What did Jesus suffer “for us and for our salvation”?

A podcast interview with me

A Consuming Passion

Chris Date has begun a series of podcasts in which he will interview authors of chapters in A Consuming Passion. I am the first person on deck, and Chris spent quite a long time talking with me about my journey to annihilationism. Whether or not you have read the series of blog posts I wrote, which were an early form of the material in my chapter for the festschrift for Edward Fudge, you may be interested in this interview.

 

 

Chris DateToward the end of the interview, Chris asked whether my becoming a conditionalist had affected any other areas of my theology. I said that this was not the case, outside of eschatology. In my experience to that point, I had seen no other dominoes fall as a result of my new understanding of the nature of hell. Chris was particularly interested in hearing whether my understanding of Christ’s atoning work had been affected by my coming to believe that God ultimately destroys the wicked rather than tormenting them endlessly. I answered in the negative. For good reason, this is a subject of great interest  to Chris, and he noted that traditionalists tend to place a very heavy emphasis on Christ’s suffering, in order to demonstrate a coherence between what he experienced and what the unredeemed will experience.

Prior to that time, I had made comments on the issue a few times on this blog. While I was still a traditionalist, I had reached the conclusion that neither traditionalism nor annihilationism gains an apologetic advantage from the doctrine of Christ’s penal substitutionary atonement. It seemed to me that Jesus neither suffered endlessly nor was annihilated. So there is not an exact likeness between Christ’s experience in bearing the penalty of our sin and unrepentant people’s experience in bearing the penalty of their own sin. That was still my view at the time of my podcast conversation with Chris.

It has been a few months since that Skype call conversation and the wheels have kept turning in my mind. To my own surprise and delight, I have come to see the matter differently. So, by way of moving further onward from my written work to date and my recorded conversation with Chris, I want to lay out here what I now believe and why.

Since the penalty for sin is death, what Jesus suffered as our sin bearer was death. Through that death and his glorious resurrection, Jesus the Christ, the world’s only Savior, graciously secured immortality and eternal life for all who are united to him by faith. Hence, the unrepentant wicked, who must pay the penalty for their own sin, necessarily die the “second death,” in the most complete and irrevocable way that Jesus warned about in Matt. 10:28 – destruction of body and soul. Consequently, penal substitutionary atonement accords much better with conditionalism than it does with endless conscious torment.

 This is what I want to unpack a bit in the remainder of this post.

Jesus suffered in two distinct ways

 In our consideration of the suffering of Jesus, it is critical that we distinguish between two different kinds of suffering, only one of which was directly instrumental in the accomplishment of salvation. I think we can identify them as: (1) the things Jesus suffered with us, and (2) the things Jesus suffered in our place, or instead of us. If we blur this important distinction, we seriously muddy the waters in regard to our doctrine of the atonement and what that teaches us about God’s judgment of unrepentant sinners.

In becoming human, the last Adam, suffered with us.

The eternal Word, who became Jesus through his incarnation, although completely righteous, suffered the penalty for sin, and he did this in his role as the second or “last” Adam. Representatively bearing the consequences of sin’s entrance into the world through the sin of the first Adam, Jesus, the last Adam, brought life where Adam had brought death (Rom 5:12-21; 1 Cor 15:20-23, 42-49).

As a man, God’s eternal Son became vulnerable to death, the penalty for sin

The writer to the Hebrews described very clearly the importance and the effect of the Word’s taking upon himself our nature, thereby entering completely into human experience. This entailed suffering, for

It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctified and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying,

I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you. (Heb 2:10-12 NRSV)

This is the sense in which it is legitimate for us to call all human beings “children of God.” In becoming human, Jesus identified with the entire human race, just as Adam was constituted representative of the race in his probation, and this fact is attested by the writer’s quotation of Ps 8:4-6. Human beings were created flesh and blood, and so the eternal Son of God likewise shared flesh and blood (Heb 2:14), “so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (2:14-15). It was the nature of humans, not the nature of angels, which the Word took upon himself, and this made Jesus mortal. The Word took this frailty upon himself, in order to accomplish redemption and deliverance of us humans from the bondage in which our sin enslaves us.

Paul made the same point in his letter to the Philippians. the Son of God, though being himself “in the form of God,” with all the manifest privileges that this entailed, “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:6-8).

Both of these passages focus on the significance of the Son’s incarnation for all of humanity. They emphasize that his identification with humans was necessitated by human sin and that it would lead Jesus to death, the penalty decreed for sin, in the basic stipulations God gave to Adam in the garden of Eden. Only one prohibition was stated, eating of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” and the consequences of disobedience to that simple command were clearly stated: “for in the day in that you eat of it, you shall die” (Gen 2:16-17).

The apostle Paul summed up the immense implications of Adam’s probation in the garden, the way in which his disobedience implicated all of us, his descendants, but also God’s gracious provision of a remedy in the obedience of the second man/Adam.  “Sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned” (Rom 5:12 NRSV [or “all sinned” NET]. Thankfully, God did not simply abandon Adam, and all of the sinful race that followed, to death, the penalty for sin. The “grace of God  and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:15) made a provision sufficient to redeem the entire human race. “The judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:16-17). “One man’s trespass led to condemnation for all,” but “one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all” (Rom 5:18), and when grace exercises “dominion through justification,” it leads “to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 5:21). Hallelujah, what amazingly good news that is!

Every descendant of Adam will die. For some it happens even before they are born, others live for a long time, but we all know that death is inevitable. But it need not be the final story, because, in Jesus, the second Adam, God has made a way by which sinners can rise from among the dead and receive a life which will never end. Having taken upon himself the nature of the first Adam, Jesus was likewise vulnerable to death. But, being the “last Adam,” he got a clean start. Like the first Adam, he was tempted or tested “in every respect . . .as we are” (Heb 4:15). But, unlike the first Adam, he remained “without sin” (Heb 4:15). The Adversary who had tempted Eve and, through her, Adam, later tempted and tried Jesus with a severity that no other human being has ever experienced, precisely because he resisted all Satan’s efforts, whereas we often and quickly succumb.

In becoming human, the Word incarnate, Jesus, became vulnerable to death as the stipulated penalty for sin, but he never deserved that penalty, because he never sinned. The Word had chosen not only to take our human nature upon himself, he chose to identify with us as sinners. He demonstrated this in his request for John to baptize him with the baptism of repentance. As Jesus told John, he did this “to fulfill all righteousness.” Whereas we are baptized into Christ’s death, he was baptized prospectively of his own death. Although Jesus “knew no sin,” in accordance with what Reformed theologians call the “covenant of redemption,” God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). Here we see the core of the doctrine of incorporated guilt and incorporated righteousness.

[Protestants have tended to speak of imputed guilt and righteousness, and our intent has been good, but I think the choice of terminology is unfortunate. It implies an externality which prompts people to question why one person should be accounted guilty for the sin of another [Adam], or accounted righteous for the righteousness of another {Jesus], as though some sort of external transfer was the mechanism at work in such accounting. But I believe that the more biblical way of speaking is incorporation. Being “in Adam” or “in Christ” are the key relationships which lead either to death or to life.]

On the way to death, human life in a world full of sinners is inevitably a life of suffering

We suffer from the effects of sin in the natural world, until we return to the dust from which we were taken (Gen 3:16-19). The whole of creation groans in labor pains as it looks forward to the deliverance that will come about when our own bodies are redeemed (Rom 8:20-23; cf. Matt 19:28). The Son of God subjected himself to this reality during his life on earth, in order that he might eventually regenerate the whole creation, bringing in the new heaven and earth, and subdue all his enemies, the last of which will be death (1 Cor 15:24-26).

We also suffer the consequences of our own acts of sin. The moral law which God has given us is not arbitrary; it is expressive of his own good nature and it is the way of life which is good for us. Every act of disobedience, conscious or unintended, is folly and it inevitably brings pain and suffering. In a very sobering passage in Romans 1:18-32, Paul describes how one of God’s means of punishing those who “by their wickedness suppress the truth” (1:18), is to withdraw his grace (which protects people, even unbelievers, from the natural consequences of their sin), and to “give people up” to “the lusts of their hearts (1:24), “degrading passions” (1:26), and “a debased mind” (1:28). In such cases, as Augustine wrote, sin becomes its own punishment (Confessions, 1).

Since Jesus was without sin, he did not suffer personally in this way, but he suffered the pain of watching other people who were suffering the consequences of their own perverse and foolish sin. And I assume that Jesus might also have suffered what we could call collateral damage from other people’s suffering of the consequences of their own sin. In military engagements people often suffer pain and loss that was never intended for their particular harm. The goal of the action was to punish or restrain the evil of another person or group, but its effect was wider than that targeted population. There was a ripple effect that spread the suffering. Likewise, innocent people often suffer because of the suffering that others are experiencing as a due consequence of their own evil doing.

Frequently, we suffer the effects of other sinners’ hostility to God. This was doubtless the source of much of Jesus’ most painful suffering. He came to his own people and most of them rejected him (Jn 1:11). Most of the religious rulers of Israel, who should have led their people in reception of God’s promised Messiah, suppressed God’s revelation, to their own peril and to the detriment of the people. Jesus described them as “blind guides of the blind,” and warned the people that if they followed these leaders, both they and the leaders would “fall into a pit” (Matt 15:13-14). At every turn, these leaders criticized and opposed Jesus, and ultimately their hostility prompted them to incite false witnesses against him so that they could charge him with blasphemy and seek his death, through the claim that Jesus was a threat to the Roman government. We see the agony of Jesus as he looked out upon Jerusalem and said:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ (Matt 23:27-39).

This was a form of suffering which Jesus shared with all who seek to follow God, and he warned that we would be treated in the same way that he was treated, that we “will be hated by all because of [his] name” (Matt 10:22). In this regard, therefore, Jesus suffered with us and he gives us the privilege of suffering with him.

A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!” (Matt 10:24-25).

Acts and the New Testament Epistles give many examples of precisely this persecution happening. Paul warned us through Timothy that “all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12), and he told the Philippians that suffering for Christ was one of the “privileges” which God had given to them (Phil 1:29). In my senior year at Bible College, our class verse was Phil 3:10, and I confess to struggling with a sense of ambivalence every time we repeated Paul’s words. I very much wanted “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection,” but I shrank from “the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.”

Yet, that is what we should expect, and we should learn, like Paul, to see our suffering for Christ’s sake as a form of fellowship with him, which is a privilege. Indeed, as Peter said, it is a “calling.” Christ suffered for us, and it is now our privilege to suffer for him. We must do so in ways that imitate his own suffering at the hand of wicked people (1 Pet 2:20-21), and we know that we will experience God’s approval when we do so (1 Pet 2:20). In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he described his suffering with and for Christ in a fascinating way, as “completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24).

What we hear in these texts is sobering and highly important for its practical import for our life as followers of Jesus, but what I want to stress here is that none of our suffering with and for Christ adds in any way to the work Christ did in the suffering which achieved our atonement and accomplished our redemption, justification, sanctification, adoption, and glorification. What Christ suffered uniquely for our salvation is what he suffered instead of us, even though it was brought about, in some measure, by the sort of suffering which we share with him.

To deliver us from the guilt and power of sin and to give us eternal life, Jesus suffered instead of us

It is in this second form of suffering that we come face to face with the penalty of The Crosssin from which Christ delivers all who believe in him. It is here that we grasp the nature of hell, of the divine judgment upon sinners, from which Christ saves all who are “in him.” In being made sin for us, he suffered the penalty of sin on our behalf. He suffered the wrath of the holy justice of God, that which is the essence of all that is depicted in biblical references to Gehenna or hell. And all who are incorporated into Christ by grace, through faith and the gift of God’s Spirit, are delivered from hell, which we deserve, and are given eternal life with God, which we do not deserve, but which God delights to give us.

Jesus suffered the wrath of the God, who is holy and just, so that those in him will not have to suffer that wrath themselves

In recent years, people have often expressed concerns that penal substitutionary atonement is a form of child abuse. This should not occupy us long, because the accusation so completely ignores the Trinitarian nature of all God’s works. The crucifixion of Jesus was not something the Father did to him, it was as much the Son’s as the Father’s act. Everything the Father does is also done by the Son, though in a distinct manner (Jn 5:19). Jesus specifically spoke to this matter in John 10, when he describes his work as “the good shepherd” (10:11). It is in that role that he “lays down his life for the sheep” (10:11, 15). This was both a manifestation of the self-sacrificial love of God for sinners and an act that elicited the Father’s love for the Son (10:17). But Jesus insisted: “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father” (10:18). In his self-humiliation for our sake, the Son always did the will of the Father, and the Father was vocal about the pleasure this gave him (Jn 8:29). It was the very “food” of Jesus to do the will of the Father who sent him and to complete his work (Jn 4:34).

Fleming Rutledge describes this grace of God in moving terms:

Who would have thought that the same God who passed judgment, calling down woe upon the religious establishment (Matthew 23; Luke 11), would come under his own judgment and woe? This is a shockingly immoral and unreligious idea; as we shall see over and over again, however, the crucifixion reveals God placing himself under his own sentence. The wrath of God has lodged in God’s own self. Perfect justice is wrought in the self-offering of the Son, who alone of all human beings was perfectly righteous. Therefore no one, neither victim nor victimizer, can claim any exemption from judgment on one’s own merits, but only on the merits of the Son (The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, 132).

People whose hearts are hard and impenitent “are storing up wrath” for themselves, “when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom 2:5), because God will repay each of us according to our deeds (Rom 2:6). “To those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Rom 2:7), but “for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury, . . .anguish and distress” (Rom 8, 9). The terrifying thing is that our own consciences convict us of having disobeyed God, for none of us will be able to stand before God in the day of judgment and say that we always did what we believed was right and never did what we deemed morally wrong.

It is our own consciences that will testify against us, when we stand before God, and these will be God’s standard of judgment. Granted, our consciences are unreliable, sometimes absolving us when we are guilty of having broken God’s moral law, but at other times condemning us when we are objectively guilty by the demand of God’s law. The point is that, whether correctly or erroneously, properly or improperly informed, our consciences speak what we believe to be moral truth. They are functionally God’s voice, and when we obey or disobey them, we intentionally obey or disobey God, who alone is good and whose will defines the good for all his creatures.

We find in Scripture an interesting phenomenon, that we can be objectively guilty (having violated God’s moral will) but subjectively innocent (for having done what we believed to be right, so that our disobedience was unintentional), and God judges us according to our subjective, not our objective, guilt. This is never more clearly stated than with regard to what may appear the relatively minor issue of dietary morality, in Rom 14:22-23:

The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.

If we violate our consciences we act in bad faith, and so we are subjectively guilty, having acted with the conscious intention of doing what was sinful. But when we obey our consciences, we act in faith, having done what we believed to be morally right, and God judges us accordingly.

I propose that one of the universal benefits of Christ’s atoning death is the forgiveness of sins of ignorance.  Because any and all sin deserves God’s judgment, namely, death, everyone who sins objectively, having done what is morally wrong by God’s standard, deserves to be punished. Before the law of God, they stand guilty. When God chooses not to punish us for unintended sin, however, he does not simply say: “That is OK, it doesn’t matter.” It does matter, and it violates God’s holiness and disrupts the shalom, the total well being, of God’s creation. When God, the Judge of all moral beings, chooses not to punish us for that unintended moral violation, his own holiness is preserved, I suggest, by the fact that Jesus paid the penalty for sin. He is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29), and he remains righteous by justifying a person in regard to the sin done in ignorance, because Christ bears the penalty (cf. Rom 3:23-25).

Of course, I am not here speaking of the complete justification that leads to eternal life, simply of that one act for which God does not hold the ignorant sinner accountable. But, nonetheless, I am suggesting one of the ways in which Jesus satisfied the just wrath of God against sin, is in his providing a sacrifice of atonement which God applies to sins of ignorance, that is to say, to acts which, though sinful, were done in good faith (as per Rom 14). This was typified in the old covenant provision of sacrifices for sins done unintentionally (Lev 5:17-19; Num 15:22-28), particularly in the annual offering of the high priest, in the Holy of Holies, which was for his own sin and “for the sins committed unintentionally by the people” (Heb 9:7).

Of much greater magnitude than God’s forbearance of sins done in ignorance is God’s forgiveness of sins done deliberately. No provision was made for these sins in the old covenant sacrificial system. Yet that is precisely what God does to all whom he graciously justifies, not on account of their own righteousness, but on account of the righteousness of Jesus, in whom they are incorporated by faith. That absolution of blatant rebellion, of acts done in violation of our own conscience, is only possible on the part of the Righteous God, because God sees believing sinners, not in their sinful selves, but as covered in the righteousness of Christ. He treats us as “in Christ,” and he gives us eternal life as the reward Christ earned for himself, his own vindication being manifested in his resurrection (Rom 1:4). This righteousness is communicated to all who participate in Christ by faith (Rom 6:5), resulting in our own resurrection and God’s gift of eternal life (Rom 6:23).

An excursus on Christ’s suffering when forsaken by the Father

In Matthew 27:46 we hear a cry from the lips of Christ which has always affected me profoundly: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These painful words from Psalm 22:1 expressed the agony that Jesus was experiencing in his last moments on the cross. The leaders of Israel had been mocking him: “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross. . . . He saved others; he cannot save himself. . . . He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to”(Mt 27:41-43). Jesus did trust in God, and God certainly had the power to deliver him, but the Son of Man came “to give his life a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45), and his face had been set toward Jerusalem all his life, to make that supreme sacrifice at Passover time. Surely, what Jesus was feeling, when he cried out at being forsaken, was not simply shame at his helplessness in the fact of his mockers, nor a sense that God had indeed abandoned him in his hour of need. For the Father to have delivered him then would have been to abort the purpose for which the Father had sent him. As Isaiah wrote, so graphically and so painfully, Jesus, the suffering Servant “was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (Isa 53:4-5). The Father could have delivered Jesus from the cross, but he did not do so, because he had deliberately “laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa 53:6).

In my many years as a traditionalist, I viewed Jesus’ cry from the cross through the lens which was so often used when I heard it preached, namely, the alienation of Jesus from the Father by his being made sin. I do not deny the truth of that proclamation at all. But, over time, that moment assumed an importance in my understanding of the atoning work of Christ which I now see to have been misconstrued. I came to see that time, and that interaction between the Father and the Son as the supreme moment of Jesus’ accomplishment of our salvation. The Father’s righteous wrath was poured out, and Jesus, in our place, bore our sin “in his body on the cross,” as Peter put it, with Isa 53 very clearly in his mind (1 Pet 2:24). But, because I saw the Son’s satisfying of the Father’s righteous wrath against sin as of utmost importance, I came to think of that moment as virtually the time at which Jesus redeemed us. I didn’t explicitly say this, to myself or others, but I was working with that concept in mind.

It has taken a while, but being an annihilationist has finally made me aware of my error on this point. I believe that it is true that the Son’s bearing of the Father’s wrath against sin is at the very center of the effectiveness of Christ’s work on the cross. But to put things in the way that I had begun to portray them, would have been to indicate that redemption was accomplished while Jesus was alive on the cross. That is contrary to the continuous testimony of the New Testament that Jesus accomplished our delivery from the guilt and power of sin by his death, by the shedding of his blood. Our redemption in Christ has been “put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (Rom 3:24-25).

All the sinners whom God had chosen “before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love,” had been chosen “in Christ” (Eph 1:4). It is through this incorporation into Christ that those who believe are saved and “have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (Eph 1:7, emphasis mine). Their names had “been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered” (Rev 1:8).  After Peter’s declaration, by revelation of Jesus’ Father in heaven (Matt 16:17),  that Jesus was “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Jesus “began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Mt 16:21-22; cf. Matt 17:22-23; Lk 9:22). Jesus described in detail the events which would occur to him in Jerusalem – condemnation to death, handing over to the Gentiles, mocking, spitting, flogging, and killing, but then rising again after three days (Mk 12:33-34). He spoke of those events as the cup that he was about to drink (Matt 20:22).

Jesus had stated to his disciples that, although his soul was troubled, he would not ask the Father to save him “from this hour,” because it was “for this reason” that he had “come to this hour” (Jn 12:27). What Jesus did request was that the Father glorify his name, and the Father answered: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again,” with a voice which the crowd took to be either thunder or the voice of an angel who had spoken to Jesus (Jn 12:29). But Jesus told them that this voice had not spoken for his sake, but for the crowd’s because the time had come for “the judgment of this world, “ when “when the ruler of this world will be driven out.” And when Jesus was “lifted up from the earth,” he would “draw all people to [him]self” (Jn 12:30-31). That was his way of indicating the kind of death he would die (Jn 12:33). In the garden of Gethsemane, Peter drew his sword in an effort to protect Jesus from arrest, but Jesus told him: “Put your sword back into its sheath,” because Jesus willed: “to drink the cup that the Father has given me” (Jn 18:10-11).

Jesus in GethsemaneConsequently, it is highly unlikely that, in Gethsemane, Jesus asked the Father to allow him not to drink the cup of death (Mt 26:39; Lk 22:42). Earlier that evening, at the Passover super where Jesus instituted what we call “the Lord’s Supper,” Jesus had taken up the cup of wine and invited his disciples to drink it in remembrance of him, because it was “the cup that is poured out for you,” the cup of “the new covenant in [Jesus’] blood” (Lk 22:20). Whatever Jesus meant when he prayed in the garden, it cannot have been a request for deliverance from the death which was the Son’s very purpose for coming to the earth as a man, the last Adam.

 

Various suggestions have been made concerning Jesus’ intent. One of the most common is that Jesus knew that it was not possible that he should be kept from death, but that, in his human frailty, he naturally shrank from the immense suffering that lay ahead of him, even though he willingly submitted himself to the Father’s will, knowing that he must drink this cup. But I give stronger credence to the proposal of J. O. Buswell Jr., that “our Lord Jesus Christ, finding himself in this physical state of extreme shock [“profuse perspiration,” indicating risk of “collapse and even death”], prayed for deliverance from death in the garden, in order that He might accomplish His purpose on the cross” (A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, II, 62). This, Buswell suggests, is Jesus’ prayer “to Him who was able to save Him from death,” a prayer which was answered (Heb 5:7; Buswell, II, 62-63).

Reading through Scripture, we are very quickly impressed with how frequently death is cited as the penalty God established to punish sin. In the old covenant, God had prescribed the system of animal sacrifices for sin, to typify the perfect sacrifice which Jesus was to make, but the same principle was at work: “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb 9:27). It is precisely for this reason that Jesus came to “give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45). Consequently, in bearing that penalty on our behalf, Jesus satisfied vicariously God’s righteous demand, and he thereby redeemed those in him from the guilt and power of sin.

The necessity of Jesus’ resurrection for our salvation

In dying and rising from the dead, Jesus conquered death. In that victory, Jesus’ resurrection is critical. Apart from Jesus’ resurrection, even though Christ died for us and we with him, death would still be our final destiny. Paul stated this most clearly, in his fullest discussion of Christ’s resurrection.

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor 15:17-19)

Filled with the Holy Spirit whom God had poured out upon the believers in Jerusalem, on the day of Pentecost, Peter explained to the puzzled crowd what had taken place that day, and what it meant in regard to Jesus of Nazareth. He was “a man attested to [them] by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among [them]” (Acts 2:22). But, in keeping with God’s “definite plan and foreknowledge,” Jesus had been handed over to them, and he had been “crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law” (Acts 2:23). But God had not left Jesus in the grave, rather, “God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power” (Acts 2:24). Israel’s king David had spoken of precisely this, in Ps 16:8-11:

For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption. You have made known to me the ways of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence (Acts 2:27-28).

God had willed that Jesus should be put to death unjustly, by human powers, but he would not leave him dead, unlike David himself, whose tomb was in Israel at that time. So David had not been speaking of himself, but of “the resurrection of the Messiah” (Acts 2:29-31). God had raised Jesus up, to which the disciples bore witness, and had exalted him at the right hand of God. Having “received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit,” Jesus had then poured out what the crowd had witnessed that day (Acts 2:32-33). Furthermore, everyone who would repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus, would have their sins forgiven, and would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). That promise was not just for them, it has continued to be true ever since then, as we can testify from our own experience.

Paul told the Romans (and us, as Paul stresses [Rom 4:24]) that God reckons faith as righteousness to all who believe with the quality of faith exercised by Abraham. Righteousness “will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification (Rom 4:24-25; emphasis mine). In short, had Jesus not been personally vindicated by God’s raising him from the dead, we who believe in God would not be pardoned for sin, declared not guilty, and therefore resurrected from death to eternal life. “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23).

Everyone is raised from the dead, both righteous and wicked alike, although Scripture makes much less mention of the wicked because, for them, it is not good news, as it is for those who die with Christ and rise again to new life. It seems clear that, even if Jesus had not risen from the dead, God would have raised all the natural descendants of Adam from the dead, in order that they might all be gathered before God’s judgment seat, so that they might be “judged according to what they had done” (Rev 20:13), and the justice of God’s judgment upon them as sinners might be revealed. But, in that awful scenario, the entire human race would have been put to death again, in the “second death,” the lake of fire (Rev 20:4-6, 14-15), and would eventually have been consumed by the fire of God’s wrath. Though everyone is raised, only those who died in Christ (by faith) will be raised with him, in the resurrection of which he himself was the first fruit (1 Cor 15:20). This is the good news of the “gospel,” that Christ “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light” (1 Tim 2:10). Only those who die in faith, by God’s grace, are raised to that endless life and given immortality.

Because I see the theme of Christ’s victory over his enemies (“Christus Victor”), particularly Satan and death, as the dominant metaphor in the Bible’s description of the atonement, the resurrection of Christ looms even larger than it would for those who identify penal substitution as the dominant theme, which is quite common in evangelicalism. Death is the last enemy that Christ destroys (1 Cor 15:26), and this makes best sense, I believe, within annihilationism. Death and Hades (the place of the dead) “gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done” (Rev 20:13). But “then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev 20:14). When the redeemed are given eternal life, and when the wicked are destroyed in the second death (Rev 20:6), then there is no need for Hades, for a place of the dead. Death itself, spoken of as personified, is itself destroyed. It is “swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor 15:54), and it has lost its sting, for “the sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law,” (1 Cor 15:56), but God has given us victory over both sin and death, “through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15:57).

I postulate, therefore, that death is destroyed when it has finally served as God’s instrument for destroying his sentient and volitional enemies, so that absolutely no rebellious creature remains anywhere in creation. This is a vastly different picture of the finality of Christ’s work than is presented by traditionalism, which depicts a multitude of creatures living endlessly in rebellion against God, in spite of being eternally consciously tormented, and even though their animosity is futile.

Universal reconciliation, the salvation of all God’s moral creatures would appear to be an even more glorious victory on God’s part, but there is insufficient biblical support for universalism, despite its great attractiveness. Nonetheless, I find comfort in the grounds I find for hopefulness that most of the human race will be redeemed.

We must praise God that he “so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). Here, and everywhere in Scripture, the message is clear and the importance of our response to God is unmistakable. Each of us is faced with life or death, and the only way to life is by incorporation into Jesus by faith. He paid the penalty of sin, namely, death (not eternal torment), but those who reject his summons to believe and to obey, must bear the penalty themselves. To die in unbelief is to remain in the condemnation of our sin and hence to be raised to “shame and everlasting contempt,” rather than to “everlasting life” (Dan 12:2).[1] Traditionalists speak as though we have a choice between eternal life with God and eternal life apart from God. But Scripture never describes the alternatives in that way. Those “who do not know God” and “who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus,” will not be given eternal life away from God. Their destiny is to “suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thess 1:8-9; emphasis mine). Without God’s continual sustaining power, no creature can exist, and God has chosen to destroy, rather than to torture endlessly, those who wickedly suppress the truth which God has revealed to them (Rom 1:18).

Choose Life!

 

[1] Lest “everlasting contempt” should be seen as evidence of the continuing existence of the wicked, I note that only the righteous need to exist eternally, since their contempt is for wicked beings who no longer exist or threaten God’s being all-in-all. Thus the shalom of his entire creation has been restored, and everything God made is, once again, “all very good.” The glory and beauty of God’s creation is no longer marred by the wickedness of such contemptible beings. It might even be that their contemptibility persists as historical fact, even when memory of them fades.

 

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