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Cross, Sin, Redemption

I. Muslim Questions

 

  • How can the eternal God suffer and die on a cross? How can God abandon so great a prophet as Jesus to his enemies? How can the Father sacrifice his Son on the cross? This is all simply blasphemy.
  • The death of an innocent and righteous person can neither wipe away the sins of another person nor can it redeem another person from his or her sins. For an innocent person to die in the place of a guilty person is an outrageous injustice.
  • For God to forgive sins there is absolutely no need for the sacrifice of which Christianity speaks. God is almighty and forgives all people their sins, requiring only that they repent, or even just that they remain constant in their faith as Muslims. God is kind; he is not an unmerciful judge.
  • Why must all people bear the consequences of Adams sin and so be considered guilty? How can a newborn child be a sinner since he or she is unable to commit any sins? Isnt each individual responsible for his or her own actions?
  • Human nature is not radically evil. Why is Christianity so pessimistic?
  • Do contemporary Christian theologians refuse to accept the view that the whole Jewish people has been rejected by God because of its involvement in the violent death of Jesus?

 

II. Muslim Perspectives

 

General

 

Everyone is responsible for his or her own deeds and will be rewarded or punished for them individually. It is absurd and utterly unintelligible to hold that children are burdened with the sins of their fathers or that someone ought to atone for the sins of others.

 

Christians overstate the gravity of human sin. Sin is to be understood chiefly as the breaking of moral and social conventions (infringing on that which is beyond the bounds or haram) or in the worst case the breaking of the Law given by God (Sharia). Sin does not constitute an assault on God himself, who is too great and exalted to be able to be harmed by the sins of those whom he has created. In his omnipotence and goodness, his sovereignty and generosity, it is easy for God to forgive. One can therefore be reckoned a good Muslim even without always obeying the Law in every respect. The only unforgivable sins are idolatry (shirk) and apostasy (irtid'd), the rejection of Islam by a Muslim.

 

The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation is scandalous in itself; Christian claims about the Crucifixion go even further, with the idea of a God who becomes a human being and dies as one who has been cursed. The crucifixion of Christ is explicitly denied and indignantly rejected by the Quran.

 

The cross has also had disastrous effects in history. It has served as the symbol of ventures which can scarcely be regarded as witnessing to Christian love: the crusades, which in both Western languages and Arabic are linked to the word cross (sal?b, al-hur?b al-sal?biyya – wars under the banner of the cross); and Western colonialism, in which political power and Christianity have been closely entangled together. Even today, discussions of the tensions between the Islamic world and the West make frequent use of the symbols of cross and crescent.

 

Despite all this, even today Christians continue to adhere to their belief in the saving significance of the cross. Catechisms and devotional writings still declare: Christ atoned for our sins . . . . In the face of divine righteousness, Christ made satisfaction for our sins . . . . Through the sins of Adam and Eve we all became guilty.

 

Detailed

 

1. Humanity and Sin

 

The Quran closely parallels the biblical account of the sin of Adam (Quran 2:30-38; 7:19-27; 20:117-123). God commands Adam and his wife (not named as Eve in the Quran) not to eat from the tree of life but they sin by rejecting Gods command. However, it is important to stress that in the Quran Adam repents and God forgives him. Adam is thus able to become the first of the line of sinless prophets.

 

Adams sin has consequences for his descendants. They are shut out of Paradise; they are subjected to Satans temptations; their common life is filled with strife. In other verses, however, the Quran vehemently protests against any idea of collective responsibility. The phrase is often repeated: No bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another . . . (6:164; 7:28; 17:15; 35:18; 39:7). The fact that our fathers have sinned cannot excuse our own transgression. Everyone is challenged to be conscious of his or her individual responsibility. The Last Judgement will be on a strictly individual basis; everyone will be called to account on that day. (See 52:21; 53:38; 56:4-11; 82:19 and especially 99:7-8: Then anyone who has done an atoms weight of good shall see it. And anyone who has done an atoms weight of evil shall see it.)

 

Nevertheless, the Quran does also acknowledge that human beings incline towards evil by their very nature. When the Quran refers to human beings in general (al-ins?n) it nearly always asserts that they are rebellious (?sin), ungrateful/unbelieving (the dual meanings of k?fir), violent, impatient, quarrelsome and untrustworthy (2:75; 3:72; 5:61; 6:43; 7:94-5; 14:34; 17:11,67,100; 18:54-5; 21:37; 33:72; 48:26). They shed blood and cause mischief (2:30) from the first shedding of blood, the murder of one son of Adam by another (5:27-32), up to the killing of the prophets by the Children of Israel (2:61; 3:21,112,181,183; 4:155; 5:70). The Quran speaks of the soul as certainly prone to evil (12:53).

 

Furthermore, the Quran refers to the solidarity of all human beings in sin as well as in good deeds. The wicked bring forth godlessness, those who are lost seek to direct others into error (2:109; 3:69,98,110; 5:49) and they act together against God (5:78; 8:73; 21:54). In contrast, believers show solidarity by encouraging each other to do good (4:114; 9:71; 60:10).

 

As regards intercession (shaf?a), Muslim theologians hold that the Quran teaches that every prophet will offer intercession for his own people (24:62; cf. 3:159; 4:54; 8:33). Muhammad in particular will intercede for his followers, the Muslims, in response to the prayers of believers, and of course only ever with Gods permission (2:255; 10:3; 19:67). Among Sufis there is a notable tendency to multiply intercessors (wal?, pl. awliy? – saints, friends of God), but at the risk of encouraging superstition and incurring the disapproval of the theologians.

 

2. The Cross

 

The Quran explicitly denies the death of Jesus on the cross: They [the Jews] did not kill him, neither did they crucify him, but so it was made to appear to them [shubbiha lahum]. (4:157; cf. 3:55).

 

The usual interpretation by the Quranic commentators of the phrase shubbiha lahum takes it as meaning that somebody was substituted for Jesus and was crucified in his place. Among the various substitutes suggested by the Hadith and the Quranic commentators we find the leader of the Romans, Simon of Cyrene, Peter and Judas Iscariot. In the Islamic tradition taken as a whole there is no doubt that Jesus was not crucified; rather God, protecting Jesus from his enemies, took him away beyond their reach and raised Jesus up to himself in heaven. Jesus will come again at the end of time to proclaim the imminent arrival of the Last Day.

 

It is important to understand why the Quran and Islam deny an event which is otherwise reckoned as a certain historical fact. More than the influence of Docetic or Gnostic tendencies, it is the distinctive monotheism of the Quran itself which leads to the conclusion that Jesus did not die on the cross. Many of the stories in the Quran which deal with the line of prophets are cast in one and the same form: the prophet is sent to his nation but is rejected by all except a small number; the people seek to kill him but he is miraculously saved by God, because God cannot surrender his own envoy to his enemies. It should be acknowledged that in the Medinan period the Quran does criticize the Children of Israel, the forefathers of the Jews of Medina, for having killed the prophets sent to them, but these are a few brief references while the dominant pattern in the Quran is of prophets delivered by God from the hands of their enemies, vindicated over against unbelievers. The story of Jesus follows exactly this pattern.

 

3. The Forgiveness of Sins

 

The Quran often presents God as abundantly forgiving. The sinners repentance and Gods forgiveness are closely linked; indeed, Gods forgiveness even goes before human repentance and is its cause (9:118). Muslim theologians teach that repentance wipes sins away: this happens almost automatically according to the Mu?tazilites, but only if God wills in the view of the Ash?arites, who paradoxically go on to say that human repentance and divine forgiveness are strictly unrelated. If a person repents, his or her sins are wiped away; but even if he or she does not repent, God can still forgive. In any case, Ash?arite doctrine holds that whoever maintains in his or her heart an atom of [Muslim] faith will enter Paradise. In contrast, the Quran and modern Islamic theologians insist on the importance of good deeds.

 

III. Christian Perspectives

 

1. Original Sin

 

Most contemporary Christian biblical scholars and theologians agree on the meaning of Genesis 3 and Romans 5:12-21. These texts do not present a scholarly account of the origins of the human race and of the stages of human evolution, but rather, through symbolic narrative, they express convictions which arise through general observation of evil and sin in the world.

 

As long as human beings have been on the earth – however one might explain their origins – sin has been present: individual and corporate selfishness; murderous conflicts; rebellion against God and his commandments; idolatry. All people experience in themselves the struggle between the good which they would like to do and the evil which attracts them (Romans 7:21-25). This attractive power of evil is at work right at the heart of our humanity. From birth onwards, it is present in every child. The instinctive experience of the human race is not only of being in harmony and friendship with God but also of inheriting a nature moulded by a long history of good and evil and especially by a network of personal guilt. This all undermines the possibility of understanding and unity both among human beings and between them and God. This whole situation is summarized in the biblical expression the sin of the world (John 1:29). So Paul comes to the conclusion: every person, whether Jew or Gentile, is dependent on the forgiving grace of God which has been revealed in Jesus Christ (cf. Romans 3:21-25; Ephesians 2:8-9). In baptism, believers place themselves under the lordship of Christ, and in him the power of sin is broken; the thinking here is of sin as a milieu, environment or dominating power, not as individual, personal acts.

 

The language of original sin therefore does not refer to a personal sin which would make every human being guilty from birth onwards. Neither in the Bible nor in the official teaching of the Church is there anything that allows us to speak of the transmission of personal guilt. The prophet Ezekiel (chapter 18) protests vehemently against this idea, which is also rejected by Jesus (Matthew 16:27; John 9:2-3).

 

2. Cross and Redemption

 

Belief in redemption through the cross has in reality led to some questionable ways of thinking and some unhealthy forms of religious practice: whether a kind of spiritual glorification of suffering (Dolorismus) which at times leads to masochism; or the ideal of a passive obedience; or a mentality which seeks to make calculations about divine justice; or the demand for reparation through voluntary suffering of punishment in place of others; and so on. One could even add to this category the way in which some contemporary revolutionary leaders praise the ultimate sacrifice of a persons life in the holy struggle for justice and liberation. It is therefore appropriate to call to mind some basic Christian truths.

 

2.1 The cross as the consequence of Jesus life

 

The life of Jesus is itself liberating and redemptive. He displayed inner freedom towards the practice in his day of the religious Law, which had in part been interpreted contrary to the original will of God and so laid unnecessary burdens on people (cf. Matthew 11:28; 23:4; Luke 11:46). This approach, along with the faithfulness with which Jesus revealed the true face of God as a father who loves all people without preconditions, brought upon him the hostility of the leaders of his people. Collaborating with those who had become disillusioned with Jesus, these leaders condemned him to death. They handed him over to the power of the Romans, who killed him in accordance with their laws, employing the traditional, cruel punishment of crucifixion. The violent death of Jesus was the inevitable consequence of all that he had set in motion in his life.

 

The death of Jesus on the cross seemed to his opponents to pass definitive judgement on him: his claims could not have had any genuine base in reality, because otherwise he ought not to have been abandoned to die by God and the whole world. The disciples, who had believed that in Jesus God himself had been present and active and Gods kingdom had come near, appeared to have been deceived. What Jesus had taught about God must have been wrong.

 

If the disciples do not remain in this state of disillusionment but again confess Jesus to be the one who reveals God, this must rest on the fact that their eyes have been opened and they see Jesus, the Crucified One, in a new way and are therefore able to encounter him in a new way.

 

The death of Jesus on the cross must therefore not be regarded as indicating that he was wrong to proclaim God as unconditional love and to behave accordingly. As Erhard Kunz SJ has written:

 

The death of Jesus can also be understood precisely as an intrinsic and profound consequence of this very love, so that Jesus fundamental vision is not disproved by the cross but rather is validated by it. For whoever loves and is good to another person, without demanding preconditions as to how that love and goodness should be demonstrated, will stay by the other persons side, regardless of changing circumstances, showing devotion to the other even when – particularly when – the other is in danger. Whoever loves in the way of Jesus does not shun suffering and hold back from it but rather shares in it, showing compassion, the literal meaning of which is to suffer with. In a dangerous and needy world love leads us into suffering (cf. Luke 10:30-37). So love as Jesus understood it does not separate itself off from those who have fallen into evil. It bears the evil and seeks to overcome it through good. By enduring injustice and violence without becoming embittered, such love breaks the vicious circle based on the principle of retaliation (An eye for an eye!). Faced by the kind of love that does not strike back when it is struck, evil comes to a standstill. Love thus conquers evil. In an evil world love therefore leads to the suffering of unjust violence, and in the most extreme case to the suffering of an unjust death (cf. Matthew 5:38-48).

If Jesus wishes to bear convincing witness to God as unconditional and boundless love in a suffering and evil world, then he cannot avoid enduring unjust violence. So the encounter with danger and violence does not undermine Jesus fundamental vision but on the contrary is the way in which, in our world, unconditional love must generally take effect. The good towards which love aspires can only be attained in our world through compassion and through the suffering which overcomes evil. Only when the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies can it bear fruit (John 12:24). From this perspective the death of Jesus on the cross appears not as a fatal end, revealing all that had gone before to be mere illusion, but as the necessary fulfilment of the ministry of Jesus. In his suffering and death Jesus loves to the utmost extent (John 13:1).8

 

2.2. The redemptive significance of the death of Jesus in the light of the Resurrection

 

By raising Jesus from the dead, God confirms the inner meaning which he had given to Jesus life and death. By raising him from death to life God makes Jesus present to the lives of all people of all times. The significance of the life and death of Jesus are therefore made present to us and effective among us as something contemporary. Because Jesus as the Risen One is alive and present in God, he is able today, just as in his life before the Resurrection, to communicate to people Gods forgiving love. As the Risen One he has the power to liberate from sin and death. Consequently every person is redeemed insofar as he or she chooses, wittingly or unwittingly, to enter into the life of Jesus: i.e. with and in Jesus to live out the same faithfulness to the truth that comes from God; to love the brothers and sisters to the point of laying down ones life; and to extend unconditional forgiveness to opponents and enemies. Thus the chain of hatred, whose power binds both wrongdoers and their victims, is broken. In brief: through the Resurrection of Jesus God makes love triumph over hatred.

 

Jesus is Lord, Saviour and Redeemer through his Resurrection, which transforms his exemplary life and his death into a power which can liberate from the chains of sin and death, and makes it possible for people to enter into the life of the Son of God.

 

We can therefore say with Scripture: Jesus dies not only for the sake of our sins, i.e. as the victim of and sacrifice for the misunderstandings, the selfishness and the hatred that are so universally present and are always with us, but also for us sinners, i.e. to open up for us the way to liberation from our sins and to give us the strength and grace to attain this liberation.

 

2.3 Early Christian reflection on the life and death of Jesus

 

The disciples of Jesus, both women and men, were utterly astonished by the Resurrection. After they had been convinced of the decisive failure and destruction of this prophet, they were overpowered by the experience of the presence of the risen Jesus in the Holy Spirit. They now proclaimed him as Lord and Redeemer. It was quite natural that they should seek an explanation of his scandalous death and that they should be helped in this by the patterns of biblical thought available to them: for example, the theme of the great witness or martyr, who in his free and total self-dedication attests to his faithfulness to the mission given to him by the Father (John 10:18; 18:37; cf. Revelation 1:5; 3:14); the theme of the suffering servant who dies for the sins of his people (Isaiah 50:5-8; 53:1-12); the theme of the Redeemer, Yahweh himself, the g??l, who redeems his people by liberating them from slavery in Egypt and purchasing or ransoming them as his people (Exodus 6:6-8; cf. 2 Samuel 7:23f.; Jeremiah 31:32); and finally the theme of the perfect sacrifice, who offers himself and so takes the place of the animal sacrifices previously offered (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12,26,28; 10:10; 12-14; cf. Romans 6:10; 1 Peter 3:18).

 

This effort by the early Christians to make the death of Jesus intelligible in the light of his Resurrection permeated the different writings of the New Testament. The vocabulary of the Christian tradition developed out of this process of reflection, from Hebrew to Greek, Latin and other languages and their respective cultures: martyrdom, deliverance, redemption, atonement, sacrifice, reparation, substitution.

 

2.4 Theologies of redemption

 

Building on this vocabulary, and also partially detaching it from its biblical roots, theologies of redemption have made use of the cultural contexts of their times, with particular attention paid to the judicial categories so dear to the Latin West. This process has given rise to the following theories, among others:

 

(i) The punishment theory (the Latin Fathers, Augustine (354-430)). Sin demands a punishment equivalent to the offence. Christ takes the punishment upon himself and redeems us by settling the debt owing to the divine justice. Some Fathers go so far as to say that Christ paid the debt to the devil, who had taken possession of the human race.

(ii) The theological theories of substitution or satisfaction (Tertullian c. 160–c. 220; Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109). Sin is transgression against God. Since God is infinite, transgression against him demands infinite reparation, which finite human beings are not in a position to offer. In his love God therefore provides an intermediary by substituting his own Son for human beings. The Son can thus satisfy the divine justice.

(iii) Leading mediaeval theologians, particularly Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), expounded the loving purposes contained within the work of redemption. God could have forgiven our sins directly, but to forgive so simply would have indicated that he ascribed little worth to the human race created by him in his image and as his steward (khal?fa) on earth. God wanted human beings to partake in his saving and forgiving action, first of all in Christ, who is truly human, and secondly – through and in Christ – in every human being. By being supernaturally raised up into the life of Christ through pure grace, every human being is able to co-operate in the perfecting of his or her redemption, living and dying in willing submission to God after the pattern of the willing submission of Christ. Such a Christ-like life will be marked by faith, repentance and obedience to the voice of conscience.

 

From these and other theologies we ought to hold on to the effort to convey: the weighty character of the process of redemption (Punishment theory); the fact that Christ took upon himself a sinful humanity and accepted its consequences (Substitution); the participation of human beings in their own redemption (Merit); Christs voluntary laying down of his life (Sacrifice). We can, however, dispense with the judicial frames of reference of these theories. But above all we should not separate the death of Jesus on the cross from his life and Resurrection.

 

IV. Christian Responses

 

Original sin is not personal sin or guilt inherited from Adam. Original sin refers to the general environment which prevails because of the sins in the world, an environment to which every human being is subject from birth onwards. Sin itself is a personal act for which everybody is individually responsible. We can ignore neither the inclination to evil within ourselves, nor the bad influences which can tempt us in the direction of evil. There are also social outworkings of sin, increasing the power of evil in the world.

 

The death of Jesus on the cross is a historical fact which there are no good reasons for denying. I believe, however, that I can understand the reasons which cause the Quran to deny it. The Quran denies the death of Jesus on the cross in order to make clear Gods gracious providence for those who are his own. It is therefore important to explain that according to the Christian faith God did not abandon Jesus on the cross but raised him from the dead and transformed his death into glory.

 

Furthermore, it is not the case that God delivers Jesus to death as if performing a dramatic script written beforehand, in which all participants simply play their roles like puppets. Jesus was condemned to death by human beings because of the attitude displayed in his life towards God and the Law. He was the victim of evil powers: hatred, injustice, envy, self-interest – powers which still mould this world.

 

The 2nd Vatican Council (1962-1965) stated emphatically that the sins of all people were ultimately responsible for the death of Jesus. The Council refused to assign responsibility for the rejection and killing of Jesus to the descendants of the Jews of the time of Jesus or indeed to all Jewish people, past and present.9

 

Redemption is not the appeasement of a vengeful God who, in order to restore his lost honour, demands the sacrifice of an innocent person to bring about atonement on behalf of those who are guilty. Redemption is about the powerful revelation of the forgiving and compassionate love of God in the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus, who, by laying down his life for those whom he loves, gives to human beings the gift of fellowship with God and enables them to live lives empowered by love.

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Translator: Revd. Dr. David Marshall

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