As a speaker at a theological conference I was asked the following provocative question:
How is it possible for Christ to have suffered the eternal wrath of God in just several hours on the cross when human recipients of God’s judgment suffer for all eternity?
The crux (Latin for “cross,” English for “central point”) of this question relates to how Jesus’ suffering and death accomplished an eternal result in a short temporal period of time.
I propose that the answer to this perplexing question is found in the historic Christian view of the person of Jesus Christ as the divine Logos or Son.
Jesus Christ is an eternal personal being.
Jesus is fully human, but not solely human. He is also fully divine. The orthodox view of Christ is that he is a single person with two natures, one divine and one human. Ancient Christians referred to Jesus as the theanthropos (Greek: the God-man).
So, while Jesus has both a divine and a human consciousness (corresponding to divine and human natures and divine and human wills), he is ultimately one person; and that one person is the divine Logos. His human consciousness is found in hypostatic (or personal) union with the divine. Jesus’ human consciousness, therefore, has no existence of its own (impersonal) apart from its union with the divine in the Incarnation. Orthodox Christian theologians refer to this as the enhypostasis and anhypostasis of Christ (see here).
Christ possesses a fully human nature, but the self-conscious ‘I’ is the eternal Logos or Son. He is therefore an eternal person, the second person of the divine Trinity. In a philosophical sense, Jesus is two Whats and one Who. (In other words, he possesses two distinct natures, one divine and one human, but is, nonetheless, a single person.)
How does all this impact the original question?
How is it possible for Christ to have suffered the eternal wrath of God in just several hours on the cross?
Christ could suffer the eternal divine wrath during his temporal suffering on the cross because he is an eternal personal being. The eternal person accomplished an eternal sacrifice. An eternal personal being can offer an eternal sacrifice by the very nature of his being, without consideration to time limitations.
The point is not how long Christ suffered on the cross for sins, but who the person was that offered the sacrifice. It is the dignity, grandeur, and holiness of Jesus Christ’s eternal personal being that extinguished the eternal wrath of God.
1 Peter 1:18-19 notes:
For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.
An eternal sacrifice was needed to appease God’s eternal wrath against sin but no mere human and temporal person could achieve it. Thus the eternal Christ, the one and only God-man, offered an eternal sacrifice that achieved redemption for all who believe the Gospel (John 3:16).
For more on the study of Christ’s person, nature, and work, see chapters 9 and 11 of my book Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions and chapter 8 of my book A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test.