Jesus Didn’t Die from Crucifixion

It’s difficult to deal with alternate theories on the historicity of Christ’s resurrection. There are plenty of them out there. That’s not the hard part. It’s just hard to choose the ones that pose the most legitimate challenge.

Further Reading: Was Jesus’ Body Stolen (Alternate Resurrection Theory #1)

Before developing an alternative view of Christ’s death and resurrection the standard view must be rejected. After all, why go searching for an alternative to a perfectly good explanation? One must reject the possibility of God raising a person from the dead before proposing a different theory. Why? Because none of the alternatives have better historical or rational support. So if your alternative theory isn’t going to win on its own merits you must do away with the original story out-of-hand so there’s nothing to be compared to.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ
The Empty Tomb of Jesus with an Angel, Women Visitors, and Roman Soldiers.

The second alternative theory I want to talk about is the “Swoon Theory.” “Swoon” means to faint. This theory says that Christ never really died at all. The swoon theory was promoted by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln in their 1982 book Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Dan Brown famously used this book in connection with his best-seller The Da Vinci Code. This theory is popular among Muslims who traditionally reject Christ’s death on the cross. The swoon theory was first proposed by H. E. G. Paulus in The Life of Jesus (1828).

Explanation of the Swoon Theory

Here’s the swoon theory in a nutshell:

  1. Jesus never really died on the cross. Either they thought he was dead and took him down, or they intentionally took him down before he died.
  2. He was placed in the tomb where he remained for a couple days regaining his strength.
  3. He presented himself alive to many people including the Apostles.
  4. Those who saw him post-crucifixion thought he’d risen from the dead and spread this story, which formed the basis for Christianity.

There are at least four good reason to reject the swoon theory.

PRODUCT: Dr. Gary Habermas covers the swoon theory in session twelve of his 30-session courses on The Resurrection of Jesus.

1. The Nature of Crucifixion

The Roman governor Pontius Pilate ordered Christ’s crucifixion. Jesus’ executioners weren’t an inexperienced lynch mob. They were highly trained and experienced soldiers who regularly crucified people. employed what was probably the most common form of capital punishment of the day. Crucified men generally died from asphyxiation due to collapsed lungs. But even if they didn’t the executioners had a fail-safe to guarantee death. They would break their legs. With broken legs there was no way for the victims to push themselves up to breathe.

Though one could live days on a cross without dying, once the legs were broken, death came very quickly. Additionally, if there was any uncertainty as to whether the man had died, there was another way to ensure his death. They would spear the victim in the chest (which was done to Christ). To claim that Christ was still alive after all this is to say that:

  • The Roman executioners were incompetent in their job. This idea has no extra biblical historical support. The Romans were widely believed to have perfected the “art” of crucifixion)
  • Mary and Josephus (along with all those involved in the burial) were wrong in their belief that Christ was dead.

These two hurdles make it difficult to believe the swoon theory with intellectual integrity.

2. The Glory of the Resurrection

Let us assume that Christ did somehow survive the crucifixion. Although it’s highly implausible it’s not impossible. This is just the first of at least four challenges to the swoon theory.

Christ, a man whom the Romans just attempted to crucify, would have been clinging to life,. He would have been wrapped in burial cloths (complete with one hundred pounds of burial spices) and placed in a tomb. A heavy rock was rolled over the opening sealing off the tomb. If that wasn’t enough the Roman’s placed guards outside to keep watch.

Not only do we have to believe that Christ survived crucifixion but he somehow:

  • Didn’t die from blood loss and infection
  • Recovered his strength without medical attention, food, water, etc.
  • Was strong enough to move a stone meant to seal his tomb
  • Evaded the Roman guards outside
  • Been healthy enough to pass off as having resurrected in a glorified body

Doesn’t it seem more likely that he would have been rushed to the hospital immediately, shrieking in pain the whole way? Surely, he would have died a few days later of infection and blood loss. It’s easier to believe the God raised Jesus from the dead than this string of events.

Even David Strauss, who did not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, rejected the swoon theory in his A New Life of Jesus (1879):

It is impossible that a being who had stolen half-dead out of the sepulcher, who crept about weak and ill, wanting medical treatment, who required bandaging, strengthening and indulgence, and who still at last yielded to his sufferings, could have given to his disciples the impression that he was a Conqueror over death and the grave, the Prince of Life, and impression which lay at the bottom of their future ministry […] Such a resuscitation could only have weakened the impression which he had made upon them in life and in death, at the most could only have given it an elegiac voice, but could by no possibility have changed their sorrow into enthusiasm, have elevated their reverence into worship. (1.412)

3. The Ascension Into Heaven

Let us suppose that Jesus didn’t die and that somehow his wounds were not fatal. Let us further suppose that he convinced the Apostles that he was the Messiah and the first fruits of the resurrection. Even if we grant both of these, we still have to reckon with the ascension of Jesus. The Apostles’ complete claimed that Jesus ascended into heaven (Acts 1:9–11). The swoon theory (as a simpler alternative) isn’t doing so well. Even if it allows us to skirt the resurrection we still have to develop an explanation for the ascension.

4. The Lack of Evidence

This is may be the most important point we can make: there is no evidence to support the swoon theory. Nothing in Scripture or other contemporary writings support the swoon theory. It would take more faith to believe the swoon theory than to believe in the resurrection. It seems like those who want to avoid the resurrection will buy into just about anything.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    3 replies to "Jesus Didn’t Die from Crucifixion (The Swoon Theory)(Alternate Resurrection Theory #2)"

    • Alan

      It is possible that Jesus survived the crucifixion and it doesn’t require the belief in any miracles. That is why it is has some credibility.

      1) As you mentioned, crucifixion can be a slow death lasting up to 5 days. I believe from biblical accounts that he was up there less than a day, somewhere between 5-9 hours.

      2) Notably, the roman soldiers did NOT break his legs.

      If he was taken down and given medical treatment, yes, he could have survived.

      I know this goes against accepted Christian theology but it is not impossible. Some may think it is actually more likely because it does not require anything supernatural.

    • Brian C.

      This also doesn’t cover what happened the rest of Jesus’ life and ultimately real death assuming he didn’t die and didn’t ascend. One would think, if Jesus didn’t actually ascend into heaaven, he remained on earth for another 20, 30 or maybe 40 more years. Yet we have no more account, anywhere in history, of Jesus. He simply stops existing. The Romans, Jews and critics of Jesus don’t track him down, don’t discredit his ministry and claims? His believers don’t turn on him and rat him out for fashioning a false ministry? Pffft.

    • Gary

      It is highly improbable that the Romans would screw up a crucifixion and allow someone to “swoon”. Any skeptic who makes this claim is being ridiculous. But is the Christian claim of a literal bodily reanimation (resurrection) even more ridiculous?

      The Christian argument for the bodily resurrection of Jesus would be a little stronger if the majority of NT scholars believed that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, but they do not. Only a small minority of mostly evangelical Christian NT scholars (with an agenda—biblical inerrancy—) hold this view.

      But even if the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, or even if we could be certain that the four resurrection stories in the Gospels were originally told by eyewitnesses, who today would believe the eyewitness testimony of a bunch of mostly uneducated, rural peasants claiming that they had just eaten a broiled-fish lunch with their recently executed former fishing buddy???

      It is a silly story, folks. Modern, educated people should not believe that it was a literal historical event.

      Eyewitness testimony may be sufficient evidence for car accidents and murder trials, but it is not sufficient evidence to believe claims of sea monsters in Scottish lochs, alien abductions, or zombie sightings. If twelve guys told you that they had all eaten lunch with Big Foot on a recent hunting trip would you believe them? No. So why believe a second-hand report that eleven fishermen (and one tax collector), two thousand years ago, ate a broiled fish lunch with a walking/talking dead guy (zombie)?

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