“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?””
I was an unbeliever in 10th grade when these words eloquently and passionately flowed from my school chaplain’s lips as he gave his Easter address at the school assembly. I remember thinking at the time, why would Jesus say such a thing before He died? Was He really forsaken by His Father in His hour of need? We consider child abuse to be a heinous crime, but here we may perceive an abusive and blood thirsty Father pitted against His innocent Son. Is that really what Easter is all about? It was only years later when I came to saving faith in Jesus Christ did I come to understand the true significance and meaning of these words.
Did the Father really abuse the Son by sending Him to the cross? This view has caused many liberal theologians to dispense with the idea of God the Father pouring out His wrath upon His own son as payment for the sins of His people. In their book, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, Green and Baker claim that, “The Scriptures as a whole provide no ground for a portrait of an angry God needing to be appeased in atoning sacrifice” (p. 51). As we consider the cross this Easter what should we believe? Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to ask, why did Jesus utter those most terrifying words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”.
The obvious answer is that Jesus uttered those words because he was truly forsaken by the Father. The Apostle Peter says that
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree”
1 Peter 2:24
In a similar manner the prophet Isaiah said that
He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities … and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all”
Isaiah 53:5, 6
Sin, or iniquity, is rebellion against God and an assault upon His holiness. We are told that His eyes are too pure to look on evil and cannot look at wrong (Hab 1:13). Therefore, when Jesus bore our sins the Father turned His back on Him and for the first time in all of eternity, Jesus was separated from His Father. “He descended into hell, the place of total loneliness and abandonment” (Joel Beeke).
We know that for three of the six hours Jesus hung on the cross, darkness descended upon the land. It was during this time that the cup of God’s wrath was poured out full strength upon the Son until Jesus drank it to the dregs. That mystery is so profound and unfathomable that it is hard for us to comprehend, but we must not avoid it. On the cross Jesus freely and willingly accepted the Father’s will, which was not incompatible with His own.
Perhaps we might ask, then, why did Jesus cry out “why have you forsaken me?” if He freely accepted it and knew before time what the cross meant (Luke 22:42)? I would suggest that Jesus was not looking for an answer but was merely expressing the absolute horrors associated with the abandonment. If Jesus did not cry out as He did we would question whether He really experienced the necessary and full scale vengeance of God upon sin. Perhaps, as one who was totally immersed in the Scriptures, Jesus’ reflex was to express His horror in the words of David in Psalm 22:1, and so fulfill Scripture.
The cross, far from being cosmic child abuse, was the place where divine wrath and love met. We are told that, as our merciful High Priest, Jesus made propitiation for the sins of His people (Heb 2:17). The apostle John writes:
In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins”
1 John 4:10
God’s love, we are told, saves sinners from His own wrath through the death of Christ (Rom 5:8-9).
The cross as atonement for sin does not pit the Father against the Son nor make the Father a cosmic child abuser. No, in the God-forsakenness of Christ on the cross, the justice of God and the love of God are revealed on behalf of His people. The Father and Son were united in purpose to save God’s people from the vengeance of God for their sin. This is the gospel we proclaim. A gospel that takes seriously the holiness of God, the sinfulness of man, and the perfect obedience of the spotless Son for the sake of saving sinners. Remove one element of this and you extract the good news from the cross and leave people in their sins.
The cross calls us all to respond. Consider, if you are not a Christian, what are you not willing to forsake, that you might be forsaken by God on the final day? Is your sin that important that you would prefer to spend eternity paying the price for it in hell, rather than repenting and turning to Christ? The good news is that Christ was forsaken by God so you do not need to be. Believer, on the cross Christ destroyed the penalty of sin and the power of sin in your life. What sin will you not forsake for Him? The cry of Christ was a cry of abandonment that gives us now the power to abandon our sins. May those words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” give you much hope and peace this Easter.