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What does Jesus mean when Jesus screams in anguish from the cross, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
The view that I most often hear goes something like this.
When Jesus was hanging on the cross he “became sin for us” (2 Cor 5:21). The sins of all humanity were placed upon Jesus. Because God is holy and sinless the Father was unable to stand the presence of the, now sinful, Son. As a consequence, the Father turned His face away, or removed His presence from Calvary. Sensing this departure, Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This cry represents a reality not only of Jesus’ despair, but the reality that God abandoned Jesus.
There are several troubling aspects of this view of Jesus words. I’m not the first to raise them and many scholars have defended them. I think it’s important that anyone holding this view at least acknowledges the concerns and thinks them through.
- Did the Trinity only have two members? How could the Father forsake the Son and the two still be One? In The Expositor’s Bible Commentary DA Carson observes, “If we ask in what ontological sense the Father and the Son are here divided, the answer must be that we do not know because we are not told.” I’m not one to try and tell God what he can and cannot do, but it is incomprehensible to me that the Three became Two while the man Jesus hung on the cross.
- Where do we get the idea that God would abandon Jesus because of sin? I understand the holiness and purity of God. I also know that God is present all over this globe where sin prevails. Jesus walked upon the Earth in constant contact with sin and its consequences. Does the concentration of sin upon the person of Christ somehow make it more repulsive to God than when it’s spread throughout time and space?
- Does God abandon us at our weakest moment? If the Father abandoned the Son at the lowest moment of his life, does that impact our ability to have confidence in God’s presence during our trials and sin struggles?
- When did Jesus “become sin for us”? Was it when he died? Was it when he was nailed to the cross? Was it at a random moment prior to his death? Why would the Father forsake the Son at this moment? I don’t think we can really answer this question, but it’s an important one.
- Does Sin have power over God? The danger with this view is that sin becomes more powerful than God. God cannot be present when sin is around. Surely it’s the opposite that is actually true. Sin cannot be in the presence of God. There is no reason for God to flee from sin, even as Christ becomes sin for us.
The other primary view I’ve heard regarding Jesus’ cry ties it to Psalm 22. The approach goes something like this:
When Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He is actually quoting the first line of Psalm 22. Six of the seven statements Jesus uttered on the cross can be linked to that Psalm. This shows that Jesus was thinking about the entire Psalm when he quotes the first line. Since the Psalm moves from despair to victory, Jesus’ words actually point his hearers to triumph rather than abandonment. In fact, v24b specifically says, “he [Father] has not hidden his face from him [Son] but has listened to his cry for help“.
I tend to lean toward this second understanding. However, at least in the versions I’ve heard, it also faces some difficulties that must be addressed.
- Do the words mean anything in themselves? I have difficulty believing that Jesus utters these words as a way of saying, “Hey I’m winning a victory here on the cross. Go read and reflect on Psalm 22:3-31.” Jesus could have started his quote in v3 if he wanted to emphasis victory. Wouldn’t it express a lot more confidence and faith in the Father to cry out, “Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One!” Carson notes, “Though OT texts are frequently cited with their full contexts in mind, they are never cited in such a way that the OT context effectively annuls what the text itself affirms.“
- Did Jesus experience despair and abandonment on the cross? It seems to me that some proponents of this view understate the agonies and torture of the cross. The cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” seems a very natural response to the physical and emotional pain Jesus experienced.
- Do we need to defend Jesus faith? I get a sense that proponents of this approach view the face value of Jesus’ words as an expression of doubt or an absence of faith. Of course, that seems incongruous with our understanding of Jesus as the Son of God. I don’t believe this is the case. Oftentimes our feelings don’t match our theological knowledge, and expressing those feelings doesn’t diminish a person’s faith. We can feel abandoned even when we know God is present. Also, the fact that in his cry Jesus addresses the Father and seems to expect Him to hear reflects an intrinsic dissonance within this statement.
The primary point that I want to clarify in my understanding of Jesus cry, is that I believe Jesus did experience forsakeness upon the cross. I’m not saying that God actually did abandon Jesus. I’m suggesting that as Jesus endured his torture and the fingers of death tightened he wasn’t singing, or thinking, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”. His cry demonstrates his humanity and his emotions, not his rational theology.
So yes, Jesus had the entirety of Psalm 22 in view, but the words he uttered still expressed a felt reality. And yes, I believe that the Father was present and heard that anguished cry.
A friend of mine has also blogged on this topic HERE.