Welcome back on this new week as we pick up with our third consecutive apologetics question on the person and work of Christ. It started last week, when we asked, Even if the Christian faith is untrue — if the cross and resurrection didn’t happen — aren’t Christians still happier than non-Christians, in this life? That was APJ 1977, followed by a look at six reasons why Jesus had to leave earth after Easter. Imagine life on earth if Christ were still here with us! Well, he’s not; why not? That was last time, in APJ 1978.
That takes us to today. If the consequences of our sin against a holy God require eternal judgment, why did Christ suffer for no more than 33 years? Shouldn’t his sufferings also be eternal, if that’s what we deserve? Here are two emails: “Pastor John, hello to you. My name is Glenn from San Jose. Thank you for your ministry. As with many people, APJ has been a part of my regular routine, and it has blessed me and allows me to bless others in return. I have a question for you about Jesus that I cannot answer for myself, namely: Why did Jesus not spend eternity in hell, if this was the awesome and holy price to be paid for sin? Does the Bible tell us why?” This is basically the same question from a listener named Floris: “Pastor John, can you explain why Jesus’s payment for our sins was not eternal, as it is for sinners?”
This is an excellent question because it pushes us to take seriously the worth of the death of Jesus, and we need to do that. We don’t ponder too often the greatness of the achievement of Christ in paying the debt for millions upon millions of hell-deserving sinners, like the thief on the cross, who before he was crucified had never done one single work of faith in his life. Or like you and me, who may have known Jesus all our lives, and yet have fallen short so many thousands of times we couldn’t even begin to count them.
“The song of the slaughtered Lamb will be sung forever. It was a staggering achievement on the cross.”
Our worship, and our love for Christ, ought to burn brightly when we contemplate that one man, one God-man, could endure enough in 33 years to provide a sufficient satisfaction in the justice of God for eternal salvation for so many wicked people. This is why we will sing “the song of the Lamb” — the crucified Lamb — forever, not just “the song of the risen King” (Revelation 15:2–4). The song of the slaughtered Lamb will be sung forever and ever. It was a staggering achievement on the cross.
Sin’s Eternal Cost
The question is, How is it possible? Jesus taught us that sinners like us deserve eternal punishment. “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46). So, the punishment for sin is as long as life is long for the saved: forever. Paul said the same thing: “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:9).
So, the question Glenn is asking is, If Christ bore our punishment, why then does he not have to endure the same punishment — namely, eternal suffering? And make no mistake, those who trust in Christ are saved from eternal punishment because Christ bore our punishment for us.
- Colossians 2:14: “The record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands . . . [God] set aside, nailing it to the cross” — that means through the hands of Jesus.
- Galatians 3:13: “Christ . . . [became] a curse for us.”
- Isaiah 53:5: “He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities.”
- 1 Peter 2:24: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.”
- Romans 8:3: “By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, [God] condemned [our] sin in the flesh.”
- Mark 10:45: “The Son of Man came . . . to give his life as a ransom for many.”
- 1 Corinthians 6:20: “You were bought with a price.”
- Acts 20:28: “[God] obtained [the church] with his own blood.”
Christ achieved this substitution for millions of believers, not by suffering eternally in hell, but by being obedient in suffering unto death, “even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). And the question is, How does he bear eternities of punishment in the space of 33 years of life? How does his suffering suffice to cancel the punishment of millions of people who were bound to eternal punishment?
Christ’s Infinite Dignity
Now, the Bible does not say explicitly how this works. But just as we learned the demerit of sin by looking at God’s appointed penalty for it — namely, eternal punishment — so also we learn the merit, or the worth, of Christ and his suffering by looking at the achievement of it — namely, salvation for millions of hell-deserving sinners. So, the question becomes, What is it about the worth of Jesus and his suffering that makes it sufficient to remove the punishment of millions of sinners?
Let me read you the answer given by Jonathan Edwards and then say a word about it. This comes from a sermon he preached in 1729 entitled “The Sacrifice of Christ Acceptable.” Here’s what he says:
Though Christ’s sufferings were but temporal [that is, not eternal], yet they were equivalent to our eternal sufferings by reason of the infinite dignity of his person. Though it was not infinite suffering, yet it was equivalent to infinite suffering, for it was infinite expense. His blood which he spilled, his life which he laid down, was an infinite price because it was the blood of God, as it is expressly called. Acts 20:28, “The church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” His life was the life of that person that was the eternal Son of God, though it was the life of the human nature. Now, upon this account, the price offered was equivalent to the demerit of the sins of all mankind, [and] his sufferings equivalent to the eternal sufferings of the whole world. (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 14:452)
“We learn the merit, or the worth, of Christ and his suffering by looking at the achievement of it.”
Now, the principle behind that argument is that the greater the worth — or the dignity or the honor — of a person, the more insulting and dishonorable and shameful is the innocent suffering of that person. So, the suffering of the Son of God is a greater evil than the suffering of a sinful human. And since the worth and the honor of the Son of God is an infinite worth and an infinite honor, therefore, his suffering had an infinite worth, more than enough to be the punishment for finite human beings.
Or to say it one more way, when Christ descended from the position of “equality with God” (Philippians 2:6) to the point of forsakenness by God on the cross in agony, that depth of descent was infinitely greater than the descent of any sinful human into the sufferings of hell — indeed, all of them together.
Worship Burning Bright
So, one way of answering the question, “How does Christ’s 33-year-long suffering cover the sins of millions of people who deserve eternal suffering?” is this: Because the infinite worth of his person makes his suffering of infinite worth and sufficient for the covering of all the sins of all his people.
As I said at the beginning, our worship and our love for Christ ought to burn very brightly when we consider that one man, one God-man, could endure enough suffering to cover so many hell-deserving sins.