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.
Note: in the first two installments of this series I discussed Psalm 22 and Habakkuk 1:13. If you have not read those posts please refer to them as well.
The first two posts in this series dealt with two arguments in favor of the belief that God abandoned Jesus on the cross from a scriptural point of view. Both arguments were shown to be false. In Psalm 22 the psalmist himself declares that he was NOT forsaken, and in Habakkuk 1:13 it is clear that Habakkuk’s lament is NOT accepted by God, and he later demonstrates his error in a beautiful prayer and statement of faithful acceptance. With these two arguments from Scripture removed, we can now turn our attention to related evidence that further demonstrate that God did NOT forsake or abandon Jesus on the cross. The first is somewhat philosophical in nature, but certainly no less convincing. It is the argument from the very nature of God – the trinity.
To begin with I must admit that the idea of the trinity is a difficult one to understand. I’m quite sure I do not fully understand how the three aspects of God’s nature relate. Certainly the word “trinity” is never used in the Bible. However, there is much that we can learn about God’s essence, and though we will never understand everything, that does not mean we cannot understand that which has been explained to us. We must be very careful that we do not say too much, nor should we say too little.
Please consider the following Scriptures: Deuteronomy 6:4; John 1:1ff; John 4:26; John 8:24; John 8:58; John 9:35-37; John 13:19; John 17:1-26; and Colossians 1:15-23.
From those passages we can conclude that the greatest statement concerning the nature of God from the Israelite perspective is that He is One – singular, indivisible. There are not many gods, but one God, and He is One. This makes the passages in John even more compelling. John declared Jesus to be with God, and to even be God. Throughout his ministry Jesus declared his divine essence. The apostle Paul declared as much in his letter to the Colossians. For the early church there was no difficulty is confessing the singular essence of God while at the same time declaring that Jesus was this God. While this post is not necessarily concerned with the Holy Spirit, it is the Holy Spirit that completes the Godhead, the trinity.
How does this relate to the cross? Just this – those who suggest that God abandoned Jesus on the cross must accept that the this relationship was destroyed while Jesus was on the cross. Jesus ceased to be God. Jesus ceased to be “I am He.” Jesus ceased to be “I Am.” In fact, in one of the more popular presentations of this belief, the author clearly stated, “The trinity was ripped apart.”
As kindly and as gently as I can, while being as forceful as I can, I must say that this must be identified as pure heresy. How can God render his nature into separate pieces, and then discard one of those pieces? How can God violate his own essence, that which makes him God? How can Jesus be divine, participate in deity, and yet have that deity ripped from him?
In the first several centuries the church had to work through some very difficult questions, beginning with the nature of Jesus as both God and man. These discussions came to be known as the Christological controversies. Two teachings were clearly labeled as heretical for their opposite but equal repudiation of the deity and humanity of Christ. One was docetism, in which Jesus was viewed as pure spirit, pure God, with no real human attributes. He only seemed, or appeared, to be human. The opposite heresy was that Jesus was human alright, but there was nothing divine about his nature. He could not be human and divine, and he was obviously human, so the God part, the deity, had to go. Those who taught this belief were known as Ebionites.
When someone teaches that Jesus was forsaken on the cross, he is denying the deity of Jesus. The teaching that Jesus was somehow only human on the cross, and not God, is pure Ebionism. To argue that God abandoned Jesus on the cross is to say that God abandoned God. It is another way of saying that God was no longer God, that Jesus somehow in his most profound essence rejected Jesus himself. God, who in his trinitarian relationship is “One,” now ceases to be One. He becomes less than one. Once the trinity is ruptured, once Jesus ceases to be the “I Am,” then he becomes just another human being, broken and sinful, and at that point his death becomes merely tragic, not redemptive. A human being can sacrifice himself or herself for me, but a human being cannot redeem me to God. Only God can redeem his creation – and as the gospel of John emphatically and repeatedly declares, that is exactly what Jesus did on the cross. Jesus could only do this as God, not Jesus as sinner.
This argument is closely tied to the other issues that I will discuss in each of the forthcoming posts – the statements that Jesus himself made that refute the “separationists,” the violation of the New Testament doctrine of the atonement, major conflicts with the chronology of the crucifixion, and the profound spiritual implications that derive from the idea that God’s essence can be somehow ruptured and then repaired with no consequences.
As always, thank you for flying with me in the fog, and, agree or disagree with me, I do hope these posts stir you to greater and deeper study of the Scriptures.