Summary: Reformed theology that God turned His back on Jesus on the cross. Is this Biblical?
Did God Turn His Back Upon Jesus?
In my seminary theological classes, we were taught that God had to turn his back on Jesus when the sin of the world was laid upon Him. This verse, and one from Habakkuk which states that God cannot bear to look upon evil were used to prove this. But is this indeed the case? Did the Father actually forsake the Son?
First of all, when we talk about God turning his back, we have to speak metaphorically. God is present everywhere. God is also Spirit. There is then no actual back to turn, so this is the best human description of what many feel happened on the cross, that God the Father abandoned his Son on the cross.
Jesus is quoting Psalm 22 here, which Christians see as a prophecy of the suffering of Jesus on the cross. This psalm is a dialog of a man who is suffering, trying to find faith in God in horrid circumstances. We cannot find such a circumstance in David’s life that fits what is described here. But this psalm does fit the circumstances of the crucifixion of Jesus, something which the writers of the gospels note. Psalm 22:7-8 state that His enemies were taunting Him on the cross, saying “He trusted in God that He would deliver Him. Let Him deliver Him who delights in Him.” John mentions the casting lots for his garments which is recorded in Psalm 22:18. Psalm 22:16 also mentions the piercing Christ’s hands and feet. Psalm 22 which was written some 1000 years before the time of Jesus is along with Isaiah 53 one of the chief prophecies of the suffering of Jesus.
So how should we interpret Jesus’ quoting of Psalm 22:1? Besides the traditional interpretation already mentioned, another possibility has been suggested. By quoting the first verse, he is in sense trying to make the witnesses to the crucifixion aware that what was happening was a fulfillment of this Psalm. A good Jew would have been familiar with this psalm. If they were to notice what they were doing to Him, they might come to their senses and accept Jesus. However, this was misunderstood as being a cry for the help of Elijah. This could be understandable in the sense that someone suffering crucifixion would find speaking difficult due to dry mouth and respiratory distress. Jesus would not have been physically able to quote the entire psalm or give an interpretation. What He did say should have been sufficient. Perhaps the thief on the cross who heard Jesus say this was clued in and this was the source of his repentance. I feel that this interpretation is better than the traditional one.
We will get further help in answering the question of whether God turned His back upon Jesus on the cross from the book of Genesis. When Adam and Eve sinned, who turned their back upon whom? The text clearly says that Adam and Eve sewed aprons of fig leaves and then proceeded to hide themselves. From whom? –the presence of God. They turned their back upon God as a result of their sin. The sinner cannot bear to look upon the holiness of God. Just look at Isaiah 6. Isaiah felt like he was going to die when he beheld the Lord high and lifted up. Moses could not see the full glory of God. God put him in the cleft of the rock and only let Moses catch a glimpse of Him after He had passed. Samson’s father thought he was going to die when he saw the Lord. What about Daniel and St. John? As we can see, it is the sinner who cannot bear to look upon God.
Going back to Genesis, how did God respond to sin? Did he hide himself from Adam and Eve? No, he came looking for them. Instead of turning His back upon them, He came seeking. This is the beginning of the story of redemption, a story which would result in the Son of God coming in human flesh to seek and save the lost. If God was the God so interpreted as being unable to bear evil, Adam and Eve would have been abandoned. Instead, God came down from heaven to seek them and save them. There would be confrontation of their sin, of course, and severe punishment. But God spoke words of comfort to them in Genesis 3:15 to let them know there would be a reconciliation someday. And this someday was the day Jesus hung on the cross in their place. Satan had bruised Jesus’ heel, but in that day, Satan received a death wound to the head.
So when dealing with the idea of feeling forsaken on the cross, there is another way to look at it. If Jesus became sin for us, then the imputation of sin could in a metaphorical sense resulted in Jesus turning His back on the Father, being unable to look upon him anymore because of His sin. But Jesus was also righteous and holy, without any personal sin. This would have led to the back and forth dialog within Jesus as if one side was saying “I am suffering the death of the sinner” and the other side saying “I have not commuted any sin or act of deceit, so why is this happening to me?” Jesus had always been faithful to the Father and hoped in Him, even from His mother’s womb. We have to remember that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine. This is indeed a great mystery as is how the Sinless One could be reckoned as the one who had committed every sin that the human race had ever and will ever commit.