Did God Forsake Jesus on the Cross?

The cry of God-forsakenness is not the language of creeds and doctrine; it is the language of prayer.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). Jesus was not the first to pray this prayer, nor was he the last. But when we hear this terrible outburst on the lips of Jesus, echoing the opening words of Psalm 22, we might be confused: Was not Jesus truly God? Was not Jesus “of one Being with the Father,” as we confess in the Nicene Creed? So, how could God forsake Jesus? More than that, how could God forsake any of God’s children? 

Again, Jesus was not the first to pray this prayer. Throughout Israel’s history, Psalm 22 had been prayed by countless generations of faithful people of God, both in worship and in their personal lives. It was not “prophecy” written to foretell Jesus. It was a real, heartfelt prayer, known to Jesus since childhood and now available to him in this final hour. That is an important clue for our understanding. The cry of God-forsakenness is not the language of creeds and doctrine; it is the language of prayer. 

Prayer in the Bible reflects a genuine, honest relationship between the one praying and God, a relationship that will not shield God from the depths of pain, torment, confusion, and doubt that sometimes plague even the most faithful believers. 

When the people of Israel spoke the language of creeds and confessions, they testified that God was “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8). They knew, as Moses said to Joshua that God “will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed” (Deuteronomy 31:8). 

They knew and believed all this, above all, because God had said it: When God’s people in exile complained, “The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me,” God replied, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:14-15). 

In moments of terror, though, the fear of being forsaken by God was real in the Bible, and people poured out this feeling to God in prayer (see, for example, Psalm 38:21; 71:9; Jeremiah 14:9; Lamentations 5:20). In fact, in Psalm 77 we hear the pray-er’s numbing fear that God might not be the God of steadfast love anymore: “Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” (Psalm 77:8-9). In another startling verse, it sounds as though God agrees: “For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you” (Isaiah 54:7 RSV). The point of that verse is not that God had ceased to be gracious, but — bad enough, certainly — God had stepped aside and allowed Israel’s sinful acts to yield their bitter consequences. 

Could this be true at the cross, that God, for the sake of the world, allows Jesus to bear the sins of the world? Perhaps only this act of full solidarity between Jesus and humanity would be enough, as Jesus said, “to draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). It is very important for us, however, to understand that this is not something God does to Jesus, but something God does in, with, and through Jesus, something that Jesus accepts knowingly, despite the suffering it brings to himself and, in him, to God. 

But can God actually forsake God’s people, even Jesus? Certainly, to those praying, it seems like it. When we hear Jesus take up the cry, “Why have you forsaken me?” we learn more clearly than possible in any creedal or doctrinal language that Jesus is fully and completely human, sharing not only in the physical pain and suffering of the world but also in the spiritual suffering that comes with the feeling of being separated from God. 

The prayers of all God’s people in every age become the prayers of Jesus. In the moment, God is hidden. 

In Psalm 22, the psalmist is in spiritual turmoil. He vacillates between the lament of being forsaken and deserted by God (vv. 1-2, 6-8) and the memory that God is Israel’s savior and his own creator (vv. 3-5, 9-10). But now where are you, God, he wonders: “Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is no one to help” (v. 11). We could easily envision all of this in the mouth of Jesus. 

New Testament scholars disagree about whether the gospel writers meant to imply all of Psalm 22 when they quoted the first verse. Did they — did Jesus — already anticipate the turn from being forsaken to the confession and praise that come later in the psalm? “For [God] did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him” (Psalm 22:24)? Did they, with the psalm, already want to “proclaim [God’s] deliverance to a people yet unborn”? (Psalm 22:31). 

Eventually, of course, the New Testament does want to do that (and we need to hear it), but we dare not allow that confident confession to reduce the pain and fear of either the psalmist or Jesus. In the moment, both feel forsaken. And we might, as well. 

Yes, finally, God will deliver the psalmist, Jesus, and us. But if we don’t allow the full darkness of Good Friday, we will never fully appreciate the glory of the Easter dawn.

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