Thanks to VeggieTales, the mass production of the Bible, and countless other accounts of His life (not including Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, which is a great film), you likely have at least heard of the name Jesus Christ - especially if you live in the Western World.
And you likely have heard that He died on a cross. Or a tree, if that matters to you.
But have you ever thought about why Jesus died the way he did?
Sure, it was prophesied how Jesus would die in Hebrew texts from hundreds of years prior to the event (see Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22) in that the death would be on a cross, that he would be pierced, beaten, and tortured horrifically.
But, again…why was it that way?
Why did God elect the most agonizing method to kill his son? I mean, crucifixion?! The word “excruciating” is literally derived from the word “crucifixion”!
The How Behind the Why
Before we get into the potential “why,” let’s first discuss the “how,” just so we are clear on what we are asking “why” about. So if you are unfamiliar with Jesus’ death log, I am about to give you my autopsy report of the night (and morning) Jesus was tortured and killed, based on a few resources:
- Historical research of how the Assyrians, Babylonians, or Persians (one of which likely invented it) crucified people and also how the Romans did it (who later mastered it).123
- A diagnosis of Jesus’ death by Cahleen Shried, Ph.D. of Azusa Pacific University4
- Biblical accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus
To be clear - I am not claiming that every medical detail you see listed is exactly what Jesus experienced. But I think by examining several biblical accounts and what world history has taught us about crucifixion, we can have a pretty solid picture of what may have happened that day.
And I know that listing these descriptions like this can feel like torture (ironically) to some folks. That is not my intent. If you read to the end, I hope you’ll see why understanding them is so important.
Reader discretion is advised (if you can’t handle it, skip to the next section.) Check out the bottom of this page for the sources for my research.
The Autopsy of Jesus Christ
Hematohidrosis (Luke 22:44)
- In the Garden of Gethsemane, leading to his arrest, Jesus is accounted to have been sweating blood. This could have resulted from Hematohidrosis, a condition where under extreme stress, the capillary blood vessels that feed the sweat glands break down and cause one’s sweat to contain blood.
Bodily mutilation and blood loss (John 19:1)
- Proceeding his death on the cross, Jesus was ordered to be flogged by Pontius Pilate. Historically during flogging, the accused stood hunched over a tree-stump-like object while naked. They were then whipped with several leather strips containing sheep bones and metal balls. The metal balls would bruise the accused, and the bones would dig into their muscles, ripping out chunks of flesh and exposing the bone. In filming The Passion of the Christ5 - Jim Caviezel, the man playing Jesus, stated that while being fake whipped during the flogging scene, he was accidentally caught by one lash. He says, “[His lash] just extended over the board and hit me with such a velocity that I couldn’t breathe. It’s like getting the wind knocked out of you. The stinging is so horrific that you can’t get air.” For reference, Jesus could have received up to 39 lashes, as a death sentence was 40. (Deuteronomy 25:3).
- As a result of flogging, Jesus could have entered into shock due to blood loss lowering his blood pressure tremendously. Following his flogging and on the path to where he would be crucified, the Bible says Jesus could not carry his own cross, leading to the assumption that he was in a tremendously fragile physical state. Simon of Cyrene has to carry the cross for him as a result (Matthew 27:32). Just before His death, Jesus’ cry of thirst (John 19:28) could be seen as his body’s natural response to attempt to remedy blood loss from a possible state of shock.
Nailed to the cross (John 20:25) and severe nerve damage
- Once Jesus was bound to the cross, it is said the Roman soldiers nailed Jesus’ “hands” to the cross. Biologically, it is most likely that the nails went through his wrists (the Greek meaning of “hands” actually includes the wrist), and if the nails were driven into his hands, the weight of his arms pulling him down would cause the nails to rip through his flesh. Additionally, if the nails were in the wrists, the bones in the lower portion of the hand would support the weight of the arms and the body. The nail (seven to nine inches long; picture a railroad spike) would immediately damage or sever the major nerve to the hand. Jesus’ feet were likely nailed through the tops near his ankles. In this position, the body’s weight pushes down on the nails, and the ankles support the weight. The nails would rip through the soft tissue, causing severe nerve damage.
Shoulders and elbows dislocated
- Once the accused is nailed in securely, the soldiers would lift the cross and place it in a hole in the ground. In this scenario, Jesus’ full weight would have been pulled down when the cross was dropped in, and his shoulders and elbows would dislocate. In a prophecy of Jesus’ death, Psalm 22:14 states, “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint;”
- On the cross, the weight of the accused’s body pulls down on the diaphragm, and the air moves into his lungs and stays there. In this case, Jesus would then (painfully) push up on his nailed feet to exhale. A slow form of suffocation could have been the cause of his death as a result of the difficulty in exhaling. I’ll let Cahleen Shried’s exact words take it from here: (In the process of suffocation) “Carbon dioxide builds up in the blood, resulting in a high level of carbonic acid in the blood. The body responds instinctively, triggering the desire to breathe. At the same time, the heart beats faster to circulate available oxygen. The decreased oxygen (due to the difficulty in exhaling) causes damage to the tissues and the capillaries begin leaking watery fluid from the blood into the tissues. This results in a build-up of fluid around the heart (pericardial effusion) and lungs (pleural effusion). The collapsing lungs, failing heart, dehydration, and the inability to get sufficient oxygen to the tissues essentially suffocate the victim.”
- Shried continued: (In the process of suffocation) “The decreased oxygen also damages the heart itself (myocardial infarction) which leads to cardiac arrest. In severe cases of cardiac stress, the heart can even burst, a process known as cardiac rupture. Jesus most likely died of a heart attack.”
Other causes of death
- According to a piece published in the National Library of Medicine, crucifixion-caused death “was due to multifactorial pathology: after-effects of compulsory scourging and maiming, haemorrhage and dehydration causing hypovolaemic shock and pain, but the most important factor was progressive asphyxia caused by impairment of respiratory movement.”
Stabbed with spear following death (John 19:33-34)
- To confirm death (because they could not leave the scene until this was certain), Roman soldiers would stab the accused in the heart (amongst other methods). Scripture says Jesus was pierced in his side, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.
We are now experts (not really, but a bit more informed) on the ways of ancient crucifixion and what Jesus likely went through upon his death. We have the “how” down. Next up is the “why.”
Because if the only contingency for Jesus’ plan to offer his life as a sacrifice was for him to die, could he not have picked a, you know, less excruciating process (for his own flesh and nerve endings’ sake)? Couldn’t God have made the prophecy that Jesus died from an allergic reaction to bee stings?
The sweating blood, the flogging, the piercing, the suffocation - what was it for?
I have a theory - and it involves two reasons why the death of Jesus was so dreadful. And I think knowing “why” can give us a whole new perspective on Jesus’ view of life, death, and us.
A Hatred Of Sin
“This day extracts a heavy toll,” - Thanos, 2018
The mad-titan from the Marvel Cinematic Universe commented somberly on the death of his servant, Ebony Maw, in Avengers: Infinity War. The loss of his henchman was at least of some value to Thanos, and his reaction showed the cost of his quest for peace (if that’s what you want to call it).
And in a much more realistic and serious manner, I believe Jesus’ torturous and bloody sacrifice was to show the weighty payment that sin requires.
Paul, an apostle of Jesus (who wrote almost the entire New Testament), said in Romans 6:23 that “the wages of sin is death.” Much earlier in Genesis, when humanity was just beginning, God told Adam that if he were to sin, he “would surely die.”
God doesn’t pull punches with his hatred of sin in the Bible. He speaks of its seducing manner in countless areas, eventually leading to death.
No evil dwells in Him (Psalm 5:4). God hates sin. Period.
And not only does God display that the “wages of sin is death,” he displays that it is a brutal death (“he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities,” Isaiah 53:5).
So brutal that He took on the weight of the world’s sin and became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21) so that we could see how treacherous and ungodly it is.
That was supposed to be our punishment. Our sins earned us a horrific death.
But He took our spot.
A Love Of Us
If you’ve watched a football game on TV before (or saw what was written on Tim Tebow’s eyeblack during his college quarterback days), then you may have heard the verse John 3:16:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
The Bible tells us that because God (the Father) loved us, he sent Jesus (his Son) to offer his life in exchange for ours. His love was what drove him to the cross.
And at any point during his road to crucifixion, Jesus could have stopped it. Because, you know, He’s God. He could have felt one whip from the flogging and said, “Okay - that one hurt. I’m out”.
As proof, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter tries to stop Jesus from being arrested and led to be crucified. Do you know what Jesus’ response was?
“Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53-54)
Ah, yes. The power move of having 72,000+ angels at your disposal. Must be nice, huh?
I believe Jesus volunteered to die for us because he is love (1 John 4:8). And I also believe Jesus volunteered to die for us so brutally - to experience every ounce of pain, every drop of blood, and every taunt by his torturers - because he loves us.
Jesus will not stop to show us how much he loves us.
One more time; HE WILL NOT STOP TO SHOW YOU HOW MUCH HE LOVES YOU.
How We Cope
If you’re like me, reading a makeshift autopsy on the son of God is heavy. And a kind of sacrifice that seemingly demands a response.
When I read into the details, my first response is usually feeling guilty. To feel pity. To feel sorry for Jesus. To think that He did this so I’d feel crappy about myself and immediately bow down to him.
But remember, Jesus was a volunteer, not a victim.
We are not called in scripture to feel guilt or shame for the way He died.
Jesus died with a purpose. For a purpose. And it was all on purpose.
But if we allow it, it can give us a new perspective and motivation of how God views sin and us, especially coming up on Easter. Do I hate my sin with the ferocity that God does and showed on the cross? Do I love people with the ferocity that God does and displayed on the cross?
The short answer is, well, no. And I could never. Because I’m not God.
But it doesn’t mean I can’t love people around me wholeheartedly. And it doesn’t mean I can’t despise my own sin, knowing the death and hurt it brings.
Maybe the next time I’m tempted with certain sins, I can be reminded of how much Jesus suffered to prove how deadly sin actually is. Maybe the next time I don’t feel like loving others, I can be reminded of how much love Jesus showed me on the cross through horrific pain.
I can pursue these actions not out of guilt but out of gratefulness for the God who gave it all for me. And knowing that the way He died was intentional to show us who he is.
I’ll let the late Brennan Manning say it better than I could:
“Do you really believe that Jesus Christ loves you? Not the Person next to you, not the church, not the world. But that He loves you—beyond worthiness and unworthiness, beyond fidelity and infidelity. That He loves you in the morning sun and in the evening rain. Without caution, regret, boundary, limit. No matter what’s gone down, He can’t stop loving you. This is the Jesus of the Gospels.”