Now, as a Christian, I know the answer to that question is inexplicably YES! But in 2 Corinthians 5:21 we are told Jesus, who knew no sin, became sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God. Now sin requires a price to be paid; the wages of our sin is death (Romans 6:23a) as well as being cast into the eternal lake of fire (Revelation 20:15) with no opportunity for redemption (Hebrews 9:27). Now Jesus, bore our sins, died a physical death, descended into hell. He was then resurrected from the dead and has ascended into Heaven and is seated at the right hand of God.
Now the heart of the question, is the 'price' that Jesus paid for my sins the same as the price I would have had to pay? My sin deserves eternal separation from God. But Jesus has not been eternally separated. Now I can rationalize that because of His eternal fellowship with God (i.e., I AM), that even one day not in His presence would be as an eternity.
So what do you think?
A: I'm glad you asked me what I think, because there is necessarily some speculation that will have to be done in order to answer this question! You've been warned....
At the outset, I think it is important to say that I don't personally agree with the basic assumptions of the question. More to the point, I do not believe that Jesus ever "descended into hell." While this may seem like nitpicking, I bring it up because it very much pertains to the question! As stated, the question is asking how Jesus' short period of time in hell paid for an eternity on my behalf ... but I'm saying that Jesus didn't go at all.
If we are basing our theology solely on the Scriptures (which is a good idea), it is difficult to come to the conclusion that Jesus ever descended into hell. The two passages that are most often cited as "proof-texts" of this descent are 1 Peter 3:18-22 and Ephesians 4:9-10. However, these do not teach that Jesus went to hell when considered in their context (we can't get into the details in this post, but if someone is interested in asking we can deal with these passages separately).
To believe that Jesus went to hell requires that we either read that idea into the text or based on the Apostles' Creed. Creeds can be helpful for our theology, but we must always evaluate them by the Scriptures. Earlier creeds (such as both versions of the Nicene Creed, and earlier forms of the Apostles' Creed) do not contain this line about "descending into hell." According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the current form of the Apostles' Creed was adopted by AD 700 and the reasons are not certain as to why the earlier form was rejected in lieu of the current form which contains this doctrine (and some other changes as well).
The Bible seems to teach something else entirely. 2 Corinthians 5:21 is a great summary of Jesus' fulfillment of the prophesy made in Isaiah 53:4-11. Jesus bore the wrath of God for sin as the Father placed upon his (Jesus') shoulders the punishment that was due to us. Similar proclamations can be found all throughout the Scriptures, but another concise summary is found in Galatians 3:13-14:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us-- for it is written, "CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE "--in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (NASB)
This is why Jesus came (Matthew 5:17; John 10:10, 12:27). It is instructive to look to the cross and what Jesus said prior to his death:
After this, Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished, to fulfill the Scripture, said, "I am thirsty." A jar full of sour wine was standing there; so they put a sponge full of the sour wine upon a branch of hyssop and brought it up to His mouth. Therefore when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, "It is finished!" And He bowed His head and gave up His spirit. (John 19:28-30, NASB)
Jesus knew that all things were accomplished to fulfill the Scripture and he declared "it is finished!" Notice he didn't say, "It is almost done!" He didn't say, "I'll be back from hell on the third day and then it'll be finished!" He had fulfilled the wrath of God as the Scriptures foretold and the payment was made. On the cross, it was finished.
Perhaps even more illustrative is the account in Luke's Gospel:
And He said to him, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise." It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour, because the sun was obscured; and the veil of the temple was torn in two. And Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, "Father, INTO YOUR HANDS I COMMIT MY SPIRIT." Having said this, He breathed His last. (Luke 23:43-46, NASB)
There are several things to notice here. First, Jesus' promise to the thief on the cross is not simply that he will go to heaven (by himself) but that he will be with Jesus in paradise that day. If Jesus was headed to hell after the cross, this isn't true. Secondly, notice that Jesus commits his spirit into the Father's hands. This isn't what we'd expect to read if Jesus' spirit were descending to hell away from the presence of the Father (2 Thessalonians 1:9). Third, notice that in parallel to the claim that "it is finished" in John's Gospel, we see that the veil is torn prior to the death of Jesus indicating that his (Jesus') work was complete and that the work of reconciliation between God and man is complete -- it is important to understand that the veil tore while Jesus was on the cross and not at the moment of his resurrection!
The penalty for sin is death (not death and hell). Hell is a result of death, but not the penalty itself. This may seem like I'm being nit-picky, but the distinction is important.
God told Adam that in the day he ate of the fruit he would die. This truth is repeated again and again for the results of sin (Exodus 10:17; Deuteronomy 21:22-23, 24:16; Romans 5:12, 21, 6:16, 23; 1 Corinthians 15:56; James 1:15). The result of dying in our sin is an eternity in hell, which is what Jesus set us free from (e.g. Romans 6:10, 8:2-4).
The question of what is "death" would be a good one to address sometime ... but the short answer is that our culture has redefined this word in a way that is not in agreement with the biblical usage.
Because of our modern fascination with the material world, we equate "death" with the cessation of biological life. However, this is not how the Bible uses the term in every passage. Certainly, in some passages the ending of the biological life is in view. However, a fuller understanding of "death" makes sense in both a physical and spiritual sense.
Death is better understood in the Scriptures as "separation." God created Man (male and female) to have fellowship with Him. When they rebelled against His orders and sinned, they "died" by being thrust out of the garden and were "separated" from God's fellowship like they previously enjoyed while in Eden. The world we live in currently is marked by "death" -- that is, by a separation from God that results in a fallen world that is often very ugly and painful.
When we die biologically, our spirit is separated from our physical body. We don't cease to exist as persons, but our spirit awaits the resurrection of the body at the last day when it will be re-united. At the final judgement (referenced in the question; Revelation 20:15), those who are still in their sin will experience the "second death" which is the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14, 21:8).
Jesus tasted death for everyone (Hebrews 2:9) when the wrath of the Father was poured out on him on the cross and when He (the Father) turned His back on him (Jesus) and fellowship was broken (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). After this was finished, fellowship was restored as Jesus committed his spirit into his Father's hands.
While we've still managed to avoid the main question (how can this be?), it is important to point out one final aspect of the prophesy in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 regarding this payment by Jesus on our behalf before speculating on the "how?":
But the LORD [the Father] was pleased To crush Him [the Son], putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He [Jesus] will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand. As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities. Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, And He will divide the booty with the strong; Because He poured out Himself to death, And was numbered with the transgressors; Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, And interceded for the transgressors. (Isaiah 53:10-12, NASB, bold emphasis added)
The prophesy pointed to the fact that Jesus' payment would be complete and that his sacrifice would be temporary. Although he would lay down his life, he would prolong his days! This is one of the reasons that Jesus was irritated with his disciples' lack of understanding that it was prophesied that he would rise again (John 20:9)!
That's a lot of running around to finally arrive at the heart of the question: is the price that Jesus paid the same as the price I would have had to pay? I think the answer is no ... in fact, Jesus paid more.
Remember, Jesus didn't just pay for your sins, and he didn't just pay for mine. He paid for the sin of the world (John 1:29). My sin and yours are only part of that payment, and Jesus paid it all.
How can this be? In light of the fact that it seems that Jesus may have paid less (at least in duration of time) than individuals will pay throughout an eternity in hell, this may not seem right.
I can't pretend to explain why it is that this payment was sufficient any more than I can explain why it is that blood is the price which God requires (Hebrews 9:22) or how God can say, "Let there be light" and there was light (Genesis 1:3). If God didn't reveal this to us, we'd have no way of knowing that it is so.
However, our legal system provides an adequate analogy in the fact that our legislative branch often assigns a value of payment (either in financial terms or years in prison, or both) for crimes. How can I say that a sentence of 20-life is fair for murder (especially when the effects of murder are often much farther reaching than simply ending one person's life) or that the "pain and suffering" of an individual is worth millions of dollars in punitive damages.
The simplest answer of how it is that Jesus' sacrifice paid our fine is that the Judge decried that this was acceptable payment and proved it was acceptable by raising Jesus from the dead (Acts 17:31; Romans 1:4).
In attempting to "value" this sacrifice, we can easily get led astray by putting our values in the place of God's. God gave His only begotten Son in the place of rebellious criminals. What is the worth of a son? How can this be calculated?
Similarly, Jesus enjoyed an eternity of unbroken fellowship with his Father prior to the cross. How do you value the breach in this relationship?
It is not enough to say that there must be a one-to-one correspondence for payment and that Jesus must spend a minute in separation from the Father for every minute I would have to spend if I were to die in my sins.
After enduring the fullness of the wrath of the Father, Jesus declared triumphantly that it was finished, and committed his spirit into the hands of his loving Father.
For those who do not appropriate the wrath absorbing payment of their sins through the cross and receive the righteousness of Christ through their personal repentance and faith in Jesus, they will endure the wrath of God on their own (John 3:36). This will result in their being cast into the lake of fire as the second death where there will be no opportunity of redemption. Unlike Jesus, the God-Man, human persons will not endure the wrath of God so triumphantly.
And while the death (separation) of Christ from his Father was meant to be temporary, the results of our own sin will be everlasting. By the standards set by the Father, this payment from Christ was more than enough to satisfy His wrath against the sins of all who trust in Christ.
There are many places in the Scriptures where God simply tells us that certain things are so, without spending much time in describing the how or the why. I do this with my own children in my home -- not because I don't care for my children, but because sometimes they just need to know that playing in the street is dangerous without a full explanation on the physics of a several-thousand-pound body colliding with a 40-pound body.
The wages of sin is death and, for us, that separation is everlasting without Christ. For Jesus (and him alone), he was able to endure the fullness of the wrath of God in a temporal form and be re-united with his Father. If we are found "in Christ" then we can share in his victory (Romans 6:23).
Now this is a fairly quick response to your answer and comments and may not have been thoroughly thought through in every detail.
I think you nailed it and are right to bring up John's recording of Jesus' seemingly constant emphasis on us "having" (present tense) eternal life (e.g. John 3:36 and 11:25-26).
As you look into the passage in 1 Peter be sure to read the entire book from start to finish and pay careful attention to the argument that Peter is making. Take note of what is being said in 1:10-11 and figure out how that applies to what is being discussed in 3:18-20.
If this passage is discussing Jesus' disembodied spirit descending to hell and preaching to the spirits there ("in prison"), try and answer the question of why it is that those souls who perished in the flood are the only ones mentioned ... because they surely aren't the only souls there! Is it possible that the preaching was done before they were imprisoned, and from the perspective of Peter's writing these souls are in prison now (as implied in the NASB) but that the "preacher" was someone else while they were still alive?
It seems to me that there is a much better explanation of what is being described than Jesus descending into hell to proclaim his victory. Peter may give us some insight in his second epistle, particularly 2 Peter 2:4-9, as he is making a similar point but from a different angle.
If you're interested, the NET bible provides a good translational note on 1 Peter 3:19 that pertains to this discussion.
Be blessed with the fellowship of your risen Lord and Savior today!
Glad it was helpful!