Friday, March 29, 2013

Did God Abandon Jesus on Good Friday?

Today Christians around the world celebrate Good Friday, the day we remember Jesus' death on the cross. In church services across the world the passions narratives will be read, preached about and perhaps even reenacted. It is a time to reflect on the events of the crucifixion and what it means for those who are followers of Jesus and put their hope in the promise that someday God will triumph over all.

One part of the passion narrative that has sometimes caused difficulty for readers of the gospels is Jesus words "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" The words appear in Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46. Neither Luke nor John place these words on the lips of Jesus. In Luke Jesus dies with the words "into your hands I commit my spirit (23:46) and John has the simple words "it is finished" (19:30).

Over the years I have heard, on more than one occasion, someone suggest that when Jesus cried out "My God, My God why have you forsaken me?" that God had turned his back on Jesus. That the father had abandon the son. I have even seen passion plays where the figure of God is seen turning his back on Jesus as  he dies. This of course leads to all sort of problems for our understanding of the trinity. How could the Godhead abandon one part of itself? I have heard some very "interesting" sermons based on the premise that God had abandon Jesus. But I don't think that is what is going on here. I don't think Mark and Matthew are suggesting that God abandon Jesus. I think they are saying something more theologically significant.

In order to understand this passage we need to keep in mind that the words of Jesus in these two gospels are taken from Psalm 22:1. This psalm was often read alongside the crucifixion narrative by early Christians since the description of the psalmist's suffering has many similarities as that of Jesus. With that in mind it is quite possible that what we have here is not the last words of Jesus on the cross, but the theological interpretation of Jesus' death as understood by both Mark and Matthew.

Since neither Luke nor John agree with Mark and Matthew about Jesus' last words it is quite possible that we don't know his exact words. But the use of Psalm 22 by Matthew and Mark is probably a way of explaining the story with theological significance. Psalm 22 begins with the same words asking why God has forsaken the psalmist and goes on to describe how everyone has turned against the author and how he is suffering and even dying. But the Psalm doesn't stop there. Beginning in 22:19 the focus of the psalm shifts away from the suffering of psalmist to the triumph of God over his enemies. The psalm declares how God will rescue those who suffer and how those who have been rescued will declare throughout the earth what God as done for them. A psalm that begins with a cry of anguish and despair ends on a note of hope and triumph.

If we understand the last words of Jesus in Mark and Matthew in the context of Psalm 22 we realize that Jesus is not wondering where God has gone but is rather declaring the coming triumph of God. Although things may look bleak now, ultimately God will triumph and that good news will be spread throughout the world. God did not abandon Jesus. More important on this Good Friday is not the idea of God abandoning Jesus but triumphing overall. That which begins in defeat and despair ends in hope and victory.


  1. I had long thought that the popular interpretation of this text was, well, problematic. It didn't make any kind of sense from a trinitarian viewpoint. While at ATS I made it a point to ask the NT folks their take on it. Perhaps, I missed you. Sorry. You kept me busy enough with other stuff. ;o)
    Anyway, one of the best takes on it that I heard was that at that moment Jesus was expressing God's absolute solidarity with humanity and experiencing what it means to be godforsaken.
    There's a lot that can be gleaned from the text. However, Abba turning away from Jesus is not one of them.

  2. Andrew GleddiesmithMarch 29, 2013 at 1:38 PM

    Later today, I plan to preach Psalm 22 as Jesus' theological reflection on his own death. The intention being for Jesus to communicate his assurance of God's salvation even admidst his agony. Your reflections are a nice addition to my thoughts.

    One of the aspects that has interested me in my preparation is whether John's "It is finished" is a riff on the last line of Psalm 22 "He has done it." Any thoughts?

    1. Andrew,

      Thanks for your comments. That is an interesting thought and one I have not yet encountered. I am not sure to what degree John's description is influenced by Psalm 22, but I have not doubt he was aware of it.

  3. I tend to think Jesus really cried that out personally, but, I don't disagree with your take. What must be is Jesus FELT like God had abandoned Him due to what it must feel like being judged for sins.

    Seems like Isaiah 49 is a Messianic passage and in verse 4 Messiah expresses doubts about His own success. Maybe that was His view from the cross as He was under Divine judgment?

  4. John,
    I agree with you; the idea that God the Father cannot look on sin and turns his back on his son is theologically incoherent. As you know, this is what is preached from evangelical pulpits as part of a crude theology of penal substitutionary atonement.
    HOWEVER, lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Lets not rush past Good Friday in our desire to get to Christus Victor on Sunday.
    When we read the passion narrative in Mark and Luke with Psalm 22 as a lens we meet Jesus who is forsaken by God. This is a physical (not metaphysical) reality. For the psalmist (and Jesus), to be forsaken by God is to be utterly at the mercy of one's enemies--God is present, just not intervening. Jürgen Moltmann argues in The Crucified God that this silence from God starts in the Garden of Gethsemane when Christ's prayer to have the cup taken from him remains unanswered.
    So this is the heart of the mystery and the power of Good Friday (and the incarnation), that the Son entered fully into our humanity -- even into the experience of utter hopelessness (or godforsakeness).
    What then does it mean that we the enemies of God--the tenants of the vineyard--killed his son? To quote my colleague Craig Hovey, "We killed God and God did not kill us back."

    1. Peter,

      I am not trying to minimize the suffering of Jesus. I agree, that is an important part of the story and our theology. But I do think that Mark and Matthew are using the Psalm to reflect both the suffering and the triumph. And I don't think we need to wait till Sunday to acknowledge it. Jesus' identity as the son of God is validated on the cross, not the tomb. It is interesting that the gospel opens with the heavens being "torn" and the voice from heaven declaring Jesus to be the son of God. In the very next verse after Jesus' death the temple veil is "torn" and the centurion declares Jesus the son of God. In Matthew the veil is torn and some of the saints come out of their tombs. I am certainly not trying to minimize the importance and Jesus' suffering, the silence of God in the garden and, of course, the resurrection. But the hope of triumph, at least as the gospel looked back on event, seems firmly imprinted upon Jesus' last moments on the cross.

  5. Why does anyone need to deny the plain meaning of the words, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" It's clear that God is not intervening but leaving Jesus to the machinations of those opposed to him. Yes, starting with vers 19, there is a recognition that God will be triumphant in the end, an acceptance that "He rules over the nations." But none of that contradicts that God left Jesus in the hands of his enemies and did not intervene.

    1. Reed,

      I am not trying to "deny the plain meaning of the words." I am trying to understand them in the context of how the gospel writers read, interpreted and applied scripture. Nowhere in the gospels at this point does it suggest God abandon Jesus, and I am not aware of any place in the NT that suggests this. But I do think the promise of the psalm provides an important theological framework for understanding the death of Christ.

    2. We can question whether Jesus actually said those words, and we should try to get a better understanding of how the early church understood the death of Jesus. But if those words are accepted as the words of Jesus, then we can't gloss over them for some more favorable understanding. You wrote,

      "we realize that Jesus is not wondering where God has gone but is rather declaring the coming triumph of God."

      Actually, Jesus' words explicitly state that he is wondering why God is not intervening, in fact, has abandoned him, and they imply (at least we think so) that he is confident that God will triumph in the end. We can't use a possible implication and the lack of evidence elsewhere in the NT to negate the clear and explicit evidence of Jesus' words.

  6. I think Psalm 22:24 helps put things into perspective,

    "For he has not despised or abhorred  the affliction of the afflicted,and he has not hidden his face from him,  but has heard, when he cried to him."

    The psalmist feels as if he has been abandoned by God due to his sufferings but comes to the realization that God has indeed not forgotten him but has heard him. I think the cry of Jesus in citing Ps 22 was intended to apply the whole psalm to himself as the events therein are vividly being replayed in the crucifixion scene.

    Tony Costa

    1. Tony,

      I agree, I have no problem with the idea that Jesus could have said those words on the cross. I am just not sure and the gospels don't agree. But I agree with you, the purpose of the quote is to apply the whole psalm, whether it was the words of Jesus or that of the gospel writers. What is important is the message.