Many Christian apologists take it as a given that Jesus died on the cross, but did he? Is there reason for believing he survived crucifixion?

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Easter is fast approaching…

Apologists like William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, and Mike Licona often use the “Minimal Facts” argument to “prove” that the Resurrection of Jesus can be shown to be a historical “fact.” This approach seeks to establish—or take as givens—certain claims that most everyone will agree to, and these then supposedly lead inexorably to the Gospel claims being true.

The first Minimal Fact they claim is Jesus died by Crucifixion. On its face, this seems a reasonable assumption, and one that is probably supported by the majority of Christians and also many secular scholars. After all, crucifixion was a common punishment for insurrectionists and opponents of Roman rule, and was carried out hundreds (if not thousands) of times. It would seem logical that the Romans were “experts” at this capital punishment, and even Josephus (the famous Jewish historian) reported only one incident where a crucifixion victim survived, but only by early removal from the cross and some medical intervention.

For myself, I was also willing to make the assumption that Jesus died by Crucifixion and attack the other “minimal facts,” but I have recently changed my opinion on this matter. It seems to me that, to have a resurrection, one must first establish a death. And it is by no means clear whether a death can be confirmed based on the information we have.

Those who support the hypothesis that Jesus really died, point to several factors :

  • Jesus was severely flogged prior to crucifixion. The resulting blood loss and trauma would hasten his demise.

Rebuttal: This first appears in Mark’s gospel, which details that Jesus was flogged prior to being handed over to the soldiers for crucifixion. We are not told the severity of this flogging, and although some apologists try to over-dramatize this incident and how horrendous it was, they do not have actual evidence of what it might have been like. (“That which is asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence” is the maxim of Christopher Hitchens.)

Matthew repeats the story almost verbatim, but, interestingly, Luke makes no mention of a flogging but just some beating with a stick (not flogging) and mocking by Herod Antipas’s guards. This contradicts Mark and Matthew who say it was Roman guards who beat and mocked Jesus. Luke does mention that Pilate offered to have Jesus flogged and then released (but never mentions whether a flogging actually occurred), which would indicate a lesser flogging than apologists try to imply. Luke states at the start of his Gospel, “…..I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” (Luke 1:3-4). So, his “investigating everything carefully” and “orderly account” contradicts other Gospels on this point.

John has a flogging, but it happens halfway through Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus, not just before being handed over for crucifixion. If the flogging had been as severe as apologists claim, Jesus would have been in no fit state to be interviewed further by Pilate.

Bearing these issues in mind, we are justified in being skeptical that a flogging actually happened, or the severity of it, if it occurred at all.

  • Jesus’ side was pierced by a Roman spear after which blood and water flowed from his body. Jesus would certainly have reacted to this spearing if he was still alive.

Rebuttal: This is only mentioned by John, and seems part of John’s theological agenda. As such, we can be skeptical that this event actually happened.

  • Roman soldiers were experienced in conducting crucifixions, and would be sure that the victim was dead.

Rebuttal: This is a very sweeping assumption. We have no information as to how many crucifixions these particular soldiers had done before. In addition, they were soldiers, not physicians, and could not be expected to be confident in determining whether one of their victims was actually dead. Jesus’ body was probably removed by Joseph of Arimathea or some pious Jew(s) not wishing to have a dead body left on the cross after dark. If Jesus had revived after removal, they would not have necessarily informed the Roman authorities, since Jesus might have been regarded as a patriotic Jew, unjustly punished by the Romans.

  • The so-called “Swoon Theory” (Jesus did not actually die, but fell unconscious, and revived inside the tomb) has largely been discredited as being fanciful and not credible.

Rebuttal: This certainly seems somewhat fanciful, since even if Jesus had recovered, how would he have removed the stone blocking the entrance, or attracted any attention to be rescued if weakened by the trauma he had experienced?

However, the “Empty Tomb” narrative has been largely debunked, so maybe other options now present themselves (as noted below).

Other puzzling events are recorded in the Gospels that also cast doubt on their veracity :

  • Crucifixion was normally a slow, painful, and lingering death, sometimes lasting several days so as to be a clear and public deterrent to anyone challenging Roman rule. According to the Gospels, Jesus died within six hours (9 am to 3 pm), which seems remarkably short.

Jesus is described, in Greek, as a tekton, normally translated as a “carpenter”, though it could describe anyone who worked with their hands. Some researchers have opined that it might be more appropriately translated as a “stonemason.” If Jesus worked as a stonemason handling heavy rocks, you would expect him to have a robust physique, and thus unlikely to die so quickly. Even Pontius Pilate, according to the Gospels, was surprised that Jesus was found dead after only six hours.

  • Only John mentions that Jesus was nailed to the cross. It seems that, usually, victims of crucifixion would be simply tied by ropes to the cross. If nails were used, they would typically have been driven into the wrists of victims, and not the hands, since the weight of the body would rip the nails through the hands, but John talks of “hands” and not “wrists.” John does not mention the nailing of Jesus’ feet, so this cannot be verified.

A proposal

As a hypothesis, to answer all these problems with the Gospel accounts, I am here proposing a “Modified Swoon Theory” as a possible solution as to why the disciples claimed Jesus had risen from the dead but which involves no supernatural intervention.

In this scenario, Jesus, on the cross, fell into a deep coma, and was, to all intents and purposes, seen as dead by the Roman soldiers and onlookers. The Roman soldiers departed, and left it to the Jewish people to remove Jesus’ body (and presumably those of the other two victims), and arrange suitable burials according to Jewish custom (Jews were allowed limited autonomy to follow their customs and rituals even under Roman occupation).

However, when they removed Jesus’ body, these people observed a “flicker” of life (maybe a faint pulse or movement of an eyelid) at which point they realized Jesus had not actually died. It is possible that, to these Jewish helpers, Jesus would have been regarded as a patriot for challenging Roman rule and the corrupt Temple priesthood, and thus they decided not to tell the authorities, but instead take him to a place where he could receive some medical treatment.

Alternatively, Jesus’ body (and the other two bodies) could have been removed from their crosses, and placed in a temporary location, as there was no time for a burial with the Sabbath fast approaching. On returning after the Sabbath, to begin the burials, again, some sign of life from Jesus was noticed, and medical treatment was sought.

In either case, after a few days, Jesus would have recovered enough to come out of his coma and would be able to communicate with his helpers. He would probably then have asked to see his disciples to let them know he was alive. He would probably have then met with some of the disciples in strict secrecy—they would not risk Jesus being recaptured and killed—who would have confirmed he was alive.

At this time, it would seem to the disciples that Jesus had died on the cross and then returned to life, and this was a “miracle” that could only be explained by supernatural intervention. In our scientific age this would, more likely, be described as a “resuscitation” or “near-death experience (NDE)” and definitely not a “resurrection.”

It is likely that Jesus eventually succumbed to his injuries and died. His helpers would have then secretly buried him in an unmarked grave, and he would not have been seen again. However, by this time his disciples would have been claiming that Jesus had “risen from the dead” and spread this news widely. The disciples’ assertion that Jesus ascended into “heaven” would explain why no body was ever discovered.

Forty or more years later, the empty tomb narrative was invented by Mark and further embellished by each subsequent Gospel, to present a narrative for the physical resurrection of Jesus after his death, and emphasize the “miraculous” nature of his return to life. As can be seen by the hypothesis above, no miracle was necessary for Jesus’ apparent “Rising from the grave.”

I think this hypothesis better explains the disciples’ conviction that Jesus had physically risen from the grave than any hallucination, vision or dream would engender, particularly as multiple disciples supposedly saw Jesus alive. It is unlikely multiple disciples experienced the same hallucination, vision, or dream.

When you consider the Gospel accounts after the crucifixion, you find that the disciples and companions of Jesus exhibited just as much skepticism of the resurrection as people in our own time would be, for instance:

Matthew: the disciples met Jesus on a mountain in Galilee but “some doubted.”

Luke: when the women reported to the disciples what the people at the tomb told them, they considered it “idle talk.” Later, Jesus appeared to them, and then they were convinced of Jesus’ resurrection.

John: Mary Magdalene, when seeing the tomb empty, naturally thought that someone had moved the body rather than there being a resurrection until she actually met Jesus. Also, the disciple Thomas was told by the other disciples that they had seen Jesus alive but he still did not believe them until confronted by Jesus himself.

Now, this could be sophisticated storytelling by the Gospel authors to heighten the tension in the narrative, but there may be a nugget of truth in all this.

Essentially, in the Gospel stories, the disciples and companions of Jesus only believed after encountering a physically resurrected Jesus. From this, we could speculate that a hallucination/vision/dream by one disciple would be very unlikely to convince the rest of the disciples that Jesus had been resurrected, and group hallucinations are quite rare. That is why I think that the “Modified Swoon Theory” has a lot of explanatory power as to why the disciples were convinced that Jesus had risen, and were emboldened to spread this message.

I think I have presented enough reasons here that, when apologists use the “minimal facts” argument, one can challenge their first premise “Jesus died by Crucifixion.”

[All things Easter skepticism can be found in Jonathan MS Pearce’s book The Resurrection: A Critical Examination of the Easter Story.]

David Austin is a retired Englishman now living in Australia. He is a life-long atheist who moved from being more of an apatheist when he was a guest in a church and was harangued by the pastor. He felt he needed to understand the arguments concerned that he has now studied at great length. As a former Senior Electronics Engineer working mostly in Digital Technology (with a Bachelor of Technology degree), and working in computing for so long, logic is important to his work. He is passionate about church and state separation and is active in secular groups to try to reduce the negative influences of religion in society.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...