Did God really abandon Jesus on the cross?

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’!”

10 thoughts on “Did God really abandon Jesus on the cross?”

  1. Jonathan

    Dan, as always, I like what you have to say. My reasoning is that the entire redemptive work of Christ is the central event in salvation history, even though there are numerous facets.

    As far as the resurrection, you are absolutely correct in your assertion that it is minimized in most evangelical preaching and teacher. Even in history, the classic theories of atonement, for instance, do not give proper attention to the resurrection, except for maybe the whole Christus Victor model, which, well, another story…

    My feeling is that the resurrection is the validation of the cross. For that reason, I have to keep the cross in the picture of being central, but the glue of the redemptive event was that Christ defeated death.

    Just my ideas.

  2. Dan Martin

    Thanks for popping in, Jonathan. I partly agree with you…the apostles certainly did mention Jesus' death and its importance many times; however, I think the resurrection as merely the "validation" of the cross may sell it a little short. Check out my other posts on atonement if you want to dig further…I'm totally a Christus Victor guy…but the most compelling evidence to me is 1 Cor. 15:17. And then, of course, the fact that Jesus' command in Matt. 28:16-20 says a lot about Jesus' power and authority and nothing about his death.

    Was his death unimportant? By no means. But it would have been just another good guy killed by bad guys, without the resurrection.

  3. Jonathan

    Dan, I think the last sentence of your response is the key here. The Bible says as much. The fact that a lot of people fail to see this, well, is pretty strange.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that, looking from our perspective, I see the whole event as more of a seamless story.

    Blessings to you, friend.

  4. Rich G

    The sacrificial death of Jesus wasn’t because God the Father couln’t look at our sin, it was so we could look upon our own sin. John 3:14 “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,…”. This passage is refering to Numbers 21:9 “So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”. Now since I don’t believe that the bronze serpent had any magical powers, how could looking at it make one live? So here is where I do a little mental exercize by imagining myself as israelly that has been bitten by a snake. I am in the type of pain that leads to death and Moses tell to go look at some snake on a pole. So I would do as I was told to do because hey, I am dying and this is my only hope. Now I am looking at the serpent thinking, I don’t know how this is suppose to help. You know, that is a pretty good likeness to one of those nasty, sneakey, little creatures that got me. OK, I am looking at this thing and still feel horrible. Had I not gone out of my way to complain about this food that God and Moses has given me,… oh, I see, I have sinned. Now, I think there were other sins that would have gotten you bitten by a snake. Perhaps, I think my neighbor has taken a lot of gold from Egypt. I sure he wouldn’t miss this golden plate. I know his former master has given it to him but I would be doing him a favor if I took it. Then, comes a sharp pain from a snake bite. What ever the sin, the serpent would remind you of the sin you where doing because that is when the bite would come. So that brings us to Jesus on the cross. Does that mean Jesus is sin? No. Jesus on the cross should remind us of our own sins. So someone may say “Where was God when such and such happened?” Was it your sin that was a hammer blow to his hands that prevented Him from helping you? Maybe, that crown of thorns could represent thoughts that are sins if ever carried out? John the Baptist was still preaching and baptizing when Jesus was speaking in John 3:14. A message of looking at your sins would go well at this time.

    I hope I made sense, I am sure there is a better way to explain this.

    Continued Blessings,
    Rich G

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      I think you may be making several eisegetical leaps here, Rich. Not that the details concern me much…I remain of the conviction that Christians obsess too much about sin, the cross, and how they relate, when we ought to be more about the business of following Jesus and less concerned with analytical soteriology.

      That said, my major point here was to deconstruct the sloppy description of God’s abandonment of Jesus on the cross, which is wholly umbilical.

  5. Rich G

    In my statement above I was really only addressing that God could not look upon sin. I am at work when I read and reply to your web site. So my break time and lunch time are limited and I don’t always complete my thoughts.

    I agree with you that Christian should focus on following Christ. I also agree with that Jesus was quoting from Psalm 22. But I disagree with you on God’s abandonment of Jesus on the cross is wholly unbiblical. You like me probably have read John 12:28-30 and also like me never really thought much about it other than it is part of the story. But I think you can see a spiritual truth hear. There are at least two different types of people hear. After Jesus ask His Father to glorify his name, some people heard thunder and some heard the voice of an angel saying “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” I have come to believe that those who heard the voice are closer spiritually to God and those who who heard only thunder are further spiritually from God. And since Jesus said “This voice has come for your sake, not mine.” that he could hear God in some other way that didn’t have to be audible. I have used this part of scripture for myself to draw myself closer to God. My goal is to try to stay close enough to hear His voice if he is speaking. I have never really took it any further until now. Mark 14:32-42 the prayer in Gethsemane, Jesus is praying to, if possible to let this hour pass. Since, he prays the samething three times he wasn’t getting a reply. Or probably more correctly, he couldn’t hear spiritually. But his answer seems to be answered by going and checking his discipiles. Of course each time he finds the disciples sleeping and comes to the conclusions ” the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” This may be the way God is withdrawling from Christ because after the third time he doesn’t go back to pray but says “Enough! The hour has come, the Son of Man is betrayed…..”. Now is that proof of God abandon Jesus on the cross? No. But I think it may be possible.

  6. Dan Martin

    Rich, I’m glad you stick to using the term “may” in your thoughts. I don’t have a major problem with them, except that I’m not sure what benefit, spiritual or otherwise, your theory has. When separated from the God-can’t-look-at-sin narrative we have both agreed is unbiblical, what’s the point?

  7. Rich G

    The tiile of this section is “Did God really abandon Jesus on the cross? I think the bible does hint that Jesus was abandon on the cross. Since Jesus was close enough to God that he could hear Him in his thoughts for most of the gospel. But right before Jesus was handed over to the romans and jews, God answered Jesus not by his thoughts but by showing him three times how weak his closest followers were. Now, I don’t think Jesus was moving further from his Father but the Father may be moving further from him.
    You don’t have to agree with me. I really have no one to bounce any ideas off of. This is just something to help me mind focus on the mysteries of God.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, I have no problem with people disagreeing with me, Rich, and this is a place where I’ll have to disagree. Your case is speculative, and it’s fine to speculate about such things as long as one doesn’t become dogmatic about the conclusions of that speculation.

      Honestly, though I think your case is weakened by the broader testimony of how God works, which is not to turn his back on anyone or anything. But mostly, my objection to the mythology of God abandoning Jesus on the cross has to do with the larger narrative into which it fits…that of the violent, vengeful, arbitrary, and capricious God of Calvinist soteriology. That, and the fact that IMO the Biblical evidence just isn’t there.

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