A Good Friday Meditation

Long ago, I stopped attending Good Friday services for one reason: the pervading assumption of penal substitutionary atonement (psa) in those services. On my blog I have gone into detail as to why I reject this theory of atonement. It’s not biblical, did not exist in its present form until 1500 years after Jesus, and is theologically bankrupt. Basically, it presents Jesus as saving us from God through divine child abuse. It assumes God cannot forgive without someone being punished to death although the Scriptures are full of examples of God’s forgiveness without a drop of blood being shed. This theory of atonement is based on fear. Regardless of what is claimed by its adherents, this theory basically says the following: God loves you, but if you don’t love him back (and the god of this theory is always a “he”) and jump through the varied and dogmatic hoops required by whatever denomination maintains this understanding of atonement, God will burn you forever in the fires of hell. No sane person could accept that one claiming to love them could also assign them to everlasting torment with no hope of escape. Jesus’ death was not the assuaging of divine wrath. His death was the ultimate revelation of a nonviolent, self-giving, infinite love for this creation. 

Good Friday services often focus on the sayings of Jesus from the cross. One of those sayings is “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Those laden with penal substitutionary atonement theory assume that God has placed all the sin of the world on the scapegoat Jesus. God, who is pure and holy, cannot look upon sin and thus abandons Jesus in his hour of need. (So, with this understanding, we have child abuse and child abandonment! Such crimes today would land any parent in jail.)

My question is how the ludicrous idea that God cannot look upon sin ever came about. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, beginning with Adam and Eve, God looks upon sin and seeks to forgive and save sinners. Jesus throughout his whole ministry not only looked upon sin and sinners but also forgave sin. Some people base the assumption that God cannot look upon sin on Habakkuk 1:13a which reads, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot countenance wrongdoing.” However, such an assumption overlooks the second half of that verse: “Why then do you countenance the treachery of the wicked? Why keep silent when they devour those who are more righteous?” The second half of Habakkuk 1:13 assumes that God does look upon sin and evil, not approving such but seeking to forgive and transform the sinner. Hosea 11 presents God as a Father who decides to punish his son Israel for their sin but then turns on Herself and refuses to abandon Her child to judgment and destruction. God’s compassion for wayward and sinful Israel outweighs Her wrath. The entire Old Testament is a testimony to God’s refusal to abandon Her people. God cannot and will not stop loving them! 

So, why did Jesus cry out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Here are two options which are not dependent on psa:

The words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” are a direct quote from Psalm 22. This psalm refers to someone who is oppressed and suffering and feels neglected by God. He cries out to God for deliverance and for a sense of God’s presence. Beginning with verse 22, such deliverance and presence of God are both promised and experienced. Often, Jews in Jesus’ day would quote the beginning of a psalm while intending to refer to the entirety of the song. The psalm ends with not just hope but promise; not with just  possibility but with God’s redeeming presence. If Jesus was referring to the entire psalm and its message, then this “saying from the cross” should be interpreted as his trust that amid unimaginable suffering God was still his Abba. After all, another “saying from the cross” is “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” That saying also is a word for word quote, with one exception, from a psalm (Psalm 31:5) which celebrates a deliverance from one’s enemies. The exception to that being a word for word quote from Psalm 31 is the word “Father.” Even in torment and facing death, the Son trusts the Father who has not abandoned him. 

The second option, which can be interpreted as being complementary to the first, reflects the theology of the early church fathers. Gregory of Nazianzus perhaps states the theological concept most succinctly: “That which He (Jesus as the Son of God and part of the Trinity) has not assumed he has not healed.” The early church father asserted that God became human so that we could become God (Not God in the absolute sense but as “partakers of the divine natures” See II Peter 1:4). For this to happen, God must take into the divine self all the sin, evil, suffering, injustice, hopelessness, finitude, and mortality of this world. What Jesus experienced on the cross was the pain, helplessness, and hopelessness we humans have endured (some, of course, more than others). Jesus on the cross became one of the most vulnerable humans ever to live and suffer on this earth, and he endured that fate with trust and love even for those crucifying him. We must not forget that other saying from the cross: “Father, forgive them for they don’t know/understand what they are doing.” In those words, we see God praying to God for forgiveness if we believe in the incarnation—that Jesus reveals the character and nature of God!)

If Jesus was both fully God and fully human, I think we can assume that his torment on the cross was real. He trusted that God would have the last word for his life poured out in love for this world. But in the agony of excruciating pain, he too felt abandoned just like many of us would in lesser situations. The early church fathers said that because he experienced that helplessness and hopelessness, he/God was able to take into the divine self even that horrible abyss of despair and thus commit Herself to heal and restore the worst of human conditions. I think we need to affirm what Jesus the man would have felt with four-inch spikes hammered into his hands and feet and suspended for hours gasping for breath before death mercifully took him while asserting with Paul that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto the Divine Self. God did not abandon Her Son. She, like a compassionate mother, felt his pain and confirmed his suffering and death as the ultimate revelation of God’s unconditional, indiscriminate, self-giving, nonviolent, everlasting love. The cross did not assuage the wrath of God. It did not pacify an angry God. It revealed the heart of God and the profound truth that only self-giving, nonviolent, and unending love can ultimately heal and mend this world. As William Willimon so wisely observed, “Christian love is not a stupid unwillingness to look at the world as it is. It is the recognition that, because the world is as it is, nothing less than love will do.” The character and depths of that love were first revealed on Good Friday 2000 years ago. God was in Christ loving this world into its healing. God was not in heaven with Her back turned on Her beloved Son. That’s why theologian Jurgen Moltmann speaks of “the crucified God.” 

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