by Darin K. Bowers, MD
Today's Christian Doctor - Spring 2015
It was 1986 and I was a third-year medical student in the grind of learning my profession. In developing the habit of reviewing medical journals, one article entitled “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ” in the Journal of the American Medical Association caught my attention.1 I was pleased to see recognition given, albeit from a medical perspective, about such a significant event that centered on arguably the most controversial figure in human history. Now, nearly 30 years later, my perspective of Christ’s experience has deepened considerably from what I understood then as a young believer. It took me years to realize, what I now consider to be, one of the most important truths we can so easily overlook. Certainly, it is a truth that deserves so much more emphasis than has been given as it is at the heart of our belief.
Do we truly comprehend the magnitude of what Christ experienced or are we somewhat distracted by the physical torment He endured? We’ve heard the story about the physical suffering Christ encountered. We cringed at the bloody scenes graphically depicted in The Passion of the Christ.2 But I’m afraid the emphasis on His physical torment has overshadowed the critical aspect of His spiritual torment. We risk falling short in understanding the entirety of the cost paid by reducing the crucifixion to something our minds can more easily grasp. By hearing, reading or seeing the details of the suffering played out in grizzly detail, we end up settling for a debt paid through torment to the extent laid upon Him by human hands alone. This is unfortunate, since the most terrible affliction He endured was not the physical abuse by which man alone could administer but rather the complete, though temporary, withdrawal of God’s very presence.
The Question Remains
Some debate exists as to whether Christ was literally abandoned by the Father or simply felt abandoned. One could argue that there could never be complete separation as they are one. Yet our understanding in the fullness of the Trinity has always perplexed mankind. Additionally, verses like Hebrews 13:5 are sited to demonstrate God’s promise to never forsake us. Although I believe Scripture to be true regarding God’s faithfulness to mankind, we should be careful in placing man’s position with God equal to God’s position with the Son. It is clear in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 that separation from God occurs to the person who rejects Christ and dies. Knowing Jesus died while burdened with all of sin ever known, then judged by a righteous God and declared guilty on our behalf, it makes sense that Christ truly transcended a literal hell at that very moment. Believing Christ “felt” abandoned only minimizes what He went through on our behalf. For that reason I believe the literal words Christ spoke, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).3 In any case, Christ experienced something horrendous that no one else could have as He faced a righteous God while bearing all of humanity’s sin.
During His ministry, Jesus always referenced God as “Father,” illustrating the intimate fellowship He treasured. John 17 is particularly good in illustrating this “oneness” Christ shared with the Father. Yet, something happened on the cross to change all this, as Christ could no longer see Him as “Father” but only as “My God.” It was this moment, I believe, the Son experienced total abandonment by the Father. Understanding this one point, as difficult as it is to comprehend, is essential in bringing the Easter story the reverence it deserves.
Beyond The Physical Suffering
Let me first acknowledge that the physical torment alone of what Christ went through was truly horrific, while the shedding of blood was also necessary in our justification as Romans 5:9 reminds us. His suffering also remains significant as He willingly presented Himself for the worst of what man could inflict. Mark 15:44 suggests that Pilate himself marveled how Christ died so quickly as crucifixion was typically a deliberate and slow form of torture, sometimes lasting days. Isaiah 52:14 foretold this in saying He was “disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness.” At the same time, history records that Christ was not the only one to share in such brutality. The Romans were experts in administering punishment on vast numbers over centuries. One only needs to read the accounts of the worst sufferings of the disciplined American slave or the afflictions upon Jews during the Nazi conquest to realize how misery of this magnitude has always been an unfortunate aspect of humanity. History documents cases of human suffering even exceeding what physical torment and suffering our Savior endured. But when you consider the fullness of what He faced on that terrible cross beyond just the physical, we can say with certainty that no human has ever endured anything equal to it. The Father’s abandonment of the Son is unimaginable, disturbing and yet so magnificent that we struggle to comprehend it.
Understanding this event has challenged believers throughout history, even those closest to Jesus. It certainly confused His own disciples as He warned them about what was to take place. We know how Peter reacted to the news Jesus shared of His impending death as recorded in Matthew 16:21-23. In verse 22, Peter declared, “This shall never happen to you!” Yet Peter, and we can assume the others, never really got it. Jesus told Peter in verse 23, “…you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Although we have the perspective of hindsight through God’s Word, perhaps we too limit our understanding of this event from “mere human concerns” which can preoccupy us. Only after witnessing the physical suffering of Christ and the resurrection did the disciples begin to understand the fullness of His sacrifice. It changed them radically to where most of them died as cruel a death as the Savior they followed. Yet it’s not the disciples’ suffering we emphasize in their contribution to the church, nor should Christ’s physical torment alone serve as the basis of His sacrifice.
Jesus was really the only one who understood what He was about to face as He prayed in the garden. While some of His disciples struggled to stay awake, Christ was literally sweating blood (Luke 22:44). The phenomenon, known as hematidrosis, rarely occurs under severe emotional stress. Was it the physical torment He was about to face that led to this state? Perhaps partly, but I believe that was the least of His concern. He tells His disciples in Matthew 26:38-39, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death…My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” These statements illustrate Christ’s humanness in experiencing the same emotions any of us would in that situation. What human would not long for some way out? Christ knew it was God’s will to continue even though His grief extended beyond the physical pain He knew was coming.
Interestingly, Jesus never commented on the pain the guards inflicted. Never once was it recorded that He begged for them to show mercy. He was looking beyond the physical suffering to the worst yet to come. In the midst of suffering, Jesus’ mind was on those carrying out the punishment! Luke 23:34a records Jesus saying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Jesus knew His executioners were focused on the physical because that was all they could do. Yet Jesus intervened on their behalf, making the case for their ignorance in knowing their actions extended beyond the suffering they inflicted. His compassion even extended to the guilty one hanging on the cross nearby as He promised him paradise. If the welfare of others preoccupied Christ’s mind over His physical suffering, what was it He dreaded so much it caused Him to sweat blood? I believe it was an approaching moment of time that literally consumed Him to the deepest level…to the very soul. The moment Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” as recorded in Matthew 27:46 (KJV), He experienced the one thing that had been on His mind from the earliest days of His ministry—His separation from the Father. Taking all of humanity’s sin upon Himself condemned our Savior to experience this separation from the Father, something He knew was required in “paying the cost.”
How Can It Be?
To illustrate the fullness of what Christ experienced, consider the following:
- Imagine knowing you were born to die. All of us are, even though we don’t live like it. Christ literally did as He knew His purpose was to die for mankind. Acts 2:23 declares, “This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” John 19:30 announced the end of this plan when Christ proclaimed “It is finished!”
- Imagine knowing your fate in dying a brutal death yet possessing the power to stop it. He had full authority to stop it but willingly surrendered Himself to it. John 10:17-18 states, “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again....”
- Imagine choosing to die to demonstrate your love of others, including your enemies, and doing it for all individuals past, present and future. Most people you have never met, and you would die knowing that many would still reject you despite this act.
- Imagine your mind preoccupied, not by the current physical suffering, but by concerns for those around you. Your mind continually rests on those who love or hate you, with equal concern for both.
- Imagine dying for no wrong you have committed. You were guiltless! Yet you voluntarily die for wrongs done by every human.
- Imagine knowing that you would assume so much sin that God would withdraw His very presence from you. You would transcend a literal hell, separated from the one who has always sustained you.
Of course, it’s difficult to imagine ourselves in this situation as it is so incomprehensible. Thankfully we have a Christ who willingly sacrificed Himself in our place. Christ willingly received our guilt, endured physical punishment and spiritual separation from the Father as judgment for our sin, and He rose victoriously to ascribe righteousness to those who believe! This Easter, in light of the celebrated resurrection, give thanks for a loving Savior who willingly withstood both physical and spiritual agony in providing us a way for salvation.
1 Edwards, W.D., Gabel, W.J. & Hosmer, M.S. (1986). On the physical death of Jesus Christ. Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), 255 (11): 1455-63.
2 Gibson, Mel (Producer/Director). (2004). The Passion of the Christ [Motion Picture]. Beverly Hills, California: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.
3 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture translations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.