The image of Jesus’ death is well-known around the world, portrayed in artwork, statues and movies. But are popular conceptions supported by the Bible?
Two years ago I visited Europe and toured some of the greatest museums in the world—particularly the Louvre (in Paris) and the Vatican Museums (in Vatican City). As I perused room after room of art, I was struck by the frequency of one particular theme: the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Though varying slightly by artist and era, nearly all images had certain similarities: Jesus’ arms outstretched on a t-shaped cross with relatively minor wounds (usually a few drops of blood from the crown of thorns and a small wound in His side).
Jesus’ crucifixion is not just an iconic image, it is central to Christianity. But do the images and ideas from art and religion really reflect what the Bible says about His gruesome death? Sadly, many fictions about Christ’s death have crept into modern Christianity. In this article we’ll refer to them as crucifictions.
Crucifiction 1: Jesus definitely died on a t-shaped cross.
Nearly every image of Jesus’ death portrays His arms outstretched, nailed to the crossbeam of a cross. Because of this belief, the image of the cross has become the primary symbol of the Christian religion.
People are often surprised to learn that the Bible doesn’t say Jesus died on a cross.But people are often surprised to learn that the Bible doesn’t say Jesus died on a cross. Now before you do a concordance search and email me about the 28 times the word cross is used in the New Testament, please read on. Remember that the original New Testament books were written mostly in Greek. When referring to the execution instrument, the New Testament writers used the Greek word stauros. Over a thousand years later, translators like John Wycliffe and William Tyndale decided to use the word cross to translate stauros into English.
The problem is that stauros doesn’t mean cross.
Bible lexicons will point out that the literal meaning of the word is an upright stake or a pole. In five other scriptures, Luke and Peter described the device using the word xylon (also transliterated xulon), which literally means tree or wood.
The point is, the New Testament writers didn’t call it a cross—translators did. The original writers used words that describe an upright wooden beam. If Christ was crucified on an upright pole, His arms and hands would have been nailed above His head instead of being outstretched horizontally. But the Bible is not absolutely specific on the shape of the device, which should be a clue that God didn’t intend us to use its shape as a symbol or object of worship.
To learn more about the history of the cross, read our Life, Hope & Truth articles “Is It Okay to Wear a Cross?” and “Should the Cross Symbolize Your Christianity?”
Crucifiction 2: Jesus and the thief went to heaven that day.
This myth is based on a misinterpretation of a statement Jesus made in Luke 23:43. While hanging on a stauros, one of the thieves next to Him recognized the injustice of Jesus’ death sentence and asked Jesus to remember him when He entered His Kingdom (verse 42). Jesus, recognizing there was still hope for this man, replied, as the New King James Version translates it, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (verse 43).
Because of this statement, many people believe the souls of Jesus and the thief ascended to heaven that same day. Interestingly, this idea contradicts another commonly held belief—that Jesus went to hell to preach to sinners after His death. Obviously, both ideas can’t be right. In fact, both of them are wrong.
It is easy to prove that Jesus didn’t go to heaven on that day. Jesus plainly said, three days later after His resurrection, that He had “not yet ascended to My Father [in heaven]” (John 20:17, emphasis added throughout).
The problem with Jesus’ statement to the thief is not His statement, but the assumptions made by translators when they added punctuation years later. So how can this apparent contradiction be solved?
Read it again: “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” Notice, the placement of the comma before today. In the original Greek there are no commas; translators added them later. If instead the comma is placed after today (“Assuredly, I say to you today, you will be with Me in Paradise”), we see that Jesus was at that moment (“today”) saying to the man that in a future resurrection they would be together in paradise—meaning the future rule of Christ on earth.
For a more thorough explanation of this verse, read “Thief on the Cross: What Happened to Him?”
Crucifiction 3: Jesus was crucified on a Friday.
Every year, thousands around the world observe Good Friday to commemorate Jesus’ death. The common belief is that Jesus died late on Friday afternoon, was in the tomb throughout Saturday and was resurrected early on Sunday morning. But this timeline does not fit what Jesus said.
Jesus gave a specific sign as proof that He was the Messiah: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:39-40).
He would be dead, but would rise to life again after three full days entombed in the earth (12 hours of daylight plus 12 hours of nighttime per day multiplied by three days, equaling 72 hours).
But if He died on Friday afternoon and rose on Sunday morning, He did not fulfill this sign because it’s impossible to fit 72 hours in this time frame.
There is a key that many overlook. Most consider the fact that Jesus died before the Sabbath to be proof He died on Friday. But John’s Gospel adds a small detail most ignore: “Therefore, because it was the Preparation Day, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away” (John 19:31).
The Sabbath following Jesus’ death was not a normal weekly Sabbath (Saturday). It was actually a “high day”—an annual Sabbath (Leviticus 23:6-7). This annual Sabbath could fall on other days of the week. When we put all the evidence together, it becomes clear that Jesus was crucified on a Wednesday and rose exactly three days and three nights later.
For more details on how to correctly calculate the time Jesus was in the tomb, read the article in this issue “How Do You Count Three Days and Three Nights?” See also on our website “Sign of Jonah: Did Jesus Die Good Friday, Rise on Easter?” and download our free chart “Chronology of Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection.”
Replace the fictions
The sacrificial death of Jesus Christ is not only the path to forgiveness of our sins, but the starting point of God’s plan of salvation. That is why it is so important we clearly understand it with no fictions attached.
The best place to start is by going to the Gospel accounts and reading what they actually say (Matthew 26-27; Mark 15; Luke 23; John 19). We also recommend you read our articles on the truth and significance of Jesus Christ’s death: “The Crucifixion of Jesus,” “The Greatest Sacrifice Ever” and “Why Jesus Had to Die.”