Was Jesus forsaken on the cross?

April 5, 2016

rutledgeI’m aware that I’ve spent a lot of bandwidth on this blog recently complaining about my seminary education. But these days I continue to be reminded of ways in which mainline Protestant seminary let me down.

One important way it did this, to say the least, was in its teaching about the cross and atonement. For example, I was taught that Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross—”My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—didn’t really mean that Jesus was forsaken on the cross. Rather, he was reciting the first verse of Psalm 22 as a way of recollecting the entire psalm, which ends in the narrator’s vindication.

I haven’t believed this for years, of course, and I’ve preached often that Jesus experienced complete abandonment by God. I say “experienced” because I don’t want to imply that the Trinity was somehow broken on the cross. Still, he experienced abandonment, which is nothing less than hell. I am deeply suspicious of any attempt to soften that.

I’m pleased, therefore, that Fleming Rutledge, herself a retired Episcopal minister, also affirms Jesus’ God-forsakenness. In her new book on the cross, she puts it like this, in a footnote:

Was Jesus truly forsaken by God on the cross? It may be that Luke omits the cry of dereliction because he does not want to leave the impression that God was actually absent. On this point, Raymond E. Brown offers a stirring insight. He suggests that, in the cry of dereliction, Jesus is experiencing the silence of God even though God is present and “speaking” in the sign of the darkness at noonday, “but Jesus does not hear him“… I have no better commentary than that of Clifton Black: “It seems to me suspect to rush to the Almighty’s defense in Matthew and in Mark, protesting that the apocalyptic ambience of their crucifixion accounts demonstrates that God’s beloved Son was truly not abandoned at three o’clock that afternoon… sub specie aeternitatis, under the appearance of eternity (Spinoza), that is true. Sub specie cruciatus, under the aspect of torturous execution, it is no less true—from the evangelists’ point of view—that Jesus ultimately, faithfully prayed to a God whose presence he could no longer perceive”… Both of these quotations suggest that it was Jesus’ own perception that the Father and withdrawn from him.[1]

1. Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 98.

8 Responses to “Was Jesus forsaken on the cross?”

  1. Grant Essex Says:

    I hope I am not being unfair when I say that Candler is well to the left, or liberal, side of Seminaries. It has great resources and a great history, but it seems to have become very squishy on the fundamentals. They certainly don’t start with what I would call the “ABC’s” of Protestant theology. I have been exposed to a large number of graduates through the years and find more than a few to be “shallow” when it comes to matters of doctrine. Some like you continue to grow after Candler, but many just don’t seem to have the foundational beliefs to build on.

    Hope that’s not insulting. Just an observation.

    • brentwhite Says:

      No insult here, Grant. I’ll go further and say that there’s a powerful Satanic influence there, and many of our young people who go there, intending to follow God’s call into ministry, are ill-equipped to fight the spiritual battles they will have to fight in order to emerge as effective ministers of the gospel. It’s tragic. And it’s the devil. But since few people there believe in the devil after they’ve been brainwashed out of believing in him, they don’t even see it coming. Is that too strong?

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        No argument from me. Demons camp out at many college and seminary campuses. Satan prowls about, seeking whom he may devour.

      • brentwhite Says:

        We’re not giving him much of a fight at Candler, I’m afraid. At least not when I was there.

      • Grant Essex Says:

        You don’t have any idea how nice it is to be affirmed in this. I’ve been walking on eggshells.

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    Yes, Jesus “experienced” abandonment by God the Father. It is as though God the Father “turned his back” on His Son, given the Son’s “taking upon Himself” all the sins of the world, and “God is too holy to look upon sin.” Even though the Trinity cannot be “dissected,” it still also consists of “Three Persons.” (Two interesting asides on that: Jesus says that whoever speaks a word against the Son, it can be forgiven him, but whoever speaks a word against the Spirit, it can never be forgiven him. Also, Jesus says no one knows the day or the hour of his return, “neither the Son,” but only the Father. I don’t exactly know what is meant by either of those statements, but clearly they are intended as a “recognition’ of the “Three Persons” of the Trinity.) So, in likely the most poignant and incomprehensible moment in all of history, God the Father “separated Himself” from His Son in a way that we cannot fully understand. Jesus was “utterly abandoned” at that moment.

    In that same general light, I once read some famous theologian’s statement that because of the immutability of God the Father, He felt no pain at the crucifixion. In elegant philosophical terminology, “Hogwash!!” God’s perfection or “immutability” refers to His unchangeable NATURE–not that this nature is incapable of feeling emotions! God, all Three Persons, feel exactly the RIGHT or APPROPRIATE emotion that is called for in whatever situation they are in. This is borne out through all of scripture in my estimation. Where does this “God the Father feels no change of emotion” nonsense come from? Probably sitting in some ivory tower too long.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Amen and Amen. The distorted version of immutability goes back to the scholastic period of the high Middle Ages. Since we reject so many other ideas that emerged from that period, let’s go ahead and reject that one, too! Sadly, I bought into it myself when I was drinking the Kool-Aid of mainline seminary. I’ve said it before: any theology, no matter how elegant and logical, fails if it doesn’t conform to scripture.

      (I’m in vacation this week, btw. That’s why I haven’t updated my blog very much.)

    • Grant Essex Says:

      And, Amen again from me. If Jesus hadn’t been totally alone in our sin, what would the big deal have been. He took on the sins of the World, and God cannot abide sin. His “back was turned”, whatever that means in God talk, and Jesus felt the “wrath” that was meant for all of us.


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