Those familiar with Islam know that the Christian-Muslim dialogue of last 1,400 years has centered in part on a debate over the historical question, “Did Jesus really die on a cross?” The Qur’an (Surat al-Nisa’ :157) implies he did not, while the Bible ties the gospel directly to Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection (1 Cor. 15:3–5). Since sharing the gospel requires a Christian to speak of Jesus’s death, this point of contention is unavoidable.
Though the historical question of Jesus’s death is undeniably central, when it becomes the center of debate it obscures an underlying theological question: “Why did Jesus die on the cross?” The logic of Jesus’s atoning sacrifice is rooted in the Old Testament book of Leviticus as the author of Hebrews demonstrates.
Indeed, neglecting the Old Testament sacrificial system may lead our Muslim friends to misunderstand our commitment to Jesus’s atoning death in at least three areas.
1. Atonement Has a Different Meaning
The first misunderstanding that arises is linguistic. The Qur’an uses the word kaffāra to describe expiation of sins. However, this word also appears in the Arabic Bible as the translation of the Hebrew word for atonement kipper from which we get Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement. In the Bible, atonement involves a priest functioning as a representative, a substitutionary sacrifice, and blood presented before God as a symbol of life. The result of atonement is forgiveness of sin and cleansing of impurity.
In the Qur’an, however, God is the agent of atonement instead of a priest. Further, God excuses or covers sin in response to human piety, good deeds, or repentance of evil actions. In Islam, there’s no need for a priest or a substitutionary sacrifice to obtain forgiveness or cleansing. Though the word kaffara is used in both holy texts, its meaning is vastly different.
2. The Sacrifice Has a Different Purpose
The Qur’an has a place for sacrifice. Muslims all over the world participate in an annual animal sacrifice in commemoration of Abraham and his son’s willing submission to God (Surat al-Saffat :99–111). While most Muslims view this as a reminder to imitate the faith of Abraham, the Qur’an views sacrifice as a ritual given by God to authenticate each community of faith (Surat al-Hajj :34–67).
For Islam, then, the annual sacrifice is a claim to both precede and supersede Judaism and Christianity. This claim appears in Surat al-‘Imran (3):67, which states that Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but a Muslim. Rather than providing a means of atonement, then, sacrifice serves to identify a Muslim as a member of the Islamic tradition and to establish the Islamic faith as the final dispensation of religion.
3. The Same Characters Tell a Different Story
With such different views on atonement and sacrifice, it’s easy to see why it’s so difficult to explain Jesus’s atoning death and resurrection to a Muslim. Perhaps the biggest reason for this difficulty is that, in Islam, atonement and sacrifice play roles in a wholly different understanding of the story of God’s relationship with creation. Islam is not concerned with telling people how they might restore their relationship with God. Rather, it’s concerned with reminding people how to behave before God.
The Qur’an presents life as a test to see whether people will submit to God, follow his guidance, and remember his ways. God can remain transcendent and aloof because creation can never enter into an intimate relationship with its Creator. The Qur’an prescribes ways to clean oneself and ways to ask for forgiveness for misdeeds. A person will be judged in the last days based on works they have performed in their life. Therefore, for a Muslim, the idea that a man’s execution on a first-century Roman cross would result in a right relationship with God is preposterous and totally disconnected from Islamic ideas of atonement.
Where Do We Start?
These three barriers make it difficult to communicate the Christian understanding of atonement to adherents of Islam. However, the message of the Bible as it pertains to all three issues—atonement, sacrifice, and story—is more satisfying, more unified, and more attractive. In Christianity, God has created in order to share himself with his creation.
The message of the Bible as it pertains to all three issues—atonement, sacrifice, and story—is more satisfying, more unified, and more attractive.
He repeatedly states his purposes in creating a people who will be called by his name and in whose midst he will take up residence. The book of Leviticus (especially chapters 16–17) catalogues the provision God makes so his holy, pure, and righteous presence might reside in the camp of a sinful, impure, and unrighteous people. Conditioned by this Levitical understanding, the author of Hebrews views Jesus as the high priest to which the Levitical priests pointed, and the once-for-all sacrifice that previous sacrifices anticipated.
In light of these three barriers, Hebrews is a perfect starting place to better understand why Christians put such a high value on Jesus’s sacrifice and priestly role. Inviting a Muslim friend to study Hebrews allows the Bible to define atonement and shows the purpose of sacrifice as it pertains to forgiveness and purification. Hebrews tells the story of a God who, long before the incarnation, purposed to dwell among his people.
While the conflict between Christianity and Islam will still remain at the theological level, my prayer is that the Holy Spirit will work through the Scriptures to define atonement and set sacrifice in its proper place within the story of God’s redeeming purposes. That story of redemption is more satisfying than any other story on offer.