In how many sermons, in how many assertions, in how many minds this week has the belief that God abandoned Jesus on the cross overpowered the real message?
For Christians, what we say about the cross must be among the weightiest matters. More specifically, what we say the cross reveals about God is of absolute importance. That so many congregations makes central to their theology of the cross the idea that God abandoned Jesus is an error of massive proportions. No, that is an understatement. It is an unmitigated tragedy.
Jesus cries, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Psalm 22:1). Did God abandon Jesus?
I repudiate the notion altogether.
“He did not ignore him; when he cried out to him, he responded” (Psalm 22:24).
The cross is the moment when God With Us screams out the meaning of his identity, not the moment when God With Us suddenly becomes God Left Us. In this last, most terrible moment, when Life takes death into himself, he stays. This is the very meaning of God’s faithfulness. The Father does not abandon when things are their ugliest. There is no compulsion in the divine being that makes him unable to bear the sight of sin or forces him to turn his back. He is not that father. He is not that god.
The incarnation comes to its climax in death, and its purpose comes to completion only if the Word who was God and took on flesh is God in that moment. “Our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us” (Titus 2:13–14) did not abandon himself. He did not turn his face from sin and death—he did not find in his moment of deepest humanness that humanity’s brokenness was too repugnant to tolerate. No, he took it. He bore up under the full extent of its horror and repulsiveness, and he made it die with him. This is accomplished because Father did not abandon Son.
Did God experience godforsakenness? Yes. He entered completely into humanity’s experience of sin and death, thereby knowing the meaning of the Psalmist’s cry of desperation, his feeling of godforsakenness. This is the mystery of the cross: that life endured death to conquer it, that glory was humiliated to become more glorious, that God tasted godforsakenness to prove his presence. But God no more abandoned Jesus than God abandoned the Psalmist. He has never forsaken us for one moment. The cross and resurrection are the final word: he never will.
My family was reading some children’s Bible last night whose “translation” was laden with the typical nonsense. It says:
“Papa?” Jesus cried, frantically searching the sky.
“Papa? Where are you? Don’t leave me!”
And for the first time—and the last—when he spoke, nothing happened. Just a horrible, endless silence. God didn’t answer. He turned away from his Boy.
My six-year-old daughter’s response was immediate: “That’s not very nice.”
My only response was, “No, if it were true, it sure wouldn’t be.”
We can’t have it both ways. The cross is either God’s message of love despite our sin or his message of abandonment because of our sin. He is either dealing with sin by taking its consequences personally or he is turning away from sin so his divinity doesn’t get dirty.
I can understand the logic of the abandonment claim. It is the same logic that makes sense of the theological construct called substitutionary atonement: God can accept the sinner only if he has no sin. The sin has to be transferred like an account balance to the substitute, Jesus, so that God can turn his back on Jesus instead of the sinner. I can understand that logic; I just can’t understand why anyone thinks it coheres with the biblical narrative. The story of Scripture is the story of God refusing to abandon us despite our sin, of his promise and purpose being stronger than our unfaithfulness, of his holiness dissolving impurity rather than being threatened by it. Jesus touches someone who is unclean, and they become clean; he does not turn away from them until they are clean enough to accept. His holiness does not remain separate from sin; it confronts sin. God is not so holy that he can’t stand to be near sin; he is so holy that he conquers it.
I fear that Christians falsely believe they gain a sense of how God deals with sin by this objective scheme of transferred guilt, thereby failing to hear God say at the cross precisely that he will not abandon the guilty. If we gain a little by pulling Isaiah 59:1–2 from its context in order to make sense of Psalm 22:1 pulled form its context (or Jesus’ words pulled from their context), we lose so much more by being unable in the end to say:
I will declare your name to my countrymen!
In the middle of the assembly I will praise you!
You loyal followers of the Lord, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
All you descendants of Israel, stand in awe of him!
For [because] he did not despise or detest the suffering of the oppressed;
he did not ignore him;
when he cried out to him, he responded.
How could we praise God for abandoning Jesus in his most desperate moment? Even my six-year-old knows there is no love in a father who would do that.
“Let all the people of the earth acknowledge the Lord and turn to him” (Psalm 22:27) because he is God With Us, through death and beyond it.