Thomas A. from Birmingham, Alabama, asks:

How do I explain the wrath of God toward Jesus and his separation during this time of suffering for our sin and not separate the Godhead?

We posed the question to Matt Jenson, associate professor of theology at the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University.

What a fantastic question! Really, it’s a question that already begins its own answer. That is, however we explain what’s happening in the death of Jesus, we need to do so in such a way that upholds and honors the triune God who redeemed us.

Tom McCall has recently written a short book that is about as good you can get on this topic. In my review of it, I wrote of the need to hold together,

(1) the triune God’s perfect, loving unity in (2) his radically self-giving gift which entails (3) the eternal Son’s profound suffering in the flesh for us and our salvation. If we only have (1) and not (2) and (3), we end up in a triumphalism foreign to the victory of the cross. If (3) doesn’t entail strife between Father and Son, it still entails deeper suffering than I have ever known-possibly deeper suffering than anyone has ever known.

The trick here is to seek analytic clarity without plucking out the mystery of the cross. “We murder to dissect,” Wordsworth wrote. Woe to us if we perform the same procedure on the mystery of our salvation.

In the first few centuries, the theological battle lines were drawn with reference to the deity of Christ. Just how was he related to the God of Israel? What was the church doing when he worshiped him and baptized and prayed in his name? In the last couple centuries, attention has turned to the humanity of Christ. If, with Gregory Nazienzen, we confess that “the unassumed is the unredeemed,” we need to confess the Son’s assumption of humanity and all that it implies.

Why Forsaken?

That’s the context. Now apply that context to Jesus’ anguished cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; Mk. 15:34) Let’s take Jesus at his word; he is forsaken by God at the cross. It’s true that these are the first words of Psalm 22, in which the speaker entrusts himself and his cause to God; and Jesus could have spoken or implied the entire psalm. Maybe, that is, he is uttering a faithful prayer of trust in dire circumstances. Or maybe he is speaking in his role of representative, taking on words that surely fit the sinful people of Israel, and indeed all of sinful humanity.

Then again, Jesus said other things from the cross. Only Matthew and Mark record the cry of dereliction. Luke tells of his intercession for those who crucified him (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”) and his committing his spirit to the Father (Lk. 23:35, 46). In John, Jesus gives his mother into the care of one of his disciples, says he is thirsty, and utters his final words: “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30).

All of these angles on the crucifixion offer us a Jesus faithful to the end. Still, there’s that part about being forsaken. What can he mean? Here’s what we know: The eternal Son, whose life in the Trinity is happy beyond imagining, became incarnate, subject to all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and outlandish sinners. He was mocked, misunderstood, manhandled, and mangled. His family didn’t get him, and his closest friends sold him out. Despite his perfect faithfulness to his Father and God, he ended up being nailed to a cross to suffer public humiliation and death.

God didn’t make him do this. The Father sent the Son (Jn. 3:16), and the Son gave his life freely (Jn. 10:17-18). So the cross is at once the low point and the high point of Israel’s history—-and indeed, of human history. It is the low point as the final outcome of sin, wherein the Creator of the universe suffers a shameful death at the hands of, for the sake of, and instead of his creation. It is the high point as the perfection of human obedience, with Jesus being found faithful unto death, even death on a cross. His moment of greatest humiliation is his moment of glorification.

King and Lord

A few verses after Matthew records Jesus’ cry of forsakenness, he records the centurion’s response to Jesus’ death: “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matt. 27:54) Here the centurion gives witness to Jesus as King and Lord, one closely tied in to the ways of God with the world. Despite, or perhaps in light of having seen the wrath of God poured out on Jesus, the centurion responds that Jesus is God’s Son. Maybe the simplest answer to the question of how the Trinity is not broken at the cross is to recall that the Father sent his Son and the Son laid down his own life freely—-that is, that both Father and Son gave all for the world at the cross.

Consider God’s wrath poured out on Christ as the deepest display of Trinitarian love the world has ever known. The God who is love (1 Jn. 4:8) is only ever loving in himself and in relation to his creation. His anger, then, is the form his love takes when it runs into sin. In his wrath, God fights sin and judges sinners. But how does he fight sin? By taking the place of the very sinners he judges. As Karl Barth put it, Jesus is the Judge judged in our place.

Note that, too—-Jesus is the Judge. If we read the crucifixion as a bit of good cop/bad cop and ascribe those roles to the Son and the Father respectively, we drastically confuse the issue. We have to be much more careful when we parse this in Trinitarian terms. While Jesus does suffer the wrath of God in taking our place and submitting to the painful consequences of sin, he embodies God’s wrath against sin in cleansing the temple and promises to come again on the last day as judge of the living and the dead. Nor is the Father the stern disciplinarian; can you possibly imagine a greater, more costly gift than giving up your Son to save your enemies? God didn’t even make Abraham do that.

When the Father turned his wrath on the One who bore the sin of many at Golgotha, the Son was crushed for our iniquities; and it is by his wounds that we are healed (Is. 53:5). Far from being the scene, then, of the Trinity’s dissolution, the cross is the Trinity’s demonstration. We find Father, Son, and Spirit working in concert for the salvation of the world. We find the Father so loving the world that he gave his only-begotten Son to death, even death of the cross. We find the Son freely giving his life away, drinking the dregs of sin and death in loving solidarity with a sinful, suffering world and, wonder of wonders, holding all things together even as he lay lifeless in the tomb. And we find the Spirit, the one who hovered over the waters at creation and over Mary’s womb at Jesus’ conception, the one who signaled the Father’s good pleasure at Jesus’ baptism and empowered Jesus for ministry, sustaining him in his last breath and in his death.

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