Very often when having conversations with Muslims, I find that they strongly object to the idea of Jesus Christ bearing the guilt of sinners, and being punished in their place. Here is a example of one objection:
“You believe your God is [a] vampire that need[s] human blood to forgive sin. But Allah is free from this, whoever [shows] repentance for immoral activity against God’s commandment will be forgiven and will have paradise”
Essentially, the question is, ‘what kind of a God has to kill his Son to forgive sins?‘.
In this article, I speak to honest Muslims, and ask you to consider what the Islamic sources have to say about the concept of substitution before dismissing the Christian Gospel out of hand. I will demonstrate that the Islamic sources not only confirm the concept of substitution, but also cause significant problems for the generally held Islamic beliefs, as shown in the statement above.
I begin with the hadith of Sahih Muslim, where we find Allah offering Christians and Jews as substitutes to bear the guilt of Muslims.
Sahih Muslim 6665—Abu Musa reported that Allah’s Messenger said: When it will be the Day of Resurrection Allah would deliver to every Muslim a Jew or a Christian and say: That is your rescue from Hell-Fire.
Sahih Muslim 6666—Abu Burda reported on the authority of his father that Allah’s Apostle ﷺ said: No Muslim would die but Allah would admit in his stead a Jew or a Christian in Hell-Fire. ‘Umar b. Abd al-‘Aziz took an oath: By One besides Whom there is no god but He, thrice that his father had narrated that to him from Allah’s Messenger
These are problematic enough, raising serious questions about consistency for any Sunni Muslim, but when we look further, we find that substitutes will only be provided for some Muslims, not for all:
Sahih Muslim 6668—Abu Burda reported Allah’s Messenger as saying: There would come people amongst the Muslims on the Day of Resurrection with as heavy sins as a mountain, and Allah would forgive them and He would place in their stead the Jews and the Christians. (As far as I think), Abu Raub said: I do not know as to who is in doubt. Abu Burda said: I narrated it to ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, whereupon he said: Was it your father who narrated it to you from Allah’s Apostle? I said: Yes.
110 Hadith Qudsi-Narrated Abu Musa: Allah’s Messenger said:
Honest Muslims, how are you able to question God in punishing His Son in the stead of others, and not question Allah in punishing Christians and Jews in the stead of others? I urge you to be consistent, not just in the questions you ask, but in the answers you give. Sadly, I often find Muslims using explanations to defend their own sources, and then not accepting the same explanations from Christians explaining the need for the substitutionary death of our Saviour. This is hypocrisy.
Now, when we examine Islamic substitution, we come upon severe problems both moral and scriptural which are beautifully avoided and answered by the Christian Gospel. Let’s take a look:
Consider for example the people who are thrown into hell as substitutes for the Muslims:
- They are unwilling
- They, themselves, are carriers of unforgiven sin.
1. The Willingness of the Substitute
Surely if there is a problem with one person being punished for the sins of others, this problem is compounded if the person being punished is unwilling. There is no mention here of the Jews and Christians volunteering to bear the sins of Muslims and be thrown into hell in their place. By contrast the Gospels teach that Jesus willingly laid down his life to save sinners.
Jesus is recorded saying in the Gospel of John;
“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,
just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” (John 10:14-18)
It is clear from the above quote, that Jesus is the one laying down his own life! And later, in one of his letters, John mentions this self-sacrifice as a great example of love.
‘By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.’ (1 John 3:16)
The Apostle Paul agrees:
‘I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’ (Galatians 2:20)
True, Jesus did submit Himself to His Father when He prayed:
“My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39)
But does this really mean that Jesus was unwilling? The key words are “if it be possible“. Jesus was willingly submitting to the will of His Father. Was Jesus prayer answered? Yes, absolutely. The Father did as He willed, nothing else was possible.
So we see that in contrast to Allah taking unwilling Jews and Christians and placing the sins of Muslims upon them as payment for their sins in hell, Jesus Christ, the Son who is Himself God, willingly laid down His own life, giving Himself for sinners.
Muslim friends, we ask you this question: on what consistent basis will you continue to complain about the justice of the Son of God giving Himself as a sacrifice for sins? He did so willingly, while we have no reason to believe the Jews and Christians do.
2) The Guilt/Innocence of the Substitute
This is a massive internal problem for Islam because the Quran repeatedly states that no bearer of a sin burden can bear that of another (see below), and yet as we have seen the hadith clearly teach the opposite.
Say, “Is it other than Allah I should desire as a lord while He is the Lord of all things? And every soul earns not [blame] except against itself, and no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another. Then to your Lord is your return, and He will inform you concerning thatover which you used to differ.”
‘Whoever is guided is only guided for [the benefit of] his soul. And whoever errs only errs against it. And no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another. And never would We punish until We sent a messenger.’
‘And no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another. And if a heavily laden soul calls [another] to [carry some of] its load, nothing of it will be carried, even if he should be a close relative. You can only warn those who fear their Lord unseen and have established prayer. And whoever purifies himself only purifies himself for [the benefit of] his soul. And to Allah is the [final] destination.’
‘If you disbelieve – indeed, Allah is Free from need of you. And He does not approve for His servants disbelief. And if you are grateful, He approves it for you; and no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another. Then to your Lord is your return, and He will inform you about what you used to do. Indeed, He is Knowing of that within the breasts.’
‘That no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another. And that there is not for man except that [good] for which he strives.’
“The souls will only be recompensed for their deeds, good for good and evil for evil. No person shall carry the burden of another person, a fact that indicates Allah’s perfect justice.” [Ibn Kathir]
So how should a consistent, intellectually honest Muslim resolve this issue?
One option is to reinterpret the Quran, rejecting the interpretations of the most respected scholars. This is the approach usually taken to avoid the teachings of verses such as surah 4:24 which allows rape of married captive women. But if this method is applied consistently to early tafsir this will result in a radical transformation of the mode of Islam followed, for Quranic exegesis is heavily dependent on the biographical and historical material supplied by scholars such as Ibn Kathir, rather than a simple reading of the Quran alone.
A second option would be to reject these hadith instead on the grounds that they contradict the Quran which takes priority over them. I imagine this will be the approach taken by most of the readers of this article. But again, this runs into insurmountable problems when any attempt is made to be consistent. This teaching of the Jews and Christians being substitutes for Muslims in hell is found in multiple, independent Sahih hadith. If hadith that are this well attested are rejected, then those that are less (or equally) well attested should likewise be rejected. So once again if this is done consistently and such hadith are rejected, Islam will be transformed because it regularly relies on such hadith.
In fact some Scholars have said that a person who rejects such hadith is no longer Muslim, for example Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyah said: “Whatever the Messenger (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him) narrates from his Lord, it is obligatory to believe in it, whether we understand its meaning or not, because he is the most truthful one [namely the Prophet (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him)]. Whatever it says in the Qur’an and Sunnah, every believer must believe in it, even if he does not understand its meaning.”
It is difficult to reinterpret the hadiths because they are so explicit. The remaining option is to acknowledge this as a clear contradiction within Islam.
It is interesting however that this contradiction disappears if we accept that Jesus, the sinless Son of God, is the substitute bearing the sin of others. The complete purity and holiness of Jesus Christ is attested to in both Christian and Islamic sources.
The Quran states:
‘He said, “I am only the messenger of your Lord to give you [news of] a pure boy.”‘ (Surah 19:19)
The Hadith also report,
Abu Huraira said, “I heard Allah’s Apostle saying, ‘There is none born among the off-spring of Adam, but Satan touches it. A child therefore, cries loudly at the time of birth because of the touch of Satan, except Mary and her child.” Then Abu Huraira recited: “And I seek refuge with You for her and for her offspring from the outcast Satan” (3.36) (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 55, Number 641; see also Volume 4, Book 54, Number 506)
Sahih Muslim also has 2 other hadith making the same point.
It is a common Muslim belief that all prophets were sinless, however this is contradicted not only by some of the hadith mentioned but also by a vast array of Islamic sources I do not have time to cite here. The astonishing conclusion of this information is that according to the Islamic sources, including the Quran itself, Jesus Christ, in contrast to these Jews and Christians, is qualified to bear the burden of others sin because he had no sin of his own!
On this point the Bible agrees. Peter writes;
‘He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.’ (1 Peter 2:22)
Indeed, Jesus challenged his opponents to point out any sin he had committed;
‘Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me?’ (John 8:46)
Islam leaves the subject here. It teaches that Jews and Christians will bear the sins of Muslims, despite no indication of their willingness to do so and the Quran’s statements that such a thing cannot happen. This results in contradiction and injustice. However there is a glimmer of hope, even according to Islam, for Jesus Christ is able to be a substitute because of his own sinlessness. But there is simply no suggestion in Islam that he ever did such a thing, indeed the standard interpretation of Surah 4:157 is as an explicit denial that the crucifixion of Jesus ever took place.
But what does the Bible say?
The apostle John writes:
‘You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.’ (1 John 3:5)
‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ (2 Corinthians 5:21)
The Bible teaches that the only man who was able to bear the sin burden of others, Jesus the Son of God, actually did so in order that we might have salvation through faith on him. With that, I leave you with the words of the Apostle Paul:
‘In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:19-20)