Monday, August 26, 2013

“My God, my God, Why have you Forsaken Me?” Did God Forsake Jesus on the Cross?

What did Jesus mean when he cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, Why have you forsaken me?” It is common in evangelistic presentations to see this as a pivotal moment in salvation history when all the sin of humanity was loaded onto Jesus and he became the bearer of our sin, in a quasi-literal sense. As such, Jesus became abhorrent to a Holy God who is disgusted by sin, and so God turned his face away from the sin-laden Jesus. That is, he abandoned or forsook Jesus. The cross then becomes the point at which God punished Jesus for our sin.  He then died having taken the punishment we would have had from God for our sin. Traditional theology says he then descended to hell with the sin. However, God’s justice was satisfied. He then rose from the dead having overcome sin.

I believe there are problems with this construct. It is a theological interpretation of the text and moment which is flawed. When Jesus said these words that is not what he was saying. What was he doing then?

First, this is a quote from Ps 22:1 (21:1, LXX). In the Psalm in its original setting, David is crying out to God in lament during a time of extreme distress. It is a desperate cry of one in immense pain. His experience is one of abandonment and forsakenness. Yet, he cries out to God. Why? He feels like he is forsaken. However, he is also a man of faith and while he feels forsaken in his experience, knows that God has not forsaken him. He knows God is with him despite his torment. David sings of God’s holiness, his acts in history (Ps 22:3–5). He prays God will come and save him (Ps 22:19–21). He states he will praise God and others should do so too (Ps 22:22–23). He then states, “for he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him but has heard, when he cried to him” (Ps 22:24). In other words, he has not abandoned him. Explicitly it states, “he has not hidden his face from him”—the exact opposite of the claims of this theology. The Psalm then ends with praise of God across the world.

Second, theologically, God never abandons or forsakes his son. To say so leads to a false trifurcation of the Godhead. God turned away from his Son; would God ever do that? No way. God was with and in Christ suffering with him. God does not turn his face away. One my otherwise favourite worship songs, “How Great the Father’s Love,” is flawed in this respect as we sing, “the Father turns his face away.” God never does. Rather, when his people suffer, and when his Son suffers, he is with his people. On the cross, Jesus was full to the brim with the Spirit enabling him to come through his torment as the saviour of the world. The Father was in and with Christ by his Spirit. He felt Jesus pain. He went with Jesus through the cross.

Third, it was not God who punished Jesus on the cross, it was people who rejected him, mocked him, beat him, and crucified him. Specifically, a friend betrayed him, another denied him, the Jewish leaders conspired against him, the Romans crucified him, and the crowd mocked him. God did not do any of this. We did it. Yes, in his sovereignty, God presided over the event and it had immense theological significance as Jesus died for humanity. Indeed, one can sing as Isaiah does that “he was smitten by God,” but that does not mean we should read it in direct terms. God did not directly punish Jesus. This idea is not in the NT. If there was a punishment on the cross, it was us punishing God the Son. Or, we could say that God was punishing sin on the cross (N.T. Wright); however, he was certainly not punishing his Son! And God the Son took the punishment of humanity. God in his mercy and wisdom chooses to make Jesus’ death the punishment for the sin of believing humanity, and we are saved through it. We must not overplay these analogies and over-literalise them, or we turn God into a cosmic child-beater. He is not.

So why did Jesus cry out these words? I suggest two main reasons. The first is that Jesus found in David’s lament the perfect vehicle to describe his horrific pain. Jesus is praying thus not because he is literally abandoned by God, but he feels abandoned because he is in horrendous pain and wants God, who is of course with him, to come to his aid to get him through. It relates to his earlier prayer for release from the cross in the garden. Rather than releasing Jesus from the cross, God responded by strengthening him for it. The cry carries on Jesus’ genuine expression of suffering. Theologically it shows not the literal God-forsakenness of Jesus, but his genuine humanity. He felt God-forsaken in that moment, not that he was. God the Son was in immense pain.

The second reason is the most important. Jesus chose this particular Psalm to declare that he is the character of which David prophesied in the Psalms. Any reader of Psalm 22 can see that it the Psalm is an uncanny description of the horror of crucifixion and Jesus’ situation. Verses 6–18 speak of the Psalmist being a worm not a man; being scorned, despised, and mocked; being surrounded by bulls, ravening lions, dogs, and evildoers; being poured out like water, his bones out of joint, his heart melted like wax, his strength drained, his throat dry; his hands and feet pierced; his bones under stress; and the division of his garments by the casting of lots. Jesus is playing this out on the cross. He is crying out, “I am he of whom the Psalmist sang.” “Can’t you see my fellow Jews? Psalm 22 is being played out before you. Your Davidic king and Messiah is before you. The one sung of by David is here. Can you not see?” “Can you not see that you are among those evil-doers? Turn and be saved.” This is the real crux of what Jesus was saying. As he appropriated this Psalm, it was a final declaration that he is the Davidic Messiah of whom his ancestor sang. Of course they couldn’t see it for their worldview precluded a crucified Messiah and “cursed is anyone who is hung on a tree” (Deut 21:23, cf. Gal 3:13; 1 Cor 1:23; Rom 10:33).

We don’t need to use this verse in our evangelisation to speak of Jesus taking our sin and his supposed literal God-punishment and abandonment. Jesus took our sin, he died for our sin, yes! Let’s say that big time! But we don’t need to over-literalise it in this way. It is unhelpful and creates unnecessary theological problems. Nor do we need to say God punished Jesus in a direct sense. We can say that the death of Jesus becomes our death, he died in our place, he took the full vent of human fury and sin, he overcame, and he rose. We can say that God is holy and punishes sin and Jesus’ death deals with sin. But God was not some cosmic Dad with a cane who punished Jesus. This is unnecessary. We humans did it. Yet ironically and mysteriously we are saved through it. Jesus took humanities worst, he died for humanity, he the sinless one, and he rose—if we believe a mysterious unexplainable transaction takes place. His death becomes our death. We are swept up into him “in Christ.” We are declared righteous, sanctified (saints), and we are to live this status out. We are included in his people. We receive the Spirit. We are saved. All that is required is belief. We don’t need to push too hard to theologise every element, it only leads to messed up theology.

God never abandoned Jesus, he never abandons us. He is with us always, even in our darkest hour. David knew this and that is why he cried out in the first place. He knew God was with him. He always is. Jesus knew it too. What Jesus wants us to recognise in these words is that he is Messiah, prophesied a thousand years prior by David, the Lord of the universe. Wow! Perhaps the most specific prophetic fulfilment in the whole Jesus’ story. Jesus died for us. He took our sin. The punishment we deserved is sorted. We are saved through his death. That is what matters.  


Scott Mackay said...

Hi Mark,

Thanks for this thoughtful post on such an important topic, and for pointing us back to the details of Ps 22. You seem to have charted a very careful course, avoiding the idea of a split in the Trinity, or that God was angry at Jesus or 'punished' him, but still maintaining that God the Son took the punishment which sinful humans deserved (death).

However, on Ps 22, isn't there a problem in saying that David simply 'felt' abandoned? Firstly, it skips over the real suffering he went through too quickly, that he actually was 'left' (עזב) in this situation of oppression by his enemies. I agree this wasn't an ultimate abandonment - the whole Psalm makes that clear, as you've pointed out. But God's withholding of salvation from David was real, God did actually did delay in saving him, and did not answer him (vv. 1-2, the Hebrew parallelism helps us here). As long as his suffering lasted, he was 'left' or 'abandoned' in that sense. Although at the same time, God hadn't ultimately abandoned David and was still committed to him, even during his suffering (which of course raises the question of 'why'?)

But secondly, it fails to take into account the biblical-theological context, namely, the Davidic promise, particularly as it is found in Psalm 2. If we don't read Ps 22 in light of the promise to David, we'll miss the tension inherent in the suffering of God's chosen King. After all, David isn't just an ordinary Israelite. God says to the Davidic Messiah "You are my Son; today I have begotten you. 8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. 9 You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel."

So if God says that David is the 'son' who will rule the nations, then why does God let him suffer oppression at the hands of his enemies? This tension is a real tension. The delay in the fulfilment of this promise is a real delay, it isn't just that he 'felt' God wasn't fulfilling his promise. Of course, the mysterious question which arises is, why would God let his Messiah suffer? Isa 53, and the NT give us the answer.

Maybe it's just a minor nuance, but I thought it was worth raising. Thanks for your blog, I always enjoy reading it.

Mark Keown said...

Nice comment. One cannot go into such detail on the blog or no one would read it. I agree with what you say about context. David was well acquainted with suffering and waiting for God. I am not sure he ever doubted that God was with him. Even after his sin in Ps 51 he knows God is with him, but pleads that he doesn't withdraw his Spirit from him.

Jesus of course knew he was the anointed king but also knew he had to go through death and resurrection. This is seen in his three passion predictions in Mark 8, 9, 10. So, the thought that he was sin-laden and so literally abandoned by God is beyond anything in the Synoptics. It is a back-reading. But your point is a good one and adds to he picture of the original context. Thanks.

Scott Mackay said...

Fair enough about the limits of blogging!

Co-incidentally, this morning I read the following passage from Calvin, where is makes a very similar point to yours.

"We see that Christ was so cast down as to be compelled to cry out in deep anguish: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken
me?" [Ps. 22:1; Matt. 27:46]. "Now some would have it that he
was expressing the opinion of others rather than his own feeling. This is not at all probable, for his words clearly were drawn forth from anguish deep within his heart. Yet we do not suggest that God was ever inimical or angry toward him. How could he be angry toward his beloved Son, "in whom his heart reposed" [cf. Matt. 3:17]? How could Christ by his intercession appease the Father toward others, if he were himself hateful to God? This is what we are saying: he bore the weight of divine severity, since he was "stricken and afflicted" [cf. Isa. 53:5] by God's hand, and experienced all the signs of a wrathful and avenging God.

Interesting that Calvin says he experienced all the 'signs' of a wrathful God, not that God was actually wrathful towards him.

Scott Mackay said...

Sorry, reference is The Institutes 2.16.11

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

Contrary to most people (incl academic staff, pastors and books) I have for years read it this way thanks to His Spirit who helps us discern Scripture and errors (pentecostal background of which i discerned in pentecostal church a lot of error) . Jesus who meditated on the Torah and Psalms would have related well to Davids suffering and seen himself in this Psalm. A few words of association in agony would have been clear to his audience... and all who suffer a lot for that matter. In heaven we will find out the obvious truth in this matter ;) Prideful Joseph

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