Did God really abandon Jesus on the cross?

Posted by Dan Martin | Posted in atonement, Challenging conventional doctrine | Posted on 22-04-2011

Today is Good Friday, the day we honor the supreme sacrifice Jesus Christ made when he went to his execution on the cross.   While I have argued before that Christians tend to spend too much energy and emotion on Jesus’ death and too little on his resurrection, it is still right and good that we soberly and gratefully acknowledge the suffering Jesus voluntarily accepted on our behalf.

There is, however, an element of the typical story of Jesus’ death that needs to be re-examined.  According to popular accounts—particularly fueled by the penal-substitutionary-atonement crowd—the stain of all our sin, heaped upon Jesus at his sacrificial death, was so horrible that holy God the Father, who in his holiness cannot look on sin, turned his back on his dying son.  This, they say, is why Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” as told in Matt. 27:46 and Mark 15:34.

Trouble is, they’re likely wrong.

First of all, the Bible doesn’t teach that God can’t look at sin.  Preachers do, but the Bible doesn’t.  God clearly looks on sinful people all the time, or he couldn’t see Earth at all.  Secondly, Jesus is crying out in extreme suffering…he probably felt forsaken at that point (who wouldn’t?).  But nowhere does scripture teach that God actually did forsake Jesus, just that he cried out in desperation while suffering a tortuous death.

Most compellingly, however, Jesus was probably quoting the beginning of Psalm 22, bits of which are associated with Jesus by the gospel writers on numerous occasions.  Take a look, for example, at Ps. 22:16-18, which John the Evangelist clearly associates with Jesus (see John 19:24 and John 19:36-37).  Whether Jesus was in fact tying this psalm to himself in a prophetic sense, or whether he was turning to a hymn of comfort in his affliction, we cannot know, although we do know that Psalm 22 ends with these words (vv. 28-31):

For kingship belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
even the one who could not keep himself alive.
Posterity shall serve him;
it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;
they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn,
that he has done it.

Not a bad declaration of the coming victory, for one who appears to be in the throes of defeat by the very powers who will yet be forced to acknowledge his rule!

But God saw it.  He’s not in the habit of turning his back on anybody!

And don’t forget, in the words of the inimitable Tony Campolo, “it’s Friday, but Sunday’s a-comin’!”

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