Muslims and the Cross: What Do They See?

For Christians the cross is a symbol of deep passion. When we refer to the cross we think of sacrifice, selfless love and saving grace. Now go to the Muslim next door and we will discover that the cross is viewed more as a weapon or distortion of Christianity.

Muslims today view the crucifixion of Christ through the lens of the Quran. In Sura (Chapter) 4:157 it says

“And because of their saying (in boast), “We killed Messiah ‘Îsâ (Jesus), son of Maryam (Mary), the Messenger of Allâh,” – but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but it appeared so to them [the resemblance of ‘Îsâ (Jesus) was put over another man (and they killed that man)], and those who differ therein are full of doubts. They have no (certain) knowledge, they follow nothing but conjecture. For surely; they killed him not [i.e. ‘Îsâ (Jesus), son of Maryam (Mary)”

Most Muslims believe that Jesus was not the one that actually died (one of the most common views is that he was substituted by Judas). There are other verses in the Quran that do suggest Jesus did in fact die (Sura 3:55; 5:117; 19:33).

So why do Muslims believe this? I think it is more than just a theological issue of what the text of the Quran says. It goes much deeper. Very few of us are going to be experts in the Quran in order to defend biblical theology. Yet we must still ask what does this mean for us as followers of Christ? How do we share the transforming message of what the cross means in clear and relevant ways?

Often we overlook the history of the cross in Muslim lands. Greg Livingstone once told me that the biggest problem Muslims have with Christianity is not theological but historical. History tends to interpret theology (especially on the margins).

Joseph Cumming mentions one very dark chapter in Christian history that illuminates why Muslims view the meaning of the cross the way they do:

Perhaps this is not surprising in light of a history in which the Crusades’ exploitation of the cross as religious symbol transformed it from a sign which calls Christians to lay down their lives for others out of love into a sign of Christians’ readiness to kill others for their own selfish ends. (Did Jesus Die on the Cross, Joseph Cumming, page 3)

So do we just go and say “I am sorry” and move on and we continue to study doctrines and apologetics to defend our faith? We can’t rewrite history, but we can ask ourselves, how do we really present Christ? What do Muslims see of the cross in us?

In Colossians 1:24, Paul is talking about filling up sufferings of Christ. It is not a deficient atonement, rather Paul was expressing that for the love of Christ he endured difficulties because he was preaching the gospel and atonement through the cross.  He filled up Christ’s afflictions by experiencing the added sufferings necessary to carry this good news to a lost world.  Is this what Muslims see in us?

I heard Joseph Cumming say, “We can have the best apologetics to prove Jesus loves them, yet if they don’t see in you that love, our words are hallow.  Will we love Muslims and tell them Jesus died for them and they will see that same love in us and believe it?”

Here are some questions to ask in light of living the cross:

Ask ourselves: What do Muslims see in us?  Do we transmit that kind of love and patience?  What would Muslims say about our love?  Many Muslims would say “the Christians hate us?”  What message do they receive from us as Christians?

Ask Muslims: Do you feel loved by Christians?  Do you feel that Christians love you [Muslims] enough to lay down their lives for you?

This goes way beyond just simple apologetics to how do we really live the cross and convey it’s meaning.

Joseph Cumming says: When Muslims object to the Cross, it is because they have never seen anyone live the Cross.

What are we communicating? How does this change our attitudes?

Let’s be biblical in our theology of the cross, but also live the cross in a way that transforms our lives. We need to engage Muslims to talk about the meaning of the cross as core to the gospel. But at the same time we need to remember to allow the cross to change our lives as well. That too is what Muslims will see.  That is foundational in sharing the Good News.

Categories: Christian-Muslim Interaction

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5 replies

  1. Dear Mark,

    Greetings to you and peace be with you. I want to confirm what you wrote in your fourth paragraph. Are you saying that Quran do suggest in some verses that Jesus (Peace be upon him) in fact did die? To be more clear: You are stating that Quran states that Jesus had died?

    Thank you.

    God bless.

    -Faisal Khan

    • Greetings to you and peace be with you as well.

      I agree with Joseph Cumming who yesterday responded on FB. “The three Qur’anic verses Mark quotes do appear to many readers to suggest that Jesus (p) died and rose, but of course the Islamic exegetical tradition (Tafsir) has commented extensively on the meaning of these verses.”

      Thank you for your clarification.

      God bless you too.


  2. But of course the cross is not the only part of the story. Is it possible that lack of clarity among Christians on this matter is also part of the problem??

    Jesus did not just die, He rose victorious over death. And still more, told the first disciples to expect the gift of the Holy Spirit to them all, so that with Paul we can speak of dying and rising with Christ to new life today.

    The cross makes no sense to anyone if it does not lead to new life.


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