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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Objections to the Resurrection of Jesus

Don Stewart :: Did Jesus Actually Die on the Cross?

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Did Jesus Actually Die on the Cross? (The Swoon Theory)

Objections to the Resurrection of Jesus – Question 9

One objection to the idea of the resurrection of Jesus Christ has been is that He did not actually die on the cross. For whatever reason, Jesus survived the ordeal of crucifixion. Thus, when Jesus later appeared to His disciples, it was not as one who had risen from the dead but rather as one who had never died. Among other names, this is known as the “swoon theory.”

The Swoon Theory Explained

The “swoon theory” like all alternative theories of Jesus’ resurrection, is explained a number of different ways. Basic to all the explanations is the charge that Jesus did not suffer death on Calvary’s cross. When He appeared to His disciples, it was not as the resurrected Lord but rather as one who had been resuscitated.

Therefore, the ignorant people in Jesus’ day, not knowing the difference, assumed that He had risen. Consequently, what we have is resuscitation, not a resurrection from the dead.

Like the other objections to the resurrection, there are many problems with this theory. They are as follows.

1. All Ancient Reports Agree Jesus Died

To begin with, every ancient account we have agrees that Jesus Christ died upon the cross. This includes Jewish and Roman sources as well as the united testimony of the New Testament. Nobody, friend or foe, argued that Jesus survived the crucifixion. For example, the Roman writer Tacitus said,

[Christians] got their name from Christ, who had been executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. (Tacitus, Book 15:44)

His statement may actually reflect an official report that was written by Pontius Pilate himself. Whatever the case may be, no one in ancient times ever argued that Jesus survived the Roman crucifixion.

2. The Romans Did Their Job Well

Crucifixion was common in Jesus’ time and the Roman soldiers had become experts at it. They had reduced it to a science with a set of rules to be followed. There is no possible way Jesus could have survived the crucifixion, scourging, and lance thrust.

Since the governor had personally condemned Jesus to death, it is highly unlikely the soldiers would make a mistake and not finish the job. Furthermore, the gospels tell us that Pilate cross-examined the centurion to make certain that Jesus had died. We read,

It was now the evening before the Sabbath, and the Jewish people were getting ready for that sacred day. A man named Joseph from Arimathea was brave enough to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus. Joseph was a highly respected member of the Jewish council, and he was also waiting for God’s kingdom to come. Pilate was surprised to hear that Jesus was already dead, and he called in the army officer to find out if Jesus had been dead very long. After the officer told him, Pilate let Joseph have Jesus’ body. (Mark 15:42-45 CEV)

The body of Jesus Christ would not have been handed over to the Joseph of Arimathea if Jesus had not been dead.

3. The Breaking of Jesus’ Legs Was Not Necessary

Crucifixion was a slow, painful way to die with the person usually dying of asphyxiation. The victim had to push his body up in order to breathe. Therefore, breaking of the legs would hasten the death of the victim. The legs of the two criminals that were crucified next to Jesus were broken because the Passover was drawing near.

Passover began at sunset, and according to Jewish law, bodies could not be left on the cross on that Holy Day. Jesus’ legs were not broken because He was obviously dead. In addition, Pilate would not have given permission for Joseph to take Jesus’ body for burial if He were not already dead.

4. Blood and Water Came Out from His Side

Those who have said that Jesus was only apparently dead on the cross appeal to the fact that blood came forth from His side when the spear was placed into it by the Roman soldier. John wrote,

Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (John 19:34 NRSV)

They ask the question, “Can dead men bleed?” Surely, this is a sign that He was still alive.

Actually the opposite is true. When a person dies, of what we call a “broken heart,” the blood escapes into a sac around the heart known as the pericardium. The blood, after standing there for a short time, then separates into serum “the water” and clots (red corpuscles, blood).

Consequently, if someone were dead, and a spear was thrust into his side, and the point of the spear entered the pericardium, then blood and water, or serum and clots, would come out separately. This is exactly the way John, the layman eyewitness, described it.

The purpose of the spear thrust was to ensure that Jesus was dead. The blood and water coming out is an outward sign that someone has died. This is eyewitness detail which shows that death did indeed occur in this case. John wrote,

He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth. (John 19:35 NRSV)

John emphasized the fact that he was there. He saw this with his own eyes.

5. The Jewish Religious Leaders Watched the Entire Crucifixion

There is also the testimony of those who had Jesus put to death, the Jewish religious leaders. According to the gospels, they stood there and watched Jesus die. They waited until it was over. Matthew records what happened as follows:

Then he came back to the disciples and said to them, “You might as well sleep now. The time is near for the Son of Man to be handed over to sinners. Get up! Let’s go! The one who is betraying me is near.” Just then, while Jesus was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve apostles, arrived. A large crowd carrying swords and clubs was with him. They were from the chief priests and leaders of the people. (Matthew 26:45-47 God’s Word)

Consequently, His enemies could testify that He had truly died. These evil men watched every minute of His painful death.

6. Nicodemus and Joseph Prepared the Body for Burial

The Gospel of John tells us that Nicodemus and Joseph wrapped Jesus in grave clothes. They also anointed His body with spices:

Afterward Joseph of Arimathea, who had been a secret disciple of Jesus (because he feared the Jewish leaders), asked Pilate for permission to take Jesus’ body down. When Pilate gave him permission, he came and took the body away. Nicodemus, the man who had come to Jesus at night, also came, bringing about seventy-five pounds of embalming ointment made from myrrh and aloes. Together they wrapped Jesus’ body in a long linen cloth with the spices, as is the Jewish custom of burial. (John 19:38-40 NLT)

Are we to assume that they did not realize Jesus was dead when they went through this entire burial process?

7. How Did Jesus Get Out of the Tomb?

Another question that needs to be addressed is, “How did Jesus get out of the tomb in the first place?” He had been wrapped in grave clothes and the spices would have hardened around Him in a few hours. This would make His escape difficult, if not impossible—assuming He was still alive.

There was also a large stone rolled in front of the tomb that is virtually impossible to move from the inside.

In addition, the guards had to have been conveniently asleep for Jesus to get by them. Are we really to believe this occurred?

Medical authorities have testified that the damp tomb, instead of reviving Him would have killed Him by inducing a catatonic seizure.

Finally, His hands and His feet were so battered by the crucifixion that He would have been in no condition to remove the bindings which were put on Him.

8. Jesus Would Have Been Perpetrating a Deliberate Hoax

If this theory is correct, then Jesus would have been guilty of perpetrating a deliberate hoax by passing Himself off as One who had risen from the dead. Jesus did not tell His disciples that He narrowly escaped death, He told them He had risen. This would make Jesus a liar—contrary to everything we know about Him and His character.

9. Would This Convince the Disciples He Had Risen?

If Jesus Christ had survived His crucifixion, He would have been in an extremely weakened condition. Indeed, He had been up all night, had been beaten with thirty-nine lashes, and placed on a cross for six hours.

In addition, a spear was thrust in Jesus’ side. It is not reasonable to believe that a man who had experienced such agony, and needed immediate medical treatment, could have given His disciples the impression that He had just conquered death. Jesus would not have looked like the Lord of life if He had survived all of these things.

10. When Did He Die?

If it were a mere resuscitation we are faced with the question of when did He die? Where, if anywhere, was He buried? Why wasn’t His other tomb venerated?

The evidence is clear: Jesus Christ died on Calvary’s cross. Therefore, any theory that attempts to explain away the resurrection must take this fact into account.

Summary – Question 9
Did Jesus Actually Die on the Cross?

From time to time it has been claimed that Jesus Christ never really died upon the cross at Calvary but that He survived the ordeal of crucifixion. This is known, among other things, as the “swoon theory.”

Yet, the idea that Jesus did not actually die upon the cross does not fit the facts for a number of reasons.

First, every source, friend or foe, testifies to the fact Jesus had died on the cross. Indeed, there is no ancient source that denies Jesus truly died on the cross. This was never an issue.

The fact that the Roman soldiers did not have to break His legs demonstrates that Jesus had already died.

The eyewitness, John, says that water and blood came out separately when Jesus’ was thrust with a spear. This is a sign of death.

Many of the Jewish religious leaders watched the entire crucifixion. They made certain He was dead.

We also have the fact that the Romans handed Jesus’ body over to Joseph. They would not have done this if Jesus had not been dead. Furthermore, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor asked if Jesus had died before handing over the body.

We also discover that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus began the process of preparing Jesus’ body for burial. They would have known whether or not He had died.

If Jesus did survive the crucifixion there are enormous problems of explaining how He got out of the tomb and convinced His disciples that He had conquered death.

The biggest obstacle in believing this theory is that Jesus would have been a liar for claiming to have conquered death instead of admitting that He never died. Since Jesus never lied about anything we should not assume that He lied about being dead and then being alive again.

This theory does not make sense when all the facts are considered. Like the stolen body theory, the swoon theory has been popular with those who have not really taken the time to examine the facts and come up with a reasonable explanation as to what happened.

Most people who seriously look at the evidence realize that this idea cannot begin to explain what everyone knows is true. If the resurrection account is going to be refuted, a better solution needs to be given. However, every solution takes more faith to believe that the explanation we find in the New Testament; Jesus indeed rose from the dead.

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Did the Women Go to the Wrong Tomb on Easter Sunday? Next Section →
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