Shabir Ally has written a response to my brief comments posted a few days ago here on my blog. I will be replying to him, but I wanted to start out by providing my two written statements from the debate. When I am going first, I will often have a written statement for my opening. I realize that “schmoozing” the audience would get me more brownie points with the postmodernists in the audience, but this is a debate, and the point is to communicate truth with clarity. A written statement allows you to do so. I go “live” in the rebuttal and cross-ex. This time I had a closing statement as well, which was very unusual. But, despite Shabir’s objection to it, the fact is it was exactly on topic, provided a summary of my case, and fit perfectly. I had timed it at 8 minutes of my twelve minute closing statement, so I was able to break out of it a couple of times and expand upon it. Evidently Shabir did not notice when I did this. In any case, here is my opening statement, followed immediately by the closing statement as well.
Just over two years ago I stood in this very room and debated a man identified by many as the leading historical Jesus scholar in the world, John Dominic Crossan. We debated the historical reliability of the Gospels. It is ironic that tonight, in essence, I defend the Gospels again, but in a completely different context. You see, Dr. Crossan does not believe in an afterlife, in judgment, or in miracles. Shabir Ally does. Crossan does not believe God has given special revelation. Shabir Ally along with all faithful Muslims does. While not an atheist, neither is Dr. Crossan a classical theist. He dismisses the vast majority of the biblical accounts as nothing but parables, and all prophecy is nothing but wish fulfillment.
And yet, ironically, if Dr. Crossan were here this evening, he would be…on my side of this debate, at least in reference to the historical reality of Christs death. Despite his great skepticism about all things supernatural, he accepts the historical fact that Jesus of Galilee was crucified at the beginning of the fourth decade of the first century in Jerusalem. He would not view his death as a purposeful one, and would surely not view it as a sacrifice for sin, but even the highly skeptical Dr. Crossan accepts as a historical fact the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
And yet this evening we debate the question, “Was Jesus Christ crucified as a willing sacrifice for the sins of God’s people?” The question has two parts, one historical, one theological. On both there is dispute between Christians and Muslims. The historical question is that of the crucifixion of Jesus the Messiah; the theological question turns upon the Christian insistence that God forgives sin only in and through faith in Jesus Christ due to His giving Himself as a sacrifice for sins, or in the words of Scripture, “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24).
This is a debate involving two men committed to two of the world’s major religions. I am an elder in a Reformed Baptist Church, representing the Christian faith’s historic proclamation that Jesus Christ was the Lamb of God whose death on Calvary’s cross propitiated the wrath of God against all who trust in Christ. Shabir Ally is a believing Muslim, the head of the Islamic Dawa Center in Toronto, and as a believing Muslim, he rejects the idea that Jesus was crucified and died on Calvary’s cross as an atonement for sin. Both of us accept that God is our Creator, and that God has spoken. Even the Qur’an says that Allah “revealed the Torah and the Gospel” “for a guidance to mankind,” so we both believe that at the time of Jesus, God was engaged in supernatural revelation. Neither of us can consistently join Dr. Crossan in viewing all divine revelation with skepticism. So what brings us here tonight to debate?
We are not here this evening due to any lack of clarity on the New Testament’s part regarding our thesis. If we leave aside second century Gnostic sources that have no meaningful historical pedigree in the first century and that suffer from incurable theological precommitments to dualism, resulting in their rejection of Jesus as a true human being, we are left with the unanimous testimony of the Christian Scriptures, the Apostles, disciples, and even the few secular sources that have come down through history, that Jesus died at the hands of Pontius Pilate at the instigation of the Jews around the beginning of the fourth decade of the first century. The gospels, Paul’s epistles, and Luke’s history of the early church, the Acts of the Apostles, all have solid credentials as originating within the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses themselves. In fact, if, as I believe, Luke is providing documentation to be presented in the trial of Paul in Rome, then this puts its date within three decades of the crucifixion. Likewise, if one were to postulate that Mark came before Luke, as surely my opponent this evening does quite often in his talks, this would put Mark no later than twenty or twenty five years after the events of the ministry of Jesus, and perhaps even less. In any case, the New Testament is plain in its affirmation of the historical event of the crucifixion. We will look at its consistent theological teaching in a moment.
While we would hardly expect a great deal of information about an itinerant Jewish rabbi and teacher to find its way into secular historical records of the day, there are two sources outside the New Testament that should be mentioned this evening. The first is found in Josephus (Antiquities XVIII. 63-64), the Jewish historian writing less than half a century after the events of Christ’s ministry. There is much dispute about the text, and many feel portions of it are a later Christian interpolation. But this does not need to detain us, for what is important is that Josephus not only mentions Jesus, but likewise makes reference to Pilate, and to crucifixion. It is highly probable that this portion of the reference is original with Josephus himself.
Likewise, eighty five years after Jesus’ ministry, the Roman historian Tacitus (Annals XV.44) made derogatory reference to the Christian movement, and in doing so likewise notes that the founder had been executed during the reign of Tiberius, and he even mentions the specific name of Pontius Pilate. While some might suggest Tacitus is just reporting what he had heard from Christians, it is significant that if there was any controversy over the fact that Jesus had been executed under Pontius Pilate, there simply is no evidence of it from the first century documents. What we find from every source that has any legitimate claim to coming from the first hundred years after Jesus echoes the words that most scholars, conservative and liberal alike, believe to be some of the earliest in the New Testament:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; 7 then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; 8 and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.
This is the core teaching of the Christian faith, and anyone who wishes to suggest otherwise has a very, very tall challenge ahead of them.
But I doubt Shabir Ally will argue that the New Testament as we possess it today teaches anything other than this very truth. So why are we here this evening? I submit to you that the only reason we are here this evening is because of 40 Arabic words written in a book that can be dated no earlier than 625 years after the ministry of Jesus. These 40 words were written in a different culture, 765 miles away from Jerusalem, over half a millennium removed, without any direct or firsthand connection historically, to the events in Jerusalem. Indeed, these 40 words find no literary connection to the first century at all, for they were written by a man who had no firsthand knowledge of the New Testament, for it had not yet been translated into the Arabic language. I refer, of course, to Surah 4:157 of the Qur’an, which reads,
And because of their saying: “We slew the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, Allah’s messenger (rasool).” They slew him not nor crucified him, but it was made to appear to them, and those who disagree concerning it are in doubt thereof; they have no knowledge thereof save pursuit of a conjecture; they slew him not for certain.
Shabir Ally has admitted, in a debate in 2004, that this text is, in fact, key to his understanding of the issue of the crucifixion of Jesus. I shall, of course, leave it to Shabir to explicate his own views on this text, but for the moment I wish to make sure my assertion here is fully understood. I realize the Muslims in the audience do not believe these to be the words of Muhammad, but that they are the words of Allah. The Muslims in the audience this evening may even be tempted to be offended when I disagree with these words, and in fact assert that these words are false, erroneous, and that they are based upon ignorance of the Scriptural teaching. It cannot be any secret that a Christian who understands Islamic teaching and yet remains a Christian does not believe Muhammad was a prophet. There is nothing to be accomplished in glossing over our differences. May I point out that if Shabir Ally is right, then those I honor as apostles and prophets are actually false teachers and promoters of idolatry. Shabir has made it plain that he blames the Apostle Paul for in essence hi-jacking Jesus (who, according to Muslims, was himself a Muslim), supplanting the original followers of Jesus, and replacing the simple message of Jesus, found today only in the Qur’an, with the false and blasphemous teaching that Jesus is the Son of God and that He died for the sins of the world. We should not minimize the fact that we are asked by our Muslim friends to believe that the New Testament is hopelessly corrupt, the gospel is false, and the worship of Jesus amounts to the unforgivable sin of shirk. If the Muslim is tempted to be offended at the assertion that Muhammad was ignorant of the biblical record, written in a language he could not understand, and that hence he made errors in his teachings, the Christian has significantly more reason to experience temptation to offense at the necessary results of Islamic teachings. But I, for one, did not come here this evening to feign offense at the Islamic denials of my own faith. I am here to lay these issues out on the table and to shine the bright light of truth upon them, a light available only when both sides come to the table and honestly lay out their differences.
I am asserting that the reason Shabir Ally sits here this evening in denial of the thesis is due to these 40 Arabic words, traceable, at their earliest, to the revision done of the Qur’anic texts ordered by Uthman and undertaken by a committee chosen by him sometime after the middle of the seventh century according to the tradition recorded in Al-Bukhari. There truly is no other reason. And what is more, though the Qur’an claims to be a clear book, written in the perspicuous Arabic tongue, the fact is this text is nowhere near clear, let alone perspicuous. Many have pointed out that if it were not for Surah 4:157, the Qur’an’s teachings in such texts as Surah 3:55 and 19:33, where the death of Jesus is mentioned, would be easily understood without prompting very obtuse explanations that require us to believe the text is referring to a future death of Jesus that has not even taken place as yet. What is more, the text as it is written is very unclear, prompting, as Shabir Ally himself has noted, any number of contradictory interpretations by Islamic scholars over the centuries. And what is truly amazing to me is this: when the Qur’an contradicts the Christian teaching of the deity of Christ, it does so repeatedly, and forcefully. We likewise find references to this in the hadith. But when it comes to this one single ayah, these 40 lonely Arabic words that pop into the Qur’an out of nowhere, we likewise cannot find any meaningful commentary on these words in the hadith literature. Think of it. Muslims for two hundred years could not think of any commentary by Muhammad on this ayah. And yet, I, as a Christian, am to believe these 40 Arabic words, written over half a millennium after the Christ event, in a different language from far away are to be taken to be sufficient to overthrow the entirety of the New Testament and the testimony of eye witnesses and martyrs.
But as it is my job to defend the thesis this evening, allow me to read into the record the ancient testimony of the gospels regarding Jesus’ own words about His death. If these words are to be contradicted, I assert the one doing so needs to do more than point out that liberal secular scholars tend to disagree with words that claim to be inspired. That is a given. If we are to believe these words are falsely attributed to Jesus, then I suggest that proof of the dishonesty of the writers needs to be provided; documentary evidence of later tampering with the text must be submitted. Without such evidence, the words of Jesus must stand. And so we start with these words recorded by Mark during the time when the eyewitnesses to these events were alive and well and very active in preaching Jesus message:
Mark 8:31-34And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 And He was stating the matter plainly. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. 33 But turning around and seeing His disciples, He rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind Me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” 34¶ And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.
Likewise in Mark 10:45 we read, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” This New Testament witness to the centrality of the purpose of Christ in the cross is given prophetic authority in the words of the angel recorded in Matthew 1:21, “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins. “The Apostle John often refers to the self-giving of Christ as the means of salvation, but one summary statement that is particularly striking is found in Revelation 5:9-10:
9 And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. 10 “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.”
And Paul’s testimony is ubiquitous on this subject, so I simply read into the record these words from Titus 2:
Titus 2:13-14 13looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, 14 who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds.
Many other texts from Peter, and the writer to the Hebrews, could be included. But we do not need to belabor the point. The evidence of the New Testament on the issue is overwhelming, consistent, and clear.
I would like to remind our Muslim friends this evening of just how strong the evidence is that this was the faith of Isaa the Messiah and His disciples. Keeping in mind that the first one hundred years of history after the death of Muhammad yields almost nothing that bears witness to his life, work, or teachings, and that, to quote Humphreys (1991:80), “Our evidence for documentation prior to 750 A.D. consists almost entirely of rather dubious citations in later compilations,” the Christian evidence for the central teaching of the cross is much more primitive, much closer to the original sources, than almost anything that can be cited for the life and teachings of Muhammad. For example, a scant sixty five years after the crucifixion the elders of the church at Rome wrote to the church at Corinth. This letter is traditionally called 1 Clement, dating around AD 96. Here we read,
AD 96: Because of the love he had for us, Jesus Christ our Lord, in accordance with Gods will, gave his blood for us, and his flesh for our flesh, and his life for our lives. (49)
And in section 7 of the same letter, “Let us fix our eyes on the blood of Christ and understand how precious it is to his Father (7).”
Please note that the earliest Christian writings outside of the New Testament take the message of the crucified Messiah and salvation through His blood as a given. There simply is no evidence that it was a point of contention between the allegedly true followers of Jesus and some Pauline group that has taken over the faith. The only people who were attacking the concept of the crucifixion were doing so because of their connection to Gnosticism, a religion that denied that Jesus had truly been a man and that He had a physical body. It is pretty obvious why people who did not believe Jesus was truly a man, but merely a phantom, would deny the crucifixion, as it is very difficult to crucify spirits. But it is likewise painfully obvious that Jesus was not a gnostic sage wandering the streets of Jerusalem, and surely, the fantasies that developed into the writings of the gnostics over a century after Christ have nothing to do with the historical reality of the preaching of the cross being at the heart of the Christian faith from long before the first gnostic tried to make room for Jesus in his pantheon of emanations from his god.
About 77 years after the crucifixion, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, was traveling to Rome to die as a martyr. In the letters he wrote as he traveled are repetitive references to the cross and the death of Christ. Remember, this documentation is still about seventy years closer to the events of Jesus life than the best documentation that exists for any of the events in Muhammad’s life. Remember, hadith collections like Al-Bukhari date from over two centuries after the death of Muhammad, so Ignatius was three times closer to the sources than Al-Bukhari was. In his epistle to the Smyrneans he wrote,
AD 107: 1. I glorify Jesus Christ, the God who made you so wise, for I observed that you are established in an unshakable faith, having been nailed, as it were, to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ in both body and spirit, and firmly established in love by the blood of Christ, totally convinced with regard to our Lord that he is truly of the family of David with respect to human descent, Son of God with respect to the divine will and power, truly born of a virgin, baptized by John in order that all righteousness might be fulfilled by him, (2) truly nailed in the flesh for us under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrarch (from its fruit we derive our existence, that is, from his divinely blessed suffering), in order that he might raise a banner for the ages through his resurrection for his saints and faithful people, whether among Jews or among Gentiles, in the one body of his church. (Ignatius, Smyrneans 1)
Around the same time Polycarp wrote of the testimony of the cross and said we must pray for the enemies of the cross when he wrote to the Philippians. Interestingly, these enemies were not denying that Jesus died on a cross. No indeed, they were arguing that Jesus was a false Messiah and that Christianity was a hoax, but they were not in any way denying the historical reality of the crucifixion. And so we see that in the first hundred years after the death of Christ, in the Christian Scriptures, in Christian writings, and even in secular writings, the cross is always connected with Jesus.
The next element of our thesis, that Jesus the Messiah gave Himself willingly as the sacrifice for God’s people is again the plain and consistent teaching of the entirety of the New Testament as well as all those followers of Jesus in those early years. Though some misread the inspired text, isolating particular verses from the rest of the Scriptures in an attempt to make it sound otherwise, there can be no question that all of the New Testament, including the Synoptic Gospels, make it plain that Jesus willingly gave Himself upon the cross of Calvary. We have already heard Jesus’ words from Mark and Matthew that it was necessary that the Son of Man suffer and die and rise again the third day. Luke likewise records these truths. It is not an argument to isolate Jesus prayer in the garden of Gethsemane from the rest of the testimony of the Synoptic gospels and claim that Jesus was an unwilling participant in the scheme of the cross. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Indeed, such a theory makes Jesus downright cowardly, for, in the Muslim view, Jesus is merely facing His own death, and many have been the men who have faced death with bravery and courage. The reason Jesus prays to the Father in the Garden has nothing to do with a fear of death: it has everything to do with the sinless Son of God becoming sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. It has everything to do with the wrath of God falling in its full fury upon the willing substitute. This is the only way to understand the prayer of Jesus without accusing Him of cowardice. It also happens to be the only way to read the gospels in a fair and even-handed manner by allowing them to speak for themselves. It is a horrible misreading of His words to miss the real reason for the prayer, but the Muslim is forced to misread the text, since the real reason for the prayer has everything to do with Jesus becoming the substitute for God’s people and taking their sins upon Himself, and this Islam, coming six centuries later, denies.
If Islamic readers of the gospels would apply the same rule of interpretation to the New Testament that they do to the Quran, they would not mistakenly accuse the writers of errors and come to false conclusions about the intentions of Jesus. But many, following after those who do not believe God can speak or reveal His truth, pit one part of the New Testament against another. Hence, the Synoptics are said to present one view, while John presents a contradictory one. But it is far more consistent to allow for harmonization of an ancient text than to assume contradiction. This is true when reading the Quran, and it is true when reading the Bible. So, we read Jesus saying in John 10:18,
18 “No one has taken it away from Me [that is, His life], but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father.”
Surely no believing Muslim can question that if Isaa the Messiah was in fact the Son of God, then He would have this kind of authority, this kind of power. And this is indeed the testimony of the New Testament.
But truly, there isn’t any reason to belabor the point. Indeed, if Surah 4:157 in the Quran is understood as most Muslims today understand it, that God made it appear that Jesus had died upon the cross, then should not all available historical records reflect this? Shouldn’t it be the verdict of history that this happened, since Allah made it appear so? Indeed, if one accepts the idea that Allah in essence deceived the Jews and everyone else at Calvary, then is it not Allah who invented the Christian faith by so doing? Should it really be surprising that all the credible first century sources say Jesus died, if Allah made it to appear so? But it is just here we encounter the real question of the debate today. To believe the Islamic denial of the crucifixion we must accept the following:
First, that the original followers of Jesus were significantly less brave and noble than the followers of Muhammad, for they failed to communicate the truth about who Jesus was. They allowed a usurper like Paul to take over and spread lies about Jesus, resulting in literally hundreds of millions of people committing shirk for two thousand years. This, even though the Quran promises the true followers of Jesus would be victorious over the unbelievers.
Second, we must believe Paul, Mark, Matthew, John, Peter, Luke, and all the other New Testament writers were likewise either deceivers or themselves deceived, for they all taught us to believe Jesus is the Son of God and that He died upon the cross.
Next, Muslims must believe that even though Allah gave the Torah and the Injil, that he did not safeguard them or protect them, but instead allowed them to be corrupted so quickly that we cannot even find them in history itself. One must ask the Muslim, if Allah could not protect those revelations, why believe He has protected the Quran?
And so in closing I come back to the only real reason Christians and Muslims must debate this issue. If you are a Muslim this evening, let me ask you: lets say someone came along in the middle of the thirteenth century claiming to be a prophet who never once read the Quran, though, he claimed his teachings were consistent with it. And lets say this person wrote a single short verse, say, 40 words or so, that said the hijra never took place. It never happened. What’s more, for some reason, this alleged prophet never says another word about it. He never explains it, and none of his followers for another two hundred years seem to know anything about this amazing assertion. Now honestly, how much weight are you going to give such a claim?
Obviously, I am drawing a parallel to help you see the situation as a Christian sees it. The reason we are here this evening is because of Surah 4:157. The evidence for the crucifixion of Jesus is really not in question. What we must question this evening is why anyone would believe that 40 Arabic words, traceable only to the middle of the seventh century, written by someone without firsthand knowledge of the Christian Scriptures, without any meaningful historical connection to the events that took place that day in Jerusalem, and themselves liable to all sorts of different meanings, are sufficient basis upon which to ground a denial of the testimony sealed in blood by the original followers of Jesus. As for me, I see no reason whatsoever to accept these 40 words while rejecting the thousands of historically sound, consistent words of the apostles of my Lord Jesus Christ.
Consider if you will, please, what we are being asked to believe this evening. Mr. Ally believes the original followers of Jesus were overcome by a scheming Jewish rabbi by the name of Saul, who, evidently, made up a story about seeing Jesus on the road to Damascus. Having fooled the original disciples, he somehow managed to build a world religion out of preaching about a Jewish Messiah who underwent the most humiliating form of execution at the hands of the Romans. This message he admitted was scandalous to Jews and foolish to Gentiles, but this was his plan. He suffered imprisonment and stoning and rejection by his own countrymen, all to promote this false view of Jesus and this new, greatly popular religion, that seemed to primarily attract slaves and the lowest echelons of Roman society. In fact, to make this new religion even more attractive, Saul managed to get on the wrong side of the Roman Empire, and get his new religion outlawed. Imagine as well that this Saul is so crafty, so brilliant, that he either finds a way to silence the true followers of the real Jesus, who was nothing but a prophet and who did not die on a cross, or he even deceives them! But somehow, even while the original eyewitnesses were still alive to contradict him, this man Saul of Tarsus managed to make sure that every meaningful piece of literary documentation that would come out of the first hundred years after the life of Jesus would parrot his own story, his own version of events, and all of this despite the fact that the Quran says that Allah would set those who follow Isaa above those who disbelieve until the day of resurrection! This is the first thing we are being asked to believe this evening.
Next, we are to believe that 40 Arabic words that cannot be traced any earlier than the middle of the seventh century, written by a man who did not know Hebrew, did not know Greek, and never read a word of the Bible in his own language, are sufficient ground upon which to overthrow all of the documentary evidence that preceded those 40 words by over half a millennium. Those words have spawned innumerable interpretations, because they are simply not clear in what they are saying. They could in fact be interpreted to simply mean that Jesus was not crucified bythe Jews, but by the Romans, so that the Jews had no ground of boasting. The traditional way in which they have been interpreted forces Muslims to read other texts, like Surah 3:55 and 19:33 in the most unusual and forced ways. And yet those 40 Arabic words comprise the only reason Muslims reject the crucifixion of Jesus. This is the second thing we are being asked to believe tonight.
In reference to the first claim, it is painfully obvious that while attacking the Apostle Paul as a deceiver is a popular sport today amongst unbelieving critical scholarship as well as amongst Islamic apologists, these attacks all share one thing in common: a settled bias against the historic Christian faith. It is not a fair or impartial examination of the texts that leads to the anti-Pauline prejudice, but instead a desire to sow discord in the very text of the New Testament itself. But since there is nothing but speculation upon which to stand, requiring mind-reading on the part of modern readers and the imputation of all sorts of nefarious intentions to men long dead and hence unable to defend themselves, and since there is a perfectly sound and fair reading of the New Testament that does not require such radical prejudice and anti-Pauline conclusions, we can conclude that the real reason Paul suffered for the gospel is because he truly believed it, and gave his life for it. The reason he did not present a more friendly, comfy view of Jesus, one without such difficulties as the crucifixion, is because he had no right to change the reality of the situation. He had to preach that Jesus died for our sins, was buried, and rose again, simply because that is what happened, and that is what was being preached by all the other apostles as well. This was the apostolic message, this was what the eyewitnesses attested to, and Paul preached the very same message.
In reference to the second idea, I have already asked our Muslim friends tonight to consider well why a Christian finds Surah 4:157 simply unbelievable. It is unclear in its original language. It is ambiguous as to its meaning. It contains an assertion that is not explained by the Quran. We have a rule of interpretation that says you do not build any doctrine upon a single verse, and Surah 4:157 is a glowing example of why we have this rule, since no one can truly claim to understand it fully. Its author never seemingly said a word about it, or, if he did, nobody for two centuries thought it worthy of remembering. It has not the slightest connection with history,and given that it seems very clear its author did not understand what was found in the New Testament, how can we be expected to accept these confusing words from over six centuries, at the earliest, after Christ as the final word? Remember, my Muslim friends, that in the tradition found in Al-Bukhari that certain ayahs of the Quran were found with only a single qurra, in the memory of a single person, such as Surah 33:23. Was Surah 4:157 likewise found in the memory of a single frail, fallible human being? We have no way of knowing, and since even when you accept the tradition concerning the Uthmanic revision, we cannot go earlier than Uthman, due to his destroying the materials from which the revision was derived, we are truly left with nothing but these 40 unverifiable Arabic words as the sole foundation upon which to accept the Islamic claim.
This evening I stand before you by the grace of God as one who chooses not to reject the testimony of apostles, saints, and martyrs. I do not believe Paul was a deceiver who hi-jacked the Christian faith. I do not believe Peter and James and John were over-come by him. The eyewitnesses to the events did not fail to deliver the message of Jesus plain and clear, and this is why the first century documents are united in presenting as a historical reality the crucifixion of Jesus Christ as the willing sacrifice for the sins of God’s people. It is not because God deceived anyone by making it appear that Jesus was crucified. God did not start Christianity by mistake. It is far more reasonable to conclude quite simply that the author of those 40 Arabic words was ignorant of the truth. Period.
Allow me to close by joining one of the earliest confessions recorded in the Christian faith. Pauls letter to the churches in Galatia came certainly no more than twenty five years, or maybe less, after the crucifixion. He writes to churches where there is great conflict about what a person must do to be saved. But Paul can argue that amongst those churches Jesus had been publicly portrayed as crucified, which means that at the very time of the preaching of the gospel to them, the crucifixion had been central to the message they received. All sides agreed on the fact that Jesus had died upon that cross, and had risen again the third day. And it is in this context that the Apostle can make a statement that is surely jarring in the ears of any Muslims here this evening, but, by the grace of God, is the heart-felt confession of every believer in Isaa the Messiah tonight. He saw that the cross was the very central means by which the triune God was glorifying Himself. Before the first star shone in the heavens, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit had covenanted together to bring about the redemption of a particular people through the voluntary self-giving of the Son in their place. The union of those people to Christ means that His death becomes their death, His resurrection their resurrection. He takes their sin, they receive His righteousness, His life. So close, then, is the union of Christ with His people, that Paul can utter words that are the very essence of life to all who sit here this evening in His service, all who name Him as Lord, as Savior, as King. He wrote,
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the [life] which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.
I have been crucified with Christ. So personal, so real, is my union with my Savior, that this is my confession tonight. He died in history, in reality, in fact, so that I, and all who bow the knee to Him, may have eternal life. This is the gospel, this is the Christian message, and to it I say with all my fellow heirs of grace, Amen, and amen.