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The cross: punishment or suffering?

Did God punish Jesus at the cross?

When you put it that way it sounds rather stark, doesn’t it? I think there would be unanimous agreement that God didn’t punish Jesus for anything He personally did. He had no sin (Hebrews 4:14ff). But after this, there would be some significant divergence. There would be more than a few who would hold to the conviction that God did punish Jesus for our sins—that at the cross He took the punishment that was due us. According to this understanding, when Jesus asked God why He had forsaken Him—He wasn’t just speaking as any person experiencing great suffering would be tempted to do, God had actually forsaken Him and He had taken on the punishment for sin that was due us.

This raises a couple of questions. The first would be that if it was God’s plan to abandon Jesus at the cross—then why would Jesus be (seemingly) unaware of it?  Another question is if the punishment due man for his sins is to be “punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His might” (2 Thessalonians 1:9), how did Jesus’ suffering on the cross satisfy? According to this understanding, Christ’s suffering on the cross (which included physical pain and spiritual separation from God), balanced the scales somehow. Of course, if the Scripture teaches this is what happened then that’s what happened whether we can connect all of the dots or not. But then again, maybe a question like this makes us ask if we’ve really understood the cross correctly.

The NT writers never use the word “punishment” in reference to the cross, their preferred term is “suffering.” Peter speaks extensively about the cross in his first letter as “suffering” (1:11, 2:21,23, 3:18, 4:1, 5:1). You can find the same thing from Luke in his gospel (22:15, 24:26,46) and in Acts (1:3, 3:18, 17:3, 26:23). Hebrews falls in with this as well (2:9,10,18, 5:8, 9:26, 13:12). This is important because punishment and suffering are not the same thing. The word “suffering” covers a lot more territory than “punishment" does. All punishment is suffering (1 Peter 3:17, 2:19-20), but not all suffering is punishment.

Punishment is suffering imposed on someone as a consequence of their wrong-doing (see this is in Luke 20:47, 21:22, 23:16,22, 23:41). The person who sins is the person who is punished—it’s not “transferable” because that’s not moral (Deuteronomy 24:16). Again, punishment is a response to wrong-doing. If no wrong-doing has taken place then whatever else might be happening—it’s not right or accurate to call it punishment.

A talented athlete repeatedly violates team rules and is dismissed from the team. He is being punished and suffers for his behavior. The team isn’t the same without him. Though they try their best, their level of play drops significantly and they experience considerably less success than before. They are suffering because of what their teammate did—but there is no sense is which they are being punished by the coach (or anyone else). In fact, it is their teammate who has brought the suffering on them. But even then, it is in no sense punishment because the rest of the team hasn’t done anything wrong.

However, by choosing to continue playing, the team is in a sense bearing the wrong-doing of their teammate. They could quit the team and not be subjected to suffering/losing any games. But by choosing to keep playing, they are choosing to suffer with and for their teammate.

I think this is the way we are to understand the cross. Jesus suffers on the cross because of our sins. God is not punishing Him. He goes to the cross with us and for us. He identifies with us and becomes our representative (substitute) before God.

Can God forgive us without punishing Jesus? Where is the Scripture that says that God had to punish Jesus for us to be saved? If God didn’t have to punish Jesus—why do we want to believe He did? I think these are questions that need to be answered before we employ a different word than the one the NT writers chose in referring to Jesus’ death on the cross.

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