthodox’ Christians! 😀 .