Shortly before His death on the cross, “Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?,’ that is, ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’” (Matt. 27:45-46). This is a direct quote from Psalm 22:1, which says:
My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? Why are You so far from helping Me, and from the words of My groaning?
There are those among us who argue that Jesus’ cry from the cross must not be viewed as feelings of forsakenness on His part, and this because the latter half of the psalm, starting around verse 19, speaks of His ultimate vindication. Truth is, I have never believed Jesus’ cry of forsakenness indicated the Father’s utter abandonment of His only begotten and faithful to the very end Son. Instead, I, too, believe the latter half of the psalm militates against any sort of unqualified rejection of the Son by the Father. At the same time, I have never bought into the idea that the ultimate vindication of Jesus somehow eliminated the forsakenness that was His as He suffered and died for the sin (singular, see explanation below) of a lost and dying world. So, even though I do not believe Jesus was utterly forsaken by the Father during His cross-work, I do believe His cry from the cross was genuine and represented some of what He experienced that day on our behalf.
Indeed, the Father’s ultimate vindication of His Son was the plan even before the foundation of the world (1 Pet. 1:20; Eph.1:4), for it was in connection with just such a plan that He would “bring many sons to glory” (Heb. 2:10). However, one must not become so focused on Jesus’ ultimate vindication that it causes him to deny the Lord’s forsakenness. Undoubtedly, everything the writer of Hebrews and others say about the Lord’s crucifixion and death is important. Therefore, we should not to think that Jesus’ experience of “tasting death” on our behalf (Heb. 2:9b) was some sort of “kabuki dance” of pretended forsakenness orchestrated solely for the purpose of demonstrating to those present that day, by means of their familiarity with the whole of Psalm 22, that the Lord’s cry was really a cry of vindication that had little or nothing to do with any feelings of forsakenness He may have been experiencing. By saying this, I am not trying to disparage, in any way, the Lord’s ultimate vindication, nor the fact that those familiar with Psalm 22 would have known that it does, in fact, speak of ultimate vindication. What I am arguing is that we must not nullify one aspect (viz., forsakenness) of Psalm 22 by overemphasizing the other aspect (viz., vindication). Instead, we should view both of these as truly representative of what happened to Jesus on the most tragic, yet glorious, day the world has ever known—a day in which the Creator hung suspended between heaven and earth on a cruel cross of punishment, drinking down, to the very last dregs, the bitter cup He had willingly agreed to drink, in eternity past, on our behalf:
O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will (Matt. 26:39).
Truth is, I would very much like to hear an interpretation of this passage that is totally satisfactory to both sides of this discussion. I’ll admit it has been one of the hardest passages I’ve ever had the pleasure of dealing with. That there is more going on here than we finite creatures are able to fully understand is indisputable. Just as undeniable, or so it seems to me, is that nothing Jesus experienced on the cross was, in any way, unreal or pretended. For as our merciful sin-bearer (2 Cor. 5:21), who Himself bore our sins in His own body (1 Pet. 2:24), becoming a curse for us (Gal. 3:13), Jesus truly experienced, in some sense, what it felt like to be spiritually dead and physically dying—things which He, as the sinless One, did not deserve. In connection with this, I find it most informative, and more than a bit ironic, that Thomas H. McCall, in a book designed to deny that Jesus’ cry from the cross was one of forsakenness, says:
When we look closely at Psalm 22, we cannot miss the cry of lament. Surely the forsakenness is real in some sense.
Indeed, it is this “real in some sense” that I am asking those who disagree with me to consider. Therefore, to use the Father’s ultimate vindication of His faithful to the end Suffering Servant to deny the experiential forsakenness implied by the Lord’s cry seems to me to be untenable. In saying this, keep in mind that I do not believe Jesus was utterly forsaken by the Father, only this—that in a finite moment of time, Jesus, as our sin-bearer, experienced, to some degree satisfactory to the Father, what it felt like to be forsaken by God:
(4) Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. (5) But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed (Isa. 53:4-5).
When thinking through this passage, it is important to understand that verse 5 does not invalidate the people’s perception of what they would observe on that fateful but glorious day, as some who reject Jesus’ vicarious death and substitutionary atonement believe. On the contrary, it correctly defines it, putting it in its proper context. Namely, the Father’s faithful and true Suffering Servant really was being “stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted,” as verse 10 points out: “Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief. When You make His soul an offering for sin” (cf. Rom. 3:25; 1 Jn 2:2; 4:10), “who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed” (1 Pet. 2:24), and this because “He poured out His soul unto death, and He was numbered with the transgressors, and He bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isa. 53:12b).
Just how all this could have taken place as Jesus hung suspended on a cross just outside the gates of Jerusalem some two thousand years ago and Him somehow not experience or feel something of the debt or penalty for sin that was our due, as sinners, goes against everything I have learned from Scripture about sin and its effects, which would certainly include not just God’s holy and righteous wrath, but His stereotypical response of separating and turning His face from it, as well (cf. Isa. 59:2; Lam. 3:43-54).
Furthermore, to say, as some do, that the statement in Psalm 22:24 that says God did not turn His face away from His Suffering Servant, recycles the same cart-before-the-horse argument that says the Lord could not have been, in any way, forsaken because He was, in due time, vindicated. Such an argument denies the pattern we see over and over again in Scripture of the forsaken being, in due season, vindicated (e.g., Lam. 3:43-54).
Nevertheless, and in stark contrast, there are those on the non-vicarious-death, non-substitutionary-atonement side of the argument who claim that any sort of experience Jesus would have had that caused Him to feel forsaken would have destroyed the very intratrinitarian nature of the Godhead itself. In other words, if God is truly ONE essence in three different and quite distinct persons or personalities, then how could the divine Logos/Son have experienced being forsaken by, and separated from, His Father, even if but for a finite moment of time, and this not have shattered the very being or ontological nature of Deity? But is this where we really want to go? If so, then my initial response is I find it ironic that a cadre of brethren who balk at the use of terms and concepts which they claim are not specifically mentioned in the Scriptures, like the vicarious death of Jesus and substitutionary atonement, feel perfectly comfortable invoking a concept like the triune nature of God, which is, no doubt, clearly taught in Scripture, but nowhere specifically so, to argue against an interpretation they claim is unscriptural because it is nowhere specifically mentioned in Scripture. Is this not, in itself, prima facie evidence of blatant hypocrisy?
My next response would be to ask these brethren to explain how it was that the ONE who is, by His very nature, all-knowing, “learned obedience by the things which He suffered” (cf. Heb. 5:8)? Did this not have to do specifically with what He experienced while enfleshed in time and space? If so, why could not some of what He experienced on the cross on our behalf have to do with the fact that He was a man subject to the very temptations common to all men, yet without sin (Heb. 4:15)? If so, then His sense of forsakenness could have had more to do with His humanity than His deity.
I’d also like to ask them how it was that the ONE who alone possesses immortality (1 Tim. 6:16) was able to die (Acts 20:28)? Did this not have something to do with His physical body or humanity? I remember that back during the humanity-deity of Jesus kerfuffle that took place in the nineties, I heard a preacher who believed Jesus had divested His divinity in order to become human declare, “Well, my God can’t die!” In response, a preacher who disagreed said, “It sounds to me like you’ve got the wrong God!”
Again, I’d ask, “If all the fulness of the Godhead dwelt in Jesus bodily (Col. 2:9), how was it that the Lord did not know something that the Father did (Mk. 13:32)?” Was this the way it had always been, or might it have had something to do with His humanity? I ask this not because I think we can necessarily know, for sure, the answer, but to demonstrate that we must be careful about ascribing a definite result—like postulating a rupturing of the intratrinitarian nature of Deity—when the details of such, even with what God has revealed to us in His word, remain a great mystery.
Furthermore, when thinking about the divine Logos becoming a Man, remember that in His present glorified state, at the right hand of the Father, He is still a Man (cf. 1 Tim. 2:5). As such, He has the unique role of being the Mediator between God (implying, I think, the Unity that is Deity) and men. Does this not imply some sort of separation? If so, is such a separation fatal to the intratrinitarian nature of the I AM THAT I AM? Bear in mind that the text specifically teaches that He who is Himself God is, in fact, and at the same time, a Man who functions, at least for now, as the Mediator between God and men. Whether the Logos remains a Man throughout eternity I can only speculate (cf. 1 Cor. 15:21-28, esp. v. 28). Perhaps this passage indicates that the Logos will eventually divest His humanity. Or perhaps it indicates that the change in the Logos that became Jesus of Nazareth will be permanent throughout eternity. Who can know for sure? What I do know is there is nothing expressly stated or implied in Scripture that indicates any sort of temporary or permanent rupturing of the very nature of Deity. Instead, it is only when one applies to this situation the same man-made think-sos some apply to the forsakenness-of-Christ issue, that there arises any sort of intratrinitarian issue. Just saying….
Finally, when trying to think all these things through, which all too often will be an exercise in futility (cf. Rom. 10:33), I want you to consider the apparent implications of John 3:13, which says: “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven” (NKJV). Now, if one is not going to dismiss, out of hand, this passage (and more than a few do), then one cannot help but be struck by the seemingly paradoxical nature of this passage. No doubt, part of this has to do with our finite natures. At the same time, the difficulties we see in such a passage pose no problem for the ONE who is, by His very nature, omnipresent. In entering time and space, the ONE who is self-existent, eternal, and infinite in His ontological Being did not cease to be omnipresent when taking upon Himself flesh. While enfleshed as Jesus of Nazareth, and thus confined, in some sense, by the parameters of the space-time continuum, the divine Logos was, in point of fact, still infinite and, thus, omnipresent, holding, as it were, everything together by the “word of His power” (Heb. 1:3; Col. 1:17). I remember reciting John 3:13 during one of the open-forum discussions that took place during the Diety-Humanity of Jesus debate that took place in Bowling Green, KY in 1994. One who took an opposing view stood up and said, in essence, “I don’t know what John 3:13 is saying, but I do know this, it’s not saying what Allan Turner thinks it says.” Truth be told, I had only quoted the passage without comment, and if it’s not saying in how it reads something about the continued omnipresence of Jesus while here on earth in the flesh, then what, pray tell, is it saying?
“Mind-boggling,” you might be thinking. Yes, it most certainly is, and it’s precisely this magnificent, quirky, and strangely different nature of the I AM THAT I AM that boggles it! Fact is, there are many other weird, strange, and seemingly paradoxical things about the experiences of Deity when functioning in time and space that are just as mind-boggling (such are called “theophanies” by the theologians). However, we have neither the time nor space to delve into those instances here. Suffice it to say, we should be real careful about ascribing to God what He can and cannot do when viewed from our puny, finite points of view. Consequently, the argument that says the Father could not have turned His face away from Jesus without eternally rupturing the very fabric of Deity is, first and foremost, an argument from finite ignorance (cf. Rom. 11:33), and second, an apparent attempt to hedge an already weak argument with such terms as “utterly forsaken,” “total rejection,” “complete dereliction,” and “utter abandonment,” etc., which in turn conveys an “absolute, total, and eternal” rejection of Christ by the Father, which, in the end, produces a “broken” or “ruptured Trinity” (cf. Thomas H. McCall’s Forsaken). However, such a thing has never been argued by me or anyone else, as far as I know, who takes the position I am here defending.
What, then, was the penalty that Jesus paid on our behalf? I think it was the bitter cup of God’s wrath that was our due as sinners, the very same cup He prayed to the Father three times, before His arrest, crucifixion, and death, to remove (Matt. 26:39,42,44). It would have involved His tasting death (both spiritually and physically) “for every man” (Heb.2:9, KJV). By doing so (i.e., with the first two “Ds” of triple “D” death taken care of) our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was able to make sure that those of us who are connected to Him by faith “shall never taste death” (Jn. 8:51-52). Can there be any doubt the death being referred to is the final “D” death of the triple-“D”-death process, a process that will culminate, except for grace, in “everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and the glory of His power” (2 Thess. 1:9)?
As I see it, what all this means is this: Instead of thinking we must choose between a Jesus who was either forsaken or vindicated, we should seek to understand and embrace the idea that there is a very real sense in which Jesus was not forsaken, and another just as real sense in which He was. In other words, it’s not “either-or,” but “both-and.”
Thomas H. McCall, Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why It Matters, Kindle Edition, 2012, Loc. 329).↩
 The idea of Jesus, the One who was perfect in all His doings, tasting spiritual death or its equivalent is repugnant. The whole idea plays with our sense of justice and/or fairness. “How,” we wonder, “could the Father be just and/or fair when turning His face away from His sinlessly perfect and absolutely faithful only begotten Son? I intend to deal with this particular issue in an upcoming post entitled “Grace Isn’t Fair!”↩