One of the most glaring problems for those who deny that Christ’s death was in any way a penal substitution for the sins of men is the throbbing death knell sounding throughout the pages of Scripture. Critics of PSA (penal substitutionary atonement) often claim that Christ’s death need not be considered the punishment due for our sins laid on Him since it is not necessary that God punish sin with death. God, it is claimed, may simply choose not to punish sinners. And of course there are examples of death sentences (apparently) averted.
God told Adam and Eve that the day in which they ate of the forbidden fruit they would surely die, and then they clearly did not die on that day. God threatens to destroy Israel at the foot of Sinai for their mass apostasy with the golden calf, and then due to Moses’ intercession, the Lord relents. Or God promises 40 days and the city of Nineveh will be destroyed for their wickedness, and yet after the city repents in sackcloth and ashes, God does not destroy the city for their sins. And this sets up the second half of the Jonah story. God can apparently decide not to punish people for their sins. Ergo, Jesus does not need to die for our sins — or so the argument goes.
But while there’s a surface level plausibility to this thesis, it’s sort of like studying a number of terminal cancer patients and finding out that half of them lived twice as long as expected. They were given two to four years to live, and then somewhat miraculously, they lived five to eight years. However, the conclusion that you should draw from this study is not that terminal cancer isn’t quite as terminal as we thought. At the end of the study, all of the patients are still dead. And the same thing goes for sinners. At the end of the day, all sinners die. So we still have a problem here. Adam and Eve didn’t die the moment they were convicted of their sin, but they still died, even if hundreds of years later. The Israelites still died, and rather notoriously, died in the wilderness without reaching the Promised Land. Even Nineveh eventually was destroyed: the prophet Nahum answers Jonah’s cry for justice. Now add to this mounting evidence all of the times when justice was carried out more swiftly: the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, plagues the killed Egyptians, plagues that killed Israelites, military conquests and defeats, capital punishments, and every tomb stone in every cemetery, every grave. The question is not whether sinners will die, the only question is when. Everybody’s on death row. Some people just get to wait a little longer before they walk the green mile.
What critics of PSA would need to make their case would be examples of people living forever without dying. That would prove that God could change His mind, that God could decide not to allow someone to suffer the consequences of sin. But nobody in the Bible and nobody in the history of the world ever escaped the punishment of death for sin. Ergo, God has never actually decided not to punish sin with death. Never. Enoch and Elijah perhaps come the closest to what appear to be exceptions, but even the fact that they are supernaturally taken out of this world is a kind of death. Rather than living forever in this world, they are translated immediately to heaven which still illustrates the curse of sin and death in this world. They had to leave, they had to be taken. God has chosen to defer penalties, to mercifully postpone them, and perhaps in a couple of instances to miraculously mute them, but no sinner was ever completely exonerated. You cannot go to a place in this world and eat dinner with a man who has never died. And this is because God is just. He does not lie. He always tells the truth about sin.
But what we do have is One Man who has tasted death and then spat it out. We have one of the terminal cancer patients dead and buried in the ground and then coming out of the ground alive, more alive than ever and utterly, infinitely invincible. So the Bible is absolutely clear: All sinners must die. But the one great remaining question of the Bible is: Must sinners stay dead? And wound through the pages of Scripture, the stories of mercy that give sinners more time, the mercy that has given sinners glimpses of healing, of forgiveness, of resurrection — these are the hints and suggestions that while sin is a terminal disease, while in the end it will kill you, there is Another Word, Another Verdict, a Final Word. And the Final Word is a sinless man who died. While there are other important dimensions to the death and resurrection of Jesus, it cannot be missed that the simple fact of death itself is the sentence against sin. If there is no sin in the world, there is no death. Death entered the world because of sin (Rom. 5:12). For the Sinless One, for the Innocent One to die can only mean that He has somehow come under the curse of sin. He has somehow become “sinful” (2 Cor. 5:21). But on the third day, He escaped from the sentence of death.
This can only mean that He has exhausted the power of death. He has exhausted the justice of the verdict. It was just for a few hours, for a few days, but on the Third Day death ceased being just, and justice could only mean life, vindication, glory.
This is the Final Word: that sinners cannot escape dying, but they can escape death. Every sinner will still breathe their last. Your heart will stop beating. Your body will decay. The wages of sin are in your bones, but by faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus, by faith in the Last Word, a new, imperishable life has begun inside of you. And that new imperishable life cannot die. It is invincible. Sinners must die, but now because the Innocent One has exhausted the verdict against sin, you cannot stay dead. Justice means you must be raised, you must be vindicated, you must live forever. And this is because Jesus became your substitute. He died instead of you. He suffered for your sins. And now death cannot hold you. It must release you because your ransom has been paid.