Two days before Good Friday, Al Hsu posted a provocative piece in the online version of Christianity Today. Entitled, “He’s Calling For Elijah! Why We Still Mishear Jesus,” Hsu’s article has gone viral among evangelical Christians. He opens his essay by asking the following questions:
“Is God the kind of God that turns his back on his Son? Does God abandon those who cry out to him? How could God forsake the perfect God-man, the only one who has ever served him perfectly? Because if Jesus was truly forsaken by God, what’s preventing God from forsaking any of us? How could we ever trust him to be good?”
Hsu spends the rest of the article answering these questions, but his answers may surprise you: God did not turn his back on his Son, he did not forsake the perfect God-man, he did not pour his wrath out on Jesus Christ as he hung on the cross.
Hsu’s argument focuses heavily on cultural perceptions of the Christian faith and how our global culture has shifted in recent years. Truth claims about Christianity have become passé, pragmatic claims have proved insufficient to deal with suffering that marks virtually everyone’s experience, and questions related to authenticity—spawned mostly by postmodernism—have proved inadequate. The question that is foremost in today’s world is whether the Christian faith is good.
Hsu’s answer to these questions is that the old Reformed view of the cross looks too much like child abuse, and that if the Father turned his back on Jesus then the Trinity is broken. And this understanding of the gospel—the view held by Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Spurgeon, Barth, and a host of Protestant theologians for five hundred years—is bad. And if bad, then it is also false.
Hsu then focuses on the cry of dereliction from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He points out that the Gospels don’t unpack the meaning of the cry, and that for us to see it as God turning his back on Jesus is to read into the text. And he makes the argument that when the ancients quoted a verse they meant the whole passage in which it was found to be understood. In the case of Psalm 22, that would mean that we should reflect on the whole psalm to grasp Jesus’ meaning. It is true that often the context from which a verse was quoted was in view, but not always. Hsu uses Luke 4.18–19 as proof, where Jesus reads Isaiah 61.1–2a in the synagogue in Nazareth and declares, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Ironically, this is one of the clearest passages to demonstrate that the whole context of the Old Testament text was not in view. The Lord stopped short of reading the rest of Isa 61.2 (“the day when our God will seek vengeance, to console all who mourn” [NET]), which most interpret as referring to the Second Coming of Christ. In other words, Jesus stopped short of quoting the whole verse because he wanted his hearers to understand that only the first part was fulfilled in his first coming.
Hsu camps on the whole of Psalm 22 as what Jesus meant when he quoted the first verse from the cross. But in doing so, he makes certain assumptions that are questionable. First, although he claims that the whole psalm is in view, he seems to be saying that the whole psalm—except verse 1–is in view: “Here is direct refutation of the notion that the Father turned his face away from the Son”; “Jesus is not saying that God has forsaken him. He’s declaring the opposite. He’s saying that God is with him, even in this time of seeming abandonment, and that God will vindicate him by raising him from the dead.” In other words, Hsu argues that Psalm 22.1 should be understood to mean that God only seemed to abandon his Son. But if God did not abandon him, there are a host of verses in this psalm that would serve Jesus’ purposes better (e.g., Ps 22.24: “For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him”).
If Jesus didn’t die in our place, if he didn’t receive the full force of God’s wrath against sin, then what did he accomplish on the cross? For Hsu, the point of the cross was for us to know that we are not alone in our suffering. And he is bold enough to say, “there is nothing in Scripture that says that the Father rejected the Son.” This might come as quite a shock to the majority of Christians throughout twenty centuries who have held otherwise.
As Hsu admitted, the Gospels don’t unpack the meaning of the cross. We must turn elsewhere to understand its full import. The Gospels tell us the what, the New Testament letters, especially those by Paul, tell us the why of the cross.
Paul was a Pharisee’s Pharisee, and before he met the Lord on the road to Damascus, he was white hot at Christians’ claims. They had the audacity to claim that God had blessed Jesus the Nazarene by raising him from the dead. Paul understood the implications if this were true: If Jesus had been raised from the dead, then the Old Testament—the only Bible then in existence—was no longer infallible. And that Paul couldn’t have. The key text that drove his theology was Deuteronomy 21.23, “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (NIV). For Paul, it was impossible that God could have blessed Jesus by raising him from the dead because he had cursed him by hanging him on a tree. And when the apostles began to proclaim that God had raised Jesus from the dead, Paul had to act. But when he was confronted by the ascended Lord from heaven on that dusty road, now he was confronted with two seemingly irreconcilable truths: The Bible was infallible and yet God had raised Jesus from the dead. Paul spent the next three years alone in Arabia, unraveling this paradox. He must have spent that time studying the Bible and connecting the dots. “How could I have missed this?” he must have thought. And Paul emerged with a clear understanding of the gospel: Jesus Christ died in our place, suffering under the wrath of God, to pay for our sins. And his resurrection from the dead was the proof that God accepted his payment on our behalf.
In Paul’s first letter, he quoted from this Deuteronomic curse and wove it into his theology of the cross: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Galatians 3.13 [ESV]).
He saw the sacrificial system as that which pointed ultimately to Jesus’ death: here was the suffering of an innocent victim—the innocent victim—who died, taking our sins on himself, so that we might live. Jesus Christ was “our Passover lamb,” Paul tells the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 5.7). The imagery here is unmistakable: The unblemished lamb was to be slain so that the firstborn of each home would live. The lamb died in the place of the firstborn, the innocent for the guilty.
In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks plainly of what the cross-work of Christ meant: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5.21 [ESV]).
In his magisterial letter that gave virtually a systematic treatment on salvation, the letter to the Romans, his theme was the vindication of God’s righteousness in Paul’s gospel. He had been charged with going soft on sin, something that Paul adamantly denied. He launches out with a declaration of God’s view of sin: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness” (Romans 1.18). As Ed Komoszewski has said, “The Bible unequivocally teaches that wrath is not something that was merely sewn into the fabric of the universe when Adam and Eve sinned, but is something actually sent from heaven against sin.”
The apostle goes on for three chapters (1.18–3.20), detailing the sinfulness of humanity. Then, he brings in the good news. As Leon Morris said that Romans 3.21–26 is perhaps the most significant paragraph ever written. And here is a text that lays out Paul’s gospel, yet that is not the primary point. Essentially, this passage speaks of God’s righteousness—how God cannot wink at sin, and how the cross was God’s public display of his righteousness for in it he had poured out his wrath on his own Son.
And the Son, as Paul tells us in Philippians 2.8, went to the cross willingly. This was not cosmic child-abuse, but a loving God who redeemed sinners by executing his own Son who obeyed the Father willingly and joyously. Would the Father allow his Son to die such a horrible death if it did not pay for our sins? Such a view would be cosmic child-abuse, for such a view can only treat Christ’s death as exemplary, not expiatory—as a model for us, but not a substitute for us.
God did not simply allow Jesus to die on one of the most horrific torture devices ever concocted so that Jesus could sympathize with our suffering. As Peter declared on the Day of Pentecost, Jesus “was handed over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2.23). And Paul says that “He was delivered up because of our transgressions and was raised for the sake of our justification” (Romans 4.25). The verb translated ‘delivered up’ is the word paradidomi. This is the verb used in Mark 9.31: “The Son of Man will be betrayed/handed over into the hands of men.” See also Matthew 10.4; 17.22; 20.18–19; 26.2, 15, 21, 23, 25, 45, 46, 48; 27.2, 4, 18, 26; Mark 10.33; 14.10, 11, 18, 21, 41, 42, 44; 15.1, 10; Luke 9.44; 18.32; 20.20; 22.4, 6, 21, 22, 48; 23.25; 24.7, 20; John 6.64, 71; 12.4; 13.2, 11, 21; 18.2, 5, 30, 35, 36; 19.11, 16; 21.20; Acts 3.13—all texts that speak of Jesus being handed over to be crucified. In other words, God the Father handed Jesus over to be crucified. He did not sit idly by, wringing his almighty hands, trying to prevent his Son from the suffering of the cross. No, he willingly handed over his own Son to death—and Jesus willingly accepted his fate.
In Isaiah 53, a passage that early Christians regarded as Messianic (see Acts 8.26–35), Jesus’ suffering on the cross was seen:
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief” (Isaiah 53.4–6, 10a [ESV]).
And yet, even in the Gospels we get hints of the why of Christ’s death. In Mark 10.45 Jesus declares, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” This hints of Christ’s substitutionary atonement, of his dying in our place. When the Lord cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” it was the only time in the Gospels in which he addressed the Father asGod. To Jesus, at this point, God was no longer acting as his Father; he was his judge.
And in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus cried out, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Take this cup away from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14.36 [NET]). The imagery of the cup in the Old Testament speaks eloquently of God’s wrath. Isaiah 51.17 says, “Awake, awake! Rise up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the LORD the cup of his wrath, you who have drained to its dregs the goblet that makes men stagger” (NIV). See also Psalm 75.8 and Jeremiah 25.15–16; in the New Testament, see Revelation 14.10; 16.19; 19.15. But the cup that Jesus was referring to was the third cup of the Passover, the cup of redemption. The Jews in Jesus’ day would recite Exodus 6.6–7 when they celebrated Passover, and the third of four ritual cups was drunk after verse 6b was recited: “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments.” When Jesus asked the Father to take the cup from him he was referring to the cup of suffering, the cup of redemption that required judgment.
Then there are the three hours of darkness, the last three hours that the Lord was on the cross. It is at the end of this period that Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Does the darkness not speak of judgment, of God’s anger poured out on his own Son as he dies in our place? And yet at the very end Jesus declares, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23.46). Yes, the whole of Psalm 22 is in view, but not until we get to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
To Hsu’s question, “if Jesus was truly forsaken by God, what’s preventing God from forsaking any of us? How could we ever trust him to be good?” Paul gives the decisive answer: “he who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, freely give us all things?” (Romans 8.32 [NET]). It is precisely because Jesus has suffered in our place that God is now free to give us all things, to do good to us at all times.
There is so much more in the New Testament that reveals a righteous and holy God who loves sinners, but a God who cannot permit them in his presence without death of an innocent substitute, for “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin” (Hebrews 9.22).
As A. T. Robertson wrote long ago, “no one of the theories of the atonement states all the truth nor, indeed, do all of them together. The bottom of this ocean of truth has never been sounded by any man’s plumb-line. There is more in the death of Christ for all of us than any of us has been able to fathom…. However, one must say that substitution is an essential element in any real atonement” (A. T. Robertson, The Minister and His Greek New Testament, 40–41).
At bottom, if the gospel is not an offense to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, it is not the gospel that the apostles taught. As James White has said, “The gospel is ours to proclaim, not to edit.”