Did Christ Suffer Eternal Damnation?

On pages 40-41 of Not By Bread Alone you write, "Christ did not undergo the punishment of eternal damnation, although such was a common belief among many sixteenth century Protestants, e.g. Luther and Calvin, who understood the atonement in terms of forensic imputation."
There is no citation provided for this, and as I have had Protestants swear the charge is false I would like to know the sources.

Although no Father or medireview theologian had ever entertained the idea that the statement in the Apostles Creed that Christ descended into hell meant more than a release of detained saints, the Reformers saw in the descent an opportunity to buttress their forensic understanding of justification. They interpreted the descent as the infliction of the torments of hell on Christ in order to make a full legal payment for sin. Nicolas of Cusa (1400-1464) and Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) were the first to introduce the idea that Christ sustained agony in the descent into hell. Martin Luther held that Christ, as God and man, literally entered hell to sustain God's wrath, suffering the tortures of the damned (Operatio in Psalmum 22 (21), 1583 Wittenberg ed., III, 331-334. Cited in Sin, Redemption and Sacrifice by S. Lyonnet and L. Sabourin, p. 229). Various contemporary Protestant authors hold similar views. John R. W. Stott, who quotes from both Luther and Calvin, explains that the sufferings of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane are of such magnitude that they are equivalent to hell:

We may even dare to say that our sins sent Christ to "hell," not to the "hell" (hades, the abode of the dead) to which the Creed says he "descended" after death, but to the "hell"(gehenna, the place of punishment) to which our sins condemned him before his body died...God in Christ endured it in our place. Hell is the only alternative (The Cross of Christ, p. 79, 161).

By the introductory statement "we may even dare to say..." it is somewhat ambiguous whether Stott is actually dogmatizing his belief that Christ suffered hell, but it would be odd to say such a thing unless he believed it to be so. Nevertheless, in addition to the fact that the Gospels do not speak of Christ's suffering in Gethsemane as a "hell" experience, we must point out that if Gethsemane were a "hell" experience for Christ - "an experience so terrible that it paid the legal price for all men's sins" - then this experience would have been the climax of Christ's work and would have completed the legal payment for sin prior to the cross. In turn, it would have made the actual death of Christ a secondary, and perhaps, superfluous act.

Stott, following John Calvin whom he quotes, is led to the theory that Christ suffered the equivalent of hell due to his insistence in viewing the atonement of Christ as primarily a penal substitution. If this theory is followed to its logical conclusion, then it is required of Christ to suffer the identical punishment which God will require of unrepentant sinners, namely, eternal damnation. Quoting Charles Cranfield, Stott states that God "purposed to direct against his own very self in the person of his Son the full weight of that righteous wrath which they deserved" (The Cross of Christ, p. 134). In the theory of penal substitution, Christ takes the guilt of sin within Himself and is thus justly punished by God. Second Corinthians 5:21 ("God made him who had no sin to be sin for us...") is usually quoted to support the theory. Stott attempts to support the idea of "transference of guilt" by referring to various passages in the Old Testament in which one person is said to assume the guilt of another person who committed a crime. He cites Numbers 9:13; 14:33-34; 18:22; 30:15; Exodus 28:43; Leviticus 5:17; 19:8; 22:9; and 24:15. That Stott cites these passages for support is puzzling, since none of them support his concept of "guilt transference," for each of them, besides the possible exception of Numbers 14:33-34, show that the person is punished not because guilt was transferred to him from another person, but because the person himself had committed a sin or broke a rule. Even Numbers 14:33-34 does not really support Stott's point, since even though the children suffer due to their parent's sins, that is only for the purpose of seeing the last of the parents die in the desert so that the children can "enjoy the land you have rejected," and thus the children are not punished for their parent's sins (Numbers 14:31). It was only in extreme cases of apostasy that God punished the whole nation, e.g., the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities John Calvin used these concepts and was the first to produce the full-blown interpretation that Christ assumed the legal guilt of the sin for the elect and was justly punished with the torments of eternal damnation. He writes:

But we must seek a surer explanation, apart from the Creed, of Christ's descent into hell...If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual. No - it was expedient at the same time for him to undergo the severity of God's vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment. For this reason, he must also grapple hand to hand with the armies of hell and the dread of everlasting death....By these words he means that Christ was put in place of evildoers as surety and pledge - "submitting himself even as the accused" - to bear and suffer all the punishments that they ought to have sustained...No wonder, then, if he is said to have descended into hell, for he suffered the death that God in his wrath had inflicted upon the wicked!

Calvin concludes:

The point is that the Creed sets forth what Christ suffered in the sight of men, and then appositely speaks of that invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he underwent in the sight of God in order that we might know not only that Christ's body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man.....And surely, unless his soul shared in the punishment, he would have been the Redeemer of bodies alone....Does not that prayer, coming from unbelievable bitterness of heart and repeated three times - "Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me"- show that Christ had a harsher and more difficult struggle than with common death? (Institutes 2:16:10....2:16:12).

From these statements it is clear that Calvin believed that Christ suffered the virtual reality of hell's eternal torments within the space of three days. Without these eternal torments, Calvin concluded that the Atonement would have been "ineffectual."

Maldonatus reacted vigorously to Calvin, using the standard Catholic argument:

How could Christ say that he was forsaken by God? Calvin is not to be listened to who says that he suffered all the pains of the condemned, among which was utter despair. Christ's own words disprove this: Ć¢€˜Into thy hands I commend my spirit.' Nor was it either necessary or possible that he should suffer all the punishments of the lost....Nor, again, was he required to undergo the heavy punishments which many of his martyrs have endured for him. For it was not the greatness of his punishment, which, however, great it was, could not compare with the multitude and greatness of our sins, but the condition of his person which satisfied God; for whatever it was that God suffered, it was so great that it satisfied even an angry God (A Commentary on the Holy Gospels, Matthew, vol. II, trans. G. J. Davie, cited in "Sin, Redemption and Sacrifice" by Lyonnet and Sabourin, p. 234).

There are three major problems with Calvin's view:

(1) no one in the history of the Church even remotely expressed such a belief, nor did any council examining the Apostles Creed's statement "he descended into hell" ever apply such an interpretation. In fact, the phrase was deleted from the Nicene Creed, showing its relative unimportance in the essentials of redemption when compared to the other important truths, which would not have been the case if the councils determined that in the absence of Christ's descent the atonement would have been "ineffectual."

(2) Calvin creates a contradiction by saying, on the one hand, that Christ "suffered the dread of everlasting death" and, on the other hand, "suffer[ed] all the punishments that they ought to have sustained." Suffering the "dread" of everlasting death is merely a temporary mental state of anguish that is not equal, either quantitatively or qualitatively, to "all the punishments" required of hell, both mental and physical (John 5:28-29; 10:28). Although it cannot be denied that Christ experienced mental anguish due to the events leading up to and including the cross, this is mainly because it was Christ's first and only experience of suffering by the will of the Father.

(3) Scripture neither contains one explicit statement declaring that Christ assumed the guilt of man and justly suffered the torments of hell for man's sin, nor does it equate Christ's mental anguish or physical pain with the reality of hell's punishments. Calvin attempts to support his theory from Scripture, but his proof texts are wanting. First, using Acts 2:24, Calvin stresses the "pangs" of death that Christ suffered and he concludes that this is more than death itself. However, "pangs" genitivally relates to "death," not indicatively or accusatively, and is therefore describing the horrors of death itself, not events subsequent to it. The termination of life is itself a "pang." This is supported by the inclusion of the genitive singular pronoun, in the clause "it was not possible for him to be held by it," which can refer only to the genitive noun, (death), not to the accusative. Moreover, the context of Acts 2 speaks exclusively about the resurrection of Christ from the dead, not about torments associated with hell.

Calvin also uses Hebrews 5:7 to support his theory. Because the passage speaks of Christ offering up prayers with cries and tears to be saved from death, Calvin claims that Christ is not praying to be spared death but not to be "swallowed up by it as a sinner because he bore their nature." There are several problems with this interpretation. First, Calvin's claim that "he bore their nature" begs the question, for Scripture does not teach that Christ assumed the nature of sin within Himself, rather, he became a sin offering (2 Cor. 5:21; Isaiah 53:10-12).

Second, if, as Calvin assumes, Christ is praying not to be "swallowed up" in the torments of hell, this means that His prayer is a request to come out of hell. However, if it was never God's intention to put Christ in hell for eternity, but only for three days (a period of time that Christ knew before he went to the cross, cf., Matthew 12:40; 26:61; Mark 8:31), then there is no reason for Christ to pray to be freed from the "swallowing up."

Third, Hebrews 5:7 does not necessarily refer only to the passion of Christ in Gethsemane. Hebrews 5:5, when compared to Hebrews 1:5-6, begins Hebrews 5:7's "days of his flesh" at the birth of Jesus. Accordingly, Jesus always prayed to the Father concerning the events He was undertaking (cf., Matt. 14:23; Mark 1:35; 6:40; Luke 5:16; 9:28; 11:1). Having already prayed, the gospels record several instances in which the crowd desired to kill him, but the Father did not hand Jesus over to them (cf., Matt. 12:14; Luke 4:28-30; John 5:18; 7:1, 30, 44; 8:59; 10:39).

Fourth, a possible interpretation of Jesus' passion is that the sorrow He feels concerning His upcoming crucifixion might result in the termination of His life in Gethsemane, thus curtailing Him from completing His mission to go to the cross, a mission of which He was fully anticipating (cf., Matt. 20:18; John 11:13; 12:33; 18:32). Supporting this, in John 12:27-28, Jesus states that He will not pray to the Father to save Him from His passion and death, since it was the very reason He came to earth. Accordingly, Matthew 26:38 indicates that Jesus was concerned that He might die at Gethsemane due to the extreme sorrow He was experiencing. Jesus' statement in Matthew 26:41 "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" may then refer to the willingness of His spirit to do the Father's will of going to the cross, but that the flesh, being weak, may die before He arrives at the cross. In light of this weakness, Luke 22:41-43 reveals that as Christ prayed in the Garden, the Father sent an angel to Him for strength. It is immediately after the strengthening that Jesus is temporarily relieved of His sorrow and is able to walk over to the apostles and tell them to pray. In this scenario, then, Christ's prayer was for the purpose of being saved from physical death, not, as Calvin claims, to escape a spiritual death which was equivalent to hell.

In giving the above interpretation, however, we are not eliminating the alternative interpretation which says that Jesus prays in Gethsemane in order to avoid the death on the cross. In asking if it is possible for the cup to pass from Him, Jesus may be asking the Father if there is another way to accomplish the Father's will rather than through physical death on the cross. If this is the case, then the Father's answer is negativeĆ¢€"there is no other way to accomplish the redemption. In either scenario, however, Christ's prayer is for the purpose of avoiding physical death, either physical death at Gethsemane or physical death at the cross, but not a spiritual death associated with being sent to the eternal torments of hell.

Appealing to the Fathers, the only references Calvin finds as possible supports for his thesis are two obscure passages from Hilary of Poitiers. The first reference states: "that nails to the cross of His passion the powers that are our foes, that slays death in hell, that strengths the assurance of our hope by His Resurrection." The second: "The Son of God is in hell; but man is carried back to heaven." Hilary's statements, however, do not support Calvin's extravagant claim. Hilary does not say that Christ experienced the torments of hell. He merely states that Christ went to hell to: (a) slay death, and (b) allow men to go to heaven. This is precisely the consensus of the Church Fathers (which Calvin ignores) and the belief in the Catholic Church today regarding Christ's descent into hell, that is, to release holy men who had been awaiting the accomplishment of Christ's atonement.

Calvin also uses Hebrews 2:14-15 to support his view, claiming that the reference to Christ's "death" refers to the "pains of hell." Once again, however, we see that Calvin is prone to add extraneous concepts to the text, a text which says nothing of hell. All in all, for such an important link in his doctrinal stratagem, Calvin leaves us with very little except conjecture and exaggerated inference to establish his point. There is simply no evidence from either the early Fathers or Scripture that Christ assumed the legal guilt of man's sin and was subsequently punished with the equivalent of man's eternal condemnation.

Robert Sungenis
Catholic Apologetics International
June 7, 2002

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