Did Jesus Die on the Cross? Part 1: Geisler’s Case

Did Jesus Die on the Cross? Part 1: Geisler’s Case April 14, 2017

According to the Christian philosopher Dr. Norman Geisler:

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

William Lane Craig does not understand this basic principle concerning the alleged resurrection of Jesus, and as a result his case for the resurrection is a complete failure, because he makes no serious attempt to show that Jesus really did die on the cross.

However, there are Christian apologists who do understand this principle, and they, unlike Craig, do attempt to show that Jesus really did die on the cross.  Geisler himself, makes this attempt in his book When Skeptics Ask (hereafter: WSA) on pages 120 to 123.  Gary Habermas and Michael Licona also understand this principle, and in their book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, they also make a brief attempt to show that Jesus really did die on the cross (see pages 99 to 102).

It is pathetic that Geisler’s case for this crucial claim is presented in less than two pages of text (the relevant content begins in the bottom 1/3 of page 120, a full page out of the four pages is taken up with illustrations, and three of the eight points on those pages are irrelevant to showing Jesus’ death on the cross).

It is pathetic that Habermas and Licona devote only about two pages of text to this crucial issue (the text starts at the bottom of page 99 so there is hardly any content on that page, and more than half of page 101 is taken up with a diagram, and the bottom 1/4 of page 102 moves on to a different issue).

If someone could prove that Elvis Presley was alive today, then I would immediately conclude that Elvis had NOT actually died back in 1977, as is commonly believed.  If someone then tried to persuade me that Elvis had risen from the dead, I would insist that they provide me with a rock-solid case showing that Elvis had actaully died on August 16th in 1977 AND that Elvis remained dead (no heartbeat and no breathing) for at least 24 hours (to rule out resuscitation by human or other natural means).

If the person who claimed that Elvis had risen from the dead then handed me two pages of typed text and claimed that those two pages contained a rock-solid case showing that Elvis had truly died on August 16th in 1977, I would laugh loudly, wad the peices of paper into a ball, and toss them in the nearest garbage can. I would tell this person to come back and see me when they had published a full-length book proving the death of Elvis.

I’m inclined to treat Geisler’s two-page case and the Habermas/Licona two-page case with the same contempt, but since they have at least shown some tiny crumb of respect for logic and for the principle stated by Geisler above, I’m going to pretend, at least temporarily, that they have made a serious attempt to show that Jesus actually died on the cross.

Let’s look at Geisler’s “case” first.

Geisler’s first point is an argument against a particular version of the Apparent Death Theory (hereafter: ADT), and his point does nothing to show that Jesus actually died on the cross.  So, the first point is irrelevant to this issue.

Geisler’s second point is clearly relevant:

The heavy loss of blood makes death highly probable.  (WSA, p.120)

The phrase “heavy loss of blood” is VAGUE.  How many cubic centimeters of blood did Jesus lose that day?  Geisler does not say.  Geisler does not provide an estimate of the number of CCs of blood lost by Jesus.  Geisler does not even provide an estimated range of the number of CCs of blood lost by Jesus.  Geisler does not even attempt to provide an estimated range of the number of CCs of blood lost by Jesus, because any such estimate would be pure speculation without any solid factaul basis.

Millions upon millions of people have experienced “heavy blood loss” without dying, so in order to make this point stick, Geisler needs to provide more precise information than this very vague claim.  Yes, IF Jesus experienced a “heavy loss of blood” on Good Friday, THEN that increases the likelihood that Jesus died on the cross.  But, we are not talking about a high probability here.

At the most, the VAGUE claim that Jesus experienced “heavy blood loss” only makes it more probable than not that Jesus died on the cross, and this probability applies ONLY without taking into consideration the assumption that Jesus was alive and walking around on Easter Sunday.  Once we take into consideration the assumption that Jesus was alive and walking around on Easter Sunday, this overwhelms the fact of “heavy blood loss” on Friday, and leaves it HIGHLY probable that Jesus did NOT die on the cross.

Suppose you read in the newspaper that a friend of yours was killed in a horrible car crash on Friday, and an eyewitness of the crash whom you trust as a very reliable person tells you that your friend experienced a “heavy loss of blood” from the accident.  Now suppose that on Sunday morning, your friend comes knocking at your door and you have a conversation with that friend, proving to you that your friend is indeed now alive.

Do you conclude that your friend has risen from the dead?  Not if you are a sane person.  What you would conclude is that the newspaper account was wrong, that your friend did not die in the crash, and that although your friend did experience a “heavy loss of blood” that did NOT prove to be fatal.  People frequently survive a “heavy loss of blood”.

Geisler also fails to show that Jesus IN FACT experienced a “heavy loss of blood” on the day Jesus was crucified.

Here are the claims Geisler makes in support of the conclusion that Jesus experienced a “heavy loss of blood” (WSA, p.120):

(2a) While praying in the Garden, Jesus’ extreme emotional state caused him to “sweat, as it were, great drops of blood” (Luke 22:44).

(2b) Jesus had been beaten repeatedly the night before his crucifixion.

(2c) Jesus had been whipped repeatedly the night before his crucifixion with a Roman scourge.

(2d) The Roman scourge used to whip Jesus was a three-lash whip with pieces of bone or metal on the ends.

(2e)  The whipping of Jesus tore the flesh of the skeletal muscles and set the stage for circulatory shock.

(2f) A crown of thorns had been pushed into Jesus’ skull.

(2g) Jesus was probably in serious to critical condition before they crucified him.

(2h) Jesus suffered five major wounds between nine in the morning and just before sunset.  

(2i) Four of the wounds that Jesus suffered from his crucifixion were caused by nails used to fix him to the cross.

Note that all of these claims are historical claims.  In order to PROVE an historical claim, one must provide historical evidence.  But Geisler is oblivious to this basic intellectual requirement:

  • Geisler provides no historical evidence for the historical claim (2b).
  • Geisler provides no historical evidence for the historical claim (2c).
  • Geisler provides no historical evidence for the historical claim (2d).
  • Geisler provides no historical evidence for the historical claim (2e).
  • Geisler provides no historical evidence for the historical claim (2f).
  • Geisler provides no historical evidence for the historical claim (2g).
  • Geisler provides no historical evidence for the historical claim (2h).
  • Geisler provides no historical evidence for the historical claim (2i).

NOTE: The Gospel passage referenced by Geisler concerning (2h) only supports the assumption that the crucifixion began about 9am and ended before sunset (Mark 15:25 & 33).

This is how an intellectually incompetent writer “proves” that Jesus died on the cross in just two pages.  You simply don’t bother with sophisticated intellectual stuff like: historical facts and evidence.

I am very familiar with these claims, and I am familiar with the relevant available historical data, and so I know, unlike the ignorant Christian sheep who read Geisler’s books, that the evidence for these claims is very weak and sketchy.  One reason why Geisler and other apologists often don’t bother to provide historical facts and evidence to back up their historical claims is that if they did, it would become painfully obvious that their case is weak and that these claims are all very shaky and speculuative in nature.

I’m not going to thoroughly debunk each of these points by Geisler, because he has not stepped up to the plate to take a swing yet.  In fact, Geisler hasn’t even driven to the baseball field yet.  He is still sitting at home watching the game on TV.

Geisler did provide a bit of historical evidence for (2a), so we can see at least one example of how such evidence and arguments fall apart upon closer inspection.  Although Geisler does not state this explicitly, it seems likely that he is implying that Jesus lost some blood “in the Garden” on the night prior to his crucifixion by sweating blood.  But this conclusion involves a questionable interpretation of Luke 22:44.

Geisler should have consulted his fellow Evangelical New Testament scholar Darrell Bock about this verse:

It is important to note that this is metaphorical, not a description that says Jesus sweat blood.  (Luke Vol.2, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, p.1761)

Another problem is that there is good reason to believe that this particular verse was NOT in the original Gospel of Luke:

Verses 43-44 were evidently added by some scribe to a manuscript of Luke; they do not appear, however, in the best–the oldest and most reliable–ancient manuscripts.  (The Acts of Jesus, Robert Funk and The Jesus Seminar, p.351)

So, that is two major strikes against Geisler’s one-and-only piece of historical evidence for the historical claim (2a).

But, lets suppose that the oldest and most reliable manuscripts of Luke are defective and that this verse really was part of the original text of that Gospel.  Let’s also suppose that Bock and several other major NT scholars are wrong to read Luke 22:44 as metaphorical, and that the author intended to assert that Jesus literally sweated blood.

There are other reasons to doubt this historical claim:

  • First, this detail is only mentioned in the Gospel of Luke, so there is no corroboration of this detail in the other Gospels.
  • Second, Luke was not a disciple of Jesus, so this is NOT something that Luke himself observed.  This is NOT an eyewitness report.
  • Third, Luke does not indicate that this story about Jesus in the garden or that the specific detail of sweating blood came directly to him from an eyewitness.  So, we have no particular reason to believe that this account was based on the report of an eyewitness.
  • Fourth, there is good reason to believe that the whole story is fictional.

Luke is getting the information for the story about Jesus praying in a garden from the Gospel of Mark, and Mark’s story appears to be a fictional creation:

The scene on the Mount of Olives (Luke does not mention Gethsemane) was inspired originally by the story of David’s flight across the Kidron when his son Absalom revolted (2 Samuel 15-17).  Luke may not have been aware of this connection, however.  Nevertheless, the sequence of events depicted in Mark, Luke’s source, follows the sequence of that earlier story. …Since Luke’s source is a fiction, Luke’s version belongs to the same category. (The Acts of Jesus, Robert Funk and The Jesus Seminar,p.352-353)

NOTE: The details about the parallels between Mark’s story and the O.T. story of David’s flight are presented on pages 150 and 151 of The Acts of Jesus.

OK.  We are well past three strikes for Geisler’s historical evidence for (2a).

The moral of the story is this:

If you are an intellectually incompetent Christian writer, and if you are writing a book for ignorant Christian sheep, then you can make a “case” for the death of Jesus on the cross in just two pages of text by including only one tiny bit of historical evidence for your least significant historical claim, and that evidence can be as full of holes as a five-pound chunk of Swiss cheese, while you provide ZERO historical evidence in support of your other much more significant historical claims.

Unfortunately, there is more mindless fact-free writing for me to cover in Geisler’s case for the death of Jesus on the cross.

TO BE CONTINUED…

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