The Stark Reality of What Happened at Calvary

There’s a reason 2004’s, “The Passion of the Christ,” caused such a ruckus worldwide and deeply affected millions of its viewers – it was a truly disturbing, this-really-happened horror movie. For the first time ever, the uncensored gruesomeness of what Jesus was subjected to was presented without restraint in Technicolor. It wasn’t watered down, G-rated family fare. Fact is it remains the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time. I watched it once. I don’t need to see it again. Indelible images of my Savior’s torture are permanently imbedded in my mind. The aim of this essay isn’t to discuss the merits or demerits of Mel Gibson’s epic. That’s for you to decide. My goal is to present the raw truth about the crucifixion in order to dispel all baseless claims that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross. You see, the biggest problem non-believers encounter in dismissing Christianity as a hoax is the Resurrection of our Lord. They can argue the legitimacy of the New Testament accounts and the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies of the Old Testament till they’re blue in the face but, confronted with the simple question, “What about the Resurrection?”, you’ll get a lot of “ums” and “uhs.” For them it’s a dilemma they can’t ignore or explain. Oh, but it won’t stop them from trying!


A little over two centuries ago skeptics began to put forth the infamous “swoon theory” that implied Jesus merely fainted from exhaustion on Golgotha or that He’d been administered some kind of potent drug that made His body merely appear lifeless. They went even further and speculated the cool air of the tomb He was sealed in somehow revived Him. They said their hypothesis was legit because it’s recorded He’d been given a liquid on a sponge while hanging on the cross (Mark 15:36) and that Pilate was shocked to hear Jesus had succumbed to death so soon (Mark 15:44). What’s truly amazing is that some folks actually bought into their flimsy line of thought! Even more nonsensical is that it continues to get revived from time to time. A 1965 book, “The Passover Plot” was a best-seller. A 1972 tome, “The Jesus Scroll,” was chock full of unfounded hypotheticals. The popular 1982 book, “Holy Blood, Holy Grail”, contended (among other far-fetched things) that Pilate took a bribe to have Jesus removed from the cross before He was deceased. As a result the swoon theory has turned into an urban myth that won’t go away. Stubborn secularists insist that, while they don’t know exactly how it happened, Jesus somehow survived His public execution. If they can prove there was no death then there was no miraculous resurrection. And they’d be right. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:14, “…If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is futile and your faith is empty.” Thus it’s important we confront them with irrefutable, science-based evidence Jesus definitely died on the cross.


But first things first. Naysayers are apt to gleefully pounce on the verse in which Mark claims Jesus sweat blood and declare that can’t happen. Well, they’re mistaken. Following the Last Supper Christ and His disciples relocated to the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus went off by Himself to engage in a time of solitary prayer/communion with the Heavenly Father. Knowing what He was about to endure, He was no doubt experiencing a great deal of psychological stress. Even though an angel came to comfort and strengthen Him, “…In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground (Mark 22:44). While such an occurrence is rare it’s not unheard of. There’s a medical term for the condition. It’s called hematidrosis and it’s a known symptom of extreme psychological angst. The body releases a combination of chemicals that break down the capillaries in the sweat glands. As a result, blood seeps into the sweat and turns it red. That’s not all. One nasty side effect of being in this state is that it causes one’s skin to become acutely sensitive. That means when the Roman soldiers flayed Jesus with whips a few hours later the pain He felt was even more intense than normal. Awful to contemplate.


Distasteful as this subject is, we must delve into the details of the brutality inflicted upon Christ so that any questions about whether or not He died on Good Friday are rendered untenable. A flogging, as administered by callous Roman soldiers, was, in and of itself, often enough to kill a man. It consisted of inflicting at least 39 lashes (usually more) using a whip of braided leather thongs with metal balls woven into them that would cause deep bruising and contusions. In addition, pieces of jagged bone fragments were attached to the strand ends in order to shred the flesh from the neck down to the back of the legs. Often they would cut through bone and rip into the spine. The blood loss was massive and many who were flogged would go into what’s called hypovolemic shock. Technically “hypo” means low, “vol” refers to volume and “emic” means blood. When a person goes into hypovolemic shock four things happen: (1) their heart frantically tries to pump blood that’s in rapidly-dwindling supply, (2) their blood pressure drops accordingly, (3) their kidneys usually stop working altogether and (4) they become dehydrated as their body begs for an immediate intake of fluids. (In John 19:28 we’re told Jesus said from the cross, I am thirsty.) It’s no stretch to surmise Jesus was in hypovolemic shock as He was being forced to carry His cross to Calvary Hill because He collapsed under the weight so frequently a bystander identified as Simon was ordered to shoulder it the rest of the way for Him. So indications are the Lord’s body was in critical condition even before they started driving nails into his hands and feet.


But the worst was yet to come. There’s never been a crueler, slower or more inhumane method of capital punishment devised than crucifixion. Death was the inevitable outcome so the overriding message the Romans wanted to convey to the populace was that if you were to cause any trouble whatsoever it could be you and your family up there squirming in agony next. The fact that it was despicable didn’t bother the authorities one bit. Life was cheap. So after they made our badly-beaten, almost unrecognizable Messiah stumble His way up to Calvary they laid Him down on one of their reusable wooden crosses, stretched His arms out along the crossbeam (called the patibulum) and drove long, sharp-pointed iron spikes through His wrists about an inch below his palms. This would securely lock Him in place. Yes, I know the Scriptures specifically say the nails went through His hands but it must be understood one’s wrists were considered part of one’s hands in the language of the day. Not only did this insure the victim wouldn’t be able to free themselves or accidentally fall from the crossbeam, it maximized the pain the nails would inflict because that’s the spot where the median nerve runs. To crush it like that would cause indescribable suffering. In fact, because the pain was beyond description, they had to come up with a new word for it: excruciating. The word literally means “out of the cross.” Imagine that. Nothing in their language fully encapsulated the anguish a man or woman being crucified felt during the process so they had to invent a term. Yet the execution was still just beginning. Next they roughly hoisted Jesus up, attached the crossbar to the sturdy central stake and then drove nails into His feet, viciously severing two more major nerve arteries. Now hanging vertically, His arms were stretched to the extent they dislocated from His shoulders. As Psalm 22:14 (composed hundreds of years earlier) prophesized about the Messiah: My strength drains away like water; all my bones are dislocated; my heart is like wax; it melts away inside me.”


As horrible as all that inhumane torture was, it wasn’t usually the “official” cause-of-death. That was asphyxiation. The unbearable strain put on the muscles and diaphragm caused the chest cavity to stay in the inhaled position. To facilitate exhaling the person had to push themselves upward with their feet momentarily. Thus, in order to continue to breathe in and out, this agonizing maneuver would have to be repeated as long as possible. Eventually they’d go into what’s called respiratory acidosis which causes one’s heart to beat irregularly. The end would come in the form of a violent cardiac arrest. Please understand I’m not trying to be morbid but there’s more and it’s vital info. When one’s heart fails fluid collects in the membrane surrounding it and the lungs. This is significant because a Roman soldier confirmed Jesus was dead by sticking a spear into His side. Slicing into His heart and lungs this fluid, clear like water, would have gushed out along with His blood. That’s precisely what John said happened. “…One of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and blood and water flowed out immediately (John 19:34). John wasn’t a doctor so he probably had no idea why there was both blood and water, he just knew what he’d witnessed and faithfully recorded it. Therefore there can be no doubt that Christ physically died on the cross. He didn’t swoon. He didn’t faint. He didn’t slip into a coma. He died.


Of course, there will be skeptics who know just enough of the Bible to be annoyingly petulant. They’ll say something like, “Now, the Gospels say the soldiers went to the trouble of breaking the legs of the men being crucified alongside Jesus. Why?” The answer is simple. The Roman soldiers wanted to get their assigned duty over with pronto. (Remember, it was eerily dark and there’d been a jarring earthquake.) Plus, with the Sabbath looming the Jewish leadership had demanded Pilate get things wrapped up before sundown. By shattering the legs the person struggling to catch their breath would no longer be able to push themselves up and asphyxiation would complete its job in a matter of minutes. The skeptic may respond with “Then why didn’t they break Jesus’ legs, too?” Ironically, they’ve just answered their own question. It’s because He was obviously dead so why would the soldiers bother? They had no inkling Jewish prophecy predicted the Messiah’s legs would remain unbroken; they just wanted to get back to the barracks ASAP.


Some know-it-alls bring up the fact some historians have claimed nails weren’t used in crucifixions. That only ropes were used to secure those being executed. You can inform them those “experts” have been proven wrong. In 1968 archaeologists uncovered the remains of a group of Jews who were killed during the rebellion against Rome in 70 A.D. One had been crucified. They knew that because there was a seven-inch nail still driven through his feet! So much for the “rope theory.” Desperate, the arguer may aver the Roman soldiers just didn’t have the medical knowledge required to say for sure Jesus was deceased. That they could’ve been dead wrong. If they should say such a thing you’ll know they’re grasping at straws. Simply put, the Romans were highly-proficient killers when it came to murdering folks and the odds of someone “faking them out” were next to nil. On top of that, if someone were to survive execution (and then somehow manage to escape) the penalty for a soldier letting that occur on his watch would be death. So they had plenty of incentive to avoid making that fatal error in judgment. And, by the way, there’s no record of anyone ever surviving crucifixion. Period. Dr. William D. Edwards wrote an article for the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1986. He concluded, “Clearly, the weight of the historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side was inflicted… Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.”  Many other physicians who’ve studied the evidence share that opinion, as well.


For the sake of debate you might offer to enter into the world of fantasy with the non-believer and speculate that, contrary to logic, somehow and in some way Jesus was still alive when they removed Him from the cross and then later He awakened inside the barricaded tomb. Let’s suppose He got Himself untangled from His linen wrappings, summoned the strength to roll the heavy stone out of the way and then stealthily sneaked past the professional Roman troops assigned to guard the gravesite. Then ask the skeptic to give their honest opinion of what shape Christ would’ve been in when He located the disciples’ hiding place and suddenly strolled in the door. Ask them how He could’ve walked on feet that had recently had nails pounded through them. Or how could He have joined two men on their journey along the road to Emmaus after having a Roman spear shoved into His torso? Luke 24:30 states, When he had taken his place at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” How could Jesus have broken anything, even bread, when His arms were dislocated from His shoulder joints? I suspect they’ll have no adequate comeback. I like how the respected medical doctor Alexander Metherell summed it up. He said, “A person in that kind of pathetic condition would never have inspired his disciples to go out and proclaim that he’s the Lord of Life who had triumphed over the grave. After suffering all that horrible abuse, with all the catastrophic blood loss and trauma, he would have looked so pitiful that the disciples would never have hailed him as a victorious conqueror of death; they would have felt sorry for him and tried to nurse him back to health. So it’s preposterous to think that if he’d appeared to them in that awful state, his followers would’ve been prompted to start a worldwide movement based on the hope that someday they too would have a resurrection body like his. There’s just no way.” It’s hard to disagree with his assessment.


Yet for some the very idea Jesus actually died and then came back to life three days later is a huge boulder in the road for them. Timothy Keller wrote in his excellent book, “The Reason for God – Belief in an Age of Skepticism,” this passage: “Sometimes people approach me and say, ‘I really struggle with this aspect of Christian teaching. I like this part of Christian belief, but I don’t think I can accept that part.’ I usually respond: ‘If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all he said; if he didn’t rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead.’ That is how the first hearers felt who heard reports of the resurrection. They knew that if it was true it meant we can’t live our lives any way we want. It also meant we don’t have to be afraid of anything, not Roman swords, not cancer, nothing. If Jesus rose from the dead, it changes everything.”


Perhaps that’s the bottom line reason a skeptic will fight like a heavyweight boxer to avoid accepting Jesus was the Son of God who willingly subjected Himself to a horrendous death for their sins. That admittance would require them to change. To surrender their pride and ego. To repent. To forgive those who’ve trespassed against them. To worship and obey the one true God. To become a follower of Christ. To lose their life in order to gain it. And all that terrifies them. Dr. Larry Crabb wrote about conversion: “…The lethal blow is dealt not to our humanity, but to its corruption. Because our soul is so thoroughly stained with self-reliance, the death of pride feels like the death of self. However, the more terrible the blow to our efforts to preserve our own life, to arrange it so we experience the minimum amount of pain, the more we emerge as truly alive. The process seems confusing only because it cuts across all our ideas about how to live.” Our commission as Christians is to explain to non-believers that Jesus’ motivation to incarnate as a man, serve as our substitute and pay the death penalty we deserve was nothing other than to prove His unfathomable love for us. It’s called grace and, amazingly, it’s freely available to all. Even skeptics.




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