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Episode 41 - The Science Against Jesus' Death

Here we'll look at one of the best arguments for the idea that Jesus never died on the cross, so there was no resurrection. Two researchers published an article that uses modern medical science to explain how it could have been possible for someone to be crucified, and yet still live.

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Hello and welcome to the Ultimate Questions podcast. For the past few episodes we’ve been dealing with the swoon theory, which is one of the main ways non-Christians argue against the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We’ve discussed the logical side of the issue, in terms of whether the idea even makes sense. We’ve also handled the historical data surrounding crucifixion, to see whether it could be possible to survive a Roman crucifixion. In order to evaluate the non-Christian position, I’ve been using Bradley Bowen’s argument for the idea that Jesus survived His crucifixion. We’ve gone through his argument, and how it fails, quite extensively at this point. However, there’s one big aspect we haven’t delved into yet. Bowen, and those like him, think that it’s possible for someone to survive crucifixion, but there’s a massive problem with that; crucifixion kills people. In order to show that, I now want to take a look at the scientific and medical aspects of crucifixion, as a way of driving home the point that, no, a person could not have survived a Roman crucifixion. For this time we will evaluate whether it’s medically possible for Jesus to have survived, and then next episode we’ll go into the medical details as to Jesus’ cause of death.

To begin our medical evaluation, I think it’s appropriate for us to look at what is likely the best medical argument that argues that Jesus could have survived being crucified, which was written by Margaret and Trevor Lloyd Davies. Trevor Lloyd Davies was an occupational physician, but later in his life he married Margaret, who had an interest in theology. The two of them ended up writing a few controversial joint publications focused on putting a naturalistic and medical spin on some of the supernatural events within the Bible. One of these publications was an article for the Journal of the royal College of Physicians of London, titled Resurrection or Resuscitation? In it, the husband and wife writing duo argue that the abuse Jesus went through wasn’t really all that severe, and would not have caused Him to die. One of the aspects they focus on is the spear wound that the Gospel of John records. They question whether it really was a “stab”, and argue it could have merely been the soldier poking at Jesus, causing Him pain, rather than either verifying or ensuring death.

Even though they try to downplay the damage done to Jesus’ body, they do believe the torture was enough that it would have created severe blood loss, without becoming critical, especially in terms of blood and oxygen supply to the brain, which would have caused Jesus to collapse. When Jesus passed out, He would have gone into a state of shock, lost consciousness, which would have resulted in syncope. Jesus would have had an ashen appearance, and would have been entirely non-responsive. Because of this, the Roman centurions, the Jewish Sanhedrin, and all other observers, would have been convinced that Jesus had died. Since Jesus appeared dead, they would have removed Him from the cross. Once Jesus was removed from the cross, He would have been laid on the ground. Because His body was no longer upright, and was able to be laid down, circulation would have been restored, which would have allowed His body to start reviving. In addition to this, the eclipse of the sun would have lowered the temperature enough that it would have helped maintain His blood pressure. At this point, since Jesus was showing signs of life, He would not have been placed in a tomb, but instead, would have been medically cared for.

To continue their version of how the events unfolded, any time that one of Jesus’ followers claimed to have seen the risen Jesus, it was merely a case of a hallucination induced by the power of suggestion. They hold that no one saw Jesus in the flesh afterwards. The emotional trauma and shock produced elevated levels of suggestibility, which led to a psychological need within the disciples to invent the empty tomb story. They then kept telling each other stories about seeing Jesus, which increased individual and corporate suggestibility. The Lloyd Davies couple even make a strong statement that “Jesus's later appearances, whether real or supposed, are not compelling evidence for or against resurrection or resuscitation.”

Now, you might have noticed, it’s a bit difficult to follow the train of thought in their article at this point. I imagine it’s likely due to a simple case of bad writing, but I also think it’s because they haven’t really thought through their argument too carefully. They give this argument I’ve just spelled out, where Jesus’ body could appear dead, even though He was still alive, and would have allowed for Him to be given a chance to recover. They then say that, since Jesus showed signs of life, He would not have been placed in a tomb, but instead would have been taken away and attended. Then, any time someone claims to have seen the risen Jesus, it was merely a hallucination. Their position becomes difficult to follow for a couple of reasons. Firstly, did the Romans and Jewish Sanhedrin think Jesus was dead, or not? If they did, then Jesus would be buried in the tomb, and if they didn’t think Jesus was dead, then why did the Romans claim He had died? Even more importantly, if they saw signs of life in Jesus, why did they not finish the job they were ordered to do? And secondly, the hallucination theory doesn’t fit the course of events as they’ve laid them out. Do they believe Jesus died, or not? Their story goes that Jesus didn’t die, and wasn’t even laid in a tomb, because He showed signs of life. If this is the case, then why could Jesus’ appearances to the disciples not merely be a case of Jesus showing Himself to them? If He had a chance to recover, as the article implies, then this would make sense. Why did the two Lloyd Davies need to appeal to hallucinations? They also said that the resurrection appearances do not work as compelling evidence for the resurrection. How could they possibly make that claim? It seems that having multiple individuals writing down their personal accounts of Jesus appearing to them, and alluding to hundreds of others’ accounts, would be incredibly powerful evidence. Simply dismissing it outright can only be intellectual laziness. I would argue that their motivation in these points is related to the argument given by David Strauss, that we went through in episode 38 of this podcast. Strauss’ point against the swoon theory was that, even if Jesus had survived, He would have been a broken and bloody mess, and no one would have thought Jesus had resurrected. If Jesus had massive open wounds all over his body, couldn’t walk, and was near death, no one in their right mind would call it a “resurrection”, and they definitely wouldn’t think Jesus was the Son of God, or that He had a glorified body. With this thought in mind, even if the argument from the Lloyd Davies couple worked, and Jesus did survive, it still doesn’t explain how people could think Jesus was the resurrected Son of God. In order to account for this, they need to add the hallucination aspect in order to explain all the appearances, and the early worship of Jesus. However, this seems to make their argument completely pointless. If they think the sightings of Jesus were hallucinations, why bother trying to argue that Jesus only passed out in the first place?

There are many other problems with their argument. For example, what about the empty tomb? If we try to piece their argument tother into something coherent, even then the empty tomb doesn’t make any sense. If they’re correct, and Jesus was never placed in the tomb in the first place, then how did the story get around that the tomb was empty? The opening wouldn’t have been sealed if no one had been placed inside, so it would have been obvious it was empty. Why were the guards sent to guard a tomb that hadn’t been used? Or, if there were no soldiers sent to guard the tomb, how could this rumor spread, and why would the Romans and Jews not deny it altogether? Why wouldn’t the Sanhedrin merely tell people Jesus had not died, so He had never been in the tomb at all? And all of this brings us back to the major problem with this whole theory; why in the world would the executioner, the Roman centurion, and the Jewish Sanhedrin, be okay with Jesus surviving crucifixion? On this theory Jesus showed signs of life, so He wasn’t laid in the tomb. If this is correct, then did the Sanhedrin and the Romans just not know this? If so, then Jesus would have been put in the tomb, which brings us back to the first problem. Overall, the whole concept is so full of holes that it’s difficult to even piece it together, nonetheless treat it as a serious argument.

In their article, the Lloyd Davies couple claim that their goal is to create a hypothesis that “accepts the historical events surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus but explains what happened in the light of modern knowledge.” However, it doesn’t seem like that’s what they’ve done. They’ve invented an interesting story, and used some medical jargon to try and back it up, but it’s incredibly speculative, and generally just made up. They also ignore any aspects of the story that gives them difficulty, so it’s definitely not accurate at all to say they’ve accepted the historical events surrounding the crucifixion. All they’ve done is taken modern medical knowledge, and applied it in an ad hoc way, when there’s absolutely no reason to believe the story they’ve concocted. For example, they say that the spear wound was just a pricking. While it is true that the Romans would have fun thinking of new ways to torment their victims, in this case we have no reason to think that’s true. Also, we actually do have historical reasons to think this sort of practice did occur. In Quintilian’s Declamations Majores 6:9 it says that crucifixion victims who were “pierced” were allowed burial. As I said in the last episode of the podcast, “John Cook comments on this, saying that the normal way this term ‘percussus’ was used regarding executions was that it was connected with a final blow or piercing from a sword, axe, or spear. So given the context, it implies a weapon being used to ensure death.” Additionally, later on Jesus meets Thomas and tells him to stick his fingers into the spear wound. This wouldn’t be possible if it were merely a pricking, and implies there was an actual deep wound. Also, the soldier in charge had been given a direct command by his superior to verify death, which would have required a fatal piercing. If he had ignored this order, it would have meant a severe penalty, even possibly death. So why does the Lloyd Davies couple think the spear wound didn’t happen? They have no argument for it at all, nor is history their field of expertise. They merely assert it, because it helps their argument. They are ignoring data that causes problems for their theory, which is confirmation bias.

Another way they ignore the data is that they claim the Gospel of John is unreliable in general, so they don’t accept any of the very valuable information from the Gospel that gives them difficulty. For example, John describes that blood and water came out when the soldier pierced Jesus, which is a valuable medical sign that there had been stress on Jesus’ heart, and that the spear had pierced Jesus’s diaphragm, a pleural or pericardial effusion (which is water on the lungs or heart), and then the heart. This was done as a way to verify or ensure death. Why do these writers distrust the Gospel of John? All they say is that John was medically unreliable because of the Lazarus story. No explanation is given for this point of theirs at all. I have looked into this matter, and I haven’t found any arguments anywhere that John somehow gives problematic medical points in the story of the resurrection of Lazarus. The only thing I can think of is that this is just a blatant disregard for anything miraculous. It looks like they’re dismissing the Gospel of John, purely because it contains miracles, which is obviously a biased way to approach the text.

They also disregard all the sightings of Jesus by His followers, before, after, and during the meeting in Galilee that the Gospels and Acts describe. Here we have multiple attestations by different authors, with hundreds of witnesses willing to vouch for it, and the Lloyd Davies couple merely dismiss it, ignoring the data, all while trying to say they accept the historical facts of the stories. In what other academic field are you allowed to completely ignore data, simply because it hurts your theory? In what other argument could you get away with such a clear case of ad hoc reasoning, where they’re obviously making up stories to confirm their own biases? The only reason this has been permitted is because we’re talking about the supernatural. However, there’s an even worse problem for their argument here, which is found in the nature of crucifixion.

The problem with crucifixion, as I’ve mentioned before, is that the exact way the Romans went about it changed quite a bit from case to case. The executioners were allowed to get creative, and would crucify their victims in varying positions, and with varying tortures. Sometimes the victim would be given a seat, sometimes they were pierced in the genitals to hold them upright. Sometimes they used ropes, sometimes nails. They used various contorted positions to crucify their victims as well. Even the flogging and other tortures before the crucifixion varied quite a bit. Because of this, crucifixion could take a half an hour, or it could take multiple days, or anything in-between. It also depends upon the strength of the person, and their ability to stay upright on the cross. In the next episode of the podcast we’ll go over more details about how crucifixion killed the victim, but for now, it’s important to know that the most likely cause of death for crucifixion victims was actually a slow process of asphyxiation. If the victim was able to keep themselves propped upright, either by having a seat, pushing themselves up on the nail in their feet, or just by chinning themselves up through their arm strength, then they could continue to breath, and last longer. If they were not able to push themselves up, because they lacked strength, or had passed out, then they would quickly perish due to asphyxiation. Again, we’ll go over that in more detail next time, but the point I want to emphasize here is that this both explains why Jesus’ death came so quickly, and why the argument from the Lloyd Davies couple fails so badly. In the Lloyd Davies’ article, their own argument is dependent upon the fact that Jesus passed out. They argue this happened due to the flogging that Jesus received, since He would have had a severe amount of blood loss. If this is true, which it very well could be, then Jesus would have been unable to prop Himself up, or pull Himself up. The Lloyd Davies couple argues that Jesus was sitting down on what is called a sedile, which is like a seat for the victim, which allows them to survive longer. However, in John 19:32 it says the soldiers came to break Jesus and the two thieves’ ankles to hurry death. If they were sitting on sediles, then breaking the ankles would be pointless, because it would not hasten the death. Therefore, we can be assured they were not seated. So, if Jesus had passed out, as they argue, then He was not capable of raising Himself up, and He would have died quite quickly. So, not only does this explain why Jesus died so quickly, but it also shows us that, even if we grant the Lloyd Davies couple’s point about passing out, we still arrive at Jesus dying.

To continue pointing out the problems with this argument, the Lloyd Davies couple also says that Jesus must not have died, because crucifixions normally took 3-4 days to kill someone. It is common for skeptics to point out that Pilate marvelled at how quickly Jesus had died, because it usually took longer. Then, because of that, it makes us think that maybe Jesus hadn’t actually died. Now in one sense they’re right, because there were many cases where crucifixion would take a long time to kill the person. However, it is definitely not a fact that it always took that long. Even if it was incredibly odd for the victim to die this fast, the Romans weren’t just assuming Jesus was dead. Pilate was surprised that Jesus died so fast, so he commanded the executioner to verify Jesus’ death. It makes perfect sense that, since it took less time than usual, they would take extra steps to make sure He had actually died. The soldier did in fact verify the death, and we do have a written account of this, but again, these authors merely dismiss this without argument.

In terms of the timing, it’s important to point out a couple of comments here. Firstly, the amount of time wasn’t that short, and secondly, the timing actually helps us see that Jesus definitely did in fact die, even though that’s counter intuitive. So first, how long was Jesus on the cross? Some skeptics, including the Lloyd Davies couple, try to claim that the Gospel accounts contradict each other in terms of the timing of the events, however, this is only because the authors of the Gospels wrote to different audiences, and the different audiences measured time differently. For example, the Gospels of Matthew and Mark were written to a Jewish audience, which understood the beginning of the day as about 6am. So the third hour would be 9am, and the ninth hour would be 3pm, and so on. However, the Gospel of John was written to a Greek audience, which is quite obvious in a few ways that we don’t have time to go into right now. This audience used the Roman measurements of time, which understood the day as beginning at midnight, like we do. So when they say “the sixth hour”, they mean 6am. With this in mind, the Gospels agree with each other, and form a coherent story where Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate was about 6am, Jesus was crucified about 9am, and He died at about 3pm. This means Jesus was alive on the cross for roughly six hours. While that is shorter than many crucifixions, it’s actually a decent amount of time, and quite definitely long enough for a person to expire. It wasn’t as though His time on the cross was so short that it casts doubt on His death.

The second point regarding timing is that it actually helps us see that Jesus definitely had enough time to die. I’ve said before that the amount of time it took the victim to die depended on the strength of the victim. Why? Remember just a moment ago I mentioned that the victim would have to push themselves up in order to breathe properly again. If the person had a lot of strength, they would be able to continue doing this for a long time. In many cases the Romans crucified people in large groups, which would have meant they weren’t beaten nearly as severely, they would have had a lot more strength, and they would have lasted a lot longer. However, if they were sapped of strength for some reason, like, let’s say, they had been tortured severely just before, as Jesus had been, then the victim wouldn’t have had the strength to keep pushing themselves up. If they weren’t pushing upwards, they wouldn’t be able to breathe properly, and death would come much faster. We’ll go into this aspect in greater detail in the next episode of the podcast, but the point for now is that, if the person can’t push themselves up, then they will die. In this sense, passing out is actually deadly for a victim of crucifixion. The fact that Jesus was exhausted is evidenced by the fact that He wasn’t capable of carrying his cross beam, and required help. He had lost a great deal of blood as well. If He was this exhausted, that would actually drastically hasten His death. The Lloyd Davies couple brings these things up as a way of trying to say that Jesus probably just passed out on the cross. The interesting thing is, they could very well be correct! However, if Jesus did pass out, then He would have died very quickly, because He would have stopped pushing Himself upwards. So in terms of timing, if Jesus was already exhausted by the beating and blood loss, and was then on the cross six hours, if He was then in the low position, not pushing Himself upwards, then He would have died very quickly, and this amount of time we have record of would be more than enough for Him to die. The Lloyd Davies couple is trying to make it seem like if Jesus just passed out, then He could have survived, when the exact opposite is true, that if Jesus passed out then He would have certainly died.

A major problem with the argument made by the Lloyd Davies couple, is how they go about using their data. Firstly, they’ve ignored data that contradicts the point their trying to prove, which is a fallacious way to argue. But then secondly, they’re not actually describing the most likely scenario, and instead, they’re beginning with the presupposition that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, and then trying to give a medical explanation about how that could be possible. Once, again, this is a fallacious way to argue, one that I’ve mentioned quite a few times, which is ad hoc reasoning. Basically, we have no reason to believe the medical situation they have described. The real problem here, is that their entire argument and explanation is incredibly speculative. There’s no reason to think Jesus’ torture prior to crucifixion wasn’t that bad. No reason to think the executioner would mistake passing out for death

No reason to think the spear wound was a prick. No reason to think crucifixion must take days. No reason to think the eclipse of the sun caused Jesus’ blood pressure to not get critical. And there’s no reason to think the appearances of Jesus were just hallucinations. Their argument depends on all of these points, but there’s no reason to think any of them are true, which proves their argument is incredibly speculative, and entirely ad hoc. This is the nature of a conspiracy theory. Yes, it’s possible that it could be true. Yes, you can work some of the data in a way that it goes in the direction you want it to. However, all you have is mere possibility, not probability. The evidence against the position is ignored, and huge amounts of speculation invent a story that is incredibly unlikely.

After evaluating their argument and data, it seems obvious there are far too many holes in their argument to stand up. However, I think there’s a deeper problem, and shows an unwillingness to accept the truth, even if it stares them in the face. This kind of thinking is the real reason why people will not accept the resurrection, and must come up with these sorts of conspiracy theory type arguments that rely on an absurd amount of speculation. In their article, they make it quite apparent that they have a very clear case of bias against the miraculous. We’ve dealt with this in episode 31, and then the few episodes after that as well, so check those out if you want to go deeper into this concept. At the end their article, the Lloyd Davies couple makes a statement that seems very rational, and is the sort of thing many of us would gladly accept. They write, “Faith does not require the abandonment of thought or the assent to concepts not scientifically acceptable. The Church will be strong if it accommodates proven knowledge within its creeds. If it does not, all that is left is blind belief, far beyond the credulity of most people.” For the most part this seems like a good statement, however, there’s a couple of very problematic points here that show where their true intent lies. Firstly, they say the Church should accommodate proven knowledge, however, they have given many, many claims in their argument, that they treat as if it's “proven knowledge”, when there’s actually no reason to believe what they say. As I said earlier, this is a clear case of ad hoc reasoning, where they’ve basically made a story up out of thin air, with a lot of speculation, but they’re treating it as if it’s objective fact. In other words, they’re making an appeal to their own authority, as if they know the way things really are, and anyone who thinks differently has “blind belief”, and is “beyond the credulity of most people”.

The second problem in their very biased statement is that they said that our faith should not be accepting concepts that are not “scientifically acceptable”. This seems good on the surface, but the underlying philosophy here is circular, and ends up being very dangerous. Essentially, the point they’re making is that, for something to be true, it has to be scientifically verifiable. This is referred to as “scientism”, where someone has science as the be-all and end-all of how we as humans acquire knowledge. We’ll go into this concept of scientism at some point in the podcast, likely much later in the series, but for now, the point is to notice that not everything requires scientific justification to be true. As easy example here, things like ethics are non-scientific, and cannot be justified scientifically, and yet it’s still obviously an immoral thing to torture someone for fun, and morally good to help people get access to clean water. In this case, miracles are not scientifically justifiable, in fact, a miracle is something that goes against the normal way that the natural world operates; that’s why we call it a miracle. This is a common point in people who are biased against miracles, where they say that miracles are “unscientific”. However, all they’re doing is slapping a big label on themselves that tells everyone how biased they are. They are unwilling to ever consider any answers that go outside of the ability of science. With the Lloyd Davies couple in mind, they are coming to this argument with the presumption that everything will have a scientific answer, and thus, there will be no miracles. If that’s true, then there must be something we can do to explain all the data, without having Jesus actually be resurrected. This is their starting point, so it becomes impossible for them to accept that Jesus could have actually risen. This is a clear case of bias, where they have the goal of trying to “fix” the story to be completely naturalistic. This is a terribly fallacious way to go about an argument, and shows us that they’re not really serious in engaging with the evidence.

To summarize, the Lloyd Davies couple has tried to use modern medical data to give a situation where Jesus could have survived crucifixion. They do this by creating a very presumptuous story, filled with points that have no reason to be believed, and ignoring many points that we have good reason to believe. This is clearly confirmation bias, where they will dismiss points that hurt their theory, as well as ad hoc, where they will invent new points, without good reason, simply because they help their theory. They also have made it obvious that they are biased against miracles, and are arguing in a circle by assuming their conclusion of a naturalistic explanation before beginning the argument. All of their logical problems aside, even if we grant the points that they make that Jesus must have passed out, we still arrive at Jesus dying on the cross. This is because, if He passed out, then He wouldn’t be able to push Himself up, and He would have died very quickly. In other words, this is one of the best attempts to prove, using modern medicine, that Jesus could have survived crucifixion, and it fails miserably. Rather than going down the road of the conspiracy theory, let’s just take the evidence for what it is, and admit that Jesus did die on the cross back two thousand years ago on that fateful Good Friday. If we put this together with the other points from earlier episodes of the podcast, our case for Jesus’ resurrection becomes even more secure.

In this episode, I’ve only responded to one of the better arguments for the swoon theory, using modern medicine and science. In the next episode, I’ll use modern medicine and science, giving more details for the cause of death of Jesus during His crucifixion. So I hope you’ll join me next time, for a medical look at the death of Jesus, here on the Ultimate Questions podcast.


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