Those who reject the vicarious death of Jesus on the cross ask (as do others), “If Jesus did, in fact, die in our place, then what specifically did this entail?” In dealing with some of this in the previous post, I wrote: “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).” In other words, if the debts or penalties of these two deaths were taken up by Jesus on our behalf on the cross, then the end result turns out to be eternal life, not eternal death. I believe it is these first two deaths that Jesus experienced on our behalf. If this interpretation is correct, it will stand up to the scrutiny of Scripture unscathed; if not, it must be rejected. So let’s test it.
Jesus’ Cross Work
As the hilastērion (propitiation), it was Jesus’ task to avert God’s judicial wrath from us. In the process, He became not just our Savior, but the “firstborn from the dead,” the “beginning” of a called-out group of born-again creatures (i.e., the “church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven,” Heb. 12:23) who are made in His image “that in all things He may have the preeminence” (Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5). Of course, there would have been no need for this “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:1; Gal 6:15) if the original one had not fallen into sin—an event clearly marked by Adam’s and Eve’s sins. Ever since then, every amenable descendant of Adam and Eve, save Jesus Christ, has followed in their footsteps. Hence, “death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam” (Rom. 5:14). And why was this? “Because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12; cf. 3:23).
Now, if we view death not so much as an event (or events), but a process or set of events (viz., spiritual death + physical death = eternal death), then it would be difficult to think of what Paul said in the above passages without realizing that he had both the spiritual and physical wages of death in view. As Jesus’ cross work (viz., His suffering and death) was intended to provide the occasion through which He “gave Himself a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:6), purchasing us, in the process, with His own blood (Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 6:20; 7:23), then it seems reasonable that this would have involved both spiritual and physical death. Thus, it seems sound to think this would have required Him to “taste” such deaths to the fullest (cf. Heb. 2:9), and who but GOD IN THE FLESH could have stood good for such a task? Consequently, the separation and forsakenness associated with spiritual death, as well as the separation we know as physical death, were His to endure in our stead: “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, ‘CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE’” (Gal. 3:13).
“Eli, Eli, Lama Sabachthani?”
Shortly before His death on the cross, somewhere around three o’clock in the afternoon, in the gloom of darkness that had covered the earth since noontime, “Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, ‘MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?,’” (Matt. 27:46; Mk. 15:34). Knowing this to be a quotation from Psalm 22:1, which in full reads: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? Why are You so far from helping Me, and from the words of My groaning?,” some have argued that Jesus’ cry from the cross was never intended to be understood as expressing any genuine feelings of forsakenness or separation by Jesus, and this because the psalm is really one of vindication, which is a truth gleaned from the latter half of the psalm, beginning around verse 19.
Now, with Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 22:1 as it applied to His circumstances on the cross, along with John’s use of 22:18 in John 19:24 and the Hebrews writer’s use of 22:22 in Hebrews 2:12, it is apparent the psalm is unquestionably messianic. Therefore, I agree that Psalm 22 teaches that Jesus was not forsaken by His Father in the grand scheme of redemption, but the central figure of it. Indeed, it was always the Father’s intention to vindicate Jesus and thus “bring many sons to glory” (Heb. 2:10). At the same time, what the writer of Hebrews says here is extremely important, in that Jesus’ tasting death for everyone (Heb. 2:9b) was not some “kabuki dance” of pretended forsakenness so that those present would know, through the rhetorical device employed in Psalm 22, that His cry was really one of vindication. Instead, it was the terrible and horrifying experience of spiritual and physical death multiplied by the countless sins of a world which was, without God’s gracious intervention, DEAD (spiritually), DYING (physically), and ON ITS WAY TO HELL (i.e., eventually destined to experience eternal death).
Therefore, to use the ultimate vindication that the latter half of Psalm 22 reveals to deny the Lord’s actual forsakenness and separation as the sin-bearer who was cursed on our behalf is unwarranted. Even so, as the result of such thinking and teaching, one young and exuberant brother has gone so far as to say that anyone who believes that Jesus, while on the cross, was forsaken by the Father, even if only for a moment, is engaged in “blasphemy.” What he calls blasphemy (a charge made but not proved), I believe to be the most straightforward reading of Scripture.
Keep in mind that I am not saying the Bible teaches Jesus was forsaken in the grand scheme of things, only that in a finite moment of time He surely must have felt like, and thus experienced, what it was like as our sin-bearer to be separated from, and forsaken by, the Father:
(4) Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. (5) But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed (Isa. 53:4-5).
When thinking through the above passage, keep in mind that verse 5 does not reverse the people’s perception of what they would observe that pivotal day in history, a some who reject the vicarious death of Jesus think; quite the opposite, it defines it and puts in in its proper perspective, in that the Suffering Servant really was being “stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted”: “Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin” (Isa. 53:10; cf. Rom. 3:25; 1 Jn 2:2; 4:10), “who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed” (1 Pet. 2:24), and this because Jesus “poured out His soul unto death, and He was numbered with the transgressors, and He bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isa. 53:12b).
How all this could have taken place as Jesus hung suspended between heaven and earth on a cross just outside the gates of Jerusalem some two thousand years ago and Him somehow not experience (or feel) the penalty of forsakenness and separation that was ours, as sinners, goes against everything I have learned from Scripture about the effects of sin, including God’s holy, just, and wrathful response to its every form.
What, then, was the penalty (or penalties) He paid on our behalf? The very bitter experience of tasting death—both spiritually and physically—on our behalf (Heb.2:9), that’s what!. By doing so (viz., with the first two “Ds” of triple “D” death taken care of), our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was able to make sure that those of us who remain connected to Him by faith “shall never taste death” (Jn. 8:51-52), which must, contextually, undoubtedly be a reference to the final “D” (eternal death) of the triple “D” death process (spiritual death + physical death = eternal death), which has been described as “everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and the glory of His power” (2 Thess. 1:9).
We’ll pursue this further in our next post in this series