Forsaken by the Father

A brother of mine pointed to this article, where the author challenges that idea that the Father turned his face away from the son on the cross. To state my opinion up front, I disagree with this guy (and the five other blog posts I read that made almost an identical point). Frankly, I feel like he dismantles something that he doesn’t manage to really put back together. He admits he might just nit-picking the term, but I think in nit-picking it he’s unintentionally undermining the theology contained in the whole”Father’s face” short-hand. For instance, I don’t think the statement “the weight of sin caused Him to experience God-forsakenness, yet…the Father’s face wasn’t turned away” makes any sense. What is God-forsakenness if not the absence of the Father’s countenance?

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Anyhoos, here’s my point by point rebuttal–which honestly, I’m writing pretty quickly and I may find that I’ve made some glaring errors in my critique. So, I’m quite open to being challenged here.

  1. Ben’s first point is that “Jesus never addressed His Father as ‘God’ in all His years of ministry.” First, that’s a pretty narrow way to put that. Both John 20:17 and Rev 3:2,12 contradict the statement at the outset. I daresay that pretty much dismantles the point. But second, I’m unconvinced that using the exact language of Psalm 22 marks this as a different intention of how Jesus addresses the Father. Perhaps he just wants to make the allusion clearer. But does that really mean that “Jesus wanted it to be heard specifically differently from the way He usually spoke about Father”? Nah…
  2. His second point relates to some of the things Jesus says after the “Eloi, Eloi” statement are addressed to the Father and would negate the idea that God’s face was turned away from Jesus. As for his use of the term “Father”, I’ve already addressed that above. As to how it these words negate the forsakenness Jesus is experiencing, it doesn’t further his point at all because it doesn’t solve anything for him either. In his own argument, the forsakenness that Jesus supposedly went through is still a problem because in his own view, Jesus isn’t really forsaken because God still hears him. I would rather suggest that just as Jesus existing as fully God and fully man is a mysterious duality, Jesus existing as God in direct fellowship with, well, himself in the Godhead while also completely forsaken isn’t really any different. It’s a duality that occurs because of who Jesus is and what he did. I mean, seriously–one God in three persons? This kind of paradox is a persistent idea in Scripture.
  3. Ben’s third point is that the “Father went with Jesus all the way to and through the cross”, again refuting that the Father withdrew from Jesus. He uses John 16:32 as his proof, where even after the disciples desert Jesus, the Father will still be with him. To which I say: I agree. That’s exactly what happened. The disciples deserted Jesus, but the Father was still with Jesus. But all the way “to and through the cross”? Again, the verse doesn’t prove that. It allows it as a possibility, but doesn’t definitively prove either his side or mine. Putting that text aside, my second point above, I think, still addresses that tension between Jesus being “one with the Father” but also fully forsaken, too.
  4. The fourth assertion is that 2 Cor 5:19 contradicts the Father deserting Jesus because “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself”, meaning that there “was a wholesale involvement with Christ in the middle”. I read this on a couple of other blogs, too, and really don’t even get how this furthers their point. Of course God was reconciling the world to himself by forsaking his very Son, whom he loved. That’s the core of the gospel. Acts 2:23a says, “This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge.” It was absolutely the Father accomplishing reconciliation in Jesus–or perhaps it could be said it was through Jesus. I mean, just look two verses later in 2 Cor 5: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” God wasn’t making himself sin, but the Son. Jesus was the (one and only) agent through which the Father accomplished this reconciliation. Not by being in Jesus when it occurred, but by making it occur in Jesus. Unless I’m just missing the point he’s trying to make…
  5. Here, Ben is appealing to the OT passages that prophesy about Jesus and how in the midst of them God is still with the author in the midst of the desolation described. Ben’s sixth point is similar, so let me address this here in one way and then wrap it up in the next bullet. Let me just make a broad statement about how the NT uses the OT: they totally jack up context left and right. Here’s an easy example. Matt 2:15 says that Jesus and his parents going to Egypt was to fulfill “what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”” That’s a quotation from Hosea 11. Go check it out. That passage, in context, is about how God delivered his people from slavery in Egypt but then they turned from him to follow idols. So, if we’re going to follow Ben’s approach, that prophecy shows that Jesus was sent to Egypt because he’d been a slave there and he would later chase idols. Say what!?!? Of course not! My point is that the NT regularly ignores the grammatical-historical context of the OT passages–and it’s Spirit-inspired, so we can’t say they got it wrong. This is where typology is a more helpful way to understand it, but even that doesn’t solve all the issues. That’s just to say that appealing to the OT context doesn’t solve anything. And that being the case, the suffering servant passages Ben brings up neither further nor hinder his point. And the same for me.
  6. Now, I think Ben has built up to this as his most important point, so let me also let this be mine as well. Ben’s point is that in Psalm 22, the source of, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” the psalmist also 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 for help, He heard.” And thus he claims that the same must be true for Jesus. Again, I reiterate my fifth point that just because it’s in the context of the OT passage, that doesn’t mean it transfers to the NT context. Regardless, let’s ignore that and ask the question, “Why didn’t God turn his face away from David?” It’s not answered in the psalm, but we know it’s because of the mercy of God. We know from Habakkuk that “your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing” and from Isaiah that “your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.” Is it that David was righteous and that’s why God would listen to him? Check Psalm 51. No way that’s it. So why? Because of the mercy of God. And how could God apply his mercy to David? Because of Jesus.

Let me jump out of the bullets to make this final point: God didn’t turn his face away from David because he did turn his face away from the better David. There was no reason for God to show mercy to David except through his faith in God as redeemer. And who did that redeeming? Jesus did, generations later. Do you see? Psalm 22 shows that David received grace, a gift he didn’t earn. And so the Father didn’t turn his face away as he should have, but regarded David with favor because of the One who did endure God’s wrath and displeasure. Hear it again: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” That’s the great exchange. That’s the reason that God did, in fact, turn his face away: so that all the saints–past, present, and future–could become the righteousness of God, not through their merits, but because the Redeemer Jesus had paid the price for their sins. And what was that price? The punishment due for sin, which is “everlasting destruction and [being] shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” (2 Thess 1:9) That has been paid, by Jesus, the one who endured being shut out from the presence of the Lord and the glory of his might. And all so we could instead share in the glory of King Jesus.

Lest anyone accuse me of just following the typical evangelical line on this, well, just trust me that I find great joy in rocking the boat. But only when I see it. And despite how much I challenge, I will hold gladly and firmly to those doctrines that root the Gospel for us, those who have been chosen by grace, apart from our works. This issue is core to the gospel, not because I particularly care if you much like the phrase “the Father turns his face away”, but because the truth of that statement is core. And that truth is that Jesus was rejected so we’d be accepted, cast out so we could be brought in, and ultimately forsaken for the sins he never committed to that we could be approved for the perfect record we never held.

That is the gospel, through and through.

3 thoughts on “Forsaken by the Father

  1. Bill, thanks so much for engaging my post on this! It has, somewhat to my surprise, been far and away one of the most popular posts on my blog, so obviously something a lot of people are curious about. So it’s great to see some interaction and critique taking place.

    For my part, I would stick by the basic position I hold, namely that I don’t think the language of the Father turning his face away is necessary to the theology or narrative of the crucifixion, nor are we given it in any Bible text; but the way I would frame it now would probably be different. It is now 5 years since I wrote that post! I had a go somewhat more recently (2 years ago) at revising my suggestions and the angle I would put on it, in; the jury’s out whether it makes any better sense of the issue.

    Anyway, I’m grateful for you picking up on aspects of my arguments from 5 years ago which, it’s true, could definitely have been sharpened. I think the strongest critique may come from the argument that God’s face typically turns from sin in Scripture, though I would argue that the rule isn’t hard and fast; just as in one passage of the NT sinners suffer ‘away from the presence/face of the Lord’ (2 Thess 1:8-9), in another they suffer ‘in the presence/face of the Lamb’ (Rev 14:10). But it’s true that face-hiding is typical language describing God’s withdrawal of favour from those who are continuing in sin.

    I suppose I stand by my point because a) we are not given a clear Scriptural indication that it happened with Jesus, b) we are given enough assurance that he was ‘made sin’ for us to be reassured that the sin issue is dealt with there, whether or not we concern ourselves with the exact mechanics of the relationships in the triune God at that point, c) because if we DID do the latter we would be getting onto some tricky, un-spelled-out territory concerning the Godhead, not dissimilar to early Christian debates concerning the ‘two natures’ of Christ (i.e. the human and the divine), a debate which could get similarly sticky around the point of the crucifixion (but which, on the whole, is not heard much of today).

    Finally, while I respect your point about NT authors quoting OT verses out of context, and while we might consider that the distressed mind of Jesus in suffering on the cross wouldn’t have been making keen exegetical decisions at that point in time, I think a case can be made on reasonable grounds yet for Jesus’ near-incoherent cry terrifying the minds of any hearers who knew the Scriptures with the thought of Psalm 22 and how it was being played out before their eyes. Any hearer would not have said to themselves “but that bit about not hiding the face must be different now because of the gospel”. It simply would have left them wondering, perhaps finally clicking into place as they later heard Jesus talk to his Father, gasping “Father, forgive…” Jesus would have meditated on this moment a great deal, reflecting on all the relevant Scriptures. And a mind under the strain of pain can become extremely concentrated. Psalm 22 may well have been just one of many that rose to the surface in those moments.

    I don’t pretend to have it all cut-and-dried, but Bill, from perusing your blog, it looks like you don’t pretend to either, and I respect that, so I hope that this further thought from me is helpful, and may we all grow more into the knowledge of the Son of God!

    • Ben, I can’t tell you how pleased about and grateful for your response I am–especially since I never really gave much thought to the fact that you might read my post! This actually came up on a group text with my church (we’re pretty small, so texting works for us) and I only began to write because some were struggling to understand what it was that Jesus faced on the cross if not actual separation from God. Being the long-winded dude that I am, my response quickly got longer than a texting format could handle. And I thought, “Hey, if I’m gonna write this much on a topic, I should post it since I’m always saying I don’t have enough time to write.” Then I saw your comment and my first thought is, “Oh, crap, was I a jerk in my post to this guy I don’t even know!?!?”

      Anyway, I truly hope I wasn’t unkind to you. Your response humbles me, because of your obvious graciousness in responding to a critic. So, thank you for showing the unity we have in Jesus even when we disagree!

      I went and read your second post, where I appreciated how you were willing to continue to keep taking a look at your position and examining it afresh. May the same be true of me. Funny enough, I find myself in agreement with your a) and b) in the comment you left above. And really, even with c), though because it’s a sticky issue no matter what side you land on–Trinitarian relationships are just sticky!!! That’s just to say that I would never insist that someone need affirm that “the Father turned his face away” in that exact wording, even if I still think the summary it’s trying to express is true. Like you said, we’re not given the exact mechanics and I’m okay to stay a little murky on the things that Scripture leaves murky.

      Thanks again for your graciousness in responding and your clear earnestness in searching the Word. It has been my honor to wrestle through this with you, even if from a years-old post on your side and across the pond (do you all actually say across the pond, anyway??). Peace and grace to you!

      • No problem Bill – no doubt we’ll all find out where we went wrong (speaking for myself of course) in the age to come, and realise the grace of God in working with us anyway!

        And yes, we do say “across the pond”!

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