Instead of surviving, did Jesus die on the cross?

  • Clarifying the question

    A stick figure guy in a crucifixion-position in the air, with arms out stretched and drops coming from holes in his hands and feet.

    Was Jesus's crucifixion fatal? Several reports (both Biblical and extra-Biblical) record that Jesus was nailed to a Roman cross to be excecuted (death by crucifixion). Given that Jesus was crucified, did he actually die during the process? Or, alternatively, did Jesus in fact survive his crucifixion somehow.

  • Historians say “yes”

    a panel of nerdy history experts with books above them and a certificate
    • Paul Maier (Ancient History professor at Western Michigan): “Open nearly any text in ancient history of Western civilization used widely in colleges and universities today, and you will find a generally sympathetic, if compressed, version of Jesus' life, which ends with some variation of the statement that he was crucified by Pontius Pilate and died as a result.” [“The Empty Tomb as History” Christiani oda XIX (1975), 630.]
    • Luke Timothy Johnson (Christian Origins professor at Emory): “Even the most critical historian can confidently assert that a Jew named Jesus… was executed by crucifixion under the prefect Pontius Pilate and continued to have followers after his death.” [The Real Jesus (Harper, 1996), 123.]
    • John Crossan (Atheist NT Scholar): “Jesus’ death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be.” [Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (HarperOne, 2009), 145.]
    • Craig Keener (NT professor at Asbury): “To claim that Jesus died by crucifixion is also not controversial;” [The Historical Jesus of the Gospels (Eerdmans, 2009), 323.]
    • Raymond Brown (NT professor at New York [d. 1998]): “Except for the romantic few who think that Jesus did not die on the cross but woke up in the tomb and ran off to India with Mary Magdalene, most scholars accept the uniform testimony of the Gospels that Jesus died…” [The Death of the Messiah, 2 vols. (Doubleday, 1994), 2:1373.]
    • Gerd Lüdemann (Atheist NT & Early Christianity professor at Göttingen): “The fact of the death of Jesus as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable, despite hypotheses of a pseudo-death or a deception which are sometimes put forward. It need not be discussed further here.” [The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: A Historical Inquiry (Prometheus, 2004), 50]
“Yes, after all…
  • Jesus was first scourged nearly to death

    A man whips another man who is tied up.

    Before being crucified, Jesus was whipped to a point of near death.

    We know this because…

    • Roman scourging often caused death before crucifixion.1
    • The Gospel report it explicitly (Mt 27:26, Jn 19:1).
    • He was consequently incapable of carring his crossbar.2

    This is relevant because, even with the best of medical treatment, Jesus was likely doomed to die within hours even before being nailed to the cross.3

    1. In general, victims of verberatio scourging were flogged to death or put in a state wherein they could not recover.

      Philo Judaeus of Alexandria (c. BC 20 – c. AD 50): “…they were flogged …some of them the moment they were carried out died of their wounds, while others were rendered so ill for a long time that their recovery was despaired of.” [Flaccus 75 (trans. by Yong)]

      The whip itself was designed to maximize damage.
      Craig Keener: “[Victims were] then beaten with flagella—leather whips 'whose thongs were knotted and interspersed' with pieces of iron or bone, or a spike. (Apul. Metam. 7.30.154; Codex Theodos. 8.5.2; 9.35.2; Goguel, Jesus, 527; Blinzler, Trial, 222.)” [The Historical Jesus of the Gospels (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009), 321.]
      And there was no limit to the amount of whipping.
      Ben Witherington (NT proessor. at Asbury): “In Roman law, unlike Jewish law, there was no maximum number of lashes; the amount of flogging depended on the malice of the one wielding the flagellum.” [New Testament History: A Narrative Account (Baker Academic, 2003), 156.]
      D. A. Carson: “…beaten by several torturers (in the Roman provinces they were soldiers) until they were exhausted, or their commanding officer called them off. For victims who, like Jesus, were neither Roman citizens nor soldiers, the favoured instrument was a whip whose leather thongs were fitted with pieces of bone or lead or other metal. The beatings were so savage that the victims sometimes died. Eyewitness records report that such brutal scourgings could leave victims with their bones and entrails exposed. [“The Gospel According to John” in The Pillar New Testament Commentary (IVP, 1991), 597.]
      Their entrails would be visible.
      Titus Flavius Josephus (AD 37 – c. 100 historian): “…whipped till every one of their inward parts appeared naked.” [Jewish Wars 2.612 (trans. by Whiston)]; “…whipped till his bones were laid bare” [Jewish Wars 6.304 (trans. by Whiston)]
      Eusebius of Caesarea (c. AD 260/265 – 339/340): “[Victims were] lacerated by scourges even to the innermost veins and arteries, so that the hidden inward parts of the body, both their bowels and their members, were exposed to view.” [Hist. eccl. 4.15.4]

    2. See Mt 27:32, Mk 15:21, Lk 23:26.
    3. So Jesus was a dead man regardless

      Shimon Gibson (NT archaeologist; professor): “The earlier scourging would undoubtedly have led to a massive loss of blood and the effect of carrying the heavy crossbeam on his shoulders to Golgotha would also have brought about substantial dehydration and exhaustion. Hence, it is not surprising that Jesus did not last very long on the cross, perhaps 3 to 6 hours at the most.” [The Final Days of Jesus (Harper Collins, 2009), 123.]

  • The executioner judged Jesus dead

    A centurion holds a magnifying glass up to a crucified man.

    The presiding Roman Centurian felt certain that Jesus was dead, as did the other soldiers (see Mk 15:24).

    Consider 2 arguments:

    • Roman executioners ensure death professionally.
    • The Centurion assured Pilate that Jesus was dead.

    This is relevant because the Centurion's belief was likely warranted.1, 2

    1. This should be granted. After all, Centurions were professional executioners, and Roman procedures to ensure death were very careful. Soldiers who accidentally allowed capital prisoners to escape suffered the death penalty.

      Bruce Chilton (NT professor at Yale): “These executioners knew what they were doing, and theories that Jesus somehow physically survived the cross represent a combination of fantasy, revisionism, and half-baked science.” [Mary Magdalene: A Biography (Doubleday, 2005), 75.]

    2. On the other hand, consider

      Richard Carrier (Classicist, speaker/author for atheism): “[The Centurion, upon Pilate's inquiry about Jesus's ostensible death,] does not go back to make sure or apply any other tests, but immediately affirms that Jesus is dead” [Why I Don't Buy the Resurrection Story (6th ed., 2006), online].

      Perhaps the Centurions belief was unwarranted? By way of response, however, consider three points:
      • For a skeptic like Carrier, this assumes a lot about Mark's intentions, accuracy, and knowledge. Notably, it assumes that Mark's report is historically accurate in saying that, after seeing Jesus's ostensible final breath, the Centurion announced “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (this is Carrier's sole justification for saying he “immediately affirms that Jesus is dead”). It also assumes both that Mark meant Jesus's ostensible final breath was the only reason the Centurion believed, and finally it assumes that Mark was right about this.
      • This assumes that the Centurion's confidence in his belief was strong enough to forgo any confirmation before or after Pilate summoned him. However, even if the Centurion flippantly came to believe/assume Jesus was dead after such a short time, the prior probability of his releasing Jesus's body flippantly, i.e. without any of the Roman soldiers having in any way confirmed death, is unacceptably low. (Notably: The assumption also requires that they didn't spear Jesus's side [contra Jn 19:34]).
      • This assumes that the Centurion's observing Jesus's ostensible final breath was an unwarranted reason for him to conclude Jesus was dead. But this is unclear. In fact, a crucifixion victim's final weak struggle for breath could be a rather overt indicator.
      Mike Licona (NT scholar/historian, apologist): “…the majority opinion is that He died by asphyxiation-or from a lack of oxygen.… A number of ancient sources report the practice of breaking legs in order to expedite death on the cross (Cicero, Orations, Speech 13, 12:27; Gospel of Peter 4:14. In the Gospel of Peter, breaking the legs is forbidden so that the crucified victim would suffer longer.)… Since the muscles used for inhaling are stronger than the muscles used for exhaling, carbon dioxide would build up and the victim would die an uncomfortable death. Experiments on live volunteers, suspended with the inability to touch the ground, revealed that one could not remain conscious longer than twelve minutes in this position, as long as their arms were at a 45- degree angle or less. Breaking the legs of a crucified victim would prevent them from pushing up against the nail in their feet, an excruciating move, in order to make it easier to breath, albeit temporarily. It is the opinion of my two ER physician friends that, due to the trauma already experienced by a crucified victim, once He had died on a cross from a lack of oxygen, and had remained dead in that position for five minutes, there would be no chance of resuscitating Him.”[“Can We Be Certain that Jesus Died On A Cross?” online at]

  • Jesus was speared in the side

    A Roman soldier speared Jesus in the side to ensure that he was dead.1 (Moreover, “blood and water came out,”2 a symptom of one of two conditions that requires the patient be dead.)3 This helps us answer or question because it is hardly plausible that someone in Jesus's condition who was moreover speared in the side, and specifically speared in a way so-as to ensure death, would after all this survive.

    1. This should be granted because it is stated explicitly in John 19:33-34 -- but coming to Jesus, when they saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out.
    2. Jn 19:34 reports Jesus was “pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out.
      • J.P. Holding (apologist, researcher): “…the testimony of our physician consult [Dr. Ted Noel], who is trained in critical care, says… ‘There is only one circumstance which fits both the story as given and medical science. That is the one where a patient has died and the blood in his heart has pooled long enough to fractionate into packed cells and serum. A spear thrust into the heart would allow these fluids to pour out with exactly the appearance recorded. … One alternative has been proposed with some plausibility. That one states that Jesus's trials lead to the accumulation of a pleural effusion. The apear then allowed that water to flow out. But such a circumstance would not lead to blood flowing out as described. That would require the spear to penetrate the heart.’” [And it is “rare”] [Defending the Resurrection (Xulon, 2010), 385.]
  • Contemporaries never doubted it

    A speech bubble arises out of a city (Jerusalem), and in the bubble is a man being crucified.

    Everyone from AD 30 onward persisted in believing that Jesus had died by crucifixion. This should be granted because sources from AD 30 onwards reported Jesus's death. Notably,

    • It was reported in the New Testament (The gospels, Paul's letters etc.).1
    • It was reported in non-canonical Christan sources,
    • It was reported in non-Christian sources. [Forthcoming]
    1. For example, Ignatius to the Trallians 9.1 -- “[Jesus] under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died…” [Trans. by Lightfoot]
  • The buriers judged Jesus dead

    Two men carry a stretcher with a dead person on it into a tomb.

    All those who were involved in the process of removing Jesus's body from the cross, wrapping it, and preparing it for burial were apparently unanimous in their observation that Jesus's body showed no signs of life, such as breathing or other vital functions. This observation is significant because, if Jesus had still been alive at that time, the individuals closely handling and carrying His body would have almost certainly detected those signs of life. They would have noticed indications such as breathing, the sensation of a heartbeat, or other subtle movements that accompany a living body. The unanimous agreement that no such signs were present underscores the conviction that Jesus was indeed lifeless at the time of burial, adding weight to the historical accounts of His death.

    1. Men involved in the process of removing Jesus's body from the cross, lifting it, carrying it, wrapping it, and preparing it for burial:
      (a) The Roman soldiers, who still had to manually remove Jesus from the cross
      (b) Jesus's Jewish buriers (e.g. the servants used by Joseph[Forthcoming]) had buried Jesus in a tomb[Forthcoming].
      Jesus's buriers had to…
      • …load and or otherwise transport the corpse to its tomb,
      • …carry it through the tomb-entrance (typically quite small),
      • …situate it on its bench,
      • …clean it,
      • …anoint it.
      • …wrap it in linens. In the midst of this, be mindful that >“Tannaitic sources repeatedly emphasize that it is forbidden to treat a person as dead until it is clearly ascertained that he has expired (Semahoth I).”[Shemuel Safrai (Professor emeritus of History of Jewish People at Hebrew U.), The Jewish People in the First Century (Van Goreum Fortress Press, 1976), 773.]
  • Crucifixion in general is fatal

    A group of people who are all crucified.

    Throughout the history of the Roman world, crucifixion was one of the most feared and brutal forms of execution. Victims who were subjected to this punishment were almost universally crucified to death. The process was intentionally designed to be slow and agonizing, leaving little chance for survival. The Romans perfected this method to ensure that death was all but inevitable, and as a result, survivors of crucifixion were either non-existent or so rare as to be virtually unheard of. This made crucifixion not only a punishment but a powerful deterrent and a symbol of Roman authority and control.1

    Consider 2 arguments:

    • Our abundant records of crucifixion unanimously end in death.
    • Death follows even partial-crucifixion.2

    This natural fate associated with Roman crucifixion is relevant because, truly, Jesus was crucified.3

    1. Christopher Bryan (NT professor at Sewanee): “I have scarcely more time for suggestions that the New Testament witness was the result of Jesus revival in the tomb. Anyone who imagines that… has very little idea what a crucifixion was like. To put the matter mildly, people did not walk away from it.” [The Resurrection of the Messiah (Oxford, 2011), 163.]
    2. Victims are inclined to die even if they are taken down alive and “have the greatest care taken of them” by a professional physician.

      Titus Flavius Josephus (AD 37 – c. 100 historian): “I saw many captives crucified; and remembered three of them as my former acquaintance. I… went… to Titus, and told him of them; so he immediately commanded them to be taken down and 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.” [The Life of (Flavius) Josephus 1.421 (trans. by Whiston)]

“No, after all…
  • The crucified rarely died within 3 hours

    A man hanging crucifixion-style with holes in his hands and feet and a clock behind him.

    Victims of crucifixion do not naturally die in the first three hours of being affixed to the cross.

    After all…

    • Crucifixion is a method of execution designed to be slow and agonizing, often leading to death through prolonged suffering and exhaustion rather than quick asphyxiation or loss of blood. In many historical instances, victims endured the torment of crucifixion for many hours, if not days, before succumbing.
    • We know that crucifixion commonly lasted for days.1 So, naturally,
    • Mk 15:44 -- “Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died.”

    The relatively brief period in which Jesus was reported to have died on the cross is therefore an anomaly when compared to the usual duration of suffering endured by others subjected to this brutal form of capital punishment.

    But, so what?

    • In Jerusalem during Passover-time, there was a pressure to have bodies dead and buried before sundown to prevent land-defilement. The Gospel reports indicate that Jesus was scouraged nearly to death before being nailed to the cross.2
      • Seneca, Dialogue 3:2.2 -- “Can anyone be found who would prefer wasting away in pain dying limb by limb, or letting out his life drop by drop, rather than expiring once for all? Can any man be found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree, long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly wounds on shoulders and chest, and drawing the breath of life amid long drawn-out agony? He would have many excuses for dying even before mounting the cross”
    1. Although certainly not uncommon, not all victims were scourged as severely as Jesus was.
  • : Jesus swooned on the cross

    Two man stand shocked, one with a fishing net. The are looking at a magician taking a bow before them.

    The swoon theory is true, meaning that rather than meeting death on the cross during His crucifixion, Jesus survived this brutal form of execution. He merely fainted or fell into a deep, unconscious state, rather than dying. Upon being taken down from the cross and placed in the tomb, he later revived and managed to escape, subsequently presenting himself as alive to His disciples.

    This relates to our question of whether Jesus survived crucifixion because a part of the swoon theory is precisely that Jesus did survive.