Did the Father turn his face away? Part 2

crucified godJust over three years ago (in the same month of May) I wrote a post which has received some of the heaviest traffic on this blog, perhaps barring one on the correct interpretation of Revelation 19:10. I can’t explain the popularity of the latter, but for the former I think I can have a go.

The post was entitled “Did the Father turn  his face away?” and I think has received a lot of hits because it addresses a fairly hot topic of conversation around the subject of the atonement. Jesus’ first cry on the cross was “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” which led theologians to speculate that due to the weight of sin and guilt that was being placed upon Jesus, and as part of his punishment for our sin, the Father abandoned the Son there at the cross, ‘turning his face away’ – so to speak. It applies his cry to the theory of ‘penal substitution’.

I’ve received a few bits of feedback about that post and recently had another friend pick it up and post his grateful thoughts on Facebook. However as the years have rolled by I have obviously continued to reflect on the subject and, I hope, deepened my understand of what is going on at the cross in terms of our atonement and our reconciliation with God. Three years ago I think I wanted to make a purely polemical point; I wanted to be the antagonist and show through my six carefully ordered points that I was right about this – the Father obviously didn’t turn his face away because Psalm 22 tells us precisely this.

It’s still a compelling point and one worth thinking through carefully – and one which I know has convinced other theologians (not because I wrote a blog post, may I hasten to add!). On the broader question even folks like Andrew Wilson here in the UK who are firmly within the Reformed camp are breaking away on this point (although he says he doesn’t mind the line ‘the Father turns his face away’, he’s obviously not convinced about the centrality of such an idea). But as I’ve reflected on the issue I’ve come both to a stronger belief in this position but also to a wider understanding of what it means that Jesus might have been in some sense ‘abandoned by God’. True, I’d already picked up on a phrase (not coined it myself) which went some way towards what I’ve begun to understand, namely that ‘God was in Christ experiencing God-forsakenness’. But there’s more to be reflected on there. If all we do is come to Jesus’ cry and immediately raise up an argument against any notion that he was actually abandoned by God then we’ve only clarified what it doesn’t mean – but the work still has to be done on what it does mean.

I’m currently reading Jürgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God. He is a theologian in the Reformed line following on from the work of Barth and making some of the next moves, and thus I find that his position reflects in general the Protestant tradition that Jesus was indeed abandoned by his Father as Reformed theology has said. Yet early in the book I discovered an opening into thinking about this ‘God-forsakenness’ that I found beneficial and fruitful for reflecting on the cross. Moltmann rightly draws attention to the plight not just of sinners who need saving by the cross but also those who suffer in this world even unjustly, and then in some sense may themselves feel abandoned by God. Here the phrase made absolute sense to me. The term has often been applied to penal substitution theory in thinking about our atonement, but as far as the Gospel narratives are concerned, and certainly in the case of Mark and Matthew who record this cry of Jesus, it makes much more sense to see him in the immediacy of the narrative not as the sacrificial lamb (though that may be hidden within the text) but as the one who is suffering unjustly. It is one of the beautiful aspects of the cross that God has been so far down into the depths of despair and suffering that no human being is beyond reach of that moment.

Thus I don’t think it’s inadequate to have as a starting point the suggestion that this cry from Jesus’ lips is the cry of a human being at the very depths of suffering and truly feeling God-forsaken, just as did the writer of Psalm 22. Every human being who has known that kind of despair has there a point of contact with God. It seems to me at least more helpful to apply it in this way than to apply it to a theory of atonement which in the Gospel narratives at least, is not immediately in view. Not that our reading of the Gospels necessitates that; I think the writers could have been well aware that there were theological truths to be drawn and developed from their tellings of the story, as no doubt when the traditions were passed on orally, people must have commented on the significance of this or that moment. But in view of the curious sense it would make in trying to tease out a particular view of what’s going on in the Godhead at that point, given the various points I made in that first post three years ago, I find then more to positively reflect on as I try to wrestle with the fact that Jesus – the living, breathing incarnation and revelation of God himself – let up a cry that some of us would sometimes think too terrible to utter even ourselves – “WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME??” Moltmann suggests in his book that the cry was more bloodily incoherent but developed into this statement as the church took it up and sought to understand it; I disagree with the suggestion of the historical redaction (taken as it is from Bultmann’s school of thought) but am brought nonetheless to realise the horror of the sound as it escapes his lips.

So while I remain in principle convinced that it’s not correct to talk in terms of the Father turning his face away from his Son at the cross, I am seeking to understand to a greater depth what it means that Jesus might have been – or at least ‘felt’ – God-forsaken.

As far as it pertains to penal substitution, which also continues to be a hot topic, I may have been blasé recently and decided I agreed with Greg Boyd who suggests that the theory of penal substitution places redemptive violence front and centre of the Gospel (which would be a bad thing), yet on reflection I can’t abandon it just for this. Though it is a good polemical point for anyone committed to non-violence (and I certainly am), it doesn’t seem quite adequate when considering what was necessary, what was inevitable, what was of God and what was of men and of the evil one at the cross, how Jesus offered himself and so on. Plus, I find Scripture too explicit in Isaiah 53 and other places.

These themes will go on being hot; I only hope that we can go deeper together as a church in really understanding them and in bringing them to the world.

8 thoughts on “Did the Father turn his face away? Part 2

  1. Interesting that you’re thinking about this just now, Ben. I tend to read the Bible with a poet’s eye and pay less attention to the finer points of theology. That said, I’ve never felt comfortable with the idea of the Father turning His face away.
    However, this Easter, I began to write a poem for Good Friday, which is as yet incomplete, where the focus is on the contrast between the Father’s continual affirmation “This is my Son, whom I love, listen to Him”, or “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” and the utter desolation that Jesus experienced on the cross. I tend to agree with your earlier contention, that God cannot be separated, and I also agree with your more recent position, that Jesus must have EXPERIENCED, in totality, the feeling of being separated from God. Whereas He had tackled every challenge in His life with the Father’s affirmation ringing in His ears, I suspect that on the cross He no longer heard it. That makes His continued addressing of the Father all the more remarkable: now He had lost the privilege of hearing divine affirmation and yet, the human being in Him STILL chose the path of obedience, declaring “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit”.
    I believe Jesus’ cry of desolation and subsequent surrender speak to all those of us who feel we have failed. There are many people who give their lives to a cause, whether it be a mission field, a church, a religious vocation or a relationship, always sure that God is affirming them in it. If they reach a point where they feel that all their endeavours have failed and they have somehow lost God’s approval, they lose their very identity, which has been built around the cause they have espoused. I really believe that Jesus had to experience this loss of identity, the feeling that maybe He wasn’t God’s beloved Son after all, that perhaps everything He’d lived for was a horrible, sick joke. Only in this way could He understand the depths of human despair, which are plumbed when our very selves sink without trace in the shipwreck of all our hopes and dreams. AND CRUCIALLY, He is also a model for those of us who so lose our identity, for in choosing still to surrender Himself to a Father whose presence He no longer senses, He exercises that obedience which results in RESURRECTION. Thanks to Him, no-one ever has to lose hope at such times of shipwreck, for even when we have lost all sense of who WE are, we can cling to the Father and find our resurrection in Him.

    As an aside, have you had any conversation with Stuart Townend about this? It would be really interesting to find out what he has to say.
    Here’s an off-the-wall suggestion – might Father momentarily have turned His face away because He simply could not bear to see His son suffering so much? – we see all kinds of ‘human’ attributes ascribed to God throughout the Old Testament, including feminine attributes. As a mother, I wonder ………..

    Thanks, Ben.
    Katy Trigg.

    1. Hello, I’m a Jr./senior high teacher at a private Christian School and love wrestling with my students on topics like this in our morning devotional times. The real reason for the reply is I’m wondering if your poem was ever completed and if you would be willing to share it!

      Thanks, God bless.

  2. Hey Ben, I am not sure if you remember me. I am Craig Gaunt, i spent some time with you and James Barnes. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post and have a blog of my own if you would care to read it. I have often struggled with those words also, and I have enjoyed the pondering over them in the sense that Christ was identifying completely with humanity when it feels the pangs of severe injustice and abandonment. There is a book that explains this further, though not from a reformed position but a methodist one. Adam Hamilton’s “24 hours that changed the world”

    1. Hi Craig yeah I totally remember you! Glad you enjoyed it, also good to hear about the book recommendation, I’ll make a note of that to check it out!

  3. Thanks for allowing others to journey with you and your thought processes on this issue.

    My understanding is far less complete than what you’ve described. I’m asking many questions, and I see God revealing bits of the picture more and more.

    I would say that it was possible for Jesus to enter into the fullness of the experience of being forsaken even if He wasn’t actually forsaken. Just as humankind’s expulsion from the garden of Eden would eventually take root in the heart of man as a deep seeded lie that God had forsaken them. Not only did sin bring shame it also brought with it a lie that said because of their sin God sent them out of the Garden, when in fact it was because of His love for them that they were sent out to stop them gaining eternal life for themselves whilst living in their wretched self-dependent state.

    The point that I’m at now is “Does that then mean that Jesus believed the lie that He was forsaken?” My heart says that He didn’t believe the lie… just as He never actually sinned, but He still took on and experienced all the effects of our sin. He experienced our death, He also experienced (even if for the briefest moment in time) the feeling of the Father turning His face away. I’m convinced however that the Father never did.


  4. Thanks for the Post! I’m way late into reading/commenting, but I just wanted to take the time to share with you my thoughts after reading this, since you took the time to write it.

    I found this post while trying to search for the verse that says “that God turned his face away”. So yeah… ha!ha!ha!…that doesn’t exist. Super hilarious! Though very sad how our 21st century faith holds on to lyrics to songs and the like better than scripture. Obviously, I’m no scholar or theologian, just a good example of the modern lay Christian.

    So yeah, I had this firm belief in this idea that until reading this found out there is no literal scriptural backing for. I can’t say that I’m totally won to your side of believing there was no abandonment at all. But ,at least now, I realize that the “face turning” is just a poetic device.

    A couple interesting thoughts-
    Towards your point that Christ merely FELT abandoned: one person commented on the last post how Jesus didnt become a sinner, but just took all the guilt of the sin. Which got me thinking about guilt. My mom suffers terribly from an over developed sense of guilt. There was an incident once where she did something that to everyone else was nothing but she felt so guilty about it that she started hiding from God, and eventually felt completely cut off from Him. I wonder how the guilt of every sin of every person in the world through out centuries would make you feel?

    But towards the evangelical viewpoint that Christ WAS abandoned in some way: God is holy, holy, holy. Holy meaning set-apart (essentially from sin), how does that coexist with someone carrying all the guilt of sin? That is a mystery. Same as God in someway turning away from Jesus at that point on the cross. Though I suppose we as humans also block out traumatic things at times and yet are not completely separated from it- we are still one human with one brain, just our acknowledgement of it has changed. I also don’t know if I feel that Psalm 22 gives explicit proof to your argument. I think about Judges, they did “evil in the sight of the Lord” and God let them be enslaved for years. In some way, he turned from them (stopped really acknowledging their deep relationship – my people), yet when they cried out, he heard and delivered them. It seems to me that Jesus is in one short sentence crying out to God all the pleas of Psalm 22 as an assured yearning for God to come back to Him.

    So obviously, I’m divided in my thinking, but I’m very glad to have my eyes opened to a mystery of God. Rather than blindly believing.

  5. It would be helpful to have a link to your original post please. I am researching this psalm for a bible study. Thank you.

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