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Could Jesus have survived crucifixion?

Some people deny the resurrection of Jesus, instead claiming that he never died in the first place. Allan Chapman describes, in gory detail, the eight reasons why this is based on a misunderstanding of the crucifixion process

Not only do many atheists waste prodigious amounts of time trying to convince superstitious Christians of the folly of their faith, but in recent years in particular much energy has been expended and money made (influenced in part by writers such as Dan Brown) in claiming that Jesus survived the crucifixion. 

After all, the two so-called ‘honest thieves’ crucified alongside Jesus were still alive at the end of the first Good Friday, for as St John tells us in his Gospel, the Romans broke the legs of both to finish them off before sunset.  So could not Jesus also have been alive, and have recovered, and the resurrection story been subsequently constructed as a myth, and swallowed by his gullible disciples? 

Could not Mary Magdalene’s tender loving care have nursed him back to health?  For as popular mythology would have us believe, there were some very wise and clever doctors in the ancient world.

I would suggest that such an argument can only be advanced in the face of some rather stubborn historical and scientific facts.  For let us look at what the Gospel writers, and St John in particular, tell us about what was done to Jesus the natural man:

(1) Prior to crucifixion, he was severely flogged: a bloody business in itself. 

(2) He was so weakened by this ordeal that he was unable to carry His own cross, and Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry it for him.  Making it less likely, therefore, that Jesus, unlike the ‘honest thieves’, would survive crucifixion. 

(3) He hung suspended for six hours, with nails through his hands and feet, or (as was the normal Roman crucifixion technique) through His wrists and ankles.  And as the suspended body sagged, these wounds would not have been like the neat stigmata of conventional artistic depiction, but would have become great, ghastly lacerations, each probably several inches long.  And as major arteries and veins serve the hands and feet, there would have been considerable haemorrhage, from four great lacerations, over several hours. 

(4) The forward-hanging position of Jesus’s body would have severely impeded respiration, no doubt leading to a potentially fatal build-up of fluid in the lungs and thoracic cavity. 

(5) After about six hours, he was pronounced dead by a surprised Roman officer.  Surprised because crucifixion victims normally lasted longer, as did the two thieves. 

(6) But as a way of confirming the death, a Roman soldier stabbed Jesus with a spear, and tradition says that the weapon – probably a broad-headed infantry spear – entered his right chest cavity without breaking any bones.  Probably a powerful upward thrust from below the right rib-cage. This would first have torn the strong muscular diaphragm which separates the abdominal from the thoracic cavity.  And as the spear was wriggled around in the usual way, to reduce flesh suction and facilitate easier extraction, it would most likely have torn the right lung, then the pericardium, vena cava, right (and perhaps left) pulmonary arteries and veins, and very probably the heart itself.  And this is saying nothing about damage to the upper body musculature, both external and internal, and no doubt the spleen as well.

Indeed, we can get some idea of the gaping nature of this side wound, for when Jesus displays his injuries to ‘doubting’ Thomas, in St John’s Gospel, he invites Thomas to thrust not his fingers, but his hand, into the cavity.  It would, of course, have been a massive wound.  For if there is one thing of which we can be certain, it is that a Roman soldier knew how to kill people.  And as was still the case with one of Wellington’s infantrymen with his bayonet in 1810, a Roman soldier would have twisted and turned his weapon inside the wound, to make it easier to pull out.  Indeed, a knowledge of military as well as scientific and medical history is useful when assessing the crucifixion!

After all this, what are we told flowed out of the wound?  Blood mixed with water, or probably serum.  This would only have happened in a dead body, for had the heart still been beating, even weakly, a gush of bright red arterial blood would have come out.  Instead, as one finds with a haemorrhaging corpse, stagnant blood and separating-out clear fluid is released from the lung tissue and veins.

(7) Following this ordeal, Jesus’s body was taken away by Joseph of Arimathea, and he, and probably Nicodemus, wrapped it in tight bandages with some 75 pounds’ weight of myrrh and aloes (100 litrai in the Greek, estimated to be around 34 kg or 75 pounds). The aloes in particular, as a dried plant product, would have been very absorbent and would probably have soaked up whatever fluid was left in the body, thus further dehydrating it.  The Gospel account, moreover, specifically mentions a napkin being tied across Jesus’s face in accordance with Jewish burial custom – which would only have added to the suffocating effect of the wrappings.

(8) Lastly, Jesus’s wrapped and anointed body was sealed up in a rock-cut tomb and left for two nights. And, as in early spring – the usual time of the Jewish Passover – Palestine can be bitterly cold at night, hypothermia could be added to the lethal cocktail!

And after all this, according to the Resurrection sceptics, Jesus was really no more than stunned by the whole ordeal of crucifixion, and all that was needed was the tender loving care of Mary Magdalene to nurse him back to health.  Or perhaps, so the fantasists sometimes argue, there was a very wise doctor on hand to help as well.

Please accept my apologies for all the gory detail, but to put it bluntly, this is what seems to have happened clinically when we interpret the Gospel accounts in the light of modern scientific knowledge. 

Even when we discount elements of metaphor, prophecy, and textual interpretation in the crucifixion narratives (and in St Paul’s pre-Gospel references to the crucifixion in his letters), there is still an impressive body of coherent factual detail that cannot simply be dismissed as make-believe.

Had there been a modern state-of-the-art accident and emergency unit at the foot of the cross, with resuscitators, drips, blood transfusions, a top-class surgical team and the whole panoply of modern medicine, poised to spring into action the moment Jesus was cut down, they would have found their task hopeless.  And the wisest, the most skilful, and the most learned medical team in the world could only have said to Mary Magdalene: “Sorry, the damage is too great – Jesus the man is dead.”

So whatever happened on Easter morning, when the tomb was found empty and the grave-wrappings laid aside, was not occasioned by a badly-traumatised natural man coming out of a coma!

Allan Chapman is the author of Slaying the Dragons: Destroying Myths in the History of Science and Faith (Lion Hudson)

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