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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