Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ was criticized not only by the secular media but sometimes by evangelical Christians who were concerned that it seemed to downplay the resurrection or would lead people to the Catholic Church. However, without regard to the latter argument, we know that "He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed" (1 Peter 2:24; cf. Isaiah 53:4, 12). What does this mean? If Jesus had fallen down the stairs and broke His neck would He still have born our sins? Or did Jesus literally take the punishment we deserved?

Mel Gibson's Passion set out to explore in depth the extent of that punishment, but like all movies it suffered from one flaw. Gibson could only show visually what Jesus suffered. It is impossible to show on a canvas or celluloid what happened to Jesus internally and emotionally. To this end, long before the Passion of the Christ was filmed, medical doctors have examined the story of the passion to determine what happened to Jesus. What happened to Jesus internally and emotionally? Although many of you may have already read such reports, I will here discuss the varying opinions and their practical application to our understanding of Jesus' sacrifice.

The Garden

Luke 22:44 records that Jesus' sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground. Medical doctors have observed such a rare medical condition called hematidrosis. This is when the blood vessels near the sweat glands burst. It is caused by severe anxiety and fear.

This fits with the emotional distress which Jesus had that evening. He knew that He was about to bear the punishment of the whole world upon His shoulders. He even ask if this burden might be lifted from Him, but foretuneately, He did what we too often fail to do. He ended His prayer by saying "not My will, but Thine be done" (Luke 22:42).

Following Jesus' arrest in the Garden He was originally taken to a Jewish court for trial where He was beaten (Matthew 26:67). If the Shroud of Turin be legitimate,1 then Jesus' nose was apparently broken during the beating. Nevertheless, Jewish law would not allow them to condemn an innocent man, so He was taken to the Romans, knowing that they were not above executing the innocent.

The Scourging

Jewish and Roman law differ on scourging. Many see scourging as merely whipping as was often the case under Jewish law, but Jewish law also restricted the number of lashes to 39 (Deuteronomy 25:3). The Romans, however, had no such restrictions. In fact, scourging could often be done until the victim was dead. One very realistic part of Mel Gibson' Passion was the depiction of the scourging whip. The Romans tied little sharp pieces of bone and metal to the whip. The pieces would "dig deep into the flesh, ripping small blood vessels, nerves, muscles, and skin."2 As aforemention, Roman law did not restrict the number of lashes. If the Shroud is an accurate indication then Jesus was scourged between 100 and 120 times!3 What Gibson's film did not show was that such scourging was often accompanied by "bouts of vomiting, tremors, seizures, and fainting fits."4 Scourging was so severe that Romans often used it to inflict the death penalty by itself. Pilate had been warned by his wife not to crucify Jesus (Matthew 27:19) thus his original intent was to appease the accusors of Jesus (Luke 23:16; John 19:1). Only when the scourging failed to satiate the assumbled mob did Pilate send Jesus to be crucified.

The Mock Coronation

The Roman soldiers were under no obligation to mock Jesus as the King of the Jews. This was an act undertaken on their own. The act, however, bears significance in that it was not typified Jesus' humble existence as King of the Jews, but it added significantly to the torture which He endured for our sakes.

The thorns found in Judea vary but each had long pricks which could be upwards of an inch or more. Because of the thorns, the soldiers could not merely press the crown upon Jesus' head with their hands. They literally pushed it on with a fork like stick, shoving the thorns deep into Jesus' skull. According to one doctor, the effect is like an "electric shock lancinating across the sides of His face."5

In addition to the crown of thorns, the soldiers put a robe upon his back. As the blood from the scourging dried, the blood would have gripped the threads of the robe. When the robe was ripped off it would be like ripping off a giant band aid and reopened the scourging wounds. It would have felt like an electric shock covering his whole body.

The Mock Coronation proved a perfect compliment to the Triumphant Entry. Instead of the triumphant entry upon a stallion and a bed of roses, Jesus rode in upon a donkey over Palm leaves. His coronation was with a crown of thorns. Such was the life the King born in a manger.

The Way of the Cross

Prisoners were required to carry their own cross to the place of execution. However, one aspect of Gibson\'92s film which he got wrong was that the victim did not carry the entire cross, for it could have weighed anywhere from 150 to as much as 300 lbs.6 Admittedly Gibson did this by choice as he wanted to emulate the great art works of the Renascence. In his film the two criminals beside Jesus can be seen carrying only the cross bar, which is accurate. These cross bars themselves would have weighed between 50 and 100 lbs. Because of the significant loss of blood and brutality which Jesus had already undergone, it would impossible for Jesus to have carried the cross (Matthew 27:32). He was simply too weak.

Given the punishment and torture which Jesus had already endured, even walking would have been a difficult and painful task. When Jesus attempted to carry His cross He would have fallen many times. According to one doctor "every time Jesus tripped and fell, lancinating pains would radiate across his face and scalp and pricipitate severe pains in all of his muscles and joints."7 This is why Simon of Cyrene was eventually pressed into service to carry Jesus' cross. All of this indicates that the amount of torture Jesus had already endured was far beyond what normal prisoners were subjected.

The Nails

The nailing of Jesus to the cross is probably one of the most controversial aspects from a medical point of view. This is not because the nailing was doubted or because we do not know what happens as a result, but rather because the theory of a P. Barbet, whose writings have found popular acceptance in the evangelical community. For two thousand years it was accepted that the nails were driven through the palms of the hands and into the cross. In 1932, however, Barbet suggested that the nails would not have been driven through the hand, but through the wrists.8 He argued that the palms were not strong enough to hold up a human body, but his research was based entirely on crucified corpses (ligaments and tissues degrade quickly in dead bodies). He further argued that one could drive a nail through "Destot's space" in the wrists without cutting any major arteries. However, the nails he showed were no more than 1/4 inch at the top. Nevertheless, nails found in archaeological remains of cruficixions are more like railroad spikes since they were needed to hold up a human body. Studies since have shown it is impossible to drive a nail through the wrists without cutting major arteries or bones (John 19:36 assures us that no bone of Jesus had been broken). One argument Barbet used to support his thesis was that he Shroud of Turin allegedly shows the nail wounds at the wrists, but this is disputed by some. The shroud shows the back of the hand and depending on what angle the nail was driven, it could have entered from either the palms or the wrists and still exited at the median point shown on the shroud. In short, the shroud is inconclusive.

The biggest argument against this oft accepted theory is the Bible itself. Luke 24:39, John 20:20-27, and even the prophecy of Psalms 22:16 all refer to the hand, and not the wrist. When the nails were driven through the palms it would have punctured or grated against the median nerves. These nerve endings would cause excruciating pain not only when the nails were being driven into his hands, but also every time Jesus moved or took a deep breath upon the cross.

The Crucifixion

Thus the nails were driven through the hands and feet to fix the person to the cross. The person was transfixed to the cross in such a way to make breathing difficult. His body would be draped so that his rib cage presses down against the lungs. In order to take a breath, Jesus would have to have pulled his body up with his hands while pushing up with his feet at the same time. This would cause the nails to rub against the median nerves causing burning pains and sometimes muscle spasms. This made breathing a painful act in itself. The victim of crucifixion would sometimes die of asphyxiation (suffocation), sometimes of the elements, or sometimes from something else. There were many ways in which death could overtake a cruficixion victim. It was also not uncommon for a crucifixion victim to have insects "light upon or burrow into the open wounds or the eyes, ears, and nose of the dying and helplesss victim."9 Crucifixion was a slow lingering death that could take up to three or four days to die. Because the Sabbath was fast approaching and Jewish law forbade things such as crucifixions on the Sabbath, Rome obligued by breaking the legs of most crucifixion victims who were still alive shortly before Sabbath. This would cause the rib cage to collapse completely down on the lungs and cause the survivor to suffocate within a few minutes as the outstretched arms are not strong enough by themselves to pull the body up for long. However, we know that when the soldiers came "to Jesus, they saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs" (John 19:33). Instead they pierced him with a spear to make sure he was dead. The result of this wound is surely the most intriguing aspect of the death of Jesus.

The Death of Christ

We are told that "one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately there came out blood and water" (John 19:34). This fact has led medical examiners to postulate the exact cause of Jesus' death. What was it that killed Him? Fourteen theories have been put forth by doctors over the years. A brief examination of them is prudent. The reader will see why at the conclusion.

Thee of the theories all relate to the hypothesis that Jesus was killed in one way or another as result of the spear, but since John makes it clear that Jesus had already died these theories may be safely discarded. The final eleven theories are all technical variations of one of two major hypothesis. The one is that Jesus died of a heart attack. Shock to the heart from the strain of his injuries and torture can easily cause a heart failure. The heart simply stops beating under the pressure and strain. Many of the theories attribute Jesus' death to a heart attack causes by one or more factors brought on by the scourging and crucifixion, but other theorists suggest that it was more than shock or heart failure. They believe that Jesus' died of a ruptured heart.

If the heart ruptured or burst there would be both blood and water mixed. Although there are other possible explanations, the idea that Jesus' heart burst is an important one because it has theological significance. Why? Because a heart burst is also called a "broken heart."

A Broken Heart

Some doubt that Jesus could have died of a heart rupture because he was a young man in good physical condition, but this ignores many factors, including the trauma caused by torture and, more importantly, emotional distress. A ruptured heart is often caused by emotional distress. That is why the term "broken heart" is used so often. Jesus literally bore the burden for the entire world upon His shoulders. His sweating of blood in Gethsamane shows the extent of his emotional stress. All the gospels recod that Jesus cried out with a loud voice immediately before He died. "It is finished!"(John 19:30). Such indicates that Jesus knew He was dying. A man with a heart attack rarely speaks. A man who heart has burst may cry out as he feels his heart rupture and His blood flow out of the heart. The importance of this fact is this: Despite hours of torture beyond human endurance, Jesus did not die of suffocation, exposure, or any other external cause, but ultimately He died of a broken heart. He endured more than we can imagine for our sakes. One doctor commented "anyone with a medical background cringes and wonders conversely how He lasted for as long as He did."10 The answer is because He loves us .


1 Some evangelicals have a natural aversion to the shroud of Turin because it was worshipped by some Catholics for so long, but unlike other relics, it is perfectly logical that someone close to Jesus would have kept the Shroud and that it might have been handed down through the centuries. Modern day scientists cannot duplicate the shroud even today. Too much evidence disputes that this could have been made by an artist or forger. Why should Jesus be held accountable for the sins (relic worship) of some of his followers?

2 Frederick Zugibe, M.D., The Cross and the Shroud Paragon (NY, NY) 1988 pg. 15

3 Ibid. pg. 149

4 Ibid. pg. 16

5 Ibid. pg. 27

6 W. Edwards, M.D., W. Gabel, & F. Hosmer, "On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ," JAMA March 21, 1986 Vol. 255 No. 11 pg. 1459

7 Zugibe. op. cit.., pg. 44

8 P. Barbet, A Doctor at Calvary Doubleday (NY, NY) 1953 pp. 12-18, 37-147, 159-175, 187-208

9 Edwards, Gabel, & Hosmer, op. cit.., pg. 1460

10 Zugibe. op. cit.., pg. 118


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