To understand Christianity, we must ask why Christians put a brutal act of injustice at the very heart of their faith. In short, it runs contrary to all human sensibilities and never was their idea.
Jews and Muslims both reject the Christian view of Jesus’ crucifixion, but on different grounds. Most Jews view the Messiah as a savior-king who frees his people from their enemies and ushers in an age of peace and prosperity. Since they assume Jesus couldn’t save himself from crucifixion, he appears to them as just one of many failed messiahs.
Muslims, by contrast, believe God would never have let evildoers crucify a great prophet like Jesus. But the early Muslim community couldn’t simply deny Jesus’ crucifixion outright, because everyone in their audience—Christians, Jews, pagans and Mazdaeans—accepted that event as fact. The fix they settled on was to claim that Jesus only seemed to die, while God actually took him to heaven and miraculously made a surrogate—crucified in his place—look like him.
This raises the question, Why would God trick the entire world into believing a lie and then wait six centuries to reveal it? Yet nearly all Muslims assume Q 4:157 provides a scriptural basis for the surrogate theory and see no other way to interpret it. Many then take the spurious Gospel of Barnabas as further proof. As Zamakhshari pointed out, however, the verse’s grammar doesn’t support that theory at all. It rather argues only that the Jews were wrong to think they took Jesus’ life from him. But long before Zamakhshari’s time, the 12th century CE, the Muslim community had closed ranks around the verse’s popular misinterpretation, leaving little room for dissent. And few Muslims now dare to question a Qur’an interpretation so polemically charged.
The Christian viewBiblically, Jesus rarely accepted the title Messiah because he knew his people wanted a Messiah who would save them from their Roman oppressors. He knew that would never do. They needed saving from their own sins too—and not just sinful acts, but also the thoughts and desires that pollute heart and mind. Such sins often lurk behind religious piety. They did in Jesus’ day. Refusing to submit to the Jewish religious leaders, Jesus exposed their sins. So they plotted to kill him.
Evil can eliminate an opponent by violent means. But violence cannot defeat violence—only love can do that. Evil met its match in Jesus, for no amount of violence could defeat his love. His enemies thought they had overpowered him. But he freely laid down his life in obedience to God, resisting evil to the death with his perfect justice, mercy and humility. God then raised him from the dead to show that Jesus had in fact triumphed and to empower his followers to walk in the true path, as he had. Thus, Jesus reestablished God’s rule on earth.
Shattered by the horrors of his cross, Jesus’ disciples were very slow to grasp this. But the risen Messiah gradually opened their eyes to see that what had seemed his crushing defeat was actually a resounding victory. By the time he ascended to heaven, they were convinced he would one day return in power and glory to put away evil and violence forever. This is the meaning of his cross.