“Why have you forsaken me?”

April 6, 2012

At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, marking the spot where, according to an early tradition, Jesus was crucified.


Last year, when I did a seven-last-words Lenten sermon series, I struggled with Jesus’ “cry of dereliction” from Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” What exactly did he mean by it? Had Jesus simply found some scripture that expressed what he was feeling? Was he who was without sin expressing solidarity with sinful humanity for whom he died? Was he quoting verse 1 but wanting his hearers to recall the entire psalm—which ends on a loud note of vindication and hope? Or had God indeed abandoned him—and what exactly would that look like, since God is triune? Would it be possible for God the Father to separate himself from God the Son in this way?

To me, these answers are not straightforward. But I’m with Adam Hamilton, who rejects at least one possible answer.

Some have explained Jesus’ words by suggesting that at that moment God placed upon him the sins of the world and then was forced to turn away because a holy God cannot look upon sin. I find this a wholly inadequate explanation—it takes too literal a view of Jesus bearing the sins of humanity on the cross. What exactly would God have placed on Jesus? What would it have looked like? More importantly, would the Father really have looked away from his Son at the moment of Jesus’ greatest saving act? This seems unthinkable. I believe it more likely that God never removed his gaze from Jesus during those hours on the cross. God the Father suffered with the Son.[†]

[†] Adam Hamilton, 24 Hours That Changed the World (Nashville: Abingdon, 2009), 108.

2 Responses to ““Why have you forsaken me?””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Well, I don’t claim to fully know the answer to this question myself (obviously). I do note, however, that “He who knew no sin became sin for us.” Also, “cursed is any man that hangs upon a tree.” I certainly don’t know what such a thing as taking on our sins would “look like” (as though anything so spiritual would need any “manifestation”). But we should recall the Old Testament example of the goat on whom the sins of the people were placed, and then the goat was sent “outside the camp” and abandoned. The ultimate reason we have to die is because we have sinned (“for the wages of sin is death”). So it is not obvious to me, at any rate, that there is no truth to saying Jesus “took on our sins.”

    Jesus did say that God had “abandoned him.” (David, though speaking truth as to himself also, was likely as well “prophesying” what Jesus would ultimately say–as much of the Old Testament “prefigures” Christ [as with the goat].) Of course, that can mean more than one thing–he could have been speaking, in his “human-ness,” that he FELT abandoned, based on what was happening to him. However, again, it is not obvious that there was not some “spiritual” abandonment, which would have certainly been much harder to bear, and which would have made the sacrifice he was making even more momentous and astounding.

    Can God momentarily “divide himself asunder”? Well, there are a whole lot of other “astounding” things which God can do that we can’t fathom, like “becoming a man,” and suffering the pangs of being a man, in the first instance. We don’t know what the “three-in-one” “looks like” in the first place. But if God the Father could “turn his back” on his Son at the moment of “taking on our sins,” that hardly suggests to me that God the Father did not “suffer” at that moment as well. I once read some respected Reformed theologian say that God the Father could not suffer because God is perfect. What a bunch of bunk! I think that if for any reason I was ever to have to tell one of my children that they had to leave home, it would hurt me, possibly even more than it would hurt them. I would be “imperfect” NOT to feel pain!

    So, perhaps it can be said that because Christ “became sin,” this separated Him from his Father–he had to “die.” Once the blood sacrifice had been made, however, there was no longer any room for wrath or punishment, and he rose victorious.

    Those are my thoughts.

    • brentwhite Says:

      He certainly doesn’t mean to say that Jesus _didn’t_ take on the sins of the world—just that there might not have been a moment when the Father said, “Before you were my beloved Son; now you are nothing but pure sin to me, and I can have nothing to do with you.” (I don’t know. Ask him!)

      I agree with his main point, which is wondering how God could “look away” during this supreme act of love—which is when God in Christ bore the sins of the world? We can say that God the Father “abandoned” Jesus to the cross—for that’s how Jesus probably experienced it and at least that’s the way the world perceived it—without imagining that God the Father disconnected himself from his Son… or didn’t experience what his Son experienced. It’s not clear that that’s possible, theologically, but I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t know. I’m happy to be proven wrong, but the Bible doesn’t give us enough information.

      But I’m with you on the doctrine of God’s “impassability.” That means that God can’t suffer. It’s well within the boundaries of orthodox theology, but it’s not clear to me how it gibes with the Bible. What’s at stake in saying that God doesn’t suffer? Are we worried that suffering would somehow _change_ God’s character, such that he would no longer be the perfectly loving God that he is? I don’t think that one implies the other.

      But go to theology school sometime… You’ll see that these types of questions have preoccupied theologians for two millennia.


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