Monday Memo — How Did Jesus Die?

“Carpe, duh!” you might think. “Everyone knows he was murdered; he was crucified!” And, you’re right. But, once the crucifixion began, what was the actual cause of his death? Many believe, based upon older medical publications, that it was asphyxiation or respiratory insufficiency, and during Easter week across the world this is what many pastors and priests preach. But, are they wrong?

My dear friend, Phil Bishop, EdD, recently wrote to me and to pastors:

We published a science article several years ago on the physiology of crucifixion — it is NOT respiratory insufficiency like many pastors preach. I had hoped to get this published in a magazine for preachers, but never have succeeded at that. Anyway, (here) is a lay language explanation … on HOW someone really dies in Crucifixion. IF you have time, I hope you will scan (this) BEFORE preaching on crucifixion. G^d gave me some science skills, so want to use them for the good of the Body.

Here’s Phil’s article for lay folks. Feel free to share this with family, friends, and any pastors you may know:

Christ’s Death on the Cross — It Was NOT Asphyxiation

Professor Phil Bishop, Ed.D.

“I have been crucified with Christ”. Well not so much with him, as like him. And not so much crucified, as subjected to the same challenge to my heart and circulation. I was strapped to a tilt table in a NASA experiment that would test my heart’s response to the pull of gravity.

After only a minute or two of being tilted up to within 20 degrees of being vertical, I wondered who had turned up the heat. Then I noticed the lights were being dimmed, then I noticed someone was telling me to wake up.

I had just experienced a brief taste of the same phenomena that is the cause of death in crucifixion.

Technically it is known as “orthostatic intolerance.”

NASA was studying it because astronauts’ hearts, after experiencing several days in space, sometimes are unable to pump enough blood to maintain consciousness.

In recent history, respiratory insufficiency (an inability to breath) has been the most popular explanation as the cause of death in crucifixion.

The alternative explanation has been circulatory collapse (traumatic shock) subsequent to beating, dehydration, and general physical abuse.

Yet there is considerable evidence against the traditional explanations for death by crucifixion and a new theory has emerged that better seems to fit the data.

The physiology of crucifixion

But, there exist certain problems with each of these commonly offered medical explanations for death by crucifixion. Dr. C.T. Davis claimed, in an oft-cited 1965 article in the journal Arizona Medicine, that crucifixion resulted in respiratory failure because suspending the body mass mostly from the arms interfered with filling the lungs with air.

According to this view, crucifixion positions the chest such that the victim was compelled to push upward with his legs in order to exhale. Without exhalation, asphyxiation was inevitable, because inhalation requires prior exhalation.

This idea was originally proposed by Pierre Barbet back in the 1950’s based on reports from the Dachau concentration camp of World War II. Some prisoners were suspended by their hands positioned directly above their head, and reportedly did experience asphyxiation.

To test this hypothesis, Dr. Fred Zugibe, a medical examiner in New York State, performed several experiments with volunteers suspended by straps around the wrists in the most commonly accepted crucifixion position. He saw no evidence whatsoever of respiratory distress, despite that is was extremely painful.

Furthermore, one would presume that death from respiratory failure as described by Barbet and Davis would result in labored breathing. However, a common observation in the New Testament accounts of the crucifixion is the numerous loud, intelligible utterances given by Christ on the cross (Matthew 27:46; Mark 5:34; Luke 23:43,46; John 29:26-30).

Both shock and suspension trauma would allow these audible pronouncements from the cross reported in the Gospel accounts, whereas respiratory failure would normally prohibit loud vocalization. Of course an appeal to the miraculous can overcome any physiological explanation, but bear in mind that the two thieves also spoke loudly enough for their words to be recorded also (Luke 23:39-43).

Were any of those being crucified suffering from asphyxiation, such audible statements could result only from divine intervention. And although such divine intervention clearly was an option, it seems incongruous with the divine plan for redemption, and unnecessary if the cause of death were other than asphyxiation.

Crucifixion Death by Shock

Dr. Zugibe, the medical examiner mentioned earlier, is one of the world’s foremost authorities on crucifixion. Having satisfied himself that asphyxiation was not the primary cause of death on the cross, he along with several others physicians have hypothesized that death resulted from generalized traumatic shock (circulatory collapse), which is common among injury victms.

Shock would be expected from the pain of being nailed to a cross, in addition to the blood loss, pain and trauma of pre-crucifixion torture. Depending on the extent of the trauma, dehydration, and blood loss involved, death might take as long as several days, and could be primarily a result of kidney failure.

This explanation does agree with some reports of very long duration crucifixions, and does make sense if one subscribes to the idea that crucifixions were intended to be prolonged torture.

However, death-by-shock does not seem consistent with most other methods of capital punishment. In every other execution, no matter how barbaric, the execution method is the primary cause of death.

Burning at the stake, being torn apart by animals, being sawed in two, are all examples of ancient execution methods. In each of these cases, death was normally both certain and reasonably rapid, although there are known exceptions.

The ancient Romans were well known for gladiators, chariot races, and mortal combat between humans and animals. In view of these, planned death by kidney failure secondary to shock seems inconsistent.

In death by shock, the Roman army would have to neglect its extensive training in killing. It is well accepted that the Romans crucified hundreds of prisoners in a single day. To put it starkly, deaths that required several days of supervision seem particularly inefficient.

Another explanation

A novel explanation for death by crucifixion involves the little-known phenomena of orthostatic insufficiency. This explanation arises from scientific studies utilizing other examples of orthostatic insufficiency such as lower-body negative pressure, the tilt table I described in the opening of this article, and safety-harness suspension trauma.

Most of us are actually already familiar with orthostatic insufficiency. It is most commonly encountered in military or marching band parades. When marchers must stand quietly for prolonged periods, blood pools in the legs, which have a very large blood storage capacity. Enough blood eventually accumulates in the legs so that blood flow back to the heart is seriously reduced. The heart can only pump the blood which is available, so the heart’s output falls. The heart speeds up to maintain blood flow, but if the blood return to the right heart is restricted enough, speeding up the heart is ineffective.

God’s solution to this problem is to abruptly slow the heart. Usually this resolves the gravity problem by causing fainting. Fainting typically relocates the legs, the heart and brain to the same level, namely on the ground. This new posture minimizes the effect of gravity. Blood flow is restored to the heart and the victim typically recovers quickly. In crucifixion however, the victim cannot fall to a horizontal posture, so the brain’s blood supply falls below the critical level. Because the orthostatic insufficiency that causes these symptoms also occurs when a person is hanging in an upright posture (for example in a safety harness), today it’s called suspension trauma.

Orthostatic insufficiency resulting in suspension trauma doesn’t occur very often in daily life because our legs seldom remain relaxed, straight, and below heart level. If the leg muscles contract to maintain balance and support the body, the muscles press against the leg veins and this compression, together with well-designed one-way valves, helps pump blood back to the heart. Teaching parade marchers to keep their knees slightly bent so that the leg muscles are engaged in maintaining posture prevents orthostatic insufficiency. When we sit, our upper-legs are horizontal, and the vertical pumping distance between the legs and the heart is reduced enough that quiet sitting doesn’t cause problems.

Scientific Studies

Lower-body negative pressure is a technique that is designed to stress the cardiovascular system in research experiments. In lower-body negative pressure, the hips and legs are placed inside a vacuum chamber and the pressure is lowered, sucking the blood into the lower body in a controlled manner. Research studies utilizing lower-body negative pressure have reported fainting as well as cardiac arrest. Lower-body negative pressure has exactly the same effect as crucifixion because blood pools in the legs and blood return to the heart is reduced.

A less extreme situation can be seen in tilt-table tests which are occasionally used as a medical diagnostic for some heart conditions. In tilting, the patient is strapped to a table that is slowly raised from horizontal to almost head-up vertical. If the patient keeps their legs relaxed, blood begins to pool and they faint. The more the participant contracts the leg muscles, the better blood pressure can be maintained for tilt table or for lower-body negative pressure. Like lower-body negative pressure, tilt produces almost certain fainting, given enough time, and eventually can kill.

Theology of Crucifixion

A key philosophical aspect of the crucifixion is the sovereignty of Christ. In Luke’s and John’s accounts of the crucifixion, the language seems clear that Christ gave up his life voluntarily, as opposed to the executioners “taking it from him” (see John 10:11-15). In the case of Christ, who certainly knew human physiology, he could “give up the ghost” (John 19:30) by simply relaxing his legs. Had He continued to contract his leg muscles, the crucifixion could have gone on for several hours, which was often the case.

Fainting could logically lead to the practice of testing the pain response of unconscious victims by stabbing them with a spear (see John 19:34). This is particularly important in suspension trauma, since this method would result in an occasional error whereby a victim was prematurely removed from the cross, and upon being laid down spontaneously recovered from the attempted execution. Finally, general shock or suspension trauma would result in the thirst reported in the account of the crucifixion of Jesus (John 19:26).

Whereas there can be no definitive mechanism for death by crucifixion ascertained from Scripture, circumstantial support for suspension trauma is present. These historical accounts seem to more strongly support suspension trauma than asphyxiation or shock. It appears, as in many cases, that a conclusion can never be certain, but merely the product of considering the scope evidence and weighing the probabilities.

The Conclusion of the Matter

Whereas no one can say definitively what caused death in Christ’s crucifixion, there are several possible contributors. Both the evidence given in the gospel accounts of the death of Christ and the laboratory evidence would seem to point away from asphyxiation.

The inexactness of general shock, although certainly contributory in crucifixion deaths, would seem to make this a less likely mechanism for use by trained executioners.

Of all these, it is most likely that orthostatic insufficiency was the principle cause of death, at least in many crucifixions.

If you’re interested in Phil’s scientific article, here’s the citation: Bishop, PA and JB Church. An Alternative Mechanism for Death by Crucifixion. Linacre Quarterly (J Catholic Medical Assn). 2006(Aug);73(3): 282-289.