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?Generally speaking, I appreciated Hsu's article for what it set out to do. It says a lot, and certainly should have said more -- a 6-page article on the prophetic grounding of the crucifixion that doesn't mention Isaiah 53 even in passing seems odd, to say the least, and no clear affirmation of the penal substitution view of the atonement is an effective denial, as many pointed out -- but this is its gist:
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.This is a minority view, I believe, but it is one I defended (briefly) in my book Your Jesus is Too Safe. Consequently, it is the portion of that book that I still receive the most questions about.
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.
Phil Johnson chalked Hsu's article a "stupefyingly inept" attack on penal substitution. I am not so sure. Daniel Wallace's fuller response is helpful, I think. Wallace writes:
To Hsu's question, "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?" Paul gives the decisive answer: "he who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all---how will he not also, along with him, freely give us all things?" (Romans 8.32 [NET]). It is precisely because Jesus has suffered in our place that God is now free to give us all things, to do good to us at all times.Yes and amen. I believe that as the cross is the center of Christ's atoning work, penal substitution is the center of the cross. (I have a chapter in a forthcoming book dedicated to the centrality of penal substitution in Christ's atoning work, surveying it as found in the biblical narrative from beginning to end.) So I don't believe one has to jettison or even minimize the doctrine to track with the view that the Father did not forsake the Son at the crucifixion---at least, not in the way it is often described.
There is so much more in the New Testament that reveals a righteous and holy God who loves sinners, but a God who cannot permit them in his presence without death of an innocent substitute, for "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin" (Hebrews 9.22).
As A. T. Robertson wrote long ago, "no one of the theories of the atonement states all the truth nor, indeed, do all of them together. The bottom of this ocean of truth has never been sounded by any man's plumb-line. There is more in the death of Christ for all of us than any of us has been able to fathom.... However, one must say that substitution is an essential element in any real atonement" (A. T. Robertson, The Minister and His Greek New Testament, 40-41).
I think we need to clarify what is meant by the Father's forsaking. Everyone assumes that the Father's forsaking of the Son is in his pouring out of his justified wrath upon the Son for the sin he is bearing on the cross. And with that, I agree. Thabiti Anyabwile ran a recent series on what it meant for the Father to forsake the Son on the cross; here are his major points:
1. The Father Allowed Jesus to Suffer Social AbandonmentI cannot say that Dr. Anyabwile agrees with my view; I will only say that I agree with his (as stated). And I would sum it up this way: The crushing was the forsaking.
2. The Father Allowed Jesus to Suffer Emotional Desertion
3. The Father Allowed the Son to Suffer Spiritual Wrath
For there is another caricature that pops its head up, one on the other side from "divine child abuse," and it is this: "God cannot look upon sinners." This is the way many speak of the Father's forsaking of Christ on the cross: That because God is perfectly holy, he can't look at sin, and so must depart, or "look away." He "abandoned" Christ on the cross, goes this view. I am not sure where it comes from exactly, but it is kindred spirits with the notion that "God is a gentleman." It posits God's holiness as more of a weak constitution, and I think, like the worst caricatures of free will theists, it makes God a cosmic pushover.
I do not see much strong biblical warrant for this understanding of the forsaking of Christ. Isaiah 59:2 casts God as unbending toward sin, not as one with delicate sensibilities about it. In Habakkuk 1:13 where we see the notion that God's eyes are too pure to look on sin at the same time says he is looking at it. (Both are the perspective of the disgruntled Habakkuk, anyway, not doctrinal declarations.) We have to be careful about what we say, and what we mean by what we say. If by "forsaken" we mean punished, tormented, even "cast out," we see this as God's active wrath on the Son. But if by "forsaken" we mean the Father abandoning or shrinking back from the Son because he "can't stand" to be there, we are on shaky biblical ground. That view has several other things going against it.
1. It casts sin as God's kryptonite, making sin more powerful than he. But holiness does not mean frailty or delicateness. The Father is no shrinking violet. When we say God cannot abide sin, we mean that it cannot exist in his presence. When the Father and sin exist in the same space, he will destroy it in furious vengeance, not run from the room mortified.
2. It posits a breach in the Trinity that is a doctrinal bridge too far. Christ did not begin as our substitute when he took to the cross, but was our sinless substitute all along, and indeed was bearing our sins through his sinless birth, his sinless temptation in the wilderness, and the rest of his sinless life. Christ's active obedience in his real, tempted, tiring life is the grounds for the perfect righteousness imputed to us when we trust him. He was at the beginning of his ministry the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). And during this time, the Father says "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:17). The way some describe the Father's forsaking of the Son sounds tantamount to hatred of him. But we must always maintain simultaneously, the Father's eternal love for the Son and the Father's timely killing of the Son in propitiating sacrifice. To say the Father poured his wrath upon his Son is not to say he was divorced from him. He was ever-present, abandoning him to suffering but not to excommunication from himself. John Calvin is instructive here:
Though the perception of the flesh would have led him to dread destruction, still in his heart faith remained firm, by which he beheld the presence of God, of whose absence he complains. We have explained elsewhere how the Divine nature gave way to the weakness of the flesh, so far as was necessary for our salvation, that Christ might accomplish all that was required of the Redeemer. We have likewise pointed out the distinction between the sentiment of nature and the knowledge of faith; and, there ore, the perception of God's estrangement from him, which Christ had, as suggested by natural feeling, did not hinder him from continuing to be assured by faith that God was reconciled to him. This is sufficiently evident from the two clauses of the complaint; for, before stating the temptation, he begins by saying that he betakes himself to God as his God, and thus by the shield of faith he courageously expels that appearance of forsaking which presented itself on the other side. In short, during this fearful torture his faith remained uninjured, so that, while he complained of being forsaken, he still relied on the aid of God as at hand.And in the Institutes:
[C]ertainly no abyss can be imagined more dreadful than to feel that you are abandoned and forsaken of God, and not heard when you invoke him, just as if he had conspired your destruction. To such a degree was Christ dejected, that in the depth of his agony he was forced to exclaim, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" The view taken by some, that he here expressed the opinion of others rather than his own conviction, is most improbable; for it is evident that the expression was wrung from the anguish of his inmost soul. We do not, however, insinuate that God was ever hostile to him or angry with him. How could he be angry with the beloved Son, with whom his soul was well pleased? or how could he have appeased the Father by his intercession for others if He were hostile to himself? But this we say, that he bore the weight of the divine anger, that, smitten and afflicted, he experienced all the signs of an angry and avenging God. (II.16.xi.)3. It blurs the lines between Christ as sinless sacrifice and Christ as sin-bearer. Following from point 2 above, whatever 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Galatians 3:13 mean, they cannot mean that the incarnate Son of God was a sinner, or else he could not have been our substitute. Our sin was laid upon him that our suffering for sin should be laid upon him, and in this he received the wrath of the Father but in his sinless divinity, at no point diminished, he maintained the love of the Father.
4. It fails to account for the context of Psalm 22. Jesus is quoting this song, and so the text of Psalm 22 should have the greatest bearing on our understanding of Christ's lament. You can feel forsaken and not be forsaken. (This is good pastoral encouragement, if anything.) For all of the weaknesses of Mr. Hsu's article, this is its strength: it seeks its understanding of Christ's words in their inspiration. And in that psalm, we see David's lament of forsakenness but his confessions of faith. That David felt forsaken does not mean he saw the disposition of the Father clearly. But as the song progresses we learn where his trust is found:
For he has not despised or abhorredThis is a messianic psalm, the prophecy of the penal work at the cross there in vivid detail, and we do it no dishonor to note that if God would not hide his face from David, he certainly would not from his only begotten Son. And on the flip side, because the Son took the place of the forsaken, we who trust in him can know that we will never be (2 Corinthians 4:9; Hebrews 13:5). The sacrifice of Christ was propitious.
the affliction of the afflicted,
and he has not hidden his face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to him.
-- Psalm 22:24