Did Jesus really die on the cross?

The Apparent Death Hypothesis according to Dr. William Lane Craig

by Ibn Anwar, BHsc (Hons), MCollT


This article is a response to a section of a debate that took place on the subject of the resurrection of Jesus between the Islamic scholar Dr. Shabir Ally and the Christian scholar Dr. William Lane Craig which can be viewed here. The following is a transcript of the section that this article aims at addressing:

“The first one, the crucifixion is universally agreed upon by all historians and here Shabir says that he doesn’t deny that Jesus was crucified but what he suggests is that he was taken down alive from the cross and God raised him out of the tomb into heaven. This is a fantastic hypothesis and an incredible concession on the part of an Islamic theologian to Christian claims about Jesus. Basically it is an attempt to resurrect the old Apparent Death theory which was popular among German rationalists during the late 17th hundreds and I’ve got to say no historian or New Testament scholar would defend this Apparent Death theory today. It’s sort of the theological equivalent of the flat earth theory. Why is this hypothesis abandoned? Well, one thing is that there is simply no doubt that the crucifixion was fatal. The Romans were professional executioners and they ensured the deaths of their victims by a spear thrust into the heart of the victim so that even if the victim had simply lapsed into a comatose state on the cross he would certainly be killed by the thrust of the spear into his heart and this is exactly what happened in Jesus’ case.”

Is the crucifixion universally agreed upon by all historians? No, it isn’t. Bruno Bauer, J.M. Robertson, Paul-Louis Couchoud, Earl Doherty, Tom Harpur and G.A. Wells have all argued against the existence of Jesus although Wells have actually revised his original position. It goes without saying that if Jesus did not exist then his alleged crucifixion did not happen. This means that there are those from among non-Muslim historians and Biblical scholars who do in fact disagree that Jesus was historically crucified, hence demolishing Dr. Craig’s confident declaration that it is “universally agreed upon by all historians”. Dr. Craig describes Shabir Ally’s proposition as fantastic without actually specifically qualifying what he meant by this. In any case, is the idea that Jesus survived the crucifixion and was later assumed to heaven any more stupendous than the Christian claim that Jesus came back alive after being dead for three days and then went up into heaven? Both are remarkable theological claims and for a Christian to suggest that Shabir’s proposition is fantastic to the point of unbelief is unwarranted. To compare the so called Apparent Death theory to the flat earth theory is simply absurd. Whilst there is possibility for the former in the realm of logic and reason there is no possibility for the latter. Dr. Craig said that the Apparent Death theory has been successfully refuted and buried because “there is simply no doubt that the crucifixion was fatal”. At this point it is clear that Dr. Craig forgot Mark 15:44. Here we have Pilate himself who was responsible for condemning Jesus to death doubting that Jesus had died. The verse says, “Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died.” If as Dr. Craig would have it that there is no doubt that the crucifixion was fatal then why was Pilate surprised at hearing Jesus’ alleged death? The answer is quite simple, that is, the crucifixion is only truly fatal if the victim is left on the cross for a sufficiently long enough period which was not at all the case with Jesus. In fact, we know that there are those who were fixed on the cross for three days and yet they were still alive. A particularly pertinent account is recorded by Josephus. The New Testament expert, Geza Vermes mentions the story:

“Less extreme believers in Jesus’ survival argue that recovery after crucifixion was possible, as it is attested by Flavius Josephus. In his autobiography, Josephus recalls that on an occassion when he was returning to the capital, he saw many crucified Jews by the roadside. Among them he recognized three of his friends who were still alive. On his pleading, Titus, the future emperor, promptly ordered them to be taken down and treated by Roman physicians, and as a result one of the three survived (Life 420).” [1]

If ordinary men were able to survive for over three days on the cross and upon release one was actually able to recuperate why exactly did Jesus die in much less than half a day? Oh, it was because of the spear thrust that Dr. Craig mentioned right? Prof. Raymond E. Brown who is hailed by Dr. Craig as one of the best New Testament scholars of modern times deny that there was actually a spear thrust  in John 19.34. Rather, he believes that it  merely involved prodding and nothing more than that. Prof. Brown says, “Crucifixion pierces no vital organ, and so inevitably one must wonder what physical or organic factor caused Jesus to die. The extremely brief Gospel descriptions of the death of Jesus are of little help in answering this question.” [2]The quotation clearly shows that Prof. Brown unlike Dr. Craig does not consider spear thrusting(that penetrates the flesh) as part of the crucifixion process. Many other Biblical scholars simply deny that there was any such incident of piercing or thrusting. Geza Vermes opines, “One may further speculate that the piercing of his side by one of the executioners was a later invention introduced by John (Jn 19:34) to dispel doubts about whether Jesus was dead.” [3] Around the time when the Gospel of John was being written a group of Gnostics called the Docetists were  in operation circulating doubts concerning Jesus’ actual and physical death on the cross, hence the introduction of the spear thrusting into the story was meant to quell those doubts. The New American Biblestates, “John probably emphasizes these verses to show the reality of Jesus’ death, against the Docetist heretics.” [4]  Willem Nicol states, “…it is probable that 1:14; 6:53ff. and 19:34 contain a hidden polemic against docetists.” [5](emphasis added) One need only read the next few lines after verse 34 to confirm that this is John’s unique invention. The author of John connects the spear thrust to an Old Testament  scriptural text that was supposedly fulfilled in the incident, “They will look on the one they have pierced”. This text is extracted from Zechariah 12:10:

“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.”

A careful reading of the above verse’s context will lead any reasonable reader to the understanding that it is not about Jesus. It is about Jerusalem that is besieged by aggressive surrounding nations all of which will suffer total destruction according to God’s plan. It has nothing to do with salvation through the sacrifice of a single individual called Jesus. The verse itself from which the line in John 19:37 is taken from tells us that the ones responsible for the piercing “will mourn for him…and grieve bitterly…” Where did the Sanhedrin, the centurions or Pilate mourn and grieve bitterly for Jesus’ death? The context then goes on to say that on that day the whole of Jerusalem including all the clans and their wives will start weeping/crying. Where is this recorded exactly? Which clan cried for Jesus on the day of his crucifixion and piercing? The answer is none which brings us to the ultimate conclusion that the spear thrusting is nothing more than John’s own invention. In conclusion, the reason that invalidates the idea that Jesus could have survived the crucifixion as presented by Dr. William Lane Craig is untenable and without foundation.



A lingering question may be playing the minds of many Christians, especially for those that have had the opportunity to watch Mel Gibon’s The Passion: But what about the nailing of Jesus’ hands and feet? Wouldn’t that have been enough to cause great pain and possibly death due to shock? Some medical professionals have opined that one of the factors that caused Jesus to die was ‘asphyxiation’, that is, he was choked to death because he had no place to hold his weight, since his feet were nailed to the beam and that placed too much weight on his lungs. There are a few difficulties with this proposition. Firstly, nailing itself is by no means fatal to the human being and as the eminent New Testament scholar, Father Raymond Brown says that, “Crucifixion pierces no vital organs…” And so, Jesus’ vital organs, that include his lungs, were intact and undamaged by the ordeal. Secondly, the medical doctors’ opinion that Jesus expired due to asphyxiation is based on their reading of the crucifixion accounts as they are with the presumption that every detail given in them accurately convey what really happened to Jesus. Their method is seen as completely unacceptable to Brown and he sees their conclusions completely unsatisfactory: “In my judgment the major defect of most of the studies I have reported on thus far is that they were written by doctors who did not stick to their trade and let a literalistic understanding of the Gospel accounts influence their judgments on the physical cause of death of Jesus. There is no evidence that the evangelists personally knew anything about that matter…” [6]

And we now know, through archaeological discoveries and historical documentation that have been found, that crucifixion did not necessarily involve piercing of any of the bodily parts. In fact, crucifixion victims were simply tied to the upright beam and their legs were allowed to rest on a plank. Interestingly, the earliest depictions of Jesus’ crucifixion shows precisely this which opposes the traditional depiction involving nails that have become so popular in Christian art and imagination. This fact is mentioned by historian and New Testament scholar Dr. L Michael White:

“Sometimes the criminal was nailed both hand and foot; other times, the hands were merely tied with ropes. The earliest representation of the crucifixion of Jesus show the practice of using ropes alone for the arms; only much later did the traditional portrayals emerge in Christian art.” [7]

And in the scanned image below from White’s book, he supplies examples of the earliest pictures or depictions, with explanatory captions, of Jesus’ alleged crucifixion.

crucifixion 3



[1] Vermes, G. (2008). The Resurrection: history and myth. United States: Doubleday. p. 145

[2] Brown, R. E. (1994). The Death of the Messiah, Vol. 2. New York: Bantam Doubleday DellPublishing Group, Inc. p. 1088

[3] Vermes, G. Op. Cit.

[4] The New American Bible, Revised Edition (2011). New York: Oxford University Press. p. 1236

[5] Nicol, W. (1972). The Semeia in the fourth gospel: Tradition and redaction. Brill Archive. p. 135

[6]Brown, R. E. Op. Cit. p. 1092

[7] White, L. M. (2010). Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite. New York: HarperCollins Publishers. p. 133

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