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  Why Did Jesus Feel Forsaken on the Cross?

This week our question comes from a men’s group currently studying Charles Swindoll’s The Darkness and the Dawn. This book is an in-depth look at the cross-resurrection event, and the guys were commenting about Matthew 27.46 and Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The question posed was, “Why did God have to turn his back on Jesus in his darkest hour?”

The most common and traditional answer to this question has to do with the nature of God and the nature of sin. According to the scriptures, God is holy by his very nature (Psalm 99.9). With the exception of the occasional expletive, holy isn’t a word used much in today’s society. According to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, holy means “exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness.” It’s the perfect in goodness and righteousness that’s the key to understanding who God is in relation to sin. According to this tradition, because of God’s holiness, that is, because of God’s perfect goodness, God is unable to abide the presence of evil or sin. Indeed, included in the ancient understanding of the word holy is a sense of separation from evil. I’ve had it explained that it’s sort of the matter/anti-matter theory that if ever the two come together then the two may cease to exist completely (actually, it’s a more complicated theory than that, but this is the basic concept). In any case, this tradition teaches that God can be nowhere near evil because God is so holy.

So, when Jesus was crucified, according to this tradition, he took all the sins of the world upon himself. This being so, God had to turn from him, literally abandoning him to this “sinfulness.” Jesus, left without the support of his heavenly father, cried out in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And the answer apparently was, “Because you are so filled with sin and evil that I cannot fellowship, help, or even look upon you. You’re on your own.”

There is a second answer that also has to do with the nature of God, but then turns not on the nature of sin, but the nature of humanity. In this view, God is still holy, but holy doesn’t mean that God is unable to be in the presence of evil—God is “big enough” to be unaffected by any spiritual kryptonite. Indeed, in the book of Job we read of a conversation where God is apparently entertaining a house guest named Satan. God even opens the conversation with polite chit-chat: “The Lord said to Satan, ‘Where have you come from?’ Satan answered the Lord, ‘From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it’” (Job 1.7). Now, my understanding is that Satan is generally considered to be the full antithesis of God—if God is all good, then Satan is all evil. So much for matter/anti-matter.

If this is the case then, if God is powerful enough to be unaffected by sin—even in its presence, why would God turn away from Jesus in his greatest moment of need?

I think the answer is best summed up by a bumper sticker I saw sometime ago: “If you feel far from God, who moved?” Jesus, the son of God, was abandoned by his closest friends, arrested and tried for treason, battered by the temple soldiers, beaten and crucified by the Roman soldiers, and ridiculed and taunted by the passersby. If anyone has ever faced a dark night of the soul, then Jesus faced that from the cross. Whether it was from the sin of the world, or from the crushing agony of emotions run amuck, Jesus must have felt just as you or I might have felt in similar circumstances—totally and utterly abandoned by God.

For God’s part, there was no turning away. Not then, not ever. God must have been experiencing every bit of the agony as he watched his own child slowly and painfully suffering and dying. How much more the hurt as Jesus cried out from his own inner darkness, reaching for a God who seemed so far away. But just because we can’t “feel” God’s presence, that doesn’t mean that God is not there. It just means that our own human nature, the part of us that wants to depend only upon ourselves, has captured our emotions. And that’s where faith comes in—an acknowledgement that God is still God, even when we don’t “feel” like God’s there. That’s a faith Jesus didn’t lose, contrary to any notion that his outcry might seem to indicate; for with his dying breath Jesus committed his life, his death, and his very soul into the hands of God—sight unseen, and heart unfelt.

And, for me, that’s what makes Jesus so real. The fact that in his toughest times he too felt all alone, but then I remember that even in his “aloneness,” he had the presence of heart, mind, and soul to call out to God whom he knew would never abandon him. Or you. Or me.

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