Just 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.