Charles Montagu Doughty, the Englishman who traveled throughout parts of the Arabian Peninsula in the latter part of the eighteenth-century gave the following account under the subtitle, “fanaticism”:
In an evening I had wandered to the oasis side: there a flock of the village children soon assembling with swords and bats followed my heels, hooting, “Nasrany ! Nasrany !” [i.e. Christian, Christian] and braving about the kafir [i.e. unbeliever, a non-Muslim] and cutting crosses in the sand before me, they spitefully denied them, shouting such a villainous [sic]carol, “We have eaten rice with halib (milk) and have made water upon the salib (cross) [i.e. they urinated on the signs of the cross that they had made in the sand].” 1
The behavior of these children, though in a sense extreme, is completely consistent with the hostile attitude that most Muslims have toward the cross. In multiple conversations with individual Muslims from varying backgrounds and in different languages, I have experienced this same hostility. I know former Muslims who are now Christians who have had to continually defend their belief in Jesus’ death on the cross to their family and friends, often in the face of severe taunts and intense threats. It is no secret for those who interact with Muslims, especially for the evangelist, that Islam breeds contempt for the cross.
Islamic Sources for the Denial of the Crucifixion
Muslims’ hostility towards the cross is rooted in the core Islamic belief that Jesus was not crucified. This belief is primarily based on the interpretation of the following passage from the Qur’an by their most authoritative commentators:
and for their saying, ‘We slew the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, the Messenger of God’ — yet they did not slay him, neither crucified him, only a likeness of that was shown to them. Those who are at variance concerning him surely are in doubt regarding him; they have no knowledge of him, except the following of surmise; and they slew him not of a certainty — no indeed; God raised him up to Him; God is All-mighty, All-wise. (Sura 4:157-158)
The standard Islamic interpretation of this passage, true for both major branches of Islam, i.e. Sunni and Shia, can be summarized as follows: as Jesus was on His way to the cross, God supernaturally lifted Him up to Heaven and then made someone else look like Jesus. The people crucified this person thinking that it was Jesus. Some suggest that the crucified person was Simon of Cyrene or some other person such as Judas Iscariot (belief in the identity of the latter is by far the most popular one among Muslims). The explanation for this “miraculous” ascension is that God would not allow any of His prophets to die such an ignominious death. In the minds of Muslims, Jesus’ ascension to Heaven to be kept from crucifixion was God’s way of honoring Him.
This opposition to the cross, which is at the same time a polemical attack against Jesus’ atoning death for sin and a denial of history, permeates the teachings and practices of Islam. The following two examples illustrate this. In a saying attributed to Muhammad, when Jesus returns He will break the cross:
Allah’s Apostle said, “The Hour will not be established until the son of Mary (i.e. Jesus) descends amongst you as a just ruler, he will break the cross, kill the pigs, and abolish the Jizya tax. Money will be in abundance so that nobody will accept it (as charitable gifts). 2
In the so-called “Pact of Umar,” one of the conditions by which Christians are supposed to abide under Islamic rule is as follows: “We shall not display our crosses or our books in the roads or markets of the Muslims.” 3 This condition is often cited by militant Islamic groups or even “ordinary” Muslims overcome with religious zeal who destroy crosses on church buildings, attack those who wear them in public and even kill professing Christians by crucifixion.
Muslim opposition to the cross is so great that in spite of the fact that the Koran mentions Jesus’ death (Sura 3:55; 5:117; 19:33), these passages are torturously interpreted in order to make them agree with the orthodox Islamic interpretation of Sura 4:157. Not even the existence of a few stray Muslim commentators who question this interpretation has done anything to change the minds of almost any professing Muslim from the time that Islam first appeared in history to this very day.
Satan Has Always Opposed the Cross
Jesus told us that we would know false prophets by their fruits (Matt 7:15-20). Wherever Islam goes it produces in almost every one of its adherents, the same opposition to the cross that we find in the Bible with regard to Satan.
And He [i.e. Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And He was stating the matter plainly. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. But turning around and seeing His disciples, He rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind Me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” (Mark 8:31-33)
From a human standpoint, what Peter said to Jesus was quite reasonable. Crucifixion is a cruel way for anyone to die. In this regard, Peter could be regarded as being compassionate. Crucifixion is also meant to humiliate the person being crucified. In this regard, Peter could be regarded as seeking to uphold Jesus’ honor. What Peter did not realize is that his “advice” to Jesus was actually Satan speaking through him. As Satan spoke through the serpent in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:1-5; Rev 12:9; 20:2), he now spoke through Peter. Satan exploited Peter’s earthly fondness for Jesus and became the means through which Satan tempted Jesus to not die on the cross.
If Jesus had succumbed to this temptation, sin would have remained an ongoing barrier between God and humanity (e.g. Isa 59:1-2). It is only through the cross that sin was properly dealt with by God so that He “would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26). The cross is the very reason why Jesus came (e.g. Matt 20:28; John 12:23-33). Satan does not want people to be forgiven of their sin and reconciled to God. He is opposed to all that is good (his very name means, “adversary” or “opponent” see 1 Pet 5:8; cf. Zech 3:1).
The Greatest Expression of Love for People
As the ultimate thief, Satan’s only plan for humans is to “kill, steal, and destroy” – Jesus’ plan, however, is to give us abundant life (John 10:10). Immediately after mentioning this abundant life, Jesus spoke about His death:
I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep…For this reason, the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. (John 10:11, 17)
The abundant life that Jesus gives, as opposed to the killing, stealing, and destruction of Satan, only comes through His voluntary death. In keeping with this, Jesus later stated that to willingly die for another is the greatest possible expression of love:
“This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. “You are My friends if you do what I command you. (John 15:12-14)
As the Lamb of God, Jesus lived up to these words by dying on the cross for the sin of the world (John 1:29). Jesus’ death on the cross is God’s greatest expression of love for people. The following passages clearly state this:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)
By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:9-10)
For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. (Rom 5:6-10)
It is one thing to willingly offer oneself in death for another but quite another thing to willingly offer up your one-of-a-kind son. It is one thing to die for someone deserving of such sacrifice but quite another thing to die for someone who is undeserving of such sacrifice. It is one thing to die for a friend or a stranger but quite another thing to die for an enemy. At best, human love, as powerful as it can be, is still limited. God’s love, however, surpasses even the best expressions of human love. Such love is what was displayed when Jesus died on the cross for our sins – unlimited, unconditional, and unfailing. The cross is indeed God’s greatest expression of love for people.
The Greatest Expression of Hatred for People
If Jesus’ death on the cross represents God’s greatest expression of love for people, opposition to it constitutes the greatest expression of hatred for people. To reject the cross is to reject the only way possible for sinners to be reconciled to God. Without Jesus’ crucifixion, people would be perishing in their sins without any hope of forgiveness. Acceptance by God and access to His presence would be impossible if Jesus, the eternal Son of God who became the Son of Man, did not die on the cross for the sin of the world.
The idea that Jesus did not die on the cross undermines the entire teaching of the Bible. At the very least, such a notion contradicts the following essential truths necessary to be saved from sin through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ: 4
- all of the prophecies in the Old Testament regarding the Messiah’s death (e.g. Luke 24:13-27, 32, 44-47; 1 Cor 15:3-4; cf. Gen 3:15; Ps 22; Isa 52:13-53:12)
- Jesus’ conscious awareness of coming to earth to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies by His crucifixion (e.g. Matt 16:21; 20:17-19; John 3:14-17; 8:28;12:23-33)
- God’s plan of redemption being the fulfillment of the entire Old Testament sacrificial system for sin (e.g. Gen 3:21; 22:1-19; Ex 12; Lev 17:11; Zech 9:11; John 1:29; Rom 3:21-26; Eph 1:7; Col 1:14; Heb 9-10; 1 John 1:7; Rev 5:8-9; 12:11)
In addition to these things, if Jesus did not die on the cross but was supernaturally lifted up into Heaven, then it follows that He did not rise from the dead! Such a belief brings on itself even further condemnation from God’s Word:
Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. (1 Cor 15:12-19)
There is no mystery as to who is animating the Islamic rejection of the cross. It is Satan himself, the father of lies and the source of murder (John 8:44). Even as Peter’s attempt to save Jesus from the cross had its source in Satan, regardless of how compassionate and honoring to Jesus it seemed to be, so the Islamic opposition and denial of the cross has its source in Satan. It is Satan’s nature to oppose God whose nature is love (1 John 4:8, 16; cf. Song 8:6-7, NASB).
Muslims Need the Preaching of the Cross (and our patience!)
How then should we respond to Muslims? Jesus’ dealings with Peter are quite instructive. After Jesus gave His devastating, but necessary rebuke to Peter, He continued to disciple him. Jesus did not remove Peter from being the leader of the apostles nor did he lose his apostleship. Jesus did not expel Peter as a false disciple. Jesus continued to love him by being patient with him and forgiving him. In the same way, if we want Muslims to be evangelized and saved from their sin, we must be patient and forgiving, even when they repeat Satan’s hateful lie that denies Jesus’ loving death on the cross.
Muslims, like all people, are created in God’s image (Gen 1:26-27; 5:1; 9:6; Jam 3:9). As such, they can be saved from sin. Jesus said:
“Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come. (Matt 12:31-32)
Peter’s example shows us that speaking a lie from Satan is not necessarily synonymous with blaspheming the Holy Spirit. He who in a moment of weakness yielded to Satan and would later deny Jesus three times, would finally be saved, his call upheld by Jesus, be filled with the Holy Spirit, and be the leader of the Apostles (e.g. Luke 24:34, John 20:19-23; 21:15-22; Acts 1-2; Gal 2:7-8). As Jesus dealt with Peter (not to mention us – see Titus 3:3-7), let us follow His example when ministering to Muslims.
The cross to which Muslims are opposed is the only thing that can save them from their sin. Even if they repeat the lie that Jesus did not die on the cross, our task is clear:
to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me [i.e. Jesus].’ (Acts 26:18)
- Arabia Deserta, vol. 1, pp. 155-156 ↩
- Sahih Bukhari, Book 43, Number 656, http://cmje.usc.edu/religious-texts/hadith/bukhari/043-sbt.php ↩
- http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/pact-umar.asp ↩
- The Scripture references are only representative. Many other references could be given for each point. ↩