For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures… 1 Corinthians 15:3-4
Mythicists and skeptics attempt to debunk Jesus in a number of ways, from the veracity of the Scriptures to the most dubious conspiracy theories. In here are the theories regarding the death and burial of Jesus. If one desired to undercut the resurrection, then he might argue that He never existed (we dealt with that last time) or that He never died at all and therefore wasn’t buried, or may have been laid in a tomb, but was still alive.
Most all of these can be consolidated under what is called the “swoon theory”. This is the argument that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross, but went into some kind of deep subconscious state or coma and later revived.
So, let’s work our way through this theory.
- What do we know from the historical documents?
- We addressed some of this last time, but there are sufficient non-biblical historical records that attest to the fact that Jesus was crucified. Tacitus even mentioned that Jesus was crucified at the hand of Pontius Pilate. Josephus, in the Arabic version, writes that Pilate had condemned Jesus to death. Thallus (via Julius Africanus) speaks of the earthquake and darkness that followed the crucifixion of Christ. The record of His death is referenced by Lucian, Mara Bar-Serapion, The Acts of Pontius Pilate (via Justin Martyr), Phlegon (via Origen), and the Jewish Thalmud.
- The death of Jesus in the biblical record is explicit. All four Gospels attest to His death: “He gave up His spirit” (Matthew and John); “breathed His last” (Mark & Luke) as well as the rest of the New Testament in too many places to list.
- The reality is that, by the best of historical literary standards, Jesus was tried by Pontius Pilate and sentenced to death by crucifixion
- Historical understanding of Roman crucifixion
- The Roman method of execution was by crucifixion. The Persians invented it in 300BC and the Romans perfected it. They executed thousands this way, some say in the hundreds of thousands. It was cruel. It was horrific. It was meant to dissuade anyone from disobeying Roman authority. Our word excruciating comes from the Latin, excruciare, “out of the cross”.
- If you have never read a medical and physiological description of crucifixion, you should probably do so, with the caution that it will make you sick.
- Cicero called crucifixion the “extreme and ultimate punishment of slaves” and the “cruelest and most disgusting penalty.”
- Josephus called it “the most pitiable of deaths.”
- The Roman soldiers were under orders to execute criminals and they were professional at doing so.
- This was their capital punishment. To deny that someone could go through this and still be alive would be like someone arguing that “Ted Bundy” survived the electric chair and is still alive, or “Timothy McVeigh”, who was executed by injection, survived and is still running around. This borders on the incredulous.
- Evidence of death
- Not only was Jesus sentenced to death and then crucified, but there is historical descriptions that confirm He died. When the soldier pierced the side of Jesus to make sure He was dead, both blood and water flowed out of the wound. Some physicians believe this is a clear indication that Jesus’ heart had burst. Either that or the soldier, skillfully, pierced Jesus’ heart. When the soldiers came to break the legs of the three crucified in order to kill them (they would then no longer be able to push up to get a breath of air), they did not break the legs of Jesus because He was already dead. Again, this was ascertained by the professional executioners who knew when someone was dead (reread the spear). The documents tell us He breathed His last and gave up His spirit; He was wrapped up in a shroud of cloth with aloe and myrrh; laid in a tomb; a large stone was rolled over the door and sealed; and a guard of Roman solders were posted outside.
- When one then adds the vast evidence of all of the resurrection events, including the earthquake, the guards fleeing, the angels, etc… I don’t know how much evidence one needs, but it is more than compelling, it is overwhelming.
- Common sense issues
- To think that someone could survive a Roman execution is grasping at straws. If you think you could survive crucifixion and then be wrapped in layers and layers of linen cloth mixed with 75 pounds of aloe and myrrh and not suffocate, you are now grasping at more than straws. When you add in that Jesus was scourged (leaving most people near death and disgusting to even describe), pierced with a sword (possibly into the heart) and after being wrapped in a shroud like a mummy, laid in a cold tomb with a heavy stone over the entrance, guarded by Roman soldiers and one still maintains that He wasn’t dead, and somehow was able to get up and escape, you have entered some logic twilight zone.
- When Joseph of Arimathea came to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus to bury, Pilate first summoned the centurion to make sure He was dead, which the centurion confirmed. It is without any reason at all to believe, first, that the centurion would get it wrong or, second, that he would put his own life on the line by confirming that of which he wasn’t sure.
- Nor would it make sense that Joseph and Nicodemus could spend a few hours with the body, carrying it and wrapping it, when rigor mortis is setting in, and somehow be fooled that the body wasn’t dead.
- And, maybe more so, it wouldn’t make sense at all that the post-resurrection, radical changes we see in the women and the disciples would have occurred if the death of Jesus was faked. Which leads us to the next…
- Ethical issues
- The swoon theory requires that Jesus was a most despicable liar and deceiver. He would have been lying to Magdalene, to the other women, to Peter, to Cleopas and His companion, to the disciples, to James and to the 500+ gathered on the mountain. This requires us to take a horrific leap from everything we have seen and heard from the life of Jesus to then say that He lied about His resurrection and that all of His appearances were nothing but a wholesale scam.
- We would also have to either discount the record of the angels or say that they were also lying (that is hard to imagine) or that the women were lying and never saw them at all.
- This would mean that both the women and the disciples were all part of a truly evil plot to deceive the world. And if so, many of them would have to have defended this lie up to and through their own executions.
There is another argument. It is the “substitution theory”. This position is mainly derived by some from the Koran which teaches that Jesus was real, a prophet, but it wasn’t Jesus that was crucified. Some then say that it was someone else on the cross, not Jesus—a substitute. This, in itself, would be quite extraordinary that someone would be willing to go through the horrible scourging and despicable death by crucifixion in order to propagate a lie. Not only that, but you are still left with the empty tomb to explain as well as all the ethical issues we listed above. There are also common-sense issues one of which is how can Jesus be tried and sentenced in front of the High Priest, chief priests and everyone else and no one just happens to notice that it is not Jesus? Or, how in the world did someone make a switch with Jesus under the command of the Roman soldiers? From the time Jesus was arrested until the time He was taken down from the cross, He was never out of the hands of the soldiers. There was no intervening time in jail somewhere. And, can anyone in their wildest dreams imagine that Jesus’ mother, at the cross, didn’t know that they were nailing someone else up there? Is she not able to discern the voice of her own son?
These, again, are desperate notions that expose the fact that we are not dealing with evidential problems here. Instead, we are dealing with heart problems. When you are in conversation with your neighbor and they offer some of these theories, recognize the real cause and deal with it appropriately and wisely, with grace.