Christology Series: Christ's Death
Scripture teaches that Christ died as an atoning sacrifice for mankind. To “atone” means to pay the penalty for sins. Two reasons are given in Scripture for Christ’s atoning death—God’s love and his justice.[i] John 3:16 speaks of God’s love. “For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” Because God loved people, he sent his Son to die for them. However, God also sent his Son to die because he is just, and therefore, sin must be punished. Romans 6:23 (NIV) says “the wages of sin is death.” Also, Hebrews 9:22 says, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” Christ died to pay the wages of sin so that sinners could be forgiven by a just God. Isaiah 53:5 prophesied this about Christ. It says: “He was wounded because of our rebellious deeds, crushed because of our sins; he endured punishment that made us well; because of his wounds we have been healed.” In addition, John said this:
and he himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sins but also for the whole world.
1 John 2:2
But if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
1 John 1:7
But not only did Christ die for our sins, he gave us his perfect righteousness (cf. 1 Cor 1:30, Phil 3:9, Rom 5:19). This is the doctrine of imputation. To “impute” means to credit something to the account of another. Scripture teaches that on the cross, our sin was imputed to Christ’s account, and when we, by faith, accept Christ as our Lord and Savior, his righteous life is accounted to ours. Therefore, there is a double imputation. Second Corinthians 5:21 says, “God made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we would become the righteousness of God.”
On the cross, our sins were imputed to Christ, and consequently, God’s wrath was poured out on him. As Christ bore our sins and God’s wrath for them on the cross, he atoned for our sins—he made amends for our failures by paying the penalty for them.
The Extent of the Atonement
Who did Christ atone for? What is the scope of his atoning death?
There are two primary views on this: One is called limited atonement. It teaches that Christ’s atonement was limited in that it paid the penalty for the sins of the elect (Eph 1:4)—those chosen by God before the foundation of the earth who will eventually accept Christ—but not for the sins of unbelievers who will ultimately reject him. The argument is, “If Christ paid for the sins of the whole world, then why would anybody go to hell?”
There are many passages that teach Christ died specifically for believers: John 10:11 says: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Who are the sheep that Christ died for? Sheep refer to believers. Ephesians 5:25 says, “Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her.” Who did Christ give his life for? The church.
The limited atonement view is common among those from Reformed backgrounds such as Presbyterians and Reformed Baptist. Again, this view helps answer the question, “How come unbelievers go to hell if Christ paid for the sins of everyone?” Proponents of this view see it guarding against a liberal view called universalism, which teaches that everybody will ultimately go to heaven, which clearly is not supported in Scripture (cf. Rev 20:11-15).
With that said, the weakness of the limited atonement view is that Scripture never says Christ did not die for all people. And, there are many Scriptures that at least seem to indicate that Christ died for every person and not just those who would accept him. Here are a few:
and he himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sins but also for the whole world.
1 John 2:2
But false prophets arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. These false teachers will infiltrate your midst with destructive heresies, even to the point of denying the Master who bought them. As a result, they will bring swift destruction on themselves.
2 Peter 2:1
For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
This is the view that most believers hold, and it is called “unlimited atonement” or “general atonement.” This means that Christ not only paid for the sins of believers but also for those who would ultimately reject him. However, it must be noted, that even those who believe in unlimited atonement would say the atonement is limited in some way, since everybody will not be saved. They would say Christ’s died to pay for the sins of the world, but the payment is applied only to those who repent and follow Christ. Therefore, the atonement is universal but limited in application.
As a contemporary illustration, it is possible to purchase gifts for everyone at a party, and yet only a few take the gift, while most leave it behind. Some might not like the gift; others would prefer to buy their own. Some might have forgotten about the gift, and others might not have heard that there was a free gift. Only those who knew about the gift and chose to accept it, received the gift. Likewise, Christ died for the sins of every person on the earth, so they can have salvation (reconciliation with God), but only a few will receive it. Romans 6:23 says, “For the payoff of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Christ’s Time in the Grave
What did Christ do while he was in the grave?
Like the extent of the atonement, there is some controversy over exactly what Christ did while his body was in the grave. Some believe Christ’s spirit went to heaven for three days, while others believe he went to a place called Sheol, a temporary abode for the dead in the center of the earth, which is often mentioned in the Old Testament (Gen 37:35, Ps 16:10, 86:13, Ecc 9:10, Hosea 13:14, Job 14:13, 26:6, etc.). Sheol is a general term, which can be translated as “grave” or “realm of the dead.”[ii]
The crux of the argument is based on Christ’s words to the thief who was on the cross next to him. In Luke 23:43, Christ said, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” The question is, “Where was paradise?” Paradise is clearly a place of blessing where the righteous go after death. Revelation 2:10 and 1 Corinthians 12:2-4 use the word as a synonym for heaven.
However, even though the righteous and ungodly have always gone to separate places, many believe that before Christ’s resurrection, those two places were separate sections in Sheol. The place for the righteous was called paradise (or Abraham’s side), and the place for the ungodly was called hell. Between these two places was a “great chasm,” which no one could cross (Lk 16:26). This great chasm indicated that after death, a person’s fate was sealed and could not be changed.[iii] These two places in Sheol are referred to in Christ’s story about a poor man named, Lazarus, and a rich man. In Luke 16:22-26, Christ said:
Now the poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. And in hell, as he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far off with Lazarus at his side. So he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in anguish in this fire.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things and Lazarus likewise bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in anguish. Besides all this, a great chasm has been fixed between us, so that those who want to cross over from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’
This story is a strong support for Christ’s visiting paradise, which was in Sheol, within the center of the earth. Those who reject this say Christ’s story was a parable—a fictional story given to teach a spiritual principle. However, what makes this story unique is that Christ uses names, which never happen in parables. Christ’s speaks of Abraham (a real person) and a poor man named Lazarus. Referring to the names of people instead of, for example, the older brother and the younger brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, gives credence that the story was an actual event, including Paradise being within Sheol.
Further support that Christ was in the center of the earth is Ephesians 4:8-9:
Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he captured captives; he gave gifts to men.” Now what is the meaning of “he ascended,” except that he also descended to the lower regions, namely, the earth?
Before Christ’s ascension into heaven, he first descended to the lower regions. This certainly refers to the incarnation, Christ coming to earth generally. But the description of “lower, earthly regions” (NIV) could also refer to (or include) his time in Sheol, right before his ascension.
Finally, support for Christ’s time in Sheol can be found in 1 Peter 3:18-20, which says:
Because Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, to bring you to God, by being put to death in the flesh but by being made alive in the spirit. In it he went and preached to the spirits in prison, after they were disobedient long ago when God patiently waited in the days of Noah as an ark was being constructed. In the ark a few, that is eight souls, were delivered through water.
Though this is a controversial text, many believe it refers to Christ being in Paradise proclaiming his victory over demon spirits held captive in hell. These spirits would be those who mated with women before the flood—creating a super race (Gen 6:1-4). Jude 1:6 describes them: “You also know that the angels who did not keep within their proper domain but abandoned their own place of residence, he has kept in eternal chains in utter darkness, locked up for the judgment of the great Day.” Likewise, Colossians 2:15 may describe Christ’s public proclamation of victory over these demons in Sheol. It says, “Disarming the rulers and authorities, he has made a public disgrace of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
Apparently, Paradise, and the believers in it, was moved to heaven after Christ’s resurrection. Ephesians 4:8 may refer to this when it says, “When he ascended on high he captured captives.” When ancient kings defeated an enemy, they would take enemy prisoners and lead them through their own cities in a victory parade, as trophies, but also, ancient kings would commonly recapture their own soldiers, who were previously taken as prisoners.[iv] When Christ ascended from Sheol to heaven, he took his own people to heaven with him. This was the view of the early church. John MacArthur said this about the early church’s belief:
Early church dogma taught that the righteous dead of the Old Testament could not be taken into the fullness of God’s presence until Christ had purchased their redemption on the cross, and that they had waited in this place for His victory on that day. Figuratively speaking, the early church Fathers said that, after announcing His triumph over demons in one part of Sheol, He then opened the doors of another part of Sheol to release those godly captives. Like the victorious kings of old, He recaptured the captives and liberated them, and henceforth they would live in heaven as eternally free sons of God.[v]
With all this said, it must be noted that there is no support for Christ suffering for our sins in hell. Scripture teaches that Christ’s death was sufficient to pay the penalty of our sins (cf. 1 Cor 15:3, Heb 10:12)—no further suffering was needed. When he went to Sheol, his time was spent in Paradise—the place of the righteous. There he declared his victory over the enemy (Col 2:15) and then took the righteous to heaven (Eph 4:8).
What stood out most in the reading and why?
What is limited atonement and what are supports for that view?
What is unlimited atonement and what are supports for that view?
Which view of atonement do you think Scripture best supports?
Where did Christ go while in the grave and what did he do there? What scriptures support your view?
What other questions or applications did you take from the reading?
[i] Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (p. 568). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.
[ii] Accessed 7/22/20 from https://www.gotquestions.org/Old-Testament-believers.html
[iii] Accessed 7/22/20 from https://www.gotquestions.org/Old-Testament-believers.html
[iv] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1986). Ephesians (p. 138). Chicago: Moody Press.
[v] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1986). Ephesians (p. 140). Chicago: Moody Press.