The fifth reason that I believe in the resurrection of the historical Jesus is that the evidence is overwhelming that He actually died, despite early attempts by His detractors to say that He did not. It’s called “the swoon theory.” He was only unconscious and appeared to be dead. The swoon theory assumes that Jesus lowered His heart rate and appeared to be dead, or that He used an ancient herb to appear unconscious. They say that Christianity is a hoax because Jesus never really died, and if He didn’t die, He could not be raised from the dead.
At the time, both friend and foe were convinced that He was dead. Eyewitnesses watched Him die. The Romans were crucifixion experts, and those who buried Jesus knew firsthand that He was dead. Jesus even told His disciples that He would die but be raised from the dead three days later:
The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. (Luke 9:22)
Jesus’ death is undisputed. It really happened. Let’s take a look at the evidence.
At Jesus’ crucifixion, both those who loved Jesus, as well as those who mocked Him and cried out for His death, were present. Jesus’ mother, Mary, Mary Magdalene, John, and other followers of Jesus were there. The chief priest and scribes were there, and they mocked Him by saying, “He saved others, but he can’t save himself!” (Matt. 27:42).
The Roman soldiers were there and they testified to Jesus’ death. They did not break Jesus’ legs, which was customary in crucifixion, because He had already died. Later, they pierced His side to further confirm His death. A Roman centurion even assured Pilate of Jesus’ death.
Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. (Mark 15:44–45)
The Romans were professional executioners. Crucifixion was the preferred method for capital punishment, and it caused excruciating suffering and certain death from suffocation. It was a horrifying, humiliating, and public way to die. In crucifixion, the person being put to death was stripped of clothing and, in a public place, securely hung on a T-shaped beam using rope or nails. The victim was completely powerless to defend himself.
The way a victim hung required them to push up with their legs and pull up with outstretched arms to catch a breath. After each breath, the person would then sink back down to start the entire process all over again. When they could no longer push or pull up to take a breath, suffocation and death quickly followed. Depending on the situation, this process could take up to several days. If a crucifixion was taking too long, the executioners would break the victim’s legs to speed up the process. This form of death is one of the most agonizingly painful ways invented by man.
As I said before, the Romans were professional executioners. They were skilled because of how many people they had executed through crucifixion. So when the Romans came to check on Jesus to see how He was progressing, they saw He was dead and did not break His legs (John 19:33, 36). This is another fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies (Num. 9:12; Ps. 34:20; Exod. 12:46).
Let’s think about all that Jesus went through. Before being crucified, He endured intense flogging. He was flogged with thirty-nine lashes. It was thirty-nine, because most people could not live past thirty-nine. If you’ve seen the movie The Passion of the Christ, it accurately portrays this event in Jesus’ life. The person being flogged would have their arms wrapped and tied around a pole in order to stretch out the skin on the back. A stick or a rod with rawhide strips containing metal balls and pieces of bone attached to the end was used to whip the victim. The goal was to snap it in such a way that the metal balls would hit, causing contusions and internal bleeding. It would then wrap around the victim so when it was pulled away, the pieces of bone would rip the flesh.
All of this was done to Jesus before a crown of thorns was forced on His head and He was taken to be crucified (Matt. 27:26). He was within an inch of His life before He ever went to the cross. He didn’t even have the strength to carry the beam He was to be crucified on (Matt. 27:32). The intensity of the flogging and the crucifixion was powerful and deadly.
There is also medical evidence to support the death of Jesus. To ensure and confirm Jesus’ death, a Roman soldier pierced His side with a spear, “bringing a sudden flow of blood and water” (John 19:34). The pericardial sac that surrounds your heart is filled with clear fluid. When the spear pierced Jesus’ side, it went through His heart, releasing the fluid from the pericardial sac, mixing with His blood. Medically, when the blood and fluid flow from a heart wound, death has occurred. The medical evidence is clear that Jesus was truly dead.
Jesus’ burial preparation provides additional evidence of His death. After Jesus had died, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, two of the religious leaders who didn’t agree with Jesus’ crucifixion, asked for His body. Pilate gave Joseph permission and Joseph took Jesus’ body to be buried in his own tomb (John 19:38–40). We learn from Scripture that they prepared Jesus’ body with myrrh and spices. According to burial practices in that time, they would take strips of linen with myrrh and spices and would wrap it around the body. In total they would use about seventy pounds of linen, myrrh, and spices. The entire body was wrapped, including a facecloth. History and medical science provides undisputed evidence that Jesus was fully dead.
Chip Ingram, Why I Believe: Straight Answers to Honest Questions about God, the Bible, and Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2017).