Question: “As I debate Christian theology with my Muslim friends, the issue of the cross and the atonement always seems to be a sticking point. From their perspective they ask, ‘Why can’t Allah just unilaterally forgive my sins and cut out the middle man?’ So the question is, ‘Why did Jesus have to die?”
Answer: Muslims use much of the same terminology that appears in the Bible: sin, salvation, heaven, hell, law, and punishment. What is missing from their lexicon, however, is the word “savior.” The Muslim does not believe he needs a savior because he believes he alone must atone for his sin by his works. Islam teaches that man is born sinless and, therefore, does not have a sin nature from which he needs to be saved. His sinlessness was corrupted by external influences and can, therefore, be ‘cleaned up’ by works and efforts that please Allah. The Qur’an tells the Muslim that his good deeds can cancel out his bad deeds (Sura 11:114), but no one knows how many good deeds are enough. Muslims believe they can ask Allah for forgiveness from sins, but Allah may or may not forgive them. There is, therefore, no assurance of salvation for Muslims.
Compared to Christianity, Islam has some similarities, but significant differences. Muslims depend on Islamic faith and works—submission to Allah, belief in Muhammad’s revelation of Allah, obedience to the Qur’an and the Five Pillars—for entrance to paradise. Muslims reject the Trinity—that God has revealed Himself as one in three Persons: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Muslims claim that Jesus was a mere prophet—not God’s Son. While Muslims honor Jesus as a noble prophet, they do not understand why Allah would allow His prophet Isa (the Islamic word for “Jesus”) to die a torturous death.
Here is why Jesus had to die: the Bible speaks of the wickedness of man’s heart (Psalm 14:1-3; Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 3:9-18), the holiness of God (Exodus 15:11; 1 Samuel 2:2; Joshua 24:19; Psalm 93:5), and His hatred for sin (Deuteronomy 25:16; Proverbs 6:16-19). As long as the Muslim believes he can atone for sin himself, the message of the gospel will be foolishness to him. But if he comes to understand that “no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by observing the law” (Romans 3:20), then the door is open for the light of the gospel to shine in his heart.
The Bible reveals that sinful man can never measure up to the holy God (Romans 3:23, 6:23). Only by God’s grace may sinners be saved through repentant faith in Jesus (Acts 20:21; Ephesians 2:8-9). Sin is not just big things like murder or blasphemy but also includes lying, lusting, and stealing. Even the love of money or hatred of enemies is sin, according to the Bible. Good works cannot make up for wrongs against the holy God. Compared to His holiness, “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6).
The Scripture explains Jesus died on the cross to bear sin’s punishment. His death makes it possible for us to be free from both the penalty and the power of sin and to live for God (Rom. 6:2, 13). His substitutionary death satisfies the wrath of God against sin and allows God to “overlook” our sins because they have been paid for by Christ. The Bible shows how the death of Jesus was essential to pay for the penalty our sins (Isaiah 53:5-6). Christ suffered so it would be possible for us to follow His example, both in suffering and in righteous living: “He himself bore our sins in His body so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24).
Jesus said, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). Jesus stressed that salvation, contrary to what many people think, is not obtainable through good works. Only one Way exists (Acts 4:12; 1 Tim. 2:5). Jesus is the only access to the Father (John 1:1-2, 51; 3:13). Remember, the holy God will not let sin go unpunished. If we bore our own sins, we would suffer judgment in the flames of hell. But God sacrificed Jesus as our perfect Substitute. Scripture affirms that the sinless Jesus died on the cross to pay the punishment for believing sinners: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
While some misunderstandings can be cleared with Muslims, the main offense is . . . Jesus Christ! (1 Peter 2:4-8). Islam asserts that Jesus, though born of a virgin, was created like Adam. Many Muslims do not believe Jesus died on the cross. Muslims reject God the Father who sent His Son to die for sinners. Islam does not offer the things Christianity most certainly does: forgiveness for their sins, a loving heavenly Father with whom they can communicate personally, and assurance that eternal happiness awaits them beyond this life.
The Muslim believes he or she must be sorry for sin and repent of it, but the idea that payment for sin is required by a holy God is not part of Islam. It’s important to begin with the idea that being sorry for sin will not help a man when he stands before the holy God on Judgment Day. All men are sinners by nature and by choice. We cannot earn our salvation through good works. We cannot reach paradise on our own merit. Jesus died for sinners to provide the only way to eternal life. Romans 5:6-21 says,
“At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. 12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned… 20 But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, 21 so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
At His death, He cried out, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Jesus finished paying the punishment for sin as the perfect Lamb of God.
Of course, no one comes to the knowledge of the truth solely by good apologetics. The natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit because they are spiritually discerned (2 Corinthians 2:14), and the Holy Spirit is the only one who can open the eyes of the spiritually blind. Therefore, any witnessing efforts should be bathed in prayer that hearts and minds will be opened so that when we speak the truth in love to another person, it may please the Lord to grant him or her salvation through Jesus Christ.