"Did Jesus Really Die on the Cross?"

Before looking at the reasons for the controversy relating to who died or appeared to die on the cross of Mount Calvary in Jerusalem nearly 2000 years ago, let's look first at why Christians consider this to be such an important issue.

The cross of Jesus Christ is the central point of Christianity. As the only bridge across the gulf between a holy God and sinful man, the cross satisfied the demands of a just God for the punishment of man's sins. At the same time, through the shed blood of the sinless Lamb of God (another title for Jesus in the New Testament), it demonstrates the compassion of a loving God who Himself paid the penalty of sin for the whole world.

From the beginning of creation, when Adam and Eve grieved God by their sin of disobedience, God in His love planned the death of the Messiah (Jesus) to accomplish the redemption of mankind from their penalty of death for sin. The New Testament states, "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive" (I Corinthians 15:22). Moments after the Lord God confronted Adam and Eve with their sin in the Garden of Eden, He announced the first prophecy of the coming of Christ (Genesis 3:15). And that same day, blood was shed for the first time as the sign of atonement, payment for sin, when God provided clothing from animal skins for Adam and Eve.

Throughout the Old Testament God progressively shed more light on His plans for mankind's redemption from sin. God continued to reveal many prophecies and to institute symbolic sacrifices which foretold the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross and His victory over death through the resurrection three days later. These included the bronze serpent raised by Moses in the wilderness, the elaborate and repeated sin offerings, and the requirement of a perfect lamb without spot or blemish to be sacrificed on the alter to symbolically cover the sins of the true believer. With remarkable detail, David the writer of the Psalms (Zabur) described the painful realities of death by crucifixion in Psalm 22, hundreds of years before this gruesome form of execution came into use. Other details of Christ's trial, death, and burial were revealed through the prophet Isaiah (particularly in Isaiah 53) and other Old Testament prophets.

In the Levitical law of the Torah of Moses, God had ordained that blood must be shed in order for man's sin to be forgiven. "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" (Leviticus 17:11). This truth is again repeated in the New Testament in Hebrews 9:22, "Without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness."

In a totally unique way, Jesus met God's requirements, as the perfect Lamb of God sacrificed for the sins of the world. Jesus was holy and sinless from His birth, and throughout His life, the Bible tells us that He never sinned. The New Testament says that He "has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin," (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus even challenged His enemies to name or prove His sins, but they were silent before Him (John 8:46). In every way, Jesus met the requirements of God's holy justice for a sinless sacrifice, for the holy blood of the Lamb of God.

It was because Jesus was no ordinary man that His death on the cross was unique. The Bible tells what happened when Christ died on the cross, "The veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom, the earth shook, the rocks were split, and the tombs were opened," and darkness fell upon all the land for three hours at midday (Matthew 27:51,52). All this caused the frightened Roman centurion (soldier) who was supervising the crucifixion to exclaim, "Truly this was the Son of God!" (Matthew 27:54).

Upon the cross God made Jesus "who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (II Corinthians 5:21). The declaration of John the Baptist at Jesus' baptism still resounds today, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29).

In spite of this being a central doctrine of the Christian faith, it is perhaps the most controversial event in the life of Jesus Christ throughout the Muslim world. Because the Qur'an is not entirely clear on this, numerous interpretations have been made of certain passages. The general assumption accepted through the centuries by Muslims is that God loved His prophet so much that just before the crucifixion, He lifted up Jesus into heaven and allowed someone else made to resemble Him to be crucified in His place.

The key passage from the Qur'an upon which this assumption is based states: "And because of [the Jews'] disbelief and because of their saying: We slew the Messiah Jesus, son of Mary, Allah's messenger--They slew him not nor crucified, but it appeared so unto them; and lo! those who disagree concerning it are in doubt thereof; they have no knowledge thereof save pursuit of a conjecture; they slew him not for certain. But Allah took him up unto Himself. Allah was ever Mighty, Wise" (Surah 4, Al-Nisa, Women: 156-158).

One favored Muslim interpretation of this passage explains that even though the Jews claimed to have killed Jesus, "it appeared so unto them," and God made them think that they had crucified Jesus. But by mistake they crucified someone else whom God made to resemble Jesus, such as Judas Iscariot or Simon of Cyrene. Another interpretation proposes that this phrase indicates that God caused the entire event of the crucifixion to be an appearance or resemblance of what it really was so that the Jews could not understand it.

However, a number of other passages in the Qur'an make rather direct reference to the death and resurrection of Jesus. "Behold! Allah said: 'Jesus I am about to cause you to die [take thee] and lift you up to Me. I shall take you from the unbelievers and exalt your followers above them till the day of Resurrection'" (Surah 3, Ali-'Imrans, The Family of Imran: 55). Perhaps one of the clearest declarations in the Qur'an on this question is in the words attributed to Jesus Himself: "Peace on me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the day I shall be raised alive! Such was Jesus, son of Mary [this is] a statement of the truth concerning which they doubt," (Surah 19, Maryam, Mary: 33,34).

There is no response in the Qur'anic commentaries to dispute that this last passage is quoting Jesus as saying that He will die. About his physical resurrection there is no Muslim dispute. Being under Roman rule, the Jews were only able to get rid of Jesus by having the Romans kill him. They did not actually perform the execution, even as the Qur'an clearly says they did not. They did, however, bring false charges against him which set him up for the Roman authorities to have Him crucified, thus fulfilling prophecies that were centuries old that foreigners in the land would actually do the deed for the benefit of the Jews (Psalm 22).

(Adapted from Tide of the Supernatural by Kundan Massey, Here's Life Publishers)

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