It is Saturday so I find myself writing again. This time I want to address something that has changed theologically for me. Let’s start with a question.
Did the Father forsake the Son on the cross?
On April 2-4, 2012, in a three part blog posted on the Gospel Coalition site, Thabiti Anyabwile argued that God the Father rejected God the Son during the crucifixion. Most evangelicals agree with him. In 2012 I would have agreed with him too.
Not any more.
I don’t believe all the stuff I used to believe. I consider this growth. It is not without its challenges, but as I grapple with my beliefs I am finding myself seeing God as more beautiful, more loving, more gracious and more engaged in the lives of real people… all people.
I have no desire to dog-pile on Anyabwile, but his mindset is prevalent in the evangelical church so I want to speak to it
In his first blog entry, Anyabwile said, “…God judged the entire land in that supernatural darkness (Exod. 10:21-23; Amos 8:9-10). But, God judged Jesus, too. We know this through the cry from the cross. Notice: it was a loud cry. This was no peaceful sleep in a quiet darkness. Jesus doesn’t ease into death with a smiling face ensconced in soft glowing light. He’s screaming. Can you hear Him? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Try saying it loudly. Try saying again–this time with anguish.”
People who believe that the Father rejected Jesus point to these words of Jesus for support.
Anyabwile contends there are three ways God the Father forsook the son:
- The Father allowed Jesus to suffer social abandonment. The examples he sites are simply references depicting people forsaking Jesus. But people forsaking and the Father forsaking are two different things. The Father allowing something to happen is not the same thing as the Father doing something, right?
- The Father emotionally deserted Jesus on the cross. Pointing to Psalm 22 for support he alludes to vv. 1-21 describing the anguish the Psalmist predicted for the Son of God. He summarizes: “Not only was the Savior socially abandoned by the men He came to save, He was also emotionally deserted by the Father in whom He trusted.” Ps. 22 certainly demonstrates personal anguish, and no one will argue with the fact that Jesus was in deep emotional pain on the cross, but, thank goodness, that is not the point that Ps 22 is making. More on this in a minute.
- The Father allowed the Son to experience spiritual wrath. Anyabwile says, “This spiritual forsakenness, spiritual wrath from the Father, occurs deep down in the very godhead itself. We dare not speculate lest we blaspheme. But something was torn in the very fabric of the relationship between Father and Son.” Warning us against speculation, the author then speculates that the relationship between the Father and the son was “torn” that day. He continues, “At 3 o’clock that dark Friday afternoon, the Father turned His face away and the ancient, eternal fellowship between Father and Son was broken as divine wrath rained down like a million Soddoms and Gomorrah’s.” The argument for this stunning notion rests on the phrase, “the Father turned his face away” even though this phrase never appears in any of the four gospel accounts of the crucifixion or anywhere else in the NT for that matter.
I don’t believe that the Father rejected the Son on the cross, nor that the “eternal fellowship between the Father and the Son was ‘torn’ that day.” If you’ve heard me teach these things in the past, please ‘burn those tapes’.
Let’s go back to the second argument from Anyabwile. If you read his blog post you will see that he stops his explanation of the text before the end of the text. This causes him to miss the point.
Here’s the point.
In Matt. 27 we see the narrative. Jesus is hanging on the cross and everyone is “hurling insults at him”. In vs. 43-45 it records the mocking words of the religious leaders:
43 “He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” 44 In the same way the robbers who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him. 45 From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. 46 About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?””
Do you see the last insult? “Let God rescue him now if he wants him…”. The religious leaders are questioning the Father’s love for the son. They are mocking Jesus by saying, “Daddy’s not going to bail you out, because Daddy doesn’t care about you.” Then Jesus utters the famous words.. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”.
On the surface it sounds like Jesus is agreeing with them. But he’s isn’t!
This is the first line of Psalm 22. In Jesus’ day, the learned Jewish men would have had the Psalter (the book of Psalms) memorized. Sometimes a teacher would simply state the first line of the Psalm and pause, allowing everyone present to mediate on the rest of the Psalm in their minds. This (the entire Psalm) is Jesus’ answer to the charge that the Father is going to reject him. As the men stood at the cross they would have recounted the words of the Psalm and seen the fulfillment of it before their eyes. What a moment! If you haven’t read Ps 22 lately, I encourage you to read it before finishing this post. Imagine standing at the foot of the cross ‘hearing’ these words as you look at the Messiah.
I want you to see how the Psalm ends, starting in vs. 22. This is Jesus’ response to the mockery.
22 I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you. 23You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
He tells the leaders of Israel to stop mocking God and revere him instead. Ok, here it comes, are you ready?
24 For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.
Psalm 22:24, the passage Jesus “preached” from the cross, is a serious problem for the theology that states that the Father hid his face from the Son during the crucifixion. Jesus says, “I know it looks to you like he is rejecting me but he isn’t despising me, he isn’t scorning me, he has not hidden his face from me, he is listening attentively to my cry for help.”
The Father didn’t reject Jesus during the crucifixion, he patiently and lovingly listened to his cry for help.
Then Jesus recounts, through the rest of the Psalm, the results the cross will bring lest we wonder why the suffering was necessary. He’s preaching the far-reaching power of the gospel!
“From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows. The poor will eat and be satisfied; those who seek the Lord will praise him— may your hearts live forever! 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, for dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations. 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. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!” Psalms 25:22-31 NIV
HE HAS DONE IT Jesus preached, from the cross. Wow!
Why does this all this matter? Two reasons:
- Theologically, the idea that the Father forsook the Son has grave ramifications for the Godhead and the Trinity. What happens to the universe and humanity if the Godhead is disunified? Did this ripping apart ever get healed, if so, how? If not, will there be tension in heaven? This leads to the false understanding that Jesus is the kind one and the Father is the mean one. There are so many issues raised by this misunderstanding.
- Pastorally, If God will forsake his only Son because of the sins of the world, then how do I know he won’t forsake me when I sin? When I find myself in times of anguish, in the moments after I sin.. again… and I cry out to God, will he simply turn his face? How cold, how summarily unhelpful! The simple answer to this is, “no, He won’t.” When the sin of the entire world was on Jesus, the Father, “did not despise or scorn the suffering of the afflicted one, he did not hide his face from him, but he listened to his cry for help” (Ps. 22:24). You can rest assured that God always listens to you, despite what you have done, no matter how heinous it might be. Glory, this sounds like good news doesn’t it?
A few minutes after quoting Ps. 22:1, right before Jesus breathed his last he said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46). What tender words! This is a quote from Psalm 31, another song full of anguish and fear of enemies. Yet, in the midst of all that, there is trust, praise, and love for God. In vs 14 it says, “for I trust in you, for you are my God.” These are not the words of someone who’s “eternal fellowship” has been broken.
Take some time to read Pslam 22 and Psalm 31, the two songs that were on repeat in our savior’s head while he hung on the cross, and you will see that at no time was the Trinity “torn” apart. I hope this encourages you, even if it messes with your categories.