The Two Deaths of Christ

by Ronald W. Leigh, Ph.D.
Image of Bible and cross
February 2, 2015
Copyright © 2004 Ronald W. Leigh
Bible quotations are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.
————————————— Contents —————————————
A. Introduction
B. The importance of Christ's physical death
C. The day of Christ's death
D. A real physical death
E. A real physical resurrection
F. The timing of Christ's spiritual death
G. Did Jesus' spirit descend into hades during his physical death?

A.  Introduction

This paper is a sequel to the paper The Substitutionary Death of Christ, in which we

In that paper we make the point that

Jesus himself, while hanging on the cross, said something to the Father which he could only have said if he were standing in place of sinners.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  (Matthew 27:46)

At this point, Jesus was experiencing spiritual separation from the Father which is the punishment, not for his sins, but for our sins.  This was the actual act of substitution.

It is important to realize that it was not Christ's physical death wherein he substituted for us.  If that were the case, believers would not have to die physically.  Remember that the punishment for sin is primarily spiritual death, that is, separation from God.  This separation has nothing to do with physical (spatial) separation, but has everything to do with interpersonal separation, that is, alienation.  Adam was told that the day he sinned he would die.  While he died spiritually as soon as he sinned (his alienation from God was shown by his being kicked out of the garden), physically he lived for many years (Genesis 2:15-17; 5:4).  (The Substitutionary Death of Christ, section F, 3)

Many sermons have been given which focus hard on the physical suffering of Christ.  Even Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ, emphasizes this physical suffering.  When the spotlight is focused on the physical suffering of Christ, his spiritual suffering is hard to see, and may even be missed altogether.

These two deaths of Christ, his physical death and his spiritual death, are the focus of this paper.  It is important that we understand the difference between the physical death and the spiritual death of Christ, and how these two deaths relate to each other.

B.  The importance of Christ's physical death

If it is Christ's spiritual suffering wherein he substituted for us, why is his physical death important?

Christ’s actual physical death forms the basis for a valid, physical resurrection.  In turn, the resurrection establishes the deity of Christ (Romans 1:4; John 20:27-28).  His deity forms the basis for his sinlessness.  His sinlessness is a requirement for him to be our substitute. And finally, Christ's substitutionary death is the basis of our salvation.  In other words, our salvation is logically dependent both on Christ's spiritual (substitutionary) death and on his physical death.

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.  (1 Corinthians 15:17)

It is no wonder that Paul told the Corinthians,

I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  (1 Corinthians 2:2, italics added)

C.  The day of Christ's death

In this paper we adopt the traditional view that Christ died on a Friday, as shown in the following diagram.  For an explanation of the reasons for adopting this view, see the paper Chronology of Biblical Events, section on the life of Christ.

D.  A real physical death

Did Jesus really die?  Did he merely enter an unconscious state or a self-imposed hypnotic state?  These unfortunate views are considered in The Substitutionary Death of Christ, section D.  Here we will merely point out that the wording used in the gospels to describe the death of Christ is certainly clear.  Jesus "gave up his spirit" (Matthew 27:50;  John 19:30) and he "breathed his last" (Mark 15:37;  Luke 23:46).

Also, everyone around him certainly thought he was dead!

  1. Soldiers,  John 19:32-34
  2. Pilate and his centurion,  Mark 15:44-45
  3. Joseph and Nicodemus,  John 19:38-42
  4. Chief priests and pharisees,  Matthew 27:62-65
  5. The women who brought spices,  Luke 24:1;  John 20:13,15
  6. The disciples,  John 20:1-10

E.  A real physical resurrection

Jesus rose from the dead.

The angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.  He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.  Then go quickly and tell his disciples: `He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.' ... "  (Matthew 28:5-7)

After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.  On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command ...  (Acts 1:3-4)

Being able to see him, and see him eat, was important.  Many today who speak of the resurrection of Christ have in mind merely some mental or "spiritual" resurrection.  That is, Christ rose from the dead in the sense that his memory lives on, or his spirit is still active. And while both of these things are true, the Bible clearly teaches that his resurrection is more than just a lasting memory or some sort of "spiritual" return to life.  It was an actual physical resurrection.  Christ, in bodily form, rose from the grave, and walked among his disciples again.  John records several incidents after the resurrection which can only be understood if it was a physical resurrection.  For example, Thomas, in the presence of the other disciples, heard Jesus speak and saw his wounded body (John 20:26-29).  Also, several disciples saw and heard Jesus when he served them a breakfast of fish and bread by the seaside (John 21:1-14). And there were many more incidents when Jesus appeared to individuals and crowds (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).  These occurrences cannot be dismissed as Jesus appearing in spirit form.  When Jesus appeared to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, he spoke with them and broke bread with them, and this was the point at which they recognized him as the risen Lord (Luke 24:13-32).  Later, when these two disciples went to Jerusalem and told the other disciples what had happened, Jesus appeared again and explained to the frightened group that he was not a mere spirit.

"Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself!  Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have."  When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet.  And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, "Do you have anything here to eat?"  They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.  (Luke 24:39-43)

F.  The timing of Christ's spiritual death

Death is essentially a separation.  A person's body is dead when his spirit is separated from it (James 2:26), or, using the language adopted by both Paul and Peter, when he moves out of his "tent" (2 Corinthians 5:1-4;  2 Peter 1:13).  Similarly, a person's spirit is dead when his spirit is separated from God (2 Thessalonians 1:9).

In our day to day discussions about the physical death and the spiritual death of Christ, we often roll these two events into one.  It is often assumed that Christ's spiritual death occurred during the time of his physical death, either occupying that complete time, or perhaps occupying a portion of that time.  Below is a diagram which focuses on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from the earlier diagram.  It illustrates that Christ's spiritual death and restoration were completed just before his physical death.  (In order to establish the timing of the Christ's spiritual death in relation to his physical death, we rely on a harmony of the gospel accounts of the passion.)

The Bible does not explicitly state the sequence illustrated above.  Nevertheless, there are several reasons for holding this view.

Reason 1 — Jesus says he has been forsaken

Consider the fact that Jesus said "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  This is a quotation from Psalm 22:1, part of a psalm of David in which he desperately cries out to the Lord.  The psalm contains some remarkable parallels to Jesus' crucifixion, including the scorn (verse 6), mockery (verse 7), tauntings (verse 8), and casting lots for clothing (verse 18).  In speaking about being forsaken by God, Jesus was expressing his identification with fallen man.  And that identification was never more complete than when he carried man's sin and was separated from the Father.  Earlier in his earthly life he had identified completely with man by becoming a man.  Now he is identifying completely with fallen man by taking on man's sin and suffering the sinner's penalty!

It is significant for our present discussion that, in the two passages which record this remarkable statement of Jesus (Matthew 27:45-46;  Mark 15:33-34), the statement is closely associated with the report of the darkness.  This darkness is described as a miraculous event in which "the sun stopped shining" (Luke 23:45).  It is not described as a storm.  Nor can it be an eclipse, for Jesus was crucified at the time of the Passover (John 19:14-16), which always occurred on the 14th day of the month Nisan.  The Jewish religious calendar was a lunar calendar and its first month, Nisan, began at the time of a new moon.  Thus, at the middle of the month the moon was full (that is, on the opposite side of the earth from the sun) making a solar eclipse impossible.  This linkage between Jesus' indication that he was forsaken by the Father and the supernatural darkness suggests that the actual spiritual death of Jesus occurred during this period of darkness, which lasted "from the sixth hour until the ninth hour," that is, from noon until 3:00 pm, the three hours immediately preceding his physical death.

On his website, Will Pounds cites Carroll's comments regarding the timing of Christ's spiritual death.

B. H. Carroll said, “Just before that darkness passed away, closing the ninth hour, Christ died the spiritual death. Right on the very edge of that deeper darkness came another voice. His words were, ‘I thirst.’ This shows His soul was under going the pangs of hell, just as the rich man lifted up his eyes in hell, being in torments and said, ‘I pray the Father Abraham send Lazarus that he might dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’” Jesus Christ was enduring the torment of hell for a lost world!  (www.abideinchrist.com/messages/mat2745.html)

Pounds also quotes Warren Wiersbe's comment about the darkness.

It was during the time of darkness that Jesus had been made sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21). He had been forsaken by the Father! That darkness was a symbol of the judgment that He endured when He was “made a curse” for us (Gal. 3:13).  (www.abideinchrist.com/messages/mat27v46.html)

Hindson concurs:

God's wrath was poured upon His Son during this time of darkness.  At the ninth hour (3:00 P.M.) Jesus cried: ... My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?  Here we have the high cost of the atonement to Christ, who was accursed of God for us as our sin-bearer ... and suffered the agony of spiritual death for us.  (Liberty Commentary on the New Testament, Liberty Press, 1978, comments on Matthew 27:45-46)

Reason 2 — Jesus is ready for his spirit to return to the Father

Immediately before Jesus died physically, he said, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46).  He could do this only if he were no longer carrying our sins and forsaken by the Father.

G. Campbell Morgan, in his sermon on Matthew 27:45, stated

... in that hour of darkness He passed into the place of the ultimate wrestling of evil in actual experience. There is light as I hear the final word, "Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit"—Luke 23:46, for the word is a word which declares that whatever the transaction was, it was accomplished; that whatever the dying indicated, it was done. (The Westminster Pulpit, Hodder and Stoughton, London)

Reason 3 — Jesus has made the final sacrifice

At the very moment Jesus gave up his spirit, the temple veil was torn in two (Matthew 27:50-51).  This seems possible only upon the completion of Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice.  John the Baptist called Jesus "the Lamb of God" (John 1:29).  The substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus rendered invalid any more animal sacrifices.  The old system of sacrifices, and the high priest entering the "Most Holy Place," was finished because Christ's substitutionary sacrifice had been completed (Hebrews 9).

Reason 4 — Jesus says all things are accomplished

Christ knew that “all things had already been accomplished” (accomplished = τελεω, John 19:28, NASB) and said “It is finished” (finished = τελεω, John 19:30).   Both of these refer to his spiritual death, because his physical death had not yet occurred.  He had anticipated and spoken of this suffering earlier in his ministry.

I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed  (completed = τελεω, Luke 12:50)

He spoke again of this suffering just before traveling to Jerusalem.

Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled.  (fulfilled = τελεω, Luke 18:31)

And after the last supper, Jesus quoted Psalm 53:12, part of a passage rich with the notion of substitution.

It is written: `And he was numbered with the transgressors' ; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me.  (fulfilled = τελεω, Luke 22:37)

Now, on the cross, at the end of the period of darkness and just before his physical death, Jesus knew that “all things had already been accomplished” and said “It is finished.”

Reason 5 — Jesus will be in paradise the same day

Around noon, one of the criminals being crucified beside Jesus admitted his guilt and asked Jesus to remember him.  Jesus told this criminal that he would be with Jesus in paradise "this day" (Luke 23:39-43).  Of course, this requires that Jesus also be in paradise on the same day.  Since the Jewish day ended at sunset, it would seem Jesus was indicating that he (Jesus) would be in paradise within just a handful of hours.

Vine agrees with the above sequence.

In Luke 23:43, the promise of the Lord to the repentant robber was fulfilled the same day; Christ, at His death, having committed His spirit to the Father, went in spirit immediately into Heaven itself, the dwelling place of God ...."  (W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, article on "paradise").

Matthew Henry, in his comments on Matthew 27:45, provides this summary:

During the three hours which the darkness continued, Jesus was in agony, wrestling with the powers of darkness, and suffering his Father's displeasure against the sin of man, for which he was now making his soul an offering.  Never were there three such hours since the day God created man upon the earth, never such a dark and awful scene; it was the turning point of that great affair, man's redemption and salvation.

Does this view downplay the blood?  No.  The blood represents the physical death of Christ, which, although it was not the principal substitution, was still necessary because it is a secondary consequence of sin, and the death-resurrection scenario proves Christ’s deity. Indeed, it is the symbol of the bread (body) and wine (blood) which Jesus instructed us to use to remind us of him.

G.  Did Jesus' spirit descend into hades during his physical death?

It is recorded that Jesus preached to spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:18-20) and lead captivity captive (Ephesians 4:7-10).  Did Jesus do this between his physical death and resurrection?  Many have understood these passages to mean that he did.  The notion is even found in the Apostles' Creed and the Athanasian Creed, both of which place the phrase "descended into hell" between a reference to his death and his resurrection.

However, while this view is possible, neither passage requires that Christ performed these ministries between his death and resurrection. The preaching mentioned in 1 Peter may have been done by the spirit of Jesus while Noah was alive, and perhaps through Noah.  The phrase "in the days of Noah" (1 Peter 3:20) may identify not only the time when the spirits disobeyed and God waited patiently, but also the time when Jesus went and preached to them.  For example, Culver understands the passage as

a preaching by Christ 'in the spirit' through Noah 'in the days … while the ark was being prepared' to 'spirits' now in prison (hell) but then alive and rejecting the preaching of 'the spirit' through Noah … (Robert Culver, Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical, Mentor, 2005, p. 519)

And the descent mentioned in Ephesians is probably best understood as worded in the NIV, which, by using the phrase "descended to the lower, earthly regions," equates the lower regions with the earth and thus equates Christ's descent with his incarnation.

Note, however, that if you hold that Christ did carry out these two ministries between his physical death and resurrection, this is another support for the notion that his spiritual death ended early, at least before he performed these two ministries, as neither of these ministries would be appropriate for Christ to perform while he was still carrying our sin and forsaken by the Father.