Christology Eschatology

Penal substitution and the second death

In his death on the cross and his three days in the grave, Jesus was neither endlessly tormented nor was he annihilated. This is why I have proposed that neither traditionalism nor annihilationism has an advantage in regard to its explanation of the way in which Christ’s death was a penal substitution for human sin. Jesus died in the manner of the “first death,” in his role as second Adam (1 Cor 15:45-47; cf. Rom 5:12-21).

He was  perfectly sinless.

  • He was not guilty in Adam because he was the representative head of a new covenant people and, in his active obedience, he was tempted as Adam had been but he did not yield, so that he did not become personally liable to death. Having passed the probation, he had gained the immortality which Adam and Eve would have had if they had not disobeyed, and which God now gives to all who are in Christ, the new covenant head. Hence our access, finally, to “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit,” one produced each month (Rev 22:2), which are on both sides of the “river of the water of life” flowing “from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Rev 22:1).
  • Not being guilty, Jesus was born without corruption, that is, the tendency to sin, which derives from our being naturally cut off from God’s sustaining grace by our alienation from him on account of our sinfulness. Nevertheless, he was tempted in all the ways we are but, strengthened by the Holy Spirit who filled him (Lk 4:1, 14), Jesus did not sin (Heb 4:15). He continually did the Father’s will throughout his life of perfect obedience (Jn 8:29).

So there was no reason in the person and actions of Jesus why he should die physically, but he submitted to death in his identification with sinners. Even those in Christ normally die physically (allowing for exceptions like Enoch and Elijah), despite Christ’s having “borne our sin in his body on the tree.” But his penal substitution, his being “made sin for us” and suffering the righteous judgment of God against sinners, delivers those in him (by grace through faith) from the second death. In raising Jesus from the dead, God vindicated or justified him, declaring him to be “the Son of God in power according to the spirit of holiness” (Rom 1:4), and those who are in Christ are declared righteous by God on account of their union with Christ. Though “sin reigned in death,” Jesus underwent death in order that “grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom 5:21).

But, if the penalty for sin, the second death or hell, is either endless torment in permanent alienation from God or annihilation, how was it that Christ bore the penalty of human sin? The answer is clearly not by some literal equivalence to what the wicked will suffer when they are condemned in God’s final judgment. On the cross, Christ satisfied the just demands of God against sinners, in a way that was sufficient for the forgiveness of every human being. God was pleased with Christ’s life of obedience, and with his willingness to die an accursed death, under the wrath of God, as representative of the new people whom God declares righteous in Christ, to whom he gives eternal life, and whom he raises bodily from the dead, never to die the terrible “second death” which is the destiny of all who persistently reject God’s gracious self-revelation in whatever form he gives it to them throughout human history in this age/world (Rev 22:6). Over all those who are raised with Christ, participating in the “first resurrection” (Rev 20:6; cf 1 Cor 15:22-23), the second death has no power (Rev 20:6). But those who are not raised with Christ are raised “to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan 12:2); theirs is not the “resurrection of life” but the “resurrection of judgment” (Jn 5:29).

It is worth noting here that penal substitution was the means by which Christ overcame the devil, so that we should not pose penal substitution and Christus victor as alternatives (See my thoughts in “Stricken by God?: A Review Article,” in Theodidaktos 4/1 (April 2009): 3-16). Rather, we should note that Christus victor is the overarching biblical model of Christ’s atoning work, so that my comments here about penal substitution need to be read within that framework.

I propose that all this can be affirmed equally well by everyone, regardless of their understanding of the nature of the second death.

These thoughts were triggered by my pondering questions 22, 23 and 24 in The New City Catechism, which I think has described the redemptive work of Christ, the incarnate Word, very well.

Q22: “Why must the Redeemer be truly human?

That in human nature he might on our behalf perfectly obey the whole law and suffer the punishment for human sin; and also that he might sympathize with our weaknesses.”

Q23: “Why must the Redeemer be truly God?

That because of his divine nature his obedience and suffering would be perfect and effective; and also that he would be able to bear the righteous anger of God against sin and yet overcome death.”

Q24: “Why was it necessary for Christ, the Redeemer, to die?

Since death is the punishment for sin, Christ died willingly in our place to deliver us from the power and penalty of sin and bring us back to God. By his substitutionary atoning death, he alone redeems us from hell and gains for us forgiveness of sin, righteousness, and everlasting life.”


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

7 replies on “Penal substitution and the second death”

A solution worth considering, Terrance, thank you. I really enjoy your blog.

I have always assumed that when Christ prayed in Gethsemane for the cup to pass, it was simply the horrific means of death that was best avoided. But as you noted, apart from the messianic mission, Christ didn’t have to die at all. Were the focus only on his sinless human life, he could have continued to live forever. Perhaps it is not going too far to say that in his humanity he may even have wanted to stay with friends and family (though in fictional stories immortal human beings have the conundrum that their loved ones always die). Either way, that is certainly the desire we see in the O.T.—clinging to this life; hope in a future return to life.

Right in the middle of those two, with that semicolon, I would place the annihilationist definition for death. Since we point out that death privates life, we take the focus off the event of death, and place it on to the virtual timeline, so that its significance extends in both directions. Our theological definition then is that death is privation of life, which unpacks as cessation of life until the point of death, and then a deprivation of the life which would have ensued forever.

In other words, life is not an event, but a continuous series of events which will be eternal if it is not cut short by death.

Thus our definition sets up an open condition which permits, but does not insist upon, annihilation. Death is the privation of life, but this does not specify that it must necessarily stay privated. Staying dead is certainly a default status if God does not intervene. The fact that God intervenes with Jesus and all the righteous, doesn’t really alter the basic definition of death, I don’t think. So I suggest there may be a high degree of equivalence between Christ’s death and the second death after all, on annihilationism. (Historically the term “annihilation” was probably coined as a pejorative, and it has sometimes helped, sometimes hindered—hewing closely to biblical language usually assists!)

Thank you, Peter. I think that a traditionalist could affirm a definition of physical death as the privation of life, viewed as a continuous succession of events which will be eternal if not cut off by death. I would add a definition of spiritual (or relational) death, however, which is alienation from unhindered communion with God.

Looked at from this perspective, the first sin of Adam and Eve brought about the penalty which God had stipulated for disobedience, death, in both physical and spiritual dimensions. Where they had been able to expect endless life and continued communion with God provided they remained obedient, they knew then that they would not live forever and that they could no longer enjoy fellowship with God, before whom they then felt shame. Their bodies began to decay and God brought it about that the physical world over which they continued to be vice-regents had become a less welcoming environment. Furthermore, it was no longer appropriate for them to live in the Garden of Eden, walking and talking with God. Their shalom and that of the creation over which they continued to be God’s vice-regents had been terribly disrupted.

God did not leave Adam and their posterity in this situation, but launched his redemptive program through a succession of covenants, culminating in the “new covenant” established through the death of Jesus. The redemptive victory wrought by Christ on the cross was immediately, proleptically, the means by which people who were sure to die physically and were “dead in sin” could be forgiven and restored to fellowship with God – repentance and faith, through which God’s gracious saving work could be appropriated. When people have that saving faith, they are immediately given “eternal life”or “immortality” which has ramifications both physical and spiritual.

I concur with you, that when we unpack those ramifications annihilationism is a more natural way to speak of the effects of salvation than is traditionalism. Biblical Annihilationism entails that all humans will normally die physically and that all will be raised again, but only those who are raised in Christ will be raised with endless life. For those outside of Christ, who die still alienated from God by sin, the sentence of physical death has never been removed, so that they will ultimately die again, irrevocably. Never having been restored to fellowship with God, the rest of their “second lives” will be an experience of the unmitigated effects of their alienation from God, contempt and shame, hopelessness and spiritual aloneness (cf. Paul’s description of the life of the unbeliever, even in this world, as “having no hope and without God” [Eph 2:12]). When God deems it right for them, in light of the punishment appropriate for their sin, physical death will be allowed to take its course and they will experience the “second death,” a physical death from which there will be no resurrection and hence never any possibility of restoration to fellowship with God.

In short, while I remain convinced that neither of the two main understandings of hell has an advantage in regard to its representation of Christ’s penal substitution for sinners, I, like you, see annihilationism as a more natural reading of “second death.”

Annihilationism doesn’t teach that the punishment for sin is annihilation, though. We don’t think annihilation is a punishment at all. Death is the punishment. Annihilation is what some people say happens after death.
Christ died.

Right, Wm. The very thing Scripture emphasizes as the punishment he bore in our place–death–is the very thing we say awaits the risen lost, and the very thing traditionalists say does not.

Thanks, Wm. and Chris. In case you didn’t catch it, in the last sentence of my rather long reply to Peter’s comment, I said: “I, like you, see annihilationism as a more natural reading of ‘second death’.” Is it possible, however, that you might be making too fine a contrast when you insist that death, not annihilation, is the punishment. Death is certainly one major means of biblical reference to the end of the wicked, but then again, so are destruction, perishing and ruination. As Edward Fudge’s book title so nicely puts it, the fire of God’s judgment is “the fire that consumes.” I also concurred with Peter that “annihilationism is a more natural way to speak of the effects of salvation than is traditionalism,” when the ramifications of eternal life and immortality are considered.

I’m trying not to obscure the important point you are making, but it still looks to me as though Christ’s death is neither more nor less equivalent to the punishment of the wicked in traditionalism than in annihilationism. In other words, it appears to me that even if annihilationism is true, the equivalence of Christ’s death to the final punishment of the wicked is not a useful argument in its support.

Nonetheless, I am increasingly aware that traditionalism has gone to extraordinary lengths to read metaphorically the multitude of references to death and destruction, when it makes a few biblical verses which speak in terms of endlessness the lens through which all the other verses are read, forcing them to mean something other than a plain language reading would indicate. This raises two critical questions, I think: 1) by what criterion are those three or four texts made the hermeneutical lens through which all the other texts must be read? 2) is the traditionalist reading of those texts (considered in isolation) the best way to understand them, in light of the Old Testament passages from which their language is so clearly drawn? If traditionalism fails to satisfy on either of these questions, then annihilationism is the biblical position.

Wow, that’s powerful. Your path of inquiry is truly interesting and unique… I don’t want to divert you.

The point I’m trying to make, though, is that conditionalism holds that _death_ is the penalty of sin. If conditionalism is correct, then Jesus’ death is precisely the penalty that the wicked will pay — whether they are tormented before dying, or annihilated after dying won’t be that punishment.

If conditionalism isn’t true then that’s not the case, of course; so this alleged resemblance isn’t _evidence_ for conditionalism, but rather is part of the _definition_ of the theological system of conditionalism (with regards to the substitutionary nature of the atonement).

The evidence that this is true, on the other hand, is in the obvious predictions it must make about the Scripture — which obviously is something to explore.

So is there merit in saying that the second death is inherently a different thing than the first? If you presuppose traditionalism, you MUST do this. But if you don’t presuppose that, you are permitted to suppose that the second death is a literal interpretation of the visionary lake of fire. We can now discuss whether “the second death” might not be a “term of art” for something that’s NOT death, but actually is a literal second time literally dying — not because you needed to pay two deaths, but because God temporarily reversed your first death for some reason so that the sinner is no longer dead.

I think I get your point, Wm, but does it not depend on an assumption that the second death, of the order of the first, is the total picture of the judgment of the wicked? As I tried to demonstrate in my blog post, and in my answer to Peter, I see a fuller picture than that, and what Jesus experienced on the cross is paradigmatic of that fuller picture.

What Jesus did on the cross on our behalf is what justifies God in justifying sinners who believe in Jesus. Clearly, an important part of what he did was physically dying and, in the annihilationism I am being drawn to by Scripture, permanently dying with no life beyond is the climax of God’s judgment of the wicked. But I’m concerned that if we reduce the fate of the unbeliever, and hence the experience of Jesus, to destruction of body and soul (Mt 10:28) as a highly important counterpart to the death of body that all humans normally experience, we miss a great deal of what Scripture describes as the wrath of God against sinners which Christ propitiated by his death on the cross.

I’m aware that many in the Rethinking Hell group are substance monists, and it is therefore much easier for them to equate the first and second deaths. I have read quite a bit of non-reductive materialist literature, but I am still a fairly well convinced substance dualist of the Aristotelian/Thomist variety.

What I think is even more important, however, is the alienation of sinners from God’s approval and blessing, which was as obvious in the aftermath of the original sin as it is in the New Testament description of the state of the unbeliever. Unrepentant sinners are not just destined to die a second time and not be raised a second time, they are now dead through sin, following the course of this world and the ruler of the power of the air (Eph 2:1), whose fate they will share. They are “by nature children of wrath” (2:3), without Christ, strangers to the covenants of promise, without hope and without God in the world (2:12). On the cross, Jesus not only died as we will die, but he suffered intensely from identification with sinners in their hopelessness and their existence as objects of God’s righteous wrath. The great horror of the second death, even if it is irrevocable loss of life, is not the death itself but the absolute hopelessness of that death and the indescribable loss of all the blessings God pours out upon those who are reconciled to him by Christ’s sacrifice.

I may still be missing your point, Wm, but what I’m trying to keep hold on is the fullness of the biblical description of the state of unrepentant sinners, in some measure now, but unmitigatedly after the final judgment. I’m concerned about what looks to me to be a reductionism in regard to an annihilationist account of hell which will be an unnecessary stumbling block to traditionalists and will make annihilationism a much more difficult sell, because it seems to leave out so much of what Scripture says about God’s wrath upon sinners, which Jesus bore on the cross in our stead.

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