Every Wednesday during Lent, I’m going to explore an alternatives to the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement, the dominant theory of the atonement in my part of the (theological and geographical) world. You can read all of the posts, and my past posts on this topic, here. I’ve got an ebook on the subject as well.
“When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness…He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and godforsaken can experience communion with him.”[i]
So writes Jürgen Moltmann at the climax of his groundbreaking book, The Crucified God. Growing up as a German humanist, Moltmann experienced the terror of war and imprisonment, and the love of God, during World War II. His subsequent career in theology has been indelibly shaped by that experience.
Common to human experience, Moltmann proposes, is the experience of godforsakenness. We’ve all felt it, that God has abandoned us, that there is no God. The Israelites felt it, and the Psalmist sang about it.
Of course, it is unthinkable that God would experience godforsakenness. How can a divine being experience his own absence? God is only able to do so because God’s very nature is trinitarian. In an act of ultimate solidarity with every human being who has ever existed, God voluntarily relinquished his godship, in part, in order to truly experience the human condition. And, as the early church hymn recorded in Philippians 2 states so eloquently, God was humbled even to the point of death on a cross.
Upon that cross, God himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth echoes the Psalmist’s cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” God himself experiences—and redeems—godforsakenness.