Though it might seem obvious that Jesus died on the cross, there are many people who doubt this point. Granted, the reason why they want to question the death of Jesus is because you can’t have a resurrection without death. And the resurrection is everything to Christianity. If Jesus did not resurrect, as Paul states, our faith is useless (1 Corinthians 15:14). By questioning the death of Jesus, a person can unravel the resurrection and thus unravel all of Christianity. So how can we know with confidence that Jesus really died on the cross?
1) First, the idea that Jesus didn’t die on the cross is really insulting to Romans. The Romans perfected the art of killing. They built their empire on it. They invented new and creative ways to kill people. They killed for entertainment and sport. The crucifixions of Jesus and the two thieves were not the first Romans crucifixions. In fact, in 71 BC, Spartacus, a Roman slave, led a slave revolt in Italy. They were defeated and he and many of his fellow slaves were crucified, their crosses lined up along the roadside of the Appian Way. So the Romans had been crucifying people for decades by the time Jesus is crucified. Given all of this, it is quite unbelievable to imply the Romans would not have effectively killed Jesus or would not have known if Jesus were dead.
2) Second, we must consider the physical torture Jesus endured. During His trial with the high priest Jesus had already been hit, beaten, and spat on. Jesus had been arrested in the Garden at night after the celebration of the Passover meal. His trials immediately followed His arrest, so by the time Jesus is sent before Pilate, He had been awake for two days. After the crowds chanted for Pilate to crucify Jesus and release Barabbas, there is one small verse that simply says, “So then Pilate took Jesus and scourged Him.” (John 19:1) What a short verse to describe such a horrible, gruesome thing. It sometimes makes it tempting to read right passed it.
In our modern vernacular, we use “scourge” to mean something that just causes suffering and pain. But we must consider the historical context as it was written. In Roman times, a scourge was a whip usually made out of leather with multiple endings with stone, bits of rock, or shards of pottery tied to it, something like this picture. It was used to inflict severe punishment on a criminal. The purpose of this device was to torture, to rip the flesh off of the bone, to weaken a person so they would die faster.
Add to this the crown of thorns stuck in Jesus’ head and you can see what level of pain and torture Jesus went through before His execution. Was this effective at torturing and weakening Jesus? Absolutely. How do we know? Jesus was too weak to carry His cross up to the hill where He would be crucified (Luke 23:26). At Golgotha, He was nailed to the cross and lifted up.
The Romans didn’t employ execution methods that were quick and painless for the prisoner. They wanted long, drawn out, excruciating methods for killing the accused. When a person was crucified, they were able to live for some amount of time by pushing their body up with their feet so they could still breathe. They could do this until they were too weak to push themselves up, and then they would eventually suffocate.
This is why the soldiers broke the legs of the thieves on the crosses beside Jesus. If their knees were broken, they couldn’t push their bodies up to breathe. This would speed up their deaths so their bodies weren’t hanging on the crosses during the Passover Sabbath. However, they did not break the legs of Jesus. They observed that He was already dead, again, something a Roman executioner would be very skilled at determining. For good measure though, the soldier took His spear and stabbed it into Jesus’ heart. If Jesus had survived everything else through the day, He would not have survived this last measure.
3) Third, there is further evidence from the Scriptures that confirm Jesus died.
- In Matthew 27, there had been darkness over all the land in the middle of the day. When Jesus yielded up His spirit, the veil of the temple was torn in two, the earth quaked and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened. It was so significant that the guards were afraid, and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” The things surrounding the moment Jesus died were so significant that it left an impact on the Roman soldiers.
- The soldiers had already noted that Jesus had died on the cross without needing His legs broken. But when they pierced His side with a spear, blood and water poured out. The water indicates there was fluid on his heart and lungs. Jesus would have died from hypovolemic shock due to severe blood loss and pulmonary edema (fluid on his lungs) making Him unable to breathe. Even if Jesus had not been dead before they pierced His side, He certainly would have been after that. Now on top of being flogged, thorns shoved in His head, and crucified, His lungs and heart have been pierced with a spear.
- Joseph of Arimathea asked to retrieve the body of Jesus. After bringing Him down off the cross, he certainly would have known whether Jesus was still alive or not. Joseph and Nicodemus then wrap Jesus’ body with cloth linen and nearly one hundred pounds of spices. If Jesus had been alive still, He would have been unable to breathe after being wrapped for burial.
- Though we don’t have record of this, I would presume a religious leader was there to make sure Jesus was dead. This was the whole reason behind the trial charade in the first place – to kill Jesus. I’m sure they would have made certain it was carried through to the end. We do know they were convinced Jesus was dead because they asked Pilate if they could secure the tomb. This indicates they were aware Jesus was dead.
When we consider everything Jesus endured and the evidence of the people watching the crucifixion, it is clear Jesus died on the cross in accordance with God’s perfect timing, the Scriptures, and Jesus’ own prophecies. The religious leaders and Roman soldiers may have thought they were in control of this and were responsible for killing Jesus, but God was still in perfect control.
Jesus could have done the very thing the people were taunting Him to do – He could have come down off of that cross and turned the tables on the executioners. He could have called down legions of angels to rescue Him. He could have done any number of miraculous things in that moment. But the most miraculous thing is that He chose to die. That was the true miracle. His love for humanity and His obedience to God the Father conquered over His desire to avoid the cross. He chose the moment that He would allow them to take Him. And He chose the moment when He yielded up His spirit.
I pray that you take a moment to consider the price He paid to show His love for you.