When God Brought Hell to Earth

John MacArthur image
John MacArthur

Mark 15:33-39

I would invite you to go back in your Bible to the fifteenth chapter of Mark. There are so many elements in the Crucifixion story as told by the writers of the four gospels. But I want to draw your attention, in particular, back to verse 33. Mark 15:33, “When the sixth hour came, darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour. At the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ which is translated, ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’” That is a profound statement that is not usually understood.

Did God not show up at Calvary? We know that the death of Christ was the most effective act on behalf of condemned sinners—most effective act ever rendered because it was the atonement for our sins that satisfied God. We know that the Crucifixion was the main event in the plan of redemption. Every animal ever sacrificed from the institution of sacrificial offerings, way back in Old Testament history until the sacrifice of Christ, was only a picture of His death. All the Old Testament sacrifices that were offered as sin offerings fell short of being able to atone for sin. But they pointed to one true, acceptable, final sacrifice that would accomplish what all those symbolic sacrifices never could accomplish.

We know that there was coming a Lamb unlike any other lamb. John said He was the Lamb of God. He was God’s Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. The Son of Man came to give His life a ransom for many. And so we preach Christ and Him crucified, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2. And in looking at the cross we are left with what appear to be two profoundly contradictory realities. The Crucifixion is, no doubt, the most evil, the most treacherous, the most villainous act ever perpetrated on anyone by humanity—to say nothing of the violation of justice by executing a perfectly righteous man. The death of Jesus Christ, from a human viewpoint, is the most egregious injustice in history because Jesus was without sin. We don’t equivocate on that. It was the greatest act of blasphemy in all of human history.

But on the other hand, the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus was the most necessary act of justice required by divine holiness. Jesus was the victim of injustice. He was the victim of hate and blasphemy by humans. Though He died willingly, He was murdered illegally, after an illegal trial sentenced Him to an illegal execution. And some have asked, “Just exactly where was God? Did God forsake Him in that hour? Seems to be what He is saying there in verse 34; did this most heinous act of injustice happen because God was absent?” This passage that we’re looking at answers that question and answers it in a surprisingly profound way.

Let’s go back to verse 33: “The sixth hour came.” Jewish day began at 6:00 a.m., or thereabouts, so this would be noon, or thereabouts; they didn’t have clocks. This is midday, when the sun essentially is at its zenith. “The sixth hour, darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour.” Three hours of total darkness. Essentially at the apex of the sun, everything goes pitch black for three hours.

Jesus had already spoken three times. He said, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.” He said with regard to the apostle John, and Mary, “Behold, your mother. Behold, your son.” He said to the penitent thief, “Today you’ll be with Me in paradise.” But when it strikes midday, it goes dark for three hours. Does this symbolize the absence of God? And if God did forsake Him, in what way did He forsake Him?

Now the Jews were very much aware of the nature of God from what the Old Testament told them, and one thing they knew for certain was that God was light. God was light. They know Psalm 27:1 said, “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” Psalm 18, verse 28, “The Lord my God lightens my darkness.” Or Psalm 36:9, “In Your light do we see light.” Or in the words of Isaiah chapter 2, verse 5, “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”

Another passage that speaks of God as light, beginning of the sixtieth chapter of Isaiah, listen: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness will cover the earth and deep darkness the peoples; but the Lord will rise upon you and His glory will appear upon you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” God is light, and God was going to come and shine His glory someday in the future so that the whole world would be basking in that light. So maybe darkness is telling us that God wasn’t there. But the Jews would know better, they would know better.

There was no question that God was light. In the garden, He was light, the shekinah, His own glory. But it was also known to the Jews that God showed up on a number of occasions as darkness. If you’re reading in Exodus chapter 10, and you come to verses 21 and 22, you come to the ninth plague in Egypt. And the ninth plague in Egypt was three days of darkness, and this darkness was one of the plagues that God personally sent to punish the Egyptians. God showed up in Egypt as darkness—thick, impenetrable darkness.

A little later in the book of Exodus, the nineteenth chapter, you find the children of Israel. On the third day they are at the foot of Mount Sinai, and God shows up again; and when He shows up, He shows up, Scripture says, in thick smoke, a thick cloud. The next chapter, the twentieth chapter or Exodus, God gives the Ten Commandments. And after giving the Ten Commandments, everything around that mountain was thick darkness. It says it was thick darkness where God was.

Sometimes God shows up as light, sometimes He shows up as darkness. When He shows up as light, it’s revelation and salvation; when He shows up as darkness, it’s condemnation and judgment. Isaiah says in chapter 5, verse 30, that God’s judgment will come; and he says, “Behold, darkness and distress; and the light is darkened.” In the eighth chapter of Isaiah and verse 22, again we have a picture of divine wrath, as God comes to punish His disobedient people. And we read, “Behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and the people are thrust into thick darkness.”

The prophet Joel looked forward to the final judgment at the end of human history called the Day of the Lord; and he said that day, in chapter 1, verse 15, is the day of destruction, final destruction from the Almighty. And he says in chapter 2 about that day in verse 10, “The sun and the moon are darkened and the stars withdraw their shining.” In the next verse he says because the Day of the Lord has come. In that day, he says again in chapter 2, darkness marks the “great and awesome” Day of the Lord. God’s final, terminal judgment is pictured with His arriving in darkness.

The prophet Amos wrote in chapter 5, verse 20, “The day of the Lord, is it not a day of darkness and not light?” And later in his prophecy, chapter 8, “On that day I will make the sun dark at noon, and I will make the earth dark at the time of broad daylight.” Again, the prophet Zephaniah says in chapter 1, “The great day of the Lord, it’s a day of ruin, it’s a day of devastation, it’s a day of darkness, it’s a day of gloom; it is marked by thick darkness.”

Yes, it’s true, and the Jews would know it, that God showed up as light: “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” But the Lord also shows up in darkness; and the darkness always symbolizes God in judgment, God in anger. God showed up at the cross in the darkness, not in an eschatological sense, but in a soteriological sense. And by the way, hell is described by our Lord as “outer darkness,” which defines it as the judgment of God.

For three hours, God brought hell to earth. This was the cup that Jesus knew He had to drink, and from which He recoiled in the garden and said, “If there’s any way, let this cup pass from Me.” It was God coming in darkness and judgment. During those three hours the mockery was silenced. No taunting is recorded. In fact, no one speaks. There is no record of anyone speaking, not even Jesus Christ. In those three hours Jesus suffered the eternal hell for all who would believe.

So the darkness is not the absence of God, the darkness is the presence of God in judgment—full judgment, full vengeance, full fury, infinite wrath, moved by infinite justice, releasing infinite punishment on the infinite Son, who absorbs all the tortures of hell for all who believe in three hours. This is what Paul meant when he said, “He was made sin for us,” 2 Corinthians. Or in Galatians, “He was made a curse for us.” This is what Isaiah 53 is talking about when it pleased God to crush His Son.

For three hours, God spent His wrath on His Son. Sinners who die spend forever in hell. You ask the question, “How could Christ absorb eternal punishment for all the believers who believe through all of human history? How could He do that in three hours?” The only answer I know is He was an infinite person; He is an infinite person with an infinite capacity for anything placed upon Him.

After the darkness, verse 34, the ninth hour, the darkness ends, and “Jesus cries with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ which is translated, ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’” How are we to understand this? Because it’s clear that God was there, punishing Him in the darkness, so much darkness that virtually nothing else happened. Does this expression come after the wrath is done? God was there in full presence, pouring out fury. So when judgment ended and darkness dissipated, where was God? It seems as though it was only after the darkness that our Lord sensed separation from God. He was there in the darkness punishing His Son.

Coming out of the darkness, think of it this way. His Son would have been looking for some comfort, some compassion, some sweet fellowship. I can’t begin to comprehend what it would be like to bear the fury of God on His Son. I can’t understand how the Son would feel bearing all the punishment for all the sins of all the people who would ever believe through all of human history. But in the moment when the darkness faded, He senses that God is gone. He was there in judgment, and now He’s gone. In a moment when He was exhausted with an exhaustion that’s incomprehensible to us—we could never comprehend it.

Where is God? “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” And you have a prophecy of that very statement back in Psalm 22. What is going on here? This seems to be the final suffering and a reminder to all sinners that while hell is full of divine fury, there will never be comfort. This is the final taste of hell. Jesus tasted hell. And hell is the fury of God, but it is also the absence of God. He will never be there. He’ll never show up to comfort, to console, to love, to relieve. So all that hell is, Jesus experiences—the full fury of God, and His absence.

But what is signified by saying it twice, “My God, My God”? This is the only time in the entire New Testament that Jesus did not address God as “Father”—but this is the only time He was ever separated. But what is the significance of the double expression, “My God, My God”? I think we can answer that question if we look at places where that appears on a human level.

Genesis 22, the angel says, “Abraham, Abraham.” Exodus 3, God says, “Moses, Moses.” Second Samuel 18 and 19, David says, “Absalom, Absalom.” Luke 10, Jesus says, “Martha, Martha.” Luke 22, Jesus says, “Simon, Simon.” Acts 9, Jesus says, “Saul, Saul.” Luke 13, Jesus says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem.” Here, “My God, My God.”

What is this? This is pathos; this is affection. This is an expression of intimate affection, personal love. And that’s why Jesus said, “My God, My God.” A profound, divine, agonizing cry from the lips of the Son to the Father, so profound it should have brought about nothing but silence. But the stupid bystanders were far removed from the reality of what was going on, so they activate more of their sarcasm and more of their mockery, which had been going on before the darkness.

Verse 35: “Some of the bystanders heard it, and they began saying, ‘Behold, He’s calling for Elijah.’” How did they hear it? Because it says in verse 34 that He said it with a loud voice. Did they mistake Him for actually calling on Elijah? I doubt that. But this was how they mocked Him. They extended their sarcastic farce by saying He was calling for Elijah.

Now the Old Testament did teach that Elijah would come at the time of the Messiah, Malachi 4 tells us that. And Elijah had gone to heaven with out dying, we know that from 2 Kings. So tradition taught that Elijah would return in the time of crisis to protect and preserve the righteous. So, “Is Jesus calling on Elijah to come and protect Him?” So they ramp up their mockery one more time when the darkness disappears. Wouldn’t you have thought that three hours of black darkness at noonday might have shut down the blasphemy? But they began saying, “Oh, He’s calling for Elijah,” mocking Him.

Verse 36: “Someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed, and gave Him a drink, saying, ‘Let us see whether Elijah will come to take Him down.’” What’s this about? Well, this is a cheap vinegar-wine mixed with water the soldiers drink, with a mild stimulant. “Let’s give Him that, and maybe it’ll keep Him alive a little longer until Elijah shows up. Let’s see whether Elijah will come to take Him down, maybe, if He hangs on a little longer.” And then it was over.

Verse 37: “And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed His last.” He gave up His life. If you’re out of breath, you can’t make a loud cry. His life was not taken from Him, even in the excruciating realities of crucifixion, which was simply a form of asphyxiation. The loud cry, by the way, was, “It is finished! Tetelestai!” Remarkable, as He would be dying normally of asphyxiation, with no breath, no strength, and barely able to whisper. But He is strong, as He said, “No one takes My life from Me; I lay it down of Myself.”

And then one more statement recorded in Luke 23:46, and prophesied in Psalm 31, “Into Your hands I commit My spirit.” With those words, Jesus must have felt the reconnection, right? “Into Your hands I commit My spirit.” He felt again the presence of the Father.

God wasn’t finished, verse 38: “And the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” If you count them all, I think there were about twelve heavy curtains in the Temple. This was the one that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies. And when Jesus had borne the sins of all who would ever believe and satisfied the justice of God, it was time for judgment to end. It started at noon, it ended at three, and at three o’clock, or thereabouts in a world without clocks, the Temple curtain that separates the Holy of Holies, where no one can go but the high priest once a year, is ripped from top to bottom. And God, in one stroke, ended the Old Covenant forms of worship.

The way to God was officially open. By the death of Jesus Christ, the sins of all who belong to God were paid for. This is the end of that system. No more Holy Place, no more Holy of Holies, no more high priests, no more priests, no more sacrifices, no more Temple. The whole system is abolished in the act of God. God rips the huge heavy curtain, and Matthew says in chapter 27, from top to bottom. At precisely—think of it—the moment when the priests were to begin slaughtering tens of thousands of Passover lambs, the one true Passover Lamb had made the entire system obsolete.

Earlier in the week Jesus had said, “This temple’s going to be destroyed.” Here, God Himself renders His judgment. There is no human explanation for the ripping of that massive curtain from top to bottom; that was a work of God. The cross, atonement. The curtain, access. Atonement having been offered and received, access is opened. That’s what the writer of Hebrews is telling us.

First there was, chapter 9 in Hebrews, “a tabernacle prepared, the outer one in which were the lampstand and the table and the sacred bread; and this is the holy place. And behind the second veil there was a tabernacle which is called the Holy of Holies, having a golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, in which was a golden jar holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod which budded, and tables of the covenant; and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat; but of these things we cannot now speak in detail. Now when these things have been so prepared, the priests are continually entering the outer tabernacle performing a divine worship, but into the second,” the Holy of Holies, “only the high priest enters once a year, and not without taking blood, which he offers for himself and the sins of the people committed in ignorance. The Holy Spirit is signifying this, that the way into the holy place has not yet been disclosed while the outer tabernacle is still standing.” As long as there’s a barrier between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies, access is not available.

But verse 11 of Hebrews 9 says, “When Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, no of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.” He entered that Holy Place, and for the first time in history brought blood that satisfied God’s justice. And God ripped the curtain and opened up His presence to anyone who comes through faith in Christ.

But God wasn’t finished. He showed up at Calvary for sure. In Matthew’s gospel, verse 51 of chapter 27: Same exact point in Christ’s death; they’re mocking Him about Elijah. He speaks with a loud voice, yields up His spirit. Verse 51, “The veil of the temple is torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split. The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many.”

You think God was absent? I don’t think so. A powerful earthquake, enough to split rocks—terrifying experience, terrifying. You remember when God appeared at Sinai in Exodus 19, verse 18, “The whole mountain shook and trembled.” The psalmist in Psalm 18 refers to that; Psalm 68 he refers to that. When God shows up, the earth shakes.

Prophet Nahum writes, “The mountains quake before Him, the hills melt and the earth heaves at His presence; yes, the world and all who dwell in it.” The book of Revelation tells us that in the future when God begins to judge the world, the world is going to be wracked by a global earthquake more powerful than anything in human history.

The earthquake signified that God had poured out His wrath on His Son. But the earthquake was followed immediately by the miracle of the Resurrection. “Tombs were opened, bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised and came out of the tombs after His resurrection and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” What is this? This is a preview of what Jesus accomplished in dying. He accomplished satisfaction for our sins, by which we have the promise of resurrection.

This was a preview of His resurrection. Notice, they didn’t come out until after His resurrection, because He was the firstfruit. But to show the power of the cross, God does a preview of the final resurrection, and people actually are milling around in the city of Jerusalem who have come alive from the dead. They came out of the tombs, and they appeared to many people. Matthew doesn’t tell us what became of them, so we don’t really know. Did they have to die again? I don’t know. But they were a preview of the wonderful words of John 5: “All who are in the graves will hear His voice,” the voice of Christ, “and come forth.”

Did God abandon Jesus at the cross? Not hardly. Not hardly. He was there in the darkness. He was there in the ripping of the curtain. He was there in the earthquake. He was there in the Resurrection. And it was very apparent, at least to one man; verse 39 of Mark 15: “When the centurion, who was standing right in front of Him”—what does that tell you? Centurion is a commander of a hundred. This is a career soldier, familiar with death, hardened killer, guarding Jesus; overseeing the Crucifixion; overseeing the arrest, the incarceration, the scourging. He’s an eyewitness of everything. He’s an eyewitness of the abuse—spitting, punching, mocking, sneering. He’s an eyewitness of Jesus praying for the thief and praying for anybody else the prayer of forgiveness. He was an eyewitness, surely, of all the declarations of innocence that Pilate made. But there was something more here, because he says, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” And Luke adds this: “When the centurion saw what had happened, he began praising God, and saying, ‘Certainly this man was righteous.’”

So the first convert to Christ after His crucifixion was a centurion. But there had been a convert before him: a thief. Both blasphemers, forgiven. But how did everybody else react to this? Luke helps us with that.

In Luke 23:48, listen to this: After the centurion said, “Certainly this man was righteous,” Luke 23:48, “And all the crowds who came together for this spectacle, when they observed what had happened, began to return, beating their breasts.” What is that a sign of? That was a Jewish sign of—what? Repentance, sorrow. I think this may have prepared them for the Day of Pentecost, when Peter said, “‘Repent, and be baptized in the name of Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you’ll receive the Holy Spirit.’ . . . And that day there were added three thousand.” Was it the cross that produced the breast-pounding that made them ready to repent when Peter preached that great sermon?

God was there in judgment; God was there to rip the curtain; God was there to bring an earthquake; God was there to raise the dead; God was there to convert a centurion; and God was there to prepare hearts for the Day of Pentecost. God showed up. And when you think of all of this that’s going on, and you realize that you were chosen before the foundation of the world to be in Christ when He died—is that not the most glorious reality of all realities?

Father, we ask now that You’ll prepare our hearts for Your Table. These images, they’re so vivid in our minds; and our hearts are so filled with joy, unspeakable and full of glory. We are beyond overwhelmed that You have redeemed us, that You had us in mind, that You knew our names, that You had written them in Your book before the foundation of the world, and that when Christ died, we died in Him. His death was in our place.

We were there when You came in darkness and judgment. We were there when the way into Your holy presence was thrown open when You ripped the barrier. We were there when the earth shook under the power of Your judgment. We were there when the graves were opened. And one day our grave will open as well, because we not only died in Christ, but we will rise in Him. This gift of salvation has no parallel.

There’s only one gospel, one Savior, one sacrifice, one way of salvation. We bless Your name for drawing us to that truth and saving us.

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