No saying of Jesus is more perplexing than this: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34).
I’ve tried most of my life to understand this saying. I’ve heard preaching on it, read books and chapters of books and commentaries about it. It all seems satisfactory in some ways, unfulfilling in others.
Invariably, I will say that it puzzles me, and someone retorts with a statement that sounds as if they figured it out years ago. I’m sorry (not sorry) if I don’t believe you.
I know I’ve never experienced anything in my life that would even come close to comparing with our Lord’s death on the cross, nor has anybody else.
Men compare their sufferings, “Oh, you lost a finger? I lost an arm.” These experiences give us greater authority, and rightly so.
But, has anyone here ever been God? Have we, as sinless creatures, given up heaven, and our place at our holy Father’s side to dwell in a body of flesh on a sin-ridden planet? I didn’t think so.
He created, and furthermore took on our nature; so he can identify with us, but we cannot identify fully with him. Jesus died as a man, so we may be able to identify with the mere human feelings and emotions of the cross. But he also suffered as Divine, and we have never, nor will we ever do anything remotely close to that.
Not surprisingly then, there are aspects to the Atonement that are impossible to comprehend because we have no adequate context at all with which to compare our Lord’s suffering and vicarious death. Not only do we have no physical context, we have no intellectual context.
I am convinced there is no puzzle on earth more perplexing than the Atonement. I’ve tried to follow and understand the work of quantum physicists for a number of years. In humorous terms, is the study of things that we are almost certain must exist. It is the theoretical reverse engineering of nature at the minutest level. The work is terribly difficult to explain to the average person, and successes in discovery are hard to come by (isolating a single Higgs-boson particle [the so-called “God” particle] took over 40 years, billions of dollars and multiple thousands of man-hours to accomplish).
The Atonement is, in a way, God’s particle physics. It is His theory of everything. There are things about the Atonement that are easily repeatable: Jesus left heaven. He came to earth. He was born of a virgin. He taught, ministered, was crucified, died, was buried, and raised the third day. We learn those things in Sunday school.
The Bible gives us a reasonable basis for breaking that subject into some of its contingent parts, so that we can know and speak the truth about it, but there are some things – perhaps forever – beyond our grasp (see: Romans 11:33, Ephesians 3:8).
There are many theories of the Atonement. One book I read said there have been no less than 14 major theories through the centuries, with many other contingent theories developing from those. Just that one statement from the cross, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” has sprouted numerous streams of thought:
• “God turned his back on Jesus.” God turning his back on Jesus? That seems counter-intuitive, but maybe that’s right? Paul wrote that God made him [Jesus] to be sin (re: 2 Corinthians 5:19-21). God is too holy to look upon sin (Habakkuk 1:13). That must be the answer. Jesus felt abandoned because he was abandoned by His Father. But could (as one of my instructors once asked) God turn His back on the greatest act of obedience ever?
• “God did not turn his back on Jesus.” Isaiah 53:11 says, “He [Father] shall see the travail of his [Jesus’] soul, and be satisfied.” Then, Hebrews 5:8,9 and Philippians 2:8, say that Jesus was “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” God turned His back on perfect loving obedience? Add to that the typology brought to light in Hebrews. Jesus used his own flesh to enter into the Most Holy Place – heaven itself. Was the humble suffering of this obedient Lamb ignored by God? Did God reject the offering? Did God reject His high priest? Jesus was both!
• “Jesus was merely pointing to his Messiah-ship, and fulfillment of prophecy.” This phrase of Jesus is a quote of Psalm 22:1, you might remember. So, Jesus wasn’t actually feeling abandoned, as it were, he was merely quoting the Psalm to send people back to the Scriptures?
There are many, many more ideas about this.
In nearly 20 years of trying to make sense of what God has revealed, I’ve come to the conclusion that all the above answers are probably right in some way.
The Atonement is essentially the most complex matter ever the human mind can ponder. As for me, I still don’t have THE answer, of course, but in some ways, I’m no longer seeking to find it. I’ve come to realize that seeking to find the precise theory of the Atonement is a bit like understanding the complexities of aquatic life in the Marianas trench. We’re certain it’s down there, but we can’t see very much of it, and we’re not adapted to stay down there long enough to make much sense out of it. However, we can appreciate that it’s there, dive down occasionally, and at least be in wonder of it. And perhaps that is better.
I’m always seeking to know better the Atoning work of Christ (isn’t this what Paul was saying in Philippians 3:10?), but not that I might reverse engineer it as a purely mental exercise – not so that I can be intellectually satisfied, but so that I might, by the grace of God, live in greater appreciation of it, and be found worthy, only in Him, of God’s last great act of particle physics (Philippians 3:11).