11 Questions about the death of Jesus with Bruce Hennigan, M.D. (Part 1)

1. Give us a little of your background and how you became interested in apologetics.

In the mid 1990’s, my medical colleagues began to question me each day on my beliefs as a Christian. Their form of questioning is what I now know to be the “steam roller” technique. The questions were delivered in rapid fire fashion to cause me to doubt my faith. Their method succeeded. After three grueling months, I became disheartened and discouraged. I realized I did not know Why I believed what I believed. And, as I thought more on the issue, I did not What I believed. In fact, this damage to my faith eventually led to a deep depression.

After I recovered from my depression I investigated all “worldviews” and came to the conclusion that Christianity was the only worldview that made sense out of the universe. This conclusion came to me after reading the book, “The Universe Next Door”. Then, after a few years of searching for answers to highly scientific challenges to my beliefs, I found “The Fingerprint of God” by Dr. Hugh Ross. God provided me with an abundance of answers to the questions my medical colleagues had peppered with me. It took me six years of searching to find these answers, but God provided them. I then discovered the only apologetic course available to lay people outside of the seminary setting and took Reasons to Believe’s course on apologetics. RTB is a science faith think tank investigating the consistency of science and the Bible founded by Dr. Hugh Ross. I became a Volunteer Apologist after taking their college level courses and received my final certificate in 2004.

2. Where did you begin on the timeline your study of the death of Jesus?

Most of us focus on the crucifixion as the main cause of the death of Jesus Christ. One objection to the resurrection claims that since Jesus was only on the cross for six hours he could have “swooned” or passed out and did not actually die. When I was investigating this claim, I realized that there are at least five events experienced by Jesus Christ in the hours leading up to his death that more than contributed to the fatal outcome of his torture and execution. I backtracked the story of those last hours to the first truly stressful moment in the Garden of Gethsemane and realized the death of Jesus Christ began in the Garden and culminated on the cross. There are five events that all contributed to the death of Jesus of Nazareth: Hematidrosis, Blunt Force Trauma, Flogging, Crown of Thorns, and Crucifixion.

3. What was the most unique thing you found that happened at the Garden of Gethsemane?

Hematidrosis

And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. (Luke 22:44)

This is the first event that began to contribute to the eventual death of Jesus of Nazareth. Luke, a physician who interviewed eyewitnesses, describes a medical condition we can only now appreciate in our modern era. Many thought this description was symbolic and people do not “sweat blood”.

However, we now understand this is a real medical condition. When we are confronted with a fearful moment, extreme mental stress, or imminent danger our brain tells our body to react in a certain way. This is known as the Flight or Fight response. Our brain signals our bodies to prepare to either stand or fight or to run away.

There are two small organs sitting atop each kidney known as adrenal glands. When signaled by the brain to prepare the body for stress, these glands secrete epinephrine (or adrenaline) into the blood stream.

The body reacts to this hormone in several ways. The heart rate increases. The respiratory rate increases. And, arteries all over the body change. Arteries in the skin and in the “gut” constrict driving this freshly oxygenated blood to the brain and to the muscles. This is to prepare the person to be able to think quickly and to either run or fight.

However, these small glands cannot sustain this level of epinephrine forever. Such a high level could cause permanent damage. After a short period of time, the epinephrine levels decrease and the processes reverse themselves. The heart rate slows. Arteries in the skin and gut relax allowing more blood flow to these areas and not to the brain and muscle. The results are “butterflies” in the stomach, light headedness, shaky muscles, and an overall feeling of weakness.

In cases where the stress is prolonged and very intense, when the arteries in the skin relax, blood leaks through the walls of the arteries into the base of the sweat glands and the person appears to “sweat blood”.

This condition in modern times is seen in victims of human trafficking. The conclusion I draw from this medical fact is the following. Jesus must have endured extreme mental stress to sweat blood. His prolonged agony in the Garden of Gethsemane led to hematidrosis. Could this event be fatal? In my opinion, no. This event would have led to dehydration and some mild blood loss. But, Jesus could have recovered with rehydration and rest.

4. What happened after Jesus’s arrest and between the various trials?

Blunt force trauma

Then some began to spit at him; they blindfolded him, struck him with their fists, and said, “Prophesy!” And the guards took him and beat him. (Mark 14:65)

Jesus was arrested shortly after the event of hematridosis. According to the Gospel of Mark, the guards arresting Jesus began to beat him not only during the arrest but during and between the upcoming “trials”. This “blunt force trauma” caused more physical damage. Blunt force trauma can lead to bleeding into the skin (bruising) and possibly internal bleeding. The most significant possible consequence of such prolonged blunt force trauma comes from damage to the muscles themselves.

Our muscles are red because they contain a chemical known as myoglobin. This chemical is related to hemoglobin but when it is released into the blood stream from muscle damage, it will accumulate in the kidneys. The kidneys cannot excrete myoglobin and as it accumulates in the tissue of the kidneys, it can cause damage leading to kidney failure

At this point Jesus had more blood loss and could very well be going into kidney failure from myoglobin in the blood. In this era, there were no dialysis machines. If Jesus had gone into renal failure it is possible to recover, but usually only if you have interval dialysis.

My conclusion as a physician at this point is that the combination of hematidrosis and blunt force trauma would produce significant blood loss and possible kidney failure. I would conclude there is only a 50/50 chance Jesus could recover

5. The Gospel accounts say that Jesus was flogged, what did that entail?

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. (John 19:1)

Flogging was a well-developed process by the Romans. Lictors were professionals who were well trained in the process. The flogging was performed using a cat of nine tails. This multi-braided whip had bits of bone, metal, and glass attached to the tips. By “seating” these serrated objects into the skin and then pulling away, the skin and underlying muscle were flayed and torn.

The job of the lictor was to bring the victim to the brink of death and elicit a confession from the victim. If the lictor killed the victim, he was then flogged. This was a carefully fine-tuned process to elicit the most pain without killing the victim.

Flogging was performed by stripping the victim and bending him over a low post exposing the back muscles. The goal was to cause extensive muscle damage without damaging internal organs. With flogging, then, there would be enormous blood loss and muscle damage. In addition to this fact, the unsanitary conditions of Jerusalem at the time would ensure Jesus had instant seeding of his wounds with overwhelming infection.

At this point there is very little chance Jesus of Nazareth would survive due to the blood loss, muscle damage, probable kidney damage, and overwhelming infection leading to sepsis (blood infection). I would estimate his chances of survival are less than 10% at this point.

6. Up to that point, would Jesus have any possibility of survival?

The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face. (John 19:2-3)

The scalp is very vascular and the piercing of his scalp by these thorns would not only be extremely painful but would contribute to more blood loss. These thorns were about four inches long and were stiff enough to use to sew leather. Interesting theory is that the thorns may have come from the tree from which myrrh is obtained. Myrrh was a gift to the child Jesus symbolizing his death.

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