Easter Was Just A "Mistake"
Updated: May 3
“But what actually happened – on the cross and in the sepulchre? …The important thing, and the undisputed thing, is that when Jesus was taken from the cross and put into the sepulchre the crowd that looked on, including both His own followers and the Roman soldiers, believed He was truly dead, and that He Himself, when he came to His senses in the sepulchre, believed He was coming back from death.”[i]
The central event of Christianity is Easter – the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. If Jesus did not rise, Christianity is simply a myth, a dream, a lie or a mistake. H L Mencken believed the latter. He maintained that the Roman soldiers, Jesus and his followers were all mistaken – Jesus did not die on the cross. And, if he didn’t die, he didn’t actually rise from the dead.
What Christianity says about Jesus
Christianity conveys that Jesus – God in the flesh – entered the world he created, made himself known, loved even the most sinful people, invited them to follow him, and taught a morality that astounds to this day. Then, he gave his own human life to atone for mankind’s sin so that we can be forgiven, share in his righteousness and be with him forever.
This message was and is amazing. Christians call it the good news – the gospel.
The way Jesus atoned for sins is equally incredible. He allowed himself to be arrested, tortured and nailed to a wooden cross by Roman executioners. In his humanity, he suffered, bled and died. But death could not hold him. Three days later, he rose from the dead. He proved he is God, showed himself to his followers and later ascended to heaven. This is why Easter is such a big deal to Christians.
H L Mencken’s thesis
H L Mencken, a famous Baltimore journalist of the mid 1900s, admitted Jesus existed. He admired Jesus’ morality. He acknowledged Jesus’ arrest, cruel treatment and execution. That’s where his agreement with the Easter narrative ends. He did not believe Jesus actually died and arose from the dead. Mencken said, as Jesus regained consciousness in the tomb, he just thought he arose from the dead. He was honestly mistaken.
For Mencken’s thesis to be true, there was no scheme to fake a resurrection or a stolen body. It simply required Jesus to have survived crucifixion and a lot of people to have been mistaken about his death. In addition to Jesus and his followers, the Roman authorities, the Jewish authorities and many others would all have to have been mistaken.
Could Jesus have survived crucifixion?
Before unravelling Mencken’s claim, the first question is simple – could a person actually survive crucifixion?
The Romans reserved quick forms of execution for Roman citizens. Others weren’t so fortunate. Criminals of the lower classes of society were either burned alive, thrown to wild animals (often as entertainment) or crucified.[ii] The intent was to publicly inflict the most horrible deaths imaginable as terrifying punishment for transgressing the laws of Rome. It seems all but impossible to survive the full process.[iii]
Nailing a person to a large wooden cross – a spike through each hand and one through both feet – would have been physically traumatic of itself. While bleeding, the victim was then left to suffocate slowly as they had to pull or push themselves up to breathe. If the executioners were in a hurry, the legs of the convicted were broken to speed suffocation. To ensure they were dead, a spear was driven through the victim’s side. Try surviving that.
Determining how a person actually died from crucifixion is like asking how a person who had been run over by a truck died – the trauma was so severe. Studies have suggested cardiac rupture, heart failure, hypovolaemic shock (severe blood and fluid loss), acidosis, asphyxia, arrhythmia and asphyxia, and pulmonary embolism (blood clot) as possible causes.[iv] Crucifixion caused all of these things.
Could a crucifixion be botched?
Given the intent of inflicting a brutal death, it’s also difficult to imagine a crucifixion being botched. Josephus, a 1st century Jewish historian, described this scene of hundreds of Jews being crucified by Roman soldiers:
“…they were first whipped, and then tormented with all sorts of tortures, before they died, and were then crucified before the wall of the city.”
“So the soldiers, out of the wrath and hatred they bore the Jews, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another, to the crosses, by way of jest…”[v]
Inflicting a brutal demeaning death was the goal of crucifixion. Given the sadistic amusement soldiers demonstrated in the task, it seems “shoddy work” would do little to lessen its affect.
Were the Romans mistaken?
Suetonius, a 1st century Roman historian, said Christ was executed during Pontius Pilate’s reign as governor of Judea (26 – 36 AD). If Jesus was not truly dead, it would mean his executioners failed to do their job and passed on a false report. Since only three people were crucified that day and with multiple soldiers involved in performing executions, this doesn’t seem likely.
The New Testament records that Joseph of Arimathea, a leading member of the Jewish ruling counsel, requested the release of Jesus’ lifeless body from the Romans. Pontius Pilate summoned the centurion in charge of the execution to validate Jesus was dead before releasing it. The centurion confirmed it – he was dead.[vi]
Even if Jesus had somehow survived, the Romans could and would have quickly stopped any resurrection stories. For example, when Theudas (a would-be Jewish prophet) emerged in 44 AD, the Romans killed him, cut off his head and brought it to Jerusalem for display.[vii] It would have been just as easy to do the same with Jesus. Yet, they didn’t.
And what of the guards posted at Jesus’ tomb? To leave your post or allow a prisoner to escape was punishable by death.[viii] If Jesus had merely revived within the tomb, he would not have escaped the Romans.
Were the Jewish authorities mistaken?
The Jewish authorities wanted Pontius Pilate to crucify Jesus. In their view, Jesus was guilty of blasphemy and deserved to die. According to the Babylonian Talmud, they even heralded their intent to have Jesus executed for forty days before it happened.[ix] They were highly motivated to be rid of Jesus and were there to see him killed.
It seems very unlikely that the Jewish ruling council would not have ensured Jesus was dead. Because Jesus had said he would rise from the grave in three days, they even arranged for Roman soldiers to guard the tomb to prevent any resurrection stories from emerging. Mencken didn’t contest this.
In spite of Roman and Jewish precautions, three days later the tomb was empty. The soldiers guarding the tomb were gone, the stone was rolled away and only empty grave clothes were to be found.
Were Jesus’ followers mistaken?
Finally, what about Jesus’ family[x] and followers? If Jesus was still alive and breathing after being crucified, would they not have noticed? They saw him on the cross. They retrieved his dead body from the Romans. They prepared it for burial. They wrapped him in grave clothes. If he were still alive, they would have noticed – dead people don’t breathe and have beating hearts.[xi]
If Jesus didn’t actually rise from the dead, he would have been a pulverized barely-living messiah. However, the Jesus his followers described seeing three days after the crucifixion, while having scars from the nails in his hands and feet and the spear in his side, was far from decrepit – he was alive and healthy.
There is one other thing about which Jesus’ followers would have to have been mistaken – his ascension into heaven. They said they saw it happen some forty days later.[xii] You can’t really be “honestly mistaken” about something like that. Jesus either really disappeared up into the sky or he didn’t. Yet Mencken didn’t call them liars.
Was everyone mistaken?
The idea that Jesus survived a Roman execution and merely thought he had risen from the dead seems to be improbable. However, it’s even more improbable to think his executioners, the Roman and Jewish authorities, and his followers and family were all also mistaken.
Was the resurrection a mistake or planned?
Now for the punchline. Christians point to the Jewish prophets and conclude Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection were not mistakes – they were planned. The apostles Peter and Paul claimed they were deliberately planned by God.[xiii] But, why?
The prophet Isaiah foretold a servant of God being crushed, pierced and killed for the sins of mankind. He would bear the sin of the world and make people righteous. And, death would not be able to hold him.[xiv] He wrote this in about 690 BC. Yet, over 300 years before that, King David of Israel wrote a psalm which Christians say describes Jesus’ crucifixion in incredible detail – the nails in his hands and feet, what he said while on the cross, his oppressors and even the soldiers gambling for his clothing.[xv]
Jesus had told his followers he would die for the sins of the world. He said he would be crucified and rise from the dead three days later. [xvi] He died just as David and Isaiah said he would. Three days later, the tomb was empty – just as Jesus said it would be. He did what he said he would do. This is why Christians celebrate:
“He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”[xvii]
[i] H L Mencken, Treatise on the Gods (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1946), 224. [ii] Julius Paulus, The Opinions of Julius Paulus Addressed to his Son, Title 21, S. P. Scott translator, Roman Civil Law, (Clearwater, FL: R. A. Sites Books, 2014), 207. [iii] Josephus, a 1st century Jewish historian, conveyed that he was able to rescue three acquaintances, who had been crucified by the Romans, from their crosses. Though they were immediately taken down at General Titus’ orders and attended to by physicians, two of the three died. (Josephus, Life of Flavius Josephus, paragraph 75) [iv] Matthew W Maslen and Piers D Mitchell, Medical theories on the cause of death in crucifixion, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 2006, Apr; 99(4): 185-188 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1420788/ [v] Josephus, Wars of the Jews (5.11.1) in Works of Josephus (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988), 720. [vi] Mark 15:42-46. [vii] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews (20.5.1) in Works of Josephus (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988), 531. [viii] Josephus, Wars of the Jews (5.11.5) in Works of Josephus (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988), 722. and Julius Paulus, The Opinions of Julius Paulus Addressed to his Son, Title 31, S. P. Scott translator, Roman Civil Law, (Clearwater, FL: R. A. Sites Books, 2014), 212. [ix] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a [x] Hegesippus, a 2nd century Christian historian, recorded that Jesus’ half-brother James believed Jesus did rise from the dead, was sitting at the right hand of God the Father and would return on the clouds of heaven. James told the Jewish people this before he was stoned to death in Jerusalem in about 65-69 AD. Josephus confirms that James was stoned to death. Hegesippus also recorded that the grandsons of another half-brother of Jesus, Judas (not Judas Iscariot), were turned in by informers and brought before Emperor Domitian. This was during his persecution of Christians in the 90s AD. The grandsons believed Jesus would return in glory at the end of time to judge the living and the dead. After seeing they were just poor farmers, Domitian let them go. Given these accounts, it seems Jesus’ family believed he had risen from the dead and ascended to heaven. [xi] John 19:28-42, Mark 15:33-47 [xii] Luke 24:50-51, Acts 1:1-11 [xiii] Acts 2:14-36, Galatians 1:3-5 [xiv] Isaiah 52:13-53:12 [xv] Psalm 22 [xvi] Matthew 16:21 and 20:17-19, Mark 10:32-34 and Luke 18:18-30 [xvii] 1 John 2:2, Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®
Copyright 2022 by Patrick Prill
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