Much has been written on this blog and elsewhere regarding the Islamic view of Jesus and His sacrifice. Yet the question stands of how can the Christian help a Muslim come to understand that what Jesus did was a gift given out of love? How does he come to know that substitutionary sacrifice is an honorable act, and not something to be ashamed of? Is there another way to bring this truth home without starting an argument?
Moreover, this particular topic refers to the foundational moment of Jesus’ life, his crucifixion. Most religious discussions with Muslims wander off course down obscure rabbit trails. It would be preferable to linger and discuss the crucifixion in a constructive way. Yet the more focus that is placed on the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection, the more offensive and confrontational the conversations may become. There must be avenues to discuss these core doctrines of salvation in a new way without compromise.
Oddly enough, to get at the truth and power of the cross, let’s dig deeper into the Muslim account of what occurred at the time of the crucifixion. The following is taken from the tafsir of ibn Kathir, a respected Qur’an commentator.
They surrounded `Isa [Jesus] in the house, and when he felt that they would soon enter the house or that he would sooner or later have to leave it, he said to his companions, “Who volunteers to be made to look like me, for which he will be my companion in Paradise?” A young man volunteered, but `Isa thought that he was too young. He asked the question a second and third time, each time the young man volunteering, prompting `Isa to say, “Well then, you will be that man.” Allah made the young man look exactly like `Isa…When those surrounding the house saw the man who looked like `Isa, they thought that he was `Isa. So they took him at night, crucified him and placed a crown of thorns on his head. [i]
This is a story many Muslims are aware of, and are more than happy to share with Christians. In this account, Jesus was under pressure and about to be arrested. He needed a diversion in order to escape. This story portrays a young man willing to accept being made to look like Jesus, thus taking his place. In this way, the Jews would carry out their plan of crucifixion, but on the wrong person. As a reward for this offer, the would-be doppelganger was granted paradise for such a noble and honorable effort. By agreeing to be an alternate candidate for crucifixion, sacrificing himself for the greater good, the young disciple saved Jesus from the cross.
There is an incredible irony here. In order to prove how the Christians are misguided about the merits of substitutionary sacrifice, a story is created expressing the merits of substitutionary sacrifice! In other words, in order to prove that Christians are wrong about the honor of one man dying for another, they tell a story about one man who agreed to die for another. The double irony here is that some Muslims believe that Judas was the young disciple.[ii] The fact that Judas is the hero of the day could be unpacked to reveal many more hidden and sinister sides to the account. However, let’s stay focused on the fact that an act cited in order to avoid the ignominy of a righteous one suffering showcases the nobility of a righteous young disciple suffering.
Muslims are quick to defend Islam at any cost. When a Muslim retells his version of the story, how Judas gave of himself to die for Jesus, he will vociferously and boldly proclaim the wonder and nobility of such a selfless act. With careful attention to the Holy Spirit, the friend to the Muslim can give him just enough room to allow him to undermine his own theology. Such an approach is not without danger. Those Muslims who are not seeking may see that they painted themselves into a corner, and there could be an acerbic reaction. It is paramount that enough of a friendship has been established to bear the weight of such an eye-opening discussion. As a debate tactic, such a device is useless. As a method of leading a friend to truth, sometimes more shrewd strategies could be employed.
[i] Ibn Kathir, “The Evil Accusation the Jews Uttered Against Maryam and Their Claim that They Killed `Isa,” Tafsir Ibn Kathir Translation 26 October 2002, Dar-us-Salaam Publishing, 14 Jan, 2011. http://www.tafsir.com/default.asp?sid=4&tid=12730, 14 Jan, 2011