Those who reject the vicarious (substitutionary) death of Jesus are known to ask the following question: “How is it possible that the same Jesus who was resurrected and now sits at the right hand of the Father on high could have personally paid the penalty all of us sinners so rightly deserve, which is eternal death or damnation?”
They usually follow up with, “Are you seriously saying He spent an eternity in hell?”
Although there are some who wrongly believe Jesus actually did spend some amount of time in hell after His death and before His resurrection, and this based on the KJV’s mistranslation of hades (the place of the disembodied dead) as “hell” in Acts 2:27 and 31. But Jesus did not go to hell (geenna) after His death on the cross, and this no matter what the KJV says. Instead, Jesus went to hades, specifically a place in hades called paradeisos or “paradise” (Acts 2: 27; Lk. 23:43; cf. chart below). His body, which did not see corruption, remained in the tomb (Acts 2:31). It wasn’t long before His spirit and body were reunited when resurrected by the power of God (Acts 2:32). So, it would be gross error to think that Jesus suffered “everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thess. 1:9).
In dealing with this subject in the past, I had tried, like some still do, to equate the suffering of an infinite being in a finite moment of time with the suffering of a finite creature throughout eternity. The argument goes like this:
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 [the question that asks] 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 no longer believe such thinking “holds much water,” nor is it even necessary, with my present understanding of things. I believe the wages-of-sin death of Romans 6:23a is not so much a reference to a particular event (i.e., spiritual death, physical death, or eternal death) as it is a process (viz., spiritual death + physical death = eternal death). Consequently, and this due to Jesus’ work on the cross, I no longer view the equivalency of eternal death as a penalty that Jesus had to experience “for us” or on our behalf. This is because eternal death, for those who remain physically alive, is not something that is yet “written in stone,” so to speak. Instead, it is the horrible and tragic end of all those who refuse to “kiss the Son” (Psa. 2:12).
In saying this, I do not mean that eternal death is not a future reality for those not washed with the blood of the Lamb, only that while we remain alive, the grace of God is available to all who will exercise faith in Jesus via obedience to His gospel. When they do so, eternal death is avoided, which is part of the great reversal wrought in Jesus.
As a result of His cross work, Jesus, the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45), was able to reverse the process that had begun in the first Adam (Rom. 5:12-19). Thus, those who in connection with the first Adam had become spiritually dead as a result of their own personal sins (“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Rom. 3:23; cf. Eph. 2:1,5), and who were under the penalty of physical death as a result of our father Adam’s sin (cf. Gen. 3:14-19; Rom. 8:19-22; Heb. 9:27), are enabled under the last Adam, the One who is the beginning of God’s “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15), to experience “eternal life” (Rom. 6:23; 1 Tim. 6:12,19; Tit. 1:2 and 3:7; 1 Jn. 2:25) rather than eternal death. Thus, the triple “D” Death process that started with the first Adam is totally reversed by the last Adam.
This means that Jesus, regardless of whether it was somehow possible or not, would not have needed to experience eternal death on our behalf, for such would only become the actual condition or state of those who would refuse to accept the forgiveness that was theirs by grace through faith in Jesus—a grace that was in play, whether fallen man appreciated all its ramifications or not, from, and even before, the foundation of the world:
Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it. (2) For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it. (3) For we who have believed do enter that rest, as He has said: ‘SO I SWORE IN MY WRATH, “THEY SHALL NOT ENTER MY REST,”’ although the works were finished from the foundation of the world (Heb. 4:1-3; cf. Heb. 9:26; 1 Pet. 13:8; Rev. 17:8).
Thus, for sinful man, eternal death is not, nor was it ever, a given. Due to God’s original grace in connection with Christ’s cross work, man does not have to experience eternal death. What he must experience, and this because all have sinned, is the first two “Ds” of triple “D” death (viz., spiritual and physical deaths). These first two deaths are what I believe Jesus experienced so that we could become free from the threat of eternal death. Instead of eternal death, all who are connected to Christ have “eternal life.” If this interpretation is correct, it will stand before the scrutiny of Scripture unscathed. If not, it must be rejected. Time will tell. (Note: by referencing the “spiritual death” that Jesus experienced on our behalf, I do not mean that He actually died spiritually, only that He experienced, in a moment in time, the separation that sin produces (i.e., “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”).)
Now, this first objection and my answer to it generate further questions which must be dealt with. I’ll attempt to do so in the remaining posts in this series.