To describe the execution of Jesus Christ in clinical detail, I’ve taken excerpts from “The Case for Christ” by Lee Strobel. A journalist by profession and atheist by belief, Strobel set out to disprove the deity of Christ. He intended to show that the Biblical accounts were unreliable by interviewing the best authorities on specific topics. That process led him back and forth across the country and led him to faith.
This article is an excerpt of his interview with Dr. Alexander Metherell, M.D., Ph.D., a prominent physician who has extensively studied the historical, archaeological, and medical data concerning the death of Jesus. Strobel says, “…we were talking about a topic of unimaginable brutality: a beating so barbarous that it shocks the conscience, and a form of capital punishment so depraved that it stands as wretched testimony to man’s inhumanity to man…There was something especially unnerving in hearing about somebody being intentionally brutalized by executioners determined to extract maximum suffering.”
EXCERPTS FROM DR. METHERELL’S COMMENTS:
The Agony in the Garden—“He was anticipating the coming events of the next day. Since he knew the amount of suffering he was going to have to endure, he was quite naturally experiencing a great deal of psychological stress.” He sweat blood, a very tiny amount of blood mixed with the sweat, a condition called hematidrosis. “What this did was set up the skin to be extremely fragile so that when Jesus was flogged by the Roman soldier the next day, his skin would be very, very sensitive.”
The Flogging—“The soldier would use a whip of braided leather thongs with metal balls woven into them. When the whip would strike the flesh, these balls would cause deep bruises or contusions, which would break open with further blows. And the whip had pieces of sharp bone as well, which would cut the flesh severely. The back would be so shredded that part of the spine was sometimes exposed by the deep, deep cuts.
“The whipping would have gone all the way from the shoulders down to the back, the buttocks, and the back of the legs…As the flogging continued, the lacerations would tear into the underlying skeletal muscles and produce quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh…We know that many people would die from this kind of beating even before they could be crucified.
“At least the victim would experience tremendous pain and go into hypovolemic shock…the person is suffering the effects of losing a large amount of blood…the heart races…the blood pressure drops, causing fainting or collapse…the kidneys stop producing urine…the person becomes very thirsty…Jesus was in hypovolemic shock as He staggered up the road to the execution site at Calvary…Finally Jesus collapsed…Later Jesus said ‘I thirst’…Because of the terrible effects of the beating, there’s no question that Jesus was already in serious critical condition even before the nails were driven into his hands and feet.”
The Cross—“The Romans used spikes that were five to seven inches long and tapered to a sharp point…And it’s important to understand that the nail would go through the place where the median nerve runs…Do you know the kind of pain you feel when you bang your elbow…that’s actually another nerve called the ulna nerve…It’s extremely painful when you accidentally hit it…Well picture taking a pair of pliers and squeezing and crushing that nerve…That effect would be similar to what Jesus experienced…The pain was absolutely unbearable…In fact, it was literarily beyond words to describe; they had to invent a new word: excruciating. Literally, excruciating means ‘out of the cross.’ Think of that: they need to create a new word, because there was nothing in the language that could describe the intense anguish caused during the crucifixion…Again, the nerves in the feet would have been crushed, and there would have been a similar kind of pain.
“…his arms would have immediately become dislocated—you can determine this with simple mathematical equations…This fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy in Psalm 22, which foretold the Crucifixion hundreds of years before it took place and says, ‘my bones are out of joint’.
“…Once the person is hanging in a vertical position…crucifixion is essentially an agonizingly slow death by asphyxiation…The reason is that the stresses on the muscles and diaphragm put the chest into the inhaled position; basically, in order to exhale, the individual must push up on his feet so the tension on the muscles would be eased for a moment. In doing so, the nail would tear through the foot, eventually locking up against the tarsal bones…After managing to exhale, the person would then be able to relax down and take another breath in. Again he’s having to push himself up to exhale, scraping his bloodied back against the coarse wood of the cross. This would go on and on until complete exhaustion would take over, and the person wouldn’t be able to push up and breath anymore.”
The Death—“As the person slows down his breathing, he goes into what is called respiratory acidosis—the carbon dioxide in the blood is dissolved as carbonic acid, causing the acidity of the blood to increase. This eventually leads to an irregular heartbeat. In fact, with his heart beating erratically, Jesus would have known that he was at the moment of death, which is when he was able to say, ‘Lord, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ And then he dies of cardiac arrest.
“Even before he died—and this is important, too—the hypovolemic shock would have caused a sustained rapid heart rate that would have contributed to heart failure, resulting in the collection of fluid in the membrane around the heart, called a pericardial effusion, as well as around the lungs, which is called pleural effusion…when the Roman soldier came around and, being fairly certain that Jesus was dead, confirmed it by thrusting a spear into his right side…the spear apparently went through the right lung and into the heart, so when the spear was pulled out, some fluid—the pericardial effusion and the pleural effusion—came out. That would have the appearance of a clear fluid, like water, followed by a large volume of blood, as the eyewitness John described in his gospel…John’s description is consistent with what modern medicine would expect to have happened.
“There was absolutely no doubt that Jesus was dead…If they wanted to speed up death—and with the Sabbath and Passover coming, the Jewish leaders certainly wanted to get this over before sundown—the Romans would use the steel shaft of a short Roman spear to shatter the victim’s lower leg bones. This would prevent him from pushing up with his legs so he could breathe, and death by asphyxiation would result in a matter of minutes…Jesus’ legs were not broken, because the soldiers had already determined that he was dead, and they just used the spear to confirm it. This fulfilled another Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah, which is that his bones would remain unbroken.”
Proof of His Death—“…these soldiers were experts in killing people—that was their job, and they did it very well. They knew without a doubt when a person was dead, and really it’s not so terribly difficult to figure out…if a prisoner somehow escaped, the responsible soldiers would be put to death themselves, so they had a huge incentive to make absolutely sure that each and every victim was dead when he was removed from the cross”
A CHALLENGE FROM STROBEL:
During his interview, Strobel pursued the ‘swoon theory,’ a bazaar idea put forth that speculates that Jesus didn’t actually die. He said, “Let’s speculate that the impossible happened and that Jesus somehow managed to survive the crucifixion. Let’s say he was able to escape from his linen wrappings, roll the huge rock away from the mouth of his tomb, and get past the Roman soldiers who were standing guard…”
Metherell responded, “…there is no way he could have survived the cross…But if he had, how could he walk around after nails had been driven through his feet? How could he have appeared on the road to Emmaus just a short time later, strolling for long distances? How could he have used his arms after they had been stretched and pulled from their joints? Remember, he also had massive wounds on his back and a spear wound to his chest.
“…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 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…so it’s preposterous to think that if he appeared to them in that awful state, his followers would have been prompted to start a worldwide movement based on the hope that someday they too would have a resurrection body like his.”
His Motivation—Strobel pointed out, “Jesus intentionally walked into the arms of his betrayer, he didn’t resist arrest, he didn’t defend himself at his trial—it was clear that he was willingly subjecting himself to…a humiliating and agonizing form of torture. What could possibly have motivated a person to agree to endure this sort of punishment?”
Metherell responded, “Frankly, I don’t think a typical person could have done it…But Jesus knew what was coming, and he was willing to go through it, because this was the only way he could redeem us—by serving as our substitute and paying the death penalty that we deserve because of our rebellion against God. This was his whole mission in coming to earth…So when you ask what motivated him…I suppose the answer can be summed up in one word—and that would be love.”