9. The Great Sacrifice

9. The Great Sacrifice

Christ has died, Christ is risen. Christ will come again. When the discussions are exhausted then usually friends who oppose the crucifixion of Christ turn around and ask: "But why do Christians insist that Jesus died?" Such a question is often asked by people who claim to have read the Bible and the Qur’an. The straightforward answer is that Jesus gave his life for the remission of our sins. Christians are puzzled that Muslims do not understand the need for Jesus to be the redeemer. The simple reason is that the Qur’an has not included much information on this subject.

Islam does know the concept of Kaffâra, expiation, but it knows nothing of the atonement capable of overcoming all evil in fulfilling all righteousness. In several places in the Qur’an, the idea of ransom, atonement and redemption is mentioned (Surah 5:45,89,91). The usual word that is used is Kaffâra or Kaffâratun - to pay the price for sin. Muslim translators have always translated it more vaguely than the Arabic demands.

Kaffâra, the promise of God

The promises of God that he would make Kaffâra - atonement - for his people are found in the Bible, and also mentioned several times in the Qur’an, but without any explicit mechanism. The Qur’an says that Allah will atone for evil deeds (Surah 65:5; 29:7; 5:45,65,89 etc.), and implies that the believers’ good deeds have a part to play. But there is no way of knowing if atonement has been made or not.

The popular Islamic interpretation of atonement

The Muslim theologian’s interpretation of atonement is sometimes similar to the thoughts of Judaism. For both personal good deeds play an important part in the matter of atonement. According to one of the Hadith, a disciple of Muhammad said: "A man came to the prophet and said, ‘O prophet of Allah, I have handled a woman from the outskirts of the town and gratified my desire but without intercourse. Here I am. Judge me as you wish."1 At first Muhammad said nothing, and the man rose and went away. Then the prophet called him back and recited to him this verse: ‘Lo! Good deeds annul evil deeds’ (Surah 11:114).

Muslims believe that on the day of judgement, God will set up a balance with an indicator and two weighing pans, on which will be weighed all the deeds of mankind - their good deeds and their evil deeds. He who has more good deeds goes to paradise and he with less goes to Hell. However the traditions of Islam are quite contradictory. On one hand the confession of the Shahada - the creed: "There is no god but Allâh, and I testify that Muhammad is the prophet of Allah," is a passport to salvation. Yet on the other hand even total obedience does not necessarily ensure salvation.

It is said in the Qur’an: "He forgiveth whom He will and punisheth whom He will" (Surah 3:129; 11:118; 14:4; 16:93; 19:71,72). Muslim traditions say that God has already created some for hell and others for paradise. Muhammad is alleged to have said: "God created Adam, then passed His right hand over his back and brought forth from it his offspring, saying, ‘I have created these for paradise and they will do the deeds of those who go to paradise.’ He then passed his hand over his back and brought forth from it his offspring, saying, ‘I have created these for hell and they will do the deeds of those who go to hell.’"2

The biblical view of atonement

In the light of the Bible we see God as generous not capricious. He surely can do whatever he will but he does not. If he is to forgive the sinner there must be a reason for forgiveness, which will also satisfy his justice. Through Moses God instituted the offering of animal sacrifices. He accepted these because they symbolised the sacrifice he was going to provide for the whole of mankind. The Bible insists that God is just and his justice demands the punishment of the sinner. The only way out is either to die eternally, or be reconciled through his atonement.

The practice of sacrifices to cover sin began with the first humans, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and it was God who covered their nakedness - an enacted parable of atonement (Genesis 4:4). Later, God only accepted the sacrifice of Abel and not of Cain. When we look at this story in the Bible and in the Qur’an, we see that Adam’s family must have been taught a particular way to approach God (Genesis 4:4; Surah 5:27-32). People had to realise that they deserved to die for sin. But a ransom (fidyah) or sacrifice made in faith can redeem the sinner. The sacrifice may be seen as a substitute for the sinner.

This pattern is illustrated by Abraham and his son (Genesis 22:1-14). Another example is the Passover lamb. After sending many plagues to Egypt, God said he would kill all the first-born children in that land. However God told Moses to command his people to slaughter a lamb and sprinkle its blood on their door-posts. The angel of God would then pass over every door which had the blood on it and the first-born in that house would be spared. God fulfilled his promise and the first-born of Israel were saved (Exodus 12:1-42).

Atonement and the Law of Moses

In the law of Moses, recorded in the book of Leviticus, God revealed that the way for mankind to approach him is through sacrifice. He said: "Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness" (Hebrew 9:22; Leviticus 17:11). Moses explained the method of sacrifice to the Israelites: the sinner was to take a perfect animal to the door of the temple of God. There he was to put his hands on it, symbolically transferring his sins onto the animal. Next he had to kill it. The priest would sprinkle its blood at the foot of the altar and offer the rest to God on the altar. God would accept the animal’s death in place of the death of the sinner.

Jesus: Zabih-ullah, the sacrifice of God

How can an animal die for a human, when we are of much greater value than any animal? The animal did not take away sin, it was merely a symbol pointing to what was to come. God permitted such a situation until the perfect sacrifice would be offered for all sin. This offering would be for the sin of all the people who had ever lived, or would live. After Moses, many prophets of God came to prophesy about this great sacrifice. One such prophet was Isaiah. He made a very astonishing prophecy which was fulfilled centuries later, in the life and death of Jesus who accomplished God’s purpose (Isaiah 52:12-15, 53:1-12).

John the Baptist, whom Muslims know as Yahya, testified: "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29). Muslims however reject Jesus as the vicarious atonement. Yusaf Ali, a Muslim translator and commentator of the Qur’an says:

We are fully responsible for our acts ourselves: We cannot transfer the consequences to someone else. Nor can anyone vicariously atone for our sins.3

In one way this statement contradicts a passage of the Qur’an, where we see one life being substituted for another. The context is about Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son and though the name of the son is not mentioned, the narrative is similar to the biblical account and it ends with God providing the sacrifice in the place of the boy. Then God is reported to have said regarding Abraham: "We ransomed him with a momentous sacrifice" (Surah 37:99-111).

Usually Muslim commentators tell us that the "momentous sacrifice" was the ram provided by God to be sacrificed in place of Abraham’s son. But would a ram be a ‘momentous sacrifice’ compared to Abraham’s son? Note that it was the son, not Abraham, who was ransomed by the provision of that ram, so the "momentous sacrifice" by which Abraham was to be ransomed must refer to some other utterly essential sacrifice offered by God himself. This raises the question: Was it pointing forward to a great sacrifice in the future?

In the Qur’an these incidents have not been described in detail, but they are comprehensively recorded in the Bible. Here we learn what that sacrifice was, by which God has ransomed not only Abraham, but also all who believe and are faithful like Abraham. Jesus Christ is the one who has been made the sacrifice and ransom for the whole world. Jesus once said, "Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad" (John 8:56). Again speaking of himself he said that he ‘did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many’ (Matthew 20:28).

Jesus is presented as a sacrifice and a ransom in the Torah, the Psalms and also in the books of the Prophets. There we learn that people through the ages were expecting God to redeem them from sin and eternal death through his mighty power. Thus in God’s own time, Jesus arrived to fulfil this mission. He gave himself as a ransom, to die on the cross according to God’s will and then to rise on the third day. Before his ascension he told his disciples:

This is what I told you while I was still with you. Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms (Luke 24:46).

The story of redemption from sin does not finish there. It does not mean merely deliverance from punishment of sin. Jesus has become the mediator. Through him we encounter true recognition of God and are able to establish a true and strong relationship with him.

Notes on Chapter 9:

  1. Mishkat Al-Masabih, Vol. I, p.116.
  2. ibid., Vol. I, p.27.
  3. Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur’an, Text, Translation and Commentary, p.339