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#627 Why Jesus’ Agony in the Garden?

April 21, 2019

Dr. Craig,

Thank you for your love for the Lord and for truth. I have learned an immeasurable amount from you, including how to treat all people with respect and gentleness. I grew up with a wrong view of the atonement, having been taught that God the Father poured out His wrath on Jesus. Since learning from you that my view was not correct, I have been pondering the agony that Jesus experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane. I always thought of that agony as primarily a result of a dread of wrath. Would you please explain what, instead, was entailed in an agony that the book of Luke (in 22:44) says resulted in sweat that was like great drops of blood?


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Dr. craig’s response


Thank you, Christina! Any answer to your question will be conjectural, but don’t you think that Jesus’ agony was due to his awareness of his impending death as a sin-bearer for humanity and his attendant forsakenness by God the Father?

As Jesus celebrated with his disciples his final Passover meal, “he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’  Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it.  He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many’” (Mark 14.22-24).  Jesus is inaugurating by his death the new covenant prophesied by Jeremiah, which would bring restoration and forgiveness of sin (Jeremiah 31.31-34). Moreover, the words “poured out for many” hark back to Isaiah’s prophecy of the Servant of the Lord, who

poured out his soul to death,
    and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
    and made intercession for the transgressors (Isaiah 53.12).

In Luke 22.37 Jesus, on the night of his arrest, cites this very Scripture in application to himself. “For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.”  The “many” whose sin the Servant bears include the Gentiles, to whom the Servant would be a light of salvation (Isaiah 42.6; 49.6). Jesus saw himself as the suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, who “makes himself an offering for sin” (Isaiah 53.10).  Earlier Jesus had said of himself, “the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10.45).  Only in Isaiah 53 do we find in the Old Testament the complex idea of a “serving” figure who, in an eschatological context, gives his life for “the many.”

In Isaiah 53 the Servant is said to bear the sins, or equivalently, carry the iniquities of many.  In the Old Testament the expression “to bear sin,” when used of people, typically means to be held liable to punishment or to endure punishment (e.g., Leviticus 5.1; 7.18; 19.8; 24.15; Numbers 5.31; 9.13; 14.34).  The Servant, however, does not bear his own sins but the sins of others (Isaiah 53.4, 11-12).  The punitive nature of the Servant’s suffering is clearly expressed in phrases like “wounded for our transgressions,” “crushed for our iniquities,” “upon him was the punishment that made us whole,” “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all,” and “stricken for the transgression of my people” (Isaiah 53.5, 6, 8).

Taking himself to be the Servant of the Lord prophesied by Isaiah, Jesus thus knew what was coming: the sins of mankind were to be laid upon him.  No wonder he prayed in the Garden that this cup might pass from him (Mark 15.35-36)!

Becoming the sin-bearer of humanity meant forsakenness by God the Father. This Jesus experienced on the cross (Mark 15.34). Thus the torment of the cross was much more than the physical suffering Jesus endured. The Swiss Reformed theologian Francis Turrentin explained well, I think, what Jesus’ abandonment meant for him. According to Turretin, Christ not only suffered a violent and bitter death but was forsaken by God the Father by His withdrawing from him the beatific vision and by suspending the joy and comfort and sense and fruition of full felicity (Institutes of Elenctic Theology 14.11).  None of us can understand what he endured out of his love for us.

Is his agony in the Garden therefore any surprise?

- William Lane Craig