Was Jesus Actually 'Forsaken' By God?

In Matt. 27:46, about the 9th hour that Jesus was on the cross, He "cried with a loud voice, saying, 'Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?' That is to say, 'My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?'" Mark's account (Mk. 15:34) is almost verbatim, and Luke and John do not record the statement at all.

Jesus' statement here has seemed to cause some confusion and controversy. Some teach that Jesus was here expressing the indescribable pain and loss of being separated from God, the "terrible moment that God turned His back on Jesus for our sin," as they put it. It is further asserted by some that this was the suffering that Jesus had been dreading all along, not the "mere" death and torture that awaited His body. It is asserted, in the most dramatic and funereal tones, that God was forced to turn His back on His own Son, because He "bore our sins".

The theory goes that at that moment, God turned His back on Jesus, because Jesus became literally guilty of all the sins of the world. Some go so far as to say that this is what Jesus dreaded, that other men have suffered worse physical suffering and death more bravely. Thus, it must have been the most awful anguish, the only time He had ever been separated from God. I was once scolded very heatedly in a Bible class for denying this position by a man later appointed as an elder.

I have heard this theory proposed most frequently by men as they say a few words before the Lord's Supper is offered. I believe it is a dangerous and appalling doctrine. Let's consider briefly a number of problems with this dark fantasy:

Guilt or Punishment?

Let's look further at the notion of guilt and its assignment. According to Dictionary.com, guilt is "The fact of being responsible for the commission of an offense." Guilt is the state of being at fault in having done something wrong. Guilt cannot be transferred or assigned in a literal sense, any more than the act can be undone or redone with another person as the responsible party. The consequences of sin, the fruit that goes with the guilt, can and often do spread far beyond the guilty party.

We can choose two of several passages in the OT that might appear to conflict, yet are harmonized by understanding the distinction between actual guilt and the consequences of the wrongdoing that caused the guilt.

In Exodus 20:5, God says that He "is a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me."

Yet in Ezekiel 18, God through Ezekiel criticizes the Israelites for believing that guilt transfers from one to another, e.g., father to son. Especially note verses 2-4, summed up at the end of v.4, which says, "the soul that sinneth, it shall die."

Both the Old and New Testaments make a distinction between guilt before God (unforgiven sin) and the consequences of that sin. David was forgiven of his sin with Bathsheba and against Uriah. But the child that was born of that union died (2 Sam. 12:13-14), and the sin continued to have consequences for David throughout the remainder of his life.

Punishment is often a consequence of guilt, but it is not the same thing as guilt. If a kid takes the car and wrecks it before he has his license, he's going to be punished (one would hope). But the car is wrecked, too. Both are consequences of the action, but when Dad grounds him for life, that's both a consequence and a punishment. However, if he can successfully convince his dad that his sister did it, she might suffer the punishment. But the son would still be the guilty party.

Thus, punishment can be assigned, or misdirected, even though actual guilt cannot. Someone else can take the punishment, either on purpose or by accident. If someone goes to prison for a crime they did not commit, does it make them guilty? If they volunteer to 'take the rap' for another person, does that make them able also to be guilty of it?

What is guilt, after all? It is simply the responsibility for a wrongful act. It can be indirect, as in David's murder of Uriah the Hittite, or it can be direct, as in Cain's murder of Abel (Gen. 4). But in any case, if a wrongful act was committed, the responsibility for that act makes one guilty (here, obviously, we're not talking about accidents, which do not carry responsibility in the same way).

If I break a vase, is there any way in which you could actually have become the one who broke it? I can blame you, or frame you, or we can collude to tell people that it was you. But it can never have been you, because the past is immutable. We cannot go back and change who did it, and thus who is guilty. We can only modify (sometimes) where the consequences come down.

Where's the Danger?

There is a doctrine, central to Calvinism, commonly called the "imputed righteousness of Christ". This doctrine is tied closely with the idea of "original sin", which teaches that man is guilty of sin, and in fact, is born guilty of sin, because of the sin of Adam, which taints and condemns all of unregenerate mankind.

In Calvin's view, the guilty nature of man cannot be changed by himself, sin cannot be removed, and man cannot even desire to seek God without the direct action of God's grace, efficaciously making him amenable to seeking God. According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter IX:

"III. Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto."

But (according to Calvin) the guilt for Adam's original sin can and does transfer from father to sons, and has from every father to every son since Adam. And as sons of Adam, we all share the guilt of Adam, and are lost already when we're born.

So how can we be saved if this nature is corrupt and cannot be cleansed? Well, over-simplifying a bit, it goes like this:

  1. We are sinful
  2. Christ is perfect
  3. When we are baptized (or sprinkled or poured, according to Calvin), God imputes the righteousness of Christ to us. That is, we stay dirty and guilty, but God lays the perfect life of Christ over us to cover those sins. Thus, we are saved by the perfect life of Christ (Institutes of the Christian Religion Book III, Chapter 11, 21-23).

This is not a study of Calvinism, so I'll resist expounding on all of the problems inherent in this. I'll point out only three:

If God is able to transfer actual righteousness, then Calvinism will work fine, on that point at least. Of course, if Christ is covering for us anyway, and if we're unforgivably and originally sinful through Adam anyway, then it's pretty apparent that what we do or don't do in life, other than being sprinkled as babies, won't have any effect on our salvation. What Martin Luther wrote in "Epistle" 501, "Pecca fortiter sed crede fortius" ("Sin greatly, but believe still more greatly.") seems to sum it up well.

Now let's look at the other side: can God transfer guilt? We've already asserted that literal guilt for wrongdoing always remains with the perpetrator, no matter where the consequences and punishment land.

But what if He could transfer literal guilt? What if He could just move guilt around from one person to another? If so, why did Christ have to come and die at all? Why not just pick anyone, and transfer the guilt for everyone to that one person? Better one person than God's own Son, right? For that matter, who's the father of lies? Who started it all? Why not transfer everyone's guilt to the Devil, and we can all be innocent and pure and go to heaven? No messy crucifixion, no unpleasant temptations in the wilderness, etc. Did God just not think of that?

Where is guilt located, anyway? Is it in the body, or in the soul? If I sin with my body, is my body guilty, or my soul? If I suffer earthly consequences, my body suffers. But my soul is the guilty part. Guilt is spiritual, yet most consequences (in this life) are physical. The final punishment for the guilty, which is Hell, will be spiritual. But the consequences in this life are physical.

The Scriptures that refer to the guilt or iniquity of men being "laid on" Christ make it clear that He bore them in His body. But remember that guilt is spiritual; consequences, including punishment, are physical. So if Christ bore it in His body, then what was it that He bore? Did He bear our actual guilt, or the punishment for it?

If Christ's punishment that He bore for us was spiritual separation from God due to His literal guilt for our sins, then what did we need Him for? We are already separated from God on our own. We don't need Christ for that. Separation from God is a consequence of guilt, not a punishment that God doles out. It is the state (spiritual) of the soul that has become guilty of sin by doing something wrong.

Why the confusion?

Jesus' statement is a precise quotation of the first verse of the 22nd Psalm. So what is Psalms 22 about? It is a prayer, first for deliverance, then thanksgiving for the deliverance that came (beginning in verses 21 and ff, especially the latter part of v. 24).

It is interesting to note that both writers who record this statement by Jesus make a point to record it as a transliteration into Greek (in which language both Mark and Matthew were very probably written). They seemed to be going out of their way to make sure that their Greek readers understood that Jesus was here quoting scripture, not just talking. Jewish readers, and Jews who were near enough to hear Him when He said it, would have recognized from whence the quote came, as this had always been recognized as an important Messianic psalm.

Crucifixion suffocates a person. Jesus could no longer make lengthy statements; He was close to dead. Over 1,000 years before, David wrote for his great-great-...-grandson a prayer for deliverance. He, through inspiration, foretold in detail both the situation Christ would be in (verses 6-7, 12-18) as well as how it would appear (verse 1). Note what passersby said about Him in Matt. 27:43: "let God deliver Him now if He will have Him."

Note that John 19:24 specifically removes any doubt about what Psalms 22 was written about.

From verse 21 on, the prayer changes to thanks, thanks for what God has done, thanks for the deliverance provided. The end of verse 21 is clear: the prayer was answered before it was finished.

Note further that Jesus said this after being on the cross for around 9 hours. After making this plea, He only lived for a little longer. Jesus prays for deliverance, and is almost immediately delivered from his suffering by death. God did not forsake Jesus; He delivered Jesus, just as had been prophesied, and just as Jesus asked.

What comfort we have thrown away by trying to insert maudlin, silly, Calvinistic, melodramatic nonsense into the Scriptures at the critical moment of all time.

So What's the Big Deal?

There's an interesting treatment of this topic by a prolific Catholic apologist named Dave Armstrong here. (A much older version is here.) If you can ignore his frequent labeling of this or that as 'heresy', he makes some very interesting points about the development of this notion.

So why is this a big deal? Who cares if people are a little confused about it? What does it matter?

What matters about it is that God's word teaches this differently. It is always important for us to conform to the Word, instead of ignoring or modifying it.

This gross misunderstanding of sin, guilt, forgiveness, and the nature of Christ's sacrifice does two very bad things:

  1. It robs us of the true understanding of the plan of God and the sacrifice of His Son
  2. It opens the door to a whole host of other false understandings of the Scripture (Calvinism, its child 'once-saved-always-saved', etc.)

This position is an absolute belief of Calvinists. Allow me to quote two prominent Calvinist writers on this. These excerpts are from "The Atonement - The Significance of Christ's Death", by Loraine Boettner:

As Dr. A. H. Strong has said, "If Christ was simply a martyr, then He was not a perfect example; for many a martyr has shown greater courage in prospect of death, and in the final agony has been able to say that the fire which consumed him was 'a bed of roses.' Gethsemane, with its mental anguish, is apparently recorded in order to indicate that Christ's sufferings even on the cross were not mainly physical sufferings."

And in the next paragraph:

As Jesus hung on the cross He was, in His human nature, the true sin-offering for His people, and as such, it was necessary that He suffer alone. God can have no association whatever with sin, since in His sight it is infinitely heinous. And, as in the Old Testament ritual for the sin-offering, this was symbolized by the burning of the flesh of the bullock outside of the camp (even the offering itself being treated as offensive and polluted since in the mind of the offerer it stood representative of and was in some way associated with his sin), so Jesus, as He bore in His own body the full weight of the penalty of sin, was temporarily cut off from the Father's presence and paid the entire cost of redemption without help from any other. The darkened heavens, and the cry, "My God, my God, Why hast thou forsaken me?" indicate as much. He was acutely conscious not only of the pain from the nails, but also of a break in that intimate and loving fellowship which He had always enjoyed with the Father. Since Jesus in His human nature was subject to the limitations which are common to men, it was as possible for Him to experience the sense of separation from the Father as it was for Him to be ignorant of the time of the end of the world, or to suffer pain or hunger. But during the crucifixion, as He bore a burden of sin such as had never been borne and could never be borne by any mere man, He went through an experience far more awful and terrifying than is possible for any mere martyr. In contrast with His sufferings, the Christian martyrs were deeply conscious of God's presence as they yielded up their lives. If Christ's death was only a martyr's death it might well fill us with terror and despair, for it would show that the holiest man who ever lived was utterly forsaken by God in the hour of His greatest need.

Do the Scriptures support this doctrine? Is it even necessary to somehow further dramatize the Lord's sacrifice and death?

The truth is dramatic enough: The Creator, the very Son of the Great God, voluntarily obeyed His Father's will to save us from our own rebellion and sin. He came to earth, lived a hard, miserable life, then died on the cross, knowing that He could call in the angels and bail out if He wanted (Matt. 26:53).

When He had been tortured more than any of us could even imagine, He prays the prayer that had been waiting patiently for Him for over a millennium. As He knew God would, God answered His prayer and delivered Him finally to death. And that death finally paid the price for all of the sins of those who accept Him.

After 3 days, God confirmed to the world that this was, indeed, "His beloved Son," in whom He was well pleased. After that resurrection, Jesus returned to heaven, glorified and victorious and on the right hand of God for eternity.

It is the death of Christ that paid the price, and it was the body of Christ that accepted the punishment, for our sins. But after a sacrifice like that, God requires that we submit to His Son, and become part of His body. And if we fail to do so, then we are agreeing to pay the price for our own sins - and this is the worst deal that anyone has ever made.