One of the more prominent arguments used to support penal substitution atonement theology is the cry of Jesus from the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34). The view is that because God is punishing Jesus for our sins, and he “became” sin for us, God turns his back on Christ when he’s on the cross, and that is why Jesus cries out the way he did. Some examples of this thinking:
Martin Luther said this ‘cry of abandonment’ means Jesus “descended into hell for your sake and was forsaken by God as one eternally damned”. (Treatise on Preparing to Die)
Jesus was crying out in anguish because of the separation He now experienced from His heavenly Father for the first and only time in all of eternity…. Because the Son had taken sin upon Himself, the Father turned His back. ..In some way and by some means, in the secrets of divine sovereignty and omnipotence, the God-Man was separated from God for a brief time at Calvary, as the furious wrath of the Father was poured out on the sinless Son, who in matchless grace became sin for those who believe in Him.
At 3 o’clock that dark Friday afternoon, the Father turned His face away and the ancient, eternal fellowship between Father and Son was broken as divine wrath rained down like a million Soddoms and Gomorrah’s. In the terror and agony of it all, Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus did for a while cease to know the intimacy of fellowship with His heavenly Father, just as a disobedient child ceases for a while to have intimate, normal, loving fellowship with his human father.
Since Jesus was dying for our sin as our substitute, He was experiencing the agony of separation from His Father. It was the agony of hell
As Jesus hung on the cross, His Father in heaven “turned away” from Him. Habakkuk 1:13 confirms that God’s eyes “are too pure to look on evil.” And at that moment, Christ cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
The last quote contains a Scripture passage to support the view that the Father turns away from the son – Habakkuk 1:13 says that God’s eyes “are too pure to look on evil.” And since the Son has become “evil” in the Father’s eyes, God is required to turn away. This is based on 2 Corinthians 5:21 that says “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
This would somewhat prove the point that you can find a Scripture to support any view, especially when taken out of context. Can God really not look on sin? Is He forced to turn away? Does He really “change” because of something we do – sin? Consider as one piece of evidence to the contrary – when Adam and Eve sinned, who hid? And who showed up? God did not turn away from them, but they had moved far away from Him. They became “God-forsaken” by their own actions and change in the state of their being. (Genesis 3)
There are multiple Scriptures that contradict the view that God cannot look upon sin without turning away. Jeremiah 16:17 tells us “For my eyes are upon all their ways; they are not hid from me, nor is their iniquity concealed from my eyes.” Job 34:21 tells us that “For his eyes are upon the ways of a man, and he sees all his steps.” Proverbs 15:3 says “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.”
And when we put the quote from Habakkuk in context, we see a different story. The prophet is not declaring that God is incapable of looking on evil. Rather he is somewhat “railing” at God because He sees the evil and in the prophet’s opinion, He should be doing something about it. That discourse in Sacred Scripture is labeled “The Prophet’s Complaint.” The entirely of verse 13 says “Thou who art of purer eyes than to behold evil and canst not look on wrong, why dost thou look on faithless men, and art silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” (Habakkuk 1:13)
One of the most serious problems with the thought that the Father could turn His back on the Son, even for a moment, is this idea completely contradicts and invalidates the dogma of the Trinity professed by Christians. The Trinitarian belief is that there are three distinct persons who are one God – they are inseparable according to the Catechism (CCC267). Consider the wording from the various statements of faith from different Christian groups provided in this post. They are “inseparable.” They are “without division of nature, essence, or being.” They are “of the same essence and power.” They are “of one substance.” They are “distinct but inseparable, eternally one in essence and power.” They are “not divided, nor separated in essence.” The dogma of the Trinity, this most basic, fundamental, and necessary dogma of the faith shared by all Christians in reality is denied with any thought that the Father could turn his back on the Son during the crucifixion. Do we really believe they are “eternally one” and “inseparable”? If so, it is not possible that the they could separate, even for a moment and still be the Triune God.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this clear statement on the matter – “Jesus has only God as Father. He was never estranged from the Father because of the human nature which he assumed.” (CCC503)
Sometimes you will see a Protestant view that recognizes that the idea that the Father turns his back on the Son during his passion cannot be reconciled with a belief in the Trinity. Here’s an example of that:
Sometimes it can be realized in Reformed theology that the idea that the Father turned his back on the Son during the crucifixion conflicts with the dogma of the Trinity, and this view may be presented:
“The question has been asked, ‘How can God forsake God?’ The answer must be that God the Father deserted the Son’s human nature. . .” Jesus is God incarnate, with all the qualities which make man man including a human spirit and emotions.
While this view resolves the issue with the dogma of the Trinity, it creates another with the dogma of the Hypostatic Union (Hypostatic Union1, Hypostatic Union2). Christ is only one person, not two. As much as a parent may look at their child and recognize certain traits are attributed to the other parent, it’s not possible to “turn away” from that aspect of your child and not turn your back on him. If we truly believe that Jesus is one person, the Father cannot turn his back on his “human nature” without turning his back on the person of Christ. Which sends us back to the problem with the dogma of the Trinity.
So how do we reconcile Christ’s cry from the cross with an understanding that the Father in no way ever abandoned the Son or turned his back on Him?
We can begin by returning to the Last Supper. There Jesus tells the apostles that “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” (John 15:10) The word “abide” simply means “remain” which is how many newer translations render the verse. Jesus indicates he has remained in the Father’s love because of his obedience. His obedience will next take him to the cross, where some propose he will no longer remain in the Father’s love but will instead become “vile and detastable” to Him. So is he wrong? Will he no longer remain in his Father’s love even though he remains obedient, even to death on a cross? (Philippians 2:8) That would seem to be most contradictory to his words.
There will indeed be those who will abandon Jesus during his passion. He speaks to this at the Last Supper as well. “The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, every man to his home, and will leave me alone; yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me.” (John 16:32) Christ leaves the Last Supper with complete confidence that the Father will be with him as he undertakes his passion on our behalf. To believe that the Father then abandons him would require us to believe not only that the Father turns his back on him, but that He had deceived Christ into believing His love would be with him throughout. Our God is not one of deception.
My next post will take us to the Garden.