Why is this even a question? Everyone dies. Death has a 100% success rate. Of course when we ask this question, we’re usually not asking “Did Jesus Really Die?” but, “Did Jesus Really Die at the hands of the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate on the day that we celebrate as Good Friday? Even then, one might say, why ask this question? After all, we have multiple early accounts of some of the most accurate and respected historians of the ancient world that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified during the reign of Tiberius under Pontius Pilate.
Generally speaking, when we have multiple, credible, consistent sources bearing witness to a fact such as the time and place and manner of a persons death, we tend to accept those sources unless there is significant reason to doubt the evidence. So why is the death of Jesus even in question?
The record of Jesus’ death is doubted by some because of two historical facts that have aroused great interest from nearly all who probe into the life of Jesus. The first is that Jesus’ body is never found, even by those who would have had knowledge of its location and motive to find it. And the second is that multiple people, both those who were followers of him during his life and those who were opposed to him during his life, claim to have had vivid encounters with him after he was supposed to have died; some of these encounters occurring in groups settings with multiple witnesses. Now obviously, the Christian explanation of these two facts is that Jesus really did die, really was buried, and then, to everyone’s astonishment, really and truly rose from the dead, leaving the empty tomb behind and revealing himself to a select group of people. Obviously, for many people, the idea that Jesus actually raised from the dead is so unbelievable that in searching for a more reasonable explanation, some find that the most plausible explanation is that Jesus did not in fact die at all, but that people only thought that he had died, which would explain not only the empty tomb, but also the appearances. So how do we go about establishing that Jesus’ death really occurred?
1. The Medical Implausibility of Surviving the Crucifixion
The first line of inquiry regards the medical implausibility of surviving crucifixion. Many people in the medical field have researched crucifixion and its effects on the body. Most famously, a study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a peer-reviewed medical journal, by three doctors associated with the Mayo Clinic. There paper is easily readable and can be accessed by any of you students through your library account. In the paper, the researchers search the biblical account, comparing them to other historical accounts of crucifixion, and detail what the effect would be on Christ’s health knowing according to current medical knowledge.
The Night of Psychological Anguish The night before his death, Jesus is said in some scriptural accounts to have been in great emotional agony and that his sweat had the appearance of blood.
Luke 22:44 And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.
If the description is accurate, the Mayo Clinic team speculated, Christ may have suffered from a rare medical condition called hematidrosis, in which blood is transferred to the sweat glands, emerging from the body mixed with perspiration. Before his brief religious trial on blasphemy charges and the ordeal of crucifixion, Jesus almost certainly was in robust physical condition, owing to the fact that his ministry required him to travel great distances on foot through what is now Israel. But by the morning of the Crucifixion itself, he was probably in a state of exhaustion and severe emotional upset--factors that would counteract his overall physical strength.
Roughed Up By the Sanhedrin In the dark hours of the night, before sunrise, Jesus was taken to a secret meeting of the Sanhedrin in which he was questioned and his fate was sealed. Both each of the gospels record that Jesus was beaten by the Temple Guard:
John 18:19 The high priest then questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. 20 Jesus answered him, “I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. 21 Why do you ask me? Ask those who have heard me what I said to them; they know what I said.” 22 When he had said these things, one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?”
Luke 22:63 Now the men who were holding Jesus in custody were mocking him as they beat him. 64 They also blindfolded him and kept asking him, “Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?” 65 And they said many other things against him, blaspheming him.
Scourged By Pilate Jesus was then delivered to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, of whom it is recorded found no guilt in him worthy of execution. However, in order to satisfy the crowd, which had been whipped into frenzy and was calling for Jesus’ execution, Pilate determined that he would have Jesus flogged, in the hopes that the punishment would suffice.
John 19:1 Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him.
Once Christ had been tried and condemned, the first step in the execution process was a severe scourging, inflicted with a type of whip that may have had pieces of sharp bone and metal tied into its thongs. The jagged pieces would rip into the skin, tearing it off, exposing the raw flesh underneath. The Jews had a law that one could only receive 40 lashes, but the Romans were under no such restriction. The whipping was apparently severe, resulting in a large volume of blood loss that may have been as much as a quarter to a third of the body's total blood supply. The Jews had a law that one could only receive 40 lashes, but the Romans were under no such restriction. Finally, mercifully, the flogging was over, yet the beating and humiliation would continue. According to Mark’s Gospel:
Mark 15:16 And the soldiers led him away inside the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters), and they called together the whole battalion. 17 And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. 18 And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 19 And they were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him and kneeling down in homage to him. 20 And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him.
There are a number of things that really disturbs me about this account. They put a robe over his exposed back, letting the blood from his flogging congeal into the fabric, only to strip it off him later, reopening all of his wounds yet again. Then they place the crown of thorns on his head, and it that weren’t painful enough, they beat him with a rod, driving the thorns into his skull. The bleeding from his skull must have been frightful, for every doctor knows that the head contains many blood vessels and even small lacerations to the head can lead to very large amounts of bleeding.
The blood loss from the flogging and the beating set the stage for the early onset of shock. The fact that Christ could not support the weight of his own cross when instructed to carry it to the execution site lends additional support to the deepening shock theory. Jesus’ body was shutting down. And we’ve not even gotten to the crucifixion itself.
Crucified as a Criminal Regarding the crucifixion itself, it was considered the most horrific torture of the ancient world. Cicero called it “a most cruel and ignominious punishment” that he couldn’t imagine any Roman citizen having to undergo. And hardly any did, as the supreme form of punishment was generally reserved for slaves, and enemies of the state. Crucifixion served two primary purposes. First, it was extraordinarily painful to ensure that the full wrath of the Empire would be felt in every nerve in the body. Second, it was a slow process, sometimes taking days, during which the body of the dying man would be raised up on display in front of all as a warning to never mess with Rome.
However, the process with Jesus, having already gone through so much trauma, seemed to take only a few hours. Christ had been on the cross for about six hours. This fact that Christ died in such a relatively short time has led people people to argue that he may not have been fully dead when they removed him from the cross. Yet two important things should be noted - first, the Romans had ways to extend the torture of crucifixion, none of which appeared to be used in the case of Jesus. If they wanted the death to be slow, they could have tied the victims arm to the cross instead of nailing them, or nailed only the hands and provided a platform for the feet or at the hips for the victim to rest. It’s recorded that Jesus was paired through the hands and feet, meaning that the Romans weren’t interested in dragging out his death.
Soldier Sent to Finish the Job: Second, however, is that a soldier was sent to finish the job quickly.
John 19:31 Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away. 32 So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.
It’s important to note that there could be little room for error here. The crucifixion squads were composed of five soldiers, each trained to administer death. They were professionals. They came to finish off Jesus, and when they saw that he already appeared to be dead, they stabbed him with a spear. In the opinion of the Journal of the American Medical Association, this stabbing most probably pierced through his rib cage to his heart, and in their opinion this would have been a fatal blow even if he was not indeed already dead. The doctors writing the scientific journal, having reviewed all the evidence from scripture and historical accounts of crucifixion, concluded, “Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.”
Now it is true that there is at least one ancient account of a man surviving a crucifixion. The historian Josephus records that he once was able to persuade Titus Caesar to remove three of his friends who had been sentenced to crucifixion from their crosses, and in his own words “to have the greatest care taken of them, in order to their recovery, yet two of them died under the physician’s hands, while the third recovered.” Please note that Jesus had not been accorded such care, and had remained on the cross hours after having been pierced and declared dead.
2. The Rational Implausibility of Believing a Battered Man Had Beaten Death
Yet, perhaps even so, Jesus did survive. Perhaps he went into a deep coma, and after having been removed from the cross and placed in the tomb, the cool air of the tomb resuscitated him. Next we are led to believe that this beaten man, having just awoken from a coma, still with a mortal wound in his side, is able to unwrap himself from the death shroud and somehow push aside the stone at the entrance of the tomb with his pierced and mangled wrists, and then walk however long it must have been on his mutilated feet, and showing up at the disciples hideout to convince them that he had defeated death and raised in power to new life. Had that scenario occurred, no one would have confessed with Thomas in worship, “My Lord and My God.” No, they would have shouted, “My Lord and My God - get this man a doctor!”
3. The Sociological Implausibility of Keeping a Conspiracy Silent While Facing Death
Another theory that is offered to explain the death of Christ is that some affluent followers, perhaps Joseph of Arimithea himself, bribed the authorities to remove Jesus from the cross and then concocted the story of Christ’s resurrection even as Jesus healed in a hidden location. Now we’re getting ahead of ourselves here, for perhaps this is an argument to be used next week, yet not only does this view require us to believe that each of the Christian conspirators went to their death believing in something that they knew to be untrue, some even facing arrest and torture, but also that the Roman authorities who released Jesus’ bodies also never revealed the conspiracy even as Jesus’ followers were causing more disruption in the city that Jesus had. It is sociologically implausible that none of the conspirators would crack and blow the whistle under that sort of intense pressure. Chuck Colson was one of President Richard Nixon’s conspirators in the infamous Watergate Scandal in the 70’s, the first to go to prison for obstruction of justice. He became a Christian in prison, partly because of his experience of trying to cover-up the conspiracy for the president. Colson wrote:
“I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren't true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world-and they couldn't keep a lie for three weeks. You're telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.
4. The Theological Absurdity of a Crucified Divine Messiah The apostles did not spend much time defending that Jesus died on the cross, but explaining the meaning of his death on the cross. The cross was the central tenet of the apostles preaching, yet it had to be explained, not only because you had to explain how it was possible that a man that you worshipped as divine died (the theological absurdity right there - gods don’t die!) but that he could have died on a cross, the most horrible, painful, tortuous, and humiliating form of execution possible. The Romans knew of its horror and the Jews believed that anyone hung on a tree in the manner of crucifixion was cursed by God. Yet the apostles proclaimed the crucified Christ, knowing full well how absurd it must have sounded to the Greeks and to the Jews, yet they preached it because it had happened, and because it had happened they reasoned that God’s wisdom must be wiser than our wisdom. As Paul writes in 1 Corintians 1, in one of the earliest sources that we have of Jesus’ crucifixion:
1Cor. 1:18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God … 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
To those of us being saved, Christ’s crucifixion is the power and wisdom of God. What does he mean by that? Well he explains what he means later in the book:
1Cor. 15:1 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
The death of Christ was not an accident. It had purpose.
The Death of Christ was Foretold: “According to the Scriptures”, the death of Christ can only be understood as it fits into the storyline of the Bible. Isaiah, speaking of the Messiah, the servant of God writing 700 years before Jesus wrote:
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
The Death of Christ was Substitutionary: Paul writes that Jesus Christ “died for our sins.” It was not for his own sin that he suffered, but for ours. “he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”
The Death of Christ was an Expression of Love
The Death of Christ is Power to Save: “By his wounds we are healed.” See it is not enough to believe that Christ died, and not only why he died, but that he died so that those who would turn to him would be saved, forgiven, healed.