When God Abandoned God

On the cross, Jesus’ cried out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” – which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Mt. 27:46).  These are arguably the most shocking, beautiful, and profoundly revelatory words found in Scripture. The cry reveals that on Calvary, the all-holy Son of God experienced God-forsakenness as he bore the sins of the world.

A number of scholars have argued that Jesus is quoting the first line of Psalm 22. In certain contexts in ancient Jewish culture, quoting the first verse of a portion of Scripture could serve as a shorthanded way of alluding to the message of the entire section of Scripture in which the verse is found. And since Psalm 22 ends on a note of hope in God’s redemption (vss. 22-31), some scholars have suggested that Jesus’ apparent cry of despair was actually an expression of confidence that his Father would ultimately vindicate him.

Against this, other scholars have argued that we have no reason to assume that Jesus was employing this rather subtle pedagogical strategy when he cried out to God.[1]  Others go further and argue that this exegesis actually reverses the intended effect that Gospel authors are trying to make by incorporating this despairing cry into their narratives. Speaking specifically of Mark’s passion narrative, for example, R.T. France notes that when we read “into these few tortured words an exegesis of the whole psalm,” transforming these words into an expression of confidence, we “ turn upside down the effect which Mark has created by this powerful and enigmatic cry of agony.”[2]

I find these arguments to be compelling.  At the same time, even if we grant that Jesus was subtly alluding to the whole Psalm, this doesn’t necessarily undermine the genuineness of Jesus’ experience of abandonment. It was, after all, only after the Psalmist had expressed his authentic sense of abandonment that he regained his composure, as it were, and expressed confidence that God would eventually rescue him.  Hence, even on this reading, “the reality of his sense of abandonment must not be minimized,” as Craig Evans notes.[3]  So too, even if Jesus was confident he would eventually be restored, this doesn’t negate the truth that his experience of God-forsakenness, and his tormented question to God, were genuine.

Yet, it’s not merely that Jesus experienced genuine God-forsakenness:  he was in fact genuinely forsaken, as a number of theologians and NT scholars have emphasized in recent years. James Edwards, for example, says that on the cross, “Jesus is wholly forsaken and exposed to the horror of humanity’s sin.” This horror, he adds, is “so total that in his dying breath he senses his separation from God.”[4] “[T]he hitherto unbroken communion between the Father and the Son,” writes Leon Morris, “was mysteriously broken.”[5]  So too, in the words of Donald Hagar, there was an “unqualified dissolution” of the relationship of the Father and Son, resulting in a “temporary loss of contact”  between the two.[6]  Or, as Craig Bloomberg has put it, there was a “spiritual separation” between the Father and Son that result in the Son’s “abrupt loss of communion with the Father.”[7] Alan Lewis goes so far as to summarize the abandonment of the cross by saying,

God’s very being as Trinitarian community has on Easter Saturday been delivered up to contradiction and falsification: the Godness of the Father who gave up his only Son: the Godness of the Son who gave himself away: the Godness of the Spirit who, it seems, allowed death to sever the divine fellowship’s eternal bonds of unity.[8]

As hard as it may be to accept, I stand with those who contend that, fidelity to the Gospels requires us to affirm that, in some real sense, God (the Father) abandoned God (the Son) on the cross.  There are a number of theological reasons why I believe it’s important to accept the authenticity of Jesus’ abandonment by the Father as well.

For example, it is only by insisting that Jesus was actually forsaken by the Father that we can affirm that Jesus actually suffered the death-consequences of the sin of the world.  All sin is, at its heart, a matter of pushing God away, and the “wrath of God” against sin takes place when God grants rebels their wish and turns them over to their sin (e.g. Rom.1:24, 26, 28). Only by affirming that Jesus genuinely experienced God’s “wrath” against sin can we confidently affirm that there is “no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

Not only this, but as Moltmann has in particular emphasized, only by affirming the authenticity of Jesus’ God-forsakenness can we affirm that God has fully entered into, fully experienced, fully embraced and fully redeemed the God-forsakenness of the world. Because the Son experienced the horror of God-forsakenness, and because the Father experienced the horror of forsaking his Son, we can affirm that “even Auschwitz is taken up into the grief of the Father, the surrender of the Son and the power of the Spirit.” [9]  In the nightmarish separation of the Father and Son, he writes, we can see that “the whole uproar of history,” with all of its unthinkable atrocities, is embraced “within God.”[10] In other words, the authenticity of the Jesus’ abandonment on the cross means that God is a God who is entering into and embracing our hell. And its only because of this that we can be confident that God has poured himself out completely in working to redeem us from our hell.

But if the Father abandoned the Son on the cross, does this mean we must accept that the Trinity was momentarily torn asunder? Would this not mean that the Trinity had temporarily ceased to exist? This is the question I’ll address in my next post.

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