Was Jesus forsaken by God while on the cross?

Brent Cunninghamblog4 Comments

Jesus forsaken

Though this post originally appeared last year, I thought it would be appropriate to revisit it since we’re in the passion week leading up to Easter.

What is the meaning of Jesus’ statement spoken on the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34)?  Many suggest that Jesus’ words are desperate cries out of the depths of the deepest depression imaginable, as a result from being separated from the Father.  However, I tend to think that something is being missed here.  There are four reasons why I would take a different interpretation.

First, in the oral Hebrew culture, when a person wanted his listener to call to mind an entire Psalm, it was the standard practice to merely quote the first few words of that Psalm.  To one who had entire Psalms memorized (those who heard Jesus’ words on the cross), this would clearly bring to mind the full context of the passage.  The primary thing that should be remembered is that Jesus’ words are not being blurted out in a moment of hysteria or disillusionment.  Rather, they are a careful quotation from a Messianic Hebrew text.  There’s no doubt that by Jesus’ quotation, he wanted his audience to think of the entire Psalm recorded in chapter 22.  Why?  The importance of Jesus’ words makes sense in light of the well-known belief that anyone who hung on a tree was cursed and abandoned by God (Deut 21:23).  The Jewish on-lookers of the crucifixion would have been compelled to understand the cross as a clear indication that Jesus was not the Messiah.  Being careful not to take Jesus’ words out of the context of their Psalm, one realizes the conclusion of Psalm 22 informs the reader that in fact, “[God] has not despised or distained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from [Jesus] but has listened to his cry for help” (vs. 24).  Therefore, Jesus’ words on the cross were not claiming that he was actually separated from the Father, but just the opposite.  He claimed that when all friends, family, and supporters had forsaken him and he had no one else, he still had perfect intimacy with God his Father.

Second, some may say, “But surely God can’t have fellowship with sin.”  And this is true insofar that we understand this to mean that He Himself does not deal in sin.  For God to say that He has no fellowship with sin certainly does not mean that He is not able to interact with anything or anyone tainted by sin.  For, if it did, how could He look upon, interact with, reach out to, or love any human either before or after salvation?  But we know that He does (Rom 5:8). I think that the problem with this question comes with the premise that Jesus actually was sinful while bearing our sin punishment on the cross.  This seems to be a misinterpretation of 2 Cor 5:21.  This passage is best translated, “God made him who had no sin to be a sin offering for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  While the Bible uses the legal terms to describe Jesus taking our sin punishment upon his account, he himself was never actually permeated by our sin. He only stood in our place of punishment in a legal sense.

Further, if 2 Cor 5:21 is to be interpreted to say that Jesus actually became sinful, then we must also take the second half of the verse to say that we have actually become righteous in and of ourselves. H owever, we know that it is not our own righteousness that is acceptable to God, but a foreign or alien righteousness, not of our own–Jesus’ righteousness.  The point being that the punishment for sin which Jesus endured is no more his sin, than the reward for righteousness we’ll experience in Heaven is the result of our own righteousness. I n fact, it is only because Jesus was without any sin (Heb 4:15; Jn 1:29) that he was able to give his life as a ransom for us.  Jesus’ sacrifice is spoken of as a “penal substitution,” one which is legal in nature, rather than practical.  The transfer of our guilt to Jesus’ account is a legal transfer, preserving his sinlessness . . . even on the cross.

Third, it seems that if one does assume a real break in relationship between the Father and the Son (and therefore, the Spirit and the Son), one must believe that for a moment in time the Triune God did not exist.  However, this clearly does serious damage to the nature of the triune Godhead. Within this position, one must be willing to say that the Triune God did not exist for a moment in time, which makes His essential nature something other than necessary and eternal.

Fourth, and finally, if Jesus were separated from the Father and the Holy Spirit on the cross, this means that while Jesus was acting in obedience to the Father it was not by the power of the Spirit.  Rather, he was acting in perfect obedience in his own strength and power.  Because, if even for one moment Jesus was relying on his own strength to overcome temptation, difficulty, etc. then he was doing “only what the Father [told him]” through his own strength and power, and not through the power of the Spirit.  And this moment in question—his intense suffering on the cross—was certainly the most trying of all moments.  However, the Bible asserts that Jesus’ perfect obedience to the Father was only due to his complete dependence on the moment-by-moment empowerment of the Holy Sprit (Lk 4:1).  So, Jesus would have needed the empowerment of the Holy Spirit here more than ever.

So, it is primarily for these above four reasons that I do not believe that the Father distanced himself from or “turned his back” on His Son, while he suffered on the cross.  Rather, I think the Gospels tell us the exact opposite.

4 Comments on “Was Jesus forsaken by God while on the cross?”

  1. Amanda Johnson

    I would have to agree with you, Pastor Brent, in that I don’t believe that God ever left Jesus. But I do believe that Jesus was feeling every human emotion and displaying human behaviors that we all would show. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he was so distressed and worried that he sweat blood. This is a rare phenomenon called hematidrosis that can actually occur; it has been shown to happen to soldiers in battle, and in other stressful situations.

    When he said “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” I think it is, perhaps, another similar example of human behavior. When we are in despair, either physical or emotional, don’t we ourselves say something similar? Do we sometimes cry out, “God, where are you?” Jesus had been human since birth, and had never felt sin. And all of a sudden, he was feeling all of ours. Sin from one person might feel painful enough, but from all of us? We can’t even comprehend that. He, at this point, was still feeling all the physical pain, nevermind all that emotional pain. He was still fully human at this point. Yes, he had intimacy with his father, but if he could become distressed to the point of sweating blood, I do believe he could become emotionally spent here, too.

    I also don’t think Jesus could have been separated from God because he is God, and it was not his sin to separate him. It was our sin. And it is OUR sin that separates US from God. So, I agree with you that he wasn’t separated from God, because although he was fully human, he was and is fully God.

    His sacrifice, his willingness to endure capital punishment of that time in history, his willingness to emote every emotion that he did make me feel more grateful for my salvation, and so thankful that he thought of me at that moment and found me worthy.

  2. Stacy Benson

    I never understood this passage before either and I think that your explanation is very plausible. It could also have been spoken to bring to mind the psalm just for the simple reason that yet once again a prophecy was being fulfilled, i.e. pierced my hands and feet, they stare and gloat over me, cast lots for my clothing. (I especially like v.30 ‘Posterity will serve him, future generations will be told about the Lord.’ Thank you Jesus that we’ve been told!) The first time that I remember this passage being explained it was that Jesus became/took on our sin and in turn God can only look upon sin/sinful nature through the blood covering provided by Christ which of course is what cleanses us. (I’ve been in A/G church since birth practically and had never really thought about that fully until one day we were taking communion and I looked into my cup and I could see my 1yr old daughter playing at my feet through my cup. I have a more literal understanding. My human mind always thought of it as a figurative explanation of forgiveness until that simple revelation.) The blood covering came at His death. But I had never thought about that meaning that Jesus and God were separated in any way. I can’t imagine the trinity not being the trinity. He is God. How could he ever be separate from himself? Incomprehensible, but I love this way of discussing the Word. Blog on!

  3. Wilbur Lindstrom

    Brent: This is one of the best explanations that I have read for some time. Since God is omnipresent, He could not have forsaken Jesus as He was on the cross. We,as Adam,are seperated from the Father by our sin. No man seeks after God. Jesus felt the very same abandenment or lostness as we do before we accept Jesus and are born-again. Now we have fellowship with the Son.

  4. Thomas Davis

    Brent, I was looking for some substantive comments on the last seven words of Christ and this submission is the most authentic interpretation I have ever read! It truly solidified and validated the fact that Jesus is the Christ even in His Most Vulnerable moment!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, I have adopted this as my own and i feel great about it :)

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