“What can take away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus!” Robert Lowry
How does a traditional view of hell as eternal torment undermine the value of the death of Jesus?
One of the biblical reasons to accept conditional immortality is that Jesus stood in for sinners, taking upon himself their fate, dying the death that would otherwise have come to them. Although there is other good evidence in Scripture that without Christ we will finally die forever, the death of Christ dramatically portrays that fate as the Son of God took our place, giving up his life at Golgotha. Perhaps realising the force of the argument, some traditionalists have sought to avoid conditionalism, incredibly, by denying the atoning power of Christ’s death.
The historical centrality of the death of Christ
From its very beginning, the Christian faith has always maintained that Christ died for sin. There have been several common ways of understanding how the death of Jesus on the cross could deal with sin, but the fact that Jesus’ death is a necessary part of the way that God dealt with sin – the view that it just wouldn’t work if you take Jesus’ death out of the picture – has always been critical to any Christian theology of the atonement. Central to the way that most Christians have viewed the atonement is the concept of substitution. Just how Jesus is viewed as a substitute is explained in different ways. The most widely held view among Protestants, historically, is that of penal substitution: Jesus bore the punishment for sin in his death on the cross, standing in for those who are saved through Christ, who will no longer finally face that punishment.
Penal substitution was by no means a Protestant innovation. It was the development of a standard view within Catholicism, spelled out in detail by St Anselm and often referred to as a “satisfaction” model of the atonement. Satisfaction here refers to the satisfaction of an outstanding debt, a debt that Christ paid on behalf of sinners. Here too, Jesus is seen to stand in and act on behalf of the condemned or the indebted.
Even in the major alternative to a satisfaction model of the atonement, namely the Christus Victor model (also called the “Ransom” theory), substitution looms large. Here Christ is seen as standing in, not before God, but in the face of the powers of darkness, who claim him instead of human beings. Their plan backfires, since Christ is raised from the dead, conquering them once and for all. It is easy to see the influence of this model on C. S. Lewis as Aslan in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe stands in the place of the traitor Edmund, dying in his stead, only to rise again and conquer the witch who killed him.
What all orthodox views of the atonement share when it comes to the notion of substitution is that Jesus, the righteous one, is subjected to death in place of others. Had Jesus not died, sin would not be atoned, nobody would have truly stood in our place and we would be in dire trouble.1
The first creed to explicitly state that the crucifixion of Christ was for our sake, the Nicene Creed, covers the passion of Christ entirely as follows: “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.” Of course those who put this creed together knew that Jesus had suffered (you cannot suffer death without suffering something), but what they considered central to what he did for our sake was his death. That is what he suffered. While it is true that many Christian thinkers and statements of faith over the years refer back simply to the fact that Christ suffered, to take this to mean that they were only concerned with the pain that was endured and not the objective fact of Christ’s death would be to terribly take people out of context. The passion or the suffering of Christ when referred to by theologians in history is a series of events that crucially includes his death. To refer simply to the “suffering” of Jesus or to say that he “suffered” without further comment of course does not tell us what he suffered. When we find people who refer to the suffering of Christ, we also find, if we are fair to them and read more of what they had to say, that they are talking about Christ suffering death. Take John Calvin for example. He argued that Jesus obeyed God in our place because we could not, and took the penalty for sin in our place so that we would not. Here’s how he put it:
I take it for granted, that if Christ satisfied for our sins, if he paid the penalty due by us, if he appeased God by his obedience; in fine, if he suffered the just for the unjust, salvation was obtained for us by his righteousness; which is just equivalent to meriting. [Emphasis added]2
Somebody who says that Jesus took the consequences of sin upon himself by suffering the wrath of God as he was tormented on the cross prior to death might seize upon the phrase “he suffered the just for the unjust” as evidence that Calvin shared their view. This, however, is careless. What did Jesus “suffer”? Calvin does not say. Not here, at least. Calvin does, however, make it quite clear what he thought in the very next sentence:
Now, Paul’s testimony is, that we were reconciled, and received reconciliation through his death, (Romans 5:11). But there is no room for reconciliation unless where offense has preceded. The meaning, therefore, is that God, to whom we were hateful through sin, was appeased by the death of his Son, and made propitious to us.
This is what Christ “suffered” in order to make atonement: death. Did he suffer anything prior to death? No doubt, but in the penal substitutionary view, it was the death of Christ that made atonement for sin.
Athanasius is another example of the many, many voices to which we could turn:
He took to himself a body which could die, in order that, since this participated in the Word who is above all, it might suffice for death on behalf of all, and because of the Word who was dwelling in it, it might remain incorruptible, and so corruption might cease from all men by the grace of the resurrection.3
It is hard not to see here the basis of a penal substitutionary model of the atonement, whereby the Word took on a human nature and endured death “on behalf of all,” subsequently conquering death and corruption for all (it is evident that Athanasius held to a universal atonement, but elsewhere he makes it clear that the gift is received only by those who receive him). The point to note is that in Athanasius’ theology, it was the death of Christ that was provided on behalf of all.
Martin Luther too, like any Christian with a part in orthodox understandings of the atonement, frequently expressed the fact that Jesus’ death was for sin, famously declaring, “He [Christ] died for me. He made His righteousness mine and made my sin His own; and if He made my sin His own, then I do not have it, and I am free.”
In more recent times John Stott (representative of the penal substitutionary model) put it like this:
He has redeemed his people. He has propitiated his wrath. He has demonstrated his justice. Indeed these three achievements belong together. Through the sin-bearing, substitutionary death of his Son, God has propitiated his own wrath in such a way to redeem and justify us, and at the same time demonstrate his justice.4
Whether or not Paul had penal substitution in mind, the over-arching picture of the death of the old sinful nature and the entry of a new life in Christ is grounded in the pericope of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus precisely because it was his death that dealt with our sin, the sin that we turn from when we identify with him in baptism. The specific meaning of baptism is that we identify, not just with Christ in general, but with him in his death, signifying that we are dying to sin, and being raised to a new life in righteousness. This is exactly Paul’s argument early in Romans 6:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
Any attempt to divorce the atoning work of Christ for sin from his death is contrary to Scripture and to what Christians have taught from the beginning. Until now, I would expect that any evangelical reader would be saying “Of course! This is what we all believe, but what’s your point? How are traditionalists undermining this? Why would they?” Generally, traditionalists do not undermine any of this. But they should – if they are consistent. Of course, if conditionalism is true, then the final consequence of sin is death. But if the traditional view of hell is true, then death does not even enter the picture, ultimately. Instead, the lost will eternally endure the misery of hell. In traditionalism – especially if one thinks of the atonement in terms of substitution – the death of Christ simply does not do the job.
Downplaying the death of Christ
Some traditionalists realise this, and in avoiding the conclusion of the argument, they – again – only some of them, not all and presumably a minority – have made the only claim they could to rescue their understanding of hell: They oppose virtually the entire history of the Christian faith on one of the most solemn truths that we hold. They deny that the death of Jesus is what atones for sin.
This view is generally proposed by small, independent ministries or individuals, which likely speaks to the isolated manner in which their theology is constructed. As part of a larger ministry or subjected to the editorial oversight of others, it is much less likely that this claim would be made. A representative of Let us Reason ministries writes as follows:
As our substitute he was separated, suffering the wrath of God for us, he cried out to the Father “my God, my God why have you forsaken me?” His eternal fellowship was broken as he experienced the punishment for sin. He now understood its affect [sic] on the human condition, body and soul. While no one knows what exactly transpired in this separation which lasted an agonizing 3 hours, we do know fellowship was fully restored before he died.5
The claim is fairly clear: Jesus suffered the wrath of God on the cross: separation from God, which is the “punishment for sin.” Then a point came when this wrath was exhausted, the punishment had been paid, and fellowship with God was restored, after which point Jesus died, his work having been finished. A similar claim is made over at “A Voice Crying in the Wilderness”:
Right before Jesus died, he said “It is finished.” He must have suffered all of God’s wrath before he died. …
For three hours, from the sixth to the ninth hour, God turned the lights out on the earth because he didn’t want anyone looking in when he poured out all of his wrath on his son – when he bruised the son for our iniquities. It was during these three hours that God the son had become sin for us and he could not call God, Father, as before. The son was forsaken by the Father. It was during these three hours that Jesus suffered in our place. Jesus did not have to go to Hell to suffer the torments of those flames.6
The point of this claim is to reject the view that Jesus atoned for sin by suffering in hell after death (see below). The problem, however, is that it is simply assumes that the punishment for sin is suffering the wrath of God in the form of torment, and so the solution, whatever it is, is assumed to be that Jesus suffers that torment somewhere, either on the cross or in hell – and since it wasn’t in hell it was on the cross.
One more example (just to show that this is not a misrepresentation), Ken Matto wrote a short and somewhat hot-tempered article against annihilationisn, in which he denied that physical death is the punishment for sin. But what about the death of Jesus for sin? Here’s what Dr Matto had to say: “Did the Lord Jesus say ‘It is finished’ before He died or after He died? Uh oh, He said it before He died, which means the atonement was complete before He physically died, and the atonement was on a higher level than mere physical death.”7 The atonement was complete before Jesus died. After all, Jesus had already suffered the spiritual wrath of God, and that is the punishment, not death.
The fact is that this view, expressed, admittedly, by a minority, is simply a rejection of what the Christian faith has always taught: Jesus’ death on the cross atoned for sin. Now of course, “it is finished” had to have been uttered before Jesus died. He obviously could not have uttered it after he was dead. But as theologians have always recognised, this was his declaration based on the inevitable: He was about to die. In fact John is the only one to record this saying, and he portrays Jesus saying these words virtually as he dies: “When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” Rhetorically, John links the saying directly to the death of Christ. The theological point made here is that Jesus’ atoning work is finished because Jesus died.
A major obstacle – in fact a decisive objection – to the claim that Jesus completed his atoning work before he actually died is just this: If the atonement was completed before Jesus died, then why did Jesus die at all? It will do no good to say that he died just because he was injured. If Jesus’ physical state was to dictate what could and could not happen, then the resurrection would never have happened. If the atonement was completed, the work was all done, nothing more was required and any “satisfaction” that was required had been achieved, why did God the Father allow his son to die? What did it achieve? Victory over the fate of sinners? No, because according to the traditional view of hell, death is not the fate of sinners. The eternal experience of the wrath of God is.
The reality is that if someone is prepared to overturn one of the central truths of the Christian faith, it is unlikely that they will be troubled by having us simply point out that they are making the death of Christ unnecessary for the atonement. They already know this. But to those who believe that the punishment for sin is eternal torment but have not taken this extraordinary step, perhaps these examples will give you pause. Do you really want to make the death of Christ superfluous?
Jesus goes to Hell
On the other extreme, there are those who reason – again, consistently – that since the punishment for sin is torment in hell, and since Jesus’ death is not torment in hell, Jesus must have undergone this suffering after he died (again, remember, whatever the penalty for sin is, it’s not Jesus’ death). This is a view that has become associated with the “Word of Faith” movement within Pentecostalism. One of the more notorious teachers in the movement, Kenneth Copeland, put it like this: “He [Jesus] allowed the devil to drag Him into the depths of hell … He allowed Himself to come under Satan’s control…every demon in hell came down on Him to annihilate Him … They tortured Him beyond anything anybody had ever conceived. For three days He suffered everything there is to suffer.”8
Similarly, Alex Buchanan, a “widely accepted as a prophet and teacher” (says the blurb on the back of his book) articulated this view in his popular level 1995 book, Heaven and Hell. “There are two occasions on which Jesus went to Hell. The first was when He went there as part of the punishment for sin on Calvary. After all He must have paid the full penalty for sin, otherwise Calvary would be incomplete.”9
When these teachings were made public, conservative Evangelicals were in an uproar. These people are robbing the death of Christ of its significance! They are taking the focus away from the atoning death of Jesus and inventing stories about Jesus going to hell to suffer for sin. This is the sort of charge that was levelled against the view that since the penalty for sin is not death, Jesus had to go to hell to endure the wrath that was due to sinners. I agree with these complaints, but I’d like to see that same uproar directed at those who do the very same thing to the death of Jesus and yet who are still among the ranks of the very same conservative Evangelicals who exposed the Word of Faith movement. If you deny that Jesus’ death atoned for sin, then your mistake is just as important, whether you relocate the atoning work to some period of suffering prior to Jesus’ death or after his death. Either way, you’re saying that the death of Christ did not atone for sin.
Here is where conditional immortality brings us back to the heart of the Gospel: Jesus died to save sinners. It is ironic that a view that some people regard as “heresy” should be so effective in elevating the death (and let’s not forget, the resurrection) of Jesus to the place that it deserves in Christian theology.
- I am not assuming the “moral influence” view of the atonement under the heading of “all orthodox views.” The moral influence view is where the death of Christ is such an expression of self-giving love that it moves us and kindles an answering love. While not false, I take it that orthodox theologies of the cross must regard a moral influence model as seriously inadequate by itself.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, book 2, chapter 17
- Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, chapter 9.
- Commenting on Romans 3:21-4:25, reproduced at < https://langham.org/bible_studies/25-july-2013/>, accessed 6 October 2013.
- “Who died on the cross?” Let us Reason Ministries, <https://www.letusreason.org/Onenes18.htm>, retrieved on 6 October 2013. The terrible irony is that this is an article written as a criticism of a heretical movement.
- “Did Jesus Suffer in Hell?” at A Voice Cryin in the Wilderness, <https://www.voicecrying.com/?p=350>, retrieved on 6 October 2013
- Ken Matto, “Annihilation: For what saith the Scripture?” <https://www.scionofzion.com/annihilation.htm>, retrieved on 6 October 2013
- Kenneth Copeland, “The Price of it All,” The Believers Voice of Victory (magazine), Sept 1991, 3.
- Alex Buchanan, Heaven and Hell (Tonbridge: Sovereign World, 1995), 176.