Jesus’ Moment of Atheism

Jesus’ Moment of Atheism November 22, 2011

I’ve been working my way through Peter Rollins’ new book, Insurrection, when I came across a section that intersected with a question raised in my latest “Banned Questions” book, Banned Questions About Jesus.

The question posed in the book is as follows:

Why did Jesus cry out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” from the cross? Did God really abandon him? If so, doesn’t this mean that Jesus wasn’t actually God?

I’ve heard a number of explanations for this outcry of agony near the time of Jesus’ death, none of which I’ve ever found particularly satisfying. One suggests that Jesus actually is referencing Psalm 22, in which the Psalmist first decries God’s absence, but then resolves with the assurance of God’s presence.

The problem with this argument is that it denies Jesus’ humanity. To suggest that, while hanging from a cross and facing imminent death, Jesus was thinking strategically how to present a nod to those who would eventually read this story in the pages of an as-yet-incomplete collection to be known as the Bible. Keep in mind there were no stenographers or CNN cameras at Golgotha.

Another view of this outcry claims that, indeed, Jesus is experiencing the absence of God, though for a reason that justifies sacrificial blood atonement. The idea is that God cannot tolerate sin, and at the moment of Jesus’ cry, he is bearing all of the sins of humanity. Therefore God, in that moment, cannot tolerate Jesus and turn’s God’s back on him.

This scenario always reminds me of the priest, Father Damien Karras, from the film The Exorcist, who compels the demon possessing young Regan to leave her and enter him, at which point he hurls himself down the alley stairway, plummeting to his death and expelling the demon into the outer darkness.

While this makes for great mythology, it’s unreliable theology. First, it suggests that any of God’s own creation were born with the capacity to do something the Creator cannot endure. But where’s that limit, exactly? Is it a matter of numbers? Did we hit an imaginary “red line” at which point god was fed up? Or was it an issue of severity? Had we, perhaps as a group, finally performed enough really bad sins that God saw us as repulsive?

It seems, if we look all the way back to the creation story involving Adam and Eve that this result should have come as little surprise. So if, indeed God created humanity knowing we would experience this intolerable fall from grace, it seems that both Jesus and we were set up from the start.

It was only once I read Rollins’ take on the crucifixion that I found a peace with the story that made sense on a deep level for me. While some find his writing unsettling, there is something very liberating in how he challenges – or even smashes to splinters – the limiting boundaries we build around God.

Rollins says that Jesus’ cry from the cross was a point at which he experienced “a profoundly personal, painful existential atheism.” Consider that by this point Jesus had been betrayed by his family, friends, disciples and all who previously had hailed him as the Messiah. All earthly notions of love, community and hope had abandoned him.

Such a deep experience of God’s absence should not be confused with an intellectual argument for atheism on a logical level. This, instead, is a corporeal, visceral and utterly human response to suffering, both physical and emotional, but also spiritual for Jesus. For Rollins, it is only in these moments when all other “religious crutches” we depend on crumble away and we are left with the stark reality of what true, radical loss is like.

The moment, for most, seems too much to bear, which is why we develop the myths and constructs that counteract this fear.

The purpose, then that God as an ever-present supernatural being serves is to witness our lives, to assure us that we never are truly alone. Rollins reminds us of Dietrich Bonhoffer’s criticism of the Church’s use of various constructs of God, either to falsely comfort people in times of distress, or worse, to scare them into a conversion experience. In Rollins’ own words:

God was introduced into the world on our terms in order to resolve a problem rather than expressing a lived reality. The result is a God who simply justifies our beliefs and helps us sleep comfortably at night…this God plays the same meager role as the supernatural beings in third-rate Greek plays.

“Because of our natural fears concerning life and its impending end,” writes Rollins, “convincing people to embrace God as a crutch can be so very easy.”

Acknowledging that we all experience such soul-crushing loss and emptiness as part of life is terrifying for some; and for religion to concede as much and yet remain relevant is a leap most churches choose not to make. After all, the God we promote is always your friend, forever by your side, and is there to ensure your happiness throughout life and beyond.

But if Jesus himself didn’t experience God in such a mythological way, why do we expect it to be any different for ourselves, especially if we truly, deeply believe that the Christian experience is one that yearns to follow the path of that same Christ?

Most religious apologists will espouse the uniqueness of their particular faith, but Rollins’ apologetic – if one can say as much about someone who suggests the only church that illuminates is a burning one – hinges on the idea that, while all religions have their atheistic counterpart, this atheism actually is at the very heart of Christianity.

I’m sure this is enough to make the average Christian’s head spin, but the fire to which Rollins refers is not simply a destructive, consuming one, but also a fire of refinement. In burning away the chaff of superficial God constructs and opportunistic religiosity, we finally create the space for ourselves to enter into the true, unmitigated presence of God.

Such presence is uncertain, at times frightening and hardly preaches well from a pulpit or in the pages of a how to Christian manual. But in so much as Jesus’ entry into the full presence of God required such refining fires, so does our journey as ones who claim the same path.

Are we willing to truly follow Christ to the cross, sacrificing upon it every emotional and physical safety net we’ve created for ourselves throughout our lives? Will we lay down all of the false gods we’ve worshiped, including the ones constructed by our religions, and avail ourselves to the utter open-ended mystery that awaits?

Such is the call of Christ.

Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004. Christian is the creator and editor of “Banned Questions About The Bible” and “Banned Questions About Jesus.” He has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called “PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.” For more information about Christian, visit, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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  • I think it’s great you are exploring this issue of Jesus on the cross and his cry of “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”  It’s always helpful to look at our faith and see if there are any tares of human opinion and centuries old dogma among the wheat. 

    I could never buy into the teaching that God turned His back on Jesus because Jesus took on the sins of the world.  And for those Christians who believe Jesus was God, then that gives us the paradox of a house divided against itself which cannot stand.  Did God turn His back on Himself? 

    I love the tough and uncomfortable questions you ask.  But somehow you don’t convince me that Jesus had a moment of atheism, existential or otherwise.  You sort of wave the wand of dismissal over the reference to Psalm 22 by saying it denies his humanity because he could not possibly be thinking of how people are going to read about this in what will later become the Bible.

    However John 19:28 implies he WAS conscious of how he was fulfilling the Scriptures at that very moment.  He knew the prophecies.  It was a blueprint and every detail was unfolding in the events of that day. 

    Psalm 22 doesn’t just go from despair to trusting God for victory.  It graphically paints the picture of what Jesus was experiencing on the cross.  The Jewish leaders were practically quoting Ps 22:7,8 without realizing it.  See Matt 27:39-43.. You know all these scriptures, no doubt.  Ps 22:14 “all my bones are out of joint,”  v.16″they pierced my hands and my feet,”
    v. 18 “they part my garments among them and cast lots upon my vesture.”  Etc.

    Jesus was telling those present to go read what we call Psalm 22.  The Psalms didn’t have numbers to them back then.  He was quoting the first line which was like the title.  He was telling people to go search the Scirptures and discover how they were being fulfilled right under their noses.  He yearned to be understood, to have people see how he had fulfilled the Messianic prophecies.  His humanity is front and center in this whole episode.  He was not some untouchable distant deity that did not suffer.  His divinity and humanity were both manifested on the cross.  Talk about humanity–one of the last things he did was make sure his mother was provided for. 

    I cannot imagine the agony of what the crucifixion would have been like.  But it was a different experience for Jesus than the two criminals at each side.  And it would be different if you or I were to have that gruesome experience because only Jesus was the Messiah and dealing with so much more than just the agonies of his own death.

    We do not know with what effort or tone of voice Jesus uttered the sentence in question.  Was it all peaceful or was it with agony, in a whisper of pain or the authority of his certain victory(He did know he would walk out of the grave.)?    We can only imagine and everyone will get a different sense of it because they bring their own sense of things to the story to try to understand it better.

    The real meat and potatoes of your blog post are the questions you ask at the end.  These are crucial but we usually shy away from this uncomfortable self-examination.  But it is spiritually healthy to do so.  Are we truly trusting God or just our convenient beliefs about Him? 

    Get to know God better and follow Christ. 

    • God needs blood to fix the universe. But, only his own blood had enough magic to do the job. So he gave himself a body, and killed it.

    • Velesot365

      Jesus was a nice guy who heard voices in his head and thought “god” was talking to him. He probably had schizophrenia and went untreated his whole life.

  • Twaddlecock.  Pure.  Unadulterated.  Twaddlecock.

  • Anonymous

    Such a statement is that of an aggrieved believer, not an atheist.   

    You don’t call out to god/s if you don’t believe in one.

    It is common of religious folks to say that an atheist is someone who is angry at god/s, but it should be pretty easy to see that you have to believe in the existence of something, and believe it has taken an interest in harming you, before you can be angry at it.

  • aspiechristian

    Tough crowd, yes?

    The death of Jesus has always been difficult for me to talk about, and when I see the comments here, I understand why. They remind me of how Jesus was mocked – put to shame, in an official sort of way. They undressed him, flogged him, put him in a robe, tore into his head with the crown of thorns – King of Fake – and then they mocked him. They jeered at him yelling, “Twaddlecock! That’s what you’ve been preaching. Come down from the cross and save yourself if you’re the Son of God. Hey Schizo Man! The only voices you’re hearing are your own. The whole world is going to forget you were ever here. Let’s see what your Magic Blood can do now!”

    Jesus knew he had never sinned. He knew his was a life of unique purity, and being human, he must have been tempted toward holding onto his dignity. There he was, God in the flesh, and although he knew it was for this death that he was born into this world, he did not know the reality of the details of his last hours. He didn’t forsee the shame – the shamefulness of his manner of death – how far the Father would let him fall into shame. God didn’t turn His back, but allowed Jesus, the man, to understand himself as the righteousness of God, the innocent to the slaughter, naked on the cross – the victim of religious terror, feeling the agony and shame of a criminal’s public execution, undeserved.

    It was the shame of the whole event, perhaps, that made him cry, “Why have you forsaken me?”

  • Who Really Believes Jesus Existed Anyways?

  • Twaddlecock.

    I just learned a new word.

    This article is really REALLY thought-provoking.  I often wonder what Christ was talking about when he said, ‘take up your cross and follow me.’  

    I mean – really.  WHAT WAS HE SAYING?  I know what we think he was saying, but I still wonder if half the time we really understood this man.

    Thanks for the article – you’ve given me a lot to think about.  I don’t have much to contribute to the discussion as I am still thinking, but I wanted to leave a comment and encourage you to keep writing.

  • Matthew Hebbert

    I must respectfully disagree with this blog entry, as I think it suffers from some fundamental misunderstandings of Scripture and the nature of God as revealed therein. 

    First, as James Early stated so eloquently, arguing that Jesus would forget Scripture during His time on the cross is simply wrong.  Jesus lived and breathed Scripture during His entire human life.  He was constantly quoting the TaNaKh (the law, the prophets, and the writings) and demonstrating to people how His life and actions were in accordance with it.  Jesus was always conscious of Scripture, before, during, and after the cross.

    Second, arlocrescent’s comment should be repeated: “Such a statement is that of an aggrieved believer, not an atheist.   You don’t call out to god/s if you don’t believe in one.”  Whatever Jesus was experiencing, it was unequivocally NOT a moment of “atheism.”

    Thirdly, I have a big problem with this paragraph: “While this makes for great mythology, it’s unreliable theology. First,
    it suggests that any of God’s own creation were born with the capacity
    to do something the Creator cannot endure. But where’s that limit,
    exactly? Is it a matter of numbers? Did we hit an imaginary “red line”
    at which point god was fed up? Or was it an issue of severity? Had we,
    perhaps as a group, finally performed enough really bad sins that God
    saw us as repulsive?”

    This paragraph suggests to me that the writer does not yet have a full, biblical grasp on the idea of what it means to say that God is “Holy,” nor does he have a complete, biblical understanding of sin*.  Essentially, it is EXACTLY correct to say that humans are born with the capacity to do something their Creator cannot endure.  Sometimes people have a problem when another person says that God cannot do something, but here it is: God CANNOT eternally coexist with sin.  He can’t do it.  God’s Holiness is 100% pure.  That means not even a nano-fraction of sin is allowed to abide with Him.

    The writer here asks, “where is the limit” to sin, and if it is a “matter of numbers.”  Here is the answer: the limit is one sin.  That’s it.  God is so Holy that He cannot endure one sin.  Unfortunately, the writer’s way of thinking here suggests a person who thinks in terms of salvation by works*; if only we weren’t QUITE so sinful, God would like the “good” things we do and give us salvation with a wink and a nod.  Biblically, that is just not the case.  The wages of sin is always death, always eternal separation from a Holy God.  God graciously allows sin to momentarily exist while He repairs the problem, but that is only a very temporary condition, a condition that is quickly coming to an end. 

    I have a lot more to say, but life beckons.  Bills to feed and mouths to pay and all that.  Thanks for the challenging questions and good discussion.

    – Matt

    * My apologies to the author if these criticisms sound harsh.  This is the first piece of writing I have read by the writer, and so I am merely commenting on the content of this one piece, not the entirety of the writer’s existence.  The author may very well have a better understanding of Holiness and sin than is demonstrated in this one piece of writing.

  • BHG

    Referring to the psalm may be the expression of His humanity. That kind of familiarity with psalms becomes almost reflexive a way to remind oneself in darkness of the light. Does not have to be either-or