Did Jesus Suffer Eternal Hell On the Cross?
A Critique of Penal Substitution
by Jesse Morrell
Advocates for the theory of Penal Substitution say that Jesus “took our penalty,” “suffered God’s wrath” and “endured the agonies of hell on the cross.” They say that all of the eternal torment that sinners would have suffered in hell was endured by Christ on the cross.
I argue that by no stretch of the imagination can it be said that Christ suffered on the cross all the pain and suffering that sinners would have suffered in eternal hell. Not only because Christ could never have suffered from a guilty conscience, which could be the worm that never dies, but because eternal suffering by definition never terminates. An eternal penalty cannot exhaustively fit into a temporal experience. Eternity, by definition, doesn’t fit into six hours. The penalty of the law calls for a fire that is never quenched.
Saying that Jesus suffered, not merely in his humanity but in his divinity or infinite nature doesn’t solve the problem. Some say that Christ endured eternal hell, in His infinite nature, within the time of six hours.
That position is certainly inconsistent for those theologians who hold to divine impassibility, which say the divine nature cannot suffer, but regardless, the penalty of the law is that the sinner suffer in hell forever, not that a divine substitute with an infinite nature suffer for six hours. The penalty of the law is not that an infinite nature suffer for a second or more, thereby rendering infinite suffering within a finite time frame. Indeed, six hours of an infinite nature suffering would be excessive and unnecessary if all that is needed is one second of suffering to fulfill the demand for eternal torment. Still, the penalty of the law is that the sinner suffer forever. Christ’s atonement, even if it were endured in His divinity, could not have been the exact and literal penalty of the law.
It is not only inconceivable to say that Christ suffered eternal torment in six hours, it’s a total contradiction. Eternal torment is never ending, whether the nature of the being who endures it is infinite or finite.
And, for the sake of an atonement that solves the governmental problems of pardon, would be unnecessary. It is only deemed necessary in the theory that says the exact and literal penalty of the law must be inflicted upon the sinner or his substitute. But as a substitute for penalty, the atonement only has to meet the ends of penalty and not be absolutely identical in its nature or duration. A substitute is never identical to that which it substitutes.
All that was necessary was that the suffering of Christ be an adequate substitute for the punishment of the sinner, not that his sufferings be exactly identical. What was necessary was that His suffering for our sin would honor the law just as much, if not more so, than our damnation. What was necessary was that His suffering for our sin would deter subjects of His Moral Government from sinning, if not more so, than our damnation would have.
When these ends are accomplished, an adequate atonement is made even if His sufferings were temporal and not eternal. The value of His atonement is equivalent to the eternal damning of sinners, nay, is far greater. His sacrifice is priceless. His atonement is invaluable. And therefore, our penalty can be remitted and our sin debt pardoned through His sacrifice of suffering for six hours on the cross. Christ didn’t need to suffer eternal torment in order to save sinners from their sin and penalty.
Christ made an Atonement for our sin without suffering the exact and literal penalty of the law. Indeed, the object of an Atonement is to substitute penalty, fulfill the purposes of penalty, and thereby render the literal penalty remittable.