What Exactly Is Crucifixion?

John 19:16-18 – “So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. Here they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them.”

Although Jesus loved children, fed the hungry, befriended the marginalized, healed the sick, encouraged the downhearted, and rebuked the religiously self-righteous, the light of Scripture shines most clearly on the final week of his life and his work of atonement through the cross and empty tomb. In total, the four Gospels, which faithfully record his life, devote roughly one-third of their content to the climactic final week of Jesus’ life leading up to the cross. While only two Gospels mention Jesus’ birth, and each speaks sparsely of his resurrection, all four Gospels give great attention to the final week leading up to Jesus’ cross. In fact, John’s Gospel devotes roughly half of its content to that week.

Perhaps most peculiar is the fact that the symbol for Jesus, which has become the most famous symbol in all of history, is the cross. While the early church embraced several symbols, including the fish and the loaf, the cross has always symbolized the believer’s connection with the death of Jesus. The church father Tertullian (155–230) tells us of the early practice of believers making the sign of the cross over their bodies with their hand and adorning their necks and homes with crosses to celebrate the brutal death of Jesus.

The ancient Jewish historian Josephus called crucifixion “the most wretched of deaths.” [1] The ancient Roman philosopher Cicero asked that decent Roman citizens not even speak of the cross because it was too disgraceful a subject for the ears of decent people. [2] The Jews also considered crucifixion the most horrific mode of death, as Deuteronomy 21:22–23 says: “If a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.”

Crucifixion was likely invented by the Persians around 500 B.C. and continued until it was outlawed by the first Christian Roman emperor Constantine around AD 300. Although crucifixion was created by the Persians, it was perfected by the Romans, who reserved it as the most painful mode of execution for the most despised people, such as slaves, poor people, and Roman citizens guilty of the worst high treason.

The pain of crucifixion is so horrendous that a word was invented to explain it—excruciating—which literally means “from the cross.” The pain of crucifixion is due in part to the fact that it is a prolonged and agonizing death by asphyxiation. Crucified people could hang on the cross for days, passing in and out of consciousness as their lungs struggled to breathe, while laboring under the weight of their body. It was not uncommon for those being crucified to slump on the cross in an effort to empty their lungs of air and thereby hasten their death.

None of this was done in dignified privacy but rather in open, public places. It would be like nailing a bloodied, naked man above the front entrance to your local mall. Crowds would gather around the victims to mock them as they sweated in the sun, bled, and became incontinent from the pain that could last many days. Once dead, the victim was not given a decent burial but rather left on the cross for vultures to pick apart from above while dogs chewed on the bones that fell to the ground, even occasionally taking a hand or foot home as a chew toy, according to ancient reports. Whatever remained of the victim would eventually be thrown in the garbage and taken to the dump unless his family buried it.

Not only was crucifixion excruciatingly painful and publicly shameful, it was also commonly practiced. Tens of thousands of people were crucified in the ancient world. For example, when Spartacus died in battle, 6,000 of his followers were crucified in one day. They were lined up along a road that stretched for 120 miles, not unlike the shoulder of a modern freeway.

On the day Jesus was crucified, two men were hung with him, one on each side. One man rejected Jesus and went to hell. One man received Jesus and went to heaven. These are the only options.

Have you rejected Jesus and are going to hell or have you received Jesus so you can go to heaven?


[1]Wilbur M. Smith, The Incomparable Book (Minneapolis, Minn.: Beacon, 1961), 9–10.

[2]J. Dwight Pentecost, Prophecy for Today (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1971), 14–15.

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