He's Calling For Elijah! Why We Still Mishear Jesus

"My God, My God, why have you forsaken me" was a cry of vindication, not despair.

When the Jesus film is screened in cultures that have never heard of Jesus, the viewers often love the movie and get completely wrapped up in the story. But the crucifixion comes as an utter shock. Many audiences jump up and cry out in protest. This can't be. This is not how the story should end.

The crucifixion of Jesus has always been profoundly disturbing.

For me, what's most troubling is not the unjust trial, how the crowd turns against Jesus, or how his disciples abandon him. The most troubling part is one line. Mark 15, verse 34: "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?")

This line horrifies me. It calls into question the very nature of God. Is God the kind of God that turns his back on his Son? Does God abandon those who cry out to him? How could God forsake the perfect God-man, the only one who has ever served him perfectly? Because if Jesus was truly forsaken by God, what's preventing God from forsaking any of us? How could we ever trust him to be good?

The Apologetic Challenge

These have always been important questions, addressed at various lengths since the early church. But now it has become a serious apologetic emergency. In a more rationalist era, people believed in Christianity on the basis of truth. We proved the reliability of the Gospels, gave evidence for the resurrection, argued that Christianity was historically verifiable. Believe in Jesus, we said, because Christianity is true.

But then culture shifted. Many people didn't accept absolute truth claims anymore. So we turned to pragmatic appeals. Believe in Jesus, we said, because Christianity works. Come to Jesus because he'll change your life. The proof is in the pudding. Christians are happier, healthier, live longer, and so on. But the appeal has its limits. Christians are not immune to all the troubles and trials of life. Christians get divorced at only a marginally lower rate than their neighbors.

So we shifted our appeal again, proclaiming that Christianity is real. It's not fake, it's not artificial. For people sick of being marketed to and being presented with a pre-packaged religion, we could offer the authentic Jesus, not religion. This strategy especially resonated with Gen Xers in the '90s, who blanched at "victory in Jesus" sermons and songs that omitted any sense of pain. A generation that experienced broken families, broken relationships, and broken lives needed to know that God could understand. Jesus suffered and died. As John Stott said in his classic book The Cross of Christ, "I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the Cross. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?" So Christianity is real because Jesus is real. He lived in the real world, and he really suffered and died.

But today, that's not enough. The cultural questions have shifted once again. Today's young adults have come of age in a world of terrorism, a clash of civilizations, religiously motivated violence, and new extremisms. Now the question is whether religion of any kind is of any good. Does it just incite crusades and inquisitions, holy war and jihad? It's not just if Christianity is true, works, or is real. Is it good? Is Christianity good for the world? Is the God of Christianity a good God?

Is the Cross Divine Child Abuse?

This brings us back to Jesus' cry on the cross. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? One of the major objections that today's new atheists have about Christianity is that the Christian God is not worth believing in. They argue that Christianity is a primitive backwards religion of punitive bloodlust, of a father who kills his own son. The Cross is divine child abuse, they say. Fathers should love their children, not abandon them, not torture them, not kill them. If the Christian God forsakes his own child, how could he be worthy of worship? We don't respect human child abusers—why would we believe in a God who forsakes his own perfect son?

Christians usually respond that God had to turn his back on Jesus because Jesus took on the sin of the whole world, and God can't look upon sin, so he turned away. We hear this in sermons and worship songs. "The Father turns his face away." "God can't stand sin, so he turned his back on Jesus."

On one level this provides a tidy theological answer. But at a more visceral, emotional level, it's still unsatisfying. In our own families, when a child has erred, we might get mad at them. But would we forsake them? Abandon them? Kill them? There was a case last year of parents with a very strict form of discipline. They thought their daughter was "rebellious," so they starved her and beat her. They locked their daughter out of the house in the middle of winter. She froze to death. We call that child abuse.

Is that what God did to Jesus? Left him on the cross to die?

This also raises the theological problem of the broken Trinity. Christians are Trinitarian; we believe that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, eternally united in purpose and divine love. But does the Father break fellowship with the Son on the cross? Are they pitted against each other?

Cross-Cultural Perspectives

We in the West live in a predominantly guilt-based culture; we tend to think in terms of guilt and punishment. When someone is guilty, they must be punished. So if Jesus took on our guilt and sin, the punishment is death. God's justice must be satisfied, so Jesus must be executed. It's disturbing, but that's how we understand the story.

But much of the world, including the ancient biblical world, thinks less in terms of guilt and more in terms of shame and honor. A few years ago I read the book The Bookseller of Kabul, about life in Afghanistan. And some of the most disturbing parts were the descriptions of honor killings. A woman somehow brings shame to a family, and she is killed to take away the shame and to restore honor. It doesn't matter if she committed adultery or was raped. It doesn't matter if she was the perpetrator or the victim. If she has been made impure, the impurity must be removed to restore family honor. And in many cases, a father will kill his daughter. Or a woman's brothers will kill her. It will be described as an accident, but everybody knows what happened.

So modern objections to Christianity say that this is the essence of Christian teaching on the Cross. God's son has been made impure, tainted by the sin of the world. So God restores his honor by killing his son. This puts us Christians in a bind. If we defend this theology of the Cross, then it seems like our Christianity does the same thing as honor killings in Afghanistan. And we lose our basis for saying that those honor killings are wrong, because our God does the same thing. Does he?

I find it interesting that Matthew and Mark tell us that some of the hearers misheard Jesus.  That opens up the possibility that the same has been true for others, and for us. Have we misunderstood this cry from the cross? The crucifixion narratives do not explicitly tell us what Jesus' cry meant. Both Matthew and Mark record the cry, but neither unpacks the meaning. They just let it stand. Neither actually says that God turned his face away, turned his back on Jesus, or abandoned him. That's an assumption that we bring to the text. It doesn't come from the passage itself.

Making a Reference

Here's the key biblical insight that changed everything for me in how I read this passage. It's a simple historical fact about how Israelites cited their Scriptures. They didn't identify passages by chapter numbers or verse numbers. Verse numbers weren't invented yet. Their Scriptures did not have little numbers in the text. So how they referenced a passage was to quote it, especially the first line. So the book of Genesis, in Hebrew, is not called Genesis. It's called, "In the beginning." Exodus is "Names." We similarly evoke a larger body of work with just a line of allusion: "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away." or "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

That's why Jesus often says, "It is written" or "You have heard it said." He doesn't say, "Deuteronomy 8:3 says this." No, he says, "It is written, 'Man does not live by bread alone.' " That's just the way they did it.

So when Jesus says, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" he's saying, "Psalm 22." He expected his hearers to catch the literary allusion. And his hearers should have thought of the whole thing, not just the first verse:  "I am … scorned by everyone, despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads. … I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax. … My mouth is dried up … my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. … All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment."

Is Jesus saying "I have been forsaken by God"? No. He's declaring, "Psalm 22! Pay attention! This psalm, this messianic psalm, applies to me! Do you see it? Do you see the uncanny way that my death is fulfilling this psalm?"

Jesus has done this before. At the beginning of his ministry, in Luke 4, he read the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue, saying, "The spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Then to make things completely clear, he said, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."

That's what Jesus is saying on the cross. When he says, "My God, my God," he's saying, "Psalm 22. Today Psalm 22 is fulfilled in your hearing. I am the embodiment of this psalm. I am its fulfillment."

A Psalm of Lament and Vindication

Psalm 22 is one of many psalms that fit a particular lyrical pattern. We call them the psalms of lament. They usually begin with a complaint to God, rehearsing the wrongs and injustices that have been experienced by the psalmist. Psalm 5: "Listen to my words, Lord. Consider my lament." Psalm 10: "Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?" Psalm 13:  "How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?" Psalm 74: "O God, why have you rejected us forever?"

This is a common pattern in the Psalms. This opening lament usually goes on for a stanza or two. But then the psalm pivots. The psalmist remembers the works of God, and the psalm concludes on a note of hope. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says that these psalms were Israel's way of ordering their grief and making sense of their sorrow. Today, we'd call it "processing." They would recount their troubles, but by the end of the psalm, they declared their confidence in God.

That's what's happening in Psalm 22. It starts out with the psalmist feeling forsaken and abandoned. "Why have you forsaken me? … I cry out by day, but you do not answer." But he's not literally forsaken, any more than the other psalms mean that God was literally forgetting the psalmist forever. It's expressing how the psalmist felt at the time.

But that's not the end of the story. Like the other psalms of lament, there's a pivot point. Several, in fact. Verse 9: "Yet you brought me out of the womb … from my mother's womb you have been my God." Verse 19: "But you, Lord, do not be far from me. You are my strength; come quickly to help me." The psalm is not a psalm of forsakenness. It starts out that way, but it shifts to confidence in God's deliverance. Verse 22: "I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you." And here's the key verse, verse 24: "For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help."

Here is a direct refutation of the notion that the Father turned his face away from the Son. But the refutation is not as important as the pivot. Jesus is declaring: Right now, you are witnessing Psalm 22. I seem forsaken right now, but my death is not the end of the story. God has not despised my suffering. I will be vindicated. The Lord has heard my cry. Because death is not the end. Verse 30–31: "Future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!"

Jesus is not saying that God has forsaken him. He's declaring the opposite. He's saying that God is with him, even in this time of seeming abandonment, and that God will vindicate him by raising him from the dead.

The closest modern analogy I can come up with might be something like this. Imagine that later on this election year, this summer, the President is on the campaign trail. And despite his security, an assassin gets in and shoots him. As the President falls to the ground, he says, "I still have a dream." And then he dies.

Now imagine everybody saying, "Hmmm, his last words were 'I still have a dream.' I wonder what that means. What was his dream? Was he napping on the campaign bus? What was it about?" No, we'd all recognize that he was making an allusion to Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech. He'd be saying that this dream is still alive, that it did not stop with MLK's death, and it would not stop with his.

It's the same way with "My God, my God" on the cross. It's a biblical allusion, and the point of Psalm 22 is not about being forsaken. After all, David wrote Psalm 22. Was David saying that God had forsaken him forever? No. The literary genre of the psalm of lament shows that David was saying that he felt like God had forsaken him. That the odds were against him. That things looked really bad right then. But that was not the end of the story. David still had confidence that God would hear his cry. God did not abandon David. And God did not abandon Jesus. The clearest evidence of that, besides the rest of Psalm 22, is Jesus' final words on the cross, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." The Father had not forsaken him. God was still his Father. Jesus was still his Son.

The Trinity Unbroken

This goes a long way to correct mistaken notions of divine child abuse, or of a God who might be righteous or holy but not loving or good. If we understand Psalm 22, we see Jesus declaring his confidence that God will hear his cry, that even in the face of death, he will be vindicated. Jesus on the cross is every bit as connected to his heavenly Father as he had been his entire earthly life. Jesus could trust in the goodness of God. God would raise him from the dead.

This corrects the dangerous tendency to divide the Trinity. Sometimes we tell the crucifixion story as if God is against Jesus. But Jesus said that he and the Father are one. They can't be divided. The Trinity was not broken. God doesn't execute his son. Rather, God in Christ takes the bullet to save humanity. Jesus and the Father together are united in their solidarity with each other and with humanity. The enemy is evil and death. Together the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit disarm the powers of evil through the Cross.

Sometimes Christians emphasize God's holiness so much that they isolate themselves from anything that might taint that. I read a book a few months ago that mentioned someone who had been divorced, and his church completely shunned him. They could not talk with him, could not have any contact with him, lest his divorce infect the rest of the church. They thought that was the Christian thing to do.

But Jesus did not forsake people or turn his back on them like that. No sin was too great for him to bear. He never pushed people away and said, Sorry, you're yucky. I can't have dinner with you. I can't be in your presence. No, touching a sinner didn't make Jesus impure. It was the other way around: Jesus made the sinner clean. If Jesus on the cross welcomes the thief next to him into paradise, then we can be pretty sure that this reflects the heart of God to us.

So even if Jesus bore the sin of the world on the cross, that doesn't mean God turned away as if he couldn't handle it. No, God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.

Theologian Thomas McCall of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School has just written a book on this topic called Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why It Matters (InterVarsity Press, 2012). He emphatically states that there is nothing in Scripture that says that the Father rejected the Son. McCall says that the only sense in which Jesus was forsaken was in the very limited sense that the Father did indeed let Jesus die on the cross. But their relationship was unbroken. This is like parents sending kids off to school or college. We acknowledge the physical separation, but the relationship is unbroken. Or when a family sends a soldier off to battle. The parents let the soldier go do what must be done, but their love and affection is unbroken.

Not the End of the Story

So from here on out, whenever we think of Jesus' cry, let's first remember that the beginning is not the end of the story. We might be feeling forsaken right now. We might feel like we've been abandoned by God. That's where we all start, in our fallenness, our forsakenness, our distance from God. But there's a pivot point, at the Cross and in our lives. Jesus' rescue mission was to seek us and save us. So just as Psalm 22 doesn't stop with verse 1, so too does our own story continue through the rest of the psalm. Verse 26: "The poor will eat and be satisfied"—that's us! "Those who seek the Lord will praise him"—that's us! "May your hearts live forever"—that's us! Our story starts in forsakenness, but it ends with us living forever with the Lord.

Those first few words—My God, my God—remind us that God is not a theoretical abstraction. He is personal. He is our God. The gospel of John ends with Thomas touching the hands and feet of Jesus and declaring, "My Lord and my God!" Even in death, Jesus declared, "My God, my God." And that is our cry as well. Father, into your hands we commit our spirit. When we face death, we turn to Jesus and see the face of God. Jesus is my God, my God.

When I think back to September 11, 2001, one image sticks with me more than any other. From the top of the Twin Towers, people fell to their deaths. Many jumped to escape the flames. But in the midst of that horrible day, there were pairs of people who held each other's hands, and jumped together. We don't know if they were couples, if they knew each other or were total strangers. But in that terrible moment, someone reached out to another and took their hand. They were saying, "You are not alone. I will face this with you. I will be with you to the very end. I will die with you."

And that's what Jesus said to us from that cross. Jesus declared to the world, You do not face life and death on your own. I will share your humanity and mortality. I will face death with you.

Jesus takes us by the hand and says, You are not alone in this. I will be with you. You may feel forsaken. But Jesus promises, Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you. I will die with you. I will die for you. And my God, my God and I will subvert death from within.

Death is not the end of the story. Jesus was not forsaken. Neither are we.

Al Hsu is an editor at InterVarsity Press. This article is adapted from a sermon preached at Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois, where he serves on the vestry as senior warden.


Related Elsewhere:

Last year, Mark Galli looked at the sense Christians often have of being forsaken by God.

In 2010, John Witvliet explained why Good Friday services are not designed to be funerals for Jesus or exercises in guilt. CT has more on Holy Week and Easter.

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