Did Jesus Really Die?

This page examines the New Testament evidence concerning Jesus’ death.

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1.  Before Jesus was crucified he was flogged (Mt 27:26, Mk 15:15, Jn 19:1).
The nature of a Roman flogging is well-known to historians. They used a multi-thonged whip in which were embedded various sharp objects, so that the flesh was torn from the victim’s back. It was by no means unusual for victims to die from the wounds.
2.  It was normal for a man being crucified to carry his own cross to the place of execution.
Apparently, they followed the same procedure for Jesus initially (Jn 19:17). But it would appear that, following his flogging Jesus was already in such a weakened state that he couldn’t continue, and it is recorded that, as they led him away another man (concerning whom the writers supply not only his name, but even the names of his sons) was pressed into service (Mt 27:32, Mk 15:21, Lk 23:26).
3.  Jesus was crucified by professional Roman soldiers (Mt 27:27-36, Mk 15:16, Lk 23:47, Jn 19:23)
For them crucifixion was a routine task, and failure to carry out such an order was punishable by death.
4.  The Jewish rulers wanted to be quite sure Jesus was dead.
They were present to witness the event (Mt 27:41, Mk 15:31, Lk 23:35) and even objected to the wording of Pilate’s superscription on the cross (Jn 19:21).
5.  The Roman soldiers wanted to be quite sure Jesus was dead.
This was to be a quick execution, since Jewish customs did not allow the bodies to be left hanging on a holy day. However, as noted above, they couldn’t afford to bungle the operation. They broke the legs of the two thieves, a standard method of accelerating death. Jesus, who we must remember had been flogged prior to his crucifixion, appeared to be dead already: but that wasn’t good enough for them: so one of the soldiers stabbed him in the side with his spear, just to make quite sure. This incident is mentioned only in John’s gospel, where it is strongly emphasised that this is not hearsay but an eye-witness report (Jn 19:31-5).
6.  Following Jesus’ death, the bodies were not immediately removed from the cross, but were left hanging.
Jesus died at about 3pm (Mt 27:45-50, Mk 15:34-7, Lk 23:44-6) yet the bodies were not removed until the evening (Mt 28:57-8, Mk 15:42-6, Lk 23:50-3, Jn 19:38-42 (this last reference, though not mentioning the time specifically, indicates that Preparation was drawing on and the nearness of the tomb was an important factor, implying it was almost dusk)).
7.  Pilate also wanted to be quite sure Jesus was dead.
Mark records that he would not agree to the removal of the body, until after he had summoned the centurion and obtained confirmation that Jesus had been dead for quite some time (Mk 15:42-6).

No conspiracy theory ever advanced has managed to explain how Jesus could have survived this treatment in the face of such clear determination to make sure he was dead. Neither has it been satisfactorily explained how a man who had been subjected to such tortures could be fit enough within three days to convince people that, rather than being a half-dead torture victim he was really the supernaturally resurrected Son of God. Nor why Jesus should be willing to endure such tortures in order to perpetuate a lie, and then vanish without trace within a few weeks, when he could much more easily have simply slipped out of town before he was arrested!

That is no doubt why both Jewish and Roman authorities are absolutely adamant on this: Jesus Christ was crucified – Finis! Given the facts, there was no way they could possibly deny it.

But if Jesus really did die, all we now have to do to establish the resurrection is to show that he was later seen to be alive. ….

11 thoughts on “Did Jesus Really Die?

  1. Well actually only christians believe that christ died but he did not die because the holy quran says that when christ was about to die allah had sent another human being who was like christ and had sent the real christ up to the sky. He is still alive but we cannot see him we muslims believe hjinthis and [… rest of comment not received.]

    • I think it would be more true to say that the vast majority of people who believe that Jesus was a real historical person believe that he died. A minority claim Jesus never existed: though most historians accept his crucifixion as historical fact. And a few sceptics, realising the implications of the resurrection accounts, try to argue that he somehow escaped crucifixion: but assume he died later of natural causes.

      Christians and Moslems agree that Jesus is still alive. But Christians point to the historical evidence for both his death and resurrection, emphasising the personal and prophetic significance of his crucifixion and the miracle of the resurrection. Moslems, on the other hand, see no overriding purpose in Jesus’ cross or resurrection; but instead claim God did a miracle by providing a substitute to take Jesus’ place on the cross and then taking Jesus back up to heaven.

      I think I should point out that the primary purpose of this discussion has been to examine the historical evidence for Jesus’ death and resurrection. But your claim has to be a statement of faith rather than historically verifiable fact, for 2 reasons. Firstly because, as already discussed, the claim itself flies in the face of the best available historical evidence and, secondly, because you are citing statements made nearly 600 years after the event. Consequently, this is not really an appropriate place to pursue this discussion.

      But that does not mean faith is irrelevant – far from it. I should very much like to discuss these matters with you further. Over the years I have had some very good friends who were Moslems: and only last week I was considering whether it would be worthwhile to create a blog on the theme: ‘Christianity 101 for Moslems,’ which would seek to address some of the common misunderstandings between Christians and Moslems. Would this be of interest to you?

  2. Let us take the biblical accounts and common Christian interpretations of the accounts of Jesus death as a given. These include that Jesus’ body was horribly mutilated and died a relatively quick death.
    By death we mean there is no brain activity and no heart function.
    Let us also take the resurrection story as a given i.e. he was alive again after 3 days, bearing only the marks of the piercings in his sides, feet and hands, but fully recovered from the horrific wounds. Since a dead body cannot have any healing ability, we must take it that Jesus reappeared in a new body or a miraculously healed body, save for some marks to convince doubters.
    In the light of the above accepted Christian beliefs about Jesus, I would like to ask: In what sense did Jesus really die?
    Let me modify the above definition of death in an entirely reasonable way:
    By death we mean there is no brain activity and no heart function as a permanent state. In other words, the most basic understanding of death is that it represents a permanent end to life. Jesus “death” does not satisfy this understanding of death simply because there is no permanence. Christian doctrine is at pains to prove that his “death” was only temporary, and in doing so, provides the answer to the question, did Jesus really die? Clearly he did not.
    We do not need to argue about whether he simply swooned or fainted, or whether his heart and brain actually stopped, whether he was clinically dead or not for 3 days. All of that becomes irrelevant.
    So much is made of the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus. When is wasn’t ultimate at all. Especially since he knew ahead of time he would only be gone for 3 days. He knew before he “died” he would be “undead” in the blink of an eye.
    Here is what it boils down to. If you were to offer me a deal that enables me to secure world peace forever, and all I have to do is be executed (for real), remain dead for 3 days, and then by some miraculous mechanism, which is guaranteed to me, I would return to live without any after-effect from my execution, I would accept it without question. No sacrifice at all to sleep through just one weekend, especially if forever after my great sleep is given to everyone as a long weekend to remember my great non-sacrifice.
    Bottom line: In what way does Jesus “death” satisfy the basic definition of a permanent ceasing of life? By its own accounts the most important Christian doctrine is also its greatest con. It would be more truthful to say: “After suffering horrific torture for a part of a day, Jesus died for just 3 days for your sins, but was then made undead again as he knew he would, fully healed except for some marks to show he was tortured. He sacrificed 3 days of his life for you. Now you need to give your whole life for him”.

  3. Hi, Erik!

    Thanks for your comments. I note that you seem quite willing to concede the main point about the historicity of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But your point is a very interesting one to which I will very briefly respond here: but which I think merits a much fuller discussion elsewhere. If you do not object, I should like to reproduce your message and offer a fuller response elsewhere on this site in the very near future. I will, of course, send you a link when I do so.

    In brief, if you once embrace the premise that death ‘represents a permanent end to life’ then your argument makes good sense. Indeed, if it were true not only I, but every Christian who has ever lived is, in the words of St. Paul, ‘most to be pitied’ (1 Corinthians 15:19). But one of the foundational Christian teachings is that this is not the case.

    But there are much bigger issues here. If death is not a permanent end to life, what is it? And what was the real nature and purpose of Jesus’ suffering? I’d like to discuss this more fully later.

    • Greetings and thank you for your response. I am glad you have not attempted a quick answer as indeed the question requires a measured response and I am more than happy for you to take up the question elsewhere. It represents a conundrum, doesn’t it?
      In Christian terms, death means a permanent end to life on earth and the simultaneous beginning of an afterlife, or, a new life in a different form.
      – Jesus death was not a permanent end to life on earth … so what was his “death” then?
      – Jesus knew he would be “undead” after 3 days, so what does that do to the concept of “ultimate sacrifice”. And in what sense is there any sacrifice at all when he knew he would be completely reunited with his father in heaven following the ascension, this time without the burden of a human form?
      – I have noted a tendency among evangelists to portray Jesus’ suffering in very graphic terms, where it becomes apparent that they are motivated by the need to show Jesus’ physical suffering was far greater than had ever been experienced by any human before and would be experienced by any human in future. Is this indeed a pivotal requirement? If not, then why make so much of his suffering? If yes, then it would seem hard to back up in the face of evidence of far more extreme individual suffering over the ages for extended periods of time at the hands of sadistic torturers, dictators, warmongers, genocidal maniacs, diseases etc.
      These are critical questions because Christianity regards the Suffering, Death and Resurrection as the cornerstones of it’s faith, without which there is nothing remarkable at all.
      I should point out I do not have a vested interest in the answers to these questions either way; I am merely interested in the integrity of any argument presented.

  4. If a person is seen alive, I think that has to be considered prima facie evidence both that he is not dead and that he never has been dead. If a man is seen alive shortly after a plane crash in which there were no survivors, it would be reasonable to conclude that he was not on the plane. If a witness claimed to have seen the man boarding the doomed plane, it would be reasonable to conclude that the witness was mistaken even he claimed to have been standing right at the gate while he watched the person board. On the other hand if the person who reported that the man had boarded the doomed plane had heard it from someone who was some distant away from the gate, there would be little reason to give the report any weight at all.

    It is claimed that Jesus was seen alive after he had been executed by crucifixion. That is by itself some reason to doubt that Jesus had actually been killed. There is perfectly good reason to question whether the people who reporting seeing Jesus alive had any first hand knowledge of his crucifixion. They were at the time in fear for their own lives and in hiding. Apparently, they got reports their information from some women who saw the crucifixion from some unspecified distance. That does not seem like terribly strong evidence to me.

    Add to this the fact that the authorities who had Jesus crucified are reported not to have known what he looked like prior to his arrest as they had to hire Judas to identify him. That would seem to me to be some reason to wonder whether the authorities arrested and executed someone other than Jesus, and the women were simply too far away to positively identify the man being crucified.

    Jesus may well have been crucified, but given the record, I don’t see why it is considered an indisputable fact. I would think that we have to allow for the possibility that he got away.

    • I understand your scepticism. You would be abnormal if you were not. But to make it a true analogy, you would have to have been at the crash site, watching him draw his final breaths, alongside his mother, whom he addressed as such (John 19:25-27). Then there’s the matter of the other interested parties who wanted to be sure he was dead, as discussed above.
      The use of Judas is another example of the Jews’ determination to get this right. We live in an age of printing and video: the Jews did not even have ‘Wanted’ posters (it was against their religion). They were sending an armed mob to arrest Jesus at night. If Jesus were accidentally killed, resisting arrest, that would have been convenient; but they could not risk being personally involved. They could not afford to make a mistake: so they had to have a watertight identification. Judas’ kiss was ideal.
      And if they had got the wrong man, do you think he would have gone to his death without loudly protesting their mistake? And would they have been content to just crucify him anyway, in the hope that Jesus wouldn’t come back?

      • Had Judas identified the wrong man, I’m sure that man would have protested. I am not sure that he would have been believed, and I am not at all sure that the authorities couldn’t have afforded to make a mistake. Intimidation was as important a goal of crucifixion as punishment and crucifying one of Jesus’ followers would have satisfied that goal. Had they later discovered their error, however, I’m sure they would have tried to rectify it by crucifying the right man. On the other hand, had Jesus’ followers been successfully cowed into submission, I doubt that the authorities would have lost any sleep over their mistake.

        The Gospel of John does put witnesses right there at the foot of the cross watching Jesus die, but the earlier accounts only tell of women watching from a distant.

        • So, if they had got the wrong man, why didn’t they try to get the right one, instead of claiming that the body had been stolen (the claim that was apparently still in common circulation when the gospels were written Mt. 28:15). And whilst I agree that the act of crucifying one of Jesus’ followers should indeed have been a powerful deterrent, this brings us back to the historical fact that in practice it wasn’t. Why? Because following Jesus’ resurrection appearances those same disciples who had fled, hidden and denied even knowing Jesus for fear of the authorities no longer had any fear of death.

          Although John was the only one of the twelve who dared venture near the cross, Luke 23:49 indicates that the others were watching from a distance. Moreover, all the gospels record the fact that all the disciples were present when Jesus was arrested and that Peter followed Jesus all the way to the High Priest’s house after his arrest; so there is little scope for misidentification or escape here or at any other point prior to the actual crucifixion.

          For more on the dating of John’s account see the Introduction to ‘Dating of the NT Documents‘ elsewhere in this section.


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