And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). (Mark 15:34)
Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” has often caused Christians to think that God had abandoned him there. Some have further supposed that this was because God is too holy to look on sin, and so, too holy to look on Jesus as he was bearing our sins.
This cry, however, does not mean that God had forsaken him. It does not even mean that Jesus felt abandoned by God on the cross. It is, rather, the first line of Psalm 22 and, in typical Jewish fashion, Jesus was evoking the whole psalm. There are several elements in that psalm that prefigure the cross, and what we discover when we read through the entire prayer is that God did not forsake the author at all. In verse 24, the author even affirms that God has not forsaken him. In fact, in the latter half of Psalm 22, we see that God heard his cry — and delivered him.
Likewise, at no time on the cross did the Father ever forsake the Son. Quite the opposite, we see that Jesus commended his Spirit into the hands of the Father, and the Father delivered him from death by means of the resurrection.
The Christian faith is that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit — the Trinity. Though there are Three Persons in the Godhead, this does not mean that God is divided into three parts, each being one-third God. They co-inhere, existing together in one substance. Early Church Fathers as well as some modern theologians, have referred to this as perichoresis, the divine interaction and interpenetration of the Three in one Being. It is impossible, then, for one person of the Trinity to ever forsake another. It would be God forsaking God’s own self and that would be the dissolution of God.
The prophet Habakkuk, in the Old Testament, prayed to the Lord and said, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing” (Habakkuk 1:13). This has been offered by some as the reason God had to abandon Jesus on the cross. Jesus was bearing the sin of the world, so God turned away from him because he is too holy to look upon sin. However, in addition to the ontological problem created by God forsaking God’s own self, there are a couple of other problems with that supposition.
First, it ignores what Habakkuk immediately went on to say. Within the same verse where he tells God that God is too pure to look on evil, he then asks, “Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” In other words, “Why then do you look on evil?” What Habakkuk had assumed to be true of God in the first half of the verse is contradicted by his complaint in the second half.
Second, the life of Jesus suggests something different. In the Gospel, Jesus is seen having table fellowship with publicans (tax collectors) and sinners (Mark 2:16). This was one of the complaints the Pharisees had against him. In the book of Hebrews, however, Jesus is called the “express image” or “exact representation” of God’s being — yet that did not mean that he had to turn away from publicans and prostitutes and sinners. He looked on them, beholding them with eyes of love, because he came to redeem them.
When we consider the context of Psalm 22:1 and the identity of Jesus in relation to the Father, there is no reason to imagine that God the Father could not look upon God the Son, Jesus, in his sin-bearing role. It becomes nonsensical and contradictory to the nature and being of God to suppose so.
God never turned away from Christ. Indeed, God has never turned away from us. For it was not God who needed to be reconciled to us — it was we who needed to be reconciled to God. And that is exactly what God was doing at the cross. “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:19-20). The cross was not God’s act of retribution but God’s act of reconciliation.