How I came to believe that Jesus really did die on the cross
and why it matters
My personal story starts back in Russia, the country where I was born and raised until my early adulthood. Although I am a Russian citizen, I grew up in a culturally Muslim family. My native language belongs to a group of Turkic languages, and my nation has a rich heritage. Islamic roots of my people are a big part of that heritage. My nation accepted Islam in the 10th century. Although for the last several hundred years we have been part of Russia, we have not lost our national identity, and are still remain very proud of our rich heritage.
When I was growing up, communism was still strong in Russia, and Islam was not openly practiced or even talked about. The only Muslim practices that I was really aware of were abstinence from pork that my family observed, and the fact that my grandmothers regularly performed their daily prayers. Because of this, in the early years of my upbringing I never associated myself with Islam. Instead, I considered myself a strong atheist and I believed that God did not exist. I still remember that when I was about 7 or 8 years old, I tried to disrupt prayers of my grandmothers, because I thought what they were doing was ridiculous and foolish.
Things changed as I got a little older. The first thing that made me start thinking about the existence of God was the fear of death. I was around 11 or 12 years old when I first realized that I was going to die. Lying in bed at night in fear of dying, I felt that there had to be life after death, and I slowly came to believe that God probably did exist. However, I stopped there, and continued to live my life as a pagan. At that time, I arrogantly thought that God would let me live forever, just because I acknowledged his existence.
As I grew older, around the time I graduated from high school, I actually started getting interested in my Muslim heritage. I read a couple of books about Islam, which explained its basic precepts. Naturally, since I grew up in a culturally Muslim family, I started calling myself a Muslim. However, I did not really experience many changes in my life as a result of that. It is interesting to mention that at the same time I was also exposed to Christianity through readings of Russian literature, as well as a friend of mine who gave me a Bible. But the thought of becoming a Christian never even came to my mind. In fact, when my friend gave me the New Testament in Russian, I read through it and thought it was an interesting piece of literature, but nothing more. I don’t think I even understood what its main message was. And I did not really care.
After entering a university, I studied there for about two years. This is the time when my life took a big change. Since my early years, I always gravitated toward science. Mathematics, Physics, Computer Science, Chemistry – those were my favorite subjects that I always enjoyed. I have also been dreaming about coming to the United States to pursue a graduate degree in Physics – because that was my passion. In the winter of my sophomore year, I applied for a scholarship to come to the US, and amazingly enough – I got accepted. For me, it was a miracle. In the Fall of 1993, I started my studies in the United States.
Separated from my family and everyone I knew, I had more time to think about my own identity. Interestingly enough, my roommate was a Christian. One day he asked me what religion I followed, and I told him I was a Muslim. He asked me what I believed in, and I told him some of the things I knew about Islam. However, I felt uneasy about my lack of knowledge about Muslim faith. At the same time, I knew some of rules of how I should have been living my life, and he convicted me of not living my life according to how I believed God commanded me to. Through the year, as I continued thinking about my identity, I experienced a strong desire to reconcile my life with what I claimed to be. I had a strong desire to learn about Islam and practice my religion.
One day in the Summer of 1994, as I was walking through campus, I saw an announcement about a class on Islam. This class was being offered by the Muslim Student Association at my school, and I was really excited that I could learn more about my religion. I went to this class and I really liked what I heard. After the class, I spoke with one of the guys who was a director of the MSA, and asked him what I should do to be a real Muslim. He explained to me the basics about Salat, reading the Qur’an, Friday prayers, and I was really excited about all of the things I heard. I finally could not only claim to be a Muslim, but could also practice it in my daily life. I started learning more and more about Islam, being part of Muslim community, and trying to live my life in submission to God.
That summer, when I went home for a month to visit my family, they were very pleasantly surprised to see the transformation that had occurred in my life. For as long as anyone remembered, no male in our entire extended family has ever performed Salat, or even attended Friday prayers. As time went on, I put significant efforts into learning about Islam and growing in my faith. I regularly performed my Salat, read a translation of Qur’an every day, got actively involved in a Muslim Student Association (MSA), Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) and a local Muslim community. I was very excited to be a Muslim. It was a way of life for me.
I was also very excited to tell others about Islam. Sharing Islam with others had become one of my top priorities. I did regular Da’wah outreach with ICNA and MSA, and talked about Islam with my friends. Some of the people I was sharing faith with were Christians. I was obviously convinced that they were wrong, because they did not believe that Muhammad was the prophet. Worst of all, they believed that Jesus was the Son of God. At that time, I thought that belief in Trinity was what Christianity was all about. I believed that all Christians were committing "shirk", the worst and most unforgivable sin – and I really desired for them to come to know the truth. In my arguments with Christians, they asked a lot of interesting questions. To answer them, I spoke with other knowledgeable Muslims, read Muslim materials, communicated on the mailing lists dedicated to Islam, listened to debates of people like Ahmed Deedat, and Jamal Badawi. In most cases, I could answer their questions without much difficulty, and I could very often ask Christians questions that they could not answer. I had lists of apparent contradictions in the Bible, proofs of forgery, history of persecution by Christians in medieval times, corruption of the Catholic church, disagreements between Christians – and the list went on and on. I felt pretty confident that Christians were wrong, and I could never understand how they could believe something so inconsistent and obviously wrong.
However, there was one question Christians asked that I did not have enough information to answer. It was the question about the death and resurrection of Jesus. I knew that according to my Muslim beliefs Jesus did not die on the cross, but it was only an appearance of that. I believed that Christians were confused, and that what was reported in the New Testament was made up by those who corrupted the true message of the gospel. I also believed that sometimes in the past there existed true Christians, who believed that Jesus was not crucified, who believed that his death did not mean anything for salvation of people, who did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God.
However, as I learned more about Christianity, I discovered that it was not the Trinity, but the death of Jesus on the cross was the real centerpoint of the Christian faith. I learned that according to Christian beliefs Jesus by his death has supposedly paid for all the sins of all the people that have lived and will live. When I learned that, I was somewhat surprised because I knew that this central point of Christian faith was rejected by Islam, and with a rather vague and obscure explanation that had many different interpretations. In addition to this, the warning was given to anyone who would want to study the matter, effectively discouraging any Muslim from honestly pursuing an investigation of the facts surrounding the death of Jesus. I also found that there was not much Muslim literature written to address this specific question. Effectively, it looked as if Islam was denying the central point of Christianity without really addressing it.
Although the discovery of this fact somewhat puzzled me, I did not waver or change my beliefs. I was not at all discouraged, because I was firmly convinced that Islam was the truth and the way of life. I figured that if I studied history, I could prove to Christians that they were wrong in their beliefs, that Jesus really did not die on the cross, and that all Christians were wrong. I decided to do some research on the history of early Christianity (1st century A.D., before it had a chance to get corrupted by various heretical teachings), so that I could prove to Christians that they were following a false religion based on lies.
However, as I learned more about the history of early Christianity, I became more and more puzzled. Although I searched really hard, I could not find any evidence of "true" Christians. From what I have found, all early Christians, even those who were labelled heretical, believed that Jesus Christ did die on the cross for the sins of mankind, and that it was indeed the central point of Christian faith. Sure, there were some disagreements between early Christians, and some Christian sects were labelled heretical, etc. However, despite their differences, I could not find evidence of a single Christian sect who did not believe that Jesus Christ died on a cross. In addition to that, I could not find any evidence of a Christian sect that believed anything that was close to what I thought "true" Christians would have believed according to what I knew from Islam.
As I researched more, I found Old Testament prophecies that predicted the coming of the Messiah. These prophecies talked of the one who would be the Son of David, who would suffer for the sins of mankind, who would be called Immanuel (God with us). I wanted to discount these prophecies, but had a hard time doing so because I knew that these prophecies could not have been forged by Christians - they were written hundreds of years before Jesus was born. I also searched for the evidence of the true Injil – true Gospel that was supposedly given to Jesus by God, and I could not find evidence that it ever existed. All I could find were the forgeries that were written long after the 1st century A.D. The evidence seemed to indicate that Injil was the good news that Jesus proclaimed, and that this message was later recorded by his apostles and followers in the New Testament. In these records, his apostles repeatedly mentioned Jesus predicting his death and resurrection, as well as their importance. This certainty of his death and the tremendous importance that it carried were in clear contradiction to what I believed. If Jesus really did die on the cross for the sins of mankind, then I also had to believe in him and his death if I wanted to be saved from hellfire. That was the ultimate truth of the Christian message.
I was afraid of the doubts that I had, so I spoke with people who I thought were knowledgeable about this subject. It was kind of scary to find that most of my quite intelligent Muslim friends have never even thought about this subject or attempted to examine it in any detail. Those who examined it seemed to have overlooked some very obvious points that were in contradiction to their explanation. It seemed that most Muslims I knew assumed that Christianity was wrong by default, and then found evidence that helped them continue to believe what they wanted to believe. I started to realize that many of the arguments used to prove Christianity wrong were far from being consistent.
I did not like my doubts. I prayed to God to take my doubts away and to make things clear. Some doubts went away for a short time, but they always came back. I kept researching, talking to people, trying to find a convincing evidence of what I believed to be the truth. Unfortunately, my search kept uncovering the evidence contrary to my beliefs. By 1998, after 2.5 years of thinking and searching, deep inner struggle and prayers, I realized that I could no longer remain a Muslim. The evidence I had found was too heavy to be discounted. It was not easy for me to make this decision because I really wanted to remain in Islam – but I felt that I had no other choice because I felt I no longer believed what I claimed to be.
However, although at that moment I stopped being a Muslim, I did not become a Christian. I became an agnostic who believed that God existed and ruled the world, and that there existed a true faith created by him that I had to follow. I just did not know which one was right. Being a religious agnostic was not easy, because I knew that according to both Islam and Christianity I would be going to hell – because I did not believe either of them. I spent the next 1.5 years praying and crying out to God, asking him to reveal to me which faith I was to follow. It was very painful, because I longed to do God’s will, but I did not know what his will was.
Things changed on Feb 28, 1999. By that time, I had done more research on comparing the two religions, had read through the Old and New Testament, and studied Christian theology. However, I still remained a religious agnostic. A Christian friend of mine invited me to visit a worship service at his church. I was just sitting there observing what was going on, when I felt the need to think about myself. I started thinking about the things I knew. By that time, I had studied Christianity well enough to come to the conviction that Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah, that there was enough evidence to indicate he was crucified and raised from the dead, that the origins of Christian faith were in his resurrection, and not just in his teaching, that there never existed a written Injil, but that New Testament as we know it was the Injil known from history, that Jesus was indeed a special Son of God, and there was a special relationship between him and God, that Trinity was the only logical explanation of what is reported in the New Testament, and that Trinity was logical and non-contradictory, just as a wave-particle duality principle in physics was the only plausible yet unbelievable and seemingly contradictory way to explain the world. As I thought about these things, I started wondering why I was not a Christian. A picture came my mind, a picture of me wandering in the desert, looking for God. I felt that after years of searching I had found a city in the desert, where I knew God was. I wanted to get into the city, but I could not – because the city had high walls, and none of the doors were open. I felt like I had been using my intellect to jump over the walls, or to go through the doors, but none of my efforts have succeeded. In my mind, I imagined myself sitting down by the wall, tired of the search and in despair. I prayed to God, and I told him that I had done everything I could to find him. I have searched and I have made every effort to find the true faith using my intellect, but I could not. I asked God to come and rescue me if he wanted to, because I could not do it on my own strength. At this moment, I started weeping. As I continued to weep, I felt a strange feeling of God’s love, as if he was telling me that I am his, and that he will love me and take care of me for the rest of my life and after. I felt as if I was in God’s presence, and that he loved me and cared about me. It was an amazing feeling, and the relief that I felt was incredible. After the service, being the sceptical man that I am, I did not immediately decide that I had become a Christian. I wanted to think about myself and my beliefs – I wanted to realize what had happened. However, after giving more thoughts to my experience and the things that I learned, I decided to become a Christian.
It has been almost 2.5 years since that day, and my life has changed significantly. I have seen my faith grow, and have seen God work in my life. I would not say it has been easy at all times, but I feel that I am learning more and more every day on how to walk with God. It has been difficult to face a harsh reaction from my family, to disappoint my mom and my brother. It deeply grieves me as well as my family to know that their beliefs are different from mine. However, I also feel that God has been revealing more and more to me about loving them because they are my family, and I also pray for them to personally meet and accept Jesus as the living Lord. It has also been difficult to see a change in my Muslim friendships. I still remember with joy those days when I was with them, when we prayed, and fasted together, and talked about Islam. I still love and care about my Muslim friends and about my family, and I also wish that they went along my path and investigated Christianity just as I did, without bias and prejudice, without rejecting it before trying to understand what the message of Christian faith is.
At the same time, I felt that God has been changing me since that moment when I decided to be a Christian. The more I learn about Christianity, the more I am convinced that I have made the right choice. I have seen a deep commitment, an earnest desire to worship God, and willingness to suffer for his sake in the lives of so many Christians that I have met. I have also experienced kindness, gentleness, and deep sincere love that Christians have. I have learned that sincere Christians hate sin and abominations as much as devout Muslims, standing against all the evils that the modern secular society has produced. I have learned what it really means to deeply care for someone, and to be willing to put their interests above my own, just like Christ taught. I have come to realize deeply that God cares much more not about my deeds and what I do, but about my character, about my inner life, and the way that I treat other people, in thought and in my actions. Although God hates my sins, he has also forgiven them because my sins have been paid for in full by Jesus. I know that until the end of my life I will not be able to get rid of every sin in my life, but I also know that what really matters is whether I trusted God as I tried to live in accordance with his will, striving to achieve holiness and perfection that he desires for me.
God is no longer a remote creator who closely watches my life, weighing my bad deeds against my good deeds. He is an infinite being who cares about me personally, and who wants me to be fully committed to him. He wants me to trust in him and in him alone, and he wants me to grow spiritually and become more like him, so that the light of his greatness may shine through me. He wants me to love my neighbors, to build deep friendships with others. Most importantly, in every moment of my life, he wants me to acknowledge that he is my creator, and praise him for his infinite kindness that he has shown to mankind, and to me personally. I am looking forward to living my life in the light of his glory.