Did the Father Leave the Son on the Cross?
By Bob Passantino, © 1991
On the cross Jesus said, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (Matthew 27:46). Many Christians believe this signifies the one and only time that there was a split between the first two persons of the Trinity, that is, between the Father and the Son. The argument asserts that when Jesus "became sin," the Father was unable to look upon him, hence he "forsook" Jesus. This argument seeks to emphasize the great cost to Christ on our behalf. He was even willing to endure separation from the Father to accomplish our salvation. However, I believe such an interpretation, while well intentioned, has heretical implications.
It is a denial of belief in one eternal, indivisible God.
First, if the Father cannot look upon sin, meaning that he had to turn away from the Son on the cross (and I have found no verse which says that), then what does that say about the character and deity of Jesus? Is Jesus somehow less than God, so that he can "look upon" the sin that was laid on him on the cross? Or does he simply have a stronger stomach for sin than the Father?
Or perhaps Jesus is more merciful than the Father, able to suffer what the Father cannot even face? It is interesting that in Genesis 6:5, God looked upon the sin of mankind. When scripture says that God cannot "look" upon sin, contextually it means he cannot look with approval upon sin. His consistent reaction to sin is just judgment - against the unrepentant sinner, or through the atonement of Jesus Christ, the one who died in our place and on our behalf.
Second, Jesus quoted the beginning of Psalm 22 when he stated "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" The Psalm is referred to previously in the same passage. The common Jewish way of designating an entire psalm was to refer to the opening lines, since the psalms were not numbered at that time.
Jesus did not believe God had forsaken him: this would be lack of faith, which is sin (Romans 14:23), and Jesus never sinned (Hebrews 4:15). He was himself God and always in perfect obedience to the Father. Instead, he referred to the psalm in its entirety as a messianic psalm. That he knew God had not actually forsaken him is clear from the same psalm, which says, "He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; nor has He hidden His face from Him; But when He cried to Him, He heard" (verse 24).
In fact, Jesus was declaring to his accusers that they were in the midst of fulfilling this psalm, which was commonly understood in His day to refer to the coming Messiah, the Suffering Servant. The psalmist himself understood that the "forsaking" of God was not abandonment, but a lifting of His Sovereign protection according to His divine plan so that the threats of his enemies could be carried out in fulfillment of prophecy.
In fact, there were many times during Jesus' public ministry when His enemies sought to kill him (John 5:16; 8:59, for examples). They were not able to because, as He said, His "hour" was not yet come (John 12:23-28). He declared to Pilate, "You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above.
Therefore the one who delivered Me to you has the greater sin" (John 19:11). On the day of Pentecost Peter declared that no one could have crucified Christ in defiance of God's power: "Him, being delivered by the determined counsel and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it" (Acts 2:23-24).
Third, when 2 Corinthians 5:21 says that God made Jesus "to be sin," it means that God made the penalty for all sin to fall upon Jesus, not that Jesus himself could become sin, e.g., sinful. As perfect God and perfect man, he could not sin. 1 Peter 1:19 calls Jesus "a lamb without blemish and without spot."
Fourth, is it reasonable to assume that the Father would desert the Son who was acting in obedience to him through every moment of existence, "obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross" (Philippians 2:8)? Is it consistent with the character of God for the Father to reward Christ's obedience with rejection? On the contrary, Ephesians 5:2 says Christ's sacrifice was "an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma."
Fifth, it is actually or ontologically impossible for there to be a "split" between any persons of the eternal Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity, simply defined, is that within the nature of the one true God there are three eternal, distinct Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. These three Persons are the One God. (We do not believe in a rationally contradictory God of one God in three gods or one Person in three Persons, but one God in three Persons.) While others exist in generic or species identity (such as three humans sharing in humanness), God exists in numeric identity, such that each person is the one God. If all humans but three died, there would not be a trinity of humans, and the nature of humanity itself would not be diminished by the absence of one of the remaining humans. But in the nature of God, His eternal triunity indivisible. Any "split" in the Trinity would result in the destruction of the very being of God.
In conclusion, it is fallible humans who think the Father would reject the Son on the cross. The bond between the Father and the Son is inseparable, not only because of their deity, but because of the complete agreement between their wills, desires, mercy, justice, and love for mankind, exemplified in Christ's great sacrifice on the cross. Isaiah 53:4, a prophetic utterance concerning Jesus Christ, records the erroneous reaction of men to Christ's humiliating death: "Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted." Christ's declaration on the cross, far from being a admission of separation or abandonment, is a powerful affirmation of God's essential unity, perfect justice, sovereign power, and matchless grace.
For further information on this problem, I recommend James Oliver Buswell's Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1962, Vol. Two, pp. 66-69).
This view and my view are not the only possible interpretations of this passage, and there are interpretations other than mine that do not have implicatory problems. However, it is beyond the scope of this essay to address those alternate interpretations.