Crucifixion is perhaps the most violent, humiliating and painful method of execution ever devised. The very word that we use for acute pain (excruciating) comes from crucifying. Yet we must never forget that the deepest sufferings were infinitely greater than the physical pain. As someone has put it, the soul of His sufferings was the sufferings of His soul. What do we mean by His soul sufferings? Samuel Rutherford puts it succinctly: the Saviour suffered in His soul “God’s wrath, which was a very hell to Christ”. He endured the felt wrath of God instead of the felt blessing that He never before lacked. Merely physical sufferings would not have satisfied divine justice.
This is a vital point. David Dickson gives several reasons for it:
- The curse of the fall (breaking the covenant made with Adam) was death, both of body and soul. The redeemed had to be delivered from the death of both by the Redeemer enduring both for their redemption.
- Sin infected the whole person, soul and body. No part or power of the soul is free from it. Justice therefore required that the Redeemer should feel the force of the curse both in body and soul in place of the persons redeemed.
Death to the soul consists in its separation from communion with God and this is what Christ endured. There are deep mysteries in this, Christ never ceased to be God of course even when He forsaken of God. Christ was deprived for a time of a clear vision of the blessedness of God, the quiet possession of the formerly felt peace, and the fruition of joy for a time. Thus He suffered an eclipse of light and consolation that otherwise shined from His God-head. In this sort of spiritual death He underwent some degrees of spiritual death.
David Dickson outlines various degrees of soul suffering that Christ endured. This is an updated extract from his book Therapeutica sacra: showing briefly, the method of healing the diseases of the conscience, concerning regeneration.
1. Imputed Sin
The guilt of all the sins, crimes, and vile deeds of the elect committed from the beginning of the world was imputed to Him. By accepting this imputation He did not pollute His conscience. Yet He burdened His soul, binding Himself to bear their deserved punishment.
The vilest sinners such as liars, thieves and adulterers cannot bear to hear themselves called liars or thieves. They cannot bear the shame of the vileness of which they are truly guilty. What suffering of soul, what clouding of the glory of His holiness was it then when our Lord took upon His shoulders such a dunghill of all vileness? Nothing could be more unseemly for His holy majesty.
2. Extreme Perplexity
Added to all the former degrees of suffering of His soul, the perplexity of his thoughts fell on Him. There was such astonishment of soul when the full cup of wrath was presented to Him in such a terrible way. It made all the powers of His sense and reason for a time to be at a stand still. The Evangelist describes this suffering of His soul saying that “he began to be sore amazed” and also to be “very heavy”. Christ expressed Himself in these words “My soul is exceeding sorrowful unto death” (Mark 14:33-34). There was no imperfection in this only a sinless natural response to such a sudden terror. Daniel’s response to the terrifying appearance of the angel (Daniel 10:8-10) was not sinful.
3. Interrupted Communion
The conscious peaceful enjoyment of the happiness His human nature had in its personal union with His God-head was interrupted for a time. The vehemence of His trouble did not allow Him to hide His perturbation. In John 12:27 He cried out “Now is my soul troubled, and what shall I say?” and in Mark 14:34 He declares, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful unto death”. He implies by these words that death was at hand. It had seized hold on Him and wrapped Him up in the sorrows of death for the time, as in a net in which He knew He could not be held.
These miseries hid the happiness of His personal union with the God-head for a time. They hindered the conscious feeling of it for a time in His deep suffering. Yet, it was not taken away or eclipsed altogether.
4. Total Wrath
God’s justice, pursuing our sins in our Surety, showed Christ the cup of wrath in the garden. It held it to His head and pressed Him to drink it. The very dregs of the agreed curse of the law were poured into His patient and submissive mouth, as it were, filling the most inward part of soul and body. As a vehement flame, beyond all human comprehension, it filled both soul and body. It drew and drove forth a bloody sweat out of all His veins (the like of which was never heard of). It was like when a pot of oil, boiling up and running over with the fire beneath has the flame increased further still by a fiery mass of hot iron being thrust into it.
All His human strength was wasted and emptied, His mind thrown down, His joy fainted and a heavy weight of sorrow was on Him. He desired that small comfort of His weak disciples watching with Him a little and missed it when it was lacking. He also stood in need of an angel to comfort Him (Luke 22:43).
5. Extreme Fear
Christ’s human nature was like ours in all things except sin. It was indeed afraid when it saw and felt the wrath of God lest it should have been swallowed up by it. The apostle speaks of this fear in Hebrews 5:7 saying that Christ “offered up prayers and supplication and strong cries and tears, unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared”.
This seems the saddest part of all His sufferings, that He was afraid of being swallowed up. Yet this fear is not to be wondered at, nor is it inconsistent with His holiness. For when Christ assumed our nature, He also assumed all the common and sinless infirmities, passions, and perturbations of our nature. It is natural that the creature should tremble at the sight of an angry God. It is natural to man at the sight of something terrible or an evil coming on him or already come on him (especially if beyond all his natural strength) to tremble and fear the worst. Holy nature was right to fear present death, being cut off and swallowed up in the danger when God appeared angry and was hasting to be avenged on sinners in the person of their Surety. He did not doubt that He would escape from being swallowed up. Natural fear is very different from lack of faith in God’s faithfulness and power. Natural fear of the worst can be consistent with strong faith which helps to overcome natural fear.
If Christ had not been weakened and emptied of all human strength in His flesh, He could not have been humbled enough for us, He could not have suffered so much as Justice did exact for satisfying the law on our behalf. Yet if He had not also stood firm in faith and love towards God’s glory and our salvation He could not have satisfied Justice either. He would not have still been the innocent and spotless Lamb of God nor perfected the expiatory sacrifice for us.
6. Consciously Forsaken
Among the deepest degrees of the suffering of Christ in His soul was His being forsaken. In saying that He was forsaken of God He did not mean that the personal union of the natures in Him was broken. Nor did He mean that God had withdrawn His sustaining strength and help from the human nature. Neither was the love of the Father taken from Him or any aspect of the perfection of holiness taken from Him. It meant that God for a time had taken away conscious comfort and felt joy from His human soul. This was so that justice might be more fully satisfied in His sufferings. In this forsaking Christ is not to considered simply as the Son of the Father (in whom He is always well pleased) but as He stands in the room of sinners as Surety paying their debt. In this respect, He must be dealt with as standing in our name, guilty and thus paying the debt of being forsaken by God. We were bound to suffer this fully and forever, if He had not intervened for us.
7. Cursed Death
That which Christ suffered in torment was, in some respects, of the same kind as the torment of the damned. The punishment of the damned differs in their rebellious disposition of the mind and the duration of their punishment. Yet the punishment itself (torment of soul and body) compares with Christ’s suffering. This was the conscious torment of Christ’s soul and body in being made a curse for us.
Dickson’s friend James Durham makes appropriate application of these truths in one of his 72 sermons on Isaiah 53. He writes movingly of the horror Christ endured. It was as though many mighty squadrons of the highly provoked wrath of God were making a furious and mighty assault on the innocent human nature of Christ.
He says that considering Christ’s soul sufferings we ought to be stirred up to wonder at the love of God the Father and the love of the Son. If we consider the infinite glory of the One that suffered, the infinite wrath He endured and the infinite guilt of those for whom He suffered. Do you think it is appropriate, he says, that sinners who have hope of heaven through Christ’s sufferings should be so little moved at hearing and reading of them?
He suffers much by sinners, when His love shining forth in His sufferings is not taken notice of. I would put the question to you, ‘when was your heart suitably affected with thinking on them? Or, when did you purposely bless God for this, that He sent his Son to suffer, and that the Mediator came and suffered such things for you sinners?’ This is a part, and a considerable part of your duty; and gratitude should constrain you to do it. It should not let you diminish just esteem of His love.