Cause of Death of Ananias and Sapphira

Ananias and Sapphira, early Christians who lied to God, were struck down for their sin. How did it happen?

Jesus, the Man that many believed was the promised deliverer of Israel, the Messiah, had died. But then only three days later, He had risen from the dead. Jesus had a glorified body, He was not just a ghost, and He had appeared to a few (Luke 24:39-43) and to hundreds (1 Corinthians 15:6). After Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciples had shared His message in Jerusalem and the Holy Spirit had come upon the people (Acts 2:1-36). Three thousand believed. Signs and wonders, miracles of healing and power, began to happen through the hands of His disciples, also known as the Apostles. The Jewish authorities arrested the church leaders, Peter and John, for proclaiming Christ. Believers began selling their possessions for the benefit of others in the church, and everyone was filled with awe. What would God do next?

Weeks passed. A believer named Barnabas sold land and used the proceeds to give a generous gift to the church, laying the money at the disciples’ feet in an impressive ceremony (Acts 4:36-37). Everyone liked Barnabas and expected great things from him in church leadership.

A wealthy, middle aged couple in the church, Ananias and Sapphira, desired the acclaim that Barnabas and others had received for their generosity. They sold land to raise money to give to the disciples, but planned to only give a portion, letting the people believe that they gave it all. Soon they would enjoy the approbation of their church, for a fraction of the price.

During the ceremony, Ananias laid the money at the feet of the Apostle Peter. Sapphira was not there, detained by an unforeseen problem. As Ananias looked at Peter’s face, the mighty apostle who had worked wonders, he realized that something was wrong. Ananias did not see the gentle joy and mighty power in his expression that he had seen before. Instead, he saw anger, hurt, and the eyes of judgment. This was not going as Ananias had planned. Where was Sapphira, his confidante? Ananias felt his pulse quicken and his blood pressure rise as epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol flooded his body in his “fight or flight” response.

The great Apostle spoke. “Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back some of the price of the land?” Ananias could not believe his ears. How could Peter know? Did he recognize the property and have an idea how much it cost? Did someone tell him? What was everyone around thinking? Ananias heart beat faster. Peter was a mighty man of God with the power to heal…or curse. The faces in the crowd looked angry, or afraid. Ananias felt the blood drain out of his face. His chest heaved with strong beats, punctuated with strange palpitations. Why had they done this? What will happen now?

“You have not lied to men, but to God!” Peter concluded. Ananias’ heart was racing now, and his head felt light. Ananias staggered… and fell. The shock of the fall made his quivering heart, shaking like a dry leaf in the wind, stop,. It could pump no blood. Ananias face froze, pale as snow, and he breathed his last. Tense silence filled the room. Several young men stepped up, picked up the body, and carried it out for burial.

Three hours later, Sapphira came to the church, unaware of what had happened. She felt strange, as if something had gone terribly wrong. Where was Ananias? Why are my church friends looking at me with such strange expressions?” She walked up to Peter and noticed money on the floor, probably the money that Ananias had presented. “Where was he?

Peter looked at Sapphira gravely. “Did you sell you land for this price?” The apostle did not want to unjustly accuse her, much less condemn her to a fate like her husband. Perhaps he wanted to give the widow a chance to repent. Sapphira thought for a moment. What was wrong? Her blood pressure and pulse rate rose. Epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol flooded her system. I just want to leave.

Every eye in the room was on Sapphira. “Yes,” she said to Peter, keeping to the plan that she and her husband had made. Peter thundered, “Why is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test?” The woman trembled and her knees grew weak. Sapphira’s eyes filled with tears, and she saw four young men standing just outside a partially open door, only steps away. Blood drained from her face.

“Look, the feet of those who buried your husband are at the door, and they shall carry you out as well,” Peter concluded.

The world crashed down upon Sapphira. Ananias dead? Friends against me? The Apostle who can work miracles, who just a few minutes ago was my pastor, is now my judge and executioner? The four men stepped inside the door and came towards her. Why did we do this? Sapphira asked as she crumpled to the ground. Her heart stopped and she breathed her last.

Ananias and Sapphira were propertied Jews who must have been at least middle-aged. The Bible says nothing about their health prior to this incident. The psychogenic stress of this incident was extreme. The rapid rise in blood pressure and the tachycardia (fast heart rate) probably dislodged a small atherosclerotic plaque in the coronary vessels, the arteries feeding the muscle of the heart. Ventricular fibrillation, the quivering of the heart muscle, was the terminal event. It occurs more frequently in modern middle-aged men than women but is seen in both.

Anthropological and medical research record cases, some instantaneous and others over one to three days, in which a curse is placed on someone and afterwards they die.[1] Takotsubo Syndrome involves transient heart failure due to left ventricular dysfunction after acute emotional or physical stress. It the short term, Takotsubo Syndrome can kill rapidly. In the long term, a patient who had Takotsubo Syndrome has as much of an increased risk of death ten years later as if they had had a real heart attack.[2] If Ananias and/or Sapphira had suffered from Takotsubo Syndrome in the past, their deaths would have been much more likely in this situation

Set against a backdrop of the mighty growth of the Church, the story of Ananias and Sapphira is a sad interlude, but it is important. The early church was tiny and the survival of Christianity as a religion was touch and go. Many foes were aligned against the people of Christ. News of this event spread like wildfire and served as a constant warning against hypocrisy to all the churches, and especially the church in Jerusalem.

Though not written as such in the text, the general view among Christians is that God struck down Ananias and Sapphira for their sin. As God is the sovereign Lord of the Universe, His hand was clearly in their punishment. The explanation recorded here, tentative, of course, due to the paucity of information, in no way diminishes God’s role. It serves as a warning to all Christians. God is gracious and forgiving, but we must honor, trust, and obey Him. Ananias and Sapphira may have been genuine Christians, but the wages of sin was still death.

 

[1] Dein, Simon. 2003. “Psychogenic Death: Individual Effects of Sorcery and Taboo Violation.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 6 (3): 195–202.

[2] Nathalie Auger, Gilles Paradis, Jessica Healy-Profitos, Brian J. Potter, Outcomes of Takotsubo Syndrome at 15 Years: A Matched Cohort Study, The American Journal of Medicine, May 2020, Vol 133, No. 5

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