This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
I am glad to hear that your next line of research is targeting the atonement. I have also been looking into this subject and am trying to find some answers concerning one aspect of the substitution theory, namely, Christ taking on our punishment or God's wrath. I have to believe this entails more than just physical death since our punishment without the covering of Jesus' righteousness is an eternity in the lake of fire.
Does this mean that while Jesus suffered a horrific physical death on the cross that he also suffered this same eternity of God's wrath for each person that has ever lived or ever will live?
Otherwise, there have been many martyrs that have suffered horrific deaths, so what would make Christ's death any more harder to handle than theirs, regarding God's wrath, if only the physical aspect was meant?
Dr. William Lane Craig’s Response
There are so many issues raised by the doctrine of the atonement, and your question, Aaron, is one of the challenges to a so-called penal theory of the atonement, according to which Christ bore the suffering that we were due as punishment for our sins.
Just what is the punishment for sins? In Genesis God warned Adam and Eve, “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Genesis 2.17). Here it is not clear whether death is the punishment for sin or simply the natural consequence of sin. What is clear is that Adam and Eve did not die physically on the day they disobeyed God. But they were driven out of His presence from the Garden of Eden. This expulsion from God’s presence is a sort of spiritual death. The promise of the New Testament of eternal life in Christ is the promise, not of mere biological life (bios), but of spiritual life (zoē), fellowship with God. By contrast those outside of Christ are said to be “dead through trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2.1).
Some biblical theologians have said that the punishment for sins is simply God’s abandoning us to suffer the consequences of sins—fractured, twisted, mortal lives lived in self-centered and self-destructive behavior, such Romans 1.24-32 describes. That can’t be the whole story, however, because, as you note, the New Testament warns of God’s eschatological or final judgement of sinners. Physical death is not the end of the story: every person who has ever lived will be brought to life and appear before God’s judgement seat, “so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body” (II Corinthians 5.10). Those who do not know Christ will be separated from him forever (Matthew 7.23).
In a sense, even this eternal separation from God can be viewed as a consequence of sin. Unredeemed sinners cannot exist in a relation of fellowship with a holy God. God’s presence expels evil even as light expels darkness. A natural consequence of sin, therefore, is alienation from God and the eternal life that is in Him. Nevertheless, Paul speaks of this eternal separation from God, not simply as a consequence of sin, but as a punishment for sin: “They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (II Thessalonians 1.9). Unredeemed sinners, Paul says, “deserve to die” (Romans 1.32). Their final fate is, after all, a result of God’s judgement of them.
Now if we think that Christ took upon himself what we deserved as a result of our sins, what exactly did he suffer instead of us? The punishment for our sins is eternal separation from God; but Christ did not suffer eternal separation from God. Rather he was raised from the dead by God. How are we to understand this?
One answer is that in virtue of the dignity of his person, namely, the second person of the Trinity, what he suffered is equivalent to the eternal suffering of the damned in hell. Interestingly, in our criminal justice system this sort of difference is recognized but not countenanced. It is recognized that different prisoners may experience the same sentence in radically different ways. For a hardened criminal the punishment may be a mere annoyance, but for a person who is frail or sensitive the same punishment may occasion terrible suffering. Our legal system won’t allow these differences in persons to come into play in sentencing for obvious reasons: it could lead to outrageous exploitation of the system by certain persons. So the subjective suffering of persons is not allowed to play a role in the assigning of punishment. But God is obviously not susceptible to the sort of abuses that a human legal system is and so may take into account such subjective differences. In that case, Christ could be said to suffer subjectively the same pains as the damned.
Even on a purely objectivist view of punishment, however, it may be that Christ is, in fact, sentenced to the same fate that we are, namely, death. Over and over again, the New Testament says that Christ died for our sins. But, you will ask, what about eternal death? Isn’t the punishment for sin eternal death? Well, perhaps not. Perhaps the eternality of death is a contingent consequence of the damned’s persisting forever. They are sentenced to death, period, but because they persist forever—unrepentantly, we might add—their punishment goes on forever. Analogously, a prisoner sentenced to life without parole may live for one year or may live for 100 years; the duration of his punishment is a contingent consequence of how long he lives. Similarly, the duration of the death sentence pronounced on the damned is a contingent consequence of their everlasting duration.
In Christ’s case, he suffers death, thereby paying our penalty and discharging our sentence. But that death need not be prolonged, for he is himself innocent. Any guilt he bears is not his own but is ours imputed to him. So there is no reason for him to remain in death. God by raising him from the dead vindicates him and demonstrates his victory over sin, death, and hell.
But how can Christ, who is a divine person, experience separation from God? Wouldn’t that, per impossible, split the Trinity right down the middle? Well, it seems to me that Christ in his human nature can experience abandonment and alienation from God the Father, a rupture of fellowship and withdrawal of His blessing. On classical theories of the incarnation the human soul of Jesus (which is not a person) experiences such abandonment, not the divine Logos (who is the person of Christ). On my preferred neo-Apollinarian doctrine of the incarnation, Christ in his waking, human consciousness experiences such abandonment. In that way he can suffer the death penalty that we deserved.
 While I think this did involve more than mere physical death, on an objectivist view it is not relevant that other martyrs have also experienced horrible deaths, so that Christ did not experience any suffering “harder to handle than theirs.” The fact remains that Christ was dying in your place, paying your penalty, and they were not.