General, Theology

Did the Father Abandon Jesus on the Cross?

אֵלִ֣י אֵ֭לִי‮‬ לָמָ֣ה עֲזַבְתָּ֑נִי
eloi eloi lama ‘zabachthani

This Sunday at Bedford Road, we spent some time exploring Jesus’s quote of Psalm 22 (Psalm 21 in LXX) when he was on the cross. This is perhaps the most well-known case of Jesus citing a lament from the Hebrew Scriptures; but it is often misinterpreted as well.

I referred to this misinterpretation as pop theology – which I think of as the modern form of folk religion. This is a shorthand for deviations from orthodoxy that are popularly expressed, but are nonetheless inconsistent with the faith preserved for generations.

There is a very, very important distinction to be made between pop theology and variations within orthodoxy. Pop theology takes a very complex, nuanced theological point that is necessary to make sense of the biblical narrative and oversimplifies it for popular consumption. I

ronically, this pop theology then often informs the theologies of succeeding generations and its errors become encoded into the matrix from which others form their theology. In the case of Jesus’s citation of Psalm 22, the pop version of an explanation varies but it includes such beliefs as:

  • God the Father abandoned Jesus on the cross
  • God the Father turned his back on Jesus
  • God and Jesus were separated on the cross
  • God was angry with Jesus because Jesus took on sin

These kinds of things pop up all the time in songs, particularly Easter songs, and handy devotionals people read. They think, “Wow! God abandoned Jesus for me!” It is a nice emotional experience; but is it an accurate reading of the Scriptures?

These pop versions of Jesus’s citation are dangerous because they do not properly resonate with the orthodox view of the Godhead. The position of the Church through the ages (regardless of denomination) has been that God is three persons of one essence, inseparable and eternal. Therefore, for God the Father to be separated from Christ on the cross would be contrary to the core tenet of orthodoxy.

As I noted in my message, if Jesus could be separated from God on the cross, then he would cease to be God; and therefore we would be hopeless. Therefore, if this pop theology position is true; then the Trinity, as we have understood it, is incorrect. I admit that this is a logical deduction from the orthodox view of the Trinity; but nonetheless, if the Trinity is true (and I believe it is), then this statement must be true.

What is the historical position on this?

Variations within orthodoxy are legitimate differences of opinion on how to interpret complex or difficult passages of the biblical narrative. Looking at the example of Jesus’s citation of Psalm 22, there are no fewer than four mainstream interpretations of Jesus’s use of the text. For a more academic overview, you can look to Matthew Rindge’s 2012 article in Journal of Biblical Literature, “Reconfiguring the Akedah and Recasting God: Lament and Divine Abandonment in Mark.” While I disagree with Rindge’s view, he does articulate the prevalent theories of interpretation.

None of the mainstream, orthodox views of Jesus’s utterance of Psalm 22 would admit to the slightest break of essence between God the Father and God the Son. As Leo the Great explained when confronted with these kinds of views being expressed by rogue councils in the 5th century:

We bid the simple and unthinking hearer not take the words, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” in a sense as if, when Jesus was fixed upon the wood of the cross, the omnipotence of the Father’s deity had left Him; seeing that God’s and man’s nature were so fully joined in Him that the union could not be destroyed by punishment nor by death . . . The Son, therefore, was not separated from the Father, nor the Father from the Son, and the unchangeable Godhead and the inseparable Trinity did not admit of any division.

Jesus, therefore cried with a loud voice, saying, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” in order to notify all how it behooved Him not to be rescued, not to be defended, but to be given up into the hands of cruel men, to become the Savior the world and the Redeemer of all men, not by misery, but by mercy; and not by the failure of strength, but by the determination to die. (Leo the Great, Sermon LXVIII On the Passion, XVII, Emphasis mine)

Likewise, John Calvin – the 16th century priest turned Swiss Reformer – wrote plainly on the subject when discussing the Book of Hebrews:

The second thing he [the author of Hebrews] mentions respecting Christ is, that he, as it became him, sought a remedy that he might be delivered from evils; and he said this that no one might think that Christ had an iron heart which felt nothing; for we ought always to consider why a thing is said. Had Christ been touched by no sorrow, no consolation could arise to us from his sufferings; but when we hear that he also endured the bitterest agonies of mind, the likeness becomes then evident to us. Christ, he says, did not undergo death and other evils because he disregarded them or was pressed down by no feeling of distress, but he prayed with tears, by which he testified the extreme anguish of his soul…

…Now he added this third particular, lest we should think that Christ’s prayers were rejected, because he was not immediately delivered from his evils; for at no time was God’s mercy and aid wanting to him. And hence we may conclude that God often hears our prayers, even when that is in no way made evident. For though it belongs not to us to prescribe to him as it were a fixed rule, nor does it become him to grant whatsoever requests we may conceive in our minds or express with our tongues, yet he shows that he grants our prayers in everything necessary for our salvation. So when we seem apparently to be repulsed, we obtain far more than if he fully granted our requests. (Commentary on Hebrews, 1549)

So, what happened on the cross?

Again, I will return to Calvin. While I disagree strongly with Calvin on a number of theological points, it is important to see that even someone emerging from medieval Roman Catholic theology was aware that care had to be employed when interpreting this incident.  Calvin discussed Jesus’s citation of Psalm 22 in his early catechism under the apostolic metaphor of Christ’s “descent into hell” rather than discuss some kind of divine abandonment.

 It is said that he descended into hell. This means that he had been afflicted by God, and felt the dread and severity of divine judgment, in order to intercede with God’s wrath and make satisfaction to his justice in our name, thus paying our debts and lifting our penalties, not for his own iniquity (which never existed) but for ours.

Yet it is not to be understood that the Father was ever angry toward him. For how could he be angry toward his beloved Son, “in whom he was well pleased”? Or how could he appease the Father by his intercession, if the Father regarded him as an enemy? But it is in this sense that he is said to have borne the weight of divine severity, since he was “stricken and afflicted” by God’s hand, and experienced all the signs of a wrathful and avenging God, so as to be compelled to cry out in deep anguish: “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Catechism of Geneva 1538, chapter 20.4; published in Hesselink, Calvin’s First Catechism, pg. 24, Emphasis mine)

Here, Calvin is very careful to point out that Jesus experienced some sort of weight or struggle before God the Father on the cross, but this struggle was not a separation of essence or being. As Steven Wedgworth of “The Calvinist International” pointed out in a recent, excellent survey of Calvin’s views on the topic:

Christ really felt the fullness of the wrath of God in order to satisfy divine justice. Yet, for all of this, Calvin also asserts that “the Father was never angry toward the Son,” nor ever truly regarded the Son as an enemy.”  This balance of affirmation and denial will characterize the rest of Calvin’s work on this topic.

What Wedgworth is offering is that we must understand that if there was any kind of separation between Jesus and the Father on the cross, it was an emotional or psychological experience, not a division within the godhead. Christ felt abandoned; but, as Calvin has pointed out, he was never truly separated from God. Lest we believe this to be a medieval view, the Baptist theologian Millard Erickson has also pointed out that this moment on the cross is an expression of “a very human expression of loneliness.” (Erickson, Christian Theology 3rd ed., 647).

To return to the question that I began this article with, “Did God the Father Abandon Jesus on the Cross?” The answer to that question should be an emphatic NO.

However, did Jesus experience some kind of separation of human fellowship with God the Father on the cross? That may very well be so.

As I noted in the message on Sunday, Jesus’s citation of Psalm 22 is meant to encompass the whole Psalm; and the Psalm itself has numerous expressions of a feeling of abandonment.

  • I cry but you do not answer (v 2)
  • I am poured out like water (v 14)
  • Evildoers encircle me (v 16)

Since Jesus is quoting the whole passage, it is reason to conclude that he is experiencing these feelings of a broken fellowship with the Father. This not, however, an ontological reality. In other words, the nature of his relationship with the Father has not changed – only the experience of it. Again, Calvin articulates this well. “Had Christ been touched by no sorrow, no consolation could arise to us from his sufferings; but when we hear that he also endured the bitterest agonies of mind, the likeness becomes then evident to us.” (Commentary on Hebrews)

In this, Jesus experiences the full range of human relationship with God (Hebrews 4:14-16). He experiences the weight of the sins of the world (1 John 2:2) and yet because of his divine nature and unity with the Father and Spirit, he is not separated from God as we are without Him.

Considering “Pop theology” properly

Just because something sounds good or fits into a pithy song or saying, that does not mean it is reflective of Christian orthodoxy. Orthodoxy stands at the core of our faith – regardless of denomination or persuasion – and all theology must bend to it. This sometimes puts us at odds with the popular version of Christianity; but that is a necessary part of being faithful to the Scriptures.

Theology is not monolithic. There is plenty of space for variation and opinion. The Arminian is no less entitled to his views than the Calvinist; and there is space for different polities and interpretational schema.

At the same time, orthodoxy does provide a litmus test for the veracity of many things being taught. The core tenets of the faith that all believers should affirm are few:

  • The inspiration of the Scriptures as the authoritative, complete revelation of God.
  • The full incarnation and unchanging divinity of Jesus Christ
  • The sufficiency of Christ as the only Savior of man

We can disagree on lots of variations; but anything that puts these points at risk must be tested and answered.


2 thoughts on “Did the Father Abandon Jesus on the Cross?”

  1. Hi Erik. Just stumbled into your blog here via your post on Anselm & Abelard – then I saw this. The Cry of Dereliction is a topic I’ve passionately engaged as well. Thanks for your helpful thoughts on this difficult topic – though I think even with respect to the Jesus’ interpretation of his own suffering and conclusions that his pain may have led him to have reached regarding God’s presence, positing any estrangement or absence that deconstructs the filial identity and affection that defined him personally and vocationally throughout his life is – for me – out of the question.


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