What Christ Suffered in the Passion

A medical doctor details Jesus’ torture and death on Good Friday.

Jan Snellinck, “The Crucifixion With the Two Thieves,” bet. 1597 and 1638
Jan Snellinck, “The Crucifixion With the Two Thieves,” bet. 1597 and 1638 (photo: Public Domain)

What might have caused Jesus the greatest physical suffering during his passion? How did he emotionally suffer? How does his suffering relate to us today? During Holy Week and the Triduum, as we meditate on Christ’s passion, the faithful might have these and related questions about what Jesus endured for our salvation.

To help people understand Christ’s suffering better and know how and why they can join their own suffering with Christ’s, in 2020, Dr. Thomas McGovern, a dermatologist and surgeon, wrote What Christ Suffered: A Doctor’s Journey Through the Passion.

His expertise on the Passion is considered the most precise and up-to-date understanding of what Jesus suffered. Listeners to EWTN Radio are already familiar with McGovern, who has been a regular co-host on Doctor, Doctor since 2019. He is also an adviser on the National Catholic Medical Association Board and a Knight of the Holy Sepulchre.

McGovern has made some significant and surprising discoveries in his years of research. His interest in the Passion began to take root while he was a medical student, and now, as a physician, he describes the excruciating process of crucifixion in detail.

 

Profound Physical Suffering

“Probably the scourging was the greatest suffering,” he said during a Holy Week conversation with the Register. A number of the older writers get this part wrong in regards Roman scourging, such as saying there were pieces of bone on the scourges. “Romans used lead balls and pear-shaped pieces of lead,” McGovern said, explaining, “The ancient flagellum [a short whip] found in the catacombs have bronze metal handles,” and at the ends and along their leather straps were the pieces of metal that hit the inflicted person. “That will hurt incredibly.”

McGovern described how one Roman soldier was on either side of Jesus, each with the flagellum. “Stripes came from both” — first one, then the other. “The evidence is there. There is no better explanation of the Shroud” [of Turin, which he definitely believes is the burial cloth of Jesus].

“There are over 200 [marks] on the back and 160 on the chest, and that was only where the blood was drawn,” he said. There were many more scourges because “initially it would soften the skin and bruise it.” 

“Then came contusions, which would not show [on the Shroud of Turin]. Only the places that bled showed. After repeated hitting,” there could be open, bloody wounds. And blood would also be lost inside the body and contribute to “circulatory shock.”

McGovern also pointed out the ribs are lined with a thin layer of skin and lots of sensitive nerves. Because severe pain increases consumption of oxygen, breathing becomes rapid, and as the rib cage expands, meeting those sensitive nerves, it would cause excruciating pain.

“It becomes a double-edge sword,” he explained, adding that shallow breaths ease the pain but decrease the oxygen the body needs. “You start to go into shock. Your body doesn’t have the blood it needs, and then you get lightheaded because it’s harder to get blood up to the brain.” The body is forced to breathe rapidly or more deeply, which increases the unbearable pain.

At the same time, the trauma to the chest also breaks small blood vessels in the lungs, and that blood goes into the space between the lungs and chest cavity. Along with losing blood outside the body from lacerations inflicted by the flagellum’s metal balls, there would be blood loss inside the body as well as outside the body.

McGovern pointed out that the scourging was usually done as the condemned were on their way to crucifixion. For Jesus to have been given such a severe scourging first suggests that Pilate intended this to be his punishment, not crucifixion (Luke 23:16).

Then, in the mocking of Jesus, McGovern drew attention especially to the Roman soldiers striking Jesus on the head with a reed (Mark 15:19; Matthew 27:30). The faithful might imagine a palm branch or a thin piece of vegetation, the doctor said. But he corrected that impression: “The reed they struck him with was not a flimsy thing.” The Bible uses the word kalamo, identifying a reed that “grows 30 feet tall and is wood, like bamboo. The reed is like a hard and heavy cue stick, or bamboo stick. And when striking him on the head, the reed is driving in the Crown of Thorns, causing excruciating pain. The Crown of Thorns is covering his head [not like a circle but] like a cap.” 

Jesus had suffered horribly up to this point.

Unlike other examinations, McGovern has studied original sources, read everything from 300 B.C. onward about crucifixion, and visited and studied in the Holy Land and elsewhere. In one instance, after working with a pulmonary and cardiology expert, he can refute the popular theory that Jesus died of suffocation, such as French surgeon Pierre Barbet popularized in his book A Doctor at Calvary in the mid-1950s. Barbet based his theory on a torture used in World War I by the Germans called aufbinden, meaning “to untie.” Victims’ wrists were tied together behind their backs, rope tied to a beam, and the feet raised off the floor. These victims would call out aufbinden because of the strain on their muscles and breathing. In half an hour the victims suffocated as their muscles froze into cramps. Barbet posited this torture replicated crucifixion.

McGovern refutes this theory in detail in his book, highlighting the Gospel account from St. Luke: “Jesus cried out in a loud voice at the moment of death” (Luke 23:46). McGovern related: “No one can yell if they are suffocating to death. If Jesus died of suffocation, how did he holler, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit?’ You can’t do those things if you are suffocating.”

From his extensive research, McGovern believes traumatic shock was a main factor in how Jesus died.

In simple terms, he had significant loss of fluids from major external and internal bleeding on Good Friday from the severe scourging and the beatings, including from the night before. Added to loss of fluids was his profuse sweating. McGovern goes into detail in his book, explaining how the probable cause of Jesus’ dying was fatal heart rhythm. “Arrhythmia called ventricular tachycardia is the likely factor,” the physician explained. 

Contributing factors, then, were the severe scourging and shock, he underscored. McGovern makes clear that, with this type of arrhythmia, Jesus would not have passed out. But from the sudden slowdown of his heart, Jesus would know he was about to die — allowing him time to speak. 

 

Great Emotional Suffering

Of course, there was great emotional suffering that Jesus went through previously, in the Garden of Gethsemane, McGovern explained. “Jesus said, ‘Father, let this cup pass from me.’ He saw what was coming. It was scary, and he experienced that.” However, during the agony, he “embraced” it. 

McGovern shared steps in embracing this trial, referring to Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Kevin Majeres, including awareness: “Jesus felt it so intensely it bled out of him as blood and sweat came out of his skin.” He was “feeling anguish to the full,” as shown in “hemtidirosis,” an extremely rare condition of the sweating of blood, which can happen when a person is facing death or other life-threatening instances of stress. McGovern also described how, when Jesus was arrested in the garden, unlike all the others present, he is the only one “in total peace, giving himself in the serenity that is so entirely majestic. He sees it from the Father’s eyes, sees the horrible anguish, and then he is ready to completely give himself. After the arrest, there is an incredible transformation. He doesn’t answer; he doesn’t argue. Talk about meekness, which is strength under control, calm control! He could have had 12 legions of angels” but did not ask for them. 

He gave himself completely out of love for us.

 

Joining With Jesus

“People often ask, ‘Why am I suffering?’” continued McGovern. They ask questions such as: “Where is God in the starving children; in the tragedy of 9/11; in those dying and fleeing in Ukraine?” 

“There is no good answer. Looking at Christ on the cross, it begins to take on meaning,” the doctor said.

Looking at the Passion and Jesus’ sufferings, McGovern offers insights and guidance, referencing St. John Paul II’s apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris (The Christian Meaning of Human Suffering). In part, the Pope recalls St. Paul writing to the Colossians (1:24), “… and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.” John Paul II explains, “Christ wishes to be united with every individual, and in a special way he is united with those who suffer. … For, whoever suffers in union with Christ — just as the Apostle Paul bears his ‘tribulations’ in union with Christ — not only receives from Christ that strength already referred to but also ‘completes’ by his suffering ‘what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.’… No man can add anything to it [the sufferings of Christ]. But at the same time, in the mystery of the Church as his Body, Christ has in a sense opened his own redemptive suffering to all human suffering. In so far as man becomes a sharer in Christ's sufferings — in any part of the world and at any time in history — to that extent he in his own way completes the suffering through which Christ accomplished the Redemption of the world.”

John Paul II adds, “Does this mean that the Redemption achieved by Christ is not complete? No … the Redemption which has already been completely accomplished is, in a certain sense, constantly being accomplished.”

Reflecting on the Pope’s words, McGovern said because Christ redeemed the human person thorough suffering, “We can also use our suffering to redeem other people. That’s how we exercise our priesthood. I can offer my suffering for the salvation of some other person. That effects eternity. Once we realize that, why would we not use that power?”

McGovern underlined, “When we’re suffering and don’t know what to do, one of the best things to do is look at Jesus on the cross. As St. John Paul II says, ‘The meaning of suffering is redemption.’”

 

Duccio’s ‘Pentecost’ (1308)

Pray the Pentecost Novena

The prayer recalls and invites Catholics to participate in the nine days that the Blessed Virgin Mary and the apostles spent in prayer after Christ ascended into heaven.