Did Jesus Experience Spiritual Death on the Cross?
Just recently, on FaceBook, the focus of a great deal of controversy has centered around whether Jesus experienced spiritual death, i.e. alienation and separation from his Father, while he was on the cross.
Now, in my youth, I never heard anyone deny that Jesus was separated from the Father, and his words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” were accepted as a demonstration and proof of that. I recently checked in some lectureship books in which the speakers admitted that this was the general view of the churches of Christ, the fellowship of my youth. It therefore came as somewhat of a surprise to me to be vehemently condemned as a false teacher and heretic by a number of men, all of whom claim to be defenders of the truth and orthodoxy of course, for affirming that Jesus experienced spiritual death on the Cross. Of course, what was even more surprising was that some of the most strident verbiage thrown my way on this issue came from church of Christ preachers.
So, I began to investigate what the commentators say about this issue. I wanted to remind myself of what has been traditionally taught in the churches of Christ, as well as to determine what world class scholarship has to say on the issue. Now, this article will not seek to establish that Jesus experienced spiritual death on the cross by means of the scripture- which of course is the ultimate and final authority. I am simply going to share some of my research on the commentators to show to the readers what has and continues to be the view of world class scholars, as well as commentators within the churches of Christ. I am also indebted to William Bell who compiled an impressive list of quotes from some of the most highly respected church of Christ commentators.
Now, it is deeply disturbing that when I have asked some of the detractors if all the commentators –and especially those in the churches of Christ- were / are false teachers and heretics for believing that Christ did experience spiritual death, I have been told by Scott Russell (a church of Christ minister) that they were indeed false teachers and heretics. On the question of whether those men are doomed to hell for their views, he simply said that he will leave that up to God to determine. Thus, per Russell, he deems all of the men that I will cite below as false teachers, heretics, but, he refuses to say that they are condemned. To say that his is evasive is an understatement. With all of this said, I give now the quotes from just a few of the commentators that could be cited, all of whom affirm that Jesus experienced spiritual death while on the cross.
Another view is that Jesus was mistaken: in this desperate hour he felt abandoned, but, of course, God had not really forsaken him.89 But it is almost blasphemous to say that we know the situation, and specifically the relationship between Jesus and the Father, better than he did. It is better to face the words honestly and to accept the fact that this was part of the putting away of sin.90 There must always be mystery here. We who are finite and sinners do not understand, and cannot even begin to understand, how evil appears to a holy God. The prophet Habakkuk could say in his prayer, “Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing” (Hab. 1:13). And the apostle Paul adds, “him who knew no sin, he [i.e., the Father] made sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21); and again, Christ became “a curse for us, for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’ ” (Gal. 3:13). When we put such passages of Scripture together, it seems that in the working out of salvation for sinners the hitherto unbroken communion between the Father and the Son was mysteriously broken. It is surely better to accept this, knowing that we do not understand it fully, than to attempt some rationalization of the saying so that it becomes more palatable to the prejudices of modern Westerners.91
New American Commentary
The only “word” of Christ on the cross which Matthew records, chronologically perhaps the fourth of the seven, is the saying of v. 46. Perhaps because of the power and significance of Jesus’ cry, the Aramaic was preserved and then given a translation. Jesus quotes Ps 22:1. The variation in spelling among manuscripts reflects the difference between the Hebrew Eli and the Aramaic Eloi, both meaning my God. All kinds of theological questions are raised here that the text simply does not answer, particularly regarding the relation of Christ’s divine and human natures. But the docetic or Gnostic view that Jesus’ divine nature actually departed at this time because God could in no way suffer (found as early as mid-second century in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter82), has usually been rejected by Christians as heretical. Jesus remains a psychosomatically unified entity all the way to the moment of his death. Yet shortly before he dies, he apparently senses an abrupt loss of the communion with the Father which had proved so intimate and significant throughout his life. Not surprisingly, then, Christian theology developed the belief that at this moment Christ bore the sins of all humanity, spiritually separating him from his Heavenly Father (see references under vv. 38–40 above). The view that Jesus’ quotation of Ps 22 anticipates the vindication found in the larger context of the psalm stresses what does not appear in the text at the expense of what does.83
Bible Knowledge Commentary
27:45–50 (Mark 15:33–37; Luke 23:44–46; John 19:28–30). Matthew made no reference to the time when the crucifixion began. But Mark indicated that it began at the “third hour” (Mark 15:25), around 9 a.m. Matthew noted specifically that from the sixth hour, noon, until the ninth hour, 3 p.m., darkness came over all the land. In this period of darkness Jesus became the Sin-offering for the world (John 1:29; Rom. 5:8; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Peter 2:24; 3:18) and as such was forsaken by the Father. Near the end of this period of time, Jesus could bear the separation no longer and cried out in a loud voice, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? These Aramaic words mean, My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? (a quotation of Ps. 22:1) Jesus sensed a separation from the Father He had never known, for in becoming sin the Father had to turn judicially from His Son (Rom. 3:25–26).
Billy Graham at: https://billygraham.org/answer/did-god-really-forsake-jesus-when-he-was-dying-on-the-cross/
“The penalty for sin is death (Romans 6:23). Death includes two dimensions—physical and spiritual. Physical death is the separation of the spirit from the body. Spiritual death is the separation of the spirit from God. Since Jesus was dying for our sin as our substitute, He was experiencing the agony of separation from His Father. It was the agony of hell.”
Matthew Henry Commentary– Logos
Note, [1.] That our Lord Jesus was, in his sufferings, for a time, forsaken by his Father. So he saith himself, who, we are sure, was under no mistake concerning his own case. Not that the union between the divine and human nature was in the least weakened or shocked; no, he was now by the eternal Spirit offering himself: nor as if there were any abatement of his Father’s love to him, or his to his Father; we are sure that there was upon his mind no horror of God, or despair of his favour, nor any thing of the torments of hell; but his Father forsook him; that is, First, He delivered him up into the hands of his enemies, and did not appear to deliver him out of their hands. He let loose the powers of darkness against him, and suffered them to do their worst, worse than against Job. Now was that scripture fulfilled (Job 16:11), God hath turned me over into the hands of the wicked; and no angel is sent from heaven to deliver him, no friend on earth raised up to appear for him. Secondly, He withdrew from him the present comfortable sense of his complacency in him. When his soul was first troubled, he had a voice from heaven to comfort him (Jn. 12:27, 28); when he was in his agony in the garden, there appeared an angel from heaven strengthening him; but now he had neither the one nor the other. God hid his face from him, and for awhile withdrew his rod and staff in the darksome valley. God forsook him, not as he forsook Saul, leaving him to an endless despair, but as sometimes he forsook David, leaving him to a present despondency. Thirdly, He let out upon his soul an afflicting sense of his wrath against man for sin. Christ was made Sin for us, a Curse for us; and therefore, though God loved him as a Son, he frowned upon him as a Surety. These impressions he was pleased to admit, and to waive that resistance of them which he could have made; because he would accommodate himself to this part of his undertaking, as he had done to all the rest, when it was in his power to have avoided it.
[2.] That Christ’s being forsaken of his Father was the most grievous of his sufferings, and that which he complained most of. Here he laid the most doleful accents; he did not say, “Why am I scourged? And why spit upon? And why nailed to the cross?” Nor did he say to his disciples, when they turned their back upon him, Why have ye forsaken me? But when his Father stood at a distance, he cried out thus; for this was it that put wormwood and gall into the affliction and misery. This brought the waters into the soul, Ps. 69:1–3.
[3.] That our Lord Jesus, even when he was thus forsaken of his Father, kept hold of him as his God, notwithstanding; My God, my God; though forsaking me, yet mine. Christ was God’s servant in carrying on the work of redemption, to him he was to make satisfaction, and by him to be carried through and crowned, and upon that account he calls him his God; for he was now doing his will. See Isa. 49:5–9. This supported him, and bore him up, that even in the depth of his sufferings God was his God, and this he resolves to keep fast hold of.
Bible Exposition Commentary– Logos
“After three hours, the darkness left. Then Jesus cried, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” This was a direct quotation from Psalm 22:1. It was during the time of darkness that Jesus had been made sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21). He had been forsaken by the Father! That darkness was a symbol of the judgment that He endured when He was “made a curse” for us (Gal. 3:13). Psalm 22:2 suggests a period of light and a period of darkness; and Psalm 22:3 emphasizes the holiness of God. How could a holy God look with favor on His Son who had become sin?
W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison offer what I think is a significant insight on Jesus’ words on the cross. They say that Jesus’ words are:
“The culmination of a Matthean theme. Jesus is first abandoned by his own country (Matthew 13:53-58), then by his disciples (26:56f), then by the crowds (27:15-26). The climax of this progressing desertion is the experience, following three hours of divine darkness and silence, of felt abandonment by God himself (who is no longer addressed as ‘Father’). This does not express a loss of faith – certainly the soldiers who soon confess Jesus as Son of God have seen no such loss – but is instead a cry of pain in a circumstance unparalleled elsewhere in the narrative) in which God has not shown himself to be God. And yet the truth, apparent from what follows, is that God has not forsaken Jesus. The abandonment, although real, is not the final fact. God does finally vindicate his Son.”
R. C. H. Lenski, Matthew, (Minneapolis; Augsburg Press, 1943), p. 1119) -on Matthew 27:46- explaining Jesus’ lament– “IN the Garden Jesus has a God who hears and strengthens him; on the cross this God has turned wholly away from him. …. With his dying powers he cries to God and no longer sees in him the Father, for a wall of separation has risen between the Father and the Son, namely the world’s sin and its curse as they now lie upon the Son. Jesus thirsts for God, but God has removed himself. It is not the Son that has left the Father, but the Father that has left the Son.”
Robertson G. Dodson, at the Pearl Street Church Lectureship, fourteenth Annual, (1995) “ Studies in Matthew, “ (p. 346– “Generally, brethren (including many able scholars n the Word) have explained that, because Jesus was ‘made to be sin’ (2 Corinthians 5:21); c. John 1:29; Gal. 3:3; Isaiah 53:10), God could no longer look upon Him and thus turned away from him. They teach that it was not because of any sin that christ had committed (Hebrews 4:15; 7:26; 9:14) that God in some sense forsook His Son in this awful hour. Rather, He did so because the Lord bore the sins of all humanity for all time (Isaiah 54:4-5, 8, 11-12).” Dodson rejects that view himself (p. 347) “I do not believe that Jesus’ words imply a spiritual separation from His Father.” So, the general view in the c of C is that Jesus was forsaken!
Matthew records the words of Christ on the cross as follows:
“And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me? (Matt. 27:46)
Some brethren in the churches of Christ, such as Howard Denham, Jim Miller, Michael Hatcher, David Brown, Scott Russell, and others, deny that Jesus was separated from his Father on the cross. They deny that he experienced sin-death. Not only that, they believe, this is a novel doctrine of those of us who teach all bible prophecy has been fulfilled. This writing documents that this view was taught by men highly respected by them in the churches of Christ.
The quotes that follow were sent to me by William Bell.
Foy E. Wallace, Jr. – Commenting on Isaiah 53, Wallace wrote: “When thou shalt make his soul an offering of sin”–Jesus offered his soul on the cross; through crucifixion was excruciating pain and the physical suffering of the cross was agonizing, in Gethsemane’s garden the soul of Jesus suffered ‘even unto death’ as an ‘offering for sin.’ The only way that a soul can die is in the sense of separation from God, therefore Jesus Christ died a spiritual death on the cross, the death of separation from God. He came to take the sinner’s place and this he could not do without getting in the sinner’s place; and the sinner was separated from God, so was Jesus on the cross; he took the sinner’s place. This was the vicarious suffering of the innocent for the guilty; when the guilty is not amenable to take the penalty of the law by the action of a third party, who takes upon himself the guilt of the offender and stands between him and the penalty of the law. That is what Jesus did for man, but he could not take the sinner’s place without getting in it; he became separated from God; he poured out his soul unto death when in the darkness encompassing Jerusalem God had withdrawn his presence from the scene. That was the meaning of the Gethsemane prayer, when Jesus said, ‘If it be possible, let this cup pass from me.’ He was not praying not to die, for he had said, ‘No man taketh my life, I lay it down of myself.’ He declared that he could call the legions of angels to his defence; [sic] and the legions of Rome would have been no match for them. This cup which Jesus prayed might pass from him was that dread separation from his Father when he poured out his soul unto death and became separated from God in spiritual death, ‘for he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.’ (2 Cor. 5:21.)” Foy E. Wallace, Jr., Number One Gospel Sermons, pp. 191-2, c. 1967, Foy E. Wallace, Jr. Publications.
James Burton Coffman – Concerning Mark 15:34, a parallel text to Matt. 27:46, he writes: “The traditional interpretation of this place views it as a quotation from Psalm 22, where no less than twenty specific prophecies of the crucifixion are detailed, and to which it must be supposed Jesus here made reference by quoting the first line of that well known Psalm. That is the view accepted by this interpreter, and extensive comment in support of this view is in CM, pp. 508-510. However, it must be confessed that something deeper and far more imponderable could be indicated. As Cranfield expressed it:
“The burden of the world’s sin, his complete self identification with sinners, involved not merely a felt, but a real, abandonment by his Father. It is in the cry of dereliction that the full horror of man’s sin stands revealed…While this God-forsakeness was utterly real, the unity of the Blessed Trinity was even then unbroken. “ C.E.M. Canfield quoted in Commentary on Mark, by James Burton Coffman, p. 338.
C. E. W. Dorris – In the Gospel Advocate Commentary on Mark, Dorris writes: “This is Hebrew, and means, ‘My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?’ As the weakness of death comes on he feels God has forsaken him, and in distress he makes the cry. It seems to indicate a feeling of this kind. He was forsaken and betrayed by man. This he could bear, as a man is weak, frail, and blind. But now he feels the support of God is withdrawn, and he asks, Why, what have I done that thou has forsaken me? He could bear the treason, the denial, the forsaking of his chosen apostles–they were ignorant, weak, frail–but O, my God, what have I don that thou has forsaken me?, Mark, pp. 372-3.
C. C. Crawford – Commenting on Matt. 27:46, writes of Jesus. This has been called “the mystery of the dereliction of the Cross, the darkest of all dark nights of the soul.” He now detaches Himself from the last earthly ties and turns to face the deeper, more terrible experiences yet to come, alone. Fittingly the struggle of the next three hours are covered by a mantle of darkness-darkness over the whole land. Was it a veil reverently let down from heaven? “From that moment when the cry, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me’ went up out of the deep of the midday midnight upon Calvary, doubt was for ever consecrated as the last trial of the sons of God; and a trial needed for their purification, no less then pain or parting” (J.R. Illingworth, Sermons In A College Chapel, 25). “The pain which was in the heart of God over the brutal wrongdoing of His human children was now to the utmost in the heart of Jesus. It was not simply the pain of stretched tendons, lacerated muscles, and burning thirst. It was chiefly distress of soul. He was feeling the feeling of God about the wrong doing of mankind. He could have said of himself in this experience, ‘He that hath seen me hath seen the Father.’” (Bosworth, Life and Teaching of Jesus, 390). ‘He who would attain to the mystical science must abandon and be detached from five things; first, from creatures; secondly, from temporal things; thirdly, from the very gifts of the Holy Spirit; fourthly, from himself; and fifthly, he must be detached even from God. This last is the completest of all, because that soul only that knows how to be so detached, is that which attains to being lost in God, (Molinos, The Spiritual Life, quoted by Unamuno, in The Tragic Sense of Life, 219). Yes! If Calvary raises these questions, Easter morning answers the…”The Passion of Our Lord, pp. 177-9,Gospel Advocate Company, Nashville, Tennessee.
So, world class scholars and commentators all affirm that Christ did experience spiritual death on the cross, even affirming that this view has been the view of the historical church, and the accepted view! Keep in mind that the testimony of scholars does not definitively prove anything. They are mere men, not inspired apostles. I have simply offered the testimony of these men to show that preterist did not invent the idea of Christ experiencing spiritual death, and it has never been considered as heretical!