Probably the main way that Muslims try to deny the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is that they claim Jesus was never crucified in the first place. How do they take that stance, when there's so much historical data for the crucifixion? They believe that someone else was made to look like Jesus, and this "imposter" was then crucified, instead of Him. In this episode we look at the reasons for and against this position called "the imposter on the cross".
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Hello again and welcome to the Ultimate Questions podcast. Lately we’ve been looking at the arguments against the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For the past few episodes we evaluated miracles, since one of the largest claims against the resurrection is that miracles can’t happen. For this episode, we’re going to switch gears, and look at an argument that is very common among Muslims. This counter to the resurrection is often referred to as the “imposter on the cross” argument. The basic concept behind this is that, while it did indeed “look” like Jesus died on the cross, Jesus didn’t “actually” die on the cross. The argument can go two different ways; one being that the Romans mistakenly crucified the wrong person, and the other that it was a deliberate deception on the part of God. To study this argument, we’re going to look at the reason Muslims believe it, then we’ll look at an early case of this from a position called Docetism, and then we’ll ask why we see parallels between Islam and early Christian Gnosticism. Then next episode we’ll spend looking at the main evidence Muslim apologists bring up for the view, which is the apocryphal Gospel of Barnabas.
So why do Muslims believe that Jesus didn’t die, and instead that there was an imposter on the cross? The real main reason for this belief is merely, because the Quran says so. The Quran is split into sections called “Surahs”, which are like chapters, and in Surah 4, verses 157-158, it says this of the Jews who were against Jesus:
And for their saying, “We have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the Messenger of God.” In fact, they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but it appeared to them as if they did. Indeed, those who differ about him are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it, except the following of assumptions. Certainly, they did not kill him. Rather, God raised him up to Himself. God is Mighty and Wise.
The basic point behind this verse is that Jesus did not die, and instead, Allah made it appear to the Jews that they had crucified Jesus. This is the verse that causes Muslims to believe Jesus was never crucified. The way Muslims then reason out the situation is that they believe Allah made someone else look like Jesus, and then that person was crucified. In many cases, they will even offer up the example of Judas being the one that was on the cross, while Jesus was brought, still alive, to heaven.
As a first problem here, we have an absolute wealth of historical evidence that Jesus did in fact die by crucifixion. If you’re interested in more on this topic specifically, check out episode 25 of this podcast, which deals with the evidence for the crucifixion of Jesus. For the sake of a very brief summary, we have multiple independent authors within the Bible, all saying Jesus was killed by crucifixion, and all of these accounts were written in the first century. We also have non-biblical writers who wrote about the crucifixion of Jesus, like Ignatius of Antioch, the Epistle of Barnabas, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus. Additionally, we even have early non-Christian writers who affirmed the crucifixion of Jesus, like Tacitus, Lucian of Samosata, Josephus, and then Mara bar Serapion and the Babylonian Talmud both imply it, while not stating it directly. Even modern-day skeptical historians like Bart Ehrman, and those in the Jesus Seminar like John Dominic Crossan, while they openly deny many aspects of Christianity, and try to diminish respect in the biblical story of Jesus, they will still admit that the crucifixion of Jesus is a historical fact, the most solid piece of information we have about Jesus, and is as certain as any historical fact can be.
We also have a problem with the idea of there being an imposter on the cross because Jesus’ execution was public. There was a crowd watching Jesus’ trial and execution, and it was this same crowd that had been stirred up to demand that Jesus be crucified. They knew who He was, so it’s incredibly odd to think that everyone present might have neglected to notice that the wrong person got arrested. Even more importantly, Jesus’ mom and best friend were at the foot of the cross. One of the last recorded things Jesus said before His death was telling the apostle John, who was quite possibly the closest to Jesus, that he should care for His mother, Mary. He actually told them that they were mother and son now, as a way to make sure His mom would be okay without Him. Both Mary and John were there at the foot of the cross, and watched Jesus die. If anyone can recognize a person, regardless of the state they’re in, it’s their mother. Not only did they see Jesus, but they heard His voice and talked with Him. Even His personal mannerisms would be present. The idea that the Romans arrested the wrong man, had an entire trial, torture session, and a deliberately public and lengthy execution, all without realizing it’s the wrong person, seems incredibly unlikely.
With this much historical data, it becomes very difficult to argue against. Based on the evidence, we have every reason to believe Jesus really did die by crucifixion, and it seems quite irrational to believe otherwise. This is why there has been debate about the interpretation of this passage in the Quran. If the crucifixion of Jesus is so historically undeniable, perhaps the verse in the Quran doesn’t mean exactly what it looks like it says? Some scholars will note that the wording of the verse only applies to the actions of the Jews, so it’s not actually commenting on whether Jesus actually died. While that might seem very strange, basically, the point is that we could easily say “the Jews didn’t kill Jesus”, and yet, Jesus could still have died. The idea here is that, since Allah was in charge, it was Allah who brought all this about, and the Jews just “thought” they were in control. In this way, Allah was making it “look” like the Jews were killing Jesus, but really it was Allah’s will. There’s actually very little in the Quran about Jesus’ crucifixion, and this is the main verse used, and since it’s so awkwardly worded, it’s hard to be too rigid in how to understand this idea. In fact, there are other verses that mention that Jesus will die. Surah 4:159 refers to Jesus’ death, and that Jesus will be later resurrected. Then in Surah 19:33, it has Jesus speaking, and He says, “So peace is upon me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised up to life.” Interestingly, in this same Surah, we have a reference to John the Baptist, where it says the exact same statement about being blessed on the day of birth, death, and resurrection. So if it’s in the same context, and giving the exact same wording, it would be safe to think it has the same meaning, with the implication that both did die. This actually fits somewhat nicely with another Muslim theological concept, where some Muslims believe that martyrs aren’t “really” killed, but instead are taken up to Allah alive, and will later die and be raised. In this sense, John the Baptist, and Jesus, and any other martyr in Islam, were raised to Allah, and later die, so they can be part of the resurrection. In this way, you could say that Jesus technically didn’t die, which is true of any martyr in Islam. So, even if we grant what the Quran says, it’s still possible to believe Jesus actually was crucified, there’s just some theological nuances taking place. However, the majority of Muslims will actively say that they believe Jesus was never crucified, and instead, someone else died in Jesus’ place. So, the question now is, how do they go about justifying that position?
As I said, there’s a great deal of historical data regarding Jesus’ crucifixion, so how do Muslims get around that? The real point here is that, to Muslims, this was actually a miraculous event. They don’t merely believe the crucifixion of Jesus isn’t a historical event; it’s that they believe it really did “look” like Jesus was crucified, and that Allah supernaturally made someone else look like Jesus, so that person could be crucified, instead of Jesus. If that looks like a deliberate deception on the part of Allah, then you’re right, and in fact, the Quran actually affirms that it’s a deception, and says that Allah is the best deceiver of all. In Surah 3:54 it’s talking about the unbelievers and opponents of Jesus, and it says “they devised a plan, and Allah devised a plan. And Allah is the best of all planners.” Now what I just read might seem innocent enough, except for the fact of what the Arabic word here actually means. While this translation says “devised a plan” and others say thing like “plotted”, the actual word here in Arabic is “makr”, which always has a negative connotation of doing something deceptive, misleading, lying, deceiving, or tricking. While the word can mean more positive sounding things like being “cunning” or “strategic”, it always has this negative concept of being underhanded in some way. It’s similar to being able to say a bank robber was “cunning” in his theft, or “strategic” in his exit plan; the negative connotation is still present. That said, many Muslims do try to avoid this idea of Allah calling himself “the greatest deceiver”, by saying the word “makr” here is only talking about making plans, and not about lying or deceiving. However, the context of this verse, and how this applies to the crucifixion of Jesus, shows us exactly how the word is meant to be understood in this context. This verse which says that Allah is the greatest deceiver, which again is Surah 3:54, is actually directly talking about the crucifixion of Jesus. In the very next verse, it shows what “makr” or “deception” or “plot” Allah was devising; it was that Allah was going to raise Jesus to himself. So, when Allah says he’s the greatest at “makr”, what does “makr” mean in this context? It’s applying to the idea that Allah made it appear to everyone that Jesus was crucified, when in fact He was not. In other words, Allah deliberately mislead everyone into believing something that was false. That is a description of what lying is. So even if “makr” could possibly refer to something like merely strategizing, given the context of how it’s used to apply to Allah, it is saying that Allah is the greatest at deceiving and lying. So the main way that Muslims try to justify their view that there was an imposter on the cross is by saying that Allah did a miracle by making someone else look like Jesus to be crucified. Even if we grant that this was a miracle, that makes Allah a deceiver and a liar. However, this is obviously problematic for the character of Allah. The Bible refers to the greatest liar many times, and it’s not God, it’s Satan. The main weapon Satan uses against God’s people is deception and lies. This means Islam is a religion that worships a being that celebrates being the best liar, and one of the biggest lies this being ever made was trying to delegitimize the work that Jesus did for humanity on the cross. This one lie completely destroys the entire salvation theology of Christianity, and leaves humanity responsible for their own sin. The biggest aspect of salvation in both Judaism and Christianity is that humanity is saved by atonement, and this theological concept is completely left out of Islam, and instead, we find a huge lie, with no historical backing, trying to keep people from believing the truth that Jesus atoned for their sins.
Leaving behind the controversy surrounding whether Allah celebrates being a liar, we can now ask ourselves, is there any reason to think it might be true that Allah really did deceive everyone? Is there any way to justify the claim that Allah made it appear as though Jesus was crucified, when in fact He was not? There are actually a small handful of early writings that would somewhat agree with the Quran on this point. However, all of them are the sort or writings that Muslims would not want to align themselves with. This is because these writings are all a part of an early heresy called “Docetism”. In Docetic theology, Jesus didn’t “really” die on the cross, because Jesus wasn’t actually a physical being. You see, the Docetists were what’s called “Gnostics”. Gnosticism was around even before Jesus’ time, and involved many different forms and varying views, but one of the common elements of Gnosticism is that matter is bad, and the spirit is good. During the early years of Christianity, a common threat against Christian doctrine was the attempts of Gnostics to try and unify Gnostic philosophy with Christian theology. The Docetics were a pretty clear example of this. Since they believed that matter was bad, and spirit is good, they didn’t want Jesus to actually be a real physical fleshly being, so, they denied the incarnation entirely, and said Jesus was purely a spiritual being.
We can see examples of Docetism in a few places, and interestingly, some of these are where we find early references to Jesus not actually dying by crucifixion. Our first example is the apocryphal Gospel of Peter, which is a somewhat early written account of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. This account is actually extremely short (at least the portion we have access to), being only roughly 5% the length of any of the biblical Gospels. However, in this short account we can see two examples that give us reason to believe this is a Docetic text. First, when Jesus is put on the cross, He experiences no pain, which would make sense if the author writing it didn’t believe Jesus was actually being physically crucified, and it only appeared to everyone that He was. Secondly, the text never says that Jesus died; it only says that “he was taken up”, which again seems like something a Docetic would write.
Another example of the Docetic heresy saying that Jesus wasn’t crucified comes from Irenaeus’ work Against Heresies where we read about two Gnostic heretics named Saturninus and Basilides who were bringing very strange ideas into Christianity. They taught that marriage was bad (likely because of the Gnostic hatred of the physical), that eating meat was bad, that the God of the Jews was just an angel, and that Jesus actually came to destroy that angel who was the God of the Jews. They also taught that Jesus was a “nous”, which is a Greek word that in this case means a spirit being, like an angel, and had no physical component to Him. The important part, for our purposes today, is that they did indeed teach that Jesus didn’t actually suffer death, but instead, someone else was made to look like Jesus, and that person was crucified instead. For this specific case, the teachers of this form of Docetism said that Jesus switched appearances with Simon of Cyrene, so that Simon looked like Jesus, and got crucified, and Jesus looked like Simon, and laughed at him the whole time he was being tortured and killed. It even specifically says that Jesus was a “nous” and was thus only spiritual, and could transfigure Himself as He pleased, and after these events Jesus ascended to the good God, and became invisible. Additionally, it says that if someone does believe in the physical crucifixion of Jesus, then they are a slave to the physical, and the evil spiritual powers that created the physical stuff, like the evil God of the Jews that Jesus came to destroy. However, if a person is a true believer, they will deny the physical aspect of Christ and His crucifixion, they will be freed from these evil spirits, and will be acquainted with the real creator God of the universe. Again, this is obviously Gnosticism, where the physical is bad, and the spirit is good. In this way, the Gnostic heretics here were indeed teaching that Jesus wasn’t killed, and instead, someone else was made to look like Jesus, and was killed in His place. However, everything else about this account is completely and totally against not only Christianity, but also Islam, and thus, no Muslim should want to use this text as a justification for their own views. The rather funny aspect of all of this is that, while Muslims might try and use texts like these to say that there were early accounts of Jesus not being crucified, all of these accounts argue for Jesus not dying because He was so divine, which is exactly the point Muslims don’t want to admit! For the Docetics, the reason Jesus wasn’t killed is because He’s so spiritual that He wasn’t even flesh, so certainly this doesn’t work as justification for the Muslim position.
Another quick point to make here is to acknowledge and rebut a common complaint against these sorts of arguments. When showing that early heretics believed something, in many cases the skeptic will argue that this is only because history is written by the winners. They will try to say that the Christians who were what we now call orthodox Christians were the ones with power, and that they squashed everyone else, and shut down their beliefs, to the point they became known as heretics. In this way, the skeptic tries to say that perhaps one of these heretics were actually closer to the truth, but the truth got delegitimized during the battle for supremacy. However, this was all before Christianity had any power. In fact, Christians were still being actively persecuted. Because of this, no one can claim that this was Christians trying to control people, or force their own views to maintain power, because there was no power to be had! These were the true Christians, who went right back to the time of Christ, who wrote about what they saw and heard, and then taught others about it. We see quite clearly through history how other groups tried to enter in and pollute the earliest beliefs with their own beliefs. In this case, Gnosticism was a clear and obvious philosophical movement, and the earliest forms of Christianity did not have these elements from Docetism that we’ve discussed. We then see these Gnostics deliberately trying to permeate Christian doctrine with their Gnosticism, and we see Christians condemning these sorts of movements very early, for example with people like Irenaeus writing against Docetism, which was well over a century before Christianity had any power.
At this point, I think the big question is, why does the Quran have these similarities to this Gnostic branch of Christianity? Doesn’t it seem odd in general that the Quran denies Jesus’ death, when there’s such a wealth of evidence in favour of it? And then, to see that the only people who ever made the claim that Jesus didn’t die all held to Docetic theology, seems like a very odd coincidence. So why is that? We’ll look at this point in much greater detail many episodes from now when we deal specifically with Islam, but I do believe there’s a reason why the Quran has these hints towards a Gnostic version of Christianity. We actually find many other examples of heretical versions of Christianity in the Quran. For example, in Surah 5:110 we read about Jesus as a child making birds out of clay, and breathing life into them, and they fly away. This same story is found in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which was written roughly a century and a half after Jesus’ death, was never respected, and was considered apocryphal and even heretical. We see many other examples of things in the Quran where it seems like an obvious reference to a story found in some other work, and the work in question was certainly not a reliable source. We even find cases where the other work was from another religion! So why do we find such a mish mash of random unreliable sources being present in the text of the Quran? To make a long story short, Muhammad travelled a lot during his younger years, and would have been exposed to lots of different people groups, and their religious views. Muhammad was illiterate, which is declared even within Islam, and thus he never would have had the opportunity to read the actual Old and New Testaments. So, if Muhammad met some people calling themselves Christians, but they were in fact heretics, Muhammad would have no way of knowing the difference. In Arabic culture, it was very normal to have information like this passed orally, rather than through reading. This creates many cases where details are missing or wrong, and stories get jumbled up, which is exactly what we find in many places within the Quran. In fact, even within the verse in the Quran that says Jesus wasn’t crucified, it talks about how people are in doubt regarding the crucifixion, and that there are differences in opinions regarding it. Why would the Quran say there is doubt surrounding the crucifixion, when Christianity has been extremely unified in this core belief, right from the beginning? It’s because Muhammad was well acquainted with heretical forms of Christianity, hadn’t actually read the Bible, and wasn’t aware of what orthodox Christianity taught. From Muhammad’s perspective, he could hear tidbits of the story of Jesus from many different sources, including heretics. Then later, when he speaks to his converts to his new religion, Islam, he would orally recite stories to them, as best as he could remember, which could easily include aspects from the heretical stories. This would eventually result in the creation of a Quran that includes many cases of spurious source material, like the Gnostics and Docetics. I know that’s a huge point made very briefly, but if you’re interested in more on that topic, and don’t want to wait what will likely be years before I touch on the subject in the podcast, then you can check out an article I’ve written that is on my website, jontopping.com, which is called “The Sources of the Quran”.
To summarize, we find an incredible amount of historical references to Jesus dying, so it couldn’t be a natural case of Jesus being replaced by an imposter by accident. If it were a miracle, then this would make Allah into a liar and a deceiver. It also appears that this idea of there being an “imposter on the cross” comes from heretical theology that denied Jesus was even human. It seems far more likely that Muhammad was influenced by heretical forms of Christianity, which he had many opportunities to come in contact with, which ended up having an impact on the content found in the Quran. This leaves Muslims with either affirming the writings of groups who held to a spiritual non-human Jesus, which is against Islamic theology, or, they can admit what literally every other historian knows, which is that Jesus was the one on the cross, and He did in fact die by crucifixion.
There is still one big point to consider in this discussion, which is a text that Muslim apologists refer to when trying to prove that there was an “imposter on the cross”, which is the apocryphal Gospel of Barnabas. Next time on the podcast, we’re going to dig deep into this text, see how it affects Islamic theology, and the idea of their being someone else crucified in Jesus’ place. So hopefully you’ll join me next time, on the Ultimate Questions podcast.