Bearing Another’s Burdens?
“Jesus Cannot Bear Our Sins, since the Qur’an says that ‘No Soul Bears the Burden of Another’ (53:38)”
The Qur’an is often wrongly used to deny the Substitutionary Atoment of Jesus by those ignorant of its meaning. Here is what the Qur’an says:
“..has he not been informed of what is in the scriptures of Musa? And (of) Ibrahim who fulfilled (the commandments): That no bearer of burden shall bear the burden of another (Qur’an 53.38)
Every soul earns only to its own account; no soul laden bears the load of another. (Qur’an, 6:164, Arberry)
As the Qur’an says, it is quoting from the Tawrat (Hebrew Scriptures):
“The soul that sins shall die. The son shall not be loaded with his father’s iniquities nor a father with the iniquity of his son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be put to his own account, and the wickednes of the wicked shall be put to his own account.” (Ezeiel 18:20)
When we look at the context of this verse, the intended parameters of this ruling becomes clear—it is forbidding direct filial responsibility, a common ancient legal idea that a man could be punished for the sin of his father or son. In a wider sense, it also forbids any person from being forced to bear the consequences of another person’s sin (unlike Jesus’ voluntary substitution).
Indeed, we cannot view this as some universal, absolute principle:
1. The Qur’an itself contradicts a universal application of this specific principle. Speaking of wicked men who mislead the ignorant, the Qur’an says:
“That they may bear their burdens entirely on the day of resurrection and also of the burdens of those whom they lead astray without knowledge; now surely evil is what they bear.” (16:25)
This stands in direct contradiction to 17:13-15 and 53:38-42 if we [falsely] interpret the principle as an absolute rather than general principle. Likewise, the tafsir of sura 8:24-25 in Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn ‘Abbâs states:
(And guard yourselves against a sedition) any sedition that happens (which cannot fall exclusively on those of you who are wrong-doers) but rather befalls on both the wrong-doers and the wronged , (and know that Allah is severe in punishment) when He punishes.
If we follow the principle al-Qur’ân yufassiru ba’duhu ba’dan (different parts of the Qur’ân explain each other), we have to conclude that the principle cannot be absolute but must be limited in scope.
2. Furthermore, this principle has already been broken by Hazrat Adam. Both the Qur’an and the Bible teach that as a consequence of Adam’s sin the entire human race no longer get to live in perfect Paradise but are condemned to live and die on earth.. In other words, we all had to bear the consequences of someone else’s sin—namely, expulsion from Paradise and death.
The reason why Adam was an exception to God’s general principle was that God ordained Adam to have a unique role in relation to humanity. Jesus, like Adam, has a unique relationship to mankind by God’s will. This is why the Bible calls him the second Adam, as the Qur’an does (“Surely the likeness of Isa is with Allah as the likeness of Adam” (Qur’an 3:59). The Injil explains:
“For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Cor 15:22, see also 15:45)
Just as we have a unique relationship with Adam, we also can have a similar unique relationship with Jesus.
To help us better understand how a good principle of justice can be justly overridden, we can compare it with another divine principle—“do not kill”. This command not to kill can be justly overridden only when the Supreme Judge appoints someone with a special role (executioner) to carry out a death sentence. The same is true with the principle of not bearing anothers’ burdens—it can only be exempted when the Supreme Judge (God) appoints someone to a special role (‘Isa Al-Masih).
Another reason why Jesus breaks this general pattern is that he alone out of all humanity is absolutely sinless. In God’s justice, sin cannot be forgiven or expiated by praying to other sinful pirs, saints or holy men, since however noble they may be, they still are tainted by sin. Since Jesus alone is entirely without sin, he alone by God’s Will has the exclusive right to voluntarily bear another’s sin.
Finally, Jesus’ substitutionary atonement is simply the undeniable testimony of Scripture, repeated over and over again in the Injil and even the Tawrat. We can choose to deny that anyone can bear another man’s sin, but this leaves us condemned to hell and rejecting the means of God’s mercy and forgiveness. We would do well to accept God’s gift of redemption.