Objection! "Jesus May Not Have Actually Died"
One explanation of what happened to Jesus is that he didn’t rise from the dead, because he never actually died. Instead, some say he “swooned” so that it seemed like he was dead but he was actually entombed alive. In this episode, Abdu looks at how expert medial testimony establishes that Jesus did in fact die on the cross.
Abdu Murray - @AbduMurray
Want to listen to this later?
Please Note: The Defense Rests is produced to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Abdu Murray: Hello and welcome to another episode of The Defense Rests. I'm your host, Abdu Murray and The Defense Rests is a podcast where we take a look at the claims for and the objections against the Christian faith from a legal perspective. Taking into account the rules of evidence, the rules of procedure, the way judges think, the way lawyers think, and the way jurors analyze evidence and arguments. Really the aim is to see what are the claims in favor of the Christian faith or the objections against it actually could withstand the scrutiny of cross examination and the kinds of rigors and the intellectual ideas that went into the formations of the rules of evidence for trials because it is faith that's on trial. It's also naturalism that's on trial and so we want to put all of these issues and every other religious system by the way, to the test to see if any one of them actually deserves our allegiance and our attention.
And it's my firm conviction, having come from a non-Christian background and studying the evidence that the Christian faith does, in fact, hold water. Now, in the past episodes of The Defense Rests, we've been talking about a lot of things from burdens of proof and how those things actually apply and who has the burdens of proof. And the subrelation was essentially, if you have a claim that you're making, then you have the burden of proof. And sometimes the burden can shift because once someone does make a claim and establishes it with prima facie evidence, or on its face evidence, then it does become an obligation or at least the responsibility of some kind for the objector to prove the objection true, or to at least undermine or put holes into the claimant's claims.
In our case, we've been going over the resurrection of Jesus, and I pointed out that there is an acronym that I use. I sort of give a closing statement, and the acronym was C-A-S-E, the CASE for the resurrection of Jesus. The crucifixion is a historical fact. The appearance is of Jesus having risen from the dead, not having survived, but having risen from the dead to the disciples is so attested by the historical factors that the vast majority of biblical critics, whether they are Christians or non-Christians, support the idea that the disciples did have an experience that convinced them Jesus was alive. The S stood for the skeptics converted. Paul and James were not fans of Jesus. In fact, one of them was an enemy of Jesus, but saw the evidence and his own experience of seeing Jesus risen as so compelling that he converted. And then finally the empty tomb. We knew where the empty tomb was. We knew that it was empty three days later. All four of those facts strongly point in favor of Jesus' actual resurrection.
And we started taking a look at the evidence against that, or at least the responses to that evidence. And in this particular episode, I want to focus on the response to the C in the acronym, that Jesus did not die by crucifixion. Now, one might have to ask this question, why are we spending any amount of time whatsoever debating whether or not Jesus died by crucifixion when it's such an obvious fact to all scholars that actually study this topic that it actually happened? And as many scholars have said, the crucifixion of Jesus is the most well attested fact about the historical Jesus. Well, the reason we have to deal with this is because one and a half billion people out of the 7 billion that are on the planet, namely Muslims, think that he didn't die by crucifixion. Now, why do they think that? One, is Islam teaches it, but of course the Quran, their Holy book says in surah or chapter four, verse 157, where it says that they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, meaning Jesus, but it appeared to them as such.
In Arabic, it's [foreign language 00:04:17] Now, this is a denial of the crucifixion of Jesus and his death by crucifixion. Now, classic Islamic understanding is that someone else was made to look like Jesus, perhaps Judas Iscariot, who was a traitor anyway, and so God punished him by making him look like Jesus so when the people came to arrest Jesus, it was him who was taken screaming to the cross and not Jesus himself, but God raised Jesus to himself, saved Jesus entirely from death, and therefore punished a guilty malefactor, like Judas, but saved a holy prophet like Jesus from ignomitable death. Others say that maybe it was Simon of Cyrene, the person who carried Jesus' cross as we see in the Gospels. He was forced to carry his cross that helped Jesus along the Via Dolorosa by the Roman guard. The problem with this though, and Muslims are starting to recognize this, the historical evidence shows that the disciples, including his women disciples and his own mother, Mary, believed that it was Jesus on the cross and not someone else.
This relates to a problem. You see, if God caused someone else to look like Jesus on the cross and took Jesus away, but allowed that person to die, that is a deception. There's no way to get around it. It is a deception and Christian apologists and thinkers have pointed out, it makes God himself a deceiver because he deceives not only Jesus' his disciples, his closest friends who later generate the entirety of Christian religion, but it also allows for the deception of Jesus' mother and all the people who would follow Christianity. The billions who would follow for years afterwards. That's obviously a problem. It's a moral problem and a lot of Muslims are starting to pick up on this. In fact, the question was posed to a well-known Islamic apologist who I had the pleasure of meeting and also dialoguing with, and our dear friend Nabeel Qureshi debated, his name is Dr. Shabir Ally and he has a show, on the internet, on YouTube, called Let the Quran Speak.
And in this particular show, the interviewer was asking him the question about whether or not Jesus did in fact die on the cross. Did he die at all? Because some Muslims say he wasn't even on the cross so he couldn't have died on the cross. But Shabir takes a different approach. He actually thinks that it was Jesus on the cross, but he did not die. Now, Dr. Ally pointed out that Muslims avoid the issue of deception. They're trying to avoid that issue of deception by saying that the disciples actually knew that it wasn't Jesus. The classic Islamic understanding is given to us by a man named Ibn Nabas, and other companions of the prophet Mohammad as well. And the tradition says this, that Jesus knew he was going to be arrested by his enemies, and while he was in a house with his disciples, he asked one of them to be a volunteer, to be made to look like him.
And someone, one of his disciples actually did volunteer. In one tradition, it's a very young man, and Jesus kept on saying, "No, no, you're too young. You're too young. You have too much life ahead of you." And none of the other disciples would actually volunteer. In another tradition, it was just one of the disciples volunteered because they were all glad to die for the sake of their leader. Someone did volunteer. Someone was transformed into Jesus' likeness. All the disciples knew it. But when the people came to arrest Jesus, they arrested this sort of impostor as it were, this willing imposter and Jesus was rescued through a hole in the roof or something, and sent body and soul up to Heaven so he avoided the torture of the cross and anything else that would attend to that kind of ignomitable death.
The problem remains, of course, the earliest Christian traditions, including those of the disciples and all of their disciples and Jesus' own family, et cetera, is that Jesus and not someone else actually died. Think about this, if the disciples knew, and Dr. Ally is trying to say that Islamic scholars have avoided the deception issue by saying the disciples didn't deceive anybody, they actually knew it was an impostor. Well, let's take that for a moment and think about it. If the disciples knew it was an imposter, how come no one said anything? How come when the earliest traditions immediately happened, that Jesus died by crucifixion and if he rose from the dead, how come no one said, "No, he didn't. No, no. It was somebody else. We had this whole entire a scheme to try to avoid the schemes of the Jews or the schemes of the Romans." Why didn't somebody say anything?
Well, we don't have any evidence, any credible evidence that anybody did say something like that. In other words, if they knew that it wasn't Jesus and they went to their deaths saying it was Jesus, as we know from the historical record I gave in the previous episodes, then they're liars. And they willingly died for something that they knew was a lie that had no point. Because if Jesus escaped from crucifixion, then the disciples knew he'd escaped, fabricated a lie about a resurrection for no good reason, and then died for no good reason. All of that simply defies not only morality, but it does defies logic frankly. This simply is not a tenable explanation.
Now, so Dr. Ally actually takes a rather novel approach for an Orthodox Sunni Muslim. He interprets the Quran to say that Jesus was in fact on the cross, but he didn't die there. It just looked like he did. When you have the phrase, they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, but it looked like it to them. In this video, the online, you'll see his explanation. His explanation is that when it says, they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him. It was basically repetition. They did not kill him, nor did they kill him by crucifixion, but it looked like it to them. In other words, they thought he had actually died, but he actually hadn't. Let's take Dr. Ally at his own words.
Dr. Shabir Ally: The other approach is to look at the Quran very closely and ask, what is the Quran really denying here by denying the crucifixion of Jesus? It seems that surah four, verse 157 is not actually denying that Jesus was put on the cross. It's only denying that his enemies had the upper hand on him to the extent of killing him on the cross. Here, crucifixion has the distinctive meaning of killing a person by means of crucifying him. In that case, the Quranic denial, [foreign language 00:10:52], simply means they did not kill him by some ordinary means nor did they kill him by the extraordinary means of crucifixion. Once we take that view, the objection and drops automatically in that it allows for the development of Christian history. It allows for the basic truth of the gospel material in so far as the narrate that people could see Jesus on the cross, but the one distinction we would make is that when people thought they saw him die, he wasn't actually dead, because when we look at a person from the foot of the cross, he appears to be dead but unless you check his pulse, unless you use certain methods of investigation, you would not be sure that the person is dead. It is very possible and it seems even likely that he was taken down from the cross alive.
Abdu Murray: Now what I've done here, what you hear a Dr. Ally doing, I spliced the other two parts of our longer video just for sake of time. What he's done is try to explain it away by interpreting how the Quran actually at it and says, "No, doesn't imply or doesn't teach that there was a deception happening, but that Jesus didn't actually die. He was up there but didn't actually die." There's a couple of problems that still remained however. First is this, it's all very a priori. In other words, a priori means at the first or right at the prior assumptions. What it basically is assuming is that the Quran is right about this issue and then tries to explain what happened to Jesus assuming that the Quran is the reliable historical source for explaining something that happened 600 years before. This is important, the Quran as a historical document or as any kind of a document, actually arrived on the scene in the seventh century in Arabia, which is of course 600 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Dr. Ally is actually saying that, "Look, a Muslim can avoid the deception issue by understanding the Quran to be saying that a deception did not happen. It's just that Jesus didn't actually die." But that doesn't help us historically because historically speaking, this comes 600 years after the fact and doesn't actually explain any of the historical data about the death and resurrection of Jesus. And it simply discounts, or at least even ignores every Christian and non-Christian bit of evidence. And I pointed out those evidences outside the Bible, like the testimonies of Josephus and Cornelius Tacitus and others, that Jesus actually died under Pontus Pilot by crucifixion. But it also goes against expert medical testimony. And as a trial lawyer, what you would often do in most cases, whether in contract cases or malpractice cases or criminal cases or what have you, usually you employ the help of experts and scientific experts, sociological experts.
And in this case, we're going to refer to medical experts. You see, during the course of this video, and of course I didn't have the time to play all of it for you, but right about the five minute mark, Dr. Ally remarks this, and this is what he says in his words, "When people thought they saw him die," meaning Jesus, "he wasn't actually dead. When you look at a person from the foot of the cross, he appears to be dead. But unless you check his pulse, unless you use certain methods of investigation, you would not be sure that the person is dead. It is very possible and it seems even likely that he was taken down from the cross alive." Now I'm going to stop there for a moment. This last phrase is just an ad hoc statement. It's just ad hoc. When says, "And it seems even likely that he was taken down from the cross alive."
That isn't likely because Romans knew how to kill a guy. The cross was the most excruciating and torturous, devise of execution ever invented up until that time. And so Romans who were charged with crucifying people, and by the way, in the ancient Near East, the only people who could crucify under the Roman empire were the Romans themselves. The Jews couldn't even do it because it was considered a Roman execution and only Rome had the authority to put someone to death like this. They knew what they were doing. To say that it seems even likely that he was taken down from the cross alive just is ad hoc. Why would it be likely? It would be incredibly unlikely. All things being equal, all things considered, it would be incredibly unlikely that Jesus would come down from the cross alive. You have to show, in other words, again, when you make a claim like this, when you make the claim that it's likely he was taken out from the cross alive, you have to back that kind of a thing up.
Now in other debates, Dr. Ally has tried to do so, but I think he hasn't proven his point and he certainly doesn't in this short video clip that we're analyzing right now. But it's unlikely that Jesus came down from the cross alive, simply for the fact that crucifixion was meant to kill you, not just to hurt you. But it also ignores the gospel narratives that the Romans knew what they were doing in putting the guy to death on the most torturous device ever devised. For the gospel narratives for example, actually say that as opposed to checking the guy's pulse, other methods of investigation to see if Jesus was dead, they ran a spear through his side and blood and water flowed out, probably because the spear pierced the pericardial sac around the heart and the water that surrounds the heart and the blood of course that's in the body would spill out after being run through with a Roman spear.
That seems to be a pretty solid way to check if a guy's dead. In the case of Jesus, not just some guy, but Jesus, this person who was considered a criminal by both the Romans and the Jews, they wanted to see if he in fact was dead before they took him down from that cross. They didn't check his pulse. They ran a spear through him. I would venture to say that's probably a better method of determining if someone's dead. In fact, so compelling, so compelling is the evidence that crucifixion alone, let alone the spear would kill a human being, that the Journal of the American Medical Association actually published an article in 1986 entitled On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ. This goes back to the medical expert testimony we're talking about. And that details that Jesus would have certainly died from his crucifixion alone, let alone a crucifixion and the attendant wounds.
Because remember something, it wasn't just Jesus on a cross. It was Jesus having been beaten and scourged by the Romans. And Romans knew how to scourge somebody. When they scourged Jesus, they use what was called a cat of nine tails or a flagellum, and that's a whip that has nine leather strands from the handle. And those leather strands would include bits of bone or bits of metal that were meant to actually tear off flesh. Jesus didn't just get a couple of bruises on his back when he was scourged. If you've seen the Passion of the Christ, it is pretty historically accurate.
As gruesome as it is, is that it's a wonder Jesus didn't die from those wounds all by themselves, let alone crucifixion. And in 1986 on the March 21st edition, volume 25 number 11 on pages 1,455 to 1,463, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an article where they actually describe the physical death of Jesus and it makes it pretty clear that he would not have survived the crucifixion following the scourging. In fact, it isn't likely that he was taken down alive, it's virtually impossible that he was taken down alive.
Why deny that he died? One, because Dr. Ally has to, because of his a priori religious assumptions. But the second reason is two, because you have to avoid the resurrection of Jesus, and it's just logically the way it follows. In order to resurrect from the dead, you have to be among the dead, and in order to be among the dead, you have to die first. What better way to undermine the entirety of the crucifixion narrative and the resurrection narrative than to deny the death by crucifixion in the first place? In other words, if you deal with the C in the CASE, you try to avoid having to deal with the A, the S and the E, but it doesn't get you there.
It doesn't avoid the crucifixion because it flies in the face of well attested historical facts, the gospels as the most reliable, earliest source about what happened to Jesus. That's one set. To Cornelius Tacitus, Flavius Josephus and others who are not Christians and not fans of Christianity who attest that Jesus died by crucifixion. And it flies in the face of the medical facts as adduced by the Journal of the American Medical Association. As I said in the previous episode, this idea that Jesus didn't die by crucifixion and all the arguments that were made by Dr. Ally and others doesn't deal with the other three facts, the A, the S or the E in the acronym plus all the evidence of the appearances of Jesus as raised from the dead.
The A in the acronym, that evidence makes no sense if Jesus didn't actually die because the evidence, whether you look at Paula Frederickson who is not a Christian or Gerd Ludemann who's not a Christian, they would say that the historical evidence points to the fact that the disciples had an experience that they were convinced was the appearance of the risen Jesus from the dead, not the surviving Jesus. A Jesus who, despite being bloody and just absolutely physically destroyed on a cross, somehow with all the loss of blood and all that dehydration, manages to move a two ton stone out of the way, subdue or sneak past the guards who were there and then tell his disciples, "Oh, look, here I am. I'm somehow your Messiah."
None of that makes any sense if Jesus did not die, but all of it makes sense if Jesus did, in fact, die. Then the skeptics wouldn't be converted. Paul and James, they wouldn't have gone from either a skeptic or an enemy of the Christian faith to a champion of the Christian faith if they found out that Jesus somehow escaped death because he just managed to be a really tough guy who can survive the most torturous execution device ever created, it just simply does not make sense.
Plus the empty tomb wouldn't make sense either, the E in the acronym because we believe we know where the tomb was, that the tomb was in fact empty three days later and it wasn't empty, and the disciples didn't say, "Oh, look, Jesus is really tough. He happens to survive death even though he's a bloody mess." No, what they were celebrating was the empty tomb as the signifier that Jesus conquered death, not survived torture. Plus this issue, this idea that Jesus didn't die doesn't really solve the moral problems of making God or his followers or whatever into a big deceiver. You see, if Jesus only appeared dead, but he wasn't, his disciples at God's aid, perpetrated a huge fraud on the whole world because they wouldn't have known either if it was a substitute, that Jesus wasn't dead and it was somebody else, or if the disciples knew that Jesus hadn't died but survived, but they preached that he raised from the dead.
God had helped Jesus to survive this thing. He supposedly had at least aided in some way, if you're a Muslim, the disciples of Jesus, but aided them to do what? Aided them to fool the entire world that Jesus died and then rose from the dead when they knew he didn't die at all, he just survived. That doesn't solve the moral issue. To deny Jesus' death is not only to deny history, but it's also to impugn the character of Jesus, his disciples and even God himself.
But finally, let me close with this, as we bring this episode to a close. The idea that Jesus would accept a substitute for himself on the cross flies exactly in the face of, and in fact I would say it's the photo negative. It's the exact opposite of the gospel message. Think about it. What is the gospel message? What is the good news? The good news of the gospel is that you and I are sinners and we owe a debt to God that we can't possibly pay without going to hell for eternity ourselves because of the things that we have chosen to do. Not because God wants us to go to hell but because we have chosen to live our own way apart from him. Now, the only way for that debt to be paid is if someone who has no debts of his own can pay it for us. The gospel message is that we deserve to be on that cross, but Jesus says, "I will go on that cross for you."
The counter narrative, this idea that it was a substitute for Jesus and that Jesus asked for a volunteer to take his place on the cross is exactly the opposite of the gospel message. What does this make Jesus? This makes Jesus not the Messiah who overcomes the great mystery of evil by conquering through it, it makes Jesus this person who escapes the great mystery of evil by having somebody else in his place. How could a religion, how could a system of faith, how could good news come from that? What good news is there in this gospel that Jesus decides to run from adversity? He chooses to run from the worst thing that could happen? He chooses to run from paying for our debts by having somebody else in his stead?
No, friends, for God to be truly great, for someone to actually be worthy of our admiration and our attention and in the Christian faith, even our worship, you'd have a God who would exhibit the greatest possible ethic, which is love in the greatest possible way, which is self-sacrifice. He did die on that cross. All of history shows it. I think philosophically you can't defend that Jesus did not die, and I think theologically you can't defend it, that God would allow others to be deceived, rather if Jesus did die on the cross and he did rise from the dead, then you have a God who is not only morally consistent, but you have a God who is the ultimate paradigm of all morality because he exhibits the greatest moral ethic, which is love in the greatest way, which is self-sacrifice.
Friends, this has been an episode of The Defense Rests. I'm Abdu Murray and I'm looking forward to speaking with you next time. Until then, defense does rest.
Every article, podcast, and video on this website is made possible by the kindness of our supporters.
If you'd like to support our mission of sharing a thoughtful Christianity to the world, you can donate through our site.