“Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus Christ did not die on the Cross but was delivered alive and then treated.” These words are from an article by Dr. Muhammad Masudul Hasan Nuri, a cardiologist who writes for the Muslim publication The Review of Religions.
Dr. Nuri proposes that Jesus fainted while on the cross and was let off alive, unbeknownst to the Roman soldiers. He claims that Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea knew Jesus was still alive when they took his body from the Romans, and that they performed lifesaving treatment on him.
In my previous newsletter, we looked at the legitimacy of the claim that Jesus merely fainted on the cross. We concluded that to faint on the cross was a death sentence because an unconscious person would not be able to draw breath on the cross and thus would asphyxiate.
This month, I want to discuss the likelihood of Jesus being let off the cross while still alive. I see three major problems with this theory.
They Knew How to Kill
The first problem is that the Roman soldiers were trained executioners. They killed for a living, and they were good at it. This means a few specific things.
The soldiers who crucified Jesus knew how to kill. These executioners had a particular set of skills that helped them perform their job. One of these skills was the crurifragium, the breaking of the crucified victim’s legs (John 19:31–32). This prevented the crucified from using their legs to push themselves up and take a deep breath. Asphyxiation quickly followed crurifragium.
The soldiers also knew a functioning heart was vital for a person to remain alive. We are told in John 19:34 that one of the soldiers, to be sure Jesus was dead, stabbed his side, likely piercing his heart. These soldiers knew what it took to kill someone.
They Recognized Death
The second problem with the theory that Jesus was let off the cross alive is that the soldiers recognized death. They were around dead people frequently—actually, one of their main job requirements was knowing when someone passed from life into death.
In our culture, dead bodies are dealt with by professional medical personnel and morticians. Because of this, most of us have less familiarity with dead bodies than the Roman soldiers did. What we don’t realize is that major changes happen to a corpse once a person dies. The soldiers were familiar with these four major signs of death.
Immediately upon death, the body goes limp because of the loss of tension in the muscles. As the blood drains from the smaller veins in the skin, the paleness of death (pallor mortis) sets in. The body loses its natural color and becomes pale. This is why we pay morticians to put makeup on our departed loved ones.
Next, the body temperature starts to drop from 98.6 degrees and eventually levels out at the temperature of the climate. This is called the chill of death (algor mortis). As a result, the corpse feels cold and clammy. These first two effects of death manifest in the body within an hour of the person dying.
Two hours after death, another process called the discoloration of death (livor mortis) begins. Because the heart is no longer functioning, blood is pulled by gravity to the lowest parts of the body, the legs and feet. This causes a discoloration where the blood is pooling.
Next, a chemical change occurs in the cells of the body that causes the stiffness of death (rigor mortis). The stiffening of the corpse starts with the face, jaw, and neck and then spreads to the entire body.
These postmortem processes, rarely seen by us, were commonly encountered by the Roman soldiers. They recognized death.
They Were Motivated to Kill
The third problem with the theory that Jesus was let off the cross alive is that the Roman soldiers were properly motivated to kill their victims. Guarding prisoners was serious business for a soldier. If a prisoner escaped or evaded his sentence, the Roman soldier guarding him was required to serve his sentence.
After Peter was arrested by Herod Agrippa and an angel helped him to escape, Herod had the soldiers who were guarding Peter executed (Acts 12:19). We also see the Philippian jailer attempt to take his own life when he thought Paul, Silas, and the other prisoners had escaped (Acts 16:27).
The soldiers in charge of Jesus’ execution were motivated to ensure his death. If they failed, they would die.
The theory that Jesus merely fainted on the cross and was let off alive doesn’t hold up with what we know about Roman soldiers. They knew how to kill, recognized death, and were motivated to follow through with their orders. Jesus died on the cross. It’s one of the most verifiable facts of history.
Atheist New Testament scholar Gerd Lüdemann got it right when he said, “Jesus’ death as a consequence of crucifixion is indisputable.”