An Atheist Reads The Case for Christ
PART 3: Researching the Resurrection
Chapter 11: The Medical Evidence — Was Jesus’ Death a Sham and His Resurrection a Hoax?
The Dr. Robert J. Stein Story
- Stein was the medical examiner for Cook County, Illinois, one of the world’s leading forensic pathologists. He performed over 20,000 autopsies, and provided evidence that helped to convict John Wayne Gacy of thirty-three murders.
- Strobel uses Stein to emphasize the importance of medical evidence in determining what actually caused the death of a person. Medical evidence can determine time of death, whether death was the result of an accident or an intentional act, all sorts of interesting and important things.
- Strobel says medical evidence can be used to determine whether or not the resurrection of Jesus actually happened, or was a hoax.
- Two things jump out immediately:
- There is no medical evidence related to the crucifixion. None.
- The “actually happened or hoax” dilemma is a false dichotomy. It’s possible (and very likely, actually) that the resurrection of Jesus was neither an actual event or a hoax. It’s possible (and likely) that it never happened, or appeared to happen, at all.
Resurrection or Resuscitation?
- Strobel sets up the swoon theory — the claim that Jesus did not actually die on the cross, but only appeared to — as his target for this chapter.
- “Like an urban myth, the swoon theory continues to flourish. I hear it all the time in discussing the Resurrection with spiritual seekers. 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.” (Lee Strobel, THE CASE FOR CHRIST, p. 193)
- I bet it would be nice for Lee if those questions could be settled by the medical evidence — too bad there isn’t any.
The Tenth Interview: Alexander Metherell, M.D., Ph.D.
- He’s two kinds of doctor!
- Medical degree from University of Miami, doctorate in engineering from University of Bristol, board certified in diagnosis by the American Board of Radiology, consultant to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health.
- Former research scientist, taught at the University of California, editor of five scientific books, written for Aerospace Medicine, Scientific American, The Physiologist, Biophysics Journal, and other publications.
- Chosen by Strobel not just for his medical credentials, but also for his ability to discuss the crucifixion dispassionately.
- Christians find the crucifixion very upsetting, which is why they so love to hear it discussed in gruesome, gory detail — and also to see it reenacted in similar fashion, as The Passion of the Christ would demonstrate some years after this book was first published.
The Torture Before the Cross
- Speaking of The Passion of the Christ . . .
- Metherell describes the scourging of Christ in detail — I’ll go ahead and say “loving” detail — starting with the night before in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus is so distressed over his imminent execution that he sweats blood. Metherell attributes the blood-sweating to hematidrosis, a very rare but real medical condition that occurs when extreme stress causes capillaries surrounding sweat glands to burst, allowing blood to mix with sweat and give the appearance that a person is sweating blood, when actually they’re still sweating sweat, just sweat tinged with a small amount of blood.
- Hematidrosis also makes skin very sensitive, which would have made the scourging even more painful for Jesus.
- This is all very interesting — as I’ve said previously, I enjoy textual analysis like this, sifting through the details of stories — but it’s also completely irrelevant to determining what actually happened to Jesus since, as we discussed in a previous video, the reference to Jesus sweating blood during the Agony in the Garden was added to the Book of Luke by early Christians who wanted to discourage the doctrine of Docetism, or the belief that Jesus only appeared to be human and to suffer. It was not in the earliest texts.
- Metherell then describes the scourging, careful not to miss a single bloody detail — the leather whip with bits of metal and bone braided into it, the shredding of flesh and muscle, the exposing of bone, the fantastic amount of blood lost — basically, if you’ve seen The Passion of the Christ, this will read like a page from the script.
- Due to the extreme blood loss, Metherell diagnoses Jesus as being in hypovolemic shock following the scourging. As evidence, he points out that Jesus was unable to carry the patibulum, which is the top of the cross to the execution site without help, and that he also said “I thirst” at one point, thirst being a symptom of hypovolemic shock, what with your body needing fluids to replace all that blood that fell out of you.
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[.]” (p. 196)
- Actually, historians are not even unanimous that Jesus existed, let alone was scourged and crucified. But we’re pretending arguments that question the existence of Jesus or the historical reliability of the gospels don’t exist, so . . .
- Now Metherell gets into all the really juicy particulars of the crucifixion that Christians love to feel good about feeling guilty about — the five-to-seven-inch nails driven in through the wrists (not the palms; the palms wouldn’t hold), the crushing of the nerves at the wrists and ankles as the nails were driven through, causing pain so indescribably intense that the word “excruciating” is derived from the crucifixion.
The Cause of Death
- Breathing while crucified is incredibly difficult, and leads inevitably to exhaustion. Carbon dioxide builds up in the blood and dissolves into carbonic acid, which results in an irregular heartbeat and, eventually, cardiac arrest. This, according to Metherell, was the cause of the death of Jesus.
- The shock and irregular heartbeat would also have resulted in pericardial and pleural effusions around the heart and lungs, which would explain why the wound from the spear thrust into Jesus’s side by the Roman soldier gushed blood and a clear fluid which John mistook for water in his gospel.
- “[Metherell:]‘There was absolutely no doubt that Jesus was dead.’” (p. 200)
Answering the Skeptics
- “Dr. Metherell’s assertion seemed well supported by the evidence.” (p. 200)
- What evidence? The Bible. That’s the evidence.
- Metherell cites a single archaeological find — the remains of a Jew named Yohanan who had been crucified around A.D. 70, whose foot was pierced by a seven-inch nail — as evidence that people were crucified in a manner similar to that described in the Jesus narrative.
- Again, we have this hasty conclusion fallacy that we saw in the chapters about the corroborating evidence and the scientific evidence — confirmation of relatively mundane incidental details is taken as confirmation of the story as a whole, fantastic claims of miracles and angels and resurrections and all. Evidence that crucifixions like the one described in the Jesus narrative actually took place is cited as evidence for the truth of the narrative itself. But there’s a difference between not contradicting, and confirming. And there’s also a difference between confirming that a man was executed by a particular method, and confirming that that same man returned from his death following that execution.
- Prompted by Strobel, Metherell asserts confidently that the Roman soldiers would have been able to positively determine that Jesus was dead when he was taken down from the cross. Remember — the “skeptics” they are addressing are those who favor the swoon theory, not those who favor the “most of this shit is just made up” theory.
The Final Argument
- “Appealing to history and medicine, to archaeology and even Roman military rules, Metherell had closed every loophole: Jesus could not have come down from the cross alive.” (p. 201)
- Yep, that settles it, I guess. The Christian doctor has reached these conclusions based on an analysis of a 2,000 year-old text whose historical reliability is highly suspect at best, but which he believes to be the infallible Word of the Living God — no holes in that argument. None at all.
- Prompted again by Strobel, Metherell emphasizes the horrible state Jesus would have been in following the crucifixion. Even if, by some incredible chance, he had survived the cross and escaped his tomb, he would have been in incredible pain, covered in blood, his flesh shredded from head to toe, his wrists and feet badly injured, his shoulders dislocated — in other words, not the Jesus who reportedly appeared to his followers following the resurrection.
- A Jesus that pathetic would never have inspired a religious movement built around his triumph over death, Metherell argues.
- Again, Strobel ignores the fact that the gospels — even by the testimony of his own hand-picked experts — contain material that was added to the original texts long after they were first written down, for explicitly political purposes, to strengthen or weaken a particular doctrine or view of Christ. Why is it so unthinkable that a pitiful, injured Jesus — or more likely, a stone-fucking-dead Jesus — would have been replaced in the story by the immortal, eternal, victorious resurrected Jesus?
A Question for the Heart
- “Convincingly, masterfully, Metherell had established his case beyond a reasonable doubt.” (p. 202)
- Writers and aspiring writers, take note, because this is the kind of sentence you should never, ever allow to remain in your work. Nobody’s perfect, we all make mistakes, but the bigger mistake than writing a shitty sentence like this would be not getting rid of it as soon as you realize it’s there. There are two things wrong with it. First, it’s telling rather than showing. Good writing shows, so that it’s not necessary to tell in order to get a point across. If Metherell’s arguments were really so masterful, let them speak for themselves. Second, assuming the arguments were that convincing, the sentence is a double beat — if the point does get across on its own, Strobel is telling us something we already know. Bad writing, fuck that sentence.
- Strobel and Metherell get all mushy when discussing why Jesus would willingly experience such an agonizing execution. This is the other thing I’ve noticed Christians love to fap to. The only thing that turns them on more than dwelling on the suffering of Christ is getting all teary-eyed about the love of Christ for us, that he would do that for our sake.
- “‘So when you ask what motivated him,’ [Metherell] concluded, ‘well . . . I suppose the answer can be summed up in one word — and that would be love.’” (p. 203)
- Strobel presumably cleans himself up after that point — knowing what the subject of their discussion would be, I imagine Metherell had moist towels already handy — and drives on to his next destination.
- “Those who seek to explain away the resurrection of Jesus by claiming that he somehow escaped the clutches of death at Galgotha need to offer a more plausible theory that fits the facts.” (p. 204)
- I agree, Lee. And I’ve got a more plausible theory, as it happens. Jesus didn’t escape his death on the cross. Jesus is dead.
Next: Chapter 12: The Evidence of the Missing Body — Was Jesus’ Body Really Absent From His Tomb? (Expert: William Lane Craig)