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.