Jesus’s crucifixion.

Ever bang your funny bone? That’s the ulnar nerve. The equivalent in the leg is the tibial nerve.

About 26 to 24 centuries ago, humans in the middle east figured out the most painful way to kill someone: Take four nails. Put one through each of these nerves. Then hang a victim, by these nails, from whatever—a wall, a tree, a pole, a cross.

If you stretch out their limbs, it’ll squeeze their lungs. They’ll find it extremely hard to breathe. Can’t inhale unless they actually push themselves up by their pierced ankles, and pull themselves up by their pierced wrists. And each pull feels like they’ve taken these nerves and crushed them with a hammer, all over again.

Leave ’em like that, to die slowly, by asphyxiation. It might take all day. Multiple days, if the person has a strong enough will to live. But they’ll die eventually, in agony. There’s no real way to stop the constant pain. It’s so intense, Latin-speakers had invented a new word to describe it: Excruciare, from which we get our word excruciating.


Crucifixion (Распятие), by Nikolai Ge, 1892. Note the victims on either side of the center guy, pulling themselves up to breathe. Pretty nasty. Gallerix

The earliest records we have of crucifixion, Persians were doing it. Haman in Esther, fr’instance: He built a 50-cubit עֵץ֮/ech, “wood” or “tree,” probably a pole, to crucify Mordecai upon. Es 7.9 The KJV calls it a gallows, but that’s ’cause its translators thought crucifixion was a Roman thing. Nope. In fact crucifixion probably predates even the Persians.

But Romans were definitely known for crucifixion. Not just because of Jesus: The Romans made crucifixion their thing. It’s so nasty, Romans forbade it to be used on their own citizens—but exactly like Americans’ attitudes about torture, the Romans figured foreigners were fair game: Mess with the Roman Empire and you’ll suffer the very worst form of death possible. But as usual, terrifying people doesn’t actually deter insurrection and crime, ’cause insurgents and criminals never expect to get caught. All crucifixion actually did was horrify the law-abiding subjects under Roman rule—“What kind of sick animals do this kind of thing to other people?”—and make ’em hate Romans all the more. (Americans, pay attention.)

Christian art has stylized and toned down crucifixion a lot. The average crucifix isn’t historically accurate at all, and not just ’cause Jesus isn’t white. Because present-day people have never seen an actual Roman-style crucifixion; they’ve seen Jesus movies and passion plays. (Maybe they’ve seen terrorists on the news crucify Christians, but the terrorists do it wrong too.) So Jesus is depicted with nails through the palms of his hands, with one nail spiking through the top of both feet, usually into a little platform.

“But wait, isn’t that how Luke describes Jesus—with nail-scars in his hands and feet?” Lk 24.39-40 Yeah, when you interpret Luke too literally. Jesus’s χεῖράς/heirás, “hands,” and πόδας/pódas, “feet,” refer to the general areas of his hands and feet, which include his wrists and ankles.

Because had they nailed Jesus by his hands and feet, the nails wouldn’t have held up a body. The weight of the body would rip right through his hands and feet. That’s why so many Jesus movies add ropes; the thinking is the ropes held him up while the nails were there for extra torment. Sometimes the thieves crucified with Jesus are depicted as only tied by ropes—no nails for them—so Jesus suffers worse than they. But ropes would defeat the purpose of crucifixion: Now the victim’s weight would rest on the ropes, not the nails, and they’d suffer less, and wouldn’t struggle to breathe. Archaeology doesn’t match the ropes idea either.

Likewise Christian art tends to put Jesus in a loincloth, for modesty’s sake. But loincloths were impractical: Victims would soil themselves quickly. Crucifixion hurts so bad, you don’t care about other bodily functions. Even if you did, they weren’t taking you down for bathroom breaks. So for practical reasons, victims were crucified buck naked. Not to humiliate them; Romans, and most pagans, didn’t mind nudity. You’ve seen their statues.

A horrible way to go.

Since God has ultimate control of history—including the place, time, and death of the Son—you gotta wonder why he was willing to involve crucifixion. Of all the ways to go, it’s the worst we humans have ever invented. Why was Jesus willing to die that way?

Most of us Christians figure God chose crucifixion because it’s so awful. Sin and death needed to be destroyed, and deserved to be destroyed in the worst way possible. Well, that’d be crucifixion.

It also makes a big statement of how much grace God offers the world. We killed Jesus in the nastiest way, yet he forgives us. If God’s grace can overcome such an unjust, horrible death, surely it can overcome anything.

More than that: Because Jesus died by crucifixion, it spurred us humans to finally stop crucifying one another. (Well, not finally. Antichrists, when they wanna terrorize Christians, find it amusing to crucify us. But other than making sick statements against our religion, other societies don’t use it.) We finally saw how terrible it is, by virtue of our Lord, his apostles, and many of his followers dying that way. We realized we mustn’t do that to one another, no matter how much a person might deserve death.

And loads of us have also applied that to the death penalty in general. Many Christian countries got rid of it altogether (though it sure took ’em long enough). In countries which still permit it, like the United States, we try to make our executions humane, as painless as possible. Despite all the vengeance-minded folks outside who’d love to watch the convicts suffer, and who wouldn’t mind at all if we brought crucifixion back.

Lastly, in dying a slow death, Jesus had time to demonstrate for us how to die as a martyr. Not passively: Jesus actively refused the nasty stuff they offered him to drink. (Mark calls it wine and myrrh, meant to be medicinal; Matthew wine and bile, meant to make you puke; Luke and John wine vinegar, or really old wine.) But the gospels describe him speaking to various people from the cross, to offer them grace, forgiveness, and comfort. Not wrath, not cursing and damning his killers and persecutors, threatening them with destruction as soon as he was back from the dead, or took possession of his kingdom. We’d do that. Jesus wouldn’t, and didn’t.

Regardless of the circumstances, regardless of the torture, Jesus bore it with as much peace and self-control as he could muster. His was a noble death. And if we must ever go through anything like it—’cause you never know—may we be Christlike.