Did God Forsake Jesus On the Cross?

Did God Forsake Jesus On the Cross? April 15, 2014
Christ of Saint John of the Cross, by Salvador Dali

When Mother Teresa’s private journals were published after her death, the surprising revelation was that she spoke of long periods where the sense of the absence of God was more real to her than God’s presence.

In Mark’s version of the passion narrative Jesus utters a single saying from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The cry echoes the feelings of the Psalmist (Ps. 22:1). It’s a question, not a declaration and it reflects the sense of God’s absence that overtook Jesus in his humiliating death.

Did God actually depart? Was Jesus really forsaken by God? Was this in reality the eclipse of God?

In subtle ways throughout the passion story Mark’s Gospel proclaims Jesus to be God’s agent of redemption. Before the high priest, Jesus is asked, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (14:61). Jesus responded, “I am” (14:62). Jesus also affirmed Pilate’s question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (15:2), which, obviously, Pilate did not believe. The soldiers mocked Jesus as “King,” dressing him in the color of royalty and placing a crown of thorns on his head (15:16-18). The inscription on the cross read, “The King of the Jews” (15:26). As he hung on the cross, passersby, along with the priests and scribes, mocked him as “Messiah and “King of Israel” (15:29-32).

Herein is the irony and paradox. The final confession made by the Roman centurion that Jesus was God’s Son (15:39) affirms that in Mark’s view, God was indeed present in this horrific event, acting in Jesus to redeem. Though Jesus is somewhat passive, bearing all the hate and animosity of the religious and political powers, God is active, reaching out to the world in and through Jesus’ death. God is active in the passivity of Jesus, absorbing the hate and animosity.

I believe that what Jesus experienced, God experienced. I do not believe in a distant, removed Almighty—an “Unmoved Mover.” I believe in a God who is deeply moved and engaged in the life of the creation. God, I believe, is not almighty in the use of power, but in the expression (though often hidden) of his magnanimous, wasteful love.

In his novel, Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry observes that Christ did not descend from the cross except into the grave—that is, he didn’t overcome his killers by violent power. If he had, says Berry, then everyone would be coerced to believe in him, and “from that moment the possibility that we might be bound to him and he to us and us to one another by love forever would be ended.”

Berry observes that God is present “only in the ordinary miracle of the existence of God’s creatures,” in “the poor, the hungry, the hurt, the wordless creatures . . . this groaning and travailing beautiful world.”

Berry cuts against the grain of our privatized, dualistic way of seeing life, reflecting a more universal and inclusive worldview. He writes, “We are all involved in all and any good, and in all and any evil. For any sin, we all suffer. That is why our suffering is endless. It is why God grieves and Christ’s wounds are still bleeding.”

Berry declares poetically what I believe the cross represents and symbolizes. God participates with us in our suffering. God is not “out there,” but in us and with us, sharing our pain and loss. In the ever present bleeding wounds of the living Christ we find a brother, comrade, and friend.

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann says, “Good Friday is the most comprehensive and most profound expression of Christ’s fellowship with every human being.” He stands in union and solidarity with every suffering soul.

Christ descended into our “hell” and suffered it, in order to empty it of its malevolent power. Our failures and defeats, our feelings of abandonment and rejection, do not separate us from God, but draw us into communion and cooperation with God who shares in the suffering of this beautiful, yet groaning and travailing world.

God did not abandon Jesus, nor does God abandon us on whatever “cross” we may be stretched out upon. In our suffering, God suffers and is for us and with us, regardless of what we may feel or not feel.

Brother David Steindl-Rast has made the point that the affirmation that Jesus was not actually abandoned by God when he cried out in agony on the cross speaks above all about God. It presupposes a view of God that says God is concerned with justice and does set things right, though not necessarily on the level of history.

The faithfulness of Jesus is highlighted in Jesus’ cry. While Jesus felt forsaken on the cross, he did not forsake God. “My God, my God” is a cry of faith. It is an affirmation of his persistence that the God of justice and peace, judgment and grace, the God who inspires visions of a world healed and made right, is, indeed, his God.

If we believe that God “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless” (Isa. 40:29), then we, too, can overcome when the pain and darkness surround us and God is conspicuous by God’s absence. As with Jesus, the challenge before us is to keep trusting.

We have the benefit of knowing that the dawn of Easter morning follows the dark night of Good Friday.

Chuck Queen is a Baptist minister and the author of Why Call Friday Good: Spiritual Reflections for Lent and Holy Week. Chuck blogs at A Fresh Perspective



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10 responses to “Did God Forsake Jesus On the Cross?”

  1. If god truly cared about our suffering, wouldn’t it make more sense to use his power to alleviate it instead of sending his son (who is also him) to suffer with us? What does it accomplish? Symbolism? If I broke my leg, I wouldn’t feel better knowing my dad took a sledgehammer to his shin to show how much he cares when he could be taking me to the hospital. I’d just think he’s seriously disturbed. Any god that chooses to suffer with its creations instead of relieving their suffering is as incompetent as it is masochistic.

    For that matter, why is god participating in suffering even relevant? God is an eternal, immortal being. Suffering for him would be a minor inconvenience at worst.

  2. Thank you Marcion for your thoughtful comment. I would argue that God cannot relieve our suffering. I’m not sure if I believe that God is simply not able because God is still evolving (God is not all-powerful) as in process thought or because God loves freedom too much, that in order to have the kind of world we have God has to restrict God’s use of coercive power. And while I believe that God relates to human beings personally, God is not a person as we think of a person – a single entity. I believe the entire cosmos is pervaded by divine life and energy, and the Divine Spirit is in all of it in various degrees so that everything is connected. In that sense, I believe that God is suffering with our evolving, travailing world, experiencing both the joy and tragedy of its ongoing life and evolutionary development. I believe Jesus incarnated that divine presence in a definitive way, so that Jesus on the cross becomes for me (any many progressive Christians I think) an archetypal representation of God suffering with our suffering world. God, I believe, while “more” than the cosmos/universe is also intricately and intimately part of it. God’s suffering, therefore, is real – not a minor inconvenience. And if God is truly good as I believe God is, then can you imagine God’s suffering when we despise and inflict harm on one another. If a parent’s love for a child reflects to some degree God’s love for human beings, God must suffer immensely when we hurt and kill one another and mar and malign the divine image in each of us.

  3. Thanks for your response Chuck. Three thoughts on it:

    1. Didn’t Jesus heal the sick and feed the hungry? If he did, why doesn’t he still do that? It seems to me that it would be a lot more effective response to suffering to simply come off the cross and continue his work in that field instead of dying (although as an eternal, immortal being, Jesus couldn’t have actually died on the cross), resurrecting, and then flying off into heaven like he does in the gospels.

    2. If god isn’t all powerful, what capabilities do you think he has?
    This isn’t meant to be sarcastic or snarky, I just want to better
    understand your views.

    3. If god is all powerful, the free will theodicy wouldn’t work. An all powerful god could simply make free-willed beings who always freely choose to do good. If that doesn’t work, he could simply give every being a personal force field that protects them from any harm they don’t want to be inflicted on them. Sure, you could freely choose to stab someone, but all that would happen is that the knife breaks against the force field because the person you tried to stab freely chose not to be stabbed. I know you said you’re not sure if you believe that free will is the reason for suffering, but it’s just something to keep in mind going forwards.

  4. # 1: I am not sure what to make of the healing stories in the Gospels historically. They make perfect sense to me when I read them spiritually/metaphorically/theologically. Historically, I don’t know. I think Jesus did heal people – the extent and nature of those healings I cannot guess. God, I believe, is at work through human agency to heal the sick and feed the hungry. God works through human beings — it is a collaborative, cooperative work. I don’t believe God can intervene to suspend the laws of nature, but I do believe that there are powers and forces tied to the divine at work in the world that we have not begun to understand.

    # 2 I think God works in and through the creation — wooing, inviting, prompting, drawing, nudging, luring, etc. Though I don’t believe God is able to use coercive power in the world, I do believe God is present in all things and I believe that God is absolutely committed to the good of the creation.

    # 3. Since I don’t believe God is all powerful or that God is free to use God’s coercive power in the world/universe then God could not give anyone a force field or make them any other way than they are since God is tied to the evolutionary processes of our universe

  5. If you don’t believe god can change the laws of nature or take coercive action, does that mean you don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead? Let me be very clear that I don’t want to be inquisitorial or anything like that, It’s just that I’ve never seen a version of Christianity that keeps god but removes the acts of god and other supernatural events the way you seem to. It sounds interesting.

  6. I believe that the disciples experienced Jesus who was crucified as alive and I believe that it was God who made that happen. I believe that the appearances functioned theologically to vindicate Jesus, to demonstrate that God was with him even when he felt forsaken and that God approved of all that Jesus stood for and embodied, that God is the Power of Life and will make things right. I cannot guess or make sense historically how it worked. Was it really the human Jesus who was raised and did he actually assume the functions of God? Is this the destiny for all of us – that is, the divination of humanity? Why do some have epiphany like experiences of the divine and others do not even though they may have equal faith in and openness to God? What conditions have to be in place for such experiences to happen? I have more questions than answers.

  7. He is not suffering how we are. He suffers only the evil and the temptation in this world. Because humans enjoy those things. Like fucking all the girls they can. That is immoral. Sexual immorality. Still, immoral. As a human he would have wondered the same things as others. Would have had those desires of the flesh. Its not whether you are tempted or not. It is if you give into that sin or not.

  8. If Jesus knew the first line to Psalm 22, why would we not look there for the answer: verse 24: “For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.”

  9. At the moment that the Obedient Son was fulfilling the very mission for which the Loving Father sent Him to earth, God certainly did NOT forsake Jesus, but loved and strengthened Him through the darkest hour. It is our understanding and perception that is faulty and limited, not the mighty love of God! I have preached this as a Baptist minister for four decades to surprised and wondering congregations. How encouraging to find another like-minded Baptist preacher.