Skeptics have for two thousand years been coming up with theories on how to explain the resurrection of Christ in a naturalistic way. A popular one today is the swoon theory. For those unfamiliar with the word “swoon” it means to “faint.” Basically the idea is that Jesus did not die on the cross, but only passed out and was mistaken for death.
In an article titled Resurrection or resuscitation? Margaret and Trevor Lloyd Davies, argue that Jesus did not die. Their arguments are: 1) Jesus lost consciousness because of a diminished supply of blood to his brain; 2) he was mistaken for dead because of his ashen skin and immobility; 3) oxygen supply to the brain was at a minimal level; 4) circulation was restored after Jesus was laid on the ground; 5) A chill during the eclipse of the sun helped to maintain Jesus’ blood pressure; and 6) “As Jesus showed signs of life he was not placed in a tomb…but taken away and tended.”
Atheist Robert Price also believes that it is possible that Jesus survived the cross because he was drugged. In fact, he thinks that it is possible that it may have been the guards who helped Jesus to safety after they discovered he was still alive. J. N. D. Anderson summarizes the swoon theory as follows:
“Their explanation runs like this: Christ was indeed nailed to the cross. He suffered terribly from shock, loss of blood, and pain, and He swooned away; but he didn’t actually die. Medical knowledge was not very great at the time, and the apostles thought He was dead. We are told, are we not, that Pilate was surprised that he was dead already. The explanation assertedly is that He was taken down from the cross in a state of swoon by those who wrongly believed Him to be dead, and laid in the sepulchre. And the cool restfulness of the sepulchre so far revived Him that He was eventually able to issue forth from the grave. His ignorant disciples couldn’t believe that this was a mere resuscitation. They insisted it was a resurrection from the dead.”
There have been stories about people believed to have been dead, but in fact were still alive. So to many the idea that Jesus may have been still alive is possible. In fact, some skeptics will even go as far to say that, without modern medical science, no one present at Jesus’ crucifixion was qualified to know for certain if he was dead. Is the swoon theory possible? Could Jesus still have been alive? Let’s take a look at the available evidence.
Was Jesus really dead, or did he survive?
In order to understand if Jesus could have survived we need to examine just how crucifixion worked? The process of crucifixion was very brutal. In the latter part of the first century AD, Martial describes how during a theatrical performance a condemned man was crucified in place of the actor on stage. A bear was then let loose which tore him to pieces while on the cross. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus mentions that sometimes wives and children of condemned men were killed in front of them while hanging on the cross. To add to the horror, dead infants were sometimes hung around the neck. Cicero called crucifixion “that most cruel and disgusting penalty,” “the worst extremes of tortures” and “the terror of the cross.” Josephus called it “the most pitiful of deaths.”
Quite simply, Jesus Christ went through one of the most brutal treatments that a human being can go through. His sufferings would have begun early while he was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane (just before he was arrested). Luke 22:44 says that Jesus was in such anguish that he actually sweated blood. Is this possible? Most do not realize that this is a real condition, although it is rare. It is called hematidrosis. Bert Thompson and Brad Harrub comment:
“Commonly referred to as hematidrosis or hemohidrosis, this condition results in the excretion of blood or blood pigment in the sweat. Under conditions of great emotional stress, tiny capillaries in the sweat glands can rupture, thus mixing blood with perspiration. This condition has been reported in extreme instances of stress. For example, a young girl who had a terrible fear of air raids during World War I developed the condition after a gas explosion occurred in the house next door to hers. Another report details that after being threatened by sword-bearing soldiers, a Catholic nun “was so terrified that she bled from every part of her body and died of hemorrhage in the sight of her assailants.” During the waning years of the twentieth century, 76 cases of hematidrosis were studied and classified into categories according to causative factors: “Acute fear and intense mental contemplation were found to be the most frequent inciting causes.” While the extent of blood loss generally is minimal, hematidrosis also results in the skin becoming extremely tender and fragile, which would have made Christ’s pending physical insults even more painful.”
It is also important to note that despite the emotional stress and a physical beating, Jesus would have walked more than 2 and a half miles to and from the various trials with little to no sleep the night before. This would have made him even more vulnerable to the beating that he received from the Roman soldiers.
The instrument that was used to scourge Jesus was called a flagrum. This was “a whip of braided leather thongs with metal balls woven into them…these balls would cause deep bruises or contusions, which would break open with further blows. And the whip had pieces of sharp bone…which would cut the flesh severely.”
Crucifixion was a form of execution that the Romans used on the lower class, rebels, soldiers, slaves, and those who were accused of treason. Beforehand the accused would be tortured brutally. Ancient authors such as Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Livy, Josephus, and Philo, all of whom date from the late first century BC to the late first century AD, tell about people being tortured with whips, fire, and other things before being crucified. Lucian (second century AD) spoke about someone who was whipped, had his eyes put out, and his tongue cut out before crucifixion. The beatings could be so bad that Seneca (in the first century AD) spoke about those who had been crucified as “battered and ineffective carcasses,” “maimed,” “misshapen,” “deformed,” “nailed” and “drawing the breath of life amid long drawn out agony.”
The Roman soldiers would have beaten Jesus repeatedly across the chest, back, buttocks, and legs and it was done not by one but two soldiers. Alexander Metherell, a medical scientist, says that “[t]he 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.”
Scourging itself was so bad that the wounds would be so deep that blood would spurt out rhythmically with each heartbeat. This in itself could be fatal. Thompson and Hurrab also describe the blows:
“During the scourging, it would be commonplace for the lacerated skin and bloodied, underlying muscle tissue to take on the appearance (in a quite literal fashion) of ‘shredded meat.’ Peter referred to the beating of Christ when he reminded first-century Christians that it was Jesus ‘by whose stripes ye were healed’ (1 Peter 2:24). Significantly, the term ‘stripes’ in the original language is in the singular number, suggesting that the back of the Lord was such a mass of bleeding, bruised tissue, that it appeared as a single wound.”
The victim would lose so much blood that they would go into hypovolemic shock (low-volume blood). This is when the “heart races to try to pump more blood that isn’t there…the blood pressure drops, causing fainting or collapse…the kidneys stop producing urine to maintain what volume is left…[and] the person becomes very thirsty as the body craves fluids to replace the lost blood volume” Jesus would have been so weak that he would not have been able to carry the cross and explains why he asked for a drink while on the cross.
To make things even worse the Roman soldiers placed a crown of thorns on top of his head. Unlike the typical crown that is often portrayed, the crown would have actually covered his entire scalp. Although with this he received even more blows to the head which would have driven the thorns deep into his scalp and forehead. This would have caused extensive bleeding and various nerves…would have been perforated which would have caused horrible pain.
After all of this, Christ would have had to carry the cross about one-third of a mile. Thompson and Hurrab note that when Jesus fell under the weight of the crossbeam it very likely would have “resulted in blunt chest trauma and a contused heart.” After this, Jesus would have reached the place of crucifixion. The nails were tapered iron spikes which were five to seven inches long with a square shaft approximately three-eighths of an inch across.
A spike driven through his wrist would certainly have pierced the median nerve or peripheral branches. Any damage to this nerve would have caused an extraordinary amount of pain. Also while on the cross his shoulders would be dislocated. Even after all of this the Roman soldiers were about to deliver even more pain by nailing his feet and doing even more damage to his nerves.
It was also not uncommon for most crucified victims to have insects burrow into open wounds or orifices (the nose, eyes, mouth, ears, etc.). Birds were known to have fed off the victim while hanging.
Frederick Farrar gives us a general description of death by crucifixion:
“For indeed a death by crucifixion seems to include all that pain and death can have of horrible and ghastly – dizziness, cramp, thirst, starvation, sleeplessness, traumatic fever, tetanus, shame, publicity of shame, long continuance of torment, horror of anticipation, mortification of unintended wounds – all intensified just up to the point at which they can be endured at all, but all stopping just short of the point which would give to the sufferer the relief of unconsciousness.
The unnatural position made every movement painful; the lacerated veins and crushed tendons throbbed with incessant anguish; the wounds, inflamed by exposure, gradually gangrened; the arteries – especially at the head and stomach – became swollen and oppressed with surcharged blood; and while each variety of misery went on gradually increasing, there was added to them the intolerable pang of a burning and raging thirst; and all these physical complications caused an internal excitement and anxiety, which made the prospect of death itself – of death, the unknown enemy, at whose approach man usually shudders most – bear the aspect of a delicious and exquisite release.”
How did Jesus actually die?
There is a difference of opinion how Jesus actually died while on the cross. Metherell believes that the cause of death was “essentially an agonizingly slow death by asphyxiation.” The person must push up with their feet to exhale (because their chest is in the inhale position) and this would make the nail “tear through the foot, eventually locking up against the tarsal bones.” To make things worse their back would also scrape against the coarse wood. This would go on and on until the person was exhausted and could no longer breathe. Eventually the victim would go into respiratory acidosis which is when “carbon dioxide in the blood is dissolved as carbon acid, causing the acidity of the blood to increase. This eventually leads to an irregular heartbeat.” Essentially Jesus would have died because of cardiac arrest.
However, Thompson and Hurrab believe that since Jesus was able to yell out in a loud voice, asphyxia was probably not the cause of death. They mention that each individual cause would be different. They mention that “hypovolemic shock, dehydration, cardiac arrhythmia, and congestive heart failure with the rapid accumulation of pericardial and pleural effusions as possible contributing factors.”
Was Jesus really dead because of all of this? John gives us a piece of evidence that clearly shows that Jesus was dead. John 19:34 says that a soldier pierced Jesus with a spear, “bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.” Fluid would have collected “in the membrane around the heart, called a pericardial effusion, as well as around the lungs, which is called a pleural effusion.” When the soldier speared the side of Jesus the fluid came out as “blood and water” which confirmed that Jesus was dead.
Researcher and writer James Patrick Holding says it well:
“There is only one circumstance which fits both the story as given and medical science. That is the one where a patient has died and the blood in his heart has pooled long enough to fractionate into packed cells and serum. A spear thrust into the heart would allow these fluids to pour out with exactly the appearance recorded. We should note that such a patient would be DEAD.
One alternate has been proposed with some plausibility. That one states that Jesus’ trials led to the accumulation of a pleural effusion. The spear then allowed that water to flow out. But such a circumstance would not lead to blood flowing out as described. That would require the spear to penetrate the heart. Again, the patient would be DEAD.”
Michael Green writes:
“Had Jesus been alive when the spear pierced His side, strong spouts of blood would have emerged with every heartbeat. Instead, the observer noticed semi-solid dark red clot seeping out, distinct and separate from the accompanying watery serum. This is evidence of massive clotting of the blood in the main arteries, and is exceptionally strong medical proof of death…[t]he ‘blood and water’ from the spear-thrust is proof positive that Jesus was already dead.”
“But if he had [survived], 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 were stretched and pulled from their joints? Remember, he also had massive wounds on his back and a spear wound to his chest.”
Holding makes an excellent comment:
“[L]et us keep in mind the state of Jesus’ health, if indeed he survived: He had been beaten, with the accompanying loss of blood; he had had nothing to eat for at least 20-40 hours; nothing to drink other than a bit of sour vinegar; he had been lain out shivering and losing energy in a tomb with a temperature as low as 56 degrees; after hanging for hours on a cross, which would result in dislocated shoulders and/or strained muscles; and, if we are to believe some theorists, drugged (just enough to simulate death, but enough to recover at the right time as well). Add this all together, and will our victim, Jesus, push over the stone that guards his tomb? Will he even get up? No, he might roll his body onto the floor, at best.”
How could a person in this kind of pathetic state win converts? Why would the disciples put everything on the line (including their own lives) for someone who looked so pitiful? Why would they even want a resurrection body like his?
Was Jesus drugged (and other problems)?
Robert Price believes that Jesus was drugged (causing him to swoon), that the guards at his tomb may have helped him, and believes that Jesus being crucified with nails and the spearing of Jesus’ side are unhistorical since they are only mentioned in the Gospel of John.
Price’s arguments are not very good. First, the drugging of Jesus would have had to happen when Jesus took a drink while on the cross (John 19:28-30). The jar of wine vinegar was not brought by Jesus’ disciples or any other friend, but was already there and belonged to the Romans. Why would the Roman soldiers give a drug to the man they are ordered to kill. The penalty for not doing their job was death.
Second, why would the guards help Jesus? If he was alive this would show their incompetence at doing their job, and they probably would have finished him off so they wouldn’t be killed themselves. As Metherell comments, “the Romans weren’t about to risk their own death by allowing him to walk away alive. But for arguments sake, let’s assume they (or someone else) helped Jesus. When the disciples started preaching that Jesus had died and resurrected it would have been very easy for someone to note that Jesus had survived the crucifixion.
Third, just because John is the only gospel that mentions the nails and spear does not mean that the account is unhistorical. I have noted the drawbacks of this argument in a previous article so I’m not going to repeat myself here (click here for more).
It is clear that the available evidence points to the fact that Jesus was dead. The amount of suffering that he endured during the crucifixion and the improbabilities that he survived simply teach us that the swoon theory is flawed. This theory does not, at all, explain what happened to the body of Jesus. To conclude: “It is significant that not a suggestion of this kind [the swoon theory] has come down from antiquity among all the violent attacks which have been made on Christianity. All of the earliest records are emphatic about Jesus’ death.”
 Margaret Lloyd Davies and Trevor A. Lloyd Davies. “Resurrection or resuscitation?” Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of London Vol. 25 No. 2 April 1991. Pg. 168.
 Robert Price. “Explaining the Resurrection without Recourse to Miracle.” In The End of Christianity. John Loftus ed. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2011. Pgs. 223, 226.
 J. N. D. Anderson. Christianity: The Witness of History. Quoted in Josh McDowell. Evidence for Christianity. Nashville: Nelson Reference & Electronic, 2006. pgs. 316, 317.
 Martial Liber Spectaculorum 7; Josephus Antiquities 12:256; Cicero Verr. 2.5.165; Rab. Post. 16; Josephus Jewish War 7.203. Quoted in Michael Licona. The Resurrection of Jesus. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010. Pg. 304.
 Bert Thompson and Brad Hurrab. “An Examination of the Medical Evidence for the Physical Death of Christ.” http://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=13&article=145
 McDowell, 269
 Lee Strobal. The Case for Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998. Pg. 195
 Dionysius of Halicarnassus Ant. Rom. 5.51.3; Livy The History of Rome 22.13.9; 28.37.3; Josephus Jewish War 5.449, 451; Philo Flacc. 65-85; Lucian Pisc. 2. Seneca Epistles, “To Lucilius” 101. See Licona, 303-304.
 Thompson and Hurrab.
 Strobal, 195
 Thompson and Hurrab.
 Strobal, 196
 Thompson and Hurrab.
 Strobal, 197, 198
 Thompson and Hurrab.
 Frederick Farrar. The Life of Christ. Quoted in McDowell, Pgs. 270-271
 Strobal, 198, 199
 Thompson and Hurrab.
 Strobal, p. 199
 Ibid., 201
 James Patrick Holding, Defending the Resurrection. Xulon Press, 2010, Pg. 383.
 Michael Green. Man Alive. Quoted in McDowell, Pg. 273
 Strobal, 202
 Holding. 382.
 Strobal, 202
 Price, 223, 225-226.
 Holding, 381.
 Strobal, 201
 Paul Little. Know Why You Believe. Quoted in McDowell, 317.