Did Jesus just pass out on the cross then regain consciousness while in the tomb? Some people would say yes. This is known as the “swoon theory,” and it’s a popular alternative story to the resurrection of Jesus. Scripture claims Jesus rose from the dead, but we need to be sure he was dead before being placed in the tomb. No death, no resurrection.
Two questions about the swoon theory need to be addressed. First, did Jesus merely faint on the cross? Second, was he taken off the cross while still alive? I will make the case that Jesus was dead when taken off the cross in part two of this article next month. For now, I want to dissect the challenge that Jesus merely fainted on the cross.
Crucifixion was designed to be long, painful, and agonizing. The Romans had perfected the cross as a form of torture. According to medical experts, crucifixion victims typically died of either hypovolemic shock or exhaustion asphyxia.
Hypovolemic shock occurs when a person loses a tremendous amount of blood. Because of the blood loss, the heart can’t pump enough blood/oxygen to organs and other body parts to keep them functioning. As a result, organs begin to shut down, which is fatal. Symptoms of hypovolemic shock include passing out and becoming extremely thirsty.
Did Jesus experience hypovolemic shock? The Gospels indicate he did.
John 19:17 says, “They took Jesus, therefore, and He went out, bearing His own cross, to the place called the Place of the Skull.” What’s interesting is that the other three Gospels say the soldiers pressed into service Simon of Cyrene to carry Jesus’ cross. Which was it? Did Jesus bear his own cross, or did Simon have to carry it? Both. After his scourging, Jesus would have lost a tremendous amount of blood and been prone to passing out. He likely fainted and couldn’t carry his cross, so Simon was forced to.
One of the seven recorded statements of Jesus on the cross is “I am thirsty” (John 19:28). Hypovolemic shock causes extreme thirst because the body needs to replenish its fluids. Jesus seems to have experienced hypovolemic shock.
Asphyxia or asphyxiation occurs when a person cannot breathe properly and doesn’t get the proper amount of oxygen. Because of lack of oxygen, fainting, brain injury, and death can occur. Asphyxia often killed crucifixion victims because of the position of their bodies on the cross. Having the weight of the body suspended on outstretched arms puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the chest cavity and lungs. To take deep breaths, crucifixion victims had to push up with their legs and pull up with their arms. This allowed the lungs to inflate, getting the oxygen necessary to sustain life. This pushing and pulling would eventually exhaust the crucified, and they would lose the strength to keep moving themselves up and down. Eventually, they would be asphyxiated.
There was a common practice used by the Romans to hasten the death of the crucified. It’s called crurifragium, the breaking of the lower legs of the crucified victim. We see this happen to the two thieves who are executed next to Jesus in John 19:31–32. The reason breaking the legs of the crucified hastened their death was that they couldn’t push up and take a breath anymore. Their arms would exhaust quickly, and soon they would asphyxiate.
Back to our question: Did Jesus merely faint on the cross? Hypovolemic shock and asphyxiation both cause a person to lose consciousness and faint, but isn’t fainting often a part of dying? I’m pretty sure people lose consciousness as they die. We should have no problem with Jesus fainting on the cross, but did Jesus merely faint, or did he die?
When a person faints, involuntary body functions continue (think breathing, digestion, heartbeat, things like that). However, pushing and pulling with your arms and legs so you can breathe are not involuntary body functions.
Here’s the big point. Fainting on the cross was a death sentence. If Jesus fainted, he couldn’t have continued to breathe because he wouldn’t have been consciously aware enough to tell his body to push and pull his legs and arms in order to inhale. Fainting on the cross would have ensured asphyxiation.
When someone makes the claim that Jesus fainted on the cross, agree with them. Jesus probably did faint on the cross. Then ask them how he continued to breathe while unconsciously hanging there. Talk through the consequences of a crucifixion victim fainting while on the cross, and explain how asphyxiation would kill him.
The burden of proof is on the person who claims Jesus fainted on the cross but didn’t die. Next month, I’ll address the question “Was Jesus taken off the cross while still alive?”