Problems with Substitution
While many people accept the belief that Jesus died in their place on the cross, receiving the wrath due to them, many cannot explain how Jesus was their substitute. In this section, we will consider all the possible ways Jesus could be considered our substitute.
1. Jesus did not take our place in physical death. Since Jesus died for all people, how can it be suggested that Jesus physically died in the place of all people? If Jesus death was in place of my physical death, then I should not have to physically die. But it is evident that all people must still physically die (Hebrews 9:27). Therefore Christ did not take our place in physical death.
2. Jesus did not take our place in spiritual death. Jesus did not die spiritually and, therefore, could not have taken our place in spiritual death. It should be evident that Jesus did not experience spiritual death. Spiritual death is eternal separation from God. We know that Jesus is not eternally separated from God. After his resurrection, Jesus ascended to the Father and began to reign (Acts 1; Daniel 7:13-14).
Some have tried to teach that Jesus died spiritually on the cross as explanation for the three hours of darkness and Jesus statement “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” However, the Bible never attributes the darkness to Jesus being spiritual separated from God. Further, Jesus declared that the Father would never leave him or forsake him (John 8:28-29; 16:32). To even suggest that Jesus was spiritually separated from God should make us shutter at its implications. To think that Jesus could be separated from the Father is to think of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three individual gods, rather than the one God the scriptures describe.
So why did Jesus say, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The Jews knew the psalms by the first line of each psalm (they did not have chapters and verses as references). The words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” are the first words found in Psalm 22. Jesus is quoting Psalm 22 and teaching its message to those watching him die. The message of the psalm is that though David appeared forsaken by God, God was with him all the while and had not hidden His face from David. So also, Jesus is teaching that though it appeared he was forsaken by God, God was with him, just as he taught. The last verse of Psalm 22 are also the final words of Jesus, “It is finished” or “It is done.”
3. Jesus did not physically die to take the place of our spiritual death. The punishment for sins is worse than physical death (Hebrews 10:26-39). Punishment for sins is eternal separation from God, eternal torment in hell with the devil and his angels, and the anguish of being cast out from the presence of the Lord. A physical death cannot stand in the place of eternal, spiritual death. Jesus physical death cannot take the place of our deserved spiritual death. We will elaborate more on this problem at the end of this article.
4. Jesus did not take our place on the cross. How could Jesus have taken our place on the cross for sins when none of us have ever been scheduled to die on the cross in the first place? For Jesus to be our substitute on the cross means that I was supposed to be on the cross. But the Bible does not teach that man was to be on the cross. Jesus could not have saved us from the punishment of the cross because the cross is not the punishment for our sins.
5. Jesus did not take our place in suffering for righteousness. There have been Christians who have suffered more physical anguish, pain, and torture than Jesus suffered. Many of the apostles suffered more for their faith in Jesus than Jesus suffered. If Jesus took their place in suffering, why did the apostles suffer? Why do Christians suffer? Why did Jesus tell James and John that they would drink the cup he was about to drink (Mark 10:38-39). Jesus did not take our place in suffering otherwise we would not have to suffer for the sake of Jesus.
6. Jesus did not take our place in punishment for sins. The punishment for sins is still levied against the disobedient. Jesus did not remove the wrath of God against sin. Gods wrath is still in place against all sinners (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). If the death of Jesus on the cross appeased and took away the wrath of God against sin, then the very nature of God was changed. We would expect that God would not longer have any such wrath and would render no punishment for sins on anyone. If Jesus received the punishment for the sins of the whole world, then no one will have to be punished for sins. God would not be just to punish Christ for our sins and then punish us for the same sins. God cannot punish twice. If Christ took our place for the punishment of sins, then no one will be punished, even the disobedient or evildoers, for Christ satisfied Gods wrath. Clearly, Jesus did not take our place in punishment for sins since punishment remains for the disobedient (Matthew 25:31-46).
A Supposed “Fix”
The proponents of substitution recognize these problems. Some will suggest that what Jesus suffered was not the exact same punishment for sins that we might receive in eternal torment; it was just “equivalent” punishment, but not the same in quantity or quality. But to accept this doctrine lays God open to the charge being unjust.
Consider: if what Jesus endured was sufficient suffering and punishment for sin, then those who are condemned should be able to insist on the same suffering and punishment for their sins. If six hours on a cross to the point of physical death is sufficient punishment for God to accept as payment for penalty of sin, why then will God inflict a far worse punishment on sinners? It would be unjust for God to inflict eternal punishment on the lost when just a few hours of torture and physical death is sufficient payment for their sins! Not only do the scriptures never speak of Jesus taking our place or acting as our substitute, but there are no acceptable explanations to describe in what way Jesus could have been our substitute. In the next article, we will consider what the scriptures actually teach versus what the churches have always taught concerning the death of Christ.