Islam teaches that Jesus was not crucified. Instead, Muslims believe he was raised bodily to heaven by God. You may encounter this objection to the Christian faith when you engage in discussions with Muslim apologists. This argument finds its roots in the Qur’an:
That they said (in boast), "We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah";- 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, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise..." ( 4:157-158)
Opinions vary, but generally you will encounter one of these three conclusions when speaking with Muslims about the Crucifixion:
- Jesus survived the Crucifixion.
- God made someone else look like Jesus.
- The Crucifixion simply did not occur.
As we will see, there is no good evidence to support any of these conclusions.
Jesus Survived the Crucifixion
In the Islamic view, Jesus’ death on the cross would have meant triumph for his enemies, but as the verse from the Qur’an states, “for of a surety they killed him not.” If the Crucifixion did happen, then Jesus must have survived the ordeal. This is not supported by the available evidence. All four Gospels describe the events in such a way that there can be no doubt Jesus died as the result of having been crucified.
In Matthew 27, Joseph of Arimathea asks for the body of Jesus in order to provide a proper burial, to which Pontius Pilate agrees. The Romans who handled the transfer would have known for sure that Jesus was dead. Even the Pharisees knew this and requested that the tomb be guarded so the disciples could not steal the body and falsely claim he had resurrected (vv. 45-66).
Mark and Luke both record the event in much the same way. Mark, however, reveals another detail: In his Gospel, Pilate specifically asks for confirmation that Jesus was dead before handing the body over to Joseph of Arimathea (15:44-45).
John’s Gospel also reveals a critical detail. According to him, Roman soldiers came to break the legs of the crucified. When they had seen that Jesus was already dead, they pierced his side with a spear and, consistent with the other Gospels, his body was given to Joseph for burial.
God Made Someone Else Look Like Jesus
This is also known as the Crucifixion Substitute Theory. Most Muslims believe Jesus was raised to heaven by God, and that another person made to look like him was crucified in his place. Muslim scholars have debated the identity of the substitute, with the most popular contender being Judas Iscariot.
One popular source that some Muslim apologists point to is the so-called “Gospel of Barnabas.” This document claims to have been written down by the disciple Barnabas at the request of Jesus himself. In it, the author claims Judas was transformed by God into the likeness of Jesus and then crucified.
The only problem for the Muslim apologist is that scholars are virtually unanimous in their agreement that the Gospel of Barnabas is a medieval forgery. The list of anachronisms and historical blunders it contains is expansive, and evidence for it prior to medieval times is virtually non-existent.
The Crucifixion Simply Did Not Occur
The third and most popular objection to the Crucifixion among Muslim apologists is the argument that it never happened. In their view, the Gospel accounts of the event were corrupted and are laden with errors and falsehoods.
But the evidence for Jesus’ death on the cross can be verified by sources outside the New Testament. The early Church Fathers were unanimous on this point. Ignatius of Antioch, writing early in the second century, tells us:
He was truly of the seed of David according to the flesh, and the Son of God according to the will and power of God; that He was truly born of a virgin, was baptized by John, in order that all righteousness might be fulfilled by Him; and was truly, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch, nailed [to the cross] for us in His flesh. Of this fruit we are by His divinely-blessed passion, that He might set up a standard for all ages, through his resurrection, to all His holy and faithful [followers], whether among Jews or Gentiles, in the one body of His Church. (Letter to the Smyrneans, Chapter 1).
Ignatius tells us that Jesus was certainly nailed to the cross. The term “through his resurrection” implies that he did die.
Another example from the early second century comes to us from St. Polycarp who wrote:
For whosoever does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is antichrist; and whosoever does not confess the testimony of the cross is of the devil; and whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts, and says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan…Let us then continually persevere in our hope, and the earnest of our righteousness, which is Jesus Christ, who bore our sins in His own body on the tree (Letter to the Phillipians, Chapter 7, 8).
There are many more quotes like these from early Christian writers. If the Muslim apologist is not willing to accept these quotes because they are from Christian sources, then consider this account from the Jewish historian Josephus:
Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principle men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first ceased not so to do; and the race of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct even now (J. Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth, p. 55).
Tacitus, a Roman historian and senator, also confirms the historicity of the Crucifixion:
Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular (Annals, 15.44, translation from Latin by A. J. Church and W. J. Brodribb).
These two accounts from non-Christian sources have nothing to gain by propagating a falsehood. The Qur’an, on the other hand, does stand to gain by denying the Crucifixion.
Muslims reject the Christian Trinitarian view of God, and consequently that Jesus was God incarnate. They also reject the idea that Jesus atoned for the sins of mankind when he suffered on the cross by denying the Crucifixion altogether. But as I have demonstrated here, the evidence for the historicity of the Crucifixion is overwhelmingly on our side.