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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Reformed Theologians on Jesus Suffering Separation from God

One of the key components of the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the Atonement is that Jesus bore the penalty due sinners himself in order that sinners might be freed from the penalty. What is the penalty? Clearly, in Scripture it is death, but not merely physical death but spiritual death, i.e., separation from God. As I have pointed out previously, this presents enormous theological problems such as 1) how can one member of the Trinity be separated from another member without there being a breach in the Godhead?; 2) how could Jesus as both God and man be separated from himself? If one argues that his human nature was separated from his divine nature, then that destroys the unity of his person; and 3) how could one member of the Godhead be angry and full of wrath against another member?

Lest anyone doubt that PST defenders believe that Jesus suffered spiritual separation from his Father, read these quotes:

Charles Hodge (Systematic Theology, Vol. 2, Part 3, Ch 6, Sec 3): The penalty of the divine law is said to be eternal death. Therefore if Christ suffered the penalty of the law He must have suffered death eternal; or, as others say, He must have endured the same kind of sufferings as those who are cast off from God and die eternally are called upon to suffer.
Loraine Boettner (The Reformed Faith, Ch. 3): We should remember that Christ's suffering in His human nature, as He hung on the cross those six hours, was not primarily physical, but mental and spiritual. When He cried out, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me," He was literally suffering the pangs of hell. For that is essentially what hell is, separation from God, separation from everything that is good and desirable. Such suffering is beyond our comprehension. But since He suffered as a divine-human person, His suffering was a just equivalent for all that His people would have suffered in an eternity in hell.
John MacArthur (The Murder of Jesus, pp. 219-21): To [Jesus] was imputed the guilt of their sins, and He was suffering the punishment for those sins on their behalf. And the very essence of that punishment was the outpouring of God's wrath against sinners. In some mysterious way during those awful hours on the cross, the Father poured out the full measure of His wrath against sin, and the recipient of that wrath was God's own beloved Son. In this lies the true meaning of the cross.

...Christ died in our place and in our stead - and He received the very same outpouring of divine wrath in all its fury that we deserved for our sin. It was a punishment so severe that a mortal could spend all eternity in the torments of hell, and still he would not have begun to exhaust the divine wrath that was heaped on Christ at the cross. This was the true measure of Christ's sufferings on the cross. The physical pains of crucifixion - dreadful as they were - were nothing compared to the wrath of the Father against Him. The anticipation of this was what had caused Him to sweat blood in the garden. This is why He looked ahead to the cross with such horror. We cannot begin to fathom all that was involved in paying the price of our sin. It's sufficient to understand that all our worst fears about the horrors of hell - and more - were realized by Him as He received the due penalty of others' wrongdoing. And in that awful, sacred hour, it was as if the Father abandoned Him. Though there was surely no interruption in the Father's love for Him as a Son, God nonetheless turned away from Him and forsook Him as our substitute.
John Calvin (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 2, Ch.16, Sec. 10): Nothing had been done if Christ had only endured corporeal death. In order to interpose between us and God's anger, and satisfy his righteous judgment, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance. Whence also it was necessary that he should engage, as it were, at close quarters with the powers of hell and the horrors of eternal death. ... ... Hence there is nothing strange in its being said that he descended to hell, seeing he endured the death which is inflicted on the wicked by an angry God. It is frivolous and ridiculous to object that in this way the order is perverted, it being absurd that an event which preceded burial should be placed after it. But after explaining what Christ endured in the sight of man, the Creed appropriately adds the invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he endured before God, to teach us that not only was the body of Christ given up as the price of redemption, but that there was a greater and more excellent price—that he bore in his soul the tortures of condemned and ruined man.
Martin Luther (Select Works of Martin Luther, trans. Henry Cole, [1826], vol. 4, p. 365):
We do not by all these observations say that Christ did not suffer in a different way from us, and that he was not tortured and dismayed in soul differently from us, or different from what the damned feel in their dread of, and a fleeing from, God. For Christ even in his own eyes was like unto one forsaken, cursed, a sinner, a blasphemer, and one damned, though, without sin. Because it was not a matter of play, or jest, or hypocrisy, when he said: “Thou hast forsaken me:” for then he felt himself really forsaken in all things even as a sinner is forsaken after he has sinned.
Martin Luther ("A Sermon on Preparing to Die," in Martin Luther's Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy F. Lull, p. 422):  So then, gaze at the heavenly picture of Christ, who descended into hell for your sake and was forsaken by God as one eternally damned when he spoke the words on the cross, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani!” - “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” In that picture your hell is defeated and your uncertain election is made sure.
Wayne Grudem (“Bible Doctrine.” Page 253-254):  The physical pain of the crucifixion and the [psychological] pain of taking on himself the absolute evil of our sins were aggravated by the fact that Jesus faced this pain alone. … Yet more difficult than these three previous aspects of Jesus' pain was the pain of bearing the wrath of God upon himself. As Jesus bore the guilt of our sins alone, God the Father, the mighty Creator, the Lord of the universe, poured out on Jesus the fury of his wrath: Jesus became the object of the intense hatred of sin and vengeance against sin that God had patiently stored up since the beginning of the world.
R.C. Sproul (Together for the Gospel. April 17, 2008. Louisville, KY. Session V - "The Curse Motif of the Atonement," Minute 55:01):  What prevents us from seeing God is our heart. Our impurity. But Jesus had no impurity. And Thomas said He was pure in heart. So obviously He had some, some experience of the beauty of the Father. Until that moment that my sin was placed upon Him. And the one who was pure was pure no more. And God cursed Him. It was if there was a cry from Heaven – excuse my language but I can be no more accurate than to say – it was as if Jesus heard the words 'God damn you', because that's what it meant to be cursed, to be damned, to be under the anathema of the Father. As I said I don't understand that, but I know that it's true.
John Piper (Resolved Conference 2008. Session 8 – "The Echo and Insufficiency of Hell," Min 40:00): Hell is all about echoing faintly the glory of Calvary. That's the meaning of hell in this room right now. To help you feel in some emotional measure the magnificence of what Christ did for you when he bore not only your eternal suffering, but millions of people's eternal suffering when His Father put our curse on Him. What a Saviour is echoed in the flames of hell. So that's what I mean when I say hell is an echo of the glory of God, and an echo of the Savior's sufferings, and therefore an echo of the infinite love of God for our souls.

C.J. Mahaney (Resolved Conference 2008. Session 11 - "The Cry From the Cross," Min. 46:35): This moment in Mark chapter 15 [i.e. “My God, my God”], it is this moment, it is what takes place in this moment that delivers us from hell. This agony, this scream, is what delivers all those who turn from their sin and trust in the Savior from hell. On the cross, Jesus experienced hell for us. He experienced hell for us, bearing God's wrath and eternal punishment. And because He did, Heaven awaits all those who turn from their sin and trust in Him. He screamed the 'scream of the damned' [i.e., “forsaken me”] for us. Listen, this scream should be our scream. … This scream should be my eternal scream. He takes upon Himself my sin, the wrath I deserved for and against my sin, He screams the 'scream of the damned' for me.

I am indebted to Nick at Nick's Catholic Blog for assembling these quotes. They are found in a debate that he had with a Reformed Christian over the PST of the atonement (you can read the entire debate here).


  1. ---

    Hey Ken,

    I'm writing a paper showing a foundational flaw in the evangelical worldview. In this paper, I hope to defend the notion that if it is affirmed that Christ did suffer the wrath of Hell on the cross, and to such a degree that it is the greatest display of God's wrath and divine justice, greater than what coule ever be poured ot against a mere human, then it logically follows that God would send no one to Hell, for it would lead to diminished glory for God, since in those who are being sent to hell, God is unable to show the fullness of his justice and wrath, and only through Christ was he able to do such a thing.

    If I defend my thesis, it would show that the evengelical worldview, especially the Calvinist persuasion, is logically inconsistent and should be discarded. If evangelicals want to hold to the PST and continue affirming all the attributes of God, and also affirm that God does everything to his maximal glory, then they MUST become universalists.

    I was wondering if you'd be willing to read and critique my paper, and let me know where I've made false assumptions and faulty conclusions. If you could, I'd be honored.

    As always, thanks Ken for the great work you do here on this blog, and if I've been unclear above, the paper will hopely be a little easier to follow.


  2. It was a punishment so severe that a mortal could spend all eternity in the torments of hell, and still he would not have begun to exhaust the divine wrath that was heaped on Christ at the cross.

    It's sufficient to understand that all our worst fears about the horrors of hell - and more - were realized by Him as He received the due penalty of others' wrongdoing.

    They're always saying this sort of thing, with absolutely NO justification.

    God nonetheless turned away from Him and forsook Him as our substitute.

    What does this even mean - they aren't saved?

    They really do get caught up in the drama. They absolutely love it. Watch a fundie preacher; it's performance art (bad performance art, but still...). It underlies a great deal of their theology.

  3. Exploring,

    Yes, I would be glad to read it. PST demands either a limited atonement (for the elect only) or universalism (everyone is saved). Those that hold to the former must admit that God is ultimately victorious over evil because there are evil beings that continue in rebellion to him throughout all of eternity.

  4. Cipher,

    Yes most evangelical preaching is very dramatic. Its a form of entertainment for a lot of the people who come to listen. Back before TV, large crowds would come and listen for hours to people like George Whitfield and Billy Sunday preach

  5. Certainly. This has always been a large part of the problem for me. I refuse to accept that these people, who are captivated by what amounts to dangling a string in front of a cat, have anything meaningful to say about the state of my immortal soul.

  6. Yes, I agree with the above. As an ex-Evangelical, who then gravitated towards a more catholic (note small ‘c’) and Orthodox (note large @’O’) Christianity, I found I did not leave behind PST, though its manifestation in wider theologies is more amorphous and harder to isolate.

    Theological debates aside (not my strong point – tho’ my doctorate is within my university’s department of theology and religious studies, my bias is more religious studies and the social scientific study of religion; sociology and social anthropology) I am struck by the fact the Old Testament Law bears a striking resemblance (without wishing to be intentionally frivolous) to the religion of Dr Spock (the Vulcan, not the child behavioural specialist). In effect, for much of the Torah God seems to be saying ‘Follow this Law and you’ll ‘Live Long and Prosper’. There is nothing that I can find in the Torah or much of the Old Testament (excepting dodgy Daniel) about the reward for keeping the Law being eternal life. There is the notion of ‘Life’ but even today when Jews say to each other, at Yom Kippur, ‘May your name be written in the Book of Life’ they mean ‘May you still be alive this time next year...’ Everlasting life is certainly not an Old Testament concept.

    All well and good, one may argue, but what has this to do with PST? Well, quite simply where did the idea come from if the Torah does not make a connection between sin and eternal life?

    I may be barking up the wrong tree here, but I would be interested in anyone’s thoughts on this subject since it is something that I have been playing around with now for some time and yet, as a non-theologian, I don’t really have a repertoire theological arguments to draw on that would help me formulate my ideas into a more convincing argument.



  7. ---

    Well, scholars have noted that Daniel was written in the 2nd century BCE, well after the writings of the majority of the Torah, and Daniel spoke and thought like a Jewish apocalypticist. His ideas are strikingly similar to those of Maccabees. I believe that when reading the Gospels, we see that in the earliest Gospels (Mark, Matthew and to a degree Luke) that Jesus is just as much an apocalypticist as was Daniel. Jesus was referred to as "Son of Man", a phrase which comes directly from Daniel.

    I think the general sentiment is that between the writing of the last book that was purely of an orthodox Jewish persuasion (I think Malachi) and the writing of Daniel, Maccabees, and the earliest Gospels, there was a lot of persuasion on the Jewish line of thinking from Zoroastrianism, Greek mythology and other lines of Paganism. I'm at work right now, but I have no source, but Bart Ehrman deals with this a lot through out his writings, as he adheres to the Jesus was an apocalyptic preachers pretty strictly. I agree with his appraisal. The striking thing about the antithesis of eternal life, eternal damnation, is the infrequecny with which it is found throughout the Scriptures, if at all: MAYBE once in Daniel, Paul never mentions it in reference to humans, and the only time he used a word which has been translated as Hell is when he used the word Tartarus (a Greek concept of hell) and this is referring to fallen angels. But, if Paul is the evangelist to the Gentiles, how could be so utterly silent on the concept of eternal damnation?? In fact, Paul may have been a universalist.

    It's pretty clear that the concepts of eternal life/damnation were forced into Judaism at a much later date. And there is a clear evolution of the concept. It is nigh unbelievable that Yahweh would have been completely dilent about the concepts for over 1,000 years stretching from the revelation that we find in the Pentateuch, all the way through Malachi. Then, the Gospels make mention of Hell (Gehenna and Hades, actually), but again, the references aren't explicit and open to interpretation (save Metthew 25), then Paul doesn't mention it at all, James makes no reference to it, Hebrews has some scary language, but nothing explicitly about eternal damnation as far as I can remember. The pastoral epistles don't cover the topic. Revelation is an acid trip, so who knows. But, once Augustine, Jerome and the Catholic church got ahold of the doctrine of Hell, they ran with it.

  8. Exploring the Unknowable

    Many thanks for this, which I found very helpful and sort of solidified my own, less thorough research.

    To step away from the abstract and/or historical/textual criticism; I think it is interesting how text based religion is able to read into texts something that is not there. An analogy might be the nursery rhyme ‘Humpty Dumpty’: it is also portrayed in children’s books as the story of a giant, sentient, egg, but where in the text is there anything about an egg? The same appears true of the jump from Old Testament to New Testament: there is no mention of eternal life and eternal damnation in the O.T. and yet many of our Christian brethren are happy to burden us with these notions despite a lack of continuity of ideas from the Old to the New Testament.

    I have come to the conclusion that the success of ‘Sacred Text’, soteriological religions (and there is really only Christianity and Islam that fulfil this description) is that they appeal to our innate capacity for conceit – God is very concerned with ‘my’ behaviour (which is a curious form of inverted pride). I presume this has something to do with our psychological need for meaning and our ability to see patterns, even when no pattern is there. Hence your average Christian (or Muslim for that matter) can take solace in the belief that their actions (and therefore their existence) matters and that this can be ‘proved’ with reference to ambiguous scripture (i.e. it can mean different things to different people). The fact that for those of us who have chosen to stand on the outside it is very difficult to weld together the tales and requirements of a Bronze Age tribal deity with the hotchpotch of Jewish apocalyptical writing, Middle Eastern pagan religion, Roman law and Greek philosophy that is the New Testament. I am aghast sometimes at the ignorance of many Christians concerning the origins of their religion and its scriptures.

    What is even stranger is the faith many of our religious brethren have in the ‘power’ of religion to make a better society. History does not bear this out and yet here in the UK I grow bored and rather concerned at how religion is proclaimed as the ‘salvation’ of society – when so much has been gained in Western society by eschewing religion. Well, in essence this is part and parcel of my own doctoral thesis, which is looking at faith based social welfare. As I said yesterday, in an e-mail to a friend (himself owning an Evangelical bias and a lecturer in ministry at one of England’s Church of England theological college, in addition to being an Anglican priest): “Much ‘professional’ faith based social welfare is simply symbolic capital; it does not suggest a resurgence of religion, rather it denotes religion’s retreat into bureaucracy and institutionalisation and a ‘smoke and mirrors’ illusion of relevance when many faith based organisations are just doing what the government tells them to do. Sure you can give money to [faith based charities] and you can remember their work in the parish cycle of prayer – but in the main the work, at the ‘coalface’, will be secular in nature and usually carried out by secular employees. It is a means of using money (mainly taxpayers’ money) to create the illusion religion and in particular Christianity has relevance when all it really has is a knack to make use of the present political will to devolve social welfare away from direct state provision. This may seem rather damning, but I see little evidence to think I am wrong in this assertion.”

    Again thanks for your comments, they were indeed helpful.