Did the Father Really Turn His Back on Jesus?

For many of us the season of Lent provides an opportunity to reflect more intentionally and more carefully on the meaning and significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Our thoughts often turn to the passion narratives and particularly to the words that Jesus uttered as he suffered. In Matthew’s gospel, the final words of Jesus before his death are the loud cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Commonly referred to as “the cry of dereliction”, these words remind us that Jesus suffered more greatly than we can imagine. It is a bittersweet reminder of the depth of his passionate love for us.
One common interpretation of this saying suggests that, at this very moment, God the Father abandoned God the Son. Unable to look upon the sin that Jesus carried for all of us, the Father turned his back, and the very heart of the Trinity was torn apart. This interpretation presents a variety of difficulties. What would it mean for the Trinity to essentially come apart? And is not the Father pleased with the Son? Why would he abandon his beloved at the moment of his greatest suffering? Even more, if the Father turns his back on the Son, can we trust God to be present with us when we need him the most? Jesus’ cry of forsakenness from the cross clearly presents challenges both theologically and pastorally. These difficulties have caused me to wonder whether there might be another approach to this passage? Can this text be heard on its own terms in a way that is faithfully trinitarian and pastorally sensitive?
Keep reading this post at Seedbed for the pastoral implications of a biblical and trinitarian approach.
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7 thoughts on “Did the Father Really Turn His Back on Jesus?

  1. David Sumner,
    So you would admit no sense of penal substitution at all? How do you deal with texts such as Rom. 3:25?

    I'm sympathetic to your gripe about the over-emphasis on this view, but I'm not sure we can get rid of it entirely, with texts like this one. Just asking.


  2. Hi Daniel,

    Thanks for your comment. That you point to the creed and the Lord's prayer as present day analogies to Christ's prayer of Ps 22 is very helpful to me. Thanks for helping me think more clearly about this.


  3. Hi David,

    Thanks for reading and thanks for your comment. Penal substitution is troubling to many, as you surely know. I find it interesting to consider it in a more trinitarian framework. If the God is the God who is triune, and if the penalty due for sin is the penalty required by the God who is triune, then the penalty is required by the Father, Son, and Spirit in union together. So, rather than taking the atonement as a transaction that occured b/w Father and Son, in a trinitarian framework, we might sat that, in Christ, God takes the penalty for breaking God's law on God's self for us. For me, that puts something of a different spin on it. No longer is it the Father meanly inflicting some punishment on the poor Son. It is the Son offering himself and taking his own wrath against sin on himself. Sin offends the Son as much as the Father and the Spirit. And if God is triune, the wrath of God is the wrath of the Son. That God takes God's wrath on God's self for us is an act of love with which we've not yet reckoned. That is stunning to me.

    I tend to think that many of our difficulties with penal sub. may stem from the fact that we have been taught to view it that way emphasizing the distinction in the godhead to the neglect of the unity. But if we hold on to a trinitarian balance, everything changes.

    I'd love to hear your thoughts.


  4. I've been considering all the atonement views for several years and I personally don't believe in penal substitution anymore. I do believe in substitutionary atonement, just not penal. I don't believe that God the Father had to punish sin through His Son. I also don't believe that God the Father turned His back on the Son. I believe that Jesus was just mimicking David's feelings in the Psalm; which were feelings of being distant and far away from God.

    Anyway, just my 2 cents.


  5. You wrote: “Anytime a New Testament author quotes an Old Testament passage, it is wise to consider whether the original Old Testament context sheds any light on the use of the quote in the New Testament.”

    Amen, and Amen! (Warning: Here there be wisdom.)


  6. Good link; I agree that it makes more sense to see Jesus as invoking the whole Psalm both to express his agony AND to point those looking on the cross towards his vindication.

    It is like when I stand in front of my church and say “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…” or if I say “Our Father, who art in heaven…” everyone knows what comes next and chimes right in. The same was true in Jesus' day of the Psalms, which were used as the prayers in the worship services. By quoting the first verse, all would have known what comes next.


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