Do we pass on more error than we realize?

In every culture, stories are begun (and go on to prosper) because they explain something important to us. In Christian circles, it’s often the best sermon illustrations that are passed on, from one to another. But I’ve come across two illustrations that preachers regularly use that are untrue. What should we make of them?

Paraplegics and lottery winners

The first example involves a reasonably famous illustration about the happiness of paraplegics and lottery winners. In the illustration, a study has supposedly found that one year after winning the lottery and one year after the accident that caused the paralysis, both paraplegics and lottery winners are equally happy.

However, if you read the original study (PDF), you’ll find that that’s not what it says. In the study, a group of lottery winners were interviewed between one month and 18 months after their win, and a group of paraplegics were interviewed between one month and 12 months after their accident. They were asked to rate how happy they were at this stage in their life on a scale from 0 to 5, where 0 was “not at all” and 5 was “very much”.

The average score for the lottery winners was 4.00 and the average for the paraplegics was 2.96. As the study points out, the level for the paraplegics was surprisingly high (being above the mid-point in the scale). But that’s not the point. Somewhere along the line, someone has decided to simplify the facts for the purpose of the illustration. But how much can you simplify the facts before they are distorted? I struggle to see, given the timing of the original interviews, how the data can be interpreted to describe what people felt like 12 months after the event. And I find it even harder to swallow how a happiness rating of 4.00 is effectively the same as one of 2.96. (I am not aware of any statistically credible way of saying that this difference is negligible.)

Now, on this one, you can hardly blame the preachers. If you look at wikipedia’s Psychwiki article on the Hedonic Treadmill, you will find the same study referred to and explained like this:

Lottery winners, for example, may experience an initial emotional high, but report about the same level of happiness they previously held after time passed. Similarly, paraplegics reported below average levels of happiness for about two months on average after the accident but eventually returned to the set point they previously held.

This isn’t what the study showed. But the desire to make it say what we want it to say is very strong—for Christian and non-Christian alike!

The death of Christ

But my other example is particularly Christian. I have heard many times now that Jesus died on the cross from asphyxiation. Apparently the weight of his body dragged him down, crushing his lungs and making it impossible to breath, so that Jesus had to raise himself up in agony, pushing on the nails in his feet, to take another breath.

It’s a breathtaking story (sorry). But it isn’t true.

The asphyxiation theory was proposed by a Frenchman called Pierre Barbet, in his 1953 book A Physician at Calvary. But a whole series of experiments (involving people tied to crosses, not nailed) by Frederick Zugibe (Chief Medical Examiner for Rockland County, New York, for 33 years) has shown that it is only possible to be asphyxiated if your hands are nailed above your head. (You can read his conclusions at the bottom of this page). If Jesus was crucified on a normal, cross-shaped cross, then he didn’t die from asphyxiation. He could breath the whole time. I am not saying that crucifixion wasn’t miserable; I’m just saying he didn’t die by asphyxiation.

Questions and reflections

Now, I have to confess that I’m not sure quite what to do with all of this information, and I look forward to your thoughts. But here are some of my questions and reflections:


  1. What drives human beings to approximate the data to suit their own conclusions? Why do we want to say that the paraplegic and the lottery winner were exactly the same, when clearly they weren’t? Is it that the speed of communication or the ease of communication keeps trumping the importance of truth?
  2. But perhaps this is the bigger question for me: how often and how much do I gild the lily in my apologetics and preaching for the sake of bolstering my point?
  3. Why do we pass on the information about Jesus being asphyxiated? It isn’t related anywhere in Scripture, so it’s not really important is it? If you go and read the original chapter by Barbet, you’ll see that it was part of his explanation of the love of Jesus—that he raised himself up in agony to breathe so that he could talk to his disciples. So how did this idea enter evangelical folklore?
  4. Should, therefore, preachers check their illustrations regularly before they use them? Or is life too short, with these sorts of discrepancies not mattering much after all?


Whether we like it or not, the parts of our sermons that get passed on most often are the illustrations. They rapidly become part of our folklore because the illustrations are the part of the preaching that captures our imaginations. This tells us something significant about communication. But if this is true, it also leads to a sobering conclusion: perhaps the facts of the text—the things that God most wants us to hear—are not always the things that are most easily passed on. All the more reason for preachers to work hard on communicating what the text puts in front of us, and all the more reason for congregations to keep reading the text.

22 thoughts on “Do we pass on more error than we realize?

  1. My favourite is the poor shepherd boy/young soldier from Scotland/Wales/the battlefields of Europe who was found dead clutching his ring finger after being taught the Lord is MY shepherd using the five fingers on his hand.

  2. Paul, I’m a detail man, so of course I think the details matter. But more importantly, I want to be a truth man.

    So I think we should be careful to quote accurately and to represent research accurately.

    Sometimes we have to summarise. But we should be very wary about passing on the sort of ‘research results’ we hear from others without checking the source.

    And if someone corrects us, then it’s important to take it on board.

    I once used the illustration from Kim Hawtrey’s Pocket Guide to Christianity tract about how going to church doesn’t make you a Christian, but that believing always implies belonging in the Bible. As he said, “A ‘Christian’ without a church is like a bee without a hive: unthinkable.” So I expanded that the hive does not make the bee a bee, but that a bee can’t stay very healthy if it gets disconnected from its hive.

    Immediately a bloke came up after and told me that some species of bees (including some Aussie native bees) are solitary, which sort of took the wind out of my sails.

    I’m sure most of the others got exactly what I was talking about, but ever since, I’ve specified common honey bees when using that illustration!

    Accuracy or precision often only costs me an extra word or two.

  3. Thank you for this thoughtful post. I agree with Sandy – I think it’s really important that we show as evangelicals that we value the truth. If part of a sermon is clearly urban myth, then it makes it much easier to dismiss the biblical content as myth too. I think this is particularly key in apologetics – if our whole aim is to proclaim and defend the truth we kind of ought to be sure that our arguments and illustrations are watertight. I know that as a science student I’m guilty at times in my evangelism of deploying potted philosophy or theology that I don’t really understand to try and sound like I’ve done my research, and I guess this must really grate if anyone I’m talking to knows what they’re talking about… and conversely I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve sat in evangelistic events where an otherwise excellent talk has rather lost my confidence because of erroneously deployed “scientific evidence” by a well-meaning arts-and-humanities-educated preacher… I guess what I’m saying is that I do think it’s worth doing the extra checks on sources etc.

  4. I’m sorry I can’t find the original article, but a few weeks ago I read in the Herald that it is not true that Arthur Stace was illiterate and taught himself to write after his conversion, because his application to join the army, written in his youth, has been discovered.

    I saw a picture of this myself. His writing was not quite as beautiful as the stylised Eternity we all know and love, but it was his own hand-written application, the article said.

  5. Thanks, Paul – I’m trying not to remember whether I’ve used the asphyxiation one recently.

    I learned early on to be careful about recording and checking my sources, after a very embarrassing moment at the first houseparty I ever spoke on, where my ignorance was well and truly exposed. Since then, I’ve always tried to check things, so I can at least be up front about how reliable the information seems to be, and I footnote my sermons with sources – both for my benefit, and so I have it there if someone asks or challenges me.

    And getting back to the asphyxiation thing:

    Why do we pass on the information about Jesus being asphyxiated?

    I think a valid reason to want to give this kind of detail is in order to communicate something of the horrific agony and cruelty of crucifixion. If Martin Hengel is right, the Gospel writers didn’t have to get across the horror, because crucifixion was so common and widespread in the ancient world that the emotional associations of agony and humiliation were deeply entrenched in people’s minds. Given that we have never seen a crucified slave at the side of the road, I think it’s appropriate to fill in factual details to try to generate some of the emotional impact … as long as those details are factual, of course!

    (Did you like the subtle reference to my source?)

  6. Hi Matt,

    Thanks for the link. However, I don’t think the paper says what you want it to say. If you look at what the Mayo clinic MDs wrote about asphyxiation, you’ll find that the source he quotes is actually the original 1953 paper by Barbet. They didn’t do any original research, they just quoted what Barbet originally said. But that doesn’t mean the jury is still out.

    The point of Zugibe’s research is that once you actually put someone on a cross, you find that it doesn’t affect their breathing at all.

    What the link shows is an interesting phenomenon that occurs in our ‘scientific’ world. Many scientists (just like the rest of us) don’t check their sources. Particularly if they say what we want them to say.


  7. @Stephen,

    You take subtle to a whole new level!

    Yep, the Hengel thing is interesting isn’t it? I still have questions though. I think particular about the agony versus humiliation. Humiliation I fully appreciate (and the rest of the NT testifies to it as well – that’s why the preaching of the cross is so foolish). But agony? I think the jury is still out for me.

    (Not, BTW, that I think that crucifixion is pain free. I’m just not completely convinced that the physical agony stands even close to front and centre in the biblical presentation).


  8. Thanks for the article Grimmo.  Like many others, I have at least held the view of Jesus’ asphyxiation, although I’m not sure whether I’ve preached it or not. 

    Quick question on the suffocating though – I’m not sure I get the step from Jesus dying on a ‘normal-shaped’ cross to his hands not being able too be below his head when he we upright on the cross.  Doesn’t this assume that his arms were fully out-stretched on the cross as he was nailed to it?  Is that a valid assumption to make?

    Am I missing something?

  9. Hi Paul,

    Thanks for pointing out the ashpyxiation doubts. I have used this idea in general in lectures, primarily on the basis of the Joel Green’s article in DJG (which states that victims died either of shock or asphyxiation). Looking at it now, it appears there might be significant “wiggle-room” in that statement. I might contact Joel and see what he has to say.

  10. @Dan,

    Hi Dan, sorry that I haven’t explained it clearly. Basically if you were crucified on a pole with your hands directly over your head, apparently that can lead to asphyxiation but when with your hands and arms are out at right angles (as it would be on a normal cross) people have no problems breathing.


  11. Grimmo – I think I was the one not being clear.  Apologies

    My query was about the assumption that a normal cross shape would lead to a person being crucified with their arms at right angles from their body.  Basically, could a person be on a ‘normal’ cross but be fastened to it in such a way that their arms above their head in a V-like manner?  Does that still count as ‘right angles’?  Would asphyxiation still be impossible then?

  12. It is very curious that the biblical writers say nothing about the physical pain of crucifixion but there is little doubt that the public perception of crucifixion in the first century was of profound agony. Seneca is a good witness writing at the time of Paul: “Can anyone be found who would prefer wasting away in pain dying limb by limb, or letting out his life drop by drop, rather than expiring once for all? Can any man be found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree, long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly weals on shoulders and chest, and drawing the breath of life amid long-drawn-out agony? He would have many excuses for dying even before mounting the cross.” Epistles 101.14. Then there is the evidence that executioners frequently crucified victims in unusual positions in order to heighten the spectacle; even nailing men through the genitals.

  13. @Dan,

    I get it now! If you follow the link under ‘Frank Zugibe’ above, then you’ll find all the details. But his experiments basically involved people’s arms being tied on the normal cross and then them sagging down until their head was well below their hands. There were no issues breathing. To quote from him:

    “In the first scenario, the Austro-German observations are only applicable if the crucarius was crucified with no feet support and the hands directly, or slightly separated above the head and not at 65 to 70 degrees with the stipes. Even Barbet postulated that the arms were at about 65 degrees”


  14. OK, Paul, you’ve got me thinking on the “agony in the biblical presentation of the cross” question. My initial reaction was to say: “No, it’s not front centre, but it was part of the package in the 1st century concept of crucifixion, so it’s appropriate to present it as such.”

    But on reflection, I think I want to push you harder. I’d argue (until you convince me otherwise) that the physical agony of the cross is part of the biblical presentation, if you look at the idea of suffering in connection with the death of Jesus. It would take a much more thorough investigation than I’m going to do right now, but even glancing through references to “suffering” in 1 Peter, it strikes me how often he refers to the sufferings of the Christ (e.g. 1:11; 4:13; 5:1). The references in chs. 2 and 3 particularly strike me:

    (1) In 2:18-25, as he deals with the issue of the believer who suffers unjustly, he focuses for several verses on the way in which Christ suffered (and did so “for us”). This has to refer most of all, if not exclusively, to his experience leading up to and including the cross (especially given the Isaiah 53 allusions). Surely he’s referring at least to the physical agony of Jesus’ manner of death (even if there’s more to it)?

    And so when, in v.24, he talks about how Christ “bore our sins in his body on the tree”, it seems to me that the physical agony he endured was PART OF his “bearing our sins in his body”. If that’s the case, the agony of crucifixion is absolutely front centre.

    (2) The references to Christ’s suffering in 3:18 and 4:1 are in the context of the same theme (the believer’s suffering). The phrases Peter uses are very interesting: “Christ also suffered for sins once for all” (rather than simply “died for sins”), and “Christ suffered in the flesh” (thus putting an end to sin).

    Peter’s language pushed me back to Jesus’ predictions of his impending suffering and death in the Synoptic Gospels. Is it significant that Jesus mentions his suffering separately to his subsequent death (e.g. Luke 9:22)? And surely the agony of crucifixion itself was the climax of the “many things” he suffered?

    I think all this pushes me to say that the physical agony of crucifixion is sometimes pretty close to front centre in the biblical presentation, and that the physical pain was part of the way in which Jesus bore the punishment for our sins.

    Or is that going too far?

  15. Hi Paul and friends,

    I chatted with Joel Green (by email), and he is of the opinion that we simply cannot know for sure how Jesus died. However, he still believes, after reviewing the medical and historical evidence, that asphyxiation is one option that is possible. So it appears I overread him as saying that asphyxiation was the the likely method, but it appears the opposite conclusion, that it is definitely untrue, may be too strong a conclusion.

    For a similar conclusion from a medical perspective, see this article from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (, which subtly critiques a range of proposals, including Zugibe’s. It could well be important that in fixing one error (relying too much on Barbet), we don’t commit a second error and rely too heavily on Zugibe.

    So I have been helped to now nuance my presentations on the death of Jesus – all good!

    In terms of why people like myself have been using the asphyxiation theory – my main motive is not to make some deep symbolic or theological point, but rather to outline to students the prolonged nature of death when one is crucified. I think it helps to fill out the communicative context of the Bible to know that crosses were not only about killing people – they were about killing people in a humiliating, degrading and oftentimes slow fashion. There are, after all, easier and less expensive ways to make people die. It seems I have to be more careful how I fill in the details, and particularly I need to acknowledge more ambiguity than I have done in the past.

    As to the question of people being hoodwinked or misled over this – that seems a tough call. After all, Green’s DJG article mentions asphyxiation as a possibility, and just for kicks, I picked up David Seccombe’s book “The king of God’s kingdom” and he also implies a kind of asphyxiation theory as well. So you could well have used the illustration with multiple footnotes from reputable scholars and still have got it somewhat wrong. This is always going to happen to some degree. We need to wear our learning lightly, and we need to teach our congregations that our historical judgements are often provisional.

    Let me give you another example. As a scholar of the book of Revelation, I am sure most pastors still hold to the theory of a large-scale persecution under Domitian. Now my research strongly suggests that datum is not true, but when I hear it spoken about, I can’t always blame the pastor, given the amount of scholarship that has embraced the theory at one time or another. The lesson is perhaps that if we stay open to correction, and learn from one another, we will hopefully make less mistakes.

  16. @Mark,

    Thanks for your comments, the journal article you cite was very helpful. I think I’m still strongly inclined to say that asphyxiation is extremely doubtful, but your point is well made.

    On the hoodwinked question, I wasn’t trying to say that anyone has been malicious. And I perfectly understand that preachers don’t get to check everything they read in books. That’s also why I included the first example where lots of secular people have missed the point of the original study. I think it’s part of being human.

    So I wasn’t trying to have too strong a go at anyone (I am guilty too)! But I do want to point again to my reflections. I think it is an encouragement to keep working away at the text and be making sure that as preachers, the text is front and centre.

    Thanks so much for taking the time to interact, it’s been really helpful for me.

    In Christ,
    Paul G.

  17. @Stephen,

    Yep, your points about 1Peter in particular are well taken (and also Is 53, which obviously lies in the background here is important for that argument as well).

    My next question, I think, would be about the difference in the way that we think about suffering. Do we, because we have watched too many episodes of CSI, need suffering spelt out in its brutal, forensic detail in order for us to get it in a way that the ancients didn’t? (This is a genuine question).

    My other question would be about the point of the emphasis on sufferings. Do Isaiah and Peter speak about the sufferings in fairly generic ways because Christ is seen not as going through a specific kind of agony, but because he is sharing the many and varied sufferings of all mankind?

    Interested to hear your thoughts.


  18. Concerning dodgy illustrations, I was once in a church where the speaker announced that next week he was going to tell us the amazing story of how scientists found Joshua’s long day.

    This is a hoary myth that has been debunked conclusively, but a favourite for some, because it proves that the Bible is true.

    I provided him with the information that it is completely untrue, but he went ahead with it, presumably because it seems to be such a great story.

  19. Dodgy illustrations. Don’t get me started. What about that string of dubious stories in Chap 3 (‘Stranger than Fiction’) of that 1996 Matthias Media book, A Hell of a Life ….

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