Did Jesus Die of “Natural Causes”?
by Dr. Paul M. Elliott
We can become so focused on the gory details of Roman crucifixion that we obscure this tremendous truth: Jesus’ death was a supernatural event.
When I was growing up in the 1960s, three-hour Good Friday services were far more common in Evangelical churches than they are today. I remember attending many such services in which a succession of speakers went into excruciating detail about the horrors of crucifixion as a method of execution. They engaged in a great deal of extra-Biblical speculation about Jesus’ physical and mental condition before and during the hours on the cross.
Some preachers’ speculations even extended to the figurative writing of a death certificate. They would state, often with great certitude, the “cause of death” of the Son of God. They held varying opinions on the subject.
Even the soundest of men have sometimes done this. In a very untypical departure from his usual laser-beam focus on Scripture alone, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who was a physician as well as a minister, engaged in such speculation at a 1969 Bible conference.1
In 1986 an article titled “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ” appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It generated considerable publicity and found its way into many Good Friday pulpits. Written by a medical doctor and two liberal Methodist ministers, the article stated that Jesus’ death “resulted primarily from hypovolemic shock and exhaustion asphyxia. Jesus’ death was ensured by the thrust of a soldier’s spear into his side. Modern medical interpretation of the historical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead when taken down from the cross.”2
In more recent times, Dr. Georgia Purdom of Answers in Genesis has been noted for her lectures on this subject, in which she plays the most graphic scenes from Mel Gibson’s motion picture The Passion of the Christ, which is based on Roman Catholic dogma and tradition rather than on Scripture.3
What Does Scripture say?
Those who speculate about Jesus’ cause of death, whether theological conservatives or liberals, almost always fall into three traps. First, they tend to approach the question primarily through extra-Biblical sources. Second, even the most well-intentioned end up placing those sources in some degree of de facto authority over Scripture. Third, they tend to seek a naturalistic explanation, and to ignore or downplay the supernatural. (Many fall into the same three-fold trap in approaching the first eleven chapters of Genesis.)
These things the Christian must never do. The question we must ask is simply, “What does Scripture say?” We find that it tells us a great deal.
Before His death, Jesus repeatedly told His disciples of the coming event, and that it would involve His voluntarily laying down His life:
Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father. (John 10:17-18)
It was also clear to the disciples in retrospect that Jesus’ crucifixion took place at a time appointed by God:
Therefore they sought to take Him; but no one laid a hand on Him, because His hour had not yet come. (John 7:30)
As the Father’s appointed hour approached, Jesus told His disciples:
“Now My soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour. Father, glorify Your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, saying, “I have both glorified it and will glorify it again.” Therefore the people who stood by and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to Him.” Jesus answered and said, “This voice did not come because of Me, but for your sake. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” This He said, signifying by what death He would die. (John 12:27-33)
Jesus made it clear many times that the Jews and Romans had no power to crucify Him until it was given to them in the time and manner appointed before the foundation of the world:
Then Jesus said to the chief priests, captains of the temple, and the elders who had come to Him, “Have you come out, as against a robber, with swords and clubs? When I was with you daily in the temple, you did not try to seize Me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.” (Luke 22:52-53)
But Jesus said to him, “Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Or do you think that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels? How then could the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must happen thus?” (Matthew 26:52-54)
Then Pilate said to Him, “Are You not speaking to me? Do You not know that I have power to crucify You, and power to release You?” Jesus answered, “You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above.” (John 19:10-11)
Three passages describe the moment of Jesus’ death, and the words used in the original language tell us a great deal:
And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. (Matthew 27:50) [The Greek word translated “yielded up” is apheken, literally, “sent away” or “dismissed”.]
And when Jesus had cried out with a loud voice, He said, “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit. Having said this, He breathed His last. (Luke 23:46) [The Greek word translated “commit” is parathesomai, literally, “I commit to Your keeping”.]
So when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And bowing His head, He gave up His spirit. (John 19:30) [The Greek word translated “gave up” is paradoken, literally, “delivered it into the keeping of another”.]
After Jesus’ ascension, Peter twice spoke of the supernatural character of these events:
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know – Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it. (Acts 2:22-24)
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified His Servant Jesus, whom you delivered up and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let Him go. But you denied the Holy One and the Just, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and killed the Prince of life, whom God raised from the dead, of which we are witnesses. (Acts 3:13-15)
What Must We Conclude?
This is the sum of the Biblical statements: Jesus subjected Himself to the death of the cross at the hands of ungodly men. But the Son of God Himself, not the hand of man or natural processes, determined the moment and manner of His death. Jesus’ death came at the climactic moment when His cross-work was finished, and the cause of Jesus’ death was His own voluntary dismissal of His spirit into the keeping of the Father, that He might take it up again on the third day.
This explains why Pilate, who as governor knew how long crucified men could take to die, marveled that Jesus was dead so soon (Mark 15:44). It was something out of the natural order of things.
We must remember that the One on the cross was not a mere man, but the supernatural God-Man, “all the fullness of the Godhead in a body” (Colossians 2:9), the One who had been transfigured a short time before (Matthew 17:1-9). The God-Man remained in complete control, even in those hours of suffering on the cross.
Thus Jesus did not die of the “natural causes” of the process of crucifixion. He did not die from loss of blood, asphyxiation, or damage to the brain and nervous system. He did not die from the spear thrust which, contrary to the 1986 article, came when Jesus was already dead (John 19:33-34). Jesus repeatedly emphasized the fact that “no one takes [My life] from Me, but I lay it down of Myself.” God the Son could have remained in that broken body even after all normal life functions had ceased, just as He inhabited that same pierced body after His resurrection. “Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have” (Luke 24:39). Jesus Christ caused His human body to experience death.
Our eternal salvation rests on no mere act of man. Jesus’ death, just like His birth, was outside the natural order and yet made use of elements within the natural order. We can become so focused on the gory details of Roman crucifixion that we obscure this tremendous truth: The crucifixion of Christ was the act of lawless man, but the death of Christ was the supernatural act of almighty God.
This took place in one of the sermons Dr. Lloyd-Jones preached at a Bible conference in Pensacola, Florida in 1969. Those sermons, which are immensely edifying, were published in book form in 2011 under the title Setting Our Affections Upon Glory.
W. D. Edwards, W. J. Gabel, and F. E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ”, Journal of the American Medical Association 255:1455-1463, 1986.
See Georgia Purdom, “Anatomy and Physiology of the Crucifixion”, as viewed on 4/11/2011 at http://blogs.answersingenesis.org/blogs/georgia-purdom/2011/03/17/anatomy-and-physiology-of-the-crucifixion-2/