Tough Topics 5: Did God Abandon Jesus on the Cross?

Over the next few weeks, I will be posting a series that I’m calling “Tough Topics.” I will explore several theological hot-button issues that I have wrestled with, or am still wrestling with, in some cases. I don’t pretend to have all the definitive answer to any of these questions, or even to explore them exhaustively. My hope is that this series will help others who are thinking about these topics and expand the thinking of those who have never considered them before.

Telling the Story

One of the most common ways people tell the story of the crucifixion in some circles makes the claim that as Jesus died, God the Father abandoned Jesus because he was carrying all the world’s sin and God cannot look at sin. This abandonment by God during the crucifixion is part of what it means for Jesus to “die for our sins,” because it’s the mechanism by which he takes the punishment we deserve. Jesus takes onto himself all the wrath that God has against sin and thus experiences separation/abandonment. The result of this is we can then be forgiven of our sins and take on Christ’s righteousness instead.cross

This way of understanding what happened on the cross is sung regularly in our churches in some of our most popular songs. For example, the beautiful hymn, “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” contains the lines,  How great the pain of searing loss/ The Father turns His face away/ As wounds which mar the Chosen One/Bring many sons to glory. In this hymn, Jesus’ abandonment by the Father is an essential part of the equation of redemption.

This biblical basis for this view draws on Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). He is quoting the opening lines of Psalm 22. This Psalm is a first person lament of a figure who is suffering unjustly and wonders where God is in the midst of it. While the Psalm begins in the despair of seeming abandonment by God, the trajectory changes and ends with the hope that God is actually doing something greater through the speaker’s sufferings that will have far reaching consequences: “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord and all the families of the nations shall worship before him” (Psalm 22:27). It’s not hard to see the parallels between Jesus’ death and the experience of the Psalmist.

The question is how literally do we take Jesus’ quotation of the Psalm’s lines? Is Jesus expressing an actual reality, that he truly has been abandoned by God? If so, what does that do with the doctrine of the Trinity? Is it even possible for the Trinity to be divided against itself?

Or, could Jesus be speaking out of the experience/feeling of “God-forsakeness” that every human being undergoes when they suffer unjustly? Could it be that Jesus quotes this Psalm because he is in the middle of pain and suffering where it appears that God is not present, but he is actually expressing his faith that God is working through his suffering redemptively?

Like every topic in this series I’m doing, books can and have been written about this topic. My answer to the question is this: Jesus, the fully divine and human one, genuinely experienced the abandonment and rejection, but the trinity itself was not divided.

Matthew and Mark are very intentional about including Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 22 because they want to emphasize the great extent of his voluntary suffering, but also give us a basis for hope. The quotation of Psalm 22 serves to show that the experience of abandonment is only temporary, and that God is doing something cosmically redemptive through the suffering of Jesus.

The Jews and Romans standing around watching the crucifixion would understand that the one crucified was forsaken/accursed by God based on the nature of the death itself.  The Jews would have known Deuteronomy 21:22-23, ” When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree,  his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you for possession.” The Romans reserved crucifixion, the most painful and degrading death, only for slaves and the worst criminals. Jesus underwent that experience and his cry confirms it.

The point of the Psalm is that God has not actually abandoned the speaker, even though everything he is experiencing points that way; God is working redemptively through his suffering to do something bigger. Jesus experienced the depths of sin and abandonment as he became sin for us, but he was not ultimately abandoned by God. Rather, God took all of our sin onto himself–every evil action and tragedy in the world was summed up in the crucifixion of the Son. But the resurrection shows us that sin does not have the last word. God forgives and defeats sin by taking it onto himself in the Son and experiences death (the punishment for sin) and separation for us, so that we don’t have to.

So, yes, humanly speaking, Jesus was, indeed, abandoned by God. I would also go so far to say that because of Jesus’ union with God, the Trinity experienced death and separation, in some sense.  When Jesus took on the sin and separation from God that human beings exist in, he experienced it fully,in his divine and human nature united in one person. How exactly that all works out within the Trinity, human beings cannot know.

Thoughts? Pushback?

Other Resources This blog post by Baptist theologian, Roger Olson, asks the same question and answers it slightly differently. It partly sparked this post of mine.

This short video by N.T. Wright clears up some caricatures about substitutionary atonement and what is going on in the cross.

The Day the Revolution Began by N.T. Wright if you are looking for a book on the crucifixion and understanding it in the context of the whole biblical story.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s