Did God really abandon Jesus on the cross as many worship songs and sermons assert . . .? . . . Is the activity of the Father in our redemption being misrepresented?
It is clear from Mark 15.34 that Jesus felt abandoned on the Cross. This is hardly surprising, given the intensity of the suffering that he endured in being condemned by his people, abandoned by his friends, and then scourged, crucified, and left to die, struggling for every breath. That sense of total abandonment and dereliction of Jesus on the cross has been of enormous comfort to many who, for whatever reason, have felt abandoned, unloved, and unwanted.
To know that God himself, in the person of his Son, went through such dereliction has encouraged countless Christians to stay with it in such times, and to entrust themselves to the Father, as Jesus did, according to Luke, even when they feel God to be totally absent, and themselves “hung out to dry”.
But it is a different matter altogether to assert that the Father actually abandoned his Son, as some hymn-writers suggest. The writer of the Fourth Gospel makes it abundantly clear that this is not the case, but that everything that Jesus did he did in full co-operation with his Father.
In 10.30, Jesus asserts: “The Father and I are one”; in 5.19 he says: “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can only do what he sees the Father doing.” Then at the Last Supper (14.10) he tells his disciples: “The Father who dwells in me does his works.” In 16.32, as he tells his friends that they will desert him and leave him to face things alone, he adds: “I am not alone, for the Father is with me.” It is obvious that for John all that Jesus does is a joint enterprise with his Father, including his dying on the cross. Nowhere does the Bible say that the Father stopped loving his Son, or that he left him alone to die.
This particular interpretation of the cry of dereliction in Mark 15.34, which is found in some Christian traditions, comes, it would appear, from combining Paul’s description of God’s wrath against sin in Romans 1.18 with his saying that Christ has paid the price in 1 Corinthians 6 and 7; no doubt helped along by the notion of “satisfaction”, which is not a biblical concept but a feudal one.
In this view, the main work of Jesus on the cross is “to satisfy the wrath of God”, a view expressed powerfully by Jonathan Edwards in his sermon: “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. But this picture is one that is created by combining two different concepts: God’s anger against our sinning, and the need for some price to be paid to repair the fault-line in human nature, and to make reparation for the hurt that humanity has inflicted.
Of course there is a cost to forgiving sin, and to healing the deep wound in human nature caused by sin; and the Bible asserts that it was on the cross that this price was paid, but nowhere does it say that God’s anger needed to be appeased for this to happen. The common translation of the Greek word hilasterion as “propitiation” could be construed to support this view, but it should more truly be translated as “expiation”, because in both the Old and New Testaments it is God himself who supplies the means of putting right our broken relationship with him.
The sacrifices of the Old Covenant, and the one ultimate sacrifice of the New, are not humanity’s attempt to propitiate an angry God, but the means that God himself has provided to wipe the slate clean — as he does so completely once for all, in the death of his incarnate Son upon the cross.
That is why so many Christians, much as they admire the hymnody of Stuart Townsend, are unable to sing the line “The Father turns his face away”; for they see it as an erroneous and, indeed, very distorted picture of the God and Father of Jesus, and of their work together to heal humanity and set us free from sin and evil.
(The Revd) Nigel G. Coatsworth
Dudleston Heath, Shropshire
I find that the most satisfactory answer to the question is that given by St Thomas Aquinas: “It was the moment when God withdrew his protection without breaking the union.”
(The Revd) Stanley D. Horsey
Hove, East Sussex
Why are C of E dioceses that are headed by archbishops not referred to as “archdioceses”?
R. W. C.
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