Investigating Easter: Did Jesus Really Die on the Cross? (Part 1)

By J. Warner Wallace, Expert Witness in GOD’S NOT DEAD 2

Some skeptics have offered the possibility that the disciples were mistaken about Jesus’ death on the cross. They propose that Jesus survived the beating (and the crucifixion) and simply appeared to the disciples after He recovered. After all, the Biblical record in John’s gospel indicates the two thieves crucified alongside Jesus were still alive when the soldiers arrived to remove the bodies from the crosses:

John 19:31-35
Then the Jews, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. So the soldiers came, and broke the legs of the first man and of the other who was crucified with Him; but coming to Jesus, when they saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe.

If the two criminals were still alive, isn’t it reasonable to believe Jesus might also have been alive? Perhaps the disciples mistook an unconscious Jesus for a dead Jesus. If this were the case, the “resurrection” of Jesus would be little more than a resuscitation.

While this proposal seeks to explain the empty tomb, the resurrection observations, and the transformation that occurred in the lives of the apostles, it fails to satisfactorily explain what the disciples observed and experienced when they pulled Jesus from the cross.

It’s been my experience that witnesses who first come upon the dead body of someone they care about quickly check for the most obvious sign of life. Is the person who was injured still breathing? This test is simple and effective; everyone is capable of performing it, and even those who know nothing about human biology instinctively resort to it.

It’s also been my experience that three conditions become apparent in the bodies of dead people (known as the “Mortis Triad”): temperature loss, rigidity, and lividity. Dead people lose warmth until they eventually reach the temperature of their environment (“algor mortis”). They begin to feel “cold to the touch” (this is often reported by those who find them). In addition, chemical reactions begin to take place in the muscles after death occurs, resulting in stiffening and rigidity known as “rigor mortis.” Dead people become rigid, retaining the shape they were in when they died. Finally, when the heart stops beating, blood begins to pool in the body, responding to the force of gravity. As a result, purple discoloration begins to become apparent in those areas of the body that are closest to the ground (“livor mortis”). In essence, dead bodies look, feel, and respond differently from living, breathing humans.

Dead people, unlike those who are slipping in and out of consciousness, never respond to their injuries. They don’t flinch or moan when touched. Is it reasonable to believe that those who removed Jesus from the cross, took possession of His body, carried Him to the grave, and spent time treating and wrapping His body for burial would not have noticed any of these conditions common to dead bodies?

Read Part 2

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity and God’s Crime Scene.