Spiritual Death of Jesus? God Forbid!

The misguided teaching that Christ died spiritually cuts into the heart of the Gospel. It de-Gods Christ. It makes Him – and us – Saviorless when we need Him most, the acceptable, perfect sacrifice lifted up between Earth and Heaven; despised by one world and judicially cursed by the other. It is only by Christ not dying spiritually that God is able to be “both just and justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus”. (Rom. 3:26).

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The inspired King David declares in Psalm 145 that God’s “greatness is unsearchable” – and then goes on to search it out (something he just said couldn’t be done) , and then he encourages the saints to do likewise! We are exhorted to “declare His mighty acts”. (Psa. 145:4)

What greater and mightier act can there be then that which Messiah accomplished for His own: the Atonement at the Cross? This is the supreme mighty act of God that is at the center of our Good News. And yet, at the same time, how easy it is for us – and how dangerous – to misteach this Good News. There is a lot to Christ’s suffering that is totally unfathomable to us. We dare not “go beyond what is written”. And yet we need still to believe and defend what is written. (Jude 3) When somebody speaks unscripturally concerning the only means of our salvation, or about the God-Man of our salvation, then believers need to speak up.

I first heard of this bizarre belief years ago in our former church in Del Rio, Texas.  During a Lord’s Supper one of the elders prayed. He thanked God for Christ’s physically dying for us, but especially for His spiritual death for our sins. He said that the bread symbolizes His physical death and His blood His spiritual death. And that it is only His spiritual death that saves us. My wife and I just looked at each other in shock after this prayer, but we didn’t say anything to anyone at the time. When I finally brought this up to someone, they told me that I was “splitting hairs” and that Christ did die a spiritual death since He said, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”!

Perhaps some readers might be confused here. “Certainly you do believe that the Bible teaches spiritual death?” Yes, but not for our Savior – otherwise He could never be our Savior. If He, too, had been polluted by sin, even if it was “only” at the cross, then both Christ and all of mankind would have immeasurably lost something: We would have lost our only hope for salvation – a spotless sacrifice – and Christ would have ceased to be God (since God is inherently holy). The central problems to this teaching that Christ died spiritually (JDS) are twofold:

1. A wrong view of the Atonement and of the Atoner (Christ, the perfect sacrifice),
2. A wrong view of Justification.

After these problems have been examined, we will look at what Scripture actually does teach about the death of Christ. “To the Law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them”, Isaiah 8:20. Let us be Bereans, who “searched the word diligently to see if these things were so.” Acts 17:11. 1

There are certain other clear heresies about the Atonement that I am not writing about in this article: That Christ had a demonic sin nature, that He had to be born again in Hell, or that He died spiritually in Hell (or in Gethsemane), etc. 2

I do agree that more went on at Calvary than a mere physical crucifixion. I am sure that much of what went on here comes under that Deut. 29:29 heading, things we should not, nor are even able to, pry into. But the more I think about this, the more I am utterly convinced that the assumed spiritual death of Christ is not one of those things. Scripture just doesn’t teach it.

1. A WRONG VIEW OF THE ATONEMENT AND OF THE ATONER
“Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46)
This was after Christ’s crying out “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?’ (when Jesus’s spiritual death supposedly happened). Therefore we would have Christ first dying spiritually and then, after calling God “Father”, yielding up – again (?) – His spirit.

Can God (an Essentially Spiritual Being – John 4:24) die spiritually? If so, can He then “come back” to being God? If Christ died spiritually, then He would cease to be God.

He came, He lived, He died – voluntarily. He lays His life down. He takes it up.
Another verse that precludes Christ’s spiritual death is John 10:18:

“No man takes it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father.”

Christ lays His life down by His own power.
Christ takes His life again by His own power.
Spiritual death would make this impossible.

He never ceased to be God:

Eternal: He could never die.
Sinless: He could never be defiled by our sin.
“How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Heb. 9:14)

If, as some mistakenly insist, Christ actually became sin He could not be the spotless sacrifice that we need to atone for our lives. What good what it have been for us sinners if Christ lived a perfectly obedient life up to the time of the crucifixion… only to have been sinful at the very time we needed a spotless Sacrificial Lamb of God?

Immutable: He could never change His divine nature.
I believe that spiritual death (assumed of Christ) would entail more than separation than God. It would be Christ’s ceasing to be God. Of course, God can not cease to be God. Neither could He (impossibility squared!) “return” to being God, since one of the many attributes of His is His infinitude; also that He has life in Himself.

2. A WRONG VIEW OF JUSTIFICATION
How far does the Fall need to be recapitulated in the substitutionary life and death of Christ? Separation from God? Agreed? (With the stipulation that Christ’s separation is not the same as Adam’s, since Christ constitutionally remained God – even while He was “separated from God”.

IMPUTATION, NOT IMPARTATION
“For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” — 2 Cor. 5:21

The verse in question teaches imputation, not impartation – and certainly not assimilation. Moreover, it is a twofold imputation (numbered below).

The doctrine of Imputation is that Christ’s becoming “sin for us” (1) means His being legally identified (in the Father’s view) with our sins. Our sin was imputed to Him, not actually given to Him (as if that were even possible! Heb. 4:15 “yet without sin”). The imputing of our sin to Him, our Substitute, made possible the imputation of His righteousness to us (2), NOT the actual transfer of His personal, practical righteousness.

1ST CORINTHIANS 5:21 : IMPUTED SIN, NOT IMPARTED, NOR ASSIMILATED
To say that Christ became actual sin for us misunderstands the doctrine of Imputation. Christ becoming “sin for us” was imputed sin. Our sin was imputed to Him, not actually given to Him (as if that were even possible! Heb. 4:15 “yet without sin”). The imputing of our sin to Him, our Substitute, made possible the imputation of His righteousness to us, NOT the actual transfer of His personal, practical righteousness.

The Bible makes clear that Christ is our Substitute. Yet there has to be distinction: He is our perfect Substitute, but He is not our Total Substitute. By that I mean that He had to “taste death for every man” (Heb. 2:9) and He was “made sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21 – more on this verse later); but He did not have to partake of every sin. He is the Savior of people from many sinful backgrounds: Murderers, fornicators, liars, homosexuals; but I believe that we all agree (I Hope) that Christ was not tempted in all of these areas. All of these sins are themselves the result of other previous sins indulged in. The essential point of connection for Him (for US, actually) is that He be “flesh and blood”, “in the form of a servant”.

If, as some mistakenly insist, Christ actually became sin He could not be the spotless sacrifice that we need to atone for our lives. What good what it have been for us sinners if Christ lived a perfectly obedient life up to the time of the crucifixion… only to have been sinful at the very time we needed a spotless Sacrificial Lamb of God?

What about Galatians 3:13?
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us–for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”

This is like the 2 Cor. 5:21 verse that says He became “sin” for us. Either way, we have imputation here. Certainly, as I wrote earlier, the Corinthian verse has to be referring to either two instances of imputation or two of impartation. If the second is true, then we have imparted 3 to us the actual righteousness of Christ.

“ Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot…” 1 Peter 1:18-19

IDENTIFICATION AND SUBSTITUTION
He identified with us by His birth and by His life. Truly He “fulfilled all righteousness”. His perfect life qualified Him to be our perfect sacrifice. He “prevailed to take the scroll” (in the language of Revelation). And only because of this, He was our substitute.

We are to remember His physical death, using physical symbols. It is interesting that, aside from John 19:34, no Gospel writers make mention of the blood of Christ at the cross. By contrast, the epistle writers, expounding on the historical event, almost always refer pointedly to the blood. 4 The significance here, I believe, is that the blood is God’s ordained symbol for how we should remember Christ’s death (though Christ did not die a particularly bloody death in comparison to some). God had been “setting up” this identification throughout the Old Testament, by all the sacrifices (sprinkling of the blood on the posts, etc.) and even by various verses (“The life is in the blood” Lev. 17:11, 14; Deut. 12:23). 5

Clearly a first century well versed Jew would see the similarities between His death and sacrifices. Why should we imagine a concept that is foreign to Scripture and foreign to the teaching of orthodox Christianity (unless you say Cerinthus is orthodox)?

SCRIPTURE AND THE DEATH OF CHRIST
The Bible is silent on a “spiritual death” of Christ, yet emphasizes His physical death.
If we are to judge by what is actually written, either in prophecy (Gen, 3:15; Isa. 53; Psa. 22, etc.), history (the Gospels), or exposition (1 Cor. 15:3- 4; Gal. 3:1; 1 Pet. 3:18), we have no indication, that I can see at least, of any spiritual death. Can you? The last verse, on the contrary, seems to emphasize the physical death of Christ. The verdict should be clear to any unbiased student of the Bible: Jesus did not die spiritually. We have no verse or passage that even hints at spiritual death of Christ.

Passages like Heb. 10:10; Col. 2:14-15; 1 Pet. 2:24 ; 1 Pet 3:18; 1 Pet 4:1; Col. 1:21-22, etc. all point to a physical death. Also, His ransoming of us required for Him to be separate from sin, though identified with it, and with us.

WHAT HAPPENED AT THE CROSS?
A closer look at 1st Peter 3:18

“For Christ also has once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:”

Notice these details from the verse:
1. Against those who say He suffered twice (since he “died” twice), the verse teaches Christ “suffered once for sins”.

2. His suffering for sin was substitutionary (“the just for the unjust”). As an aside: This proves against the Word of Faith teachers (not the focus of this article) that there was no saving suffering of Christ in Hell.

3. His death (singular) is pointedly said to be “in the flesh”, not “in the spirit”. If Christ did indeed die spiritually, this verse would seem to have said something at this point. It doesn’t. The argument of theirs is an argument from silence.

It is not surprising that we have often recourse to Peter’s letter, and to Colossians, in combating this issue. Those letters were written to correct gnostic heresies, and the error facing us here is also a gnostic one. The teaching that Christ died spiritually (or that He died twice) is essentially Gnostic because it isn’t part of explicit doctrine, it is (say some) implied. By contrast, all the verses that teach of the Lord Christ’s death for us, use outward and visible concepts: Blood, stripes, cross, tree, etc.

CHRIST’S SAVING DEATH A PHYSICAL DEATH
” O foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ has been evidently set forth, crucified among you?
This only would I learn of you, did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?”

Apparently, only the image of Christ’s physical death (as preached by Paul) was all the Galatians needed to anchor their faith on. It was from this “hearing of faith” that they received the Spirit. I really believe the basis for our faith is as simple as this. We are the ones that complicate it by obscuring details and convoluted speculations. God purposely set forth a simple means, a humbling means, of forgiveness and entrance into life eternal, the simple and shameful cross of Christ.

There are many other verses that could be studied to show the importance of Christ’s physical death, and the saving benefits to the saints that came to us through that death. Another example is Eph. 2:15

“Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of two one new man, so making peace;”

Notice: Jews and Gentiles were alienated from each other (this is one of two estrangements spoken of in this passage, the other being man’s alienation from God). Where were Jew and Gentile brought together? In the spirit of Christ? No, “in His flesh”.

As stated earlier, He is our perfect, but not our total, substitute: He fulfilled all righteousness (Matt. 3:15), but did not partake of all sin. “He tasted death for every man” (Heb. 2:9), but did not sin unto death. Yet that is what merits the penalty of spiritual death! (James 1: 15)

Do teachers of this doctrine not make this connection? Because He was “separate from sinners” (Heb. 7:26) and because Satan had nothing in Him (John 14:30) His is the only sacrifice (as Offering and Priest) that actually and thoroughly saves. The unwanted speculation of some that Christ died spiritually cuts into the heart of all this. It de-Gods Christ. It makes Him – and us – Saviorless when we need Him most, the acceptable, perfect sacrifice lifted up between Earth and Heaven; despised by one world and judicially cursed by the other. It is only by Christ not dying spiritually that God is able to be “both just and justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus”. (Rom. 3:26).

Is this a minor issue? A topic that we can mildly overlook, or one of those peripheral areas that are just not worth upsetting the unity of a church over? Not at all. This has to do with the death of our Savior, the means of that death, and of the way of salvation. If we are wrong in our understanding of Christ, we are in danger of seriously polluting the Good News we were told to defend (Jude 3),
Footnotes:

1. And remember that this was the inspired apostle Paul who was being critically examined (and yet they were notably commended). How much more should we doubt and search out the teachings of those with noticeably less credible credentials?

2. These are all teachings of the Kenyonite teachers like Kenneth Copeland, Kenneth Hagin, Paul Crouch, Frederick Price, etc. Excellent refutations of this type of error are quite numerous already. However, the error brought up in this article arises from those teachers (Walvoord, R. B. Thieme, et al) who, though they place Christ’s death only at the Cross, yet insist on a spiritual, as a well as a physical death. In the case of Thieme, at least, insistence is made that “Christ died twice”, purporting even to find Scriptural proof for this.

3. “Impartation” was, of course, the position insisted on by the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent in their opposition to the Reformation. Much of the current imputation/impartation debate is a revisiting of the same controversy from earlier times. Though the impartation error assumes varying shapes with each unfolding incarnation, the main pattern is the same. Truly, “there is nothing new under the sun”.

4. 23-25 times in significantly less pages than the Gospels.

5. B.B. Warfield has a very helpful exposition on this subject, though not combating quite the same error. See his “Works”, vol. IX, pp. 301- 309, “Imputation”, and in pp. 401- 435 of vol. II the chapter, “Christ our Sacrifice”. Also helpful, though less to the point of this present article, are his “Modern Theories of the Atonement”, p. 283 of the same volume as “Imputation”.

OPPONENTS OF JDS DOCTRINE:
http://www.chfweb.com/library/nothingbuttheblood.html

http://www.cephasministry.com/word_of_faith_doctrines_of_devils.html

http://www.bfp-inc.org/pdf_files/spiritual_atonement.pdf
Dismantling the Spiritual Atonement Theory (NOTE: PDF file)

http://misslink.org/chapel/askaminister/god/blood.html

http://www.believersweb.org/view.cfm?ID=653
The author writes: “This doctrine [Cerinthus’s Gnostic “Christ Spirit”) is repeated within the WOF teachings as the leaders of the movement claims that Christ died spiritually and thus gave up His divinity and was born again in His resurrection.

http://www.agetwoage.org/GodForget.htm
Quoted: “In this day of increasing apostasy in the professing church, we find a new theology of the Redemption taking hold of unsuspecting and gullible church goers.

This site rightly points out, that those who teach Christ died spiritually “forget the verse in their Bible in John 10:17-18 where Jesus Himself proclaims,

“Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again.”
PROPONENTS OF JDS DOCTRINE:
Some, but not all, of the groups below are Word of Faith adherents. “Word of Faith” (WOF for short. The “L” may, or may not, be silent.) However every single page that I found that believed the doctrine also had other serious doctrinal errors. Yes, I realize that guilt by association goes only so far. But it is a strong indication.

Sadly, this doctrine also has adherents in the Preterist movement, which I am a part of. Don Preston, Holger W. Neubauer, and others are promoters of this false doctrine.

http://www.victoryword.100megspop2.com/tenrsn/jds/tenrsn3_2.html
Victory Love Fellowship is a Word of Faith organization.

http://www.bibletruths.org/study/DidJesusChristSufferInHell.htm
This is an odd group. They say that it is “sinful” to observe the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. They put “Calvanism” (sic) on their “cults” web site.

http://www.kcc.net/greg/3days.htm
He argues that, because “Jesus was man’s total Substitute” He had to be spiritually dead, as well as physically. But this overlooks:

1. By this logic Christ must also actually BE a sinner. Scripture, logic and the nature of the case make this impossible.

2. This undervalues (ignores, rather) the doctrine of Imputation. Christ becoming “sin for us” was imputed sin. Our sin was imputed to Him, not actually given to Him (as if that were even possible! Heb. 4:15 “yet without sin”). The imputing of our sin to Him, our Substitute, made possible the imputation of His righteousness to us, NOT the actual transfer of His personal, practical righteousness.

http://www.versebyverse.org/doctrine/deaths.html
Maranatha Church. According to these guys Christ “died twice” on the Cross because Adam died twice, spiritually and physically. Likewise, they say, Christ did so. And they also pinpoint the time of His spiritual death as three hours, starting from His “My God…” cry to His “It is finished”. This group goes from bizarre to worse when they say “Christ did not bleed to death on the Cross, nor does His physical bleeding save.” (!)

“The blood of Christ is the basis for the Rebound technique (Lev. 4,5; cp. 1Jn. 1:7,9).” If you don’t believe this “technique” or “principle” you will “lack the confidence to Rebound effectively.”

I am not sure, but this last group has all the marks of R.B. Thieme’s cultic sect. In both groups “head knowledge” of facts takes the place of heart knowledge of a Person — the Lord Jesus Christ.

http://www.gracenotes.info/malachi/mal0910.html
“Grace notes” (!) This site is squarely within the R.B. Thieme fold. Bad news for them. “However, our Lord’s death was spiritual, not physical. Thus, the blood of the animal did not save anyone, nor did it expiate any sins. ”

Tom Riggle

Original article October 15, 2004. Updated May 17, 2020.

About asterisktom

I breathe, therefore I blog.
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