Two days before Good Friday, InterVarsity Press editor Al Hsu published a provocative piece in the online version of Christianity Today. Entitled “He’s Calling For Elijah! Why We Still Mishear Jesus,” Hsu 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. For Hsu, the view held by Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Spurgeon, Barth, and a host of Protestant theologians for 500 years looks too much like child abuse and breaks the Trinity.
What about Psalm 22:1, which Jesus recited as he hung, writhing in pain, on that most hideous of torture devices—-“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Surely this clearly speaks of God forsaking Jesus. Not so, Hsu says. He observes that the Gospels don’t unpack the meaning of the anguished cry, that for us to see it as God turning his back on Jesus is to read into the text what cannot be found there.
Hsu camps on the whole of Psalm 22 as what Jesus meant when he quoted the first verse from the cross. I agree that the whole psalm is in view, but Hsu seems to be saying Jesus has in mind the whole psalm except verse 1. “Jesus is not saying that God has forsaken him,” Hsu writes. “He’s declaring the opposite.” In other words, Hsu argues that Psalm 22:1 should be understood to mean that God only seemed to abandon his Son.
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 approvingly cite theologian Thomas McCall and argue, “There is nothing in Scripture that says that the Father rejected the Son.” This might come as quite a shock to Christians throughout 20 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.
What Did Jesus Accomplish on the Cross?
Paul was a Pharisee’s Pharisee, and before he met the Lord on the road to Damascus, he was white hot about Christians, who audaciously claimed 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 stand.
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 met the ascended Lord on that dusty road, now he was confronted with two seemingly irreconcilable truths: The Bible is infallible, and yet God had raised Jesus from the dead.
Paul spent the next three years alone in Arabia, unraveling this paradox, 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).
He saw the sacrificial system as pointing 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 slain so the firstborn of each home would live. The lamb died in the place of the firstborn, the innocent for the guilty.
In his magisterial letter to the Romans, Paul’s theme was the vindication of God’s righteousness. Paul had been charged with going soft on sin, something he adamantly denied. In the heart of Romans is perhaps the most significant paragraph ever written: Romans 3:21-26. This text lays out Paul’s gospel, yet that is not the primary point. Essentially, this passage speaks of God’s righteousness—-how God does not wink at sin, and how the cross is God’s public display of his righteousness, for in it he 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 redeeming sinners by executing his own Son in our place.
There is so much more in the New Testament that reveals a righteous and holy God who loves sinners and requires death of an innocent substitute, for “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin” (Hebrews 9:22). At bottom, if the gospel is not an offense to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, it is not the gospel that the apostles taught.