I have heard the claim that Jesus never died on the cross many times over the years, in person, in the press, on the web and via social media. Here is my reply.
First it’s important to understand where the question comes from. Occasionally you hear it from people claiming Jesus only ‘swooned’ and revived in the tomb and exited, thus explaining the empty tomb in a way that removes the need for resurrection. It’s not a theory generally pursued much today.
But more often these days, the claim Jesus never died on the cross is asserted strongly by Muslim conversation partners, based on this verse from the Qu’ran 4:157, which includes these words (translated into English):
And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but [another] was made to resemble him to them.
I myself have sometimes raised raised the death of Jesus by crucifixion as a test case when people say that really all religions basically teach the same things.
In this case, I am simply applying the law of non-contradiction. That is, Jesus was either crucified, as the Bible says, or he was not, as the Qu’ran says. (There is a third possibility: that both claims are wrong, for example, if he never existed, which I have previously addressed.)
How do we assess such a claim? One might simply accept the claim of a particular source of revelation and authority. That is, for other reasons, which may be better or worse, you come to trust (i.e. exercise faith) in the claims of the Bible or the Qu’ran on this matter.
However in the public arena, I proceed by making an historical argument. And historical judgments are based on the balance of probabilities, rather than certainties. Since we have no direct access to the past, that is the only way we can proceed.
On that basis, let me summarise why Jesus’ execution by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate can be considered such a secure fact of ancient history.
Firstly, Jesus’ death by crucifixion is multiply attested, by a fair number of ancient sources, both Christian and non-Christian alike.
In regards to Christian sources which mention his death, I list from the first century AD all four canonical Gospels, Acts, Paul’s Epistles, all within the Bible; then Ignatius’ Epistles (dating around 110 AD, for example, his Letter to the Symrnaeans, chapters 1 and 2). Many, if not all, of these sources are independent.
Here’s one example I focused on recently in preaching through Mark (usually dated as the earliest Gospel). The narrative in Mark 15:44-45 makes it clear Jesus really was dead. The history books record that men who were crucified sometimes took two or three days to die. A more rapid death was unusual. So in this case, the governor Pilate gets the expert executioner to confirm the death certificate! The observation that Roman centurions were professional soldiers and didn’t make mistakes is well taken. So satisfied, Pilate permitted the body of Jesus to be buried.
By the way, there was a very low probability of surviving execution by crucifixion. Apparently there is only one extant account (in Josephus) of one person surviving crucifixion out of the hundreds reported in ancient literature. (And that case was only when excellent medical care was immediately provided by the Romans, and even so, only one out of three who were so rescued actually survived!)