“How do you know Jesus really died on the cross? Maybe He only appeared dead and then was revived to life in the tomb.” This is a common question I receive whenever speaking about the historical Jesus. This idea, that Jesus “swooned” on the cross rather than dying, has been the subject of many best-selling books, the theme of recent blockbuster movies, and has spread like wildfire on the Internet.
It’s impossible to underestimate the importance of this question. If Jesus survived crucifixion then He was just a false prophet, we are still in our sins, and there is no ultimate hope for the world. If Jesus didn’t die and then resurrect we may as well “feast and drink, for tomorrow we die!” (1 Cor. 15).
So, how do we know Jesus really died by crucifixion? Let’s consider three lines of evidence. First,the nature of crucifixion virtually guarantees death. Crucifixion was designed to cause maximal pain to victims. Cicero called crucifixion “the most cruel and hideous of tortures . . . the extreme penalty for a slave.” The pain was so unbearable that a new word had to be invented: Excruciating literally means “out of the cross.” Jesus was whipped mercilessly, had a crown of thorns placed on His head, carried His crossbar to his place of execution, and was ultimately nailed to the cross. Given the efficiency of the Roman guards, it strains credibility to think that Jesus survived the cross.
Second, medical evidence proves Jesus died on the cross. After Jesus was observed to be dead, one of the Roman executioners thrust a spear into His side, and blood and water immediately came out (John 19:34). While the apostle John was an eyewitness to this event, he had no idea about the significance of his observation. In 1986 (at least 1950 years after the crucifixion!) the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association featured an article demonstrating that the release of blood and water from such a spear wound is a sure sign of death.
Third, there is extra-biblical evidence that Jesus was crucified. Non-Christian sources also provide evidence for the death of Jesus. These include Cornelius Tacitus (A.D. 55-120), who is considered by many to be the greatest ancient Roman historian as well as the Jewish scholar Josephus (A.D. 37-97). Believing that Jesus survived the cross might make for an interesting movie, but it strains credibility.
Why does this matter? The death of Jesus should motivate us to reach out in love to a broken and hurting world. First John 3:16 says that we know what real love is because of what Jesus has done for us. The sacrificial love of Christ is the greatest display of love the world has ever seen. It’s up to us to put that love into action.