Tim Chaffey, AiG–US, examines a couple of views that admit Jesus was crucified but claim that He somehow managed to survive for a short time after being taken off the Cross.
In addition to studying the importance of the Resurrection of Jesus, we have looked at the “infallible proofs” and other evidences for this event. We have also critiqued many of the skeptical and critical attempts to explain away the historical evidence recorded in the New Testament. Each of these alternative hypotheses can account for portions of the evidence, but they do not come close to explaining all the facts. Unbelievers have posited that Jesus did not exist or was not even crucified, that the disciples were just seeing things, that someone moved the body, or that His body was buried in a family tomb. This article will examine a couple of views that admit Jesus was crucified but claim that He somehow managed to survive for a short time after being taken off the Cross.
Proposed by Heinrich E.G. Paulus in The Life of Jesus (1828), the swoon theory states that Jesus was not actually dead when He was removed from the Cross. Instead, He had fallen into a coma-like state (a swoon) on the Cross and was then buried in a tomb in that condition. He later revived, rolled away the tomb’s stone from the inside, evaded the Roman guards, and escaped. He then appeared to His disciples proclaiming He had conquered death. But rather than making a full recovery, Jesus died soon thereafter due to His numerous injuries.
In his popular book, The Passover Plot (1969), radical New Testament scholar Hugh J. Schonfield attempted to resurrect the swoon theory with some modifications.1 He proposed that Jesus set out to fulfill the Old Testament’s messianic prophecies. According to Schonfield’s version of the swoon theory, Jesus enlisted the aid of men like Joseph of Arimathea and Lazarus of Bethany to help Him accomplish an elaborate hoax. Joseph arranged for an unidentified person to give Jesus a drink on the Cross that would cause Him to lose consciousness and appear to be dead. However, no one involved in the scheme anticipated the spear wound, which gravely injured Jesus. He was removed from the tomb the next day, briefly regaining consciousness before dying and being reburied elsewhere.
Neither the swoon theory nor its stepchild, the Passover plot, can account for the evidence, although these views cleverly attempt to bypass Christ’s death by crucifixion, claiming that He merely deceived others into thinking He had died. So these views rely upon Jesus being a very clever deceiver and a fraud. This is certainly a different view of Jesus than most scholars hold—even many ardent skeptics admit that Jesus was highly moral.
These two views cannot account for three of the five key evidences: the appearances to the disciples and the conversions of James and Paul based on their beliefs they had seen the risen Lord. Both the swoon theory and the “Passover Plot” require that Jesus not only somehow survived the Crucifixion somehow, but He also must have recovered from the brutal torture leading up to the Crucifixion and from the Crucifixion itself.
Ingenious conspiracy theories often convince those who are ignorant of history, particularly of the details of flogging and crucifixion. But there are good reasons why no one in the ancient world proposed that Jesus survived the Crucifixion and why even the “historical Jesus” scholars acknowledge that Jesus died on the Cross. Simply put, the Romans were experts at executing people, and to think that someone could survive the horrors Jesus endured displays either the critics’ willful ignorance or their desperate attempt to deny the obvious.
A major problem with the swoon theory is that it implies that Roman soldiers were too incompetent to determine whether or not Jesus was actually dead. However, the soldiers at the Cross would readily recognize the signs of death. After all, that was their job, they performed numerous crucifixions (which is not just any commonplace form of execution), and the Romans were lethally efficient.
Most Western people live in “sanitized” cultures where death is rarely witnessed. Even in the cases when we are in the presence of an individual when they die, the coroner soon arrives and takes the body. The next time we see the body, it has been carefully treated to make it presentable at a memorial service. So the notion that a person could fake death is perhaps somewhat believable in our culture. However, Roman soldiers would have been more than qualified to determine whether or not Jesus was dead. Yet proponents of the swoon theory must believe that the Roman centurion and other soldiers at the Cross were wrong in their pronouncement that Jesus was dead (Mark 15:44–45; John 19:33).
To speed death along, crucifixion victims would sometimes have their legs broken with an iron club in an act known as crucifragium.2 On the day Jesus was crucified, the Jews requested this procedure so that the bodies would not remain on the crosses during the Sabbath (John 19:31). The soldiers broke the legs of the two thieves crucified along with Jesus, “but when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs” (John 19:33). Instead, one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear. This important action will be discussed below.
By the time Jesus was nailed to the Cross, He would have been in an extremely poor condition and would have been unlikely to recover even if He had received a stay of execution. Let’s briefly survey the physical torment Jesus endured in His final hours.
The Lord’s suffering began with an intense “agony” while He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. His sweat fell “
like great drops of blood” (Luke 22:44). This rare condition is known as hematidrosis or hematohidrosis and is caused by the rupture of tiny capillaries that feed the sweat glands, and is brought on by conditions of extreme physical or emotional stress.3
Next, Jesus was betrayed by Judas (Matthew 26:49), arrested and bound (John 18:12), and led to several illegal trials (Matthew 26:57).4 In addition to being mocked, spat upon, and falsely accused during these overnight trials, Jesus was also brutalized as He was blindfolded, beaten, and struck in the face (Matthew 26:67–68; Mark 14:65; Luke 22:63–64).
Despite the fact that Pilate declared Jesus to be innocent multiple times (John 18:38; 19:4, 6), He was still condemned to some of the harshest torture imaginable. Pilate ordered Jesus to be scourged.5 This ruthless form of whipping often killed its victims. Jesus would have been bound to a post while soldiers, called lictors, would use short whips (flagrums) made of several braided leather thongs with sharp pieces of metal, bones, or rocks tied into them to lash Him. In their excellent treatment of the subject, Drs. Thompson and Harrub describe the gruesome results of flogging.
The common method of Jewish scourging was via the use of three thongs of leather, the offender receiving thirteen stripes on the bare breast and thirteen across each shoulder (which explains the 40 stripes less one administered to Paul in 2 Corinthians 11:24). However, there was no such limit on the number of blows the Romans could deliver during a scourging, thus Christ’s flogging at their hands would have been much worse. Christ would have received repeated blows to His chest, back, buttocks, and legs by two soldiers (known as lictors), the severity of which depended mainly on the mood of the lictors at the time. Initial anterior blows undoubtedly would have opened the skin and underlying subcutaneous tissue of His chest (Davis, 1965, 185). Subsequent blows would have tattered the underlying pectoralis major and pectoralis minor muscles, as well as the medial aspects of the serratus anterior muscle (Netter, 1994, 174). Once these layers were ravaged, repetitive blows could fracture intercoastal ribs [sic] and shred the three layers of intercoastal [sic] muscles, causing superficial and cutaneous vessels of the chest to be lacerated. However we know that Christ did not suffer any broken bones because He was crucified in such a manner that “a bone of him shall not be broken” (John 19:36), as was foretold by earlier prophecies (cf. Exodus 12:46; Numbers 9:12; Psalm 34:20). Therefore, at best, the exposed superior epigastric artery and vein may have been compromised, while all other major anterior vessels would have been protected behind the ribs themselves (Netter, 175).6
Following the scourging, which often killed an individual, Jesus was further tormented. The Roman soldiers made a crown of thorns for His head. The thorns are traditionally thought to have come from the Zizyphus spina christi tree, but they could have also been from the date palm, both of which have thorns greater than an inch long.7 This “crown” was not gently placed on Him. Instead the soldiers beat Him over the head with a staff, undoubtedly driving thorns into His scalp (Matthew 27:29–39, NET).8
Next, Jesus was led away to be crucified. Although popularly depicted as carrying both beams of the Cross, Jesus probably had to carry just the crossbeam, known as the patibulum, to “
the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha” (John 19:17).9 Battered and exhausted, Jesus could not carry it the entire distance, so the soldiers forced Simon of Cyrene to bear the beam for Him (Mark 15:21).
Upon arriving at Golgotha, Jesus refused the wine mixed with gall offered to Him, which would have helped deaden some of the pain. He was then nailed to the Cross. This would involve driving spikes through His wrists or hands and one long spike through both feet.10 While on the Cross, Jesus would endure unimaginable torture as He struggled to breathe for the next six hours.11
Crucifixion was designed to be an extremely humiliating and painful form of execution.12 This method was so agonizing that the word “excruciating” (“out of crucifying”)13 was coined to describe intense torment. Besides the severe injuries racking His body, Jesus also endured the shame of being wrongfully accused, as He was completely innocent of all charges. Likely worse than everything else, the perfectly holy Son of God suffered the unfathomable mental and spiritual anguish of bearing the wrath of God for the sins of the world upon the Cross (Isaiah 53:4–6; John 1:29; 2 Corinthians 5:21).
After Jesus breathed His last, a soldier “
pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out” (John 19:34). This unexpected detail in John’s account destroys any possibility of Jesus faking His own death. Medical examiner Dr. Alexander Metherell explained why “
blood and water came out”:
Even before He died … the hypovolemic shock would have caused a sustained rapid heart rate that would have contributed to heart failure, resulting in the collection of fluid in the membrane around the heart, called a pericardial effusion, as well as around the lungs, which is called a pleural effusion. The spear apparently went through the right lung and into the heart, so when the spear was pulled out, some fluid—the pericardial effusion and the pleural effusion—came out. This would have the appearance of a clear fluid, like water, followed by a large volume of blood, as the eyewitness John described in his gospel. John probably had no idea why he saw both blood and a clear fluid come out—certainly that’s not what an untrained person like him would have anticipated. Yet John’s description is consistent with what modern medicine would expect to have happened.14
John apparently recognized the strangeness of his report. Throughout his recounting of Christ’s arrest, trials, and execution, John delivered detail after detail, explaining what Jesus had gone through. Then immediately after mentioning the “blood and water,” John stopped his narration of events to stress to his readers that he really saw blood and water flow from Christ’s side. He wrote, “
And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe” (John 19:35). It’s almost as though John was telling his readers, “I know this is really strange, but I’m not lying, I really saw blood and water flow.” And while perhaps unbeknownst to John, this brief verse provides modern medical doctors with evidence that demolishes the swoon theory and any other position that claims Jesus did not die on the Cross.15
The swoon theory enjoyed popular support among liberals for several decades after being introduced in 1828. That all changed when another liberal theologian, David F. Strauss, delivered a fatal blow to the view in A New Life of Jesus (1865).
It is impossible that a being who had stolen half-dead out of the sepulchre, who crept about weak and ill, wanting medical treatment, who required bandaging, strengthening and indulgence, and who still at last yielded to his sufferings, could have given to his disciples the impression that he was a Conqueror over death and the grave, the Prince of Life, an impression which lay at the bottom of their future ministry. Such a resuscitation could only have weakened the impression which he had made upon them in life and in death, at the most could only have given it an elegiac voice, but could by no possibility have changed their sorrow into enthusiasm, [and] have elevated their reverence into worship.16
Let’s pretend that against all odds, common sense, and medical expertise, Jesus somehow managed to survive the Crucifixion. After being taken down from the Cross, His body was wrapped in linen cloths, along with a “
mixture of myrrh and aloes, [weighing] about a hundred pounds” (John 19:39). It was then sealed in a cold, dark tomb behind a massive stone. Consider what would still need to occur if Jesus was somehow still alive at this point. He would have to revive in the tomb, unwrap Himself from the linen cloths, roll away the huge stone (weighing over a ton) from the inside of the tomb (a job that required multiple people from outside the tomb), sneak past the guards (or beat them all up), and then appear to the disciples to convince them that He had conquered death.
But remember, Jesus would not have been able to walk because of the injuries caused by the spike through His feet. Nor would He have been able to crawl on His hands, let alone use them to roll away the stone, since they had just been pierced with spikes. At best, He could perform some sort of military crawl, but even this type of movement would have been acutely painful considering His other injuries caused by the spear and the scourging.
As Strauss pointed out, no sane person would mistake a barely-clinging-to-life Jesus as the mighty, death-conquering Son of God and then spend the rest of his life risking life and limb to promote Him as the long awaited resurrected Messiah. If anything, seeing their master in such a pitiful state as a result of his elaborate plan gone wrong, the disciples would reject Him outright as a fraud. Yet according to church history, every one of Christ’s apostles faced death or exile for their message. So neither the swoon theory nor the Passover plot can account for the dramatic change in the lives of the disciples. The faked death views also fail to account for the conversions of the former skeptics, James the half-brother of Jesus and Saul of Tarsus.
Much more could be written concerning the suffering Jesus endured in His final hours. The proposal that Jesus survived the Cross betrays an ignorance of the brutality of Crucifixion, depends upon unbelievably incompetent soldiers at the Cross, fails to account for the evidence, and cannot explain why the disciples would willingly die for their belief that Jesus had risen from the dead.
Identifying Jesus as a fraud is nothing new; some of His contemporaries claimed He was a deceiver. John 7:12 states, “
And there was much complaining among the people concerning Him. Some said, ‘He is good’; others said, ‘No, on the contrary, He deceives the people.’” Now 2,000 years later, rebellious men still charge Jesus with deception. It is interesting that the subject of Jesus causes so much stress and discomfort to those who claim He was just a fake. Why would they worry so much about Him? Yet the power of Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection still converts sinners to saints, sobers drunks, gives hope to many millions, and saves men and women from lives of sin and eternal destruction.
Understanding the extent of torture Jesus endured for us helps us appreciate even more “
the width and length and depth and height” (Ephesians 3:18) of the love God has shown to us by sending His Son to die in our place. The Father “
made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). We do not deserve the grace, mercy, and love God has shown us. Instead, we deserve to bear the punishment Jesus endured and should be separated from God forever because of our sinfulness.
Sadly, many people scorn the gracious offer of eternal life and often resort to ridiculous ideas like the swoon theory to justify their unbelief. If you are an unbeliever, I urge you to turn from your rebellious ways and call on the mighty Death Conqueror, Jesus Christ. He is the only one who can save you from your sins and is the only hope for this world.