A superficial reading of the gospel narratives concerning the death of Jesus will show that He was nailed to the cross at 9 o’clock in the morning, and was dead by 3 in the afternoon. His terrible ordeal, it would seem, was over in a mere six hours.
The agony in the Garden of Gethsemene the night before had been an ordeal in prayer before His Father that we can scarcely understand. The writer of Hebrews comments on this incident,
“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered…” (Hebrews 5:7, 8)
Then, too, Jesus had been up the rest of the night without sleep enduring scourging, beating, cruel mockery and unspeakable brutality. He was already weakened when he carried his cross, stumbling, to the place of crucifixion alongside the main public highway, probably just outside the Damascus Gate.
Several medical doctors and forensic experts have written books about the common Roman form of execution—death by crucifixion. Often the process took several days. The nailing of hands and feet forced the victim to push up against the weight of his own body to take a single breath. In the hot sun, terrible thirst ensued and death came in most cases from suffocation amidst great pain. The victim was also naked and humiliated—death on the cross was reserved for the most wretched of all criminals.
Wood was in short supply in Israel in Roman times. It is likely that small trees (such as these olive trees) were pressed into service to handle the thousands of excecutions. Crosses were stuck into the ground along major thoroughfares to offer maximum public viewing which included public ridicule and scorn. The terrible nature of this punishment helped enforce Rome’s control over the Jews whom they hated anyway. In the Law of Moses hanging a criminal on a tree or cross was reserved for the most serious crimes, “And if a man has committed a sin worthy of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God), so that you do not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23)
There is much more to the death of Jesus on the cross than the visible suffering, terrible pain and suffering, and the incredible ignominy of such a horrible death for One who was not only innocent but also the very Son of God.
The Cosmic Struggle on the Cross
After speaking of Jesus and his role in the creation of the universe Paul in his letter to the Colossians tells us about invisible events taking place outside of the physical realm, and outside of our ordinary space-time continuum during the dying of Jesus on the cross,
…in Jesus all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him. (Col. 1:19-22)
The above passage reveals that not only did Jesus take upon Himself the sins of mankind when He died for us on the cross, but He also met fully the onslaught of demons, fallen angels, and all the power of evil forces in the heavens as well, disarming all of them completely.
Jesus’ victory over man’s greatest enemy, death, is boldly stated in the letter to the Hebrews:
“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.” (Hebrews 2:14,15)
In speaking to the Apostle John from the heavens, Jesus sent these words to mankind:
“Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” (Revelation 1:17-18)
Jesus, on the cross, also won back any and all claims Satan had on man, or the earth, or as an authority of any kind in the heavens. If, for example, Satan claimed to hold the title deed of the earth (having gained it because of Adam’s fall) that deed now belongs to Jesus as one of the results of His work on the cross. (This is known as the “ransom” work of Christ on the cross—it’s a topic sometimes debated by theologians, but one that makes sense). Satan’s destruction, too, was accomplished on the cross, outside of time. For the final outworkings in history of Satan’s we now eagerly are all waiting. What is a completed work in the eternal time frame will come to pass in human history at God’s appointed time on our earthly calendars. His unseen and invisible victory over cosmic evil on the cross is yet another reason why Jesus alone is qualified to receive from the Father all honor and power and glory:
“And I (John) saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’ And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I wept much that no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the (twenty-four) elders said to me, ‘Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered (overcome), so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’ And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth; and he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne.” (Revelation 5:1-7)
Jesus: Great High Priest and Perfect Sacrifice
Two aspects of the death of Christ show something of the mystery of His death and the suffering He took onto Himself for our sake. The death of Jesus on the cross took but six hours as measured in dynamical time. Jesus was, for the first three hours on the cross, our Great High Priest. From noon till 3 P.M., during which time a strange and terrible darkness came over the earth, the High Priest became the Sacrifice.
If we now consider the nature of time and eternity (see Arthur C. Custance, Journey out of Time, Ref. 2) it must surely become clear that what was (for us) three hours’ suffering by Jesus in total estrangement from the Father—was for Jesus an event in eternity which never ends. The work of Jesus on the cross, as far as we are concerned, is completely finished. Jesus is not now hanging on a cross. He has been raised from the dead, and sits in heaven, fully in charge of the universe as a resurrected man. One man, one son of Adam, Jesus the Lord is now living in glory and He is in charge of the universe.
But in another sense, if we could step into eternity and view an eternal being such as the Son of God experiencing life—if we could see things from the vantage point of eternity—then we would perceive that a part of the eternal God must suffer forever, outside of time, because of human sin.
The Eternal Sufferings of God in Christ
The statement of Jesus to one of the thieves crucified alongside him was, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) This statement suggests that when He died, Jesus left our time frame and immediately entered eternity. Likewise, the spirit of his companion on an adjacent cross, the dying, redeemed thief also left time and entered eternity when he also died that same day.
The next event in eternity for the human spirit of Jesus was His return to reenter His body in the tomb just before dawn on Easter Sunday morning. By means of the mighty power of the Holy Spirit, He then experienced the complete transformation of His body and His resurrection “out from among the dead.” In the time frame of earth, these events are separated by perhaps 40 hours, but in eternity they are an immediate sequence of events, one following another. The dying thief was not raised from the dead at the same earth time as Jesus was raised from the dead. However, in his own (the thief’s) consciousness, he stepped out of time to join the general resurrection of all the righteous dead which coincides in history with the Second Coming of Christ.
In this sense, neither heaven nor hell are yet populated—all believers reach heaven at the same “time.” The dying thief, Stephen the first martyr, the Apostle John, and all the rest of us will arrive in heaven at precisely the same “instant,” experiencing neither soul sleep nor loss of consciousness nor time delay, whether the interval between our death and the Second Coming is a hundred years or one hour. The thief on the cross, in his own consciousness, will experience arriving in Paradise the very same day he died, as Jesus promised he would. (Of course if heaven is still empty, except for Jesus, from our vantage point in time, the prayer to Mary or St. Jude or any of the saints is pointless. These believers are each “time traveling” in their own split-second interval separating their individual death from the great resurrection of all of us believers. Thus, we all get to heaven at the same “time.”
In His sinless and perfect human body—prepared especially as a perfect blood sacrifice for the sins of the world—Jesus suffered terribly in body, soul, and spirit during the long night of His trial. That suffering began with the agony in the garden of Gethsemane and in all the humiliating events of His trial and cruel torture prior to His morning journey to Golgotha. The worst was yet to come. Death by crucifixion is an especially painful and terrible death. It was common in Roman times for crucified men in good health to hang dying on a cross sometimes for days, yet Scripture records that Jesus died within six hours’ clock time. Even if He only suffered normal human pain in this ordeal it would have been incredibly severe.
All this pain, however, was but the prelude to His real suffering, which involved being cut off from the Father’s love and presence and consigned to carry our sins out of the universe, to hell as it were, like the scapegoat sacrifice of Israel of which he, Christ, is the antitype.
The Scripture records three statements by Jesus during the first three hours on the cross when He served as the true Great High Priest before the Father and four further statements during the time of darkness from noon to 3 P.M. when the High Priest became the Sin-Offering. It was during the latter three hours, evidently, that the sins of all mankind were laid upon Jesus and the Father turned His face away from His beloved Son.
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
When contemplating what really took place on the cross in the divine transaction between God the Father and God the Son, we must not think of the sufferings of Christ, terrible as they were (beyond our comprehension), as if they were constrained to a “mere” (endurable) three hours of absolute time. Human beings are basically spirits, and spirits are connected to the eternal dimension. Jesus was not like us in another sense: He had known no sin and suffered the additional revulsion and destruction of being changed from a perfect man into a loathsome, repulsive creature God could not look upon. He became sin by absorbing evil into his own person. The Messiah’s sufferings as foretold by David in Psalm 22 can only refer to Jesus on the cross, (see also Ref. 1below):
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
Why art thou so far from helping me,
from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but thou dost not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
Yet thou art holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In thee our fathers trusted;
they trusted, and thou didst deliver them.
To thee they cried, and were saved;
in thee they trusted, and were not disappointed.
But I am a worm, and no man;
scorned by men, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me,
they make mouths at me, they wag their heads;
“He committed his cause to the LORD; let him deliver him,
let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”
Yet thou art he who took me from the womb;
thou didst keep me safe upon my mother’s breasts.
Upon thee was I cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me thou hast been my God.
Be not far from me, for trouble is near and there is none to help.
Many bulls encompass me, strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion.
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax, it is melted within my breast;
my strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue cleaves to my jaws;
thou dost lay me in the dust of the earth.
Yea, dogs are round about me;
a company of evildoers encircle me;
they have pierced my hands and feet—
I can count all my bones–they stare and gloat over me;
they divide my garments among them,
and for my raiment they cast lots.
But thou, O LORD, be not far off! O thou my help, hasten to my aid!
Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog!
Save me from the mouth of the lion,
my afflicted soul from the horns of the wild oxen!
I will tell of thy name to my brethren;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee:
You who fear the LORD, praise him!
all you sons of Jacob, glorify him,
and stand in awe of him, all you sons of Israel!
For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted;
and he has not hid his face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to him.
From thee comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the LORD!
May your hearts live for ever!
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD;
and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.
Yea, to him shall all the proud of the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and he who cannot keep himself alive.
Posterity shall serve him;
men shall tell of the LORD to the coming generation,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
that he has wrought it.
Paul wrote many years later of the “fellowship of Christ’s sufferings” and of “making up in his own body what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body, that is the church.” He spoke of “always bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus might be revealed in us…” He said these things long after Jesus had risen from the dead and ascended into heaven where He now rules, His work on the cross having been completed and finished.
Jesus is spoken of in the book of Revelation as the “Lamb slain before the foundation of the world.” And Peter writes, “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake.” (1 Peter 1:18-20)
Without in any way diminishing the work of Christ on the cross as finished, completed, and accomplished in space-time and in history, it is possible to say that a part of God suffers eternally for man’s sins. From Scripture we learn that a holy God must ultimately be just. He must remove evil from His presence. Those who have permanently rebelled against His gracious mercy do not cease to exist but remain eternally conscious in a place of everlasting, endless punishment. Since God is omnipresent, He, too, is to be found in hell, sustaining its fires and experiencing its pains. Bible scholar Ray C. Stedman once remarked, “Ultimately, God removes evil from the universe by absorbing it into Himself.” The so-called “penal view of the atonement” specifies that a Just God must punish sin and that if Christ suffered our punishment as a substitute He had to bear the full weight of the eternal separation from God that Divine Justice demands and we deserve. In his commentary on the Book of Revelation, Ray Stedman wrote,
“All through the Bible we see God’s love is manifest to men and women everywhere in urging them to escape this judgment. God in love pleads with people, ‘Do not go on to this end!’ But ultimately he must judge those who refuse his offer of grace. He says, in effect, ‘I love you and I can provide all you need. Therefore love me, and you will find the fulfillment your heart is looking for.’ But many men and women say, ‘No, I do not want that. I will take your gifts, I will take all the good things you provide, but I do not want you! Let me run my own life. Let me serve my own ends. Let me have my own kingdom.’ To such, God ultimately says, ‘All right, have it your way!’ God has three choices: first, he can let rebellion go on forever and never judge it. In that case the terrible things that are happening on earth, all these distressing injustices, the cruelty, the anger, the hate, the malice, the sorrow, the hurt, the pain, the death that now prevails, must go on forever. God does not want that, and neither does man. Second, God can force men to obey him and control them as robots. But he will never do that because that means they cannot truly love him. Love cannot be forced. Therefore, third, the only choice God really has is that he must withdraw ultimately from those who refuse his love. He must let them have their own way forever. That results in the terrible torment of godlessness. If God is necessary to us, then to take him out of our lives is to plunge us into the most terrible sense of loneliness and abandonment that mankind can know. We have all experienced it to some small degree when we get what we want and then discover we do not want what we got! For that sense of bored emptiness to go on forever, is unspeakable torment.”
God Suffers Far More than Any Man!
In reading all these passages it is easy to concentrate on what appears to be “unjust” punishment (from our self-righteous human viewpoint), or at least tragic human suffering. We would like to think it could somehow have been avoided! Most of us shrink from thinking too seriously about these passages knowing that but for the grace of God we would have, and should have, been sent to this terrible fate also.
According to Ray Stedman, a little reflection on the nature of God, for God is love, makes it clear that maintaining hell must be a terrible torment and pain to a God who is self-giving love. He is the Holy One who “takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked,” and who “is not willing that any should perish.” God must be willing, therefore, to pay the price of His own eternal pain, suffering, and hell so that the few who are righteous, (by faith), might enjoy eternal bliss. Such is another aspect of the mystery of the suffering of Christ on the cross. Most of us are accustomed to thinking that we suffer more than God, and that He surely cannot fully identify with our minor pains and afflictions.
But a loving God who created us for good things surely suffers infinitely more than any human parent when a beloved child refuses the good and chooses the path leading to destruction. Surely it must be grievously painful for a God who is love to be denied the opportunity to give of Himself to the objects of His love. No man can suffer more than Christ has already suffered, nor can mortal man contemplate what is meant by the “longsuffering” of our God (who is outside of time) which will continue, we are assured, at least until the world is changed. “God’s kindness is meant to lead us to repentance,” Paul writes in Romans, Chapter 2. How great is that kindness!
Our God is a Consuming Fire
The letter to the Hebrews says,
“Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28, 29)
The same fires which heal, purify and warm the righteous are the consuming, everlasting burnings of gehenna, (named after GeHinnom, the valley of Hinnom, a garbage dump outside Jerusalem)—where beings who refused to become the human persons they were designed to be must finally endure the “backside” of love, which is hell. They are discarded because they have not been willing to become (by their own life-long choices) what their Designer intended them to be. C.S. Lewis wrote,
“God is going to invade this earth in force. But what’s the good of saying you’re on his side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream and something else, something it never entered your head to conceive comes crashing in. Something so beautiful to us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left. This time it will be God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love, or irresistible horror into every creature. It will be too late then to choose your side. There is no use saying you choose to lie down, when it’s become impossible to stand up. That will not be the time for choosing; it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realize it or not. Now, today, in this moment, is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It will not last forever; we must take it or leave it.”
In spite of our outward circumstances and the downward spiral of moral, economic, political, and social conditions over the face of the earth, the Good News of the Bible is that evil has already been dethroned and its power over mankind and nature broken. The new creation is as inevitable as springtime’s greening and blossoming. The loving heart of God our Father longs for us to accept his mercy, his forgiveness and mercy. He has gone to infinite lengths to make provision for us in the cosmic sacrifice of the Son of His love.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.” (John 3:16-21)
1. One of the most wonderful passages on this subject is Isaiah’s foreview of the Messiah:
“Behold, my servant shall prosper, he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. As many were astonished at him—his appearance was so marred beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the sons of men—so shall he startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they shall see, and that which they have not heard they shall understand.
“Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter; and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgments he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?
“And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the LORD to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand; he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the Righteous One, My Servant, make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities.
“Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out his soul to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” (Isaiah 52:13–53:12)
2. A related paper on time and eternity may be helpful, The Complexities of Time. The aspects of time and eternity as they enter into the sufferings of Christ on the cross are discussed in detail by Arthur Custance in his Journey out of Time. Available online. Originally published by Doorway Publications, %Evelyn M. White, 38 Elora Drive, Unit 4, Hamilton, Ontario, L9C 7L6, Canada 1980. An excellent discussion about pain and hell is given by C.S. Lewis in his book, The Problem of Pain (Macmillan Publishing; New York, 1962).
Glenn Miller of The Christian Think Tank (http://www.christian-thinktank.com/) says this in regard to the crucifixion:
“…But at noon, something dramatic happens. The sky goes dark and Jesus cries out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?!” The Son is separated from the Father for the first time in eternity…this continues for only three hours…and at 3.00 pm Jesus wills himself to death. He cries ‘it is finished’ (the Greek phrase actually has a technical meaning in those days of ‘paid in full’–it was so used when people were released from debtors prison and their unpaid bill was stamped ‘paid in full’–same phrase).
And then he decides to die and gives up his spirit. So those three HOURS are the only slice of time in all of eternity that the Son experiences brokenness in his relationship with his Father.
When I then try to understand 3 hrs vs. eternity issues, I quickly run across the problem of how God ‘experiences’ time…The old crusty Scholastics sometimes argued that God experienced time all at once, much as a entire landscape is visually experience simultaneously, even though it is quite distributed. If, as they suggest, universe-time is like a mural on a wall that God experiences ALL AT ONCE, and experiences it ETERNALLY (not the old ” I’m through with that day, I’ll move on to experience the next day”), then the Father is still “experiencing” that grief now…it’s a bit heavy, and we tread on shaky ground here (logically speaking), but this experience is slightly mirrored in humans (made in the image of God) when we recall a past experience and ‘re-feel’ the pain or joy therein…
As to the 3 hours themselves, the theology tells us that during those Jesus ‘paid for the sins of the whole world’ (John the Baptist made this clear when he called him the Lamb, which takes away the sins of the whole world). What did this entail? The concise statement is that God the Father, who had loved/enjoyed/delighted/ fellowshipped with the Son at the most intimate of levels (they actually shared the same essence–the trinity doctrine) for all eternity, suddenly turned his back on His Son, and for three hours poured His awesome wrath out on His Son (instead of on us, incredibly!). So one component was the abandoning His Son (to save the world), and the other was the very active outpouring of judicial punishment upon Him to generate the ‘paid in full’ comment.”
For descriptions of the crucifixion itself see Medical Aspects of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ (David Terasaka, M.D.), and also Crucifixion in Antiquity (Joe Zias).