On Jesus’ Death, part 4 of 4: Swoon Theory and Substitutionary Atonement

“Except for the romantic few who think that Jesus did not die on the cross but woke up in the tomb and ran off to India with Mary Magdalene, most scholars accept the uniform testimony of the Gospels that Jesus died.”  — Raymond E. Brown, distinguished (though somewhat controversial) Catholic scholar and emeritus professor of Biblical Studies, Union Theological Seminary

3 crosses in silhouetteAs you recall from the first post in this series, the first factor we addressed was whether or not Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Person whose crucifixion is recorded in the Christian gospels and later writings. We looked at the “Imposter Theory” and concluded that such an imposter was highly unlikely. Ancient secular and Jewish records also show that it was generally believed that Jesus (called “the Christ”) was indeed crucified. The second factor to be addressed is whether or not Jesus actually died on that cross, and the third question is if He was beyond natural revivification.

With that in mind, we have now examined the physiological effects of the beatings, scourging, and crucifixion, as well as the added results of hanging on a cross from an engineering aspect. Before even reaching the cross, Jesus experienced:

o    Severe contusions & lacerations
o    Immense blood loss (probably 4-6 pints)
o    Hypovolemic & hemorrhagic shock
o    Extraordinary thirst, with drying of mouth & tongue
o    Tachycardia leading to heart failure
o    Pulmonary distress & pleural effusion
o    Pericardial effusion
o    Electrolyte imbalance
o    Extreme exhaustion & physical weakness

As if that wasn’t enough, once crucified He also suffered from:

o    Irreparable neurological trauma (inc. crushed or severed median nerves)
o    Respiratory acidosis
o    Total dislocation of the shoulder & elbow joints
o    Spear thrust through the chest and into the heart

We know from historical records that a few people did survive crucifixion. If taken down before “expiring”, with their wounds tended to immediately, it was possible in some cases to recover. After a lengthy period of recuperation, one would be heavily scarred, almost definitely crippled, and possibly suffer other long-term damage. Of course, none of them were also thrust through with a spear. So, let’s look at that again….

The Gospel accounts tell us that the Jews wanted to be sure the three bodies on Golgotha were not still hanging on their crosses after sundown, since it was the Day of Preparation for Passover, so they asked Pilate to hasten their deaths. The usual method was to break the person’s legs with a club or mallet, so that he could no longer push up to exhale. We know from John’s eyewitness testimony (John 19:32-37) that the soldiers who broke the legs of the two thieves on the other two crosses did not bother to do so with Jesus, because “they saw that He was already dead”. However, perhaps just to be extra sure Jesus was not merely unconscious, one of them thrust a spear into His side. And the soldier knew just where to strike to make sure Jesus was dead even more quickly and, thus, mercifully than if he had broken His legs. (Just try to “play dead” when someone knifes you between the ribs!) As mentioned earlier, the Bible says that “blood and water flowed”, which we know is evidence that He was pierced all the way to the heart.

But, Maybe It Wasn’t So Bad…

Now, let’s assume for a moment that for some reason the Roman soldiers had taken it easy on Jesus. (Bribed, maybe?) Perhaps the beatings and scourging were not quite as harsh as normal; Jesus was in serious shape, but not critical. Maybe the guard who hammered in the nails was sloppy and somehow missed the median nerves entirely (not bloody likely!). In other words, I am proposing, for sake of argument (as others have), that the biblical record is accurate as far as the basics of what happened, but that the severity of Jesus’ internal and external injuries were less, perhaps much less, than was normally produced by Roman practice.

Some people (e.g., Barbara Thiering) have suggested that snake poison was administered to Jesus at some point, so that he would pass out (perhaps lapse into a coma?) and appear to be dead. Others (e.g., Hugh Schonfield) have speculated that a drug, probably made from mandrake, was given to Him to produce a deathlike appearance. Given the physiological trauma, I don’t think either one of these would have helped a crucifixion victim’s condition one bit. Plus, both scenarios assume that the Roman soldiers could be easily duped or bribed. But, history tells us that they were quite proficient at killing. Plus, under Roman law, if a prisoner escaped or a condemned man lived, whomever had responsibility had to take the prisoner’s place. So, you better believe they did not take chances!

But, again for sake of argument, let us assume that something like this happened. We still have a man who has been brutally beaten, flogged, and nailed to that cross. He still had to endure the effects of hanging on that cross for three (six?) hours. His joints would still have slowly separated. He would still be stuck in a “fully inspired” position, with his ability to breathe greatly restricted. Would he really be able to “fake” not breathing long enough to fool the soldiers? Oh, wait… Then he got a spear stuck in his side!

So, now you need to ask yourself how long someone in that condition could have lasted, after being taken down and put in a cold stone tomb. There is the matter of exposure and possible hypothermia to consider, as well as hunger and thirst. A severely beaten and injured man, somehow still alive, would then have to survive at least XX hours with minimal protection against the elements and no food or water. Although, it is possible that Joseph of Arimathea (or someone else) could have left garments and food & water in the tomb for Him. But, there are other factors that work against such suppositions.

The Fall of the Swoon Theory

David F. Strauss

David F. Strauss

This leads us to consider “Swoon Theory”. (Well, technically, we have already broached it.) Though it usually comes up in discussions about the Resurrection, I will address it here, because it is basically the hypothesis that Jesus was not really dead when they removed him from the Cross and that He later recovered while in the Tomb. Somewhat ironically, it was the 19th-century German scholar and liberal theologian David F. Strauss who gave one of the earliest and best critiques against this theory in his book A New Life of Jesus, 2 vols. (1879). Strauss’ main points might be summarized as “Removal of tombstone?” and “Subsequent travel?”

As stated above, we have a Jesus in an extremely weakened physical condition, with pierced and damaged hands and feet, who must 1) unwrap himself, then refold the linens; 2) somehow move the very large stone, which was typically set in a groove or gully, thus requiring it to be rolled uphill; and, 3) oh, by the way, there would be no edge to grip the stone from the inside. Once free of the tomb (and what about those Roman guards?), this man, who likely could barely even stand for long, would somehow have to walk — probably crawl — to where the disciples were. Yet, all reported appearances had Him standing and walking. Furthermore, while the wounds were still present, He appeared vital and healthy! So much for “Swoon Theory”.

In the end, there is no reason to assume any sort of “swoon theory” has any basis in reality and every reason to believe the presentation of the historically reliable Gospel record. When you add it all up, modern biomedical analysis (see “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ”, Journal of the American Medical Association, 1986) tells us that there is no way that anyone could survive such a horrible ordeal. Jesus had truly expired. He was not merely unconscious or even comatose, nor had He been poisoned or drugged. He was not going to simply wake up in the cool of the tomb, or possibly with the aid of another drug. Nor could He have freed Himself from the tomb and walked around in such condition. Jesus was dead dead and beyond revivification. Short of a true miracle, that is. But then, skeptics don’t believe in miracles, anyway. And, of course, faithful Christians believe that Jesus did indeed die, and the miracle was in His physical, bodily resurrection three days later!

As we shall address in a subsequent series, even if Swoon Theory worked and all records/testimony to the contrary was fabricated, it cannot account for the disciples’ belief in the risen and glorified Jesus, or the empty tomb, or the later conversions of skeptics like James (Jesus’ brother) and Paul (aka Saul of Tarsus).

I would be remiss if I finished this series without including something about WHY Jesus had to die. WHAT did He accomplish? To that end, here is a brief quote from Name Above All Names by Alistair Begg and Sinclair Ferguson [h/t STR.org]:

“[T]he charges brought against Jesus… were blasphemy in the religious court (a capital offense) and treason in the civil court (also a capital offense). He was found ‘not guilty’ on each count. Yet he was executed.

What is the underlying meaning of all this? It is very simple. The crimes are not his.

Whose crimes, then, are they?

Blasphemy and treason are the two crimes on our charge sheet in the judgment court of God. We have blasphemed against God by making ourselves the center of our world and the lord of our own life. We have committed treason against God’s rightful authority by refusing his will. That was what Adam did. It is what we also have done.

Jesus has been found guilty and condemned for our crimes.

In the Gospel narrative, every reliable witness before the court points to Jesus and says, ‘He is innocent of these charges.’ There is only one possible explanation, therefore, for his death. He is accepting the charges leveled against us in the courtroom of the eternal Judge. He, the perfect image of God, is being marred beyond human semblance so that we might be restored to the image of God.”



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