Permit me another reflection (or set of reflections) on the question of whether the Son was abandoned by the Father on the Cross. The question is often answered solely in terms of the Cry: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Disagreements over the meaning of the Cry are played out in terms of whether Jesus is referencing Psalm 22 and if so how this might or might not inform our understanding of what Jesus believed to be the state of his relationship with God to be. My own sense is that this cry is indeed a reference to Psalm 22 and that, given the context of the Psalm, what Jesus is actually saying is “I am not abandoned by God as you suppose,” which is the opposite of what many take the Cry to mean. But it comes as bad news to some that Jesus did not suffer from any dereliction of mind or belief regarding the Father’s abiding love, intentions, support or presence throughout his passion.
In this post I think it would be helpful to expand the search beyond the Cry itself for clues to understanding how Jesus might have intended these words. How did Jesus view his Cross? Did he anticipate his own suffering? Did he describe it ahead of time? Did he saying anything during his trial that might give us an insight into what he thought was going on or what he believed would be the meaning of his suffering? What else did he say while on the Cross? Can his statements in any of these contexts help us understand his own understanding of his suffering?
I think there are significant statements Jesus makes that reveal his perspective on his own suffering. I invite you to consider what Jesus says before, during and after (in a manner of speaking) the Cross.
Prior to the Cross
First, Jesus anticipates his sufferings and resurrection (Mk 8.31; 9.30-31; 10.33-34; Mt 16.21-28; 17.22-23; 20.17-19; Lk 9.22-27). We repeatedly meet with Jesus’ prediction that “the Son of Man will be betrayed, suffer, die, and on the third day rise” (and similar phrases). It’s clear that Jesus knows he will be betrayed and murdered. He knows he will be handed over to religious scapegoating violence. There’s no surprise here. In addition, and importantly, he is as confident that he will be vindicated as he is certain that he will suffer and die.
Second, Jesus makes it clear that “No man takes my life from me. I lay it down. I take it up.” Not only does he know the game-plan, but he is quarterbacking the play. Some want to ignore or dismiss the implications of Jesus’ claim that he will raise up his own body, but it has to be taken into any account of what one takes Jesus to mean by the Cry. I suggest that at the very least this means Jesus decides to submit himself to be killed and that nothing done to him by others wrests his command of the narrative and meaning of his suffering from him. This in itself makes any deconstruction of the divine identity Jesus enjoys exegetically untenable.
Third, a passage of central importance for understanding how Jesus viewed his upcoming suffering is the Passover meal Jesus shares with his disciples the night before he was crucified (Mt. 26; Mk 14; Lk 22; Jn 13), a meal not taken primarily from the Levitical repertoire of blood sacrifices but from a meal commemorating God’s deliverance of Israel from captivity (a point which N.T. Wright develops at some length) and the re-establishment of covenant. The meal anticipated the Exodus. For the Jews of Jesus’ day it anticipated the renewal of covenant for Israel fully returned from exile. The symbols of bread and wine anticipate deliverance and fulfillment of the covenant not through the pouring out of wrath on Jesus. Much more could be said here. I’ll just suggest that the symbols within the context of the meal commemorating the Passover – the renewal of covenant – suggest Jesus has a perspective on his imminent suffering that is not related to the satisfaction of divine wrath, certainly nothing involving his being rejected or abandoned by the Father.
Fourth, though Jesus clearly believes he will be abandoned and forsaken by others, even his disciples, he does not believe the Cross is where his Father will forsake him. Jn 16.31-33 make this point explicit:
“Do you now believe?” Jesus replied. “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Besides explicitly declaring that his Father would be with him in his upcoming ordeal, Jesus’ point (Jn 16.33) is that how God would be with him on the Cross would ground his disciples’ own peace in their own upcoming afflictions. That is, how the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is how the Father will be with them in their suffering – precisely the opposite point which interpreters make who view the Cry as expressing Jesus’ despairing belief that God had in fact abandoned him.
Lastly, add to these Jesus’ very human struggle in the Garden (Mt. 26; Mk 14; Lk 22) when he prays “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” Does this somehow negate his previously belief that death lies in his future? Is the doubt expressed in the Garden the beginning of a full blown dereliction of mind that overwhelms him on the Cross? That’s difficult to imagine. I’m not suggesting that no human doubt with respect to whether his death is necessary to fulfilling his mission is consistent. After all, Jesus is fulfilling human nature by offering it obediently to God in the very circumstances of finitude and suffering that define our journey. But in any event, those doubts are faced and settled upon in the Garden, and Jesus goes to the Cross resolved upon death as ‘the way’ and so has already integrated the certainty of death and suffering into his self-understanding.
My point is that this process doesn’t reduce Jesus’ sense of identity and mission to the despairing dereliction some suppose. Struggle? Yes. Deliberation? Yes. Facing death within the finite capacities of human nature? Yes. Having his deepest sense of self, identity, and mission deconstructed – essentially his mind blow – by the belief that his Father abandons and forsakes him? That isn’t a plausible reading of the texts.
These five sources of information from prior to Jesus’ passion suggest that Jesus’ understanding of the Cross had been forged over time and in the most intimate of conversations between him and his Father and represent Jesus’ belief that he has come to fulfill Israel’s calling and covenant history. He knows the what, the why, and the whence (resurrection) of his suffering to come, and his understanding of the Cross did not include “being alone” or “abandoned” by the Father. Those promoting divine abandonment, however, suppose that although Jesus anticipated the suffering of the Cross and its rejection, and knew he would be vindicated through resurrection, and although he believed the Father would be supportively present with him, this all comes unraveled in Jesus’ mind on the Cross as he ceases to believe it.
On the Cross
Comments Jesus makes while suffering include:
“Father, forgiven them, for they know not what they do.”
“Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
“It is finished.”
“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
To Mary, “Woman, here is your son,” and to John, “Here is your mother.”
On the Cross Jesus has the presence of mind to connect his suffering purposefully to his mission and his identity as the Son beloved of his Father. He forgives sin, bestows eternal life, identifies himself as an innocent scapegoat, calls God his Father, has the presence of mind to care for his mother and John (Jn 19.26, which von Balthasar, interestingly, interprets as Jesus actually rejecting Mary as his mother in order to bring her into a participation of his own abandonment by God) confidently commits his spirit to his Father, and dies satisfied in the knowledge that his life’s mission is “finished” – that is, he continues throughout his passion to do what he sees the Father doing. This is perfectly consistent with the confidence he expresses prior to the Cross in what is to occur and what it will mean. Given what he says on the Cross, there is every indication that Jesus’ perspective on his own identity as the beloved of his Father and the success of his mission was not deconstructed or reduced to despair or dereliction by the intensity of his pain or by any internal perception or spiritual sensibility that God had abandoned him. He meaning-makes throughout his suffering without giving up any of this.
After the Cross
One post-resurrection passage that sheds light on Jesus’ interpretation of his own sufferings is Luke 24.25-27; 44-48 (his discussion with the two on the road to Emmaus):
He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
What’s interesting here is the absence of any explanation by Jesus of his cross in terms of abandonment or godforsakenness. The plan and purpose of his suffering is summarized as anticipated from betrayal to resurrection. One is justified, I think, in suspecting whether Christ believed the atoning moment of his suffering was the Father’s having abandoned him if prior to, during, and after his crucifixion Jesus never explains his sufferings in such terms but anticipates the Cross and behaves upon it in ways utterly incompatible with his thinking of himself in such terms.
What other post-resurrection statements (of Jesus or others) might shed light on Jesus’ view of his own Cross? I’ll mention these as food for thought without going into detail, but the resurrected Jesus says to Paul, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9.4) What might this tell us about Christ and suffering? Anything? And what are we to make of Paul’s statement that he “fills up in his flesh what is lacking of the sufferings of Christ”? (Col 1.24) Does Paul anticipate entering into an experience of Christ’s passion means having God abandon him on some measure? That’s more than a hard sell. In Phil 3 as well Paul makes his inheritance of eternal life dependent upon his “participation in Christ’s sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” Are we to imagine this includes an experience of divine abandonment? Same point regarding Paul’s understanding of identification with Christ in his death through water baptism. And what of Heb. 12.1-3 which introduces “hope” as a defining motivation for Jesus’ ability to endure the Cross? How is that hope sustained alongside his believing himself to be forsaken by God? Then there are 2Cor 5.21 (“God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself”) and Gal 3.13 (Christ becomes a curse for us). All these passages are worth exploring at length, but they suggest that the integration into life of a believer’s identification with Christ’s sufferings are anything but an experience of sharing in Christ’s being rejected or abandoned by God.
Consider as well whether God really forgives sin if he pours upon Christ the “death consequences” we deserve. It would seem that rather than forgiving sin that God prosecutes it, for if Christ suffers the godforsakenness we deserve as the consequence of our sin, then God was in Christ counting men’s sins against them, which is just the opposite of what Paul says takes place in Christ. We suggest that to take passages like 2Cor 5.21 and Gal 3.13 as expressive of the truth of God’s perspective and motivation is to read God as scapegoating Jesus in mythological terms.
Paul cannot mean (2Cor 5.21) that Jesus literally becomes sin in an ontological sense, or that his human, created nature even is transformed literally into sin, for Paul credits this transformation to God. I think if we read Paul here in terms of the broader narrative of the gospel and in the context of Jesus’ own anticipations and convictions, Christ’s being made sin has to be read as God’s turning Jesus over to the violent, scapegoating mechanisms by which we (not God) identify the innocent victim with our sin and its consequences. God’s “making Jesus to become sin” is thus equivalent to God’s having Jesus become what we (not God) consider to be the divinely appointed mechanism by which our sin and violence are addressed – i.e., the scapegoat.
Same with Gal. 3. God didn’t curse Jesus and God isn’t of the opinion that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed of God. That’s Israel’s false belief and her own scapegoating, skewed perspective, not God’s. But God does give himself to it – i.e., to be treated by it, allowing it to exhaust its resources on him. But if it is not true that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed by God, how can God demonstrate this to be a false belief? He demonstrates it by hanging on a tree without being cursed (or abandoned) by God. Christ’s “becoming a curse” for us, then, is equivalent to Christ’s being treated by us in all the ways we identify with having been cursed by God, not because we’re right in believing God to curse the innocent victims we hang on trees, but precisely because we’re wrong, and so that we can be proved wrong, to have ever thought so.
Lastly, there is the question of the application of a proper understanding of the Cross for Christians who are suffering innocently. The Cross functions as an example of how Christians are to suffer, not how they are not to suffer because Jesus suffered. If the moment that defines Christ’s Cross is Jesus’ derelict belief that God had abandoned him, then it’s difficult to see how the Cross becomes an example for Christian suffering, for no NT writer promotes the view that Christians are called to suffer God’s abandonment of them. Quite the contrary (Mt 6.24f; Rom 8.31-39; Col 1.24; 1Pet 2.21; 4.12-19; Heb 12.2). But how does the Cross exemplify the promise to us of God’s sustaining presence in suffering if it’s true that the Cross is most fundamentally an embodiment of God’s abandonment of Christ in fulfillment of the death consequences of our sin? Hebrews 12.2 grounds Jesus’ ability to endure the Cross in a vision of the joy his suffering would result in, hardly the kind of perspective on one’s suffering that a derelict, God-forsaken mind would be capable of. But if Jesus has the joy-giving purpose of his death in mind, as the perspective from which he interprets his own suffering as he suffering, he can hardly think of himself abandoned by the Father.
We have in these competing interpretations of the Cry fundamentally different visions of the God-World relation and its relational, aesthetic, and moral dynamics. So as the Knight said to Indy, “Choose wisely.”