What I want to address quickly is, the timing of the atonement. I wish to answer the questions, When did Jesus begin to bear the sins of His people? When was Christ abandoned? Namely, I wish to debunk the popular notion that the three hours of darkness, when Jesus says “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me,” (Matt. 27:46) was the period where God laid the sins of His people upon Him. They say that the darkness was God turning His face from Jesus, for “God cannot look upon sin” (Hab. 1:13 taken out of context).
Please note I am not at all denying the doctrine of Divine Abandonment! I believe Jesus was abandoned because Jesus says He was abandoned. But where I would differ is the starting point of it all. I believe that Jesus was bearing the sins of His people, and enduring the wrath of God in their place beginning not only the first 3 hours on the cross in addition to the latter 3, but even before the cross. I shall quickly go over four reasons why I believe this is the case. The first two are more implicit, but the latter two are conclusive.
1. The testimony of the Apostle Peter (1 Pet. 5:1)
In this verse, Peter says that he is a “witness of the sufferings of Christ.” I understand some may say he simply means, “I testify of Christ,” which any Christian could say too. But I think there is good reason to say he is speaking of his eye-witness, actual viewing of Christ suffering.
Now, what does this have to do with the timing of Christ’s sin-bearing? The key word here is suffering. I do not think Peter here is just saying “I saw Jesus feeling pain,” or “I saw him as he was dying.” For other places in the epistle, when Peter mentions the sufferings of Christ, he is speaking of the salvific work of Christ! (In chapter 1 and chapter 2 it is salvific work; and chapter 4 is simply enduring pain). Thus, whatever Peter saw was most likely a time when Christ was bearing the sins of His people and bearing the wrath of God.
In 1:11 mentions the sufferings of Christ as predicted by the prophets of old. In context, Peter is saying that the sufferings relate to “salvation,” “grace that would come,” “glories to follow,” and “the gospel”. In 2:21 and 23 he again mentions Jesus’ suffering. The key phrase in this occurence is “for you”. The suffering of Christ that Peter speaks of was for people. This must be speaking of His saving work. This is strengthened when we see that Peter is paraphrasing Isaiah 53.
Now that we see Peter was an eye-witness to the salvific work of Christ, we must now ask, “What did Peter witness?” When we read the gospel accounts, Peter went away weeping during the trial of Jesus! He did not even see the crucifixion! Thus Christ’s atoning work was taking place even before He was ever harmed! (Although some bring up Luke 23:49 and group Peter in with “all his acquantances”.)
2. A summary of the Messianic prophecies
This one here may be laughible to most of my readers, but I believe it carries more weight than may seem at first glance. Jesus says that Moses and the prophets spoke of Him. We know the Old Testament speaks of a coming Prophet and Messiah. We know that the sacrifices and rituals foreshadow Christ, and so forth.
Now, obviously they didn’t just say, “Some dude in the future is going to die!” They taught that this death has huge significance. He was going to take away their sins, bring in the New Covenant, redeem the people, etc. With all that in mind, we must ask, “What suffering was going to bring about this end?”
Do you see why I ask that? The Old Testament says that a man is going to suffer and thereby achieve salvation, and we are trying to find out what He must suffer. Now, if the Old Testament only spoke of the Messiah being crucified, then we can say that Christ bore our sins when crucified. However, Jesus’ own words show us that the prophets pointed forward to so much more! For example, Jesus and Peter both say that Judas’ betray was predicted (Matt. 26:56; Acts 2:16ff). Or when Jesus says that the prophets wrote how Jesus would be spit on, scourged, etc (Luke 18:31-33). Thus we can see that the coming Messiah of whom the prophets spoke was going to accomplish His work through much more than just His crucifixion. (As a further point, if the prophets did only say that Jesus was going to be crucified, why do we only limit it to the second half?)
3. The description from Isaiah 53
This chapter clearly is teaching on Christ’s substitutionary atoning work, being punished for the sins of His people. The iniquity of His people was “on Him,” (v. 6), He was a “guilt offering,” (v. 10), and He “bore the sin of many,” (v. 12). Does Isaiah help us out with the timing of this sin-bearing? Absolutely! Verse 5 says that we are healed “by His scourging,” or “by His stripes”. Thus again we can place the sin-bearing before the cross.
4. The order of events in the death penalty (Gal. 3:13)
In this verse we see that Jesus was cursed in our place. Paul says “cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” Now, how are we to understand the timing of this curse? There are two options: we could either say that a man is cursed because he is hanging on a tree, as if the tree itself has some mystical power, or that the man was cursed and therefore put in the tree.
Which option best describes Christ here? When we consider that the “curse” we find our answer. First, it is that discipline and wrath of God described in Deuteronomy chapters 27 and 28. Second, a look at the broader context of Paul’s citation of Deut. 21:23 shows that a man commits a sin worth of death before he is hanged in a tree (Deut. 21:22). The hanging on a tree is the evidence that he is cursed, not the cause. And so it was with Christ: the sins of His people were placed on Him, and God saw Him as if He had committed those sins, and therefore He was hanged on the cross!