Calvin on “He descended into Hell” (Guest Post by Tim Keller)

KellerToday I have the honor of hosting an original, guest post by Dr. Timothy Keller, chairman and co-founder of Redeemer City to City, VP of The Gospel Coalition, and former pastor and founder of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan. 

Is it right for preachers to speak of Jesus experiencing the loss of the Father’s love on the cross?  After all, orthodox Trinitarian theology teaches that at the ultimate level, ontologically, the Father did not ever hate the Son. The Trinity remains completely unbroken. Indeed, when the Son was dying for us he was offering the Father a ‘pleasing sacrifice’ and a ‘satisfaction’ for sin.

But then what was the “forsakenness” that Jesus experienced on the cross? If in the ultimate sense he did not lose the Father’s love, what did he lose?  Is it wrong to say that when Jesus was on the cross he experienced estrangement from God? Is it wrong to say that he lost any sense and even assurance of God’s love?

Preachers will do well to read Calvin closely when he expounds the line in the Apostles’ Creed, “He descended into hell.” (Institutes II. 16. 8-12)

Calvin argues this Jesus ‘descent into hell’ was not merely descending into physical death and the grave. He believes it represents biblical teaching that Jesus suffered not just bodily pain but all the torments that a soul in hell, cut off from God’s presence, would experience. He “bore all the punishments [evildoers] ought to have sustained” with only one exception, that those torments could not keep hold of him forever. He “suffered the death that God in his wrath had inflicted upon the wicked.” (II.16.10). Calvin does not mince words here. “Not only that Christ’s body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man. (II.16.10) And he says: “Surely no more terrible abyss can be conceived than to feel yourself forsaken and estranged from God; and when you call upon him, not to be heard. It is as if God himself had plotted your ruin.”  (II.16.11)

That is what Jesus experienced on the cross. As far as Christ’s experience was concerned, he lost everything he had with the Father, just as a damned soul would. He lost God’s presence, favor, communication, and therefore any feeling sense of God’s love.

Calvin knows that the strength of his language will make some people nervous. He rightly assures readers that there is no rupture in the Trinity. Though Christ experienced God’s wrath, “Yet we do not suggest that God was ever inimical or angry toward him…. How could Christ by his intercession appease the Father toward others, if he were himself hateful to God?” (II.16.11) This of course sounds confusing to many listeners. Jesus received the wrath of God and yet God was not angry with him? But that fits the Biblical data. Calvin sifts this data and shows us that ontologically, there was no alienation. Perhaps we could go so far as to say that Father never loved and admired his Son more than when he was dying to save us.

But existentially, Calvin wants us to know and preach that Jesus was as bereft of God’s love and presence as a damned soul. Of course the Father continued in his love for his Son, but on the cross Jesus lost all sense and experience and any practical possession of it. He felt like a soul in hell. On that Calvin is emphatic. He goes on to argue against those who rightly stress this continual love of the Father to the Son but who go on to over-emphasize it to the point of trivializing or minimizing what Jesus suffered. Here Calvin speaks directly to those who don’t want us to ever say that Jesus existentially “lost the Father’s love.”

Calvin engages those who say, for example, that Jesus did not actually feel forsaken or estranged. “They hold it incongruous that he would fear for the salvation of his soul.” (II.16.12)  But Calvin insists that Jesus did indeed lose his assurance of God’s love and did fear for his soul. He insists that Jesus “wrestled hand to hand with the devil’s power, with the dread of death, with the pains of hell” and so “he was victorious and triumphed over them.” (II.16.11)

Calvin addresses others who say that although Christ feared death, he did not fear God’s curse and wrath, from which he knew himself to be safe.”  (II.16.12) These are people who say that Jesus never feared or felt the loss of God’s favor and presence. He feared, perhaps, the pain of physical death, but he never felt damned and cut off from the Father’s love. They believe that Jesus on the cross thought, as it were, “Though I’m physically suffering I know the Father loves me, and this will be over soon.” Calvin says this makes Jesus more “unmanly and cowardly than most men of the common sort”. Why, he asks, was Jesus in such torment in Gethsemane? If Jesus was only afraid of physical pain and death, then plenty of human beings, who “bear it calmly” have faced death better than Jesus. (II.16.12) Instead, Calvin argues, he was trembling before the spiritual torments, “the terrible abyss”, of the loss of God’s presence and love, the experience of being “estranged and forsaken.”  If Jesus did not face and experience the dreadfulness of damnation, and the feeling that he was not “safe”, but lost and cursed, then he didn’t really take the penalty we deserved.

In summary, Calvin goes so far as to say that Jesus, in order to truly be our substitute and pay our penalty, had to have feared for his soul and his eternal safety. That is how severe a loss of the Father’s favor and love he experienced.

I think Calvin’s warnings are important.  If we say that Jesus never felt the loss of God’s love on the cross, then it diminishes his astonishing faithfulness. When he quotes Psalm 22, calling the Father “My God”, he not only calls God by his covenant name, but he is invoking a Messianic psalm with a triumphant ending.  If he did this when he felt nothing of God’s love and presence—as Calvin argues—it was then an act of obedience unique in the history of the universe. He clung in hope to God’s covenant love even when feeling utter divine abandonment, even when in hell.  Jonathan Edwards’ great sermon Christ’s Agony explains why. To the first Adam God said—obey me and I will be with you. But he didn’t. To the second Adam he said—obey me and I will forsake you and cut you off. Yet Jesus still obeyed.  Unlike Captain Ahab, who said, “from Hell’s heart I stab at thee”, Jesus said, as it were, “from Hell’s heart I will obey you still.” Calvin adds,  “For even though he suffered beyond measure, he did not cease to call him his God, by whom he cried out that he had been forsaken.” (Institutes, II.16.12).

Let’s heed Calvin’s warning not to think or hint that, ontologically, the Father ceased to love Jesus or, existentially, that Jesus did not lose all sense and assurance of that love. We must neither veer into the appearance that the Father was abusing Jesus nor into minimizing the depths of the suffering of Jesus on the cross for us.

Calvin summarizes his argument against those who, he believes, diminish the sufferings of Christ.

“From this it appears that these quibblers with whom I am contending…. have never earnestly considered what it is or means that we have been redeemed from God’s judgment. Yet this is our wisdom: duly to feel how much our salvation cost the Son of God.” (II.16.12)

38 thoughts on “Calvin on “He descended into Hell” (Guest Post by Tim Keller)

  1. My response will be lengthy. I ask for your patience as this topic is grievous to me. I in no way questions the motivations or intents of those who teach Jesus was forsaken of the Father. I embrace the Reformed tradition; and, I believe that penal substitutionary atonement accurately represents Christ’s saving work on behalf of his people. My concern is how some attempt to support the doctrine. It seems plain that the teaching that Christ was somehow tainted while bearing sin and was accordingly forsaken reflects a misunderstanding of what imputation and guilt entails.

    Historically, those of the Reformed tradition have held that “to impute sin . . . is to impute the guilt of sin. And by guilt is meant not criminality or moral ill-desert, or demerit, much less moral pollution, but the judicial obligation to satisfy justice.” Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology in Three Volumes, Vol. 2: p. 194). Distraught that some were accusing Calvinists with the error that our “moral turpitude” was transferred to Christ, Charles Hodge wrote, “If this is imputation . . . we have not words to express our deep abhorrence of the doctrine.” Charles Hodge, “The Doctrine of Imputation,” in Theological Essays from the Princeton Review)

    Historically, it was those who opposed penal substitutionary atonement that sought to discredit the doctrine with claims that our depravity was transmitted to Christ. Yet, “a literal transference of the sins . . . is impossible in the nature of things.” Thomas J. Crawford, The Doctrine of Holy Scripture Respecting the Atonement, Fourth edition, pp. 188-190).

    Thomas H. McCall cites various readings of Matthew 27:46 from ecclesiastical history and finds three general theories. Some scholars feel Christ is expressing identification with humanity. Abandonment unto death (i.e., allowing Christ to die) seems the best view for some. Still others contend that Christ merely feels abandoned. After reviewing Athanasius, Ambrose, Gregory of Nazianzus, Cyril of Alexandria, John of Damascus, Peter Lombard, and Thomas Aquinas, McCall concludes that both early church fathers and Greek and Latin theologians agree on the subject. Christ is not abandoned upon the cross. Neither breach nor schism occurs within the Trinity on Calvary. Their communion is uninterrupted. (Thomas H. McCall, Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why It Matters, Kindle locations 132-190).

    Athanasius repudiated the thought: “And Christ’s enemies seem to me to show plain shamelessness and blasphemy; for, when they hear ‘I and the Father are one,’ they violently distort the sense, and separate the unity of the Father and the Son. . . . neither can the Lord be forsaken by the Father, who is ever in the Father, both before He spoke, and when He uttered this cry.” (Athanasius of Alexandria. Four Discourses Against the Arians. Kindle locations 3371- 3372; 3384-3385).

    John Owen’s refutation of Socinianism details the eternal covenant between Father and Son. Emphasizing promises throughout the Old Testament, he demonstrates the Father’s commitment to provide all that is needed for Christ’s work of redemption. He points his readers to Isaiah 50:7-9 and explains: Christ has “full assurance of success, even upon the Father’s engaged promise of his presence with him. . . . He should not be forsaken in his work, but carried through, supported and upheld.” (John Owen, Chapter XXVII. Of the covenant between the Father and the Son, in Vindiciæ Evangelicæ; Or, the Mystery of the Gospel Vindicated and Socinianism Examined) 

    See Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 2, pp. 353-354. While Turretin affirms that Christ suffers in both body and soul, he carefully explains what he thinks this means. The Father does not really deprive his Son of his presence. The Savior simply could not sense it.

    This desertion is not to be conceived . . . in respect of the union of nature (for what the Son once assumed, he never parted with); or of the union of grace and holiness because he was always blameless (akakos) and pure (amiantos). Endowed with untainted holiness; or of communion and protection because God was always at his right hand (Ps. 110:5), nor was he ever left alone (Jn. 16:32).

    Stephen Charnock admits to only a forsaking of Christ to death. While he also speaks of a judicial frown from his Father, Charnock does not teach a literal forsaking. He maintains, Divine goodness centered in Christ. This being the case, there is no transfer of moral stain to the Lord. Additionally, in giving his Son, the Father gives all of God. (Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God).

    I must go to work now. My hope is that the reputation of those I have cited will at least open the topic up for more conversation—with respect and humility both on my part and anyone else who will engage me. Thank you.

    • Thanks for your reply, I’ll not speak for Dr. Keller, but for myself, I don’t think what he has written plainly departs from the quotes you’ve posted above. That’s part of what the distinction he’s making between the existential “sense” of feeling forsaken (which, I think clearly comports with the Turretin quote) and any ontological rupture in the Godhead or even loss of God’s presence to the person of the Mediator. Keller takes Calvin to be asserting that, nonetheless, the Father handed Christ over to suffer something more than physical death–the loss of an existential sense of God’s love. The “judicial frown” so to speak.

      As for the bit about imputation, I don’t see that at all addressed in the post. It’s good to know, but I fail to see the relevance.

      • Derek, Jesus bore the penalty of our sin. Of this I have no doubt. That his death was a vicarious substitutionary death for his elect also seems plain. Whether he bore God’s wrath is something that I have not decided on. I am willing to see it if there is scriptural support. I was in the process of adding the point about Matthew 20:22-23, when I saw that sent2nashville already had. I was disappointed that you opted not to address it.

        Taking Dr. Keller’s suggestion to heart, I have looked at Leon Morris’s The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross to see how he handled the subject of God’s wrath, and in particular, Matthew 20:22-23. He talks about the cup of the New Covenant (p. 104). Speaking of God’s wrath, Morris cites “the cup of staggering (Isaiah 51:22) on page 151.

        He does not look at Matthean text that has bearing upon the cup Jesus was to drink. You must be busier than I can imagine. Yet, it is the one and only passage spoken by Jesus that directly addresses the cup he was to drink. Matthew 20:22-23 seems to indicate that the cup would be suffering. If it were the wrath of God, then James and John would have undergone the same wrath. This has explicit import upon the topic and merits your time. Please reconsider tackling it.

    • To E.A. Johnston

      I certainly agree with what Turretin said–that the Father did not ultimately deprive Jesus of his love, but, on the cross, the Savior could not sense it experientially. In fact, I think that most Christians listening to a sermon about Jesus losing the assurance and experience of the Father’s presence, favor, and love on the cross understand that this did not mean a rupture in the Trinity. After all, who was finding Christ’s sacrifice so complete and satisfying that he raised Christ from the dead?

      But we should acknowledge that the Reformed tradition does have differences about what Jesus actually experienced on the Cross. I’m following Calvin and the Heidelberg Catechism (Q and A 44) who argue that on the cross Jesus experienced not just physical pain and death but the torments of a damned soul in hell. On the other hand, Westminster Larger Catechism 50 argues that ‘descended into hell’ meant only that he experienced physical death, not the torments of a condemned soul.

      So, while we should all agree that Jesus did not lose the Father’s love ontologically but did lose the Father’s love experientially–we should allow each other to speak of Christ’s ‘forsakenness’ in somewhat different ways, since even the Heidelberg and Westminster standards speak of it in somewhat different ways.

      • Dr. Keller,

        Again, I want to thank you for this opportunity to interact on a subject as vital as this. I struggle to find the correct way to express myself and ask for your ongoing patience with me. On July 31st, you wrote: “We should all agree that Jesus did not lose the Father’s love ontologically but did lose the Father’s love experientially.” I completely agree that he never lost God’s love ontologically; however, even the thought that he would “lose the Father’s love experientially” presents a significant roadblock for me. That is why I asked if you could provide a passage from which you glean your belief.

        When I search the Scriptures on the topic, I find an emphasis on the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Yet, for all my searching, I see no passage that states or hints at the necessity of more than a physical death. Repeatedly, the Word on Christ’s offering of his physical body and blood through death—Colossians 1:22, Hebrews 10:10, and Romans 7:4 are just three. Therefore, it would be most helpful for you to explain why you agree with Calvin on the need of more than is plainly seen. Thank you so much for sharing your insights here.

      • Excuse my typo. My last post should have read “Repeatedly, the Word of God emphasizes Christ’s offering of his physical body and blood through death—Colossians 1:22, Hebrews 10:10, and Romans 7:4 are just three examples. “

  2. “He descended to the dead” is one line in the creed. Calvin’s reflections on this one line are speculative. I’m not going to add Calvin’s speculations to my canon. Maybe they are helpful to some people’s discipleship; they would be a stumbling block to mine.

    Jesus quoted a psalm on the cross. He could have recited the whole psalm while he was being crucified as part of his liturgical act of bearing the weight of Israel’s sin. I’m hesitant to confidently explain Jesus’ emotional experience on the basis of his quotation of a psalm. For me, Christ’s suffering needs to remain a mystery. “He descended to the dead” needs to remain an opaque, vague sentence.

    I think an exhaustive explanation of that sentence puts me in the driver’s seat as the modernist commentator rather than allowing Jesus’ suffering to master me in its baffling, scandalous mystery. I don’t think an exhaustive explanation can “cut the heart” (Acts 2:37) the way a crucifix can. The first 3000 Christians got saved without John Calvin or any explanation of the intricacies of atonement other than “this Jesus whom you crucified God has made messiah and lord.”

  3. Thank you both for your interaction. Because of the depth of this topic, I will just take snippets at a time. I wonder sometimes if it all gets down to the need of greater clarity in expressing such thoughts. For example, Dr. Keller, you wrote “As far as Christ’s experience was concerned, he lost everything he had with the Father, just as a damned soul would. He lost God’s presence, favor, communication.” Please consider two things.

    (1) The first phrase of your sentence—”As far as Christ’s experience was concerned, he lost everything he had with the Father”—indicates that the loss was literal and actual rather than a feeling of loss. To experience a loss is not the same as to feel as if you have lost something.

    (2) You conclude from that purported loss that he “therefore [lost] any feeling [or] sense of God’s love.” The way it is worded indicates that because Jesus lost that divine presence and communion, along with the divine favor, he felt as if he had. Perhaps the nuance is small (although it does not seem so to me), but there is a vast difference between losing God’s presence and favor and feeling as if he did.

    I will address imputation, etc., later. Again, thanks for discussing this.

    • The word ‘experience’ speaks of the subjective rather than the objective. If, as Turretin says, Jesus could not “sense” the Father’s presence, that means he could not experience or feel it. To sense, to feel, and to experience–I’d say these are synonyms. I hope that’s clear. Again, in summary, Jesus did not objectively lose the Father’s love, but he subjectively experienced and felt complete abandonment.

      • does not support your use of the term that way. To sense, to feel, and to experience are not synonymous. The noun mean an event or occurrence; the verb means to encounter or undergo (an event or occurrence). It only refers to feeling when paired with an object. Thus, experience can mean “feel” in this sentence:
        ‘an opportunity to experience the excitement of New York. ’ A person can experience salvation without feeling a thing. It happens all the time. My dog can experience yet another birthday without any sense she is another year old. But, I will not labor the point. Please explain, sir, how can one deduce from Scripture ALONE that “that Jesus did indeed lose his assurance of God’s love and did fear for his soul”?

  4. My comment in not lengthy. All I want to know is how this view (that Jesus was unsure of his vindication) can be consistent with Jesus’ knowledge of his future resurrection and glorification, as he foretold many times in the gospels…?

    • Well, if you follow Calvin’s reasoning (not only in his Institutes but also in his Geneva Catechism) he’d say that it was on the cross that Jesus lost his feeling sense of God’s presence and therefore experienced the terrors and miseries of being cut off—but he held on to what he knew of the Father’s plan and covenant in faith. Yes, Calvin is rather daring when he says that Jesus “feared for his soul”–but he’s trying to avoid the idea that Jesus bore only physical pain while being inwardly comfortable and assured.

  5. Pingback: Calvin on Christ's Cry of Abandon - The Calvinist InternationalThe Calvinist International
  6. “This of course sounds confusing to many listeners.” That’s right, it does. Just like the so-caled “systematic” theology of Calvin…it’s a labyrinth of contradictions. Where does the text of Scripture explicitly say that God pours out his wrath on Jesus? If this is a foundational, cornerstone doctrine in the Scriptures, and is absolutely necessary to understanding the atonement, then surely it would be clearly stated, in explicit terms, in the text of Sripture. That is, for example, if I say “God sent his Son”, and you say “Where explicitly does it say that?” Then I will point you to John 3:16, Galatians 4:4-6 etc. There is explicit language in the text that clearly says “God sent his Son.” There is no disputing this. So, can you please point me to clear, explicit passage in Scripture that uses the language of “God poured his wrath out on the Son” or that “God poured his wrath out on Jesus” or the “The Father directed wrath at the Son” or the “The Father punished the Son.” Where is this text to be found?

    It’s not there…The entire notion that the Father directed his wrath at the Son is a theological (and hermeneutical) invention. There’s a reason why what is being said in this post sounds confusing. Calvinism can only be held together by fiat. In other words, you say one thing, then you say another thing that flat out contradicts what you just said, and then you say “But the fact that what I just said contradicts what I said earlier doesn’t mean that they contradict each other.” Saying they don’t contradict does not undo the fact that they contradict! Saying they do not contradict is just a way of doing damage control to a system of beliefs that are woefully burdened by inherent contradictions and incoherent assertions. To pull the “mystery card” as a way to hold on to those contradictions is, in my opinion, short sighted. Why not just do away with the contradictions, and the Calvinistic system that produces them?

    • Please consider reading Leon Morris’ “The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross” or just his chapter 7 in “The Atonement” on the meaning of the words “hilasterion” and “hilasmos” in Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17, Hebrews 9:5, I John 2:2, I John 4:10. Morris makes a comprehensive and exhaustive case that the words mean that Jesus’ death on the cross satisfies the wrath of God by bearing the punishment, as our substitute, that we deserve.

      • Dr. Keller, thank yo for your reply. But I have to point out again, the language of wrath is no where to be found in the text(s) you are referring to. Why insert it into the text? Is this not a form of eisegesis? Regarding “hilasterion” and its meaning, it indeed could very well mean “to satisfy.” But again, why do we assume it is the wrath of God that is being satisfied? In the context of Romans 1, God’s wrath is revealed against unrighteousness and ungodliness. Was Jesus unrighteous or ungodly? Why then would I expect God to pour his wrath out on Jesus – the only truly righteous and godly human?

        In the context of Romans 3, Jesus is satisfying God’s desire for a faithful Son (specifically from the seed of David Rom. 1:3-4). Through Jesus’ faithfulness to the covenant – ultimately his faithfulness to God – he makes good on God’s promise to rectify/fix/make right our corrupted human nature – sin, flesh, death etc. Jesus is the faithful Son who satisfies God’s desire to live in complete oneness with a human being, and for that human being to live within a completely faithful and obedient relationship with him. This application of the word “hilasterion” is entirely consistent with Paul’s use of the “subjective genitive” in Romans 3:22 when he talks about the faith OF Jesus (KJV). (See The Faith of Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11 by Richard Hays for an extended look at the concept of the faith of Christ.) It is Jesus’ own personal faithfulness to God (and by extension his faithfulness to the covenant) that satisfies God. God desires faithfulness and righteousness, and this is precisely what he finds in Jesus.

        This is why Paul says that God set forth Jesus as a satisfaction (hilasterion) by his blood. The blood in the OT sacrificial system is not a symbol of death, it is a symbol of life (Lev. 17:11). The death is necessary to gain access to the blood, but it is not the death in and of itself that satisfies or atones. Otherwise, atonement would have been accomplished at the moment of death at the altar. But Leviticus is quite clear that atonement happens when the blood is applied to the furniture of the tabernacle and not at the moment of death. The blood of the animal cleanses the tabernacle of the impurities and pollution that come form the sin(s) of the Israelite(s). (Leviticus 16). The death of the animal is necessary to gain access to the blood, but the death of the animal – the act of killing the animal – is insufficient by itself to provide atonement. The reason why the blood satisfies God in the OT sacrificial system is that it purifies the tabernacle. It has nothing to do with God having a desire for punishment or death or wrath. He desires purity and life. He desires to make things right, to rectify the problem, to fix what is broken.

        Paul knows that God’ desire is to fix and rectify the problem caused by sin and unfaithfulness. That is why Paul says in Romans 3:25 that God, in his forebearance, passed over the sins that were previously committed. God’s desire to make things right, to rectify the problem of unfaithfulness (unrighteousness and ungodliness) could have led him to step in right away and do just that. But he didn’t. He waited to satisfy that desire to make things right, and this took a great amount of patience considering the narrative we see in the law (OT). But Paul says that with the arrival of Jesus, that God’s desire (and promise) to make things right has been satisfied by this faithful, covenant keeping Son. The problem of sin, flesh, death etc. has been dealt with through the new humanity of Christ, who was handed over because of our trespasses, but was raised for our justification (Rom. 4:25). So God keeps his covenant to make things right through the faithfulness of his Son. In that way, as Paul says in Romans 3:26, God is just – he keeps his promise (covenant) to fix the problem and is therefore righteous (dikaion). Through the new, rectified, justified humanity of Jesus – accomplished both by the Sons faithfulness and God’s faithfulness to raise him from the dead – we can now participate in that new humanity by the Spirit (Romans 8), which brings us into union with the Rectified/Righteous One, ensuring our present justification by faith in Jesus and our future resurrection with him.

        In the same way, Jesus’ blood represents the purity of his life. God has always wanted to be in relationship with a human being that was unhindered by distrust or disobedience. Through his life long faithful obedience, Jesus lives in complete oneness with God and satisfies God’s desire to live in complete and unhindered relationship with humanity.

      • Tim,
        Clearly you have this all mapped out!

        But really, a few points:
        1. Theology doesn’t always work by finding a single verse that neatly lays out our doctrine in proposition. Often it is more of synthetic and constructive judgment made on the basis of many verses taken in context and seen together in a coherent unity. Like the Doctrine of the Trinity.
        2. Off the top of my head, two verses that point to the reality that Jesus suffered the wrath of God in some sense. First, Romans 8:3 tells us that God condemned sin in the flesh of Christ. In the OT, condemnation (a synonym for punishment) is linked with wrath all the time in the prophets and the law (Ezekiel 7; Leviticus 26). In fact, you could say that punishment and condemnation are God’s wrath considered judicially. To speak of God’s condemnation is to speak of God’s wrath from a legal angle. And that’s what Jesus bore according to Rom. 8:3.
        A second text to consider is Christ’s “cup saying”, (Matt 26:39). Jesus asks for the cup to pass from him. Most commentators (including those like N.T. Wright) will note that this refers to the prevalent concept of the cup of God’s wrath (cf. Jer. 25:15-38). So, apparently Jesus believed he was about to drink the cup of God’s wrath in going to the cross. And then he went to the cross. Ergo, he drank the cup of God’s wrath.
        There’s more, but again, those come to mind quickly.
        3. Finally, the view that the blood is symbol of life, not death, while still popular in some sets, is subject to searching criticisms both old and recent. Many OT and NT uses point us to the reality that it is the life *as offered in death* that is in view. I really do think the Morris book Dr. Keller is recommending is worth your time on that point. More recently, Bobby Jamieson has a careful dissertation on Hebrews forthcoming that is good here.

        (Oh, and, as a side-note, Calvin wasn’t so much a systematician as a Biblical scholar. He wrote commentaries on over 40 books of the Bible.)

        Hope this helps!

      • Hey Derek,

        Thanks for your reply. I’m curious, was that jab in saying “Clearly you have this all worked out?” That seems like a sarcastic remark.

        In response to your observations:

        1. What you say is true about the nature of theology, but it should throw up red flags when you can’t find one single verse that explicitly states what you are saying. The Trinity is a bad example because there is clear explicit language of Father, Son, and Spirit in the text. But they’re is no clear explicit language of God poured his wrath out on Jesus. This should pose significant suspicion about the origins of that idea.
        2. Regarding Romans 8:3, notice it does not say God condemned Jesus. It says sin in the flesh of Jesus was condemned. There is a BIG difference between those two statements. Again, the language and concept is God directing his wrath at the Son is completely absent from the text. If that is what Paul intended to say, why not just say it? He has already used wrath several times in the letter… Regarding the cup, it is not the cup of wrath. Here’s why. Matthew 20 Jesus asks James and John if they can drink cup he is going to drink. He then says “You WILL drink the cup that I will drink.” If you say the cup here is the cup of God’s wrath, you now have James and John drinking that same cup. Are you willing to say that James and John drank the exact same cup of wrath that Jesus did? If so, you have a serious dilemma on your hands. The cup is not God’s wrath. Again, it yes no where to be found on the text. It is the cup of suffering – not wrath.
        3. Blood being the source of life is explicitly stated in Lev. 11. Obviously, in order to access the blood, death has to be involved. But the death itself is insufficient, as the OT sacrificial system reveals (see my comments above.)

        Thanks for engaging my observations. Blessings to you.

      • There’s a line between playful humor and sarcasm. I was hoping it was playful.

        As for the rest, I think disputing these points would probably take us quite a while, which I don’t have, so do take care.

  7. To Tim Catchin —

    All your questions and objections are, I believe, answered well and at length in the two Morris books I referred to. I don’t think you should dismiss the argument without reading them. Also you could refer to Leon Morris’s “The Cross in the New Testament” and John Stott’s “The Cross of Christ” and J.I.Packer’s essay “What did the Cross Achieve?” They also address the issues you raise.

    • Dr. Keller, thank you for your reply. But I could equally point you to a list of resources for you to read that would substantiate my views. For example, the article He Offered Himself: Sacrifice in Hebrews by Richard D. Nelson, Professor of Old Testament at Perkins School of Theology in Interpretation, July 2003 57:3. Or Psalm 143 and the Logic of Romans 3 by Richard B Hays in Journal of Biblical Literature 99/1 1980. I understand if time does not permit you to engage my observations, but citing resources can end up being somewhat of a circular approach. Blessings to you.

  8. Dear Dr Keller,

    Thank you for taking the time to address this – and to Mr Rishmawy for hosting it.

    Trinitarian rupture is something that one encounters so often in conservative evangelical presentations of the cross, and I will admit that some of what you’ve written on this has raised questions, so I’m grateful for the opportunity to interact.

    I may have missed this, but no one seems to be pursuing what seems to be a straightforward but helpful approach, which is to distinguish between Christ’s natures and say that Christ was forsaken by God according to his human nature and not according to his divine nature. After all, it is human God-forsakenness that he needs to suffer in order to be our substitute.

    Warm regards,


      • In order for Christ to be our substitute wouldn’t he have to truly experience our punishment (rejection by God and separation from His love) and not just fear the experience of our punishment? Or are you implying that our punishment is the pain and suffering of a natural death with the fear of being rejected by God and not actual rejection? I don’t see how a distinction between the divine and the human nature resolves this tension, unless you’re suggesting that in His human nature Christ was truly rejected by the Father and separated from His love.

    • Daniel, you’ve articulated the Reformed tendency to hold hands with Nestorius. This division between divine and human natures is, in a sense, impossible. When the Son took on human nature, He experienced everything as a human, including a human death. Isn’t it more biblically accurate to say “the divine Son experienced a human death”?

      In other words, I don’t think we can say “His human nature experienced X while His divine nature did not.” That is the essence of Nestorianism, isn’t it? I think we are forced (like the Lutherans) to lean a bit on mystery here in our formulation, saying “the divine Son experienced a human conception, birth, life, death, and resurrection, and on the cross the divine Son went through a human death for us.”

      I believe this distinction has a difference, if for nothing else to avoid that inferential language of natures experiencing XYZ that led Nestorius to his heretical conclusions.

  9. Thank you Derek Rishmawy and Dr. Keller.
    Myk Habets shared this post on Facebook which is where I saw it – thankfully!
    Obviously everyone here commenting is deeply vested in their personal constructs. In my opinion to simply shoot down the other’s point of view is unnecessary, as theologians since the Fathers have wrestled with these issues and not settled yea or nay.

    I am, I suspect unlike most of the rest of you unlearned, and so most of what I have to contribute is personal experience -anecdotal and my layman’s reading of Scripture, of course leaning toward what I have been taught over the decades.

    My life, though fairly comfortable by world standards, and having the blessings of health and liberty is none the less a long broken series of doubts and dark nights of the soul. I wrestle with God – I wrestle with the Lord because He was supposed to suffer in all ways like as we have suffered, but I argue, “how can this be Lord? You are eternal, I’m only mortal. You suffered for, you knew exactly what, and how long it would last, and the glory and bliss that would immediately follow. I must live by faith, believing in you through my doubt, not knowing how long I suffer, not knowing the “next shoe to drop”, believing through deep doubt and anxiety that what eventually is to follow some day I hope will be what I believe hopefully will be glory and bliss and an end to doubt, anxiety and depression and regret. ”
    A tapestry of Scripture is the Lord’s response to me.
    Here was my response to Myk’s post of this:

    To know that Jesus experienced the same dark nights of the soul I experience is priceless. To deny that, is to throw my faith into the whirlwind.
    Look: What was the temptation of Christ? 40 days in the wilderness. Was that offer of bread about famine? Surely He was famished, and certainly His mind was weak with starvation. But what did He NEED? What was the offer to make bread and sovereign protection and worship about?
    Jesus needed to KNOW that He was who He believed Himself to be, that he was not just a french fried maniac with a messianic complex.
    How was He to know this? Only the only way we know the living God: By faith. To the end, there was still room to doubt. Certainly He had known lunatics who saw all sorts of things that weren’t there.
    Maybe He saw things too.
    So to – the – end, Jesus lived by faith.
    In the end He felt utterly forsaken… until the light came back on, and He was able to declare, “Father, into thy hands, I commit my Spirit.”

    I think we savor too much the uber mench the superhero superman who is always supremely confident, and always has another trick up his sleeve. “Hocus Pocus! Alachazam!” “Doubt? There was never any doubt! Jesus could no more sin than a key could go into a keyway sideways.”
    Then Jesus was not in all ways tempted as we were. It is a sham. The Spirit of God intimately informed Jesus of His true identity from earliest consciousness if not sooner, and there was never any doubt in His divine mind. The bread and other temptations in the wilderness were just about being famished, even Mahatma Ghandi would have refused the bread.. And his cry from the cross was not any reflection of reality, he was just doing what any good Jew does: quoting Psalms.
    “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken Me?”
    Jesus didn’t really mean what He said.

    • Duane, your argument has great emotional appeal. Yet, the Word does not say that Jesus must experience “dark nights of the soul” to redeem us. Countless experiences that we have are not included in the atonement. To say that Jesus must be tempted at all points as we were (Hebrews 4:15) is scriptural. But to hold that he must have experienced forsakenness on the cross goes beyond that.

      God never, ever forsook his elect. If he had, he would not have sent Jesus to redeem us. Jesus died for those the Father gave him (John 6:37-39). From all eternity, they are elect & their redemption assured (Ephesians 1:4; Revelation 13:8). Therefore, if Christ identified with and “experienced” God-forsakenness, he identified with those who are eternally lost.

      • I’ll never persuade you Mr. Johnston, but for the sake of lurkers, I did not say that I’m eternally lost. I am tempted to believe that I could be, that I could be deceived into believing I’m saved.
        At what age do you believe that Jesus was 100% assured of His identity and His destiny?
        IF his hands, eyes, mind and feet were all locked into a course that could not possibly be diverted from, in what way was He truly tempted?
        Wouldn’t that be like tempting Carrie Nation with a shot of whiskey, or an Olympic athlete with a pack of Marlboro Cigarettes [yuck!]?
        Jesus was really truly honestly genuinely tempted. Tempted in what things?
        Would have been tempted as profane men conjecture to marry Mary Magdalene?
        That was not his area of interest or passion.
        As Savior, His area of passion was the love of creation, His love of humanity and His love of the Father. So what areas would He have been tempted in and how deep did that temptation go?
        I suspect you would argue that the Son of God can not sin, so temptation never went beyond a feeling, or impulse.
        I will contend that He was in all ways tempted as we are – that is in the depth and height and breadth of temptation, yet He did not sin. To illustrate, understand that we sinners are brought to the precipice of sinning in a matter. We often look into the abyss and turn and walk away. Other times we look into the abyss that black hole, and we are the smallest indivisible measure from falling in, when the grace of God pulls us back from the “event horizon” just in time. Still other times at that event horizon, the Spirit of God allows us to fall into that temporal pit.
        Jesus was in all ways TEMPTED as are we. That means He has to have been tempted in his flesh in those areas about which He was passionate right up to the smallest indivisible measure of deciding to take the leap, “because God will charge his angels to protect you lest you dash your toe against a stone.”
        Look there! Jesus was passionate to know that He was the Messiah, not just to believe by faith but to know experientially. Satan always there with the answer says, “Well, prove it to yourself here and now! God says He will protect His Elect One….”
        Jesus passionate on this issue might have been tempted to the brink to settle matters now. But He did not sin. “Scripture commands, ‘Thou shall not put the Lord thy God to the test.”
        Do you believe He had some superman knowledge of who He was, without a speck of doubt that comes to every man who lives by faith not by sight?
        If so, then Jesus lived by sight not by faith, and His vicarious humanity is again – a sham.
        “The Son of God can’t sin”, is the wrong assumption. Clothed as He was in humanity, He had the ability to do his own will. The question for Jesus was not can’t, “Messiah can’t sin” might have been His mantra from birth to “It is finished”.
        The operative word here is “Must not!” In whatever things He was passionate about, wherein He was tempted to do His own will, Jesus was brought to the precipice, to that black hole. For us, thanks be to God, sin has temporal consequences, because of Jesus.
        For the Second Adam consequences of sin are eternal -the collapse of creation and the collapse of Eternal God. So tempted as He must have been – living by faith, not by sight – to take things into his own hands, He looks out over that event horizon, and can only believe by faith what the Father has spoken through the Spirit, “My will, or the Father’s will, maybe MY will IS the Father’s will….?”
        Great drops of blood. “Not my will but Thy will be done!”

  10. Pingback: The Cross through the Eyes of Calvin – The Two Cups
  11. Late to the party. There are many mysteries that will remain mysteries since we live in three dimensions and strain to understand what timelessness means… and how it certainly affects what “today” meant to the thief on the cross. More important how “eternity” is also satisfied at Jesus speaking the word and the thief opening his eyes in paradise. We can’t know… only imagine.

    That’s what so many of these posts accomplish… a benevolent stretch in the direction of the truth that will only ever be grasped by faith. “Sense, feel, experience” all seem to be degrees of proximity to truth even as “faith, believe, know” bring us closer as well. But to say “where does scripture say…?” —while important in a search for truth—can sometimes take you in the opposite direction. It does this by denying “sense” and “faith” in favor of “experience” and “knowing.”

    It is important to realize that most all of Jesus’ teaching was with metaphor, simile and parable since (apparently) He knew that it was the best way to reach the minds of his people. If “all things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made,” then wouldn’t it also hold true of our brains? …how we think? In fact the Gospels say twice that “…without a parable, he did not teach.” :: a lovely and jarring double negative to drive home the point that Jesus ALWAYS taught with parables, metaphors, word-pictures.

    The reason I raise this is that throughout scripture we have been given examples of “substitutionary death” and a premonition of who and how and to what extent the “saviour” would suffer. Although spiritual death began with Adam and Eve, it was God himself who committed the first physical death by killing and skinning wild animals to cover (atone) for the revealed nakedness of man :: the death of the innocent to cover the guilty.

    – The blood of an innocent, sacrificial lamb on the doorposts and lintel (signs of the bloodstains on the cross) to protect the Israelites from the angel of death

    – The creation of the bronze serpent by Moses, raised on the staff to be a premonition of Christ’s death on the cross. Why a serpent, if not to be a verification of Paul’s word in 2 Corinthians :: “He was made to BE sin, who knew no sin…”

    When we “experience” these “feelings” of these “senses,” it touches something deep in the heart that words can’t adequately communicate, and the truth of what, and how he suffered, brings us to a “knowledge” that we “believe” by “faith.”

    Because of that, along with Nick Lane’s simple sentiment in the previous post, I weep… with compassion… with love… with deep, deep gratitude.

  12. Pingback: Calvin on “He descended into Hell” (Guest Post by Tim Keller) | Reformedish – Reformed faith salsa style
  13. Pingback: Calvin on “He descended into Hell” (Guest Post by Tim Keller) | Reformedish – Reformed faith salsa style
  14. Pingback: Pastorally Speaking the Deep Things of the Cross: Tim Keller, What Christ Lost, and How To Talk About It ‹ The Calvinist International
  15. I have not read all these posts so I apologise if my question/point has already been made:
    As I see it this debate is linked to the debates/disagreements on two issues: firstly, will God inflict eternal retribution on the unsaved after the Day of Judgment. If I have read/researched correctly some answers to that question are: Packer – yes; Stott -no; P.E.Hughes – no; Stephen Travis (“Christ and the judgment of God”) – no. If Packer is right (I believe he is) then, as I see it, the penal substitution doctrine is most accurately expressed by stating that on the cross God inflicted on Christ, in his human nature, the retribution that all those who have ever or will ever repent and trust in Christ deserve. This is substitution. Secondly is Stephen Wellum (“Christ Alone”) right when he says (page 212)”…He, along with the Father and the Spirit, is the offended party…”.

    As I see it this debate is linked to the debates/disagreements on two issues: firstly, will God inflict eternal retribution on the unsaved after the Day of Judgment. If I have read/researched correctly some answers to that question are: Packer – yes; Stott -no; P.E.Hughes – no; Stephen Travis (“Christ and the judgment of God”) – no. If Packer is right (I believe he is) then, as I see it, the penal substitution doctrine is most accurately expressed by stating that on the cross God inflicted on Christ, in his human nature, the retribution that all those who have ever or will ever repent and trust in Christ deserve. This is substitution. Secondly is Stephen Wellum (“Christ Alone”) right when he says (page 212)”…He, along with the Father and the Spirit, is the offended party…”. I believe Stephen Wellum is right.

    Could the right model not be:

    When the Person of Christ was a developing embryo in the womb of the Blessed Virgin he was also the Lord God Almighty who ‘throned in height sublime sits amid the cherubim’: when he lay dead in the tomb he continued as the Lord God Almighty to ‘uphold all things by the word of his power’; when he hung on the cross bearing the sins of the world and their retribution he was also, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit the condemning and punishing God. In these three instances we are confronted with the same incomprehensible mystery.

  16. Pingback: “He Descended Into Hell” – Your Heritage, Your People, O LORD

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