The Nature of Jesus’ Suffering in Our Place
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, March 8, 2012 at 4:08pm
QUESTION: When Jesus took on Himself the sin of all humanity, His death was considered by God as appropriate and full payment. How is it that the penalty for sin, which is eternal Hell, was not eternal for Jesus?
ANSWER: I have addressed this question in my book, What the Bible Says About God the Redeemer, pp. 434-435; and in my book, The Faith Once for All, pp. 267-268. (These are basically the same.) The basic issue is this: exactly what was the NATURE of the suffering Jesus endured when he offered himself up as the propitiation for our sins? Here is how I have explained this in the references just mentioned:
If Christ actually took our place in bearing the wrath of God, this means that he bore the full force of God’s wrath; he suffered the equivalent of eternity in hell for every sinner. Some do not understand how this can be possible because they do not understand the nature of Christ’s suffering. It included not just the moment of death, but all the torture and anguish he began to suffer at least as early as the Garden of Gethsemane. Also, it included both physical and spiritual dimensions. The physical agony of scourging and crucifixion has been well documented, so we have some idea of the bodily pain Jesus suffered in the hours before his death. (Those of us who saw Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” were able to picture this physical aspect of his suffering in our minds.)
But even as intense as this was, if this were all that Jesus suffered, we still might wonder how that could be the equivalent of the eternal punishment of the whole human race. After all, there were others who went through this kind of torture both before and after Christ, and many Christian martyrs endured untold cruelties at the hands of sadistic pagans and “Christians” alike. So what was different about Jesus’ suffering? The difference lies mainly in the spiritual agony he bore.
Spiritual (mental, emotional, psychological) suffering is quite common, and many have testified that it is by far worse than its physical counterpart. As someone put it, “Soul suffering is more grievous than physical pain.” When applied to Jesus Christ, this spiritual agony takes on infinite, unimaginable proportions. This is so for two reasons. First, he was sinless, yet he was facing the penalty for sin. His soul was not toughened and scarred by numerous trespasses; thus the searing, piercing wrath of God must have penetrated to its infinite depths with unbelievable intensity. Second, he was God, the living God, yet he was facing the very antithesis of both life and deity—death itself. What kind of feelings must have crowded his consciousness as he came face to face with that enemy and that curse that God himself had imposed upon mankind as the penalty for sin? How can we measure the agony permeating his whole being as the divine nature itself experienced what it was like to die?
We must keep in mind that both the physical and the spiritual suffering of Christ was experienced by one who was by nature divine and thus infinite in his being. Thus, even though he suffered for only a finite period of time, the suffering itself was infinite; it cannot be quantified. This helps to answer two questions. First, how can the suffering of Christ, which lasted only a few hours, be the equivalent of eternity in hell for the whole human race? Because he was God. The finite suffering of an infinite being would seem to be equivalent to the infinite suffering of finite beings. I will repeat this because this is the main thrust of the question being discussed here: The finite suffering of an infinite being would seem to be equivalent to the infinite suffering of finite beings. This is one of the main reasons why the atonement could be accomplished only by God himself and not by any creature, man or angel. Second, did Christ suffer only for the “elect” or those who will be ultimately saved? No, his suffering was infinite and has no limit. Thus it is improper to try to quantify the atonement in any sense or to think that it could be limited to a certain number of people. His suffering was infinite and thus satisfied the wrath of God for every human being.