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Monday, November 2, 2009

The Spiritual Death of Christ upon the Cross

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.


  1. Ken,
    You are educating me on theological problems. Thank you. I love, especially, one thing you said: "I don't understand that, and I'm not sure he does either." I think doubting Christians need to get up their courage more and simply say "What does that mean?" or "How do you know that?" We hear so many lovely-sounding things that really have no actual meaning. They need to start backing up some of this stuff instead of it all just being accepted by the people in the pews.

  2. Lynn,

    I agree. Someone needs to say that the emperor has no clothes on.

  3. I'm with you both. Too many Evangelicals say stuff that sounds about as reasonable as one might hear at a Star Trek convention. Faith, hope and love can be awesome things if they motivate productive, honest and pragmatic actions. When they exist for some sort of comfortable group-think they become seriously cracked.

  4. If Adam & Eve only spiritually died that day, does that mean that the serpent was really lying? It doesn't seem like the serpent understood it in that sense. The fact that the serpent said she wouldn't die, and that God didn't want her to be like him knowing what is good or bad, makes it clear not even the author meant anything spiritual. And if Adam already suffered spiritual death, then why would we need someone else to spiritually die again as a penalty for sin?

  5. How do they reconcile the idea of a spiritual death with the idea of cleansed with the blood of Jesus, since the blood is physical? And how do they reconcile this with the idea that Jesus was the perfect sacrifice, since all animal sacrifices prior to that had been on the physical plain. Or do they argue that the physical death was an imperfect method until the perfect spiritual death of Christ?

    **No. Conservatives argue that they died spiritually. **

    In a way, this is amusing. These are the same people who are insistent that the Resurrection is a physical event, and yet turn around and spiritualize the concept of death.

  6. Chuck, What the hell does that mean? Oh well, live long and prosper!

  7. Andre,

    You must keep in mind that the story of Adam and Eve is just that--a story. I refer to it because conservatives believe its the Word of God.

    Why would Adam need someone to die a spiritual death in his place? Well you have to keep in mind that conservatives believe that the Bible teaches that when man sinned he was cut-off from God (i.e., spiritual death). They also believe that all of Adam's descendants were born in this condition. If a person is not "saved," or "born-again" in this life, then he will die in the condition of being spiritually dead and will remain so for all of eternity. They believe that the only way out of this, is for Jesus to die spiritually (and physically) in their place and pay the penalty they deserve.

  8. Onesmallstep,

    conservatives do not deny that Jesus died physically and shed his blood. This was essential in their thinking. But it alone is not enough, he must also have died spiritually. Death (both physical and spiritual) they believe is the penalty for sin (romans 6:23)

  9. I agree with you Ken that it's just a story and what conservatives believe. But I guess I just don't see how they can conclude with a spiritual death even from said story.

  10. I wonder how conservatives flesh out this stuff about "spiritual death." Is that a state non-believers are in while they're physically alive? Ephesians 2:1 says the Ephesian Christians were once "dead in trespasses and sin." That's a verse conservatives like to cite to say that death can be spiritual: it exists now for non-believers, and it means separation from God; unification with God comes through faith in Christ.

    But, if Jesus endured what non-believers go through each day, that's not that big of a deal. And so there are conservatives who say Jesus experienced the "spiritual death" that exists in hell. Here on earth, non-believers are not totally separate from God, for there's common grace, and God blesses the good and the bad alike. In hell, however, there's no grace or goodness.

    I hope my confusion is making sense. I guess my point is this: unless I'm missing something, conservatives could be clearer about what they mean by "spiritually dead."

  11. "admit as I have that evangelical Christianity is not true."

    Is there some version(s) of Christianity you find plausible?

  12. Dear Dr. Pulliam,
    I heard you on the Dave Glover Show 97.1 on Monday, October 26, 2009 - The Priest and The Rabbi segment. I am not a Christian nor am I Jewish.
    I agree with your statement on the radio that most people adopt the religion of their family. Often times people never question the validity of their religion. I heard a wonderful quote and it is my motto, “Question, you will never regret knowing.” So I began questioning several years ago and this is what I have found.
    There are at least three problems with Jesus as the Paschal Lamb dying for the sins of humanity.
    First, animal offerings were for unintentional sins only. Leviticus 4:2,13,22,27 Leviticus 5:15,18 Numbers 15:22,24,26,27,28,29 Numbers 35:22 Deuteronomy 19:4 Joshua 20:3,5 Ezekiel 45:20
    Intentional sins required repentance, and a change of heart. No offering would suffice.
    The prototype for repentance for all mankind is beautifully illustrated in Genesis 4:3 -7
    After a period of time, Cain brought an offering to The Almighty of the fruit of the ground; and as for Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and from their choicest. The Almighty turned to Abel and to his offering, but to Cain and to his offering He did not turn. This annoyed Cain exceedingly, and his countenance fell.
    And The Almighty said to Cain, "Why are you annoyed, and why has your countenance fallen? Surely, if you improve yourself, you will be forgiven. But if you do not improve yourself, sin rests at the door. Its desire is toward you, yet you can conquer it." No death necessary. In fact The Almighty gives mankind encouragement and insists that man can conquer his desires. When King David steals Bathsheba for himself, the prophet Nathan tells him a parable about a rich man who steals a poor man's only sheep. When King David realizes that he is the rich man, he admits his guilt, and repents. Immediately The Almighty, through the prophet Nathan, tells David he is forgiven. The idea that a god/son/man has to die for sins is an idea diametrically opposed to Judaism.

  13. Dear Dr. Pulliam,
    The second problem is with Jesus as the Passover Lamb. If one were going to write a story based on the Torah, Jesus should have been a Yom Kipper goat. The Yom Kipper goat atoned for sin between man and The Almighty. If you had a problem with another person, you had to make that relationship right. There were no offerings for transgressions involving another person. The idea that New Testament writers portray Jesus as the Passover Lamb is the definition of irony. The Passover lamb was a symbol of idolatry. The purpose of telling the Exodus story every year to your children was to show the falseness of idol worship and the purpose of the Jewish people to bring the world to the understanding that The Almighty is the source of all power. Read Deuteronomy 4:29-35.
    Exodus 12, has the entire nation of Israelites taking a ram/lamb, the highest symbol of Egyptian idolatry and keeping it in full view for several days, from the tenth through the fourteenth of Nissan. Then the Children of Israel had to slaughter it in daylight, if full view of the Egyptians, on the afternoon of the fourteenth of Nissan. They put the blood on their door lintels, roasted the lamb and ate the pagan symbol that evening which would be the 15th of Nissan (Jewish days start at sundown, and continue through sunrise until sundown). These actions were to show their deity had no power and that the G-d of Israel was the source of all power. Certainly The Almighty didn't need to "see" the blood on the door lintel, but it was necessary for the Israelites to show their trust in The Almighty. In the face of certain death from the Egyptians, the Israelites proceeded to fulfill this command.
    Exodus 8:21-28 Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, "Go - bring offerings to your G-d in the land." Moses said, "It is not proper to do so, for we will offer the deity of Egypt (abomination is the word used by Moses to describe any other image worshiped as a god) to The Almighty, our G-d - behold, if we were to slaughter the deity (abomination)of Egypt in their sight would they not stone us?" Then Moses asks to leave the land of Egypt and Pharaoh agrees at first but changes his mind when the danger of wild beasts is removed.
    Many Egyptian gods were depicted as human men with ram's heads. The ram was considered sacred by the Egyptians. That is why Moses speaks of it as the deity/abomination of Egypt. The Egyptian god, Khnum had the body of a man and the head of a ram. The legend has Khnum sitting at a potter's wheel creating mankind.

  14. Dear Dr. Pulliam,
    The New Testament writers Matthew, Mark and Luke have Jesus eating his last supper as the Passover Seder with his apostles on Thursday evening, the beginning of the 15 of Nissan. The Passover lamb had already been slaughtered earlier that afternoon of the 14th of Nissan. (Exodus 12:1-8) Jesus is arrested and crucified on Friday afternoon, the 15th of Nissan.
    John’s gospel has Jesus eating his last supper as a regular meal on Wednesday evening, the beginning of the14 of Nissan (Jewish days start at sundown, continues through sunrise until sundown). He is arrested and crucified on Thursday afternoon the 14th of Nissan so that Jesus is more readily identified as a replacement for the Passover Lamb. In John's story, the Jewish leaders and High Priests will not enter Pilate’s palace so that they do not become ritually impure which would make them unfit to enter the temple or eat the Passover meal. Romans often buried their dead inside their palaces and the Jewish people and Levites could not be under the same roof as a dead body.
    John 18:29 - “Then the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning and the Jews did not enter the palace, they wanted to be able to eat the Passover.”
    If Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were Jewish and they buried Jesus they would not be able to make the Passover offering. The Torah takes every aspect of life into consideration and gives people who are ritually impure for the first offering a second date to bring the offering - the following month on the 14th of the second month in the afternoon. (Nu 9:6-12)
    John's story has Jesus crucified on the afternoon of the 14th of Nissan when the Passover Lamb is slaughtered and before the Passover meal. Matthew, Mark and Luke have Jesus eating the Passover meal on the 15th of Nissan and being crucified the next day. There is no way to reconcile Matthew, Mark and Luke's story with John's story. There are so many problems with the 4 stories of the last supper, the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension that it is impossible for logical people to believe this could be the word of G-d.
    This brings us to the third problem with Jesus dying for sins. The majority of the Jewish people did not live in the land of Israel during the lifetime of Jesus. Many Jews did not return after the Babylonian exile. They stayed in that area. Also Egypt had a large Jewish presence. If Jesus was dying for sins, they were the sins defined by the Torah. The non Jewish nations had no concept of the laws of the Torah and were not obligated to keep the Torah law. As the Rabbi stated on the Dave Glover Show, The Almighty gathered the entire Jewish nation to give them the Torah. How were the Jewish people who were spread out for hundreds of miles, going to hear about this death and resurrection much less believe it was true. Jesus didn’t even show himself to the Jewish leaders who could have authenticated his resurrection. As the song says, Israel had no mass communication. Jewish people living in Babylon might not hear of this event for 30 years. An entire generation could pass away without hearing about this event. It is absurd to think that The Almighty wouldn’t tell the entire Jewish nation of this major change, especially the part about man worship. Shouldn’t there be an asterisk after Deuteronomy 4:12-19?
    Don’t make any images, especially that of a man, so that you aren’t drawn to worship them*
    *The exception being fifteen hundred years from now when I impregnate a virgin with a god/man/son.
    The Torah was so precise about when and how to bring a Passover offering if one was contaminated by a corpse, certainly The Almighty wouldn’t tell the Jewish people not to worship a man and then inexplicably ignore His central tenet.

  15. Emet,

    Thanks for your lengthy comments. I agree with you that Jesus of Nazareth does not fulfill the Hebrew expectations of the Messiah. I agree that the NT is not compatible with the Hebrew Scriptures.

    However, even if you throw out the NT, and only look at the Hebrew Scriptures, I have many problems. I will not detail them here but I can't accept the Hebrew Bible as a divine revelation either. I think both it and the NT are human products.

  16. Sabio,

    No, I don't find any version of Christianity plausible. At least none that are organized into churches. The closest thing might be "Christian Atheism."

    See the Wikipedia article for an explanation:

    "Jesus, although not seen as divine, is still a central feature of Christian atheism. Most Christian atheists think of Jesus as a wise and good man, accepting his moral teachings but rejecting the idea of his divinity. Hamilton said that to the Christian atheist, Jesus is not really the foundation of faith; instead he is a “place to be, a standpoint” [5]. Christian atheists look to Jesus as an example of what a Christian should be, but they do not see him as a God."

  17. Thanx Ken, I suspected you weren't but I have heard you qualify yourself several times, so I did not want to assume.

    Interestingly, I have been curious about the phrase "Christian Atheism" as of late. Thanks for the link. I'd wager many atheists would be very, very upset with you even entertaining that label. (But I already know you don't care -- thus, one of my several respect points of you)

  18. Dr. Pulliam,

    I just started following your site after the Glover show. Does agnostic mean you are uncertain about Jesus and need more information? Or are you agnostic about G-d and need more information?

  19. Emet, Agnostic means that I don't know if a god exists or not. There may be something or someone out there somewhere but I don't believe that the god described in either the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament exists.