Movies like Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ emphasize the physical sufferings of Jesus upon the cross. 18th and 19th century hymns such as The Old Rugged Cross and There is a Fountain Filled With Blood do the same. But was it the physical suffering and death of Jesus that paid the price for man's sin? According to the Penal Substitutionary Theory, it was the spiritual death that Jesus endured on the cross that was the true penalty for sin.
They argue that the Bible teaches that the wages (price) of sin is death--Rom. 6:23. God warned Adam in the Garden of Eden with regard to the forbidden fruit, "in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." (Gen. 2:17). Now did Adam and Eve die physically the same day that they ate the forbidden fruit? No. Conservatives argue that they died spiritually. What is spiritual death? It is being cut-off from the presence of God. This is ultimately the penalty for sin so that if a person dies "unsaved," they will be cut-off from the presence of God forever.
Thus, PST advocates argue that Jesus Christ suffered "spiritual death", the penalty for sin, in the place of sinful man on the cross. This "spiritual death" took place for roughly 3 hours on the cross when "darkness covered the land" (Matthew 27:45 and Mark 15:33). At the end of the three hours, Jesus cried out in Aramaic: "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" , which means, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (this is actually a quotation from the Messianic Psalm 22, verse 1.)
John MacArthur, the President of The Master's Seminary and the wildly popular author and radio speaker explains what happened.
"Habakkuk 1:13 says this about God: "Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity." God turned His back on Jesus because He can't look on sin. What does that tell us about the cross? That Jesus actually became sin for us (2Cor. 5:21). If this was the death of a loving martyr, of an innocent person who had a good cause, God would have looked on Him with favor. But when He turned His back on Jesus, He was confirming that Christ was bearing our sin.
Isaiah 53:5 says, "He was wounded for our transgressions." Romans 4:25 says He was "delivered for our offenses." First Corinthians 15:3 says, "Christ died for our sins." First Peter 2:24 says Christ "bore our sins in his own body on the tree." First Peter 3:18 says, "Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust." First John 4:10 says God "sent his Son to be the propitiation [atonement] for our sins." Galatians 3:13 says Christ was "made a curse for us." And 2 Corinthians 5:21 says God "made him, who knew no sin, to be sin for us."
Christ didn't just bear sin; He became sin. He bore all the sins of all people of all ages. Thus Hebrews 2:9 says He "tasted death for every man." That's why He came to earth. In Matthew 20:28 says, "The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many." God forsook Christ because He cannot look on sin."
Macarthur and other modern proponents of PST are simply following the Reformers teaching on this matter. Martin Luther wrote: Christ himself suffered the dread and horror of a distressed conscience that tasted eternal wrath; it was not a game, or a joke, or play-acting when he said, “Thou hast forsaken me”; for then he felt himself really forsaken in all things even as a sinner is forsaken” (Works, 5. 602, 605). John Calvin said: he bore in his soul the dreadful torments of a condemned and lost man (Institutes, 11. xvi. 10).
What are the problems with this view for evangelicals? It contradicts and compromises their doctrine of the Trinity. Most evangelicals do not even acknowledge the problem. MacArthur does, however. He says:
"What kind of separation did Jesus experience? He wasn't separated from His divine nature--He didn't cease to be God or He would have ceased to exist. He was not separated from the Trinity in essence or substance, but He was separated in terms of intimate fellowship and communion. When a child sins against his father, he does not cease to be his father's child. However He does cease to know the intimacy of loving communion with him on account of the sin. In the same way God had to turn His back on Christ.
When Christ first came into the world, He experienced a certain separation from God. Philippians 2:6-7 says Jesus "did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond servant" (NASB). When Christ became incarnate, He let go of some of His equality with God. Jesus asked His Father to restore the glory He had with Him before the world began (John 17:5).
On the cross Jesus experienced an even more profound separation--the separation of utter sinfulness. When God turned His back on Jesus Christ, He was turning from sin and not from Christ. God will always turn His back on sin."
MacArthur faces the same dilemma that all PST advocates do. He wants to say that Jesus was separated from the Father because of his bearing man's sin but, at the same time, he doesn't want to carry that too far because he realizes it will destroy the doctrine of the Trinity.
He says of Jesus on the cross: "He was not separated from the Trinity in essence or substance, but He was separated in terms of intimate fellowship and communion." I am sorry but I don't know exactly what that means and I am not sure MacArthur does either. If the Son's fellowship and communion with the Father was eliminated, then you have a division in the Trinity. The Trinity is said to be eternally indivisible by historic Christianity. This is a big problem for evangelicals.
In addition, if Jesus is God, as MacArthur and PST adherents hold, then why wasn't his divine nature appalled by the sin he was bearing? Why wasn't there a division in the person of Christ? There should have been if his divine nature possessed perfect holiness as the Father is said to possess. Thus, there would be a break within the supposedly indivisible person of Jesus Christ. This is another big problem for evangelicals.
The simple fact is that PST, which is the core of evangelical theology, is inconsistent with the doctrine of the Trinity. It seems to me that evangelicals must give up one of these doctrines or admit as I have that evangelical Christianity is not true.