There are certain denominations that don’t believe in the eternal conscious torment of the sinner, even among professing evangelical circles. I will deal with this in future articles, but they often bring up the inequality of punishment that Christ receives as a substitution for sinners. Someone like me who believes that hell is eternal conscious torment is often accused of not seeing the cross in just terms because Christ didn’t suffer eternally. There are some opponents who are inevitably annihilationist that will admit, however, that Jesus also was not annihilated. So in either case, Jesus’ punishment does not equally demonstrate the punishment of the wicked. Yet some within this camp further affirm that Jesus dying was the punishment. In other words, because Jesus died, that is how He was able to equally take our punishment because we die. And He rose again, defeating death on our behalf so that the righteous can have immortality. In essence, the moment that Jesus died is when Jesus took the punishment and only in dying, therefore, can we justly say He took our place, since death is the punishment.
While I do not holistically disagree with the conclusion, I also do not fully agree with the premise. Jesus’ experienced God’s wrath for us on the cross. The punishment was not solely death, but suffering God’s wrath because sin was laid upon Him. Death is the result of sin, and Jesus should have died long before He hung on that cross because of the way He was beaten. But because He was sinless, and had not yet had sin placed upon Him (which was a picture of the day of atonement), the body He had was not yet ready to die. It was only after sin was laid upon Him, and God’s wrath poured upon Him that He could cry, “It is finished!” This is penal substitution which some who reject eternal conscious torment love to also subtly deny. Or better yet, not explicitly affirm with plain speech. They rather affirm substitution, but not penal substitution. But I digress. The point is how do we reconcile the fact that Jesus was able to endure sufficiently and efficaciously God’s wrath that He will forever pour out on sinners? If the annihilationist position is true, why would Jesus have to experience the Father’s wrath if the punishment is realized in His death?
These are questions that seem weighty, but can be answered easily. Let’s make this plain. Jesus did not suffer punishment the same way that we will suffer punishment. Whether you believe annihilationism (in any form) or eternal conscious torment, one truth about Christ’s atonement will remain the same. Jesus suffered more for sinners than any sinner will ever suffer for their own sin. Why? Because of who He was! Listen, we are not just talking about a regular Joe Schmoe. We are talking about the precious Lamb of God! God of very God. The Holiest of Holies. The High and Mighty Son. The Prince of Peace. He humbled Himself, was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, was ridiculed, mocked, and beaten by His own creation who He could have crushed like grasshoppers. Yet, He endured suffering in obedience to the Father to fulfill all that was written concerning Him. In one sense, He did not need to hang for hours. He didn’t need to continue bearing with the mocking and jeering that He did on behalf of sinners. But He chose to. And whether God chose to do it with a paper cut, or He chose to do with all of His eternal might, because of who Jesus was, just one tiny drop of blood spilled from an open wound inflicted upon Him would have been sufficient to save infinite legions of depraved sinners. But because dying is a part of the punishment, He could have just had His throat slit like the lambs of the Old Testament. He could have had a swifter execution. But instead He chose one of the most excruciating and humiliating ways to die. And endured God’s wrath as He bore it all!
I pray you don’t miss this. The punishment of Jesus will never match the punishment we receive because Jesus should not have been punished. If it were not for the grace of God, the punishment of Jesus would never have happened. If it were not for the justice of God, the punishment of Jesus would not be necessary. So in one sense, I agree with those who are opponents of eternal conscious torment that the punishment on Jesus doesn’t seem fair and equal. Because it wasn’t! What’s fair is that >>>> I <<<< should have been slaughtered! I should have experienced God’s wrath for all eternity without mercy and grace. Jesus enduring even a millisecond of God’s wrath on my behalf is infinitely more grace than I will EVER deserve. So when I hear from certain circles concerning their rejection of penal substitution and eternal conscious torment on how it seems cruel, I agree. Jesus should have wiped us all out! It’s seems cruel that it took the matchless, priceless, precious, and spotless God-Man in order for wicked and depraved sinners like us to be free. That Jesus, in His willingness and obedience, stepped into time, clothed Himself in sinless flesh, and subjected Himself to something worse than an everyday criminal’s death. It was one of the most tortuously notorious executions invented by man. A punishment reserved for the worse of the worst. Yet He suffered more than just a criminal’s death so that criminals like me can be saved. Why would He do such a thing?! It is more than cruel, it should not have happened! God would have been perfectly justified in giving us what we deserve, and never thinking twice about it. And in light of what the Father did to Jesus, eternal conscious punishment in Hell seems like an act of mercy in comparison to what Jesus endured for us. But the Triune God, by His mercy and grace, had an eternally bigger plan to save sinners from their sin, and to separate a people unto Himself, so that they can enjoy the greatest blessing ever to receive –Himself.
Jesus was more than a substitute. He was THE Surpassing Substitute. He was more than what you could expect a substitute to ever be. Sacrifices in the Old Testament typified substitution, but Jesus outshines them all! But Jesus wasn’t just a substitute, He was THE Perfect Penal Substitute. He didn’t just suffer a little of God’s wrath, but endured as much as was necessary to appease and satisfy His justice as a propitiation for our sins. And this was still infinitely more than He deserved. He endure more suffering, more pain, more sorrow, more agony not because of how long He was on the cross, but because He was on the cross! I cannot stress this enough. Jesus is more valuable and more beautiful than any being in the universe because He was God. He gave Himself for our sins. The punishment was not what we should have received. It was way more than we’ll ever experience, because He was innocent. If we can grasp this, when we look at Jesus on the cross, we should no longer wonder how He could sufficiently endure God’s eternal wrath, but wonder in why He was on the cross in the first place. We should no longer ponder the punishment matching the crime, but the fact that He had to be punished in the first place. We should be more offended at Christ having to take such a punishment than the eternal conscious torment of the wicked. Because if we value Jesus as He should be valued, it should be no surprise that God would eternally pour out His wrath on those that choose their sin over Him. Jesus’ punishment is by far a greater offense than sinners suffering in Hell forever (although paradoxically, it is a glorious grace because of Him who regenerated me because of it). I am more humbled and broken about my sin when I see the Lamb of God crushed by the Father, than by millions of souls weeping and gnashing in Hell. Jesus shouldn’t have suffered and died on that cross. But praise God He did. For it was the only way I would see Jesus as preciously and magnificently as I do today (and it grows daily). And even still, this article falls miserably short in comparison to the glory and majesty of who He is and what He has accomplished for those of us who have repented and believed His glorious gospel.
One final word. While I get what people say when they sing or read that “it should have been us upon that cross,” I can no longer say that this is fully the case for me. I don’t seek to undo thousands of pages that say something to this effect, because, for the most part, I don’t disagree. I should have experienced my punishment for my own sin. And it is from this sentiment that this understanding springs forth. So when people say this, I don’t fret. But I have recently come to appreciate the crucifixion of Christ in a way that has become exceptionally humbling for me, and I sought to share it with all. I pray that this article brings you to the same place it has brought me. To a place of deeper reverence, worship, obedience, and understanding concerning what Jesus accomplished on our behalf.
-Until we go home