What Really Happened on the Cross?
Six Hours in Eternityby Lambert Dolphin Lambert Dolphin, Physicist
[Editor's note: Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of the Christ, may lead many unbelievers to seek answers this Easter. Let's explore the nature of time and eternity as we meditate on the meaning of Easter and the death of Jesus on the cross.]
In the Garden
The night Jesus was betrayed closed a long, full day after His final Passover meal with His disciples. In the Garden of Gethsemane that same night, Jesus endured a terrible emotional and spiritual ordeal in prayer before His Father. The writer of Hebrews records this: "In the days of His flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to Him who was able to save Him from death, and He was heard for His godly fear. Although He was a Son, He learned obedience through what He suffered...." (Hebrews 5:7,8)
"There — with only Peter, James and John nearby — Jesus experienced a protracted period of excruciating torment of spirit which found expression in groanings... and streaming tears, and ended in a terrible sweat, almost like blood. There is a great mystery here. Jesus seems to face the experience with puzzlement and deep unrest of heart. For the first time in His ministry, He appeals to His own disciples for help, asking them to watch and pray for Him. He confesses being deeply troubled in His spirit. Each of His three prayers questions the necessity for this experience and each is addressed to the One who could save Him from death.
"Luke tells us that before the third prayer, an angel was sent to strengthen Him... His cry to the Father was one of such desperate need that the Father answered by strengthening Him through an angel. But when the angel had finished, the third and most terrible experience began. The author implies that Jesus faced the emotional misery which sin produces: its shame, guilt and despair. He felt the iron bands of sin's enslaving power. He was oppressed by a sense of hopelessness, total discouragement and utter defeat. He is anticipating the moment on the cross when He would be forsaken of the Father, since He would then be bearing the sin of the world as though it were His own.
"The very thought of it crushed His heart as in a winepress. No sinner on earth has ever felt the stain and shame of sin as He did. He understood exactly the same feeling we have (in much lesser degree) when we are angry with ourselves and so filled with shame and self-loathing that we cannot believe that God can do anything but hate us for our evil. Jesus knows what that is like. He went the whole way and took the full brunt. We will never pass through a Gethsemane as torturous as He did. He saw our sins as His own, and thus fulfilled beyond any other priest's experience the ability to deal gently with others' sins since He was so fully aware of the sense of personal defilement sin leaves." (Ray C. Stedman , Commentary on Hebrews,)
After the prayer in the Garden, Jesus was up the rest of that night, without sleep, enduring cross-examination, scourging, beating, cruel mockery and unspeakable brutality. He was already greatly weakened when He carried His cross, stumbling, early the next morning to the place of crucifixion alongside the main public highway — probably just outside the Damascus Gate.
Medical doctors and forensic experts have written books about the common Roman form of execution—death by crucifixion. Often the dying process took several days. The nailing of hands and feet forced the victim to push up against the weight of his own body to take a single breath.
In the hot sun, terrible thirst ensued and death came, in most cases, from suffocation amidst great pain. The victim was also naked and humiliated — death on the cross was reserved for the most wretched of all criminals. 1
A superficial reading of the gospel narratives concerning the death of Jesus will show that He was nailed to the cross at 9 o'clock in the morning, and was dead by 3 in the afternoon. It would seem off hand that His ordeal, terrible as it was, was completed in a mere six hours. This, however, is not the full story. We must look behind the scenes.
What Happened on the Cross?
Paul in his letter to the Colossians tells us about invisible events taking place, beyond the physical realm and outside of our ordinary space-time continuum, during the dying of Jesus on the cross: "...in Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross. And you, who once were estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, He has now reconciled in His body of flesh by His death, in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before Him." (Col 1:19-22)
When He died for us on the cross, Jesus met fully the onslaught of demons, fallen angels, and all the power of evil forces in the heavens, disarming all of them completely — because "in Christ God was reconciling all things to Himself."
Jesus' victory over man's greatest enemy — death — is boldly announced in the letter to the Hebrews: "Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death He might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage." (Heb 2:14,15)
It is for the final outworking in history of Satan's defeat at the cross that we now eagerly await. What is the completed work of Christ on the cross in the eternal time frame will come to pass in human history at God's appointed time on our earthly calendars. Time, you see, neither "flows" at the same rate nor has the same "content" in heaven as it does on earth.
The Lamb of God
The greatest mystery of Christ's passion concerns the transaction in eternity that took place between the sinless Son of God and His heavenly Father. Jesus was, for the first three hours on the cross, our Great High Priest. From noon till 3 p.m ., during which time a strange and terrible darkness came over the earth (Luke 23:44), the High Priest became the Sacrifice. In being made sin for us, in literally taking the sins of the world upon Himself, Jesus became a vile and loathsome thing, cut off from God and man — not just in time but also in eternity.2
The work of Jesus on the cross, as far as we are concerned, is completely finished. Jesus is not now hanging on a cross. He has been raised from the dead, and sits in heaven, fully in charge of the universe as a resurrected man. One man, one son of Adam, Jesus the Lord is now living in glory and He is presently in charge of the universe.
But in another sense, if we could step into eternity and view an eternal being such as the Son of God experiencing all things — if we could see things from the vantage point of heaven — we would perceive that a part of the eternal God must suffer forever, outside of time, because of human sin.
The Eternal Aspects of the Cross
Paul the Apostle wrote in his Corinthian letters about the "fellowship of Christ's sufferings" and of making up in his own body what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body; that is, the church. He spoke of "always bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus might be revealed in us...."
Paul said these things long after Jesus had risen from the dead and ascended into heaven where He now rules, His work on the cross having been completed and finished. The Apostle understood that there is an aspect of the cross that is, indeed, eternal. The crucifixion was one of those important points in our one-dimensional time frame when eternity broke through the normal flow of history and changed everything forever, sending ripples backwards and forwards in time.
There are other hints about Jesus in eternity. He is spoken of in the book of Revelation as the "Lamb slain before the foundation of the world." Peter writes, "You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake." (1 Pet 1:18-20)
Without in any way diminishing the work of Christ on the cross as finished, completed, and accomplished in space-time and in history, it is possible to say that a part of God suffers eternally for man's sins. From Scripture we learn that a holy God must ultimately be just. He must ultimately remove evil in all its forms from His presence. Those persons who have permanently rebelled against His gracious mercy cannot cease to exist after death, but remain eternally conscious in a place of everlasting, endless punishment. And the loving God who created us surely suffers infinitely more than any human parent when a beloved child refuses the good and chooses a path leading to hurt, harm and self-destruction. Surely it must be grievously painful for God (who is love) to be denied the opportunity to give of Himself to the objects of His love.
And no man can suffer more than Christ has already suffered; nor are our sufferings, however great, something Christ has not already experienced. 3 "God's kindness is meant to lead us to repentance," says Paul (Rom 2:4). "Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire." (Heb 12:28, 29)
The same fires which heal, purify and warm the righteous are the consuming, everlasting burnings of Gehenna—where beings who refused to become the human persons they were designed to be must finally endure the "backside" of God's love — which is hell. C.S. Lewis gathers all this up very well in these words from Mere Christianity :
"God is going to invade this earth in force. But what is the good of saying you are on His side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream and something else — something it never entered your head to conceive—comes crashing in; something so beautiful to some of us, and so terrible to others, that none of us will have any choice left?
"For this time it will be God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature. It will be too late then to choose your side. There is no use saying you choose to lie down when it has become impossible to stand up. That will not be the time for choosing; it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realized it before or not. Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back, to give us that chance. It will not last forever; we must take it or leave it."
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For more on what really happened at the Crucifixion, see The Agony of Love: Six Hours in Eternity, our featured video this month.
A Biblical Mystery: His Unfamiliar Face - Chuck Missler
Medical Aspects of The Crucifixion: The Agony of Love - Dr. Mark Eastman