Over the years there have been lots of people who have rejected the idea that Jesus died on a cross and later rose from the dead. Some believe that Jesus simply passed out while He was on the cross and later “woke up” after being put in the tomb. Some think that the disciples were hallucinating after Jesus’ death and simply thought that they saw Jesus alive after His crucifixion. Other people believe that Jesus really did die on the cross but then the disciples came, secretly stole the body and later claimed that Jesus somehow “rose from the dead.”
Could any of these theories really be true? Well let’s take a closer look and see if the evidence supports the Bible’s teaching that Jesus really did die on the cross.
Maybe Jesus Didn’t Really Die On The Cross
Let’s start first with the idea that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross. Could it be possible that Jesus really didn’t die on the cross but somehow became unconscious and “woke up” later in the tomb? To see if this theory stands up to the evidence, let’s first think about the attacks that Jesus underwent prior to His crucifixion.
The Scriptures tell us that before and during His crucifixion, Jesus…
- Was blindfolded and beaten (Mark 14:55)
- Was severely beaten with a whip that was designed to rip out his skin (Matthew 27:26)
- Had a crown made of thorns put on to his head (John 19:2)
- Was forced to carry a 100 lb (45 kg) crossbar part of the way to the site of His crucifixion (John 19:17)
- Was nailed onto a cross (Acts 2:23)
- Had a spear thrown into His side (John 19:34)
It’s hard to imagine how anyone could sustain this amount of physical damage and not die as a result. But if this wasn’t enough, there is other evidence that Jesus really did die on the cross…
“The Jewish leaders didn’t want the victims hanging there the next day, which was the Sabbath (and a very special Sabbath at that, for it was the Passover), so they asked Pilate to order the legs of the men broken to hasten death; then their bodies could be taken down.
So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the two men crucified with Jesus; but when they came to him, they saw that he was dead already, so they didn’t break his” (John 19:31-33).
When someone was crucified, it was common for Roman soldiers to break that person’s legs as they hung on the cross. This was done to help speed up the death process. Regarding this, one scholar-type says, “…be clear on this: they broke everyone’s legs. Yet the professional Roman executioners declared Christ dead without breaking His legs. There was no doubt in their minds.” (1)
The soldiers overseeing Jesus’ crucifixion had one simple responsibility: to make sure that His life was over. If there was any question as to whether or not Jesus was alive as He hung on His cross it could have been easily answered simply by breaking His legs. The fact that these men didn’t see the need to break Jesus’ legs tells us that these expert Roman executioners really believed that Jesus actually died on the cross.
But if that wasn’t enough, take a look at these verses from the Gospel of Mark…
“…Late that afternoon Joseph from Arimathea, an honored member of the Jewish Supreme Court (who personally was eagerly expecting the arrival of God’s Kingdom), gathered his courage and went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body.
Pilate couldn’t believe that Jesus was already dead so he called for the Roman officer in charge and asked him. The officer confirmed the fact, and Pilate told Joseph he could have the body” (Mark 15:43-45).
These verses tell us clearly that Pontius Pilate (who was the Roman governor over the area of Israel where Jesus was crucified) asked for personal assurance that Jesus really died on the cross before turning His body over to Joseph of Arimathea- and he got it.
So is it possible that Jesus was taken from the cross alive and “woke up” later in the tomb? Well, in March 1986, the Journal of the American Medical Society issued a report that was titled On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ. Part of that report says this…
“Clearly the weight of the historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to His side was inflicted, and supports the traditional view that the spear thrust between His right ribs probably perforated not only the right lung, but also the pericardium and heart, and thereby ensured His death. Accordingly, assumptions that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.”.
It’s statements like this that have caused people to say that if Jesus didn’t really die on the cross then it would be a bigger miracle than the resurrection itself.
Maybe Jesus Actually Died But The “Resurrection” Was A Mistake
Ok, so maybe the disciples were simply hallucinating when they thought they saw Jesus after His death. Or perhaps they just saw someone who looked liked Jesus following His crucifixion. Or maybe they went to the wrong tomb, saw that it was empty and said “Hey, Jesus rose from the dead!” Are any of these theories realistically possible? Well, let’s start by looking at the last theory first.
John 20:1-11 tells us how Mary Magdalene and two of Jesus’ disciples went to the tomb on the first day of the week following Jesus’ crucifixion and found it empty. Is it possible that these people made an honest mistake and accidentally went to the wrong tomb? Perhaps they weren’t intending to deceive anyone but they went to the wrong tomb by mistake, saw that it was empty and then went off and told everyone that Jesus had risen from the dead. Could it be that they were totally sincere but they were sincerely wrong?
Well, this theory doesn’t make sense for a number of reasons. First, remember that Jesus was buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s own tomb (Matthew 27:57-60). More than anyone, Joseph certainly had to know which tomb was the right one. When people started talking about Jesus “rising from the dead,” Joseph could have easily set things straight if the disciples had really gone to the wrong tomb. Not only that, but Luke 23:55 tells us that “The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it.” These women saw the tomb and actually saw Jesus’ body go into it- how could they mess it up just a short time later?
But even so, let’s say that they did go to the wrong tomb. If this were the case, then why didn’t the religious and Roman authorities go the right tomb and show everyone the body? The best explanation for why that didn’t happen has to be because there was no body!
Well what about the possibility that the disciples were hallucinating and simply thought they saw Jesus. Could it be possible that the disciples thought they saw Jesus after His crucifixion when He wasn’t really there? While this might sound like a good theory, it develops some serious problems when you think about the large numbers of people who actually saw Jesus -alive- after He died. For example, here’s a list of people who saw Jesus alive after He died on the cross…
- Mary Magdelene (John 20:11)
- Two women named Mary (Matthew 28:1, 9-10)
- Peter (Luke 24:34)
- Two Disciples (Luke 24:13-22)
- Ten Apostles (Luke 24:33-49)
- Thomas and the Apostles (John 20:26-30)
- Seven Apostles (John 21)
- All Apostles (Matthew 28:16-20)
- All Apostles (Acts 1:4-9)
- 500 people (1Corinthians 15:6)
- James (1 Corinthians 15:7)
- Paul (1 Corinthians 15:7)
Is it reasonable to think that all these people were hallucinating??
Well then, is it possible that all these people saw someone who just looked like Jesus? Well, this could be a possibility if everyone that Jesus appeared to after His resurrection had only seen Him from a distance. But if you check out the Scriptures you’ll find that Jesus actually encouraged people to check Him out and verify that it was actually Him. Here’s an example:
“And just as they were telling about it, Jesus himself was suddenly standing there among them, and greeted them. But the whole group was terribly frightened, thinking they were seeing a ghost! ‘Why are you frightened?’ he asked. ‘Why do you doubt that it is really I? Look at my hands! Look at my feet! You can see that it is I, myself! Touch me and make sure that I am not a ghost! For ghosts don’t have bodies, as you see that I do!’
As he spoke, he held out his hands for them to see [the marks of the nails], and showed them [the wounds in] his feet. Still they stood there undecided, filled with joy and doubt. Then he asked them, ‘Do you have anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he ate it as they watched!” (Luke 24:36-43).
Hey, the disciples walked, talked and lived with Jesus for three years- they would have known if it wasn’t really Him.
(1) Dr. Norman Geisler, When Skeptics Ask pg. 122