Did God Forsake Jesus on the Cross?

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Matthew 27:45-54

When Christianity was brought to the barbarian tribes of the North, they readily received most of the stories of the Bible.

There was one story, however, that the barbarians struggled with: the crucifixion.

How could the valiant and powerful God of the Old Testament leave his Son to die on the cross? Barbarians were so troubled by this that they often depicted Christ with a sword on the cross in their carvings. They reasoned that God would never allow his Son to be completely helpless!

The barbarians aren’t the only ones troubled by the cross. Even today, most Christians think of the cross as tragedy and the resurrection as victory.

But Jesus himself refers to the cross as the revelation of his glory. Paul says that he wants to know only Christ crucified. The crucifixion is understood by the New Testament writers and the early church fathers as the one full revelation of the character of God.

Jesus describes all of scripture as pointing to it.  In fact, after his resurrection, he “opens the scriptures” to his disciples, from the beginning to the end, in order to reveal that the Messiah must die in order to come into his glory.

In a way that confounds barbarians as well as modern day believers, God has chosen to make his image most fully seen in a dying Jewish man who was betrayed by all of his followers, condemned by the religious leaders of his people, and executed by the state in one of the most violent and shameful methods of death ever devised.

One of the most unusual (and confusing) aspects of this full revelation of God on the cross is Jesus’ cry in the midst of it, which Matthew records like this:

About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’)

Did God forsake Jesus on the cross? Did the Father actually turn his back on his Son?

Some Christians argue that God forsook Christ because God cannot bear to look upon sin, and Christ had become sin. They say that the Father poured out all his wrath and anger on the Son. Because of this, they say, God’s wrath is spent, and we are forgiven if we accept this by faith.

But the God described in this way is a very different God from the God that the early church, the Nicene Creed, and the scriptures profess. The Nicene Creed proclaims one God in three persons, not three gods. The Son is the visible image of the invisible Father. The idea that in the crucifixion, wrath is poured out within the Godhead from one person onto another, that one person in the Godhead forsakes another, that the persons in the Godhead do anything without complete collaboration, is a level of division and difference foreign to the witness of scripture and the church. It is also foreign to Jesus’ own witness of how he and his Father would collaborate in his crucifixion. In John 8:28-29, Jesus says:

When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.

This is consistent with what Jesus says in John chapter 5: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can only do what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does, the Son also does.” Likewise, in John 12, Jesus tells us, “I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken.

The crucifixion does not change this. Jesus does not say, “I only do what I see the Father doing, I only say what the Father gives me to say—well, until he abandons me, as he has to do in order to fulfill the scripture. At that point, I am basically on my own and will be freelancing on what I say.”

Jesus is not simply sin on a stick. He is a sin offering. This offering is met with his Father’s joy—not with pent-up wrath. Isaiah even says that this offering pleases the Lord.

But what is more important in this discussion is the character of the Father. The Father has never turned his back on any sinner:

  • When Adam sinned and plunged the whole human race for all time into sin, the Father (1) went looking for Adam, (2) spoke with him, and (3) clothed him with skin (signifying how God later covers our sin with the flesh of the Son).
  • When Cain performed the first murder in history, the Father (1) went looking for Cain, (2) spoke with him, and (3) placed a mark of protection upon him.
  • When humanity became so sinful that God regretted having ever creating them, the Father still (1) went looking for Noah, (2) spoke with him, and (3) saved he and his family from the oncoming flood.

If God has not turned his back on sinners, why would he turn his back on his Son?

Some might argue, “Actually, it is because God turned his back on Jesus that he does not have to turn his back to these sinners.”

But this would suggest that the problem Jesus is solving is a problem in God, not a problem in humanity.

If we read the full witness of scripture, however, we see a very different reason why Jesus shouts with a loud voice about forsakenness. First and foremost, consistent with the verses in the Gospel of John noted above, Jesus is shouting with a loud voice exactly what the Father has told him to say. Because that is what Jesus always says. Not almost always. Always.

And what the Father directs Jesus to say is a direct quote from Psalm 22. Actually, Jesus is doing more than quoting that psalm—he’s fulfilling it.

Psalm 22 begins with a question (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), not a statement (“My God, my God, you have forsaken me”). The Psalmist is not asserting that God has forsaken him. He is saying that it sure looks like it, if circumstances are any indication. As the Psalmist writes:

But I am a worm and not a man,

scorned by everyone, despised by the people.

All who see me mock me;

they hurl insults, shaking their heads.

“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,

“let the Lord rescue him.

Let him deliver him,

since he delights in him.”

Does this description remind you of anything? This is the sight before Jesus’ eyes as he hangs upon the cross: people mock him; tell him that he should be able to remove himself from the cross if he is the true Son of God.

In previous posts, we learned that Christ fulfills every scripture and that Christ comes not to change the law. David wrote Psalm 22, but did not fulfill it—his hands and feet were never pierced, for example. Through his crucifixion, Christ is the only one to have ever fulfilled this scripture.

Psalm 22 continues to paint the picture of Jesus’ crucifixion: “I am poured out like water and all my bones are out of joint”; “My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth”; “they pierce my hands and my feet”; “they divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.”

But what about the question of abandonment? Interestingly, Psalm 22 is not a psalm of abandonment. To the contrary, it is a psalm of God’s faithful presence to the sufferer:

For he has not despised or scorned

the suffering of the afflicted one;

he has not hidden his face from him

but has listened to his cry for help.

The Father did not pour out wrath on the Son during the crucifixion, nor did he hide his face from him. Instead, the Father listened to his cry for help. That is exactly what Jesus knew would happen to him when he was crucified, in John 8:29: “The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him.”

The God revealed on the cross is neither vengeful or wrath-filled. The problem he comes to fulfill is with us, and it cannot be solved by an inter-Trinitarian boxing match. Instead, the cross reveals fully what the rest of the scripture also shows: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit working in perfect union and harmony to accomplish the purpose of God.

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