Hell to Pay

18 years ago, I heard a sermon on Matthew 27:46--Jesus' cry of dereliction on the cross, "My God, My God, Why have You forsaken Me?" At one point, the minister who was preaching this message said, "Jesus wasn't really forsaken; he just felt forsaken by his Father in his soul." I remember sensing anger welling up within me at those words. I thought to myself, "That's a denial of the Gospel. If Jesus wasn't really forsaken, then I have no grounds to believe that I will never be forsaken." Sadly, I have subsequently come to discover that there are quite a number of Protestant theologians who have shied away from asserting that Jesus was really and truly forsaken by his Father when he hung on the cross. Nevertheless, I want to explain what we lose if Jesus wasn't, in fact, forsaken by God when he stood in our place. 

Thomas Brooks, the seventeenth century English Puritan theologian, explained why we must never downplay what truly happened to Christ on the cross. He insisted,

"The more we ascribe to Christ's suffering, the less remains of ours; the more painfully that he suffered, the more fully are we redeemed; the greater his sorrow was, the greater our solace; his dissolution is our consolation, his cross our comfort; his annoy our endless joy; his distress in soul our release, his calamity our comfort; his misery our mercy, his adversity our felicity, his hell our heaven."1

Brooks then proceded to explain exactly what happened to Jesus at Calvary, when he said, 

"Christ did actually undergo and suffer the wrath of God, and the fearful effects thereof, in the punishments threatened in the law. As he became a debtor, and was so accounted, even so he became payment thereof; he was made a sacrifice for sin, and bare to the full all that ever divine justice did or could require, even the uttermost extent of the curse of the law of God. He must thus undergo the curse, because he had taken upon him our sin. The justice of the most high God, revealed in the law, looks upon the Lord Jesus as a sinner, because he hath undertaken for us, and seizes upon him accordingly, pouring down on his head the whole curse, and all those dreadful punishments which are threatened in it against sin."2

Herman Bavinck, in his Reformed Dogmatics, stated the importance of understanding that Jesus did not merely undergo the feeling of forsakenness on the cross. Rather, Jesus experienced "an objective God-forsakenness" at Calvary. He insisted,  

"In the cry of Jesus we are dealing not with a subjective but with an objective God-forsakenness: He did not feel alone but had in fact been forsaken by God. His feeling was not an illusion, not based on a false view of his situation, but corresponded with reality."3

Charles Spurgeon explained that "hell consists in the hiding of God's face from sinners" and that God hid His face from Christ in the moment of his forsakenness on the cross: 

"Christ in that hour took all our sins, past, present, and to come, and was punished for them all there and then, that we might never be punished, because he suffered in our stead. Do you see, then, how it was that God the Father bruised him? Unless he had so done the agonies of Christ could not have been an equivalent for our sufferings; for hell consists in the hiding of God's face from sinners, and if God had not hidden his face from Christ, Christ could not--I see not how he could--have endured any suffering that could have been accepted as an equivalent for the woes and agonies of his people."4

Likewise, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, In his commentary on Romans 8:32, asserted that Jesus underwent "a separation from the face of the Father" on the cross. He wrote,

"[God] has made His Son the sacrifice; it is a substitutionary offering for your sins and mine. That was why He was there in the Garden sweating drops of blood, because He knew what it involved - it involved a separation from the face of the father. And that is why He cried out on the Cross, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?'"

While the above citations ought to contain sufficiently convincing theological arguments, we still have to answer several objections to the truth that Jesus endured the infinite and eternal wrath of God on the cross. Some have insisted that Jesus didn't truly endure hell on the cross, because his human nature didn't experience complete annihilation. Others have rejected the teaching that Jesus experienced the equivalent of hell on the cross because his sufferings were temporary rather than eternal in their endurance. The answer to both of these objections is, of course, found in the mystery of the union of the two natures of Christ. 

Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 38 asks the question, "Why was it requisite that the Mediator should be God?" The members of the Assembly gave the following answer:

"It was requisite that the mediator should be God, that he might sustain and keep the human nature from sinking under the infinite wrath of God, and the power of death; give worth and efficacy to his sufferings, obedience, and intercession; and to satisfy God's justice, procure his favor, purchase a peculiar people, give his Spirit to them, conquer all their enemies, and bring them to everlasting salvation."

Here, both objections are answered. First, the divine nature of the Son of God sustained and kept the human nature from sinking under the infinite wrath of God while he was the object of the infinite wrath of God. The infinite wrath of God was poured out on the finite human nature of Jesus, while the infinite divine nature of Jesus was upholding his person. Second, the infinite and eternal divine nature of the Son "gave worth and efficacy to his sufferings...to satisfy God's justice." It was not the amount of time that Jesus endured the infinite and eternal wrath of God when he hung on the cross, but the fact that an infinite and eternal being was giving worth to his human soul as Jesus bore the wrath of God in his body on the tree. 

If Jesus wasn't truly forsaken--if he didn't really endure the equivalent of eternal punishment on the cross--then substitutionary atonement is a legal fiction. If Jesus didn't really suffer the pains of hell on the cross then the infinite and eternal wrath of God is not truly propitiated. If Jesus didn't become the object of the righteous indignation of God in our place then we are still the objects of the eternal wrath of God. If Jesus wasn't truly condemned on the cross then we are not truly justified before God. If Jesus did not objectively suffer the equivalent of hell in his body and soul then there will be hell for us to pay. Praise God that there was hell to pay for Jesus when "in my place, condemned he stood. Hallelujah! What a Savior!" 

1.Thomas Brooks, The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 5 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; G. Herbert, 1867), 147.

2.Ibid., pp. 147-148.

3. Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 389.

4. An excerpt from Spurgeon's sermon on Isaiah 53:10.