Death of Christ
(from Baker Encyclopedia of Christian
Apologetics, Baker, 1999)
The death of Christ is the necessary prerequisite to his
resurrection, which is the crowning proof of Jesusí claim to be
God. Further, Islam, one of the chief opponents of Christianity,
denies that Jesus died on the cross (McDowell, 47f.). Many skeptics
challenge the reality of Christís death.
Evidence for Christís Death.
There is overwhelming historical and factual evidence
that Jesus died on the cross and rose again on the third day. The
evidence for Christís death is greater than that for almost any
other event in the ancient world. The historicity of the Gospel
records has been confirmed by a multitude of New Testament
Manuscripts and contemporary eyewitnesses.
Skeptics and Muslims choose from among various versions
of the theory that Jesus did not die on the cross. One is that a
drug put Jesus in a coma-like state, so that he later revived in
the tomb. The clear witness of Matthewís narrative is that he
refused even the drug customarily offered to the victim before
crucifixion to help deaden pain (27:34). He accepted only vinegar
later (vs. 48) to quench his thirst.
If the Bible has any credibility whatsoever, its New
Testament authors all say specifically or speak from the necessary
implication that they believed Christ died on the cross (cf. Rom.
5:8; 1 Cor. 15:3; 1 Thess. 4:14). Neither fainting nor swooning
nor being drugged would have produced the vigorous victor over
death described in the resurrection appearances. The evidence that
Christ actually died on the cross is overwhelming:
A Death Predicted.
The Old Testament predicted that the Messiah would die
(Ps. 22:16; Isa. 53:5-10; Dan. 9:26; Zech. 12:10). Jesus fulfilled
this and nearly 100 other Old Testament prophecies about the
Messiah (see, for example, Matt. 4:14; 5:17-18; 8:17; John
Jesus predicted many times during his ministry that he
was going to die and rise again (Matt. 12:40; Mark 8:31; John
2:19-21; 10:10-11). One of the more explicit is Matthew 17:22-23:
"The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of
men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to
All predictions of his resurrection in the Old Testament
(cf. Ps. 16:10), and New Testament (cf. Matt. 12:40; 17:22-23;
John 2:19-21) assume that he would die.
Death by Crucifixion.
Jesusí injuries made death unavoidable. He had no
sleep the night before he was crucified; he was beaten and
whipped, and he collapsed while carrying his cross. This prelude
to the crucifixion alone was life-draining.
The nature of the crucifixion assures death.
In 1968, an ancient burial site was uncovered in Jerusalem
containing about thirty-five bodies. It was determined that most
of these had suffered violent deaths in the Jewish uprising
against Rome in A.D. 70. One of these was a man named Yohanan
Ben Haígalgol. He was about twenty-four to twenty-eight years
old, had a cleft palate, and a seven-inch nail was still driven
through both his feet. The feet had been turned outward so that
the square nail could be hammered through at the heel, just
inside the Achilles tendon. This would have bowed the legs
outward as well so that they could not have been used for
support on the cross. The nail had gone through a wedge of
acacia wood, then through the heels, then into an olive wood
beam. There was also evidence that similar spikes had been put
between the two bones of each lower arm. These had caused the
upper bones to be worn smooth as the victim repeatedly raised
and lowered himself to breathe (breathing is restricted with the
arms raised). Crucifixion victims had to lift themselves to free
the chest muscles and, when they grew too weak to do so, died by
Yohananís legs were crushed by a blow, consistent with the
common use of the Roman crucifragium (John 19:31-32). (Baker
Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, p. 48.)
Jesus hung on the cross from 9 in the morning until just
before sunset (Mark 15:25,33). He bled from gashes in his hands
and feet and from the thorns that pierced his scalp. These wounds
would have drained away much blood over more than six hours. Plus,
crucifixion demands that one constantly pull up by the hands and
push on the injured feet in order to breathe. This caused
excruciating pain from the nails. A day of this would kill someone
in good health.
Beyond these injuries, Jesusí side was pierced with a
spear. From this wound flowed a mixture of blood and water (John
19:34), a proof that physical death had occurred. This detail
alone, and its confirmation by modern medical experts, strongly
validates the claim that this narrative is an eyewitness account.
An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (21
March 1986) concluded:
Clearly, the weight of 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 rib, probably perforated not only the
right lung but also the pericardium and heart and thereby
ensured his death. Accordingly, interpretations based on the
assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at
odds with modern medical knowledge. 
Jesus said he was dying when he declared on the cross,
"Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Luke
23:46). And when "he had said this, he breathed his
last" (vs. 46). John renders this, "he gave up his
spirit" (John 19:30). His death cry was heard by those who
stood nearby (Luke 23:47-49).
The Roman soldiers, accustomed to crucifixion and death,
pronounced Jesus dead. Although it was a common practice to break
the legs of the victim to speed death (so that the person could no
longer breathe), they did not believe it necessary to break
Jesusí legs (John 19:33).
Pilate double-checked to make sure Jesus was dead before
he gave the corpse to Joseph to be buried. "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).
Jesus was wrapped in about 100 pounds of cloth and
spices and placed in a sealed tomb for three days (Matt. 27:60;
John 19:39-40). If he was not dead by then, the lack of food,
water, and medical treatment would have finished him.
References to the Crucifixion.
According to Julius Africanus (ca. 221), the
first-century Samaritan-born historian, Thallus (ca. 52),
"when discussing the darkness which fell upon the land during
the crucifixion of Christ," spoke of it as an eclipse
(Bruce, 113, emphasis added). The second-century Greek writer,
Lucian, speaks of Christ as "the man who was crucified in
Palestine because he introduced a new cult into the
world." He calls him the "crucified sophist" (Geisler,
323). The "letter of Mara Bar-Serapion" (ca. A.D. 73),
housed in the British Museum, speaks of Christís death, asking:
"What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their
wise King?" (Bruce, 114). Finally, there was the Roman
writer, Phlegon, who spoke of Christís death and resurrection in
his Chronicles, saying, "Jesus, while alive, was of no
assistance to himself, but that he arose after death, and
exhibited the marks of his punishment, and showed how his hands
had been pierced by nails" (Phlegon, Chronicles, cited
by Origen, 4:455). Phlegon even mentioned "the eclipse in the
time of Tiberius Caesar, in whose reign Jesus appears to have been
crucified, and the great earthquakes which then took place"
The earliest Christian writers after the time of Christ
affirmed his death on the cross by crucifixion. Polycarp, a
disciple of the apostle John, repeatedly affirmed the death of
Christ, speaking, for example, of "our Lord Jesus Christ, who
for our sins suffered even unto death" (Polycarp, 33).
Ignatius (30-107), a friend of Polycarp, wrote, "And he
really suffered and died, and rose again." Otherwise, he
adds, all his apostles who suffered for this belief, died in vain.
"But, (in truth) none of these sufferings were in vain; for the
Lord was really crucified by the ungodly" (Ignatius,
107). In Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Justin Martyr noted
that Jews of his day believed that "Jesus [was] a Galilean
deceiver, whom we crucified" (Martyr 253).
This unbroken testimony from the Old Testament to the
early Church Fathers, including believer and unbeliever, Jew and
Gentile, is overwhelming evidence that Jesus suffered and died on
F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They
N. L. Geisler, Christian Apologetics
G. Habermas, Ancient Evidence for the Life of Jesus
Journal of the American Medical Society, 21 March 1986
Justin Martyr; "Dialogue with Trypho," The Ante-Nicene
J. McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict
"Passover," Babylonian Talmud
D. Strauss, New Life of Jesus, Vol. 1
V. Tzaferis, "Jewish Tombs at and near Givíat ha-Mivtrar,"
IEJ, 20 (1970)
Copyright 2006, Ankerberg Theological Research Institute