“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22:1; Matt 27:46)
What is the meaning of those haunting words of Christ upon the cross?
That’s the question my student asked this week as we stood outside my office. It’s Holy Week, and he was preparing to speak in his Spanish-speaking congregation on the so-called Cry of Dereliction. But he wanted to be sure he didn’t mess it up.
After all, he knows Christians believe in one God who exists eternally in three persons—Father, Son, and Spirit. And he knows that triune persons enjoy an eternal relationship of holy love. But if that trinitarian reality is true, what can it mean when Jesus screams out “Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani?”
CRINGING ON GOOD FRIDAY
Those who teach theology sometimes cringe when we sit through Good Friday sermons. (Though, to be fair, I sometimes cringe when listening back to my own sermons). It’s not just that the cross is horrific, but that Jesus’ words there are sometimes interpreted in ways that violate a pretty fundamental Christian teaching—the doctrine of the Trinity.
In extreme examples, we even hear that the Father made the Son the object of his perfect hatred on the cross. “God damn you!” is the vivid description offered by the late R. C. Sproul, of what the Father said to the Son upon the cross.
Is that right?
When someone asks about The Cry of Dereliction, I always answer the same way: “You should read this little book by my friend, Tom McCall.” It’s called Forsaken, and it’s written for a popular audience—not just for scholars (see here).
But there is problem with that sales pitch: Good Friday is this week (tomorrow, actually, as I type these words). And even with Amazon Prime, you probably don’t have time to read Tom’s book before then.
So what are some choices for interpreting The Cry of Dereliction?
OPTIONS FOR INTERPRETTING THE CRY OF DERELICTION
The following options are not exactly Tom’s points but more like my own quick and oversimplified articulations.
- Utterly Forsaken
- Utterly “Quotation”
- Feeling, Not Fact
- Forsaken Unto Death
Let’s work through them.
- UTTERLY FORSAKEN
The first option claims that there is a radical separation, enmity, abandonment, breach, or even hatred within the life of God upon the cross. A version of this is argued by more progressive theologians like Jürgen Moltmann. But in evangelical churches, it usually shows up in rhetoric about Jesus’ judgment-bearing death.
The Father turned his face away.
The Father rejected the Son.
God cursed Jesus with damnation.
God punished Jesus.
To be clear, I’ve written a whole book (The Mosaic of Atonement) that affirms the idea that Jesus saves (in part) by willing bearing the penalty for human sin. So I am not challenging that broader claim. But to affirm Christ’s penalty-bearing is quite different from saying that Father hated the Son or the Trinity was broken.
The problems with the “utterly forsaken” view are many: (a) Scripture never says it; (b) virtually no one in church history ever said it prior to the modern era; (c) it violates the doctrine of the Trinity.
So don’t go that way.
John Calvin quite correctly writes the following:
“We do not, however, insinuate that God was ever hostile to him or angry with him. How could he be angry with his beloved Son, which whom his soul was well pleased? Or how could he have appeased his Father by his intercession for others if He were hostile to himself?” (Institutes, 2.16.11)
- UTTERLY “QUOTATION”
Another option is to say Jesus is merely quoting Psalm 22. After all, his words come directly from David’s passage, and the rest of the psalm describes events that sound an awful lot like crucifixion.
At the end of the psalm, however, the result is not forsakenness but divine presence, vindication, and God’s message going out to all nations. Since that’s true, maybe Jesus was simply quoting a text to show himself as fulfilling it by way of death and resurrection.
Unfortunately, it seems like a stretch to say that he was only quoting something (in the same way I would be if I were reading from the Old Testament passage in front of a congregation). This seems to downplay the human experience of Jesus, the plain sense reading of his words, and the feeling of cursedness that would have assailed any Jew being hung upon a pole (Deut 21:23).
If the first choice breaks the Trinity, the second one diminishes the Son’s humanity.
- FEELING, NOT FACT
A third option might be to say that The Cry of Dereliction honestly describes what Jesus felt: He felt as if he had been utterly forsaken by God—but he hadn’t been. In this way, Christ would be like many a suffering Psalmist who claimed that God had abandoned them forever—when in fact God remains close by the afflicted.
I have no doubt that Jesus did feel forsaken; but to claim that he was wrong would surely cause some problems for one’s Christology.
One way to get around this worry might be to say that the Son was simply identifying fully with the feeling of forsakenness experienced by humanity at large. Perhaps that works. But I still think there is a better option.
- FORSAKEN UNTO DEATH
This last option is the one McCall chooses. The claim here is that Jesus remains (as Calvin said) the beloved Son, even in his death. But his forsakenness is real in at least one crucial sense: the Son was allowed to suffer and die. The Father could have saved him from this death, but he did not. Thus, Jesus was forsaken unto death.
In this act, Jesus identifies with humanity in all our pain and shame and the effects of fallenness. McCall writes:
“It is we who have—as rebellious sinners—abandoned God. But rather than leave us in our state of abandonment, the Son has become human and has identified himself with us: ‘These are my people. I am here for them. I have come to redeem them from this abandonment and to bring them home'” (44).
No, the Trinity wasn’t broken.
And the Father didn’t hate the Son upon the cross. Nor did he torture him with the sadistic smile of a pagan storm-god. That’s not the gospel. That’s a Netflix series about Norse mythology.
Nonetheless, Jesus was really forsaken unto death on our behalf. More than that, he passed through death to resurrection life, so that the final verses of Psalm 22 are as true as the first:
27 All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him,
28 for dominion belongs to the Lord
and he rules over the nations.
29 All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
30 Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
31 They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!
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