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Day 4: Did Jesus Die on the Cross?

One of the arguments against the authenticity of Jesus’ resurrection is that He actually never died when He was crucified. David Frees explores the answers to this question in the following excerpt from lesson 4 of Apologetics Basics.


The importance of this question comes from the fact that you cannot have a resurrection unless you have an actual death. To this end, some have denied the reality of the resurrection because they do not believe Jesus actually died on the cross. This is a view commonly known as the apparent death or swoon theory.

The theory originated with H. E. G. Paulus around 1828 and asserts that Jesus did not die while on the cross but merely passed out, fainted, or fell unconscious. Once in the tomb, Jesus regained consciousness, moved the large stone covering the doorway, and convinced His followers that He had been resurrected. This theory suggests that Jesus’ unconsciousness not only fooled the onlookers at His crucifixion but the Roman soldiers who took Him down from the cross.

It is a theory that fails to take seriously the injuries Jesus sustained from His crucifixion and makes Jesus a deceiver. In addition, it would be difficult for Jesus, who was battered and beaten beyond recognition, to convince His followers that He had indeed victoriously conquered death. 

Contrary to the apparent death theory, execution by crucifixion was designed to be cruel, painful, humiliating, and result in the death of its victim. The assurance that Jesus did in fact die while on the cross is supported by three primary arguments.

First, the Romans soldiers who crucified Jesus were very skilled in the process of crucifixion and its goal to slowly, but effectively, kill an individual. The act of crucifixion was designed to keep an individual alive and in as much pain as possible for as long as desired without allowing death to occur. Typically, though depending on the manner of crucifixion used, to more quickly bring about death the legs of the individual on the cross would be broken resulting in asphyxiation. This was the case with the criminals who were crucified on each side of Jesus. When the soldier came to Jesus, however, he recognized that Jesus was already dead so, instead of breaking His legs, a spear was thrust in His side. And if Jesus wasn’t dead before, He would have been from the wound inflicted by the spear.

Second, Mark records that when Joseph of Arimathea requested Jesus’ body, Pilate inquired of a centurion as to whether Jesus was in fact dead. The centurion, who had seen many people die on a cross and would have been more than able to determine if Jesus was truly dead or not, answered in the affirmative. It should also be noted that both the centurion and Pilate had no reason to lie about Jesus’ death. Pilate was responsible for ordering His death, and the centurion was responsible for carrying out the order, an order that if not fulfilled would have resulted in the centurion’s own punishment.

Third, when Joseph of Arimathea placed the body in the tomb, he sealed it with a stone that was rolled in front of the doorway. Round stones used to seal tombs at this time were typically four and a half feet tall and weighed between one and two tons. A stone of this size and weight would have been impossible to move from inside the tomb. Joseph placed the stone over the tomb because there was no indication that Jesus was alive, and he had no understanding that a resurrection would occur two days later, as we will see below. Additionally, Joseph was part of the Jewish council that voted to have Jesus killed and, having handled the body himself, he would have known whether Jesus was dead or just unconscious.

While some continue to deny Jesus’ death on the cross, it is a historical point that is rarely argued today among scholars who study in this area. From what is known medically of crucifixion, the Roman soldiers’ proficiency at it, and the testimony of eyewitnesses, it is widely believed that Jesus did in fact die while on the cross. With this in mind, tomorrow we will turn to our second question.

Part of lesson 4 from the class Apologetics Basics by David Frees
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