The Case for Easter: A Journalist Investigates the Evidence for the Resurrection
by Lee Strobel
The Case for Easter
A Journalist Investigates the Evidence for the Resurrection
THE MEDICAL EVIDENCE: WAS JESUS' DEATH A SHAM AND HIS RESURRECTION A HOAX?
I paused to read the plaque hanging in the waiting room of a doctor's office: "Let conversation cease. Let laughter flee. This is the place where death delights to help the living."
Obviously, this was no ordinary physician. I was paying another visit to Dr. Robert J. Stein, one of the world's foremost forensic pathologists, a flamboyant, husky-voiced medical detective who used to regale me with stories about the unexpected clues he had uncovered while examining corpses. For him, dead men did tell tales-in fact, tales that would often bring justice to the living.
During his lengthy tenure as medical examiner of Cook County, Illinois, Stein performed thousands of autopsies, each time meticulously searching for insights into the circumstances surrounding the victim's death. Repeatedly his sharp eye for detail, his encyclopedic knowledge of the human anatomy, and his uncanny investigative intuition helped this medical sleuth reconstruct the victim's violent demise.
Sometimes innocent people were vindicated as a result of his findings. But more often Stein's work was the final nail in a defendant's coffin. Such was the case with John Wayne Gacy, who faced the executioner after Stein helped convict him of thirty-three grisly murders.
That's how crucial medical evidence can be. It can determine whether a child died of abuse or an accidental fall. It can establish whether a person succumbed to natural causes or was murdered by someone who spiked the person's coffee with arsenic. It can uphold or dismantle a defendant's alibi by pinpointing the victim's time of death, using an ingenious procedure that measures the amount of potassium in the eyes of the deceased.
And yes, even in the case of someone brutally executed on a Roman cross two millennia ago, medical evidence can still make a crucial contribution: it can help determine whether the resurrection of Jesus-the supreme vindication of his claim to deity-was nothing more than an elaborate hoax. With Stein having impressed on me the value of forensic clues, I knew it was time to seek out a medical expert who has thoroughly investigated the historical facts concerning the crucifixion and has managed to separate truth from legend.
RESURRECTION OR RESUSCITATION?
The idea that Jesus never really died on the cross can be found in the Koran, which was written in the seventh century-in fact, Ahmadiya Muslims contend that Jesus actually fled to India. To this day there's a shrine that supposedly marks his real burial place in Srinagar, Kashmir.
As the nineteenth century dawned, Karl Bahrdt, Karl Venturini, and others tried to explain away the resurrection by suggesting that Jesus only fainted from exhaustion on the cross, or he had been given a drug that made him appear to die, and that he had later been revived by the cool, damp air of the tomb.
Conspiracy theorists bolstered this hypothesis by pointing out that Jesus had been given some liquid on a sponge while on the cross (Mark 15:36) and that Pilate seemed surprised at how quickly Jesus had succumbed (Mark 15:44). Consequently, they said, Jesus' reappearance wasn't a miraculous resurrection but merely a fortuitous resuscitation, and his tomb was empty because he continued to live.
While reputable scholars have repudiated this so-called swoon theory, it keeps recurring in popular literature. In 1929 D. H. Lawrence wove this theme into a short story in which he suggested that Jesus had fled to Egypt, where he fell in love with the priestess Isis.
In 1965 Hugh Schonfield's best-seller The Passover Plot alleged that it was only the unanticipated stabbing of Jesus by the Roman soldier that foiled his complicated scheme to escape the cross alive, even though Schonfield conceded, "We are nowhere claiming ... that [the book] represents what actually happened."
The swoon hypothesis popped up again in Donovan Joyce's 1972 book The Jesus Scroll, which "contains an even more incredible string of improbabilities than Schonfield's," according to resurrection expert Gary Habermas. In 1982, Holy Blood, Holy Grail added the twist that Pontius Pilate had been bribed to allow Jesus to be taken down from the cross before he was dead. Even so, the authors confessed, "We could not-and still cannot-prove the accuracy of our conclusion."
As recently as 1992, a little-known academic from Australia, Barbara Thiering, caused a stir by reviving the swoon theory. Her book, Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls, was introduced with much fanfare by a well-respected US publisher and then derisively dismissed by Emory University scholar Luke Timothy Johnson as being "the purest poppycock, the product of fevered imagination rather than careful analysis."
Today, the swoon theory continues to flourish. I hear it all the time. But what does the evidence really establish? What actually happened at the Crucifixion? What was Jesus' cause of death? Is there any possible way he could have survived this ordeal? Those are the kinds of questions that I hoped medical evidence could help resolve.
So I flew to southern California and knocked on the door of a prominent physician who has extensively studied the historical, archaeological, and medical data concerning the death of Jesus of Nazareth-although it seems that, due to the mysteriously missing body, no autopsy has ever been performed.
INTERVIEW WITH ALEXANDER METHERELL, M.D., PH.D.
The plush setting was starkly incongruous with the subject we were discussing. There we were, sitting in the living room of Dr. Metherell's comfortable California home on a balmy spring evening, warm ocean breezes whispering through the windows, while we were talking about a topic of unimaginable brutality: a beating so barbarous that it shocks the conscience, and a form of capital punishment so depraved that it stands as wretched testimony to man's inhumanity to man.
I had sought out Metherell because I heard he possessed the medical and scientific credentials to explain the Crucifixion. But I also had another motivation: I had been told he could discuss the topic dispassionately as well as accurately. That was important to me because I wanted the facts to speak for themselves, without the hyperbole or charged language that might otherwise manipulate emotions.
As you would expect from someone with a medical degree (University of Miami in Florida) and a doctorate in engineering (University of Bristol in England), Metherell speaks with scientific precision. He is board-certified in diagnosis by the American Board of Radiology and has been a consultant to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health of Bethesda, Maryland.
A former research scientist who has taught at the University of California, Metherell is editor of five scientific books and has written for publications ranging from Aerospace Medicine to Scientific American. His ingenious analysis of muscular contraction has been published in The Physiologist and Biophysics Journal. He even looks the role of a distinguished medical authority: he's an imposing figure with silver hair and a courteous yet formal demeanor.
I'll be honest: at times I wondered what was going on inside Dr. Metherell's head. With scientific reserve, speaking slowly and methodically, he gave no hint of any inner turmoil as he calmly described the chilling details of Jesus' demise. Whatever was going on underneath, whatever distress it caused him as a Christian to talk about the cruel fate that befell Jesus, he was able to mask with a professionalism born out of decades of laboratory research.
He just gave me the facts-and after all, that was what I was after.
THE TORTURE BEFORE THE CROSS
Initially, I wanted to elicit from Metherell a basic description of the events leading up to Jesus' death. So after a time of social chat, I put down my iced tea and shifted in my chair to face him squarely. "Could you paint a picture of what happened to Jesus?" I asked.
He cleared his throat. "It began after the Last Supper," he said. "Jesus went with his disciples to the Mount of Olives-specifically, to the Garden of Gethsemane. And there, if you remember, he prayed all night. Now, during that process he was anticipating the coming events of the next day. Since he knew the amount of suffering he was going to have to endure, he was quite naturally experiencing a great deal of psychological stress."
I raised my hand to stop him. "Whoa-here's where skeptics have a field day," I told him. "The gospels tell us he began to sweat blood at this point. Now, c'mon, isn't that just a product of some overactive imaginations? Doesn't that call into question the accuracy of the gospel writers?"
Unfazed, Metherell shook his head. "Not at all," he replied. "This is a known medical condition called hematidrosis. It's not very common, but it is associated with a high degree of psychological stress.
"What happens is that severe anxiety causes the release of chemicals that break down the capillaries in the sweat glands. As a result, there's a small amount of bleeding into these glands, and the sweat comes out tinged with blood. We're not talking about a lot of blood; it's just a very, very small amount."
Though a bit chastened, I pressed on. "Did this have any other effect on the body?"
"What this did was set up the skin to be extremely fragile so that when Jesus was flogged by the Roman soldier the next day, his skin would be very, very sensitive."
Well, I thought, here we go. I braced myself for the grim images I knew were about to flood my mind. I had seen plenty of dead bodies as a journalist-casualties of car accidents, fires, and crime syndicate retribution-but there was something especially unnerving in hearing about someone being intentionally brutalized by executioners determined to extract maximum suffering.
"Tell me," I said, "what was the flogging like?"
Metherell's eyes never left me. "Roman floggings were known to be terribly brutal. They usually consisted of thirty-nine lashes but frequently were a lot more than that, depending on the mood of the soldier applying the blows.
"The soldier would use a whip of braided leather thongs with metal balls woven into them. When the whip would strike the flesh, these balls would cause deep bruises or contusions, which would break open with further blows. And the whip had pieces of sharp bone as well, which would cut the flesh severely.
"The back would be so shredded that part of the spine was sometimes exposed by the deep, deep cuts. The whipping would have gone all the way from the shoulders down to the back, the buttocks, and the back of the legs. It was just terrible."
Metherell paused. "Go on," I said.
"One physician who has studied Roman beatings said, 'As the flogging continued, the lacerations would tear into the underlying skeletal muscles and produce quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh.' A third-century historian by the name of Eusebius described a flogging by saying, 'The sufferer's veins were laid bare, and the very muscles, sinews, and bowels of the victim were open to exposure.'
"We know that many people would die from this kind of beating even before they could be crucified. At the least, the victim would experience tremendous pain and go into hypovolemic shock."
Metherell had thrown in a medical term I didn't know. "What does hypovolemic shock mean?" I asked.
"Hypo means 'low,' vol refers to volume, and emic means 'blood,' so hypovolemic shock means the person is suffering the effects of losing a large amount of blood," the doctor explained. "This does four things. First, the heart races to try to pump blood that isn't there; second, the blood pressure drops, causing fainting or collapse; third, the kidneys stop producing urine to maintain what volume is left; and fourth, the person becomes very thirsty as the body craves fluids to replace the lost blood volume."
"Do you see evidence of this in the gospel accounts?"
"Yes, most definitely," he replied. "Jesus was in hypo-volemic shock as he staggered up the road to the execution site at Calvary, carrying the horizontal beam of the cross. Finally Jesus collapsed, and the Roman soldier ordered Simon to carry the cross for him. Later we read that Jesus said, 'I thirst,' at which point a sip of vinegar was offered to him.
"Because of the terrible effects of this beating, there's no question that Jesus was already in serious to critical condition even before the nails were driven through his hands and feet."
THE AGONY OF THE CROSS
As distasteful as the description of the flogging was, I knew that even more repugnant testimony was yet to come. That's because historians are unanimous that Jesus survived the beating that day and went on to the cross-which is where the real issue lies.
These days, when condemned criminals are strapped down and injected with poisons or secured to a wooden chair and subjected to a surge of electricity, the circumstances are highly controlled. Death comes quickly and predictably. Medical examiners carefully certify the victim's passing. >From close proximity witnesses scrutinize everything from beginning to end.
But how certain was death by this crude, slow, and rather inexact form of execution called crucifixion? In fact, most people aren't sure how the cross kills its victims. And without a trained medical examiner to officially attest that Jesus had died, might he have escaped the experience brutalized and bleeding but nevertheless alive?
I began to unpack these issues. "What happened when he arrived at the site of the crucifixion?" I asked.
"He would have been laid down, and his hands would have been nailed in the outstretched position to the horizontal beam. This crossbar was called the patibulum, and at this stage it was separate from the vertical beam, which was permanently set in the ground."
I was having difficulty visualizing this; I needed more details. "Nailed with what?" I asked. "Nailed where?"
"The Romans used spikes that were five to seven inches long and tapered to a sharp point. They were driven through the wrists," Metherell said, pointing about an inch or so below his left palm.
"Hold it," I interrupted. "I thought the nails pierced his palms. That's what all the paintings show. In fact, it's become a standard symbol representing the crucifixion."
"Through the wrists," Metherell repeated.