Paying the penalty in your place

“And so, Jesus died on the cross in your place, taking the penalty for your sins so you don’t have to,” the street preacher cried out. ”Just accept the free gift of salvation and you won’t have to pay the penalty yourself!”

“What’s the penalty for my sins?” I interrupted before he could continue.

“Why, it’s eternal suffering in the lake fire,” he replied. ”If you don’t accept that Jesus paid the price for your sins, you’ll suffer consciously in that lake of fire, and never be able to escape.”

“So you’re saying that Jesus is in a lake of fire right now, paying that penalty?” I had to ask.

“What? No, of course not,” He frowned at me for asking what he thought to be an obtuse question. ”Jesus was raised from the dead on the third day, so He isn’t suffering any more.”

“If the penalty for my sins is never-ending torment in a lake of fire, then it doesn’t sound like Jesus paid the penalty at all,” I pointed out.

“Death couldn’t contain Him, so He didn’t remain there.”

“Well, that means He didn’t suffer the actual penalty, then, if the penalty means never being able to escape. But at least He spent three days in this lake of fire, so I guess He paid a fraction of the penalty, at least,” I thought out loud.

“Well, no, He didn’t actually end up in the lake of fire, since the lake of fire doesn’t exist yet,” the preacher admitted. ”The lake of fire will be here on earth, and will be a place those who have died and been physically resurrected at the Great White Throne Judgement, but who don’t have their names written in the book of life, will be cast.”

“So let me get this straight. Not only is Jesus not spending eternity in a lake of fire — which is what you said the penalty one has to pay for our sins is — He didn’t actually spend any time in it at all. So in what way did He pay the penalty for our sins?”

“Well… my pastor said He paid the penalty for our sins, so He must have, right?”

“Can you show me a verse from the Bible that even says He paid the penalty for our sins?” I asked?

“I can’t think of any,” he admitted.

“Then why are you preaching that He did?”

“I… don’t know…” he said, displaying a momentary bit of honesty, which is rare among preachers, but it was only for a moment. ”Oh, it means you won’t have to go to hell.”

“And what is hell?” I asked. ”It’s not the same thing as this lake of fire?”

“Well, no.” He said, brightening up, having thought he’d thought of a solution to his problem. ”Hell is where spirits wait to be resurrected before they’re judged at the Great White Throne.”

“So paying the penalty actually means going to hell, rather than spending eternity in the lake of fire?” I asked. “And Jesus did that Himself so we don’t have to?”

“Well, if you go to hell, you’ll still end up in the lake of fire,” he said, “But yes, Jesus spent three days in hell so you don’t have to.”

“So the penalty is actually three days spent in hell? I feel like that’s doable.”

“No, the penalty is eternity in hell,” he pointed out.

“But I thought you said everyone in hell will eventually be resurrected for the Great White Throne Judgement. How can someone spend eternity in hell and also be resurrected, hence not spending eternity in hell?”

“Well, people who go to hell will also spend eternity in the lake of fire,” he said.

“But why, if that’s not the penalty?” I asked. ”It sounds like we have to pay a second penalty — eternity in the lake of fire — on top of the actual penalty — time spent in hell — if what you’re saying is true, which means that Jesus didn’t pay the second penalty since He never went to the lake of fire. But if that’s the case, shouldn’t everyone, even those who ’accept the gift,’ have to spend eternity in the lake of fire, because Jesus didn’t actually pay that second penalty?”

”But He died in your place, at least, so you don’t have to die,” he said, quickly coming up with what he thought was another good solution.

“Oh, so if I ‘accept the gift’ I’ll never die? Because I know a lot of Christians who have died over the years.”

“Well, you’ll still die, but you won’t pay the penal…, um… you won’t experience spiritual death.” He said, quickly correcting himself.

“What is spiritual death?” I had to ask.

“The wages of sin is death,” he said, completely ignoring the context of that passage, ”so anyone who sins dies spiritually.”

“And, again, what is spiritual death?” I pushed. ”Does it mean your spirit dies? Did Jesus’ spirit die so our spirit won’t?”

“I… think so…” he began, but hesitated, realizing he wasn’t quite sure what the phrase he’d heard spoken countless times meant after all.

“But the book of James says that a body without a spirit is dead,” I continued, “So if our spirit could die, wouldn’t that mean our body would also die?”

“Um… I think it means to be separated from God.” He decided as he spoke the words.

“So was Jesus separated from God when He died?”

“Well, no, that’s impossible, because Jesus is God,” he insisted.

“So if spiritual death is separation from God, and you’re saying that Jesus wasn’t separated from God, how could He have paid the penalty if the penalty is spiritual death?”

“Well, His death keeps us from being separated from God.”

“Oh? I seem to recall Paul saying that ‘in Him we live, and move, and have our being,’” I had to point out. “It seems to me that being literally separated from God would mean we’d immediately cease to exist, if that were even possible at all. Although, if it were possible, it would mean one who is separated from God would have to be sent to exist in a universe other than our own, one which contains both God and those who have been separated from Him, which means there would have to be a universe that transcends God, meaning a place ’bigger’ than God, so to speak, but most Christians believe that God transcends the universe, so that doesn’t sound right to me. But either way, do you have a Bible verse to back this whole idea up?”

“Well, no. But maybe it’s a metaphorical separation. Meaning we aren’t in union with God.”

“So was Jesus ‘metaphorically’ separated from God? Was that all that happened on the cross? He didn’t actually die? He was just metaphorically dead? And was no longer in union with Himself, which He would have to no longer be, if He is God.”

“No, He actually died, and didn’t stop being God, but it means we won’t get to be with God in heaven, since we’ll be separated from His presence,” he decided.

“And that’s how Jesus paid the penalty in our place? He was separated from God’s presence for eternity?”

“No, Jesus is God, remember? So He couldn’t actually be separated from His own presence.”

“Um, okay, then. I’m not entirely sure how that means Jesus paid the penalty in my place. But let’s make sure I’ve got this straight. If I sin, I will die spiritually, as you said, right? Regardless of the fact that this doesn’t seem to be a scriptural concept? The problem is, everyone has sinned, so everyone has already died ‘spiritually,’ whatever that means. Right?”

“Right…” he said, hesitantly.

“Okay. But if dying spiritually is the penalty for sin, if I ’accept the gift,’ I won’t die spiritually, even though I apparently already have died spiritually because I’ve sinned at least once in my life?”

“Well, um… you won’t have to die the way He died,” the preacher said, trying to find some way to make his theology work, although at this point even he wasn’t sure what his theology was anymore.

“So the thief on the cross, who Jesus said would join Him in paradise, didn’t actually die on the cross, because Jesus died in his place?” I queried. ”I guess he immediately popped off the cross after believing in Jesus? And if somebody ’accepts the gift’ it then becomes impossible for them to suffer on a cross either? But if we don’t ’accept the gift,’ we’ll all die on crosses instead?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he snapped, getting impatient with me, although only because he knew he didn’t have a good answer to any of my questions.

“Then what is it? We’ve now determined that we can still die, even on a cross, although Jesus apparently died in our place. And we can still pay the penalty for our sins, which is apparently eternity in the lake of fire and not death on a cross, even though Jesus didn’t spend even a second in the lake of fire since it doesn’t even exist yet, so He didn’t actually die in our place or take the penalty for our sins upon Himself either, at least not based on anything we’ve already discussed. So why, exactly, did have to Jesus die on the cross?”

“Maybe He died so that we wouldn’t remain dead forever,” he suggested hesitantly, having reached the point where even he was no longer convinced of the accuracy of his own guesses anymore, “So that we could be resurrected.”

“The Bible tells us about people who were resurrected long before Jesus’ death and resurrection, and even before His birth, for that matter,” I pointed out. ”So it seems that God can resurrect people without Jesus needing to first die. Unless you can find a passage of Scripture that says He died so that we can be resurrected, and that His death had an effect that somehow rippled back in time as well, I don’t think we can assume that’s the reason. Not to mention, if salvation simply means resurrection, then why do some people who have been resurrected end up in the lake of fire while others who get resurrected get to avoid it? If the salvation that Christ’s death brought is simply resurrection, what is it that keeps those who avoid the lake of fire out of it?”

“Maybe it’s because they ’accepted the gift,’” he suggested, ”And perhaps those who didn’t ’accept the gift’ end up in the lake of fire, while ‘accepting the gift’ means avoiding it?”

“But if the point of Christ’s death was simply to allow us to be resurrected, it would seem the penalty would have to be missing out on resurrection rather than ending up in the lake of fire, or else we end up right back where we began, and Jesus should currently be suffering in the lake of fire He never actually spent any time in at all. And it still doesn’t explain how He died in our place, if that’s the case, since He Himself was resurrected too, so He definitely didn’t suffer the penalty of not getting to be resurrected, if that’s what the penalty of our sin even is.”

“Could it simply be that He died so that those who ’accept the gift’ don’t have to suffer the second death in the lake of fire?”

“Perhaps,” I acknowledged. ”But if so, we can’t say that He died in our place, or that He endured the penalty of our sins so we don’t have to, since nearly everybody is going to die a first time at some point, just like Jesus did, yet Jesus didn’t die a second time, much less spend any time in a lake of fire. So if you want to stick with the penal substitutionary atonement model that you were suggesting during your sermon earlier, that can’t be it.”

”Well, why do you think He died on the cross?” He asked, officially out of ideas.

“I believe what Scripture says about the topic,” I replied. ”He died for our sins.”

“Isn’t that what I’ve been saying?” he asked.

“No, you’ve been saying He died in our place, to pay the penalty for our sins so we don’t have to. I’m saying He died to take away sin altogether. Because Christ died for our sins, was entombed, and was roused the third day, it means that sin is no longer an issue anyone needs to concern themselves with, and that everyone is guaranteed eventual salvation. I should add, He also died, and was resurrected, so that all humanity would eventually be made immortal. You see, just as because of what Adam did, all humans are mortal, equally so, because of what Christ did, all humans will be made immortal, and hence sinless — which is what salvation is all about — although each in their own order, as Paul put it.”

“But that sounds like Universalism!” he protested.

“It sounds like that because it is.”

“But we know Universalism isn’t true because the penalty for our sins is never-ending torture in the lake of fire!”

“And Jesus paid that penalty by suffering in the lake of fire, right?”

“…”

“Right. So we’ve already determined that isn’t what it is,” I reminded him. “So perhaps we should stick with what the Bible actually says instead.”

“But the Bible says that non-Christians will suffer forever in the lake of fire,” he countered.

“It might seem that way if one takes certain passages of Scripture completely out of context,” I explained, ”But when read in their proper context, they actually teach something else entirely.”

“Like what?”

“That would take a much bigger study than I have the time to get into here, but I’ve written a number of articles on the topic if you’re truly curious,” I said. “Just go to www.ConcordantGospel.com/GoodNews and you’ll find out what the various threatening sounding passages are really talking about.”

“Well, I don’t think I’ll do that. We know Universalism isn’t correct, because we know that the penalty for sins is eternity suffering in the lake of fire. I just pray that you’ll accept the free gift of salvation, and accept that Jesus died in your place, suffering the penalty for you so don’t have to yourself, which you will have to if you don’t repent of your heretical doctrine,” the preacher said, forgetting literally everything we’d just discussed, as is pretty much always the case.


If you’d like to read more discussions between myself and other street preachers, please check these out: