The Taking of Christ, Caravaggio, c. 1602 (Wikimedia Commons)

What It’s Like to Teach the Science of the Crucifixion

by Alyssa Burlingame ’19

Each semester, Cahleen Shrier, Ph.D., a professor in Azusa Pacific’s Department of Biology and Chemistry, presents a lesson like no other. Her General Biology 1 students learn about the science of the crucifixion, a lecture Shrier has given for the past 20 years. Focusing on the physiological components of Christ’s crucifixion, what Shrier teaches offers a window into the suffering Jesus experienced and the depth of the sacrifice made on the cross. We talked to Shrier about what it’s been like to teach this subject matter for two decades.

What compelled you to first teach this subject in your biology classes?

At the time, the chair of my department, Les Eddington, and another professor, David Cherney, Ph.D., had been exploring this topic, and they handed me a couple of index cards with resources outlined on them. They asked me if it was something I would be interested in teaching, and I said yes. I had never thought about it before, so I began looking up references and pulling more sources to bring it all together.

Why do you think it’s important to grasp the physiology of the crucifixion?

Our faith is based on Christ’s resurrection. Jesus had to die, or the resurrection could not have happened. Jesus was fully human, so we need to understand the suffering and ordeal He went through. In the faith tradition I was raised in, the Pentecostal church, we tended to focus more on Easter Sunday, and less on Good Friday. That’s not the case in every faith tradition, but sometimes we want to fast-forward to the resurrection without examining the crucial events leading up to it.

Looking at these components helps our understanding of Jesus’ suffering, and part of that is to relate it to our own suffering. I like to talk about the times Jesus spoke on the cross, and one of the things He said was, “Forgive them.” That puts things into perspective for me in dealing with inconveniences and challenges that are so much less than this. I think it helps us to consider the extent of His suffering, so that we recognize that He understands our suffering.

What are aspects of the science of the crucifixion people may not realize?

One thing is that nerve damage causes excruciating pain. The nerve damage to Jesus’ hands, feet, and head was significant. When the nail enters, it may completely sever the nerve or damage it, and that nail is right there rubbing the raw nerve. That’s how much pain He was in.

Another is when Jesus’ sweat becomes like drops of blood, it’s not just a creative way of saying He was under a lot of stress. It was actually a medical condition happening to His body—one that has been verified in humans as a response to a lot of anxiety and stress. As a result of the stress, His blood pressure was really high and that ruptured some of the small blood vessels. As He is sweating, which is also part of the stress response, the blood and sweat mix together so He was sweating drops of blood. Jesus did not want to go down the path before Him—that was very evident—yet He was obedient to God in doing that.

How have students and others responded?

Typically, some students will thank me or send an email in appreciation, but sometimes I hear from students several years later when they reach out to share how the lecture has ministered to them. I’ve also had students come up to me beforehand to say they have been looking forward to this lecture because their pastor refers to my article. I’ve given this presentation in churches, as well, and to graduate students.

Has anything changed about the way you teach this material since you first started?

It hasn’t changed dramatically, but I will include alternate opinions as they come up. There are books about this subject and others who have researched it, so as a scientist, I want to include the various perspectives.

As a scientist and professor of biology, how does your faith inform your work and vice versa?

As a Christian, I’m not always looking for God in creation, but it gets revealed. This lecture is considered faith integration, but there are many examples from our natural world and from creation that reveal something about the Creator. It’s not unusual for scientists to become Christians when studying biology and related subjects—there are so many connections that there’s no way our design is just a coincidence.

In science, we get all the evidence, and we put a story together. That same process happens for our faith. We take the evidence, and our theology develops from that.

Alyssa Burlingame ’19 is an editorial intern in the Office of University Relations.