One of Jay Dyer’s most oft repeated criticisms of Calvinism is the idea of Substitutionary Atonement; specifically because he alleges that it logically leads to God damning the Son. This is a blasphemy which destroys the intertrinitarian fellowship. He will usually refer to a blog he collaborated on, helping to curate citations from Reformed theologians saying as much.
I am not here to defend every quotation and every theologian on that list. I am willing to admit many Reformed theologians do in fact take the issue too far and say very dangerous things. For example, one of the most aggregious examples is from a blog written by Thabiti Anyabwile:
At 3 o’clock that dark Friday afternoon, the Father turned His face away and the ancient, eternal fellowship between Father and Son was broken as divine wrath rained down like a million Soddoms and Gomorrah’s. In the terror and agony of it all, Jesus cried, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/thabiti-anyabwile/what-does-it-mean-for-the-father-to-forsake-the-son-part-3/
I have always recoiled at his language here, and I think it is an absolute travesty that TGC has yet to remove this post.
I would like to defend Calvin’s quotation from this list, however. The blog cites Calvin as teaching that God damned the Son with this quotation from the Institutes:
Nothing had been done if Christ had only endured corporeal death. In order to interpose between us and God’s anger, and satisfy his righteous judgment, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance. Whence also it was necessary that he should engage, as it were, at close quarters with the powers of hell and the horrors of eternal death… Hence there is nothing strange in its being said that he descended to hell, seeing he endured the death which is inflicted on the wicked by an angry God. It is frivolous and ridiculous to object that in this way the order is perverted, it being absurd that an event which preceded burial should be placed after it. But after explaining what Christ endured in the sight of man, the Creed appropriately adds the invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he endured before God, to teach us that not only was the body of Christ given up as the price of redemption, but that there was a greater and more excellent price—that he bore in his soul the tortures of condemned and ruined manInstitutes II.vi.x
I am not here to defend the truthfulness of everything Calvin said in this portion of his Institutes, but I would like to demonstrate that “God the Father poured out His wrath on His Son Jesus, which means Jesus underwent the equivalent of hell and was effectively damned as a sinner is damned” is not an entirely appropriate characterization of Calvin’s teaching. Some of that language is accurate, but most is untrue or misleading.
The Harrowing of Hell
Before reading what is an important context to Calvin’s quote (which happens to be the very next paragraph) it would be helpful for the reader to know exactly what Calvin is addressing in these paragraphs. In this section, Calvin is commenting on the Apostle’s Creed when it confesses that Christ descended into hell. What does it mean that Christ “descended into hell?”
The blog cited a passage of Calvin explaining why the crucifixion itself could properly be described as “descending into hell.” Unlike many theologians, Calvin denied that this phrase was a reference to Christ’s spiritual descent into the place of the dead where He preached to the souls there. Rather, Calvin believed it was a poetic description of the cross itself. Because the cross is the curse of God for sinners (Galatians 3:13), Christ endured the curse of the Law for His people. The cross was the divine curse for sin. In that sense, the cross was hell. Calvin attempts to justify this position by claiming that Christ’s crucifixion was more substantial than a typical crucifixion because Jesus was bearing the sins of the world, becoming a curse. This was a divine judgment beyond a mere crucifixion.
Whether you agree with Calvin or not on either of those points, it is incumbent upon you to read the important qualification he immediately makes after the quotation cited in the blog:
We do not, however, insinuate that God was ever hostile to him or angry with [his Son]. How could he be angry with the beloved Son, with whom his soul was well pleased? Or how could he have appeased the Father by his intercession for others if He were hostile to himself? But this we say, that he bore the weight of the divine anger, that, smitten and afflicted, he experienced all the signs of an angry and avenging God. Hence Hilary argues, that to this descent we owe our exemption from death. Nor does he dissent from this view in other passages, as when he says, ‘The cross, death, hell, are our life.’ And again, ‘The Son of God is in hell, but man is brought back to heaven.’Institutes II.vi.xi
Calvin explicitly rejects any notion of the Father turning His face from His Son, forsaking His Son, or even actively damning His Son. Rather, Calvin maintains that because the crucifixion was the curse of the Law, and because Christ was the sin-bearer, what the Son experienced on Calvary was equivalent to the full expression of divine wrath, but that it was not God the Father Who was damning or forsaking the Son. “He bore the weight of the divine anger, that, smitten and afflicted, he experienced all the signs of an angry and avenging God.”
With this explanation, Calvin cannot be accused of teaching that the Father damned the Son or that there was some rupture in Trinitarian fellowship. Calvin affirmed that the Father was nothing but pleased with His Son during the crucifixion, and that the Father was not actively damning or forsaking Christ. Calvin would affirm that Christ endured the wrath of God for sin, and since that is what hell is, Calvin is willing to say Christ endured hell, or “descended into hell” on the cross. But Calvin did not affirm that Christ went to hell after death and suffered there, and he certainly did not affirmed that the Father damned Christ or was ever displeased with His beloved Son.