There’s a popular belief that Jesus Christ escaped death following His crucifixion. The swoon hypothesis, as it’s termed, asserts that Jesus didn’t really die but fainted and was later revived by the cool, damp air in the tomb. While Christianity confirms the crucifixion and resurrection story, Islam is totally not supportive of Christ’s death. According to the Qur’an, Jesus only appeared to die on the cross and later ascended into heaven. Some secular scholars even propose that Jesus was given a drug while he hanged on the cross making him unconscious. As a Christian, I strongly believe these truth-claims deserve a much closer examination. We need to ask further questions to test the credibility of these assertions: What really happened during the crucifixion period? What was Christ’s medical condition during the crucifixion period? Are the historical records from distant time or not? What does History, Medicine and other fields of discipline relevant to the topic have to say about this subject?
As a Christian, I take my stance based on what God’s word (the Bible) says: Christ was crucified. All four gospels by virtue of eyewitness testimonies, confirm that Christ died on the cross. How can we possibly tell if the authors are telling the truth or not? Let’s consider the dating of these gospels. One of the major factors to consider when examining eyewitness records is the time span between the occurrence of an event and its documentation. It goes a long way to determine the extent to which a piece of evidence is compelling and convincing. With that established, let’s do some simple math over here.
With respect to what most scholars agree, Jesus Christ died between A.D 30 and 33.
According to standard scholarly dating, Mark’s gospel was written in the 70s, Matthew and Luke’s was in the 80s while John’s was written in the 90s.
By observation, Mark’s Gospel is closest to what really happened (written no less than 40 years after the event).
This implies Mark’s account was documented within the lifetime of eyewitnesses to the event. I daresay it’s almost impossible to have falsified the crucifixion story within a period where most of the witnesses were still alive. I’m not alone in this view. Professor Bart D. Ehrman, a Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies and an agnostic scholar said: “one of the most certain facts of history is that Jesus was crucified on orders of the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate.” There you have it! A non-biblical evidence (not subject to any form of bias) to also support the crucifixion story. Now, it’s very important to note that we are dealing with a story that was spreading like wildfire in Jerusalem. There’s absolutely no way a fabricated story would have been permitted to circulate within that city. It wouldn’t even make sense to say the listeners at that time were cut to the heart by the apostles’ preaching if their message was indeed a false gospel (refer to Acts 2). The early Christians would have surely protested against the spread of such mythical stories and the emergence of the Church wouldn’t have become a reality. Now compare this to another historical account like that of the Qur’an for example. The Qur’an’s record is about seven centuries after the event took place. We are talking about a seven hundred-year period where legend is very possible to distort the truth. So now that you have a 40-year old biography as against a 700-year one, which of these report will be compelling and convincing enough in making truth-claims?
Let’s also take a critical examination of Jesus’ medical condition before, during and after the crucifixion process. Personally, I feel there’s no way Jesus could have survived this brutality. But truth isn’t based on feelings or instincts because both can be easily mistaken. How then do we assess the truth-claims out there? Let’s turn our attention now to a well-known authority—Medicine—to see if these ideas of Jesus surviving the cross fit the facts of reality.
Prior to the crucifixion, Bible records that Jesus prayed His heart out till His sweat turned into blood. ‘How can sweat possibly turn into blood?’, I thought to myself. Apparently, the Bible wasn’t making a fanciful statement. Hematidrosis is a medical condition where a person sweats blood. It’s rare though. The main cause is still uncertain but many scientists believe it’s as a result of extreme stress. If a sound mind lives in a healthy body, I can infer then that Jesus was in an unhealthy condition because a distressed mind was living in His body. Now, this was even before the Roman soldiers spat and hit Him in the face. The psychological stress was just the beginning of what was yet to befall Him (the brutal whipping and crucifixion). Concerning the flogging, Roman soldiers were known for their expertise in lashing criminals. 39 strikes to the back was the standard but depending on the mood of the soldier on duty, it could be reduced or increased. The whips used were made of braided leather thongs with metal balls woven into them. This was designed to cut deeply into the skin, exposing the muscles, bones and spine as the whipping intensified. Most of the time, the victims will die from excessive blood loss before the crucifixion itself. We are yet to consider the 5-7 inch nails that were driven through his wrists and feet yet we can already picture the impossibility of Him surviving this great ordeal.
The crucifixion process was incredibly agonizing to the extent that a new word had to be invented to describe the intensity of its pain—excruciating. The word literally means, ‘out of the cross’. Just think about this for a second: there was the need to describe this extraordinary pain with an entirely new word. I’ve even spared you the scientific details of the trauma Jesus went through on that day. But really, do you possibly think the Messiah who had been severely battered and bruised by trained Roman soldiers could have escaped death?
Come to think of it, it sounds really absurd to think the early church would have concocted a story that the all-powerful son of God suffered mercilessly at the hands of mortal men and died. First of all, the Christians weren’t going to benefit in any way from making such an audacious claim. Secondly, you need to explain how Christ managed to remove the tight linen He was wrapped in, roll the huge stone away and slip past the Roman guards to meet up with the disciples in that weakened state. Even if He succeeded in doing that, His followers would have been greatly discouraged at the site of His bruised body. For people whose lives were in danger just for being a disciple of Christ, it was best Jesus was dead and gone. Going around and proclaiming that Christ had died and risen from the grave wasn’t only going to make the Great Commission a lot more difficult; they were putting their very lives in danger! It wouldn’t have made sense for them to do that and I’m sure many will agree to that. But no. That isn’t the case. On the contrary, the disciples were ready to put their lives on the line by communicating nothing but the truth to the world. I have to admit I envy this level of courage and integrity!
I personally feel the ideas that claim Christ escaped death are in a tug of war with scientific and historical evidence. You need a high dose of faith to actually believe they fit the facts of reality.
But most importantly, let’s ask ourselves these intriguing questions: if Jesus knew what was going to happen to Him, why would He still walk into the hands of His oppressors? Was there something in it for Him by allowing Himself to be subjected to the worst form of humiliation? Was there any ulterior motive? Allow me to say that Christ endured the Cross because of you and I. It’s at the center of the Cross that we receive the forgiveness of sin and the fullness of His love and grace. The Cross was designed to portray the worst form of humiliation but Christ took it and made it the best place for victory celebration. This is why we try not to impress you with polished speeches and the latest philosophy when we come to you. We keep it plain and simple: first Jesus and who He is; then Jesus and what he did—Jesus crucified.