DID JESUS DIE ON THE CROSS?
A response to Islam, Gnosticism, and Skepticism
by N. Jaruchik
The death and resurrection of Jesus is the main theme of the Christian faith. Without the crucifixion there would be no resurrection and Christianity would fall apart, because, as Paul says, "if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty" (1 Cor. 15:14). It’s no wonder that throughout history some religions and sects have attempted to deny the death of Jesus. One of these religions is Islam. Both the Qur'an and the hadiths clearly teach that Jesus did not die, like the following Surah tells us:
“But they killed him not, nor crucified him, but it was made to appear to them, […] But they certainly did not kill him, but Allah raised him to himself.” (Surah 4: 156-158)
Interestingly, long before the advent of Islam, Gnosticism held a very similar view. Basilides (c. 117-138 AD), one of the earliest and most influential Gnostics, alleged that a certain Simon "was transfigured... to think that he was Jesus... while Jesus himself received the form of Simon.” Basilides continues by saying that Jesus ascended to heaven as a spirit but whoever believes he was crucified “that man remains a slave, under the power of those who formed our bodies." (1) Like Gnosticism, the Qur'anic account also claims that Jesus (Isa) ascended to heaven without dying, and according to some Muslim commentators, it was an[other man (possibly Judas) who died in Jesus' place.
The similarity between the Gnostic account about the ‘fake’ death of Jesus and its counterpart in the Koran is no exception. Many Quranic verses come from Gnosticism. This is why Gnostic accounts are often used by Muslim commentators to support their own beliefs. But what does the evidence tell us?
Well, there is no historical evidence of the Gnostic or Islamic account. In contrast, Jesus’ crucifixion is even accepted by most skeptic scholars as history. Josephus (c. 37-100 AD), one of the most famous historians of the first century, stated that,
“About this time there lived Jesus, [...] He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross".
So not only does Josephus make a reference to the crucifixion of Jesus, but he even mentions Pontius Pilate, an important New Testament character. On the other hand, Tacitus (56-120 AD), another of the great historians of antiquity, and by no means a friend of Christianity, related that Christ “suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate.” Thirdly, we have the account of a man named Serapion, a Syrian stoic philosopher from the first century who asks:
“What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise king? It was just after that their kingdom was abolished”.
Interestingly, he goes on by saying that this wise king was not dead, “because of the ‘new law’ he laid down. Like Josephus and Tacitus, Serapion was not a Christian, thus reinforcing the evidence of authenticity. Furthermore, it must be remembered that these three characters lived in the first century; that is, the apostles and disciples of Jesus were still alive. For example, the apostle John died in A.D. 101, one year after the death of Josephus!
So, Muslims have a problem. If Jesus only seemed to die, why do several ancient historians mention, not only his death, but also his crucifixion? Where is the historical evidence showing us that Jesus did not die?
The Gnostics were polytheists. They believed in a supreme being from which other gods or spiritual beings came forth. The further apart these beings were from their origin (the supreme being), the more evil they became. According to Gnosticism, every material thing is evil. For this same reason, the Gnostics believed that Jesus (which they considered to be good) was an immaterial being. Since every material thing was evil, so it had to be the god who created the earth. Of course, Islam does not teach that God is evil—or at least, doesn’t teach it openly. Furthermore, it speaks harshly against polytheism. So why does Islam borrow ideas from other accounts that contradict the Qur’an itself?
The apostle Paul, in his epistle to the Corinthians, says that he did not intend to know among them more than "Jesus Christ, and him crucified." Thus, the death of Jesus is of vital importance to those who trust him, since without his sacrifice there would be no salvation or remission of sins. "but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles." (1 Cor. 1:23)
For many, the cross is either, a trap (skandalon, the Greek word for stumbling block) that causes those who believe in him to fall into error, or just plain foolishness. Dear friend, do you believe that Jesus' sacrifice is foolishness? Do you believe in your own goodness and sacrifices? Or rather, as King David believed, that no human being will justify himself before God, because "there is no righteous man, not even one." If you believe the latter, you are probably closer to God than you think. If you feel exhausted from following so many ‘divine’ rites and laws, or if you feel that you are drowning from your own sins and sorrows, do not be afraid, hold on and trust on the person who gave us the great lifesaver, that floating cross that allows us to hold on and saves us from great and unavoidable sinking.