“My God why have you forsaken me?” – Jesus
It’s almost Easter! And, it is quite common for someone to ask, “Dr. Paul, how do you understand what was happening when Jesus cried out on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”
Daring to offer answers about what is wrapped in mystery is “above my pay grade” however I have read widely and thought deeply about the question so I will offer some responses for others to ponder.
G.O.D as “Gandolf with an Attitude”:
While Early Church Fathers expressed their view that a literal reading of Scripture was the lowest and least preferred approach, it is the only way many moderns know how to understand the Biblical narratives. A literal reading of Jesus’ cry from the cross can give the impression that the Father abandoned Jesus in that tormenting moment. Some suggest that since Jesus ‘became sin,’ (2 Cor. 5:21), God had to turn his back on Jesus because he could not ‘look on sin.’ That’s what my church taught and it was the accepted truth in some of theological training – they avoided questions about Jesus being “fully God” yet looking on “sin and sinners” with compassion and partying with them. Trying to get my mind around a loving Father needing to abandon his son at the moment of greatest need requires some logical mind-twists. I could never quite accept that this was the full story yet asking too many questions was not well received — still isn’t.
That view goes hand-in-hand with the ‘penal satisfaction theory’ of the atonement. Generally, it assumes that God’s need for justice for all of humanities sins could only be satisfied if enough pain and suffering was inflicted on Jesus. The movie The Passion of Christ portrays that theology in living bloody color — a film I refuse to watch. Obviously, I no longer hold that view. It portrays what my friend Dr. C. Baxter Kruger calls G.O.D. looking more like Gandalf with a bad attitude than the compassionate, loving Father revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus.
A Message of Hope from the Cross:
Scripture must be read through the lens of the life and teachings of Jesus or it risks being distorted since he is the perfect image of his Father’s character. The clear implication of Jesus declaring “… no one knows the Father, except the Son and those to whom he reveals Him” (Matt. 5:27) is that his revelation of the Father’s character supersedes the understanding of Abraham, Moses, the Prophets and all others. Reading through that filter makes hearing a cry of hopelessness from the cross inconsistent with Jesus’ consistently demonstrated faith in his Father.
For too long I was oblivious that Jesus’ exclamation on the cross was quoting the opening verse of Psalm 22. Reading the first 18 verses is ab emotionally distressing description of the trauma and alienation Jesus surely experienced on the cross:
“But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; …For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me” … they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” (6-7;16;18)
So where’s the hope? Jesus lived in an oral culture where memorizing long portions of Psalms was more common than we can imagine. Some scholars suggest that Psalm 22-24 may have been memorized together like we might learn verses of a song or speech by repeating them over and over.
It is a stretch to put ourself in the crucifixion scene; imagining the deep emotional despair of family, disciples and followers. It is hard to picture it without filtering the experience through knowing that the resurrection is coming and without that, where’s any hopeful message?
What if quoting the first few words of Psalm 22 triggered Jewish observers to begin remembering the words of the Psalm in their mind — like someone singing just the words “amazing grace…” or “Oh say can you see…” triggers my memory to continue completing the rest of the lyrics.
Psalm 22 takes a remarkable shift from despairing to expressing faith and confidence in the Lord in the second half:
“For he (the Lord) did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him…. All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations.” (22:24; 26-27)
Completing the words of Psalm 22 could lead into hearing the remarkable words of Psalm 23; words that generations of people have stirred courage and comfort walking through seemingly impossible situations where they too cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.” (23:4)
And then the crescendo of Psalm 24’s bold exclamation of faith and confidence:
“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. They will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation.” (24:3-5)
Maybe the message Jesus was wanting to communicate was something like:
“Don’t be blinded by the circumstances you see. You are looking at the one who’s clean hands and pure heart is lifting all humanity. There is more going on here than you can imagine. Have faith in my faith in my Father.”
Maybe that’s the message of hope that you and I need to hear again in Jesus’ cry from the cross in the face of the temptation to allow hopelessness to create doubt and fear?
I understand how many people continue to read the crucifixion narrative through the lens of an angry God — it was to me for many years. However, I now find it to be a pernicious and destructive understanding of what was happening between a loving Father and Son in those moments on behalf of humanity and all of creation.
But was that all that was happening? Wasn’t Jesus’ cry from the cross also an authentic expression of his sense of aloneness in the midst of the agony of suffering?
To be continued…… Part 2 A Message of Hopelessness or Hope?