Did God Abandon Jesus on the Cross?
The Assemblies of God Center for Holy Lands Studies (CHLS) provides a regular column to PE News that offers deep and sometimes surprising insight into the Word of God through close examination of the culture of the day, biblical sites, and archaeological records. In this article, Wave Nunnally, Ph.D., professor of Early Judaism and Christian Origins at Evangel University and a regular instructor in Israel for CHLS, examines the common misconception that God turned His back on Christ during His crucifixion.
At some point, most of us have heard the teaching that when Jesus took upon himself the sins of the whole world God had to turn His back on Him. This comes not only from local church pulpits, but also from well-known scholars and leaders.
But that’s not what happened.
The teaching is based on a combination of three passages of Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:21, Habakkuk 1:13, and Matthew 27:46. In 2 Corinthians 5, however, Paul’s point is not that Jesus assumed a sin nature, as is claimed by so many. Had He done so, He would no longer be the perfect sacrifice required by the sacrificial system (Exodus 12:5) and described by writers of the New Testament (1 Peter 1:18-19). It also does not explain why just two verses earlier, Paul was declaring that quite the opposite of abandoning Jesus during the Crucifixion, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself” (v. 19)! Further, both Old Testament (Exodus 29:14; 30:10. Leviticus 4:32; 5:6, etc.) and New Testament usage including Paul himself (Romans 8:3) employ the word “sin” in these contexts as a shorthand way of referring to the “sin offering” rather than to an act of disobedience to God.
This kind of biblical “shorthand” is in no way different from other technical terms used in reference to aspects of the sacrificial system, such as “the Passover lamb” which is more often shortened to “the Passover” (compare “Passover sacrifice” in Exodus 21:21 to “the Passover” in Exodus 12:21, 43; Numbers 9:10-12, Deuteronomy 16:2, 5, and 6, and this technical “shorthand is also seen in New Testament texts like Luke 22:11, 15, etc.). For Paul, then, Jesus did not become “sin”; rather He became a “sin offering” — a perfect sacrifice for our sins!
Habakkuk 1:13 suffers from similar de-contextualization: this text is not a declaration by God, but a complaint voiced by the prophet. Habakkuk is here arguing with God that He should not be using the more sinful nation of Babylon to judge the less sinful southern kingdom of Judah. The prophet’s argument that the more sinful nation should not be an instrument of God’s justice against a less sinful nation is rejected by God, Who simply declares that Babylon will eventually have to bear an even worse fate.
Much more important than Habakkuk’s rhetorical question is “How does God really respond to sin?” In the Garden, when mankind sinned, they hid and covered themselves (Genesis 3:7, 8), and it was God Who pursued them (Genesis 3:8; the Hebrew actually reads, “They heard the sound of Yahweh God pacing back and forth in the Garden,” concerned and nervous about being alienated from His creatures)! If God cannot look on sin or sinners, why did He spend chapter after chapter in the Law describing in detail how to offer sacrifices to atone for sin? Why did He send Jesus to die as a sacrifice for sin if the best He could do is turn His back in rejection of this final sacrifice?
The reality is that Scripture informs us that God accepted the sacrifice of Jesus (see Colossians 2:13-14) as a “sweet-smelling aroma” (Ephesians 5:2 — and note that again, the one correcting the record here is none other than Paul, the author of 2 Corinthians 5:21)! In no place in Scripture does God ever turn His back on an appropriate sacrifice offered with a repentant attitude. Thank God for this, because if He did, no one would stand a chance of receiving forgiveness and reconciliation back to Him.
So if Jesus did not “become sin” and God did not have to “turn His back on Him,” why then does Jesus ask, “Why have you forsaken me?” Note that Jesus is quoting His forefather David (Matthew 27:46=Psalm 22:1), and that this is in response to the claim made by the chief priests. Quoting Psalm 22:8, they assert that because God had not delivered Jesus from the cross, this proved that God did not approve of Him or His message (Matthew 27:1-43). Since both parties in the argument are quoting Psalm 22, it’s important for us to look there to understand their points of reference.
Much like us, David’s first reaction to difficulty is to conclude that God has abandoned him and is not hearing his cries for deliverance (v. 1). His enemies agree, concluding that God has indeed abandoned him (v. 8, quoted by the chief priests to taunt Jesus). After reflecting on Scripture (God’s past track-record) and the trustworthiness of God in his own life (vv. 3-5, 9-10), however, the Psalmist’s conclusion has already changed, “Don’t be far from me[, because I may need You]!” (vv. 11 and 19). He is undeterred by the jeers of his enemies, as is Jesus, since He continues to pray to His Father to the end of His life (Luke 23:46)! Is David or are his enemies right? Is Jesus right, or are His enemies right? In verse 21 David declares, “From the horns of the wild oxen, You have answered [past tense in the original Hebrew] me!”
In Jesus’ world, to quote a verse from a passage typically hearkened an audience back to the context of the entire passage. Jesus argument can be summarized like this: “Be careful about proof-texting, O Sadducees! The enemies of My forefather David thought the same thing and they were proven wrong. You think because My vindication hasn’t come immediately that My Father has abandoned Me? David thought that too, but he was proven wrong. In fact, he was eventually able to confess, ‘[God] has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither has He hidden His face from him; but when he cried to Him for help, He heard!’ (Psalm 22:24).”
Who do those interpreters sound like who declare that Jesus was abandoned by God — David and His Son, or those who opposed and reviled them? Thank God He didn’t abandon David or Jesus — had He done so, what chance would we have when we sin? His presence is guaranteed, not by our performance, but by His promise! And His promises are sure: He is with us even in the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4) and He is a very present help in time of trouble (Psalm 46:1). He does not waver: He will be with us even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20)! Next time we’re in crisis mode, let’s remember that as we walk through our own “valley of the shadow of death,” “Yet You are with me” (Psalm 23:4). Our feelings may fluctuate, but His unchanging Word declares, “I will never leave you or forsake you!” (Hebrews 13:5).