No serious historian doubts the existence of Jesus Christ. Atheist scholars and Christians alike acknowledge the reality and impact of his life. But the three great religions with roots in the Middle East—Judaism, Islam and Christianity—divide over the death of Jesus and what it means. The final moment in the life of Jesus—the moment he died—was the all-important moment. That's what this book addresses: What does the Christian Bible teach about why Jesus suffered so much and died?
The Denial by Muslims
Nothing is more relevant or controversial today. Islam affirms that Jesus lived, but most Muslims have been taught that Jesus was not crucified. For example, one Sunni Muslim says, “Muslims believe that Allah saved the Messiah from the ignominy of crucifixion.” 1 Another adds, “We honor [Jesus] more than you [Christians] do. . . . We refuse to believe that God would permit him to suffer death on the cross.” 2
The place in the Qur'an that provides the basis for this denial of the crucifixion (and resurrection) is a discussion of supposed Jewish errors:
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 therefore; they have no knowledge thereof save pursuit of a conjecture; they slew him not for certain. But Allah took him up unto Himself. Allah is ever Mighty, Wise. There is not one of the People of the Scripture [Jews] but will believe in him before his death, and on the Day of Resurrection he will be a witness against them. 3
The Witness of Non-Christian History
However, those who were much closer to the historical situation than Mohammed (who was born in a.d. 571) reported that Jesus died by crucifixion. These witnesses include non-Christian historians who had no motive to fabricate Christ's death. For example, the Roman historian, Tacitus (who was born in a.d 55), wrote in his Annals (15:44) an explanation of how Nero, the emperor (who died in a.d 68) blamed Christians for the great fire of Rome in order to deflect rumors that he had started the blaze. In this passage Tacitus alludes to a fact which no one disputed: Christ had been crucified under Pontius Pilate:
All human efforts . . . of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. 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 Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. 4
It was common and undisputed knowledge in the second half of the first century that Jesus Christ had been crucified. If there were any question that he had died in this way, it would have been eagerly disputed wherever Christians preached. But it wasn't. The fact of his death by crucifixion was not questioned.
Abundant Eyewitnesses and the Absence of Denial
If the death of Jesus was a myth, it had to be created overnight, since within weeks Christians were preaching the saving power of Christ's suffering and death. Even more significant, it was being preached in Jerusalem—the very city which had the greatest interest in making sure the error was stopped. As far as the Jewish leaders were concerned, this new religion was a distortion of the Jewish faith, and, in fact, was blasphemy, since Christians claimed that Jesus was himself the Son of God (Mark 14:61-64). “We have a law,” the Jewish leaders said to Pilate, “and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God” (John 19:7).
The fact is that Christians openly based their faith on the fact that Jesus was publicly tried, condemned, executed, and raised from the dead. They spoke this way within weeks after these events, when thousands of people who opposed this faith could have proved it wrong, if Jesus had not died. They could have gone to Pilate the governor or Herod the king or the Jewish Council or the soldiers or other witnesses of the crucifixion and gotten proof that he had not been condemned or crucified the way Christians said he was. But, in fact, no one did that. Everyone in Jerusalem knew that Jesus had been crucified, and many had watched him die. The resurrection was disputed, but not the crucifixion.
The early Christians were keenly aware that eyewitnesses were crucial in verifying their claims about the death and resurrection of Jesus. Their earliest writer, the apostle Paul, who was a contemporary of Jesus, said, “ Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures. . . . he was buried . . . he was raised on the third day . . . Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive” (1 Corinthians 15:3-6). Why did Paul say “most of whom are still alive”? Because he was not afraid to have his claims put to the test. He knew they could be verified by eyewitnesses. In other words, Christianity was spreading during the very decades when eyewitnesses could have most easily proved it false. But the basic claims stood the test. The events had happened.
An Improbable Myth
Moreover why would a group of Jews (for all the first Christians were Jews by birth) fabricate the death of Christ? The Christians had nothing to gain from creating the story of a crucified Messiah. It made the spread of Christianity almost impossible from a natural viewpoint. Crucifixion was an obscene form of torture and execution reserved for despised criminals. Most people, hearing the Christian message that Jesus Christ was the divine Son of God who died by crucifixion, thought it was ludicrous. One of the earliest first-century Christian preachers said, “ We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles [that is, non-Jews]” (1 Corinthians 1:23 ). It was not to the advantage of Christians to concoct a crucified Messiah. It made their life and mission much harder.
The Critical Issue of the 21st century
The claim of many Muslims that Christ was never crucified, and that early Christians were mistaken or were myth-makers, goes against all the historical and intuitive evidence. The key issue between Christians and Muslims is not first and foremost the identity of Allah, but the fact and meaning of the death of Jesus Christ. This is also true for Judaism and Christianity: Who was this Jesus and why did he die? Both Judaism and Islam deny the essence of Christianity—that Jesus was the long-expected Messiah, the divine Son of God, who was crucified and raised from the dead to bring forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all who believe in him.
This makes Jesus incredibly relevant and controversial in the 21st century. The massive movement of Islam (over 1.3 billion people), and the comparatively small people of Israel have explosive significance in world affairs. The most critical issue between Islam and Judaism on the one hand, and Christianity on the other, is not whether Islam and Judaism are monotheistic. Nor is the issue whether Islam and Judaism try to honor Jesus. The issue is: Do Islam and Judaism—or any other faiths besides Christianity—cherish the righteous suffering and death of the God-Man, Jesus Christ, as the only ground of our acceptance with God?
The answer to that question is No. Only Christians base their acceptance with God on the death of a crucified, risen, and reigning person. All other faiths reject the unique saving relevance of Jesus Christ. That is the critical issue of the 21st century: What happened between man and God when Jesus Christ died?
The Offense of Jesus' Passion—Then and Now
It was absolutely astonishing to the Roman world after the death of Jesus that Christians were willing to be tortured for faith in a convicted and crucified criminal. If this were a self-created myth, it was suicidal. In his History of Christian Missions , Stephen Neil wrote, “Christians under the Roman Empire had no legal right to existence, and were liable to the utmost stringency of the law. . . . Every Christian knew that sooner or later he might have to testify to his faith at the cost of his life.” 5 All of this because they believed that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ was the most important event in the history of the world. The foolishness of the claim was almost insurmountable. And the Christians didn't try to water it down.
The modern (sub)version of Christianity that preaches health, wealth, and prosperity is a cut flower, finally to wither in the arid winds of 21 st century suffering. If what you've seen on television is all you know of Christianity, you may never have seen the real thing. If you want to know the true Christ, read the New Testament. Those who market him today with the bait of money and success have severed their roots in the crucified Christ. His way was different: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
The early church knew that crucifixion was not just the experience of her Lord, but also a personal summons to sacrificial love. The fading of Christianity from cultural mainstream Western culture in the last 50 years is a dose of early church normalcy. Cultural Christianity has become a curse. It is time for the wheel of history to turn and the Christian church to discover the implications of her founder's finest hour, namely, his last.
Badru D. Kateregga and David W. Shenk, Islam and Christianity: A Muslim and a Christian in Dialogue (Nairobi: Usima Press, 1980), 141. ↩
Quoted from The Muslim World, in Muslims and Christians on the Emmaus Road, ed. J. Dudley Woodberry (Monrovia, Ca: MARC, 1989), 164. ↩
Sara 4, 157-159, quoted from The Meanings of the Glorious Qur'an, trans. Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall (New Delhi : Kitab Bhavan, n.d.), 91. ↩
Tacitus, Annals, translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, accessed 11-26-03, http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.11.xv.html. Italics added. ↩
Stephen Neill, History of Christian Missions (New York: Penguin, 1964), 43. ↩