This week we turn to a question sent by Renee H. who asks, “Why did Jesus ask, at the end, ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’”
To put Renee’s question into context, we read in Mark 15.34 and Matthew 27.46 that when Jesus was crucified, he cried out before he died, “Eloi, Eloi lama sabachthani” which means in Aramaic, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Over the years theologians have wrestled with this issue and there have been a number of possibilities identified. We’ll look at three of the most common and accepted ideas.
The first possibility has to do with the origin of Jesus’ lament. These words were more than a simple cry of despair—in his hour of greatest agony Jesus’ recites Psalm 22.1. This psalm begins by accusing God of complete abandonment, though the psalmist relents that God is justified in God’s wrath. Later the psalmist describes his torment as people mock him. His words seem to suggest the sufferings of one who has been crucified.
Each complaint in this lament closely resembles the events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion as recorded by the four gospel writers. Indeed, this is one of those “prophetic” passages that seems too precise to be coincidental (which, of course, has been a topic of no little discussion among scholars for centuries: Did the psalm match the events of the crucifixion, or did the gospel writers intentionally record the events of the crucifixion to match the psalm?). In any event, since Jesus was a learned teacher who knew the scriptures well, he may well have cried his lament from Psalm 22 because those words were particularly apropos and meaningful to his situation at the time.
A second possibility for why Jesus cried out asking why God had abandoned him has a longstanding tradition in the Church and has to do with the doctrine of why Jesus died. Traditionally, Jesus’ death on the cross is considered to be a sacrifice covering the sin of the world. In this view, as Jesus was crucified, he took the sin of humanity upon himself, making the ultimate sacrifice for that sin. When Jesus cried out to God asking why he had been abandoned, it was because God had indeed abandoned Jesus. Here God is understood as a god who cannot abide sin and who must turn away from those tainted by it. Since Jesus had taken on the sin of the world, God could no longer offer support and comfort, so God withdrew God’s presence and abandoned Jesus (of course the story doesn’t end there…three days later Jesus’ willingness to die for those sins was rewarded by his resurrection whereupon he conquered both sin and death, thus ending the sacrificial system for dealing with sin).
The third possibility elevates the humanity of Jesus and makes him more accessible as one who’s “been there.” When Jesus was crucified, he endured the most humiliating of all deaths. Roman crucifixions were known for its dehumanizing effects on its victims. Most people who were sentenced to crucifixions were crucified near a busy public thoroughfare so that everyone who passed by could view the spectacle.
And what a spectacle it was. For one, contrary to most paintings showing Jesus hanging high above the crowd, crucifixion victims were crucified so low to the ground that a passerby could easily spit in the victim’s face and could add both insult and assault at near eye-level. Thus, Jesus endured eyeball-to-eyeball mocking and abuse by soldiers, passersby, and those bent on his destruction. To add to the spectacle, most people hung on the cross were fully exposed, that is, stark naked, so that not only was the pain of the death something to be reckoned with, but the public humiliation was equally horrific. In this case Jesus “lucked out.” The Romans allowed the Jews some measure of dignity by allowing a loin cloth to cover the genitals, probably because Jews were circumcised and considered odd and/or mutilated by the Romans and other non-Jews of the day. However, even this was a point of derision—one Jesus may well have felt as his life drained from him.
With all of this, and with the fact that if Jesus was anything, he was fully human, it is no wonder he felt abandoned. Although the scriptures make it clear Jesus was willing to pay the ultimate price, it is also clear it wasn’t a price he wanted to pay (cf., Mark 14.36). With death knocking at his door, Jesus cried out in his pain what his emotions must have told him was true—that God had abandoned him. Did God leave? Of course not, but in the agony of the moment, perhaps even Jesus could not “feel” God’s presence and so he questioned, he wondered, he feared that God had gone. But that was not the case and in the end, according to the rest of the story and the rest of the sayings of the cross, Jesus committed his life and his death into the hands of the one he knew, even through his panic, that he could trust.