Norman Geisler’s Case for the Death of Jesus

Norman Geisler’s Case for the Death of Jesus July 14, 2014

Let me cut to the chase: Geisler’s case for the claim that “Jesus actually died on the cross” is crap. It might be marginally better than William Craig’s case, but it is most definitely a hot steaming pile of crap. As with Craig’s case, part of the reason Geisler’s case fails is that he tries to make his case in just a few pages. (This appears to be a common form of mental illness among Christian apologists.)

I’m tempted to work my way slowly through Geisler’s case, as I did with Craig’s case, going sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase, exposing each instance of ignorance, credulity, bias, and bad reasoning. But that seems to be giving his pitiful effort too much respect and credibility. So, I will be a bit more quick-and-dirty in my critique of Geisler’s case for the death of Jesus.

Geisler has quite correctly stated a necessary condition for a successful case for the resurrection of Jesus:

Before we can show that Jesus rose from the dead, we need to show that he really did die. (When Skeptics Ask, p.120)

It would not be enough, of course, to simply show that Jesus died at some time or other in some way or other. Showing that Jesus drowned when he was just twelve, for example, would be of NO USE for proving the resurrection of Jesus. One must show that “Jesus actually died on the cross” on Good Friday, as an adult (in Jerusalem around 30 C.E.).

I agree with this criterion for a successful case for the resurrection. Let’s call this Geisler’s Criterion. On the basis of Geisler’s Criterion, I judge William Craig’s case for the resurrection to be a failure, because Craig has utterly and completely failed to show that Jesus actually died on the cross. But Geisler has also failed to show that Jesus actually died on the cross, so his case for the resurrection is also clearly a failure.

Geisler gives eight reasons in support of the claim that Jesus actually died on the cross. We can set aside three of those reasons immediately, because they are clearly NOT evidence for this claim:

1. There is no evidence to suggest that Jesus was drugged. …(WSA, p.120)

This is an objection to one specific version of the Apparent Death Theory. But raising a weak objection to one particular version of one alternative theory does not provide positive evidence for the claim that Jesus actually died on the cross. I have almost never been drugged, and yet somehow I have managed to avoid dying day after day for many decades. Also, the fact that I have rarely been drugged does not indicate that it is likely that some day I will be crucified nor that I will die while on a cross. This “reason” should be flushed down the drain immediately.

5. Jesus was embalmed in about 75-100 pounds of spices and bandages… . He could not have unwrapped Himself, rolled the stone back up the side of its carved-out track, overcome the guards, and escaped unnoticed…(WSA, p.122)

This “reason” is not only based on various dubious historical claims, but it is also just another objection to a specific version of the Apparent Death Theory. A weak objection to one particular version of an alternative theory does not provide positive evidence for the claim that “Jesus actually died on the cross”. The difficulty of escaping from being wrapped up in spices and bandages on a Sunday morning has no relevance to whether the person in question had previously died on a Friday afternoon. This “reason” should be flushed down the drain immediately.

7. If Jesus had managed all this, His appearance would have been more like a resuscitated wretch than a resurrected Saviour. It is not likely that it would have turned the world upside down. (WSA, p.123)

This is probably the most common objection to the Apparent Death Theory, an objection that comes from David Strauss. I call this the “Sickly Jesus Objection”. There are many problems with this objection, but the main problem in this context is that an objection to one particular version of one alternative theory does NOT provide positive evidence in support of the claim that Jesus actually died on the cross. The Apparent Death Theory has many implications, and specific versions of it have additional implications. Showing that one or more such implications is false or questionable, does not provide positive evidence for the death of Jesus. This reason should be immediately flushed down the drain.

In fact, in some instances, refuting an implication of the Apparent Death Theory would also refute the Christian view that Jesus rose from the dead. For example, the Apparent Death Theory assumes that Jesus was crucified. If someone could show that Jesus had NOT been crucified, or that it was doubtful that Jesus had been crucified, this would refute or cast doubt on the Apparent Death Theory. But such an objection would ALSO refute or cast doubt upon the Christian view that Jesus rose from the dead (after being crucified). So, raising objections to the Apparent Death Theory does not necessarily provide support for the claim that Jesus actually died on the cross.

Three down, five more reasons to go.

Two other reasons are relevant but are clearly weak reasons, and should both be quickly tossed aside:

4. The standard procedure for crucifixion was to break the victim’s legs… Yet the Roman executioners declared Christ dead without breaking his legs (v.33). There was no doubt in their minds. (WSA, p.122).

6. Pilate asked for assurance that Jesus was really dead before releasing the body for burial. (WSA, p.122)

Both of these reasons are based on questionable historical assumptions, historical assumptions for which Geisler has provided either no historical evidence or dubious historical evidence. Geisler points us to an alleged event (the breaking of the legs of the other crucified men but not Jesus) that is found only in the Fourth Gospel, a Gospel which is considered to be an unreliable historical source by most leading Jesus scholars of the 20th and 21st centuries.

The Gospels cannot be relied upon to provide accurate details about what Pilate said on any specific occasion. We don’t know that Jesus was buried, nor do we know that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea, nor do we know whether Joseph of Arimathea actually went to Pilate to request the body of Jesus. We certainly do not know Pilate’s specific words and actions in relation to the release of Jesus’ body.

But even if we assume that Pilate did ask a Roman officer “for assurance that Jesus was really dead” this does not mean that Pilate actually received such assurance, and if he did receive assurance from a Roman officer that Jesus was already dead, this is still weak evidence. We don’t know the name of this officer. We know almost nothing about the intelligence, character, and background of this Roman officer. What we do know is that scientific medicine would not come into existence until more than a thousand years later, and that the Roman officer was supremely ignorant about the biology and physiology of the human body, as was everyone else in that period of time.

We have weak evidence for the claim that one or more Roman soldiers were very confident on Friday afternoon that Jesus had died on the cross (on the same day that he was crucified), and the assumption that one or more Roman soldiers were very confident that Jesus had died on the cross provides only weak evidence for the conclusion that Jesus actually died on the cross. So, although these reasons are relevant to this conclusion, they provide only weak support for it.

Five reasons down, three more to go.

Reason number eight can be set aside, because it reflects the same sort of ignorance and credulity that Geisler displays in the two other remaining reasons. Also, the content of reason number eight overlaps the content of the other two reasons, so if I can show that the other two reasons are weak or defective, that will also suffice to show that reason eight is weak or defective.

8. In the article “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ” the Journal of the American Medical Society concluded: “Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to His side was inflicted…” (WSA, p.123)

Setting aside the purely medical assumptions and claims in this article, it is clear that this article is based on naive, ignorant, and credulous views of the New Testament. In other words, the historical scholarship in this article sucks. It is almost on the level of William Craig’s childish and pathetic case for the death of Jesus. In any case, if I can show that there are serious problems with the remaining two reasons given by Geisler, this will also serve to show that this Journal article from JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association, March 21, 1986, Volume 256) has serious problems. So, we can set this reason aside and focus our attention on the two remaining reasons given by Geisler.

Six down, two more to go.

To be continued…

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