2 – That the pronoun refers to the kitaabi (Jew or Christian) himself, in which case the meaning of the verse is that there is no one among the people of the Book but he must believe in ‘Eesa (peace be upon him), and that he is true, and that he did not die. That is when he suffers the agonies of death and sees realities and proofs. At the time of death, the kitaabi will know that what he believed is false, but that faith will not benefit him at that point.
Based on both views mentioned above, there is no indication or suggestion in the verse that ‘Eesa (peace be upon him) has died. Rather the words – according to the first view – refer to a matter of the Unseen which will come to pass in the future, because he (peace be upon him) will undoubtedly die, but that will be after he has descended, as stated above. And according to the second view, the phrase “before his death” refers to the death of the kitaabi himself.
Al-Tabari, Ibn Katheer and other imams of tafseer (exegesis) regarded the first view as more likely to be correct. Ibn Katheer said: With regard to the words (interpretation of the meaning): “And there is none of the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians) but must believe in him [‘Eesa (Jesus), son of Maryam (Mary), as only a Messenger of Allaah and a human being] before his [‘Eesa (Jesus) or a Jew’s or a Christian’s] death (at the time of the appearance of the angel of death).
And on the Day of Resurrection, he [‘Eesa (Jesus)] will be a witness against them”[al-Nisa’ 4:159], Ibn Jareer said: The scholars of interpretation differed concerning the meaning of that. “And there is none of the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians) but must believe in him [‘Eesa (Jesus)] before his death” means, before the death of ‘Eesa. That means that all of them will believe in him when he comes down to fight the Dajjaal, so all religions will become one, which is the monotheistic religion of Islam, the religion of Ibraaheem (peace be upon him). ... It was narrated that Ibn ‘Abbaas said: “And there is none of the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians) but must believe in him [‘Eesa (Jesus)] before his death” means, before the death of ‘Eesa ibn Maryam (peace be upon him). …
It was narrated that al-Hasan said: “And there is none of the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians) but must believe in him [‘Eesa (Jesus)] before his death” means, before the death of ‘Eesa, and by Allaah, he is alive with Allaah, but when he descends they will all believe in him. … Ibn Jareer said: And others said: That means before the death of the one who believes in the Book (i.e., the Jew or Christian), because at that point (just before death) he will now truth from falsehood because everyone upon whom death comes, his soul does not come out until truth has been made distinct from falsehood with regard to his religion. ‘Ali ibn Abi Talhah said, narrating from Ibn ‘Abbaas concerning this verse: He said: No Jew will die until he believes in ‘Eesa. …
Ibn ‘Abbaas said: If his head is cut off, his soul will not come out until he believes in ‘Eesa. … It was narrated that Ibn ‘Abbaas said: The Jew will not die until he bears witness that ‘Eesa is the slave of Allaah and His Messenger.
Ibn Jareer said: The most likely of these opinions to be correct is the first one, which is that no one of the People of the Book will be left after the descent of ‘Eesa (peace be upon him) but he will believe in him before the death of ‘Eesa (peace be upon him). Undoubtedly what Ibn Jareer said is the correct view, because it is what is meant from the context of the verses, which state that what the Jews claim, that ‘Eesa was killed and crucified, is false, as are the claims of the ignorant Christians who believed the claims of the Jews.
Allaah tells us that this is not what happened, rather it was made to appear so to them, and they killed the look-alike and did not realize that. But he (‘Eesa) was taken up to Him, and he is still alive, and will descend before the Day of Resurrection, as is indicated in the mutawaatir ahaadeeth. He will kill the false messiah (the Dajjaal) and will break the cross and kill the pigs, and abolish jizyah, i.e., he will not accept it from any of the followers of other religions, rather he will only accept Islam or the sword.
This verse tells us that all the people of the Book will believe in him at that time, and not one among them will fail to believe in him. Hence he said: “And there is none of the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians) but must believe in him [‘Eesa (Jesus)] before his death” i.e., before the death of ‘Eesa (peace be upon him), whom the Jews and the Christians who agreed with them claim that he was killed and crucified, but on the Day of Resurrection he will be a witness against them, i.e., because of their deeds that he witnessed before he was taken up into heaven and after he descends to the earth again. Tafseer Ibn Katheer (1/762).
It is essential to note that debate with the Christians must be done on the basis of knowledge and proof, so that you will not be a cause of people not accepting the truth because of weak arguments. The Christians do not have any sound proof at all, but they present specious arguments to distort the truth and they confuse truth with falsehood. May Allaah grant us refuge from the ways of the misguided.
And Allaah knows best.
Sheikh Muhammad Salih Al-Munajjid