Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.
(Matthew 27:45-50 ESV)
When Jesus was born the glory of God shone around the shepherds in the field [Luke 2:8-9]. He was described as “light” coming into the world [John 1:4, 9]. But when Jesus died there was darkness over all the land from the sixth hour (12:00 noon) until the ninth hour (3:00 PM). Jesus was crucified at 9:00 AM [Mark 15:25] so the darkness began after He had been hanging on the cross for 3 hours.
Exactly what this darkness was we don’t know. We do know, however, that it was not an eclipse as the Passover takes place during a full moon and it is impossible for the sun to be eclipsed by a full moon. This midday darkness was clearly a miracle of God on par with the darkness that covered Egypt before the Exodus or the sun standing still 40 years after that [Exodus 10:21-22; Joshua 10:12-13].
The Greek word translated “land” here is γε [pronounced: ghay] which can refer to a localized area or it can refer to the entire earth. Interestingly, there are extra-biblical extant documents which suggest that the darkness covered the entire earth. These documents mention this darkness in places as far away as western Europe.
The other day we studied the gruesome, inhumane details of crucifixion. Jesus went through horrible torture and humiliation as He hung on the cross. It was during this three-hour period of darkness that Jesus experienced something more horrible than having nails driven through His flesh or the excruciating pain of hanging on a cross – He experienced the true penalty for sin.
As He hung on the cross Jesus became sin [2 Corinthians 5:21]. As sin, He experienced the maximum penalty due sin – complete separation from God. This is the true definition of hell. God, being completely holy, must punish sin by removing it from the blessing of His presence.
God cannot, and will not, look upon evil favorably [Hebrews 11:13]. It must be punished to the ultimate degree. And there is no greater punishment that can be experienced than not being in the presence of God.
Notice that when Jesus cried out He did not call God His father. This is the only time in Scripture Jesus does not refer to God as His father. At this point in time God had forsaken His Son. He had turned His back on Jesus, who had become sin.
This is the fate that awaits all who die without having their sins paid for by Jesus. Such people will have to pay for their own sins by being separated from God for all eternity. God will turn His back on them – removing them from His presence forever. This will be an unimaginably horrible experience, even worse than hanging on a cross.
Jesus didn’t cry out when He was scourged. He didn’t cry out when the nails were driven through His hands and feet. He didn’t cry out as He struggled to breathe on the cross. The only time He cried out in agony was when God abandoned Him. Being separated from God was the worst thing He ever experienced.
Likewise, in hell there will only be the never-ending agony of existing apart from God.
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