Understanding Jesus’ Cry of Abandonment
Now that Good Friday is fast approaching we can expect to see a surge in online discussion about Christ’s saving work on the Cross. In this post I want to discuss Christ’s ‘cry of abandonment’ from the Cross – “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34) – because I feel this is one of the most misunderstood texts in all of Scripture. The historical Protestant (mis)understanding of Christ’s Atonement, popularly known as Penal Substitution, has led them to (mis)interpret this passage as saying Jesus was spiritually alienated from God just as a sinner is spiritually alienated from God. They (incorrectly) reason that since the guilt of sin warrants eternal separation from God as its punishment, for Jesus to ‘save us’ requires that Jesus take this very guilt and punishment upon Himself.
This (mis)understanding is prevalent today in not only Reformed theology, but even in mainstream Evangelicalism. But rather than quote any modern pastors/theologians on this matter, many of whom are quite explicit that Jesus was “damned in our place,” I think it’s more important to establish that this is also precisely how Luther and Calvin interpreted this ‘cry of abandonment’.
In his Treatise on Preparing to Die, Martin Luther said this ‘cry of abandonment’ means Jesus “descended into hell for your sake and was forsaken by God as one eternally damned”. And in his Commentary on Psalm 22:1, John Calvin said: “As he [Jesus] became our representative, and took upon him our sins, it was certainly necessary that he should appear before the judgment-seat of God as a sinner. From this proceeded the terror and dread which constrained him to pray for deliverance from death; not that it was so grievous to him merely to depart from this life; but because there was before his eyes the curse of God, to which all who are sinners are exposed.” So the original Protestant leaders themselves clearly understood this ‘cry of abandonment’ to mean Jesus underwent not merely physical death, but rather more specifically spiritual death (spiritual abandonment), damnation, which is the epitome of God’s wrath being poured out upon a person.
While it is somewhat understandable to see how unlearned readers could come to this (mis)interpretation of Christ’s words, it is irresponsible and dangerous for learned men to emphasize this “interpretation,” since it is (materially) blasphemous and heretical to posit disunity between the Persons of the Trinity. Furthermore, such a notion is nowhere supported by any Scriptures, which is why so many Protestants desperate to salvage Faith Alone will cling desperately to this single verse, devoid of any context or openness to alternative interpretations.
To see why this widespread (mis)interpretation is way off base, I propose we look at the passage itself and see the many clues it gives us:
33 And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” 36 And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
The passage begins by giving us the time of day, which cannot be an accidental detail. The Jewish day began at 6 a.m., which means the ‘sixth hour’ from that would be Noon, and thus the ‘ninth hour’ would be 3 p.m. (That’s what Catholics call “The Hour of Mercy”.) Now look at what the Apostles normally did at this time of day: “Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour.” (Acts 3:1) So Jesus uttered these words at the Jewish ‘hour of prayer’! This indicates Jesus wasn’t merely uttering some feelings He had, but rather was (also) praying in a formal way.
This ‘hour of prayer’ theme fits with Jesus speaking ‘liturgical Hebrew’, by saying “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” – which is why it had to be ‘translated’ to “My God, My God” by the Evangelists Matthew and Mark, which is one of the rare times they ‘translate’ something Jesus said.
These last two details fit perfectly with the fact Jesus was directly quoting Psalm 22:1, which some Protestants today stubbornly refuse to accept, even though others like Calvin recognized it without issue. In liturgical practice even up to this very day, it is customary to ‘Intone’ a formal prayer, which consists of reciting the opening words to alert people to what’s going on, e.g., when the Priest says “Our Father” we know he is specifically Intoning the Lord’s Prayer. To Intone means you have the entire prayer in mind, not just the first few words.
Psalm 22:1 begins with King David crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me?” Now it is clear that King David was not undergoing God’s wrath here, so why are we in any way forced to interpret these same words as Jesus undergoing God’s wrath? Logically speaking, there’s no reason at all. Rather, David was praying the prayer all men pray when times get rough: “God, where are you? Why wont you rescue me from my suffering?” In other words, God the Father allowed Jesus to fall into the hands of evil men, and did not rescue Him from their persecutions, even though God could have. (See Matt 26:53-54) This lesson was to teach us all that God sometimes lets bad things happen to us, even if we don’t deserve it, because He has a greater purpose in mind, just as God the Father allowed bad things to happen to His Beloved Son, Jesus.
The Psalm continues by pointing out unbelievers uttering the famous mocking words: “If he trusts in God, let God deliver him” (22:8), just as those at the foot of the Cross mocked. Later it says “they have pierced my hands and feet” (22:15), clearly a prophecy of the Roman nails. And even “they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots” (22:18), a prophecy which John explicitly references in his account of the Crucifixion (John 19:24). The Psalm even ends on a hopeful and triumphant note, with David knowing God will make everything right in the end. Why? Because even in the midst of this suffering, God “has not hidden his face” (22:24) from the suffering servant, even though many Protestants will say (directly contradicting this verse) that “God turned his face from Jesus.”
Further, in John 16:31, Jesus says: “Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me.” Now if the Father was also going to end up abandoning Jesus as the Apostles did, these words make no sense at all, for according to the Protestant reading the Father wont be with Jesus in Jesus’ darkest hour.
And how did the crowd react to these words? Their first thought is that Jesus was calling upon Elijah and wanted to see if Elijah would ‘come to take Him down’. Clearly, they believed in the Intercession of the Saints in some sense, and their thoughts were nowhere near “suffering God’s wrath”. Why would they think Elijah would come to save Jesus from God the Father? It only makes sense if Elijah would come rescue Jesus from the danger zone. And what about “suffering God’s wrath” would cause the Centurion to conclude Jesus was “truly the Son of God”? These reactions are non-sequitor for the Protestant understanding of the situation.
Finally, if Jesus’ cry of abandonment is the key text on understanding the Cross, as some Protestants will assert (and most would imply), then as I’ve said many times, John and Luke missed the most important lesson of the Cross, for they ‘forgot’ to record the ‘cry of abandonment’ in their Gospels! That’s pretty outrageous of a conclusion, and hopefully nobody really believes that. So, in the end, it is clear that the only thing needing to be completely abandoned is the Protestant “interpretation” of this passage.