In the weeks since the release of Mel Gibson’s controversial film, The Passion of the Christ, critics have expressed outrage over what they claim is an overly bloody, brutal depiction of the sufferings of Christ. It makes you wonder if they understand what really took place during the scourging and crucifixion.
Somebody who does know is former journalist Lee Strobel. A few years ago, Strobel researched one of the most persistent claims against Christianity: Did Jesus survive the scourging and crucifixion? Was it possible, he wondered, to examine 2,000-year-old medical evidence and determine if Jesus really died on the cross?
Well, to get an expert opinion, Strobel went to Dr. Alexander Metherell, a research scientist. Metherell has studied the medical data concerning Christ’s death, and he’s convinced there’s no way anyone could have survived what the Romans put him through.
First, there was the flogging. Soldiers used whips of braided leather thongs. The metal balls woven into the lash caused deep bruises, which broke open during the torture. Often the victim’s back, in such a beating, was so shredded that his spine was exposed.
Those who didn’t die from the flogging went into hypovolemic shock, brought on by blood loss. There would be a loss of blood pressure, leading to faintness and collapse. And the loss of fluids would result in tremendous thirst.
The Gospels indicate that Jesus was in shock as He carried His cross to Calvary: He collapsed in the road, and Simon of Cyrene had to carry the cross for Him. Later, Jesus said, “I thirst.”
And there was the agony of the crucifixion itself. The Romans drove spikes through the wrists and feet of Jesus — spikes that traveled through the median nerves. This caused such enormous pain that a new word was invented to describe it: excruciating, literally meaning, “out of the cross.”
Metherell believes that Jesus, like other crucifixion victims, eventually died of asphyxiation. The stresses on the muscles and diaphragm put the chest in the inhaling position; in order to exhale, the victim had to push up on his feet to ease the tension in the muscles for just a moment. It would be enormously painful, and exhaustion would eventually set in.
As his breathing slowed, the victim would go into respiratory acidosis, leading to an irregular heartbeat and eventual cardiac arrest. Then, in the case of Jesus, to ensure that He was dead, a Roman soldier thrust a spear into His side.
The flogging, the massive blood loss, the shock, the crucifixion, the stabbing: Could Jesus have suffered all of this and survived?
Not a chance, Metherell told Strobel.
Gibson’s film has stirred up tremendous interest in the real Passion Week events. You and I ought to take advantage of it to launch a discussion with unsaved friends — especially if they think the violence in the film was overdone. We should lovingly explain why the real-life passion of Christ was so terribly bloody and brutal: It was because He was taking on the punishment for our sins. His love for us drove Jesus to willingly endure an excruciating death — so that you and I might live.
For further reading and information:
Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Zondervan, 1998).
See BreakPoint’s viewer’s guide for The Passion of the Christ for talking points about the film.
John Piper, The Passion of Jesus Christ: Fifty Reasons Why He Came to Die (Crossway, 2004).
- T. Wright, “Who Founded Christianity: Jesus or Paul?” Beliefnet, 26 March 2004.
Chris Armstrong, “The Goodness of Good Friday,” Christianity Today, 17 April 2003.
Sam Schechner, “Why Is It Called The Passion?: How Jesus’ Suffering Got Its Name,” Slate, 24 February 2004.
Roberto Rivera, “Levity: Holy Week Reflections on Forgiveness and Grace,” BreakPoint Online, 16 April 2003. J. Richard Pearcey, “Easter and Other Four-Letter Words,” Boundless, 1 April 2004.
Ted Olsen, “Weblog: Holy Weeklies after The Passion,” Christianity Today, 5 April 2004.
Frank Schaeffer, “Not This Easter, Mel,” Christianity Today, 30 March 2004. (The son of Francis Schaeffer, a convert to Greek Orthodoxy, explains why he will not watch The Passion of the Christ — or any other film about Jesus.)
John Fischer, “A Ticket Stub and Tissues,” BreakPoint Online, 31 March 2004.