More Thoughts on Being God-Forsaken
As we saw in our last post, when God forsakes, He hides His face from the one He forsakes, turns him over to his enemies, and is angry with him. All of this happened to Jesus while He suffered for sinners on the cross. It was a real, objective forsakenness. As a follow-up, this post will simply catalog the faithful expositions of pastors and theologians in the past and present who have rightly understood and explained Jesus’ cry of dereliction as a cry of objective forsakenness by God.
What did Jesus mean when He cried out, “My God, My God, Why have You forsaken Me?” Come and see:
"So then, gaze at the heavenly picture of Christ, who descended into hell for your sake and was forsaken by God as one eternally damned when he spoke the words on the cross, 'Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani!' - 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' In that picture your hell is defeated and your uncertain election is made sure...
"He [Christ] is the heavenly image, the one who was forsaken by God as damned, yet he conquered hell through his omnipotent love, thereby proving that he is the dearest Son, who gives this to us all if we but believe" (Luther's Works, Vol. 42, 105–7).
Wilhelmus à Brakel:
"The magnitude of His soul’s suffering is also evident from His complaint upon the cross. 'My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me' (Matt 27:46). He was not forsaken by His divine nature, for the hypostatic union could not be dissolved. He was also not forsaken by the love of His Father, which remained immutable. Neither was He forsaken by the Holy Spirit, with whom He had been anointed in abundant measure; nor did He complain of being forsaken into the hands of men. Rather, He complained about the withdrawal of all light, love, help, and comfort during the specific moment when His distress was at its highest and when He needed them to the utmost...
. . . utterly forsaken of divine favor, sensibly experiencing the highest degree of the divine wrath and anger of God as just Judge – and at such a moment being attacked and assaulted in the most subtle and horrible manner by the powers of hell. What an extreme state of unspeakable distress this must have been! Such was Christ’s suffering according to His soul...
"Additional Objection: Christ’s human nature, in which He suffered, was finite and thus was not capable of bearing infinite wrath. Consequently His suffering was not sufficient to atone for sin which merits eternal punishment. Answer: We cannot determine to what degree Christ’s human nature was fortified, but it always remained finite. In this nature Christ endured a total being forsaken by, and the full wrath of, the infinite God against whom the elect had sinned. One should note, however, that it was not the human nature which suffered, but the Person according to this nature, and since the Person is infinite, all that He suffered was of infinite efficacy and value" (The Christian's Reasonable Service, Vol. 1, Trans. Bartel Elshout, Ed. Joel Beeke, Rotterdam, The Netherlands: D. Bolle, 1999, 579, 581, 592).
In the cry of Jesus we are dealing not with a subjective but with an objective God-forsakenness: He did not feel alone but had in fact been forsaken by God. His feeling was not an illusion, not based on a false view of his situation, but corresponded with reality. (Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, Vol. 3, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006, 389)
That when God threatened man, if he sinned, with death, he meant that death which our first parents incurred on the very day they sinned, and which Christ the Surety underwent in the room and stead of some; and which the damned themselves, who are without a Surety, shall suffer and be forced to undergo themselves. But that is the death of the whole man; because the subject of it is man, made up of soul and body united; and consists, not only in the privation of the sense of God’s favour, and of communion with him, and of a joyful delight in the enjoyment of him; but it is also attended with all the torture and racking pain which the almighty wrath of God can inflict . . . Christ the Surety, in the fulness of time, underwent this same death of the whole man, in soul and body united, while on the cross he was forsaken of God . . . who punished him with affliction and imprisonment, which will be the punishment of the damned, as it was of Christ . . . His whole man suffered this death, till divine justice was satisfied; and it sufficiently appeared to have been satisfied, when God removed the darkness, that the creature, who had before acted as an enemy against him, on whom God was taking vengeance, might again refresh himself, and when he likewise comforted him with such a sense of his paternal love, as now to be able to call God his Father, and commend his spirit into his hands . . . Moreover, he felt and properly bore this death on the cross, when he cried out, “My God! why hast thou forsaken me?” (The Economy Of The Covenants Between God And Man, 139-140)
"It pleased God to bruise him, to put him to grief, to make his soul an offering for sin, and to pour out his life unto death. He hid himself from him, was far from the voice of his cry, until he cried out, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?'" (The Works Of John Owen, Vol. 10, London: Paternoster Row, 118)
"They who would invent evasions for this express complaint of our Saviour, that he was deserted and forsaken, as that he spake it in reference to his church, or of his own, being left to the power and malice of the Jews, do indeed little less than blaspheme him; and say he was not forsaken of God, when himself complains that he was. Forsaken, I say, not by the disjunction of his personal union; but as to the communication of effects of love and favour, which is the desertion that the damned lie under in hell" (Works, Vol. 9, London: Paternoster Row, 122).
"It was from the penal desertion of God. That he was under a penal desertion from God, is plain; “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” And when I say so, I know little of what I say, I mean, what it is to be under such penal desertion. For the great punishment of hell, is an everlasting penal desertion from God" (Works, Vol. 17, London: Paternoster Row, 162).
Charles Spurgeon (This is possibly the greatest sermon I’ve ever read on the cross, so I’ve included a large portion of it here):
By the help of the Holy Spirit, let us first dwell upon THE FACT; or, what our Lord suffered. God had forsaken him . . . This voice out of “the belly of hell” marks the lowest depth of the Saviour’s grief. The desertion was real. Though under some aspects our Lord could say, “The Father is with me”; yet was it solemnly true that God did forsake him. It was not a failure of faith on his part which led him to imagine what was not actual fact. Our faith fails us, and then we think that God has forsaken us; but our Lord’s faith did not for a moment falter, for he says twice, “My God, my God.” Oh, the mighty double grip of his unhesitating faith! He seems to say, “Even if thou hast forsaken me, I have not forsaken thee.” Faith triumphs, and there is no sign of any faintness of heart towards the living God . . . This stroke has cut him to the quick: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” It was no phantom of the gloom; it was a real absence which he mourned . . . His Father, at that time, gave him no open acknowledgment. On certain other occasions a voice had been heard, saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”; but now, when such a testimony seemed most of all required, the oracle was dumb. He was hung up as an accursed thing upon the cross; for he was “made a curse for us, as it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree”; and the Lord his God did not own him before men . . . But this was not all. His Father now dried up that sacred stream of peaceful communion and loving fellowship which had flowed hitherto throughout his whole earthly life. He said himself, as you remember, “Ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me.” Here was his constant comfort: but all comfort from this source was to be withdrawn. The divine Spirit did not minister to his human spirit. No communications with his Father’s love poured into his heart. It was not possible that the Judge should smile upon one who represented the prisoner at the bar. Our Lord’s faith did not fail him, as I have already shown you, for he said, “My God, my God”: yet no sensible supports were given to his heart, and no comforts were poured into his mind . . . To our Lord, the Father’s love was the foundation of everything; and when that was gone, all was gone. Nothing remained, within, without, above, when his own God, the God of his entire confidence, turned from him. Yes, God in very deed forsook our Saviour . . . To be forsaken of God was much more a source of anguish to Jesus than it would be to us. “Oh,” say you, “how is that?” I answer, because he was perfectly holy. A rupture between a perfectly holy being and the thrice holy God must be in the highest degree strange, abnormal, perplexing, and painful. If any man here, who is not at peace with God, could only know his true condition, he would swoon with fright. If you unforgiven ones only knew where you are, and what you are at this moment in the sight of God, you would never smile again till you were reconciled to him. Alas! we are insensible, hardened by the deceitfulness of sin, and therefore we do not feel our true condition. His perfect holiness made it to our Lord a dreadful calamity to be forsaken of the thrice holy God . . . Do not forget that he was such a One that to him to be without God must have been an overwhelming calamity . . . Our Lord’s heart, and all his nature were, morally and spiritually, so delicately formed, so sensitive, so tender, that to be without God, was to him a grief which could not be weighed. I see him in the text bearing desertion, and yet I perceive that he cannot bear it. I know not how to express my meaning except by such a paradox. He cannot endure to be without God. He had surrendered himself to be left of God, as the representative of sinners must be, but his pure and holy nature, after three hours of silence, finds the position unendurable to love and purity; and breaking forth from it, now that the hour was over, he exclaims, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” . . . Bethink you, for a moment, that the Lord God, in the broadest and most unreserved sense, could never, in very deed, have forsaken his most obedient Son. He was ever with him in the grand design of salvation. Towards the Lord Jesus, personally, God himself, personally, must ever have stood on terms of infinite love. Truly the Only Begotten was never more lovely to the Father than when he was obedient unto death, even the death of the cross! But we must look upon God here as the Judge of all the earth, and we must look upon the Lord Jesus also in his official capacity, as the Surety of the covenant, and the Sacrifice for sin. The great Judge of all cannot smile upon him who has become the substitute for the guilty. Sin is loathed of God; and if, in order to its removal, his own Son is made to bear it, yet, as sin, it is still loathsome, and he who bears it cannot be in happy communion with God. This was the dread necessity of expiation; but in the essence of things the love of the great Father to his Son never ceased, nor ever knew a diminution. Restrained in its flow it must be, but lessened at its fountain-head it could not be. Therefore, wonder not at the question, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” . . . Why, then, did God forsake his Son? I cannot conceive any other answer than this – he stood in our stead . . . He bore the sinner’s sin, and he had to be treated, therefore, as though he were a sinner, though sinner he could never be. With his own full consent he suffered as though he had committed the transgressions which were laid on him. Our sin, and his taking it upon himself, is the answer to the question, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” . . . This was necessary for another reason: there could have been no laying on of suffering for sin without the forsaking of the vicarious Sacrifice by the Lord God. So long as the smile of God rests on the man the law is not afflicting him. The approving look of the great Judge cannot fall upon a man who is viewed as standing in the place of the guilty. Christ not only suffered from sin, but for sin. If God will cheer and sustain him, he is not suffering for sin. The Judge is not inflicting suffering for sin if he is manifestly succouring the smitten one. There could have been no vicarious suffering on the part of Christ for human guilt, if he had continued consciously to enjoy the full sunshine of the Father’s presence. It was essential to being a victim in our place that he should cry, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” . . . When Jesus bows his head to the stroke of the law, when he submissively consents that his Father shall turn away his face from him, then myriads of worlds are astonished at the perfect holiness and stern justice of the Lawgiver. There are, probably, worlds innumerable throughout the boundless creation of God, and all these will see, in the death of God’s dear Son, a declaration of his determination never to allow sin to be trifled with. If his own Son is brought before him, bearing the sin of others upon him, he will hide his face from him, as well as from the actually guilty. In God infinite love shines over all, but it does not eclipse his absolute justice any more than his justice is permitted to destroy his love. God hath all perfections in perfection, and in Christ Jesus we see the reflection of them. Beloved, this is a wonderful theme! (“Lama Sabachthani?”)
It is, of course, theologically important to maintain the paradox that, while this God-forsakenness was utterly real, the unity of the Blessed Trinity was even then unbroken. (The Gospel According To St. Mark, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983, 459)
To fathom the depths of what Christ endured we would need to spend eternity in hell. He was rejected by humankind, abandoned by God, subject to the full curse of the law and more besides . . . He endured the holy judgment of God against the unrighteous. He was made sin. He experienced the fearsome fate of falling into the hands of the living God, who is a consuming fire. He took our place as the guilty, the accursed, the covenant breaker. He was abandoned. He cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (The Work Of Christ, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993, 133 & 142-143)
Because he became sin for us, he had to undergo the cosmic trauma of separation from God who is “light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). In the dark of the cross’s night, Jesus was alone. His separation was not just felt; it was real [emphasis his]. The ontological unity of the Trinity was not broken, but the separation of the Son from the Father and Spirit was fact. This was possible because of the authenticity of the Incarnation. God’s holy nature demanded separation as the Son became sin. Not even the most evil man, including Nero or Hitler, has ever known in this life the horror of being completely cut off from God. But Christ knew it. (Mark: Jesus, Servant And Savior, Wheaton: Crossway, 2015, 393)
The story of that eternal Son is that in some time He is going to be given up to the cross, and He is going to cry out “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken Me?” in a sense that He has lost His Father; and there is going to be an echoing cry in the heart of the Heavenly Father, much deeper than the cry of King David in the death of his son Absalom, “Oh Absalom, my son, Absalom, my son, my son Absalom.” ("The Waiting Father")
He descended into hell, the place of total loneliness and abandonment, where He cried out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” . . . This fourth word from the cross represents the nadir, the lowest point, of Jesus’ sufferings. Here Jesus descends into the essence of hell in the most extreme suffering ever experienced . . . Jesus is expressing here the agony of unassisted solitariness . . . now, in His hour of greatest need, Christ experiences a pain unlike anything He has ever experienced: His Father’s abandonment. When Jesus most needs encouragement, no voice cries from heaven, “This is my beloved Son.” When He most needs reassurance, no one says, “I am well pleased.” No dove descends from heaven to symbolize peace; no angel is sent to strengthen Him; no “well done, thou good and faithful servant” resounds in His ears. He is in a far country, a strange country, hanging in the naked flame of His Father’s wrath . . . Not one beam of sunlight is permitted to shine on Him. God is present only in displeasure, bearing down upon Christ in anger. Instead of love, there is wrath. Instead of affection, there is coldness. Instead of support, there is opposition. Instead of nearness, there is distance for three long, agonizing hours. The Son’s cries do not bring the Father back. There is no change in the Father’s demeanor until He is so far away that He eventually disappears. The Son cries out one last time, “My God – why?” That is what we have here. The Son is pursuing the Father as He distances Himself even further. There is an indescribable pursuit going on here, and yet the Father purposefully retreats. No amount of pursuing will catch up with the Father, and eventually there is nothing left but abandonment. Jesus is alone. Deserted. Forsaken . . . Outside an emergency room in a California hospital is a drop-off box for unwanted babies. The thought of abandoning one’s baby like dropping mail in a mailbox makes us shudder. Yet, when believers feel forsaken, it is like that: a feeling that does not correspond with reality. They lose the sense of God’s presence, but not this presence itself. With Christ this loss was both feeling and fact. He felt forsaken because He was forsaken. He endured the essence of abandonment... ("Christ Forsaken!")
First, this was a real forsakenness. That is why. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” means he really did. He really did. He is bearing our sin. He bore our judgment. The judgment was to have God the Father pour out his wrath, and instead of pouring it out on us, he pours it out on him. That necessarily involves a kind of abandonment. That is what wrath means. He gave him up to suffer the weight of all the sins of all of his people and the judgment for those sins. We cannot begin to fathom all that this would mean between the Father and the Son. To be forsaken by God is the cry of the damned, and he was damned for us. So he used these words because there was a real forsakenness. ("'My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?' Didn't Jesus Already Know?")
His cry was not, as Albert Schweitzer opined, the cry of a disillusioned prophet who had believed that God was going to rescue him at the eleventh hour and then felt forsaken. He didn’t just feel forsaken; he was forsaken. For Jesus to become the curse, he had to be completely forsaken by the Father. ("Forsaken – Jesus Became A Curse")
Jesus is saying, in quoting the words of those great Psalmist, “My dear friends in Christ, My brothers and sisters whom I am redeeming, I want you to understand that I experienced what the Psalmist thought that he experienced. I experienced the loss of the Father’s face and favor. I was there, and I was under His hand, and I was His Son, and suddenly I lost all sense of His love, of His comforting favor, of His presence, of the assurance of victory, of joy, of hope, of peace. It was all withdrawn because I was a curse. I was sin, I was being made the penalty for sin. It pleased the Lord to bruise Me. I was bruised for your transgressions. I was put to grief.” . . . It’s as if He’s pulled us all around behind Him, and He said, I’m going to stand in the face of the full fury of what you deserve, and you are not going to feel a bit of it because I’m not simply going to take it as it were with you, I’m going to absorb it in your place . . . Hendrickson says it better than I’ve ever heard it put. He says, “Hell came to Calvary that day.” “Hell came to Calvary that day and the Savior descended into it and bore its horrors in our place.” And Matthew shows you this . . . And we ask the question, how can God be forsaken of God? And I can ask twenty questions for which there’s no answer. And let me say that that’s a good thing for us to be brought to the very limits of our understanding where we simply have to bow the knee and say, “Lord, I don’t understand it, but I accept it. It’s in Your word.” That’s a good thing for Christians to have to run into every once in a while . . . But now here’s His Son on the cross, and He is enduring the wrath which He did not deserve in our place. And there’s never been a time in all the history of eternity when the Father more wanted to say this is My Son, my beloved Son, and He wanted to glorify Him and exalt Him. And yet at that time when His Son says, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” He says nothing. Why? Because of His love for you. He will not answer His Son, because His Son has taken your place. He has born your penalty. He’s been put under the ban, off limits, under the curse, made sin, pushed to the edge of the cosmos and out into isolation into the outer darkness where you should have been. And so there’s no answer for the Son because that is the stratagem of the Father’s love to redeem you from sin. ("The Dereliction")
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
Joseph Randall serves as the pastor of Olney Baptist Church in Philadelphia, PA.
"Surely He Has Borne Our Griefs" by Sinclair Ferguson
"The Blessed Cursed Tree" by Nick Batzig
Atonement, edited by Gabriel Fluhrer