It was the day of preparation, and the Jewish leaders didn’t want the bodies hanging there the next day, which was the Sabbath (and a very special Sabbath, because it was the Passover). So they asked Pilate to hasten their deaths by ordering that their legs be broken. Then their bodies could be taken down. So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the two men crucified with Jesus. But when they came to Jesus, they saw that He was already dead, so they didn’t break His legs. One of the soldiers, however, pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water flowed out. (This report is from an eyewitness giving an accurate account. He speaks the truth so that you also can believe.) John 19:31-35 (NLT)
In his book, The Case for Christ, Lee Strobel raises a legitimate question in an interview with a former research scientist who taught at the University of California, Alexander Metherell, MD, PhD, as to whether Jesus really died on the cross:
“But how certain was death by this crude, slow, and rather inexact form of execution called crucifixion? In fact, most people aren’t sure how the cross kills its victims. And without a trained medical examiner to officially attest that Jesus had died, might he have escaped the experience brutalized and bleeding but nevertheless alive?”
The same concern was expressed by the Jewish leaders at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. They wanted to be certain of His death and have His body removed with the others before the Sabbath that would begin at sundown that evening. They asked the Roman Governor, Pilate, to hasten their deaths by ordering that their legs be broken. This explains Dr. Metherell’s response to Strobel:
“Once a person is hanging in the vertical position, crucifixion is essentially an agonizingly slow death by asphyxiation. The reason is that the stresses on the muscles and diaphragm put the chest into the inhaled position; basically, in order to exhale, the individual must push up on his feet so the tension on the muscles would be eased for a moment. … After managing to exhale, the person would then be able to relax down and take another breath in.” The person would be incapable of such action once his legs were broken.
When the soldiers came to hasten the deaths of those on the cross by breaking their legs, they noticed that Jesus was already dead. To confirm this assumption, one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water flowed out. Dr. Matherell continues his explanation from a scientific and medical perspective.
“Before Jesus died, the hypovolemic shock (of losing vast amounts of blood from His scourging prior to the cross) would have caused a sustained rapid heart rate that would have contributed to heart failure, resulting in the collection of fluid in the membrane around the heart, called a pericardial effusion, as well as around the lungs, which is called a pleural effusion … when the Roman soldier came around and, being fairly certain that Jesus was dead, confirmed it by thrusting a spear into His right side … so when the spear was pulled out, some fluid – the pericardial effusion and the pleural effusion – came out. This would have the appearance of a clear fluid, like water, followed by a large volume of blood, as the eyewitness John described in his gospel.”
“There was absolutely no doubt that Jesus was dead.”
Even if the skeptics were right, and Jesus’ didn’t die but somehow managed to emerge from the tomb, He would have been in no condition to convince the discouraged and defeated disciples that He had triumphed over the grave! Their lives were transformed by a living and victorious Savior – not a half-dead, pathetic zombie.