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?