The Death of Jesus in Islam and Christianity

A.H. Mathias Zahniser

In 2001 at the University of Cambridge, I met Thomas McElwain, a Muslim anthropologist from a Scandinavian university. A native West Virginian, he had gone to Russia as a Baptist missionary where he converted to Islam as a result of friendship with a Muslim shopkeeper. I found he believed in the authenticity of the Gospels and in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. As a Muslim, however, he rejected the Christian doctrine of the atonement (cf. A.H.M. Zahnizer’s The Mission and Death of Jesus in Islam and Christianity [Orbis, 2008] 11-12).

Todd Lawson devotes an entire book to Muslim thought about the crucifixion, including the thoughts of a significant minority of Muslims throughout history who have acknowledged the historicity of the death of Jesus. Lawson mentions salvation on only three pages, all in a context of Muslims like Professor McElwain denying salvation has anything to do with the cross (The Crucifixion and the Qur’an: A Study in the History of Muslim Thought [Oneworld, 2009] 23 [esp. n. 32, 127, 144])! Furthermore, even those Muslims who deny the crucifixion reveal that the issue for them is not really the historicity of the death of Jesus but the “Christian theories of salvation” attached to it (144).

This essay takes a closer look and offers a wider perspective on the human condition and the death of Jesus to assist Christians-Muslim discussions about the significance of the cross for Christians.

The Human Condition

Mohamed Jawad Chirri, late Imam of a Muslim community in Michigan, represents most Muslims when he states, “God did not condemn mankind because a sin was committed by a couple at the beginning of time” (Inquiries about Islam, 4th ed. [The Islamic Center of America, 1996] 69). According to him, the Qur’an reveals that Adam disobeyed God, but God forgave him, and his sin affected no one else. Then God required Adam and Eve to leave Paradise (Q 2:34-39; Q 7:19-25; Q 20:120-27). (The Qur’an, transl. M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, Oxford World Classics [Oxford University Press, 2005] is used throughout.)

The Imam explains why: “By acting improperly, . . .[Adam] became susceptible to slip again; that is, he had lost his immunity for [sic] impropriety.” His “firm purity” being gone, “he could no longer communicate with his Lord at any time” (Chirri, 74). To be precise, the sin of Adam did not effect condemnation for the rest of humanity, but it did affect their status as pure. Even for Muslims, then, Adam’s and Eve’s expulsion resulted in changed circumstances for the human community thereafter: their progeny can communicate with God only at times of “firm purity.”

According to Christian theology, in disobeying God, Adam and Eve represent all humans. Just as the descendants of Adam and Eve are not guilty of the decision that renders them impure, so the descendents of Adam and Eve are not guilty of the disobedience that renders them cut off from their original relationship with God. All humans have solidarity with Adam in their loss of original purity, according to Islam, and in their loss of original intimacy with God, according to Christianity. Furthermore, everybody comes into a world where it appears people inevitably sin. Since the fall of the first couple, humans experience solidarity in the pervasiveness and persistence of sin.

The Qur’an presents a composite picture of human sinfulness very much like that of the Bible: “man’s very soul incites him to evil” (Q 12:53); “man is truly unjust and ungrateful” (Q 14:34); “If God took people to task for the evil they do, He would not leave one living creature on earth” (Q 16:61); “man is more contentious than any other creature” (Q 18:54); “If it were not for God’s bounty and mercy towards you, not one of you would ever have obtained purity” (Q 24:21); and “man exceeds all bounds” (Q 96:6).

Paul writes, “in Adam all die” (1 Cor 15:22; NRSV used throughout); and in another letter he explains that “death spread to all because all have sinned” (Rom 5:12). He does not say “because Adam and Eve sinned.” Death symbolizes human solidarity with Adam in sin and the loss of this divine relationship; and life symbolizes the human solidarity in Christ: “As in Adam all die; so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22). Death spread because all have sinned. This brings us to the death of Jesus.

The Death of Jesus

Imam Chirri expresses another typical Muslim objection to a Christian understanding of salvation: “To forgive mankind their . . . sin God does not need a sinless person, such as Jesus, to be crucified. He can forgive the human race without causing an innocent person to suffer” (69).

Chirri’s objection represents a critique of one theory of the atonement called “penal substitution.” Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109) first formulated this now popular doctrine. According to him, rather than responding to God in obedient acts of faithfulness and service—their true vocation as God’s creatures—humans responded in disobedient acts of unfaithfulness and rebellion. Since humans attacked God’s honor, the responsibility for making the relationship right lies with them. Humans, however, lack the requisite innocence to make things right; and a human life, no matter how perfect, representing only a finite good, also lacks the power to pay the infinite debt owed to God, an infinite being. Since only God possesses both complete innocence and infinite being, in grace, Jesus the Messiah became the divine-human instrument for restoring God’s honor (cf. J.B. Green and M.D. Baker’s Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts [InterVarsity, 2000] 130; H. McCabe, God Matters [Templegate, 1991] 91).

Anselm’s theory of what Jesus accomplished on the cross was an attempt to speak relevantly to the people of his time, employing metaphors upholding the feudal system of lords, vassals, honor, and obligation. Its modern popularity stems from the metaphors that communicate meaning in Western culture, metaphors of individual guilt and courtroom justice. Penal substitution presents death as a literal punishment deserved by individuals for any and all wrong they have done. Even people who are poor or homeless fall victim to the cultural individualism that fuels this doctrine when more fortunate folk feel little responsibility to help the disadvantaged, deeming them individually responsible for their circumstances. By sloth, by poor use of resources, and by squandering opportunities, they have earned their plight (cf. Green and Baker, 21-25, 94-95, 126-36, 140-52).

Many Christians join Muslims in questioning this doctrine: Are the sins committed by people who try very hard to live according to God’s standards deserving of a literal death debt they cannot repay? Does the simple substitution of the death of an innocent Jesus for this death debt not tend to empty the cross of much of its power as a model for Christian discipleship? (cf. Green and Baker, 26). Does this reason for the death of Jesus not make God seem much less forgiving than even we humans can at times be (cf. McCabe, 92)? And does it make sense that something outside of God such as abstract justice and the requirements of holiness should determine what God is able to do? Does exclusive emphasis on Anselm’s model not obscure the richness of NT teaching on the meaning of Jesus’ death (cf. Green and Baker, chs. 2-3)?

New Testament discourse on the atonement clusters around at least five “constellations of images”: (1) “justification,” drawn from Mediterranean legal language (e.g., Rom 3:23); (2) “redemption,” drawn from the market place (e.g., Rom 3:24); (3) “reconciliation,” drawn from personal relationships in the Greco-Roman world (e.g., 2 Cor 5:18); (4) “sacrifice,” drawn from worship familiar to both Jews and non-Jews (e.g., Heb 7:27); and (5) “victory,” drawn from the battlefield (Col 2:15) (cf. Green and Baker, 23, and ch. 4, where the death of Jesus is also treated as “revelation” [e.g., John 17:1]). None of these requires or enables God to forgive sins and none provides the only adequate interpretation of the death of Jesus.

The Gospel of Mark, for example, presents an interpretation of Jesus’ death as an act of service to others, leading to their liberation. Mark 8-10 feature Jesus among his disciples predicting that, as God’s Messiah (8:27-30), he must undergo suffering, rejection, and death; and then be resurrected (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33). Each prediction occurs in a geographical setting, with a misunderstanding on the part of Jesus’ disciples, followed by a related teaching. In Caesarea, Peter fails to understand the mission of the Messiah in suffering and death (Mark 8:33 and parallels). After setting him right, Jesus teaches a crowd in the presence of his disciples that the way of the Messiah models the way for his followers as well (8:34-37). In Galilee, Jesus catches his disciples arguing over who is the greatest among them, and teaches them their true role: “whoever wants to be first must be last and servant of all” (9:35). In Judea, James and John ask to sit on Jesus’ left and right in his kingdom. Jesus teaches them again to accept solidarity in suffering, rather than to seek prominence of position (10:35-40).

When, in getting angry at James and John, Jesus’ other disciples also demonstrate a secular and hierarchical perspective (Mark 10:41), Jesus reminds all his disciples of the servant role he expects of all followers. He offers his own mission as an example for them: “whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (10:42-45).

On the long journey from Caesarea to Jerusalem Jesus has been showing his disciples that the way of life of the Messiah as Suffering Servant (Isa 52:13-53:12) should describe the way of life of his followers also. They will drink the cup that he drinks; they will be immersed in his ordeal (Mark 10:38-39). They will not be served—but they will serve. They, like him, will give their lives for others.

But what of this word “ransom”?

The word “ransom” itself recalls God’s liberation of Israel from their bondage in Egypt (Exod 6:6). So even though the ransom image is taken from the world of slavery, this Exodus connection shows it does not mean “paying someone off” but setting many free (cf. Green and Baker, 42). Ransom can be seen in this light as living in solidarity with others for their liberation.

Herbert McCabe helps us see that the death of Jesus sets us free to be truly human, to live a life dominated by love. McCabe insists his view is only one way of viewing the meaning of Jesus’ death. First of all, why did Jesus die? Two facts stand out in current scholarship: (1) Jesus threatened the stability of Roman rule in Palestine, and (2) the Jewish establishment urged them to do away with him primarily because he spoke and acted on his own authority and not in conformity to Jewish custom, law, and ceremony (90).

Jesus did not want to die. Jesus even prayed that God would make this seemingly inevitable event unnecessary. Nevertheless, Jesus ended his Gethsemane struggle accepting what God willed for him (Mark 14:32-42). Neither did God want Jesus to die because he needed an innocent victim in order to forgive sin. God wanted Jesus to be fully human, to live out the love that is central to life under God’s reign. Because that project made Jesus a threat to the entrenched interests of Roman and Jewish leadership, it entailed his death.

Parents do not want their children to suffer; but they know that in any human life suffering occurs. Because they want their children to be alive, to be mature, to be human, they do not protect them from all ventures that might result in such suffering as disappointment, struggle, and defeat. Similarly, the Father willed for Jesus to be truly human, to live and act in love—the love that called for service leading to liberation for others; the service that he had modeled and insisted on from the beginning of his mission. Again, McCabe:

Jesus was the first human being, the first member of the human race in whom humanity came to fulfillment, the first human being for whom to live was simply to love—for this is what human beings are for. The aim of human life is to live in friendship—a friendship amongst ourselves which in fact depends on a friendship, or covenant, that God has established between ourselves and him. (93)

The death of Jesus moves us powerfully because we see in it the ultimate symbol of Jesus’ willingness to live in love at whatever the cost. The death of Jesus challenges us because he lived in love’s faithfulness as a human being. “Jesus was the first human being who had no fear of love at all; the first to have no fear of being human” (95).

The threat of Jesus to Roman culture and power, to Temple and religious hierarchy, is the same threat he poses to us as individuals and communities. Our institutions eventually evolve into structures of domination. If we, like Jesus, determine to be as human as possible, which is to say to love, living into the full humanity that only Jesus fully models and that God has in store for us in the New Jerusalem, we will face misunderstanding, rejection, suffering, and struggle. We may even face an untimely death; regardless, we will ultimately die. If we can accept our death as inevitable and go on loving, following what Jesus taught and did, then we will, like him, die of being human (97). Thus Jesus represents us in dying and represents us in resurrection.

By recognizing the representative nature of his death, and by entering into solidarity with him through faith, trust, and obedience to his way, Jesus’ followers come to know God’s forgiveness and to appreciate the lengths to which God goes for their liberation from the power of sin and evil. Like the apostle Paul, they “want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing in his suffering by becoming like him in his death” (Phil 3:10). They know Jesus joins them in solidarity for the often difficult tasks of discipleship and assures them that God’s way of setting things right will win out in the end. Not only does the cross show us the lengths to which God is willing to go in order to remain in relationship with us, but the resurrection assures us that, if we too will put ourselves in God’s hands, we too will be, paradoxically, finally on the way to eternal life.

What Imam Chirri objects to in the Christian doctrine of atonement as he knows it is identified well by Green and Baker, “Within a penal substitution model, God’s ability to love and relate to humans is circumscribed by something outside of God—that is, an abstract concept of justice instructs God as to how God must behave” (147). Is this the form of salvation the Muslim anthropologist Thomas McElwain rejected?

The death of Jesus does not enable God to forgive. God is not bound by his holiness or the demands of abstract justice to cause an innocent person to die in order to grant forgiveness. The death Jesus takes upon himself results from the suffering inflicted by the sins of others and from his own faithfulness to God’s way of being fully human.

St. Irenaeus’ (d. c. 202) recapitulation theory of the atonement (Against Heresies 5.14) connects Jesus’ death and resurrection with his life of faithfulness to God’s way of being human. Jesus’ whole life, ministry, death, and resurrection “recapitulate,” or relive, the life of Adam. In this “participatory journey of the Son by the Spirit” (cf. C. Pinnock’s Flame of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit [InterVarsity, 1996] 94), Jesus, the second Adam, represents all humans in living a true human life without sin. As participatory and incarnational, Jesus’ journey is both God’s journey and our human journey—a journey we humans may participate in by faith and the support of the Spirit. In sinning humans reveal their solidarity with Adam, but are responsible for their own sins. In believing in God as revealed by Jesus, humans accept their solidarity with Jesus and are responsible for doing their utmost in the Spirit to live a human life as he lived it—in other words, to take up their crosses and follow him.

Some Iranian Muslim poets felt Jesus’ solidarity with them in their efforts to work for the liberation of others. Their poetry suggests they were on their way to understanding the connection between Jesus’ death on a cross and salvation. The NT Jesus represented for them a spiritual shepherd who is publicly responsible. His representative and participational journey in solidarity with God and humanity, his deeds and words, including his embracing of his crucifixion, aimed at saving others. These lines from one of them, Ahmad Shamlu (born 1925), show he identifies openly with the symbol of the cross:

Lo, there am I, having traversed all my bewilderments,
Up to this Golgotha.
There am I, standing on the inverted cross
A statue as tall as a cry.
There am I
Having plucked the cross-nails out of the palms with my teeth. (S.S. Soroudi, “On Jesus’ Image in Modern Persian Poetry,” The Muslim World [1979] 224)

Posted Apr 01, 2010