Episode 42 - Jesus' Cause of Death
What kills a person when they are crucified? The answer is probably quite different than you imagine. To wrap up the Swoon Theory, we will look at what exactly killed Jesus by examining the medicine and science behind crucifixion. After showing exactly what kills a person in crucifixion, we'll be able to definitively say that, yes, Jesus did in fact die on that cross two thousand years ago.
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Hello and welcome to the Ultimate Questions podcast. For the past few episodes we’ve been looking at the possibility that Jesus might not have died on the cross. This concept is usually called the “Swoon Theory”, and is an attempt by the non-Christian to disprove the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the last episode we looked at a rare example of an argument that Jesus didn’t die, using modern scientific and medical knowledge. I pointed out that, while the authors did use medical concepts to advocate for the idea that Jesus didn’t die, the actual story they created was incredibly speculative and contrived, in other words, completely made up. For that, and many other reasons, their argument didn’t stand up. One big aspect that I brought up was that, even if Jesus just passed out on the cross, His passing out would actually lead very quickly to His death. This is because crucifixion kills a person by asphyxiation, because when they hang on the cross, they cannot breathe properly. If you listened to the last episode, you may have thought to yourself, “Where are you getting that idea from? How can being nailed to a cross by your hands and feet stop you from breathing? How can that possibly make any sense, since their necks weren’t squeezed in any way?” So for this episode of the podcast, I want to see how today’s medical knowledge can help us understand the nature of crucifixion, how it affects its victims, and even aid us in understanding the cause of death for crucifixion victims, including Jesus of Nazareth.
To begin our evaluation of Jesus’ cause of death, we should look at the various views scholars have held in regards to this question. In an article by Habermas, Kopel, and Shaw, they gathered all the different scholarly views as to what killed Jesus on the cross, and compiled it into a nice list. They pointed out that we can’t really give a definitive answer to the question of how someone dies when crucified, because there are simply too many variables. As I’ve said before, many things affect how long it takes the person to die, and these factors also affect how the person dies. For example, how severely was the person flogged beforehand? Were they strong or weak prior to execution? What sorts of creative measures did the executioner employ? What position was the person crucified in? And so on. Because of this, we can’t give a perfect answer, however, we do have various possible answers as to what could have killed Jesus. These possibilities include pulmonary embolism, cardiac rupture, suspension trauma, a fatal stab wound, shock, and asphyxiation. In the past, there had been a large amount of focus on the leading cause of death in crucifixion being pulmonary embolism, which is when a blood clot forms, and travels to the pulmonary artery, which, if untreated, stops blood from leaving the heart, leading to low blood oxygen levels, and will kill someone. One big problem with this is that, while blunt and piercing trauma can cause blood clots to form, that is not an immediate danger. In Jesus’ case, He was flogged in the morning, and died in the afternoon. It seems fairly unlikely that a blood clot was the most dangerous thing happening in His system within that time frame. Additionally, we know that crucifixion still kills a person, even if they are not beaten beforehand, so a blood clot isn’t the main cause of death for crucifixion.
Because of these issues with the idea of pulmonary embolism being the cause of death for Jesus, in recent years more work has been done on this, and the consensus is now that the main cause of death was asphyxiation which led to hypoxia, which is when you have low levels of oxygen in your tissues. This happened because the crucifixion victim would have increased stress on their arms and chest, due to the position they were put on the cross. Because of this added stress, the chest would be restricted, and exhaling would be very difficult, and wouldn’t happen naturally. While they weren’t being choked, they weren’t able to breathe properly, which would lead to a lack of oxygen in their blood, tissues, and organs, and they would then die.
In their study on the different views, Habermas, Kopel, and Shaw counted 42 academics that had written on what exactly killed Jesus. Four people wrote that the main cause of death was cardiovascular trauma, three said it was shock, two said suspension trauma, one said coagulopathy, which would basically be severe blood loss, one said syncope, and then three didn’t believe Jesus actually died. However, there were four that wrote the main cause of death was asphyxiation with other secondary factors, then 24 writers who said the main cause of death was asphyxiation. In other words, if you count those who hold that the primary cause of death was asphyxiation, they are double that of all the other views combined. The authors of this article then comment that “historians have long agreed that Jesus died; medical specialists now seem to be growing in agreement on how Jesus died.”
It’s also important to briefly look at these other views, even though they’re far less popular, just to see how they fair on their own. In regards to shock being the cause of death, this is still quite possible, but there’s a problem. If Jesus died by shock, basically what would have happened is the flogging He endured beforehand would cause excessive bleeding, and low blood pressure, which would then result in hypoxia, which again is a lack of oxygen in the tissues and organs. In a sense, shock and asphyxiation have the same end result, being hypoxia, but with shock it’s due to blood loss and low blood pressure, and with asphyxiation there’s just not enough oxygen getting to the blood in the first place. So the question becomes, was Jesus’ death because of blood loss, or lack of proper breathing? Did He die because of the flogging, or the actual crucifixion? Again, it’s very possible Jesus died purely by the flogging, but there are two issues. Firstly, many people survived the flogging, and remained on the cross for a long time. Secondly, many people were crucified without any flogging, and yet they still died. So our question as to what actually kills a crucifixion victim seems to be answered by the actual crucifixion, rather than the beating beforehand.
Next, another interesting thing is that a couple of the views are actually not causes of death, but simply contributing factors to death. Syncope and suspension trauma both describe how a person passes out, rather than describing how their body actually expires. Yes, the person passed out, and maybe this was due to how their body was strung up, but how exactly they died is still a question that needs to be answered. Because of this, they shouldn’t really be considered as a legitimate answer to the cause of death. Additionally, the three that wrote that Jesus didn’t actually die shouldn’t be considered legitimate either, for the reasons that we’ve gone through in previous episodes of this podcast, which show that it’s quite unreasonable, and even ridiculous, to propose that someone could survive a Roman crucifixion. In the last episode of this podcast, we went into great detail regarding one of those articles advocating for Jesus not dying, which was written by the Lloyd Davies husband and wife duo, so check that out if you want to see why I’m not giving this argument too much credibility.
The remaining two views were four writers saying Jesus’ cause of death was cardiovascular trauma, and then one writer saying it was coagulopathy. As I mentioned, coagulopathy is basically saying Jesus died because of blood loss, in this case because His blood wasn’t coagulating enough to heal up His wounds. However, coagulopathy is usually caused by a genetic disorder, where the person’s blood doesn’t clot properly. It seems quite odd, considering the extreme nature of crucifixion, for someone to assume Jesus only died because He had some kind of blood disorder. In terms of Jesus dying by pure blood loss, we should also think about the other crucifixion victims during that time. With Jesus, yes, He was beaten and flogged quite severely, where maybe He could have bled out. This was also true of many other crucifixion victims, where the flogging was actually part of the crucifixion sentence. However, there were also many victims that were crucified quickly, and were just thrown up on the cross. In these cases, obviously blood loss wouldn’t be the cause of death, because there would only be a few wounds, and in some cases none, if the Romans used ropes. So, again, we ask ourselves, what is it that kills a person when they are crucified? There can definitely be many different ways death can come about, but as we’ll see, it looks like the main thing causing death is actually the stress put on the arms and chest, which causes a lack of exhaling, which results in a severe and fatal lack of oxygen reaching the tissues and organs.
The other view that still remains on the table for Jesus’ cause of death was cardiovascular trauma, meaning, that Jesus was beaten so severely that His heart shut down, or, that the piercing to His side by the Roman executioner would have hit His heart, and was what finally killed Jesus. If it was the spear wound, we can look to some of the content from previous episodes of this podcast which show that Jesus was already dead by this point, because He had been in the low position long enough to be dead. The Roman was merely confirming death, to ensure they didn’t let a living man off the cross. When I say that Jesus was in the low position long enough to kill Him, this also comes back to the main cause of death being asphyxiation. In crucifixion, the victim can’t breathe properly, so they push themselves up by their feet, or pull themselves up by their arms. This then allows them to exhale fully again, which can revitalize their tissues and organs with a fresh oxygen supply. If, however, they are exhausted enough, or have passed out, then they cannot push themselves up, and their body will slowly shut down due to lack of oxygen. In the case of Jesus, He cried out, then His body went limp. The writers of the New Testament that gave their eyewitness accounts said that this was the moment that Jesus gave up His spirit. However, even if you ignore that aspect of Jesus deliberately dying on His own, from the position of onlookers, Jesus’ body still went limp. If He went limp, then at the very least He passed out. Given a little time, His body would have shut down. The Romans knew this, which is why they could confirm that Jesus had died, since He had been in the low position long enough. However, just to make sure, the solider pierced Jesus’ side to verify and ensure death. So, if someone believes Jesus’ cause of death was cardiovascular trauma that happened when Jesus’ side was pierced, then they should actually hold that Jesus died by asphyxiation, and that this trauma happened after He was already dead. However, it is still a possibility that Jesus died because of the previous beating He sustained before going to the cross. That said, we have no reason to believe that He suffered severe blunt trauma to his heart prior the being crucified, so the most reasonable view would still be full body asphyxiation caused by the crucifixion itself, leading to a lack of oxygen going to His tissue and organs.
To summarize their view of how exactly Jesus died, Habermas, Kopel, and Shaw write, “Once nailed to the cross, the prolonged immobilization and pressure on the thoracic cavity could well
have led to a slow asphyxiation.” The way this happened, as I’ve mentioned, is when the victim would go into the “low position” on the cross. In some artwork that depicts Jesus’ crucifixion, you can see Jesus hanging, limp, with His hands or forearms nailed on the cross beam, but because He is limp, His body is sagging downwards, causing His head and chest to be a good bit lower than where His hands were nailed. In this type of low position, inhaling would be easy, but exhaling would feel impossible, because of the stress on the muscles and chest. In an article in The Journal of the American Medical Association, the writer comments that the weight of the body “pulling down on the outstretched arms and shoulders, would tend to fix the intercostal muscles in an inhalation state and thereby hinder passive exhalation. Accordingly, exhalation was primarily diaphragmatic, and breathing was shallow. It is likely that this form of respiration would not suffice and that hypercarbia would soon result. The onset of muscle cramps or tetanic contractions, due to fatigue and hypercarbia”, which is an increase of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream, would then “hinder respiration even further. Adequate exhalation required lifting the body by pushing up on the feet and by flexing the elbows and adducting the shoulders. However, this maneuver would place the entire weight of the body on the tarsals and would produce searing pain. Furthermore, flexion of the elbows would cause rotation of the wrists about the iron nails and cause fiery pain along the damaged median nerves. Lifting of the body would also painfully scrape the scourged back against the rough wooden stipes. Muscle cramps and paresthesias”, which is the pins and needles feeling we get when our leg falls asleep, “of the outstretched and uplifted arms would add to the discomfort. As a result, each respiratory effort would become agonizing and tiring and lead eventually to asphyxia.” Jeremy Ward, a physiologist at King’s College London, wrote that “The resultant lack of oxygen in the blood would cause damage to tissues and blood vessels, allowing fluid to diffuse out of the blood into tissues, including the lungs and the sac around the heart”. This then not only explains the cause of death, but also explains why blood and water poured out when the soldier pierced Jesus’ side. Fluid diffusing in the sac around the heart is part of the process when the body has a lack of oxygen going to the tissues.
While the victim wouldn’t be suffocating in the same way as being strangled, they could still feel themselves not being able to breathe properly. They would then push upwards in order to breathe again. This process is actually the reason why some crucifixions would take a very long time. The Romans used crucifixion as a form of execution, but it also had the goal of torture and deterrent. They wanted the victims to be in agonizing pain for as long as possible, in order to show criminals and enemies of Rome what they were in for, to prevent future cases of crime and rebellion. In order to maximize the torturous experience, they would give the victim something to stand on, or a seat, or they would just nail their feet to the cross. This enabled the victim to push themselves up easier, which would allow them to survive longer. This is because the cause of death is full body asphyxiation, where the body just doesn’t get enough oxygen, so the tissues and organs start failing. If the Romans were to merely nail the victim’s hands to the cross, death would actually come quite quickly. The Romans knew exactly what they were doing, and by learning about how the Romans implemented crucifixion, we can actually confirm our theory on the cause of death, because the Romans were trying to prolong the process, by giving the person something to push up on, allowing them to breathe a bit better, in order to further the torture.
The positions of the nails are also something worthy of mentioning. In artwork and dramatic recreations of the crucifixion, we often see Jesus being nailed in the hands. In actuality, it would likely have been the wrists or forearm. Some will take issue with this, pointing out that Scripture says it was the hands in John 20:27, however, the word isn’t quite so straightforward. The word in Greek is “cheir”, which is usually used in referenced to power, like “the hand of the Lord”. However, we also see it used in Acts 12:7 when it says that the chains fell off Peter’s “wrists”. The New Testament never uses any Greek words for wrist, and instead the same word “cheir” is used. When looking at this from a medical point of view, some say that nailing the palm to the cross beam wouldn’t be practical, because, as gross as it sounds, the flesh would rip right through, and the person would fall off the cross. Even if this didn’t happen all the time, it was a possibility, and would make the task more difficult for the Romans. It would make far more sense for the nail to be driven in-between the bones, the ulna and the radius, so that if the victim went into the low position, where they would be hanging by the nail, the nail would get stuck in-between the two bones, thus stopping the victim’s flesh from ripping through, and having them fall off the cross.
In terms of the nail placement for the feet, there have been many writers that have tried to advance their own ideas. I have read people who go into great detail about where exactly the nail would be driven, and how this would affect the victim, going into details about how doing it a certain way would cause intense pain. However, based on archeological evidence of two crucifixion victims’ bodies that have been found, it looks like the nail actually went through the heel bone. The one case we have is referred to as “Fenstanton man”, and for the other case, the remains were found in an ossuary, so we even know the person’s name, which was Jehohanan the son of Hagkol. In Jehohanan’s case, those studying his remains wrote that, “The feet were joined almost parallel, both transfixed by the same nail at the heels, with the legs adjacent; the knees were doubled, the right one overlapping the left; the trunk was contorted; the upper limbs were stretched out, each stabbed by a nail in the forearm.” So even though some modern writers have gotten creative with their thoughts on what crucifixion possibly looked like, when we review the actual evidence, the victims were nailed in the wrist or lower forearm, and then again in the heels.
For the most part, what we know about crucifixion comes from ancient evidence, like writings that described the procedure, and the little bit of archeological evidence I just mentioned. The way we understand crucifixion medically is mostly through inference, where medical professionals and scientists that understand human anatomy comment on how these ancient descriptions would affect a person’s body. This can be quite helpful and illuminating, but we can actually go a step further. As odd as it sounds, we do actually have modern day examples that can help us understand the nature of crucifixion. Near the end of the second world war, a German medical doctor and radiologist named Herman Mödder asked for male volunteers from the university. They were volunteering to be crucified. Now I know that sounds insane, but he didn’t use nails, and it wasn’t to the point of death. He just wanted to see what sorts of physiological effects stringing a person up would have, mimicking the way it was done by the Romans, to see how exactly crucifixion affected the victim. They “were hung from crosses or suspended from overhead structures while being monitored carefully, while still losing consciousness in a maximum of just twelve minutes.” This might sound strange, but remember that the crucifixion victims of ancient Rome usually had something holding them up, like nails through the feet, something to stand on, or a seat, or they were pierced in the groin. Regardless of the method they chose, the Roman executioners would usually do something to help keep the victim up a bit, so that the torturous experience would last longer. Again, the reason death finally came for the Roman victims was because the person would droop into the low position, which would cause stress on their chest, disabling them from breathing properly. In this case done by the German doctor, they didn’t have something supporting them, so they were beginning the process in a permanent low position. The reason they passed out in a maximum of twelve minutes was because that’s how severe hanging in the low position on a cross is on the human body. So when we see in the Gospels that Pilate marvelled at how quickly Jesus died, and yet the Roman executioner still apparently knew Jesus was dead, it makes complete sense, because the executioner would have known how severe hanging on the cross in the low position was, and would have known Jesus would be dead by then. In these experiments done by Hermann Mödder, the victim’s bodies went through enough of a lack of oxygen that they passed out in a max of twelve minutes.
In a more disturbing case, during World War I, the Austrio-German army had a form of punishment referred to as “Aufbinden”. Dr. Hynek observed this process, and said that they would hang the condemned individual by the hands using leather straps onto a horizontal post. Their feet would be just off the ground, and wouldn’t be giving them support. In another disturbing example, the Nazis used crucifixion as a form of execution with their prisoners, although this was rare. A notable piece of evidence of this was from two eye witnesses who were prisoners at the Dachau death camp. The hanging process described was quite similar to the Austrio-German method of punishment in World War I I mentioned. In these cases, the victims very quickly had trouble breathing, and in order to get some relief, they would chin themselves up, pushing their head higher, which would relieve the stress on their chests, and allow them to breathe normally for a moment. As this continued, they would be able to chin themselves up for less time. In some cases, the executioners would tie weights around their feet, so as to stop the victims from being able to pull themselves up, causing them to rapidly asphyxiate. I can’t help but notice how similar that is to the process described in the book of John where the executioner was commanded to break the legs of the victims, in order to hurry death. In both cases, it stops the victim from being able to get their head higher, which would relieve stress on the chest, and allow them to get some normal breaths of air, so they could continue a little more. In the Nazi death camps, however, they would then take away the weight after a few minutes, which would then allow the prisoner to pull themselves up again, which would greatly relieve the asphyxiation, in order to prolong the agony. Here is a quote from the account of this that is found in A Doctor at Calvary, by Pierre Barbet, where he gives the testimony of the eyewitnesses and comments on it.
“After hanging for an hour, this drawing up became more and more frequent, but at the same time more and more feeble. Asphyxia set in, progressively and finally. This was evident from the fact that the thoracic frame was swelled out to it maximum, and the epigastric hollows was extremely concave, the legs were stiff and hung without movement. The skin became violet in color. A profuse sweat appeared all over the body, dropping down to the ground and staining the cement. It was especially abundant, indeed to an extraordinary extent, during the last few minutes before death; the hair and beard were literally drenched. And this, though the temperature was at freezing point. The dying man must have had a high temperature.”
When the victims finally died, their bodies were extremely rigid, and their heads were falling forward. It usually took around three hours for the person to die during these Nazi executions. Considering Jesus was on the cross six hours, there was more than enough time for Him to expire by this method.
I’ve mentioned Dr. Gary Habermas quite a few times in my podcast, since he’s one of the leading experts on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He once told a very interesting story regarding the process of crucifixion killing by asphyxiation. He said that one day he received a random call from a stranger, who said they were the North American expert on tree stand death and hunting accidents. They said that someone had told them that Dr. Habermas might be able to help them understand a recent death a bit better, because it looked quite similar to crucifixion. Dr. Habermas was obviously quite confused, being a historian and New Testament scholar. The person on the phone described a recent death that occurred, where someone had been climbing into a tree stand, which is like a platform high up in a tree where a hunter can survey the area, looking for deer or other animals to hunt. While climbing up the tree stand, this hunter had not secured their harness properly, and likely fell off the ladder, and was left hanging there. Because he had not put on his harness properly, the harness rose up, and held his arms up above his head. They found him in the tree with his arms outstretched, dead. He had apparently asphyxiated quite quickly. This expert then described to Dr. Habermas that there have been other times where hunters have been found dead like this, with their arms stuck stretched out, and nearby trees would have a bunch of bark missing. The inference being that the hunters have accidentally hung themselves up, similar to crucifixion, and could feel themselves asphyxiating, and in order to try to save themselves they would kick the nearby trees, to try and get themselves up. This is why they found the bark missing from the trees close by.
There have been other similar cases like these, apparently, where a group of students will haze someone. They’ll tie the person up to a playground or something, and laughing they’ll walk away saying they’ll come back and get them in the morning. However, in the morning, the student is found dead. They just thought they were tying him up, leaving him there overnight, but really what they were doing was crucifying them. The victim of the hazing would then die by asphyxiation. While these stories are quite upsetting, the point of all of this is to show that crucifixion kills by asphyxiation. You don’t need to be a medical expert, or have access to modern science, in order to know how this works. If you string someone up by their arms, they will die. It will happen quite rapidly, because the person experiences full body asphyxiation leading to hypoxia, where their tissues and organs do not receive enough oxygen, and their body shuts down. In the case of Jesus, His executioner knew what happened to crucifixion victims, and knew that, since Jesus had passed out, and had been hanging there for a while, He had certainly expired. Even if Jesus had planned all of this, and was trying to fake them out, so that He could get away, if He remained in the low position, He would still have died. Additionally, given the grotesque description by the eyewitnesses at the Nazi death camp, there are quite a few physiological signs that death was coming, which would make it even more obvious to the executioner. Even then, after all the evidence he would have had, the executioner still conducted a test to verify death, by piercing Jesus’ side. Not only did this verify and guarantee death, but it even gave a medical sign of death, because there was blood and water.
For the past five episodes of this podcast we’ve dealt with the swoon theory. This is a popular counter to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, that tries to propose that Jesus never actually died on the cross, so when He appeared again to His disciples, it wasn’t a resurrection, but instead, He merely got better. We’ve shown this idea to be entirely not possible, for many reasons. The Romans were brutal, and there is no way they would allow someone to survive an execution, if for no other reason than because the executioner would lose their job, and possibly even their life. Even then, they did verify Jesus’ death. All our historical sources describe crucifixion as one of the most horrific ways to die imaginable. Not only that, but the torture of it would make the body an absolute mess. There wouldn’t have been enough time for Jesus to recover, nor would it even be possible for someone to recover from a Roman crucifixion. Jesus’ body would have been so broken and bloody that there would be no way at all that His disciples would have considered Him to have been resurrected with a glorified body. The proper response would be to care for His wounds, then run away and hide. Instead, they had a rejuvenated faith, and proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection throughout the known world, even to their own extreme detriment.
Those problems aside, the idea that Jesus could have survived has multiple logical problems. It’s circular reasoning, because the argument always starts with a bias against miracles. It’s also a case of confirmation bias, because they ignore any data that hurts their theory, like the spear wound, the flogging, and the early appearances. It’s also ad hoc, because essentially what swoon theory advocates are doing is they are making up an incredibly unlikely story, that has no reason to be believed. It ends up being such a severe case of illogical reasoning that it dives into the conspiracy theory category.
Additionally, modern medicine has a greater appreciation for how crucifixion affects the human body, and has shown us just how deadly it is. Even if Jesus did pass out on the cross, He still would have died, because passing out would have put Him permanently in the low position, which would have caused Him to rapidly asphyxiate. The physical signs of death in crucifixion were obvious, especially to a trained Roman executioner who has done this many times. Also, considering we have examples of modern crucifixions, we know that death occurs in less than three hours when the victim is unable to pull themselves up, and Jesus was on the cross for six hours, which gives more than enough time for Jesus to die.
The idea that Jesus could have survived His crucifixion is anti-historical, anti-scientific, and commits multiple logical fallacies. This is why this view is not held in historical circles anymore, because it’s just too ridiculous. The only people that still advance this idea tend to be either pop-level militant atheists with a chip on their shoulder, or people who are simply totally ignorant about the issue.
This is why in that article I mentioned from The Journal of the American Medical Association we find the following, “Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side was inflicted”, and “Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.”
Hopefully at this point the swoon theory has been put to rest for you, and you accept the simple fact that Jesus did die on that cross two thousand years ago. In terms of how this affects our overall argument for the resurrection, we now have to grant that Jesus did in fact die, so the non-Christian needs to explain all the data in some other way. In the podcast we have shown it is a historical fact that Jesus died by crucifixion, the tomb was found empty, many of His followers at least claimed to have seen Him risen and alive afterwards, they then went on to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus throughout the known world, even to the point of torture and death, and very strong skeptics like Jesus’ brother James and the pharisee Saul ended up converting. Based on these historical facts, I would argue the only good explanation is that Jesus actually did rise again. We’ve dealt with three counters to the resurrection that try to explain this data, those being the swoon theory, the imposter on the cross, and a bias against miracles. Next time on the podcast we’re going to deal with a collection of arguments that try to explain how Jesus’ body could go missing, with the most popular among those being that the disciples stole the body. So I hope you’ll join me next time, for the explanations for the missing body of Jesus, here on the Ultimate Questions podcast.