As promised, a review of the book that spurred my last post. Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, eds., (Nashville: B&H Academic Publishing Group, 2006) 352 pages.
I admit that the purchase of this book was more title and cover than anything. I knew nothing about the editors, or the authors. I soon discovered that the editors and authors of the individual chapters are committed Baptists, and they repeatedly made that point obvious throughout the book. That should be of little issue, unless you have a passionate dislike for Baptist authors. I try to be as eclectic in my reading as I can. My favorite (and the best academic book, IMHO) on the subject of baptism is by another Baptist, G.R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament. My favorite book on prayer was written my a Jesuit priest. So, I do not judge books by the authors, although I will sometimes buy one if the cover strikes me as interesting.
This book is a collection of 10 chapters, each written by a different author. The first three chapters cover the topic of baptism in the gospels, Luke-Acts combined, and the New Testament epistles. There follows chapters on Baptism and the Relationship between the Covenants, Baptism in the Patristic Writings, Confessor Baptism (the Anabaptists), Baptism and the Logic of Reformed Paedobaptists, Meredith Kline and Suzerainty, Circumcision, and Baptism, and (very interesting to me) Baptism n the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, and concluding with a final chapter on Baptism in the Context of the Local Church.
Because this is a collection of works in one volume, it is to be expected that there would be some unevenness among the chapters, and that is most certainly the case. In my estimation the chapters ranged from the simply dreadful (and academically suspect) chapter on the Patristic Writings to an outstanding demonstration of proper academic writing in the chapter on Baptism and the Logic of the Reformed Paedobaptists and to a lesser degree in the chapter on Baptism in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement (unfortunately, the author focused entirely on Campbell, which seriously affected his work. He should have named the chapter, “Baptism in the Writings of Alexander Campbell” as that is what he discussed.) The chapter on the Patristic writings was full of summary statements that had no documentation and other statements that were questionable as to whether the author took the quoted passage out of context. In contrast, the chapter on the the Reformed doctrine of paedobaptism provided adequate documentation and allowed the reader to decide (at least I believe it did) whether the passage was in or out of context.
The volume is valuable primarily as a defense of believer’s baptism (or, confessor’s baptism, as one author suggested). That is its intended purpose. It is not, and should not be used, for a text defining the purpose and meaning of baptism. For that purpose I suggest the aforementioned text by Beasley-Murray, or Baptism and the Remission of Sins: An Historical Perspective by David Fletcher, or Baptism: A Biblical Study by Jack Cottrell. This volume is devoted specifically to the question of whether paedobaptism (infant baptism) is biblical, and seeks to explain the practice of paedobaptism especially within the Reformed (Calvinistic) evangelical churches. Very little mention is made of the Roman Catholic or Lutheran practices.
I genuinely enjoyed several of the chapters, especially the one on the Anabaptists. This chapter was among the strongest, and one that provided me with the most food for thought, both positively and negatively. I am becoming more and more convinced that the Churches of Christ should be paying more and more attention to the Anabaptist movement (with which we have tertiary connections), both for doctrine and especially for praxis.
The chapters covering the biblical texts were uneven, with some good insights and some aggravating defenses for the sake of denominational ties. On the other hand, there were examples of significant diversion from “standard” Baptist theology, with several examples where the authors stated that baptism is indeed inseparable from the forgiveness of sins (although, to be sure, each and every one of them rejected “baptismal regeneration” and salvation ex opere operato, salvation simply by the administration of baptism.) I found the chapter on baptism and the Restoration Movement to be extraordinarily even handed, and it was valuable to see the writings of Alexander Campbell through the lens of a Baptist theologian. I reject his suggestion that anyone should follow the lead of Oak Hills church in San Antonio Texas, because from my perspective that congregation has completely forsaken biblical teaching concerning baptism (among other things) and their heritage within the Churches of Christ, and I reject that they speak for anyone who wants to remain faithful to the Restoration plea.
One other note in passing. I wrote my last post before I read the concluding chapter, and in that chapter the author discussed the very question I raised among Churches of Christ. In that chapter he provided a statistic that among Baptist churches between the years 1977 and 1997, the numbers of baptisms of children under the age of six increased 250 percent! According to a doctoral dissertation that examined this phenomenon, one of the leading causes of this trend was, “social pressures on the pastor.” (p. 347). In an immediate classic turn of phrase, the author who reported the statistic referred to the practice as “infantile baptism.” (see page. 346, note 23. The title of the study is “The Practice of Infantile Baptism in Southern Baptist Churches and Subsequent Impact on Regenerate Church Membership” in Faith and Mission, vol. 18, no. 3 (Summer 2001): 74-87).
Overall this was an enlightening book, and one I can recommend for the express purpose of the discussion of infant baptism. As I mentioned earlier, if you are looking for an exposition on the meaning and purpose (theology) of baptism, you would be better advised to read Beasley-Murray, Fletcher or Cottrell. Fletcher’s book is particularly strong in examining the question of the relationship between baptism and the remission of sins. Beasley-Murray simply set the standard in terms of New Testament passages on baptism, and although the book is older, it is still well worth the purchase price.
In the past several posts I have provided the reasons why I believe God did not, and indeed could not, have abandoned Jesus on the cross. As I conclude, I would like to present some inescapable conclusions that follow if we believe that somehow God did, or even wanted, to abandon Jesus. I feel that these are so serious as to be conclusive in and of themselves. I will allow you to judge for yourself.
1. If God abandoned Jesus, even for a moment, for that moment Jesus was just a human. This is in clear contradiction to the entire message of the gospel of John. If Jesus’s divinity was somehow “revoked” on the cross, then a mere human atoned for our sins. What does that say about the atonement?
2. The unity of Jesus’s church is a lie. If Jesus’s prayer for the church was based on his unity with his Father, and if that unity was “revoked” or “abandoned,” then what does that teach us about the unity of his believers? Can we accept division in Christ’s church because Jesus and his Father experienced division?
3. The comfort and guidance that Jesus promised is a lie. Jesus prayed in the garden that he would be able to accomplish God’s will. He then promised his disciples that he would be with them “always,” especially as they fulfilled his commission. If God could, and did, reject Jesus at the very moment that Jesus was fulfilling God’s will, what faith can we have in Jesus’s promise to be with us as we try to do his will?
4. Jesus’s death was ultimately unnecessary. If God was with Jesus before Jesus died, and if he was with Jesus as he died, then the atonement was accomplished simply by the suffering of Jesus. His death was superfluous.
5. God cannot be trusted. Who can, or would, trust a despot who demanded absolute fealty and then rejected his own son who is the greatest example of that fealty?
6. Jesus cannot be trusted. Jesus believed he and his Father were one. If he could be misled by the events leading up to the cross, how can he be trusted with his other words? Jesus called for his disciples to follow him up to and including the point of death. If God could, and did, reject Jesus as Jesus was obeying God, how can we trust Jesus to be with us as we follow him to his cross?
The doctrine that God abandoned Jesus is false. It is wrong textually, contextually, theologically, chronologically and historically. The doctrine has no support in the explicit or any implicit teaching of Scripture. It should, therefore, be rejected by any who claim to follow Jesus as the Son of the Living God.
As the title notes, this is post #6 in a series. If you have not been following the series, I invite you to backtrack a little over the past 5 posts.
Of all these posts I think this one is perhaps my favorite. You can argue with me about the interpretation of Psalm 22, or the meaning of Habakkuk 1:13, and certainly the finer points of the trinity and the philosophical arguments about the nature of the atonement can become arcane. However, virtually everyone can understand time, and the ramifications of past tense and present tense. Also, the logic (or illogic) of various arguments becomes crystal clear in this discussion, so I think the present topic is especially meaningful for those who do not understand what is at stake in this debate.
To begin, let us examine the chronology of the last few hours of Jesus life. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus is is full unity with God, as I do not believe any “separationist” (those who believe God abandoned Jesus on the cross) would argue. Note Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:39-46, and John 17:1-26.
Next we come to the series of quotations we have from Jesus on the cross.
John 19:26-27 – “Son, here is your mother, mother, here is your son.”
Luke 23:34 – “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Luke 23:43 – “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (spoken to the repentant thief)
Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34 – the quotation from Psalm 22:1
John 19:28 – “I thirst.” (alluded to, but not quoted, in Matthew and Mark)
Luke 23:46 – “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
John 19:30 – “It is finished.”
Of the seven statements, four are specifically tied to a time (about the ninth hour, or 3 pm) or immediately before Jesus’s death. Luke’s quotation in 23:46 clearly has Jesus in a close relationship with God, his father. Matthew and Mark’s quotation of Psalm 22 with the “ninth hour” or the time period immediately preceding his death. So, Matthew and Mark place the quotation from Psalm 22 at roughly the same time that Luke has Jesus in an intimate relationship with the father.
Now – here is where we have to allow some logic to direct our thoughts. One major argument used by the “separationists” is that Jesus and the Father were separated, or to put it another way, that God abandoned Jesus, because in Jesus referred to God as “God” and not “Father.” It is inferred that if Jesus was in full unity with God he could not have used the more “distant” term of address. So, just for arguments sake, let’s play this out in terms of the clock –
In the garden – Jesus and God are unified. (No one seriously questions, to the best of my knowledge)
Early in the crucifixion sequence – Jesus and God are unified – “Father, forgive them…” and “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (Jesus used the term of intimacy and familial relationship, and it would be the height of blasphemy for a mere human, bereft of any deity, to proclaim any kind of forgiveness of sin or promise of paradise to a condemned criminal!)
Whoops – God abandons Jesus because Jesus uses the word “God” and not “Father.” (Quotation of Psalm 22:1)
At the point of death – Jesus and God are unified – “Father, into your hands” and “It is finished” – emphasis on the familial term once again and the completion of his mission.
So according to the timeline thus presented, God abandoned Jesus for an exceedingly brief period of time, virtually at the same moment that he is breathing his last few breaths. But, not exactly at the time he breathes his last breaths, because at that moment he is once again one with God!
So, let me ask a question here – at what point did God become so horrified at all the sin that Jesus was bearing that he had to “turn his back on Jesus”? And at what point did he return to Jesus? And if it was the burden of sin that Jesus was bearing that made God abandon Jesus, at what point were those sins erased?
If you are riding the fence on this issue I hope something just occurred to you. According to the text of the gospel writers, God was with Jesus before he was crucified, and clearly during the first few hours on the cross. God was with Jesus as he died. Therefore, there is only a very brief window for God to “abandon” Jesus. And, if the only reason for God to abandon Jesus was the “sin” he was bearing, that sin had to be placed on Jesus AFTER his initial crucifixion, and it had to be erased BEFORE he died.
Therefore, dear reader, I would suggest that the death of Jesus was unnecessary. According to that scenario, Jesus only had to suffer pain to atone for sin. Jesus’s actual death then becomes the most horrific crime perpetrated in the entire history of God’s creation.
According to the texts provided in my last post, that is categorically NOT what the apostles preached concerning the atonement. And, therefore, this is the crux (pardon the pun) of my argument that God did not abandon, did not reject, did not turn his back on, Jesus.
Next: the conclusion – there are some profound practical issues involved if we submit to the teaching of an abandoned Christ on the cross.
This is the fifth in a series in which I demonstrate that it is a false teaching to assert that God abandoned Jesus on the cross. If you are new to the series, please review the posts immediately preceding this entry.
I will admit two things at the front of this post. (1) this post will be the most philosophical of the series, and (2) I am in no way claiming that I am an expert in something as deep and varied as the theory of the atonement. However, the biblical texts themselves make it clear that God could not have abandoned Jesus on the cross, if God was going to achieve the purpose for which virtually every Christian, including the “separationists,” claims that he did achieve – namely, the redemption and reclamation of his people.
Scriptures to consider: Romans 6:1-4, 8:1-11, 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, Colossians 1:15-23, Hebrews 2:9-18, 5:7-10, 9:11-10:18, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Revelation 5:9
To begin with I will make what initially seems to be a brash statement, but upon further review is absolutely true. There is not one single passage of Scripture from Acts – Revelation that even hints that God abandoned Jesus on the cross. Not one single passage. Not one allusion. Not one hint. None. It simply was not, and is not, a New Testament concept. In fact, the concept is so foreign to the New Testament that I do not understand where the idea originated. The only passage that can even remotely be used in defense of this teaching is, to no great surprise, a refutation of that teaching.
First, let us see how the New Testament writers viewed Jesus’s death. The primary text here is the book of Hebrews. From beginning to end the letter (sermon) extols the uniqueness and superiority of the sacrifice of Jesus as compared to the earthly sacrifices of the physical temple. The entire book needs to be read in this context, but notice 9:23-10:10 in particular. Nowhere in this section (nor in the entire book) can you find a place for God’s rejection of Jesus. It just will not fit the theology.
Read also Romans 6:1-14 and 8:1-11. Here again there is no room for an abandonment, a rejection of Jesus by God. The language Paul uses cannot be twisted around “Jesus was accounted to be sin, so God had to turn his back on him.” Paul’s theory of the atonement is undone if Christ was so wretched, so impregnated with our sin, that God could not look upon him (once again, twisting Habakkuk 1:13 to get to that viewpoint).
We have already noticed John 1:1-18 in regard to the trinity, but notice how in the introduction to his book here, John weaves in the idea of the atonement. It is because Jesus was “with God and was God” that through his “fullness we have received, grace upon grace.” A fractured, abandoned and rejected Jesus can hardly be considered to be in the “fulness” of God.
Now let’s look at 2 Corinthians 5:21, the one verse that “separationists” hang onto with all their might to rescue their fallacious theory:
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (RSV)
The “separationists” focus on one little phrase, “he made him to be sin” and overlook the entire context of the passage. Let us undo that mistake.
To begin with, the chapter in which this verse is found is not an explanation of the atonement at all. It is a defense of the role of the minister, an ambassador for Christ. Paul is defending his role specifically, and explaining why he does what he does. So, if he preaches relentlessly, because he is convinced that Christ died for all men, what does it mean that Christ died for all men? That is the “digression” that begins in v. 16. By Christ’s death he has made all men new. This is “from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself” The phraseology is important here. Paul states that it was through Christ that God reconciled man to himself. He continues in the next sentence by saying, “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.” Now, we have “in Christ.” So it was in and through Christ that God accomplished the reconciliation. How did this occur? Paul is not specific (in fact, in the entire New Testament there is no one, single, clear explanation of the atonement), but he does go on then with the verse highlighted above.
Note in this section what Paul does NOT say. Paul does NOT say that Jesus was made to be sinful. This would contradict the entire book of Hebrews, noted above. Paul also does NOT say here, and here would be THE perfect place for him to say it, that God abandoned or rejected Jesus at any point in time. In fact, taken in its context, Paul is arguing the exact OPPOSITE. He is telling the Corinthian Christians that the death of Jesus was entirely God’s will and plan, and that it was exactly in and through this death that God accomplished his goal of reconciliation with mankind.
Now, I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but it just seems to me that if you reject the very thing that you willed and that you planned, you can not then come back and say that it was the very thing that you rejected and abandoned that accomplished your will. Yet, this is the exact illogical argumentation that “separationists” want you to believe when they tell you that God rejected Jesus on the cross.
So, as a summation, we have here yet another illustration of the number of ways the “separationists” incorrectly interpret Scripture, twist other Scriptures, fail to follow clear lines of logic, and reject the overarching message of the entire New Testament.
But, I have just one more point to make as I close. As a matter of sheer luck (serendipity?), a preacher friend (who knows I am working through this project) showed me an interesting verse in the book of Exodus. I shall quote the passage in full to illustrate my point:
And you shall make a plate of pure gold, and engrave on it, like the engraving of a signet, “Holy to the LORD.” And you shall fasten it on the turban by a lace of blue; it shall be on the front of the turban. it shall be upon Aaron’s forehead, and Aaron shall take upon himself any guilt incurred in the holy offering which the people of Israel hallow as their holy gifts; it shall always be upon his forehead, that they may be accepted before the LORD. (Exodus 28:36-38 RSV, emphasis mine).
So, Aaron, the high priest, was to “take upon himself any guilt” of the people – and he was to take that guilt and atone for it before the ark on the day of atonement. And God never turned his back on Aaron, did he?
Kind of makes you want to go back and pay more attention to the book of Hebrews, doesn’t it??
Next up – the impossibility of God abandoning Jesus as demonstrated in the chronology of the crucifixion.
So far in this series of posts I have examined Psalm 22, Habakkuk 1:13, and the nature of the trinity as arguments against the mistaken belief that God abandoned Jesus on the cross. At this point if you agree with me you are probably saying, “Enough, you made your point, what could be more clear?” Of course, if you disagree with me you are probably not reading this post at all, so to go on further would kind of be silly anyway. But I am not done yet – I have a number or arguments yet to mention that further support the biblical view that God was entirely with Jesus on the cross.
Today I look at how Jesus himself rejected the idea that somehow the Father would abandon him on the cross. Consider first Jesus’s words in John 16:32:
The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, every man to his home, and will leave me alone; yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. (RSV, emphasis mine.)
Now, a full fledged separationist (one who believes God did abandon Jesus on the cross) would point out that at this point in time Jesus was in fellowship with his father. What I want to point out is that Jesus never said, “At some point I will be alone” or “At some point the Father will abandon me.” He went out of his way to emphasize that at the point in time the disciples abandon him, he will not be alone, because his father (God) will be with him. If God did reject Jesus it was a complete shock to Jesus, and a repudiation of Jesus’s own words! I do not think many separationists stop to consider this verse, nor the one to follow:
I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given them, that they may one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that show has sent me and has loved them even as thou has loved me. (John 17:20-23, RSV, emphasis mine)
Notice the purpose for which this prayer is prayed – the unity of all followers of Jesus. Notice the proof that Jesus gives that such believers can be, and should be, perfectly one. That proof is the unity of God and Jesus. If that unity is destroyed, then the argument Jesus makes that all disciples should be one is also destroyed. If God can abandon Jesus, why then can Jesus’s disciples not abandon one another in times of stress and persecution? The theory of God abandoning Jesus simply destroys the concept of the trinity (last post) and invalidates the promises and prayers that Jesus spoke immediately before his death.
So, just to recap: if you believe that God abandoned Jesus you have to (1) twist Psalm 22 to mean something it most definitely does not mean. You have to also (2) take Habakkuk 1:13 out of context and make Habakkuk mean something for all time and eternity that he said once, that God later corrected him for saying, and that Habakkuk himself refuted toward the end of his writing. Finally, you have to reject all the biblical teachings of the unity and indivisible nature of the trinity, up to and including disregarding, or even disavowing, the very words of Jesus to his disciples.
It just seems to me to be an awful amount of work to do to defend a teaching that was rejected in the first couple of centuries as being heresy. Why would you want to?
Next: The New Testament (and indeed the biblical) doctrine of the atonement refutes the idea the God abandoned Jesus.
Note: In the last post I discussed how Psalm 22 has been misinterpreted by some to indicate that Jesus was abandoned/forsaken by God on the cross. Today we look at Habakkuk 1:13
“Thou who art of purer eyes than to behold evil and canst not look on wrong, why dost thou look on faithless men, and art silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” (Habakkuk 1:13, RSV)
If Psalm 22 is misunderstood and misinterpreted because of a lack of awareness and careful study, then Habakkuk does not even show up on the radar screen. Quick – tell me the last time you had a Bible class on Habakkuk. Tell me the last time you heard a sermon preached on Habakkuk. Tell me the last time you even read Habakkuk. If you use the old “analog” paper version of the text of the Bible, can you find Habakkuk without looking at the table of contents or thumbing your way through the “little prophets?” To be perfectly honest, I cannot. I know its around Amos somewhere – but that if I get to Malachi I’ve gone too far.
That is really a shame. Habakkuk is a beautiful depiction of a prophet’s struggle with the word of God. The story is written in the form of a dialogue – first Habakkuk speaks, God answers, Habakkuk responds to God’s declaration, God responds to Habakkuk again, and finally the prophecy ends with a beautiful prayer of faithfulness by Habakkuk. In some ways the story resembles Jeremiah, in others it resembles the story of Job. It is a powerful story in and of itself, and deserves far better treatment that we usually give to it.
In 1:1-4 Habakkuk puts forth his initial lament – God is simply not paying attention to his people, the law is being ignored or abused, and God is not doing anything about it. Habakkuk wonders why God has been so unresponsive to the prophet’s cries.
In 1:5-11 God responds, and in a manner that Habakkuk could never, and would never, have imagined! God is going to send the Babylonians to punish the guilty for their lawlessness. God will respond to the crimes and the situation that Habakkuk has described, but in a manner that is simply incomprehensible to Habakkuk.
1:12-2:1 records Habakkuk’s terrified (and somewhat petulant) response – God, you must be crazy! Surely there is a better way to fix the problem than by sending the Babylonians to punish Judah. Habakkuk basically tells God that God is better than that, everything that Habakkuk knows about God would tell him that God simply would not behave in such a ghastly manner. So, after amending his complaint and setting forth his argument, Habakkuk sets down to see how God will respond (very similar, I might add, to Jonah’s petulant response and pouting gesture after preaching to Nineveh and awaiting God’s response).
Chapter 2 contains God’s detailed response to Habakkuk’s complaint. Yes, God is aware of Babylon’s reputation, their immorality, their viciousness, their cruelty. God will punish them for these crimes, but first he must use them as his tool to punish faithless Judah. Chapter two ends with that triumphant declaration that gets minimized far too often as we turn it into a sing-songy little ditty – but God is letting Habakkuk know in no uncertain terms that he, God, is God, and he has everything under control, and that Habakkuk would be better served by being a prophet than by trying to be God. Habakkuk is unqualified for the position, thank you very much.
Chapter three contains one of the most beautiful prayers in the Bible. Habakkuk gets the message. He understands. He accepts his demotion. Although his initial response was one of terror and revulsion, he now quietly accepts God’s judgment, because he properly accepts his position relative to God’s wisdom and power:
“I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us. Though the fig tree do not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation.” (Habakkuk 3:16b-18)
The verse that the “separationists” (those who believe God abandoned Jesus on the cross) pull from Habakkuk to justify their position is 1:13, located in Habakkuk’s second lament, the one in which he rebukes God for planning to use the Babylonians to punish Judah. In context the statement is Habakkuk’s conclusion of how God should act, based on Habakkuk’s theology at that given moment. God is simply too pure, too perfect, too much “God” to use such a vicious and cruel people to fix the problem that Habakkuk had identified. The statement in question is not approved by God, and in fact, in the context of God’s correction of Habakkuk, we can confidently say that God is fully aware of the situation – his eyes are in fact NOT too pure to behold evil – but that he is utterly in control of the situation. Far from proving the point that the separationists want to make, taken in context the verse proves the exact opposite. Habakkuk is wrong. God does not need to be vindicated, Habakkuk needs to be corrected. (For what it is worth, compare Jeremiah’s bitter accusation against God in Jeremiah 20:7. Are we to take Jeremiah’s word as “gospel” and therefore declare that God is deceptive and a bully? See also Jeremiah 4:10)
Just think of the ways in which God not only was aware of evil, but actively inserted himself in evil situations to either end the evil or protect the righteous. God was certainly aware of Abraham’s lies, yet he delivered Pharaoh and protected Abimelech from the sin of taking Sarah as their wife. God certainly “saw” the evil of Sodom and Gomorrah (read Genesis 18:20-21!). Notice the verbs that are used to describe God’s involvement in the deliverance of his people from Egypt: God heard the Israelites’ groaning, he remembered his covenant, he saw their condition, and he knew their condition. This certainly does not sound to me like verbs that could be used if God was somehow incapable of viewing, or seeing, or becoming involved in a broken world. The passages taken from the Old Testament could be multiplied numerous times – but the point should be clear: God is NOT incapable of seeing nor of acting in a world in which there are sinful acts.
To turn to the New Testament we find God incarnate involving himself in scenes of evil and violence repeatedly – not to justify or promote or to participate in it but to overturn and destroy it. Jesus interjects himself in the attempted stoning of an adulterous woman. He casts wicked people out of the temple, he allows women of ill repute not only to touch him, but to weep profusely over him. On a daily basis Jesus inserted himself into a bent and broken world for the express purpose of bringing healing to that which was broken and to straighten out that which was bent. I will have much more to say about Jesus’s role in actively confronting evil in the next post as I discuss the importance of the trinity. Let this paragraph suffice to demonstrate that if God could not be in the presence of evil, then we have all kinds of theological problems as Jesus swam in a figurative ocean of evil and sin.
To aver that God had to abandon Jesus on the cross because “he could not bear to look on evil” is a violation of Scripture in a number of ways. It is a blatant twisting of a passage of Scripture out of context. It refuses to consider any conflicting information from other passages of Scripture. It is proof-texting in the worst possible manner. There is simply no other way to describe it. To use Habakkuk 1:13 to justify the erroneous teaching that God abandoned Jesus is just horrific theology. Let us be done with such practices.
Next: What about the trinity? What about the relationship between God and Jesus?
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1)
When we begin to look at the mistaken idea that God abandoned Jesus on the cross the first place we must turn is the opening line of Psalm 22. I find it incredible to discover that some people do not even know that Jesus was quoting Ps. 22:1 as he suffered on the cross, (Matt. 27:46, Mark 15:35) but even those who do recognize the quotation have rarely bothered to discover WHY Jesus quoted that single verse. Examining the Psalm goes a long way toward refuting the claim that God abandoned Jesus on the cross.
As I understand the most common explanation of the “Separators” (as I will call them, those who believe God separated from Jesus on the cross), we can see that God had abandoned Jesus because Jesus addressed God with his formal title, “God,” as opposed to his familial relationship (“Abba father,” see Mark 14:36). This is either an admission that the speaker is not aware of Psalm 22:1, or rejects any specific connection to the Psalm. So, recognizing that Jesus was indeed quoting (verbatim, that is) from Psalm 22:1, is there any specific reason why he would choose that Psalm? Let us turn to Psalm 22 and read.
The first thing that we note in reading Psalm 22 is that the first 21 verses are among the most specific and emotionally laden laments in the Old Testament. It is an emotionally draining Psalm to read.
In the first 2 verses the psalmist sets the tone for the entire poem – he feels utterly rejected by God. He prays, but there is no response. This is a continual prayer, not a one-and-done prayer. It is un-ending, and fervent.
In verses 3-5 he confesses that this result is radically out of God’s nature. His entire faith has been built around the idea that God hears, God responds, God delivers. But he himself has found no hearing, no deliverance. This result is shocking, and deeply disturbing to the psalmist.
In verses 6-8 the psalmist returns to his misery – he even despairs of his life – he is a worm, and no man. Everyone who sees him mocks him. It is one thing to be in physical or emotional pain, but to have all his nearest friends turn from him is almost more than he can take.
In verses 9-11 there is a return to the way he thinks it ought to be – once upon a time God took care of the psalmist, why not now? The situation is desperate, almost critical. Where is God? Why is the God who once was there, no longer there?
Verses 12-18 contain the bulk of the lament, the most graphic and specific complaints. And it is in verses 12-18 that we see the greatest connection to the events of the crucifixion. Some have even used the word “prophetic” in regard to Psalm 22, but I do not like to think of the Psalms as prophecy. The psalmist is not “prophesying” anything – he is lamenting a very real and deplorable situation in his life – one the demands immediate attention from a God that has gone AWOL.
However, in verses 19-21 the psalmist returns to his faith – almost as if he is dredging up one more bucket of brackish water to his parched lips in the hopes that he can survive one more hour, one more day.
And then, right there in-between verse 21 and 22 there is a massive change. You cannot miss it – not if you read the Psalm for the Psalm and not try to make it something that it is not. The change in tone between 21 and 22 is palpable, and theologically as well as emotionally decisive.
The reader is not told what happens, but something earth changing happens to the psalmist. From verses 22-31 the psalmist is no longer in the mode of lament. The last third of the Psalm is pure rejoicing, celebration, and worship. It will not do for the psalmist to rejoice alone – no, he must go and proclaim his great good fortune to the assembly. And, pay very careful attention to verse 24
For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; and he has not hid his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him (Ps. 22:24, RSV)
Psalm 22, the Psalm that begins with the plaintive cry, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” ends with the confession, rather the boisterous proclamation, that God never did forsake the psalmist, never did abandon the psalmist. The remainder of the psalm is one of the greatest affirmations of the glory and righteous rule of God anywhere in the Psalter.
Just for comparison, consider Psalm 73. The first 14 verses follow the same pattern as the early verses of Psalm 22, in which the psalmist complains bitterly and confesses that “…my feet had almost stumbled, my steps has well nigh slipped.” (v. 2) But, he did not stumble, his steps did not slip, because in v. 15 there is another one of those massive shifts, an “epiphany” if you will. The psalmist in Psalm 73 entered into the sanctuary of God and realized how wrong his earlier thoughts had been. We are not told of the circumstances of the shift in Psalm 22, but the result is remarkably similar. Psalm 22 and 73 and two examples of this transformative type of Psalm. They communicate through their words, to be sure, but their structure is critical to understanding the message of the psalm.
Why have I gone to such lengths to discuss Psalm 22? Because, when you remove Psalm 22 as a declaration of utter abandonment, it makes no sense whatsoever, especially no theological sense, to use the opening phrase as a declaration of Jesus’s abandonment on the cross. If the psalmist was not abandoned, how can this verse be used as evidence that Jesus was abandoned? Do the “separators” believe that Jesus was so ignorant of the Psalm that he was quoting that he did not know it was a raucous anthem of the presence of God and ultimate deliverance? What kind of theological illiterate do some of these individuals think that Jesus was?
There is a literary method of using one small part of a whole to refer to the entire body, it is called “synecdoche.” Many scholars believe that is exactly what Jesus is doing here with this Psalm as he quotes the first line on the cross. He is quoting a poem, or the first line at least, that ends in triumph. True, only the first line is quoted in the gospels, but that does not in and of itself mean he did not later quote more of the Psalm. Those who knew the Psalm would know how it ended, whether he finished the Psalm or not.
I have no way of knowing whether or not that is Jesus’s intention. We only have the first line, and we certainly cannot read Jesus’s mind as he suffered on the cross. But this much is clear – he is not quoting a Psalm of abandonment and rejection, but a Psalm of great faith and worship.
Two more quick points and I must cease. First, I believe it is noteworthy that both Matthew and Mark drew attention to the quotation of the Psalm NOT because of the content of the opening line, but because everyone in hearing distance MISUNDERSTOOD what Jesus was saying, and they believed he was calling for Elijah to come and rescue him. It is as if the evangelists were drawing specific attention to the fact that even in his last few minutes on this earth, Jesus was still being misunderstood and misinterpreted. Sadly, that misinterpretation continues even today.
And, finally, I cannot leave Psalm 22 without making the point that canonically, the lament (and therefore the great rejoicing) of Psalm 22 leads directly into the most beloved of all Psalms of God’s presence – Psalm 23, “The LORD is my shepherd.” This was not an accident of just throwing some poems down on the table and seeing which came up first. This structure is intentional, and the juxtaposition of Psalm 22 and 23 is profound. God not not abandon. God does not desert. God does not forsake. Indeed, God, the LORD, is my shepherd. I fear nothing, need nothing, but am tenderly loved and cared for.
He did not abandon any Israelite psalmist, and he certainly did not do so to his own Son, Jesus.
Next installment: The misunderstanding of Habakkuk 1:13
It’s been a while since the ol’ Freightdawg put on his theology cap and went for a walk out into the fog. Recent events have spurred me on to do just that, so I am announcing a new series that I will begin either later today, or tomorrow at the latest. The topic is one that has occupied me for quite some time, and at one point was actually a stimulus to return to school to earn the Doctor of Ministry degree. The topic I will be discussing is the belief, quite false as I will demonstrate, that God abandoned Jesus on the cross.
For some reason this is a deeply held belief by many people, both the erudite and the painfully ignorant. As near as I can determine there is only one reason for holding this belief, and only two very weak propositions used to defend the belief. As I will demonstrate, the reason many people hold the belief may not be overcome, but the two propositions used in defense can certainly be proven to be misunderstandings and distortions.
I will work through seven installments (as they are planned now), and end with some concluding remarks. I intend to demonstrate that the idea that God abandoned Jesus on the cross is false because:
- It is based on a misunderstanding and distortion of Psalm 22
- It is based on a misunderstanding and distortion of Habakkuk 1:13
- It requires an indefensible violation of the trinity
- Jesus flatly denied that it would or did occur
- It violates the later New Testament doctrine of the atonement
- It cannot be sustained by any reasonable chronology of the event of the crucifixion
- It results in many significant practical issues
If you hold to this opinion, I hope you will stay with me through the entire series. If you follow me carefully I believe you will be forced to change your mind. If not, you will have to work much harder to defend this belief. If you have always felt uncomfortable with the idea that God abandoned Jesus on the cross, but just did not know how to answer the teaching, I hope you will stay with me as well as I will share with you how to confront this false teaching.
As I mentioned above, this particular topic has interested me for well over a decade, and has resulted in several spirited conversations with those who disagree with me. I present this series not as an attack on any single individual, but rather as a demonstration that there are a number of beliefs that we hold, sometimes quite emotionally and fervently, that have absolutely no basis in Scripture. But, as I have repeated almost to the point of nausea, theology matters! Good theology heals and strengthens. Bad theology sickens and kills.
I look forward to demonstrating how good theology overcomes bad theology, and any teaching that would suggest God turned his back on Jesus cannot be good theology.
There is something deep within the psyche of the modern, born-again, “praise God and pass the contribution plate” Christian that cannot leave bomb-proof, unassailable, “put the atheists in their place” kind of scientific evidence alone. (How is that for incorporating generic identifiers?) What is mean is this – you cannot hardly turn on your computer today without someone, somewhere “proving beyond a shadow of a doubt” that some such thing once doubted is now finally, beyond any shadow of a doubt, proven to be real or historical or some such thing. It might be the age of the earth, or the hypothesis that humans shared living quarters with dinosaurs, or the exact, precise, down-to-the-minute day and time that Jesus was: born, crucified, resurrected, ascended, and/or will come back to earth. The number of things that science can supposedly prove “beyond a shadow of a doubt” is truly staggering. And, call me a skeptic, but I wonder if even a fraction of the claims are even remotely scientifically accurate.
Let me illustrate with a couple of stories. It is very definitely true that during certain times within history, Christians would travel great distances and pay money to visit “relics” of saints. So, pieces of holy objects such as the cross or Noah’s ark, or bones, hair, blood – you name it – from all sorts of “saints” started showing up with quite startling frequency. It is said, for example, that if you had every single piece of the wooden cross upon which Jesus was said to be crucified, gathered back from all the sales of “genuine cross relics” dealers, you could take those tiny little shards of wood and rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica. Not bad for two beams of wood.
As a very real example of devotion to “relics” today stop and consider the veneration given to the Shroud of Turin, the purported burial cloth of Jesus. Never mind it has never passed a test that dates it older than the middle ages, many believe it to be the actual burial cloth of Jesus.
The one story that just always leaves me shaking my head that so-called intelligent people will accept it is the story that EVEN TO THIS DAY gets retold regarding NASA, a special clock, and the missing day of Joshua 10:12-14. As the story goes, in order to go to the moon, NASA had to develop a clock with incredible accuracy. It was so accurate, so the story goes, that the developers made it go BACKWARDS in time to verify its accuracy. They kept going back, back, back, until, LO AND BEHOLD they discovered a missing 24 hour period in the age of the earth – Joshua’s missing day!! Are you kidding me?? Intelligent people cannot see through this? But they can’t, because (1) they do not want to see through it because it purportedly proves a point they want proved and (2) what self respecting American patriot would question the National Aeronautics and Space Administration?
Has anyone who believed this story ever wondered why NASA did not just keep going back to find out PRECISELY how old the earth is with their wonderful clock? Has anyone ever heard of a clock that can tell time BACKWARDS? Yet, this story gets repeated ad infinitum by otherwise intelligent people and, because they tell it, it gets believed by an entire new generation.
Those who demand bomb-proof, unassailable, “beyond any shadow of a doubt” proof only prove one thing – how fearful and shallow their faith truly is. God did not allow the Israelites to know where Moses was buried lest his grave become a shrine. God did not allow Noah’s ark to survive lest it become an idol. God did not allow the ark of the covenant to survive for the exact same reason, as with the cross, the tomb, and anything else related to critical events in the Bible. Those relics are just raindrops in the overwhelming ocean of world history. We do not know nor can we calculate the day of Jesus birth, death, resurrection (beyond the “first day of the week”), or ascension, and we certainly cannot figure out the day of his return. Those who claim to be able to do so are charlatans – or are the mistaken minions of such charlatans. They either have an agenda to push, or a book to sell. Be very careful of such spiritual snake-oil salesmen.
Just stop and think – seriously think – about one question. If you cannot believe that God can raise his Son, his incarnated self, from the grave, just exactly why would having a piece of the cross on which he was killed prove that fact to you? And, if you can believe that God did, in fact, raise Jesus from the grave, why would you need to prove Joshua’s “missing day” to buttress your faith? There are occasions when I fear that Karl Marx’s statement that religion is an opiate for the people to be far, far too accurate for my comfort level.
But, if you still want to believe in all this new scientific evidence that proves everything from the age of the earth to the exact location of Moses’s 70 palm trees please let me know. I have a piece of Jesus’ cross that I would love to sell to you.
Question – What do you get when you cross a bad scientist with a poor theologian? (Hang with me here, this is not a bad joke!)
Answer – An atheist
I just finished reading a book in which the author stated, unambiguously and quite proudly, that he can prove that God exists. Foolproof, airtight, with not the slightest chance that there could be a mistake proof that God exists. I was quite in awe until I read what his “proofs” consisted of – a long list of arguments that have been put forward for centuries. A long list, I might add, that has been particularly ineffective in proving the existence of God, except for those who already believe in God. If you already believe in something, it is quite easy to prove it exists. It is when you try to convince someone who is utterly certain of the falsity of your proposition that your “proofs” tend to get shredded. I happen to believe in God, so I also happen to appreciate many of the “proofs” that the author put forward. I also know atheists who laugh out loud at the supposed “iron-clad” arguments that are set forth. Now, disbelief in one proposition does not equal proof of the opposite proposition, but still, poor arguments deserve to be destroyed.
Notice in the famous picture of the creation of Adam in the Sistine chapel. God and Adam reach toward each other, but there is a gap – an existential difference between the two. God urges us as humans to seek for him, but still, we are flesh and he is God, and we will always be just a hair short of fully understanding the nature of God. John even said of Jesus, the incarnate God on earth, “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.” (John 1:11)
I am one who happens to believe that good science and good theology should not be enemies. They are different fields, and ask (and search for answers) to entirely different questions. Good science attempts to answer the questions “what” and “how”. Theology attempts to answer the questions “who” and “why”. That is why I suggest that when you mix bad science and bad theology all you end up with is an atheist. A good person, no doubt, but someone who has placed their trust in something that is not God.
I feel very strongly that if you have to prove the existence of your god, you have a very small god. In fact, if you CAN prove the existence of your god then you have succeeded in creating an idol larger than any god – yourself. Step back and work through this – if your science (whatever it may be) can prove beyond any shadow of a doubt that your god exists, then your god is smaller than your science. That is to say your science can explain your god; ergo, your science is bigger, more complex, and more profound, than your god. You have just made your intellect your idol – you may worship a “god,” but just like the story in Isaiah of the man who cuts down a tree, cooks his food with half of it and fashions a god out of the other half, your god is still a thing of your creation (see Isaiah 44:9-17). You can manipulate it, define it, examine it, and ultimately prove that it exists by some physical test.
Now compare that with the God of the Bible. Since we were just in Isaiah, let us stay there. Read Isaiah 40:9-31 (for just one passage). Now – how do we “prove” a God such as this exists? To what do you compare something that is incomparable? By what standard do you measure something that is beyond measure – or even comprehension? The folly of the peanut scientific mind is that it thinks it can define, measure, describe or explain that which cannot be rationally bounded.
Writing in the early 11th century A.D., a theologian by the name of Anselm formulated what is often referred to as the “ontological argument” of the existence of God. Strictly speaking, however, it is not a positive argument, but the expression of the impossibility to create such an argument. It goes something like this – If I can conceive of something bigger than God, that thing that I have imagined must be God. But this is a logical impossibility, as God is the most comprehensive being that can be conceived. God, therefore, is “that than which nothing bigger can be conceived.” God is bigger than any science, any scientist, and even any proof of his own existence.
We need to give up this infantile attempt to figure out a “bomb-proof” argument or proof that God exists, and simply get back to worshipping the God that scoffs at all our puny little attempts to control him.
“And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6, RSV emphasis mine.)