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Dr. David Ball demonstrates the scourging Jesus went through in the hours before the Crucifixion. Ball used a mannequin in the demonstration during a service at Hartselle's East Highland Baptist Church.
Daily photo by John Godbey
Dr. David Ball demonstrates the scourging Jesus went through in the hours before the Crucifixion. Ball used a mannequin in the demonstration during a service at Hartselle's East Highland Baptist Church.

A broken heart
What actually killed Jesus?
Mississippi doctor says he knows

By Melanie B. Smith
msmith@decaturdaily.com · 340-2468

On a big screen at East Highland Baptist Church in Hartselle, a hammer slammed into a nail, driving it into a man's wrist. The shrill clang of metal on metal rang out in the sanctuary.

A multimedia presentation depicted the old, familiar story of Jesus' crucifixion, which is remembered today on Good Friday.

But this portrayal came with a physician's insight into the human body.

Dr. David Ball said his research has convinced him what actually killed Jesus in a physical sense — and it wasn't suffocation, as was true for most victims of Roman crucifixion.

Using slides of the heart, live music, drama, black light, sound and other special effects to illustrate his lecture, Ball took a Sunday morning audience through the Crucifixion.

Giving a demonstration

He pulled one of several black curtains to reveal a mannequin, its back to the audience. The doctor wielded a Roman-style whip to briefly beat, or scourge, the model. The whip shredded clothing on the dummy in a few seconds, showing its back red like blood.

He called up a volunteer to briefly demonstrate on a cross how Jesus' feet were likely positioned, knees bent. Dr. Russell Ellis strained to stay in the position, his discomfort apparent.

Ball said the scourging and physical distress of hanging for hours took their toll. But Jesus experienced something on his journey to the crucifixion that set up his death, Ball said.

The details in Matthew, Mark and Luke of Simon being conscripted to bear Jesus' cross are telling, according to the doctor. The gospel of John says that Jesus carried his cross, but the other gospels imply he was too weak to complete the task.

The doctor said scholars say victims of crucifixions usually carried the cross piece across their shoulders. Such a timber might have weighed 100 pounds, and with a victim's hands tied to it, he couldn't break a fall, Ball said. Jesus likely damaged his heart muscle when he fell on his chest, according to the doctor.

Ball asserts that Jesus died of a ruptured heart.

'Postmortem' of Jesus?

He said that the gospel accounts from eyewitnesses give a sort of "postmortem" of Jesus' body.

"What God gave us was irrefutable evidence of Jesus' death," the doctor said.

For example:

n Matthew, Mark and Luke report that Jesus shouted and died. Ball said it's impossible for anyone suffocating to shout. But someone suffering a rupture could sense doom and cry out, said the doctor.

nHe said a victim of a bruised heart might be expected, if he or she weren't on bed rest, to exhibit further damage in four to six hours. That's the time span Scriptures record, he said.

nThe doctor said a Roman soldier, who was likely expert at crucifixion, used a spear to ensure Jesus' death, just as a captain of a firing squad in modern times fires a final bullet into a victim's head.

Using a replica of such a spear, Ball showed how an upward thrust could puncture the heart. John recorded that blood and water spilled out, and Ball said the description is important. It showed that Jesus' heart had already stopped beating. Blood from the rupture had filled the pericardium, the sac around the heart, he said. Blood naturally separates into red cells and serum as it sits, so the liquid looked like blood and water.

Such a flow was so different from regular bleeding that John made specific reference to it, the doctor said.

Substantiating accounts

Ball first described his conclusions in a 1989 article published by the Journal of the Mississippi State Medical Association. He said he's not the only one to conclude that Jesus died from a heart rupture. Ball said he wanted to refute an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association claiming that Jesus had basically suffocated.

Ball said that understanding how Jesus died helps substantiate the gospels' accuracy. Showing that Jesus did actually die and not swoon, as some claim, is crucial, the doctor said. Without a legitimate death, there couldn't be a legitimate Resurrection, he said.

"Our Christian faith is based on the reality of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. If Jesus did not do what he said, die on the cross, our faith is in vain," the doctor said in an interview.

Theological ideas about Jesus suffering and dying from taking on the sins of mankind weren't facts that he could study with science, Ball said.

Ball said The Cross Ministry involves a volunteer crew that helps him put on 15 to 20 presentations a year. The ministry accepts only offerings to offset expenses, he said.

The Rev. Walter Blackman, pastor, said Ball helps people in today's visual, callused society better understand what Jesus endured. He said the movie "The Passion of the Christ" showed the suffering, but Ball explains it, helping people get past the familiarity of the Crucifixion.

He said about 550 people saw Sunday's presentation.

Good Friday

Good Friday remembers the day Jesus was crucified. This day is called “good” by Christians because of their belief that Christ’s death on the cross atoned for their sins and restored humankind’s broken relationship with God. Many churches have solemn services of commemoration on this day, often including the Tenebrae service, meaning “darkness” in Latin.

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