What Killed Jesus?

This is a most important question if we are ever to fully understand the inner workings of Jesus’ atoning death. If it were anyone else’s death the question might seem academic. In this case, however, the implications are far too demanding. What other death, for instance, has been remembered with such passion for so long? Martyr’s deaths, though perhaps remembered for a time, are prone to fade into the din and expediency of contemporary living. But Jesus was no mere martyr; for while a martyr dies to support a cause, the death of Christ began a movement that has swept the earth. And while it goes without saying that the blood of martyrs incites and inspires, and is even the seed of the church, who will be so brash as to claim it can forgive men’s sins?

What killed Jesus? If the Bible is taken as a reliable source, it was clearly something other than crucifixion. While this declaration is sure to trigger scoffing among casual inquirers, those who take the time to explore will discover the evidence is solid. If, for example, crucifixion is accepted as the cause of death, it follows that Jesus was murdered; and murder is simply not consistent with scriptural revelation. Murder is the taking of a life, and Jesus’ life was never taken from him. It was, quite to the contrary, willingly given or, in biblical terminology, “laid down.” Jesus made this point abundantly clear so that there would be no misunderstanding.

For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down my life that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me but I lay it down on My own initiative … John 10:17–18 (NASB)

The two questions concerning the death of Christ upon which most theologians are fairly well agreed encompass where he died, and when he died. Few will dispute the fact that Jesus’ final physical demise took place while he was suspended from a Roman cross. There is likewise little controversy over the matter of his unusually rapid death. Although Pilate was initially startled by the news of Jesus’ early death, he settled the situation by summoning eye-witness verification.

And Pilate wondered if He was dead by this time, and summoning the centurion, he questioned him as to whether He was already dead. Mark 15:44 (NASB)

The real issue in question is how Jesus died. Here both medical and theological authorities offer varied explanations. While some appear plausible enough, others are weighted with speculation. Disagreement, present not only within the respective disciplines, but between them as well, has at times been difficult to sort. However, in keeping with modern scientific trend, medical “experts” seem to have usurped the last word with increasing consistency by virtue of the sanctity of their empirically verifiable evidence. All theological theories must these days run the scientific gauntlet in order to earn their credibility.

It was unquestionably a fortuitous moment for Christendom when that spear was so precisely thrust into Christ’s defenseless side. Although it is doubtful that any of Calvary’s speculators, sympathetic or otherwise, paused to interpret the subsequent flow, today in retrospect when the account is read from John’s gospel one gets the distinct impression from his almost impassioned emphasis that it is a clue which will in time bear some noteworthy significance.

But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately there came out blood and water. And he who has seen has borne witness, and his witness is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe. John 19:34–35 (NASB)

With one fateful blow the anonymous legionnaire opened a channel for physician and theologian alike to gaze into the Saviour’s heart. For Christians, it merely substantiates what they have intuitively known all along. As for medical men, they shall have their mini-autopsy.