Membrane lysis, or rupture, is a cell death pathway in bacteria frequently caused by cell wall-targeting antibiotics. Although previous studies have clarified the biochemical mechanisms of antibiotic action, a physical understanding of the processes leading to lysis remains lacking. Here, we analyze the dynamics of membrane bulging and lysis in Escherichia coli, in which the formation of an initial, partially subtended spherical bulge (“bulging”) after cell wall digestion occurs on a characteristic timescale of 1 s and the growth of the bulge (“swelling”) occurs on a slower characteristic timescale of 100 s. We show that bulging can be energetically favorable due to the relaxation of the entropic and stretching energies of the inner membrane, cell wall, and outer membrane and that the experimentally observed timescales are consistent with model predictions. We then show that swelling is mediated by the enlargement of wall defects, after which cell lysis is consistent with both the inner and outer membranes exceeding characteristic estimates of the yield areal strains of biological membranes. These results contrast biological membrane physics and the physics of thin, rigid shells. They also have implications for cellular morphogenesis and antibiotic discovery across different species of bacteria.