Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Vision (11.20.14): Why did Christ not have to undergo eternal suffering?

Several weeks ago after I preached from Luke 24:1-12 on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, someone in the congregation approached me with an intriguing question.  Here is a summary of her question:

The Bible teaches that the unsaved who die apart from saving faith in Christ are under the wrath of God for eternity in hell.  If Jesus stood in our place and died for our sins, why did he not have to undergo eternal suffering?  Why was the duration of his suffering under the wrath of God limited in time?

The response I gave in the moment to this question went something like this (with Scripture proofs):

Yes, the Bible does indeed teach that those who die apart from saving faith in Christ are under the wrath of God for eternity in hell.  See, for example:

John 3:36:  He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life; and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.

Matthew 25: 41:  Then he shall say unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into the everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.

It further teaches, however, that Jesus’ suffering on the cross and his sacrificial death, though of a limited duration, made perfect atonement for those who would be saved.  See, for example:

Romans 5:8-9:  8 But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.

1 Corinthians 15:3:  For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;

Hebrews 10:12:  But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God;

The resurrection of Jesus is evidence of the fact that God the Father was satisfied by the suffering and death of Jesus for sinners.  God the Father accepted the perfect atoning work of Christ and vindicated him by raising him from the dead.  See, for example:

Acts 2:23-24:  23 Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain: 24  Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it.

Romans 1:3-4:  3 Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh; 4 And declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead:

1 Thessalonians 1:10:  And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.

We must also remember that Jesus was no ordinary man but the God-man and the Second Adam who, in himself, knew no sin but was made sin for us (see 2 Cor 5:21).  He could satisfy God’s righteous wrath through suffering of limited temporal duration which a sinful, unregenerate man, apart from Christ, can never satisfy even in suffering for an unlimited, eternal duration.

This question also sent me to look through some of my books on systematic theology.  I discovered that not every systematic theology addresses this question, but I did find a few who did.  Here are some insights into how others have addressed this question:

The Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs (c. 1600-1646) addresses this issue in his treatise titled Hope, as seen in this passage:

The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the cause of true lively hope in the hearts of the saints.  By the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, God has declared that He is fully satisfied for the sins of man, and that the work of redemption is fully wrought out; otherwise Christ must have been held in the prison of the grave forever.

The Calvinistic Baptist pastor John Gill (1697-1771) addresses the question in his A Complete Body of Doctrinal and Practical Divinity (1767-1770; The Baptist Standard Bearer reprint, 2007) under his discussion of the passive obedience of Christ.  He concludes with these words:

Eternity is not of the essence of punishment; and only takes place when the person punished cannot bear the whole at once; and being finite, as sinful man is, cannot make satisfaction to the infinite Majesty of God, injured by sin, the demerit of which is infinite punishment : and as that cannot be borne at once by a finite creature, it is continued ad infinitum; but Christ being an infinite Person was able to bear the whole at once; and the infinity of his Person, abundantly compensates for the eternity of the punishment (p. 404).

In his Systematic Theology (original 1938; Eerdmans New Combined Edition, 1996), Louis Berkhof addresses the question under his overall discussion of Christ’s “State of Humiliation.”  Following the Heidelberg Catechism, he notes that Christ’s sufferings began during his earthly life.  He then observes:

These sufferings were followed by his death on the cross.  But this was not all; He was subject not only to physical, but also to eternal death, though He bore this intensively and not extensively, when He agonized in the garden and when He cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  In a short period of time He bore the infinite wrath against sin to the very end and came out victoriously.  This was possible for Him only because of His exalted nature (p. 339).

Contemporary New Calvinist theologian Wayne Grudem also provides an extended discussion of this question in his Systematic Theology (Zondervan, 1994) in his chapter on the Atonement.  Under the heading, “Not Eternal Suffering but Complete Payment,” Grudem begins:

If we had to pay the penalty for our own sins, we would have to suffer eternally in separation from God.  However, Jesus did not suffer eternally.  There are two reasons for this difference:  (a) If we suffered for our own sins, we would never be able to make ourselves right with God again.  There would be no hope because there would be no way to live again and earn perfect righteousness before God, and there would be no way to undo our sinful nature and make it right before God.  Moreover, we would continue to exist as sinners who would not suffer with pure hearts of righteousness before God, but would suffer with resentment and bitterness against God, thus continually compounding our sin.  (b) Jesus was able to bear all the wrath of God against our sin and to bear it to the end. No mere man could ever have done this, but by virtue of the union of divine and human natures in himself, Jesus was able to bear all the wrath of God against sin and to bear it to the end (pp. 577-578).

In the end we must confess that we will never be able to touch the bottom of the depths of what God has accomplished for us in Christ.  Still, it is worth the effort to meditate on how in a limited amount of time Christ took our eternal punishment upon himself.  We can thus say with Paul, “But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15:57).

Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle


Anonymous said...

Hi Pastor Riddle,
I'm a Biblical Studies major at Biola University, and am currently writing a paper on Multi-site churches. Your paper from ETS 2006 has been cited in several sources, but I can't find the paper anywhere online... I was wondering if you could email me a copy of it? It would be much appreciated. My email is
Thank you!
Jolynne Hummel

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...


I will email you the paper. I will also try to get it online and do a blog post with link for anyone else who might be interested. I do get contacts from time to time from folk who want to read that paper.