“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” – John 12:24
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death...Death is swallowed up in victory.” – 1 Corinthians 15:26, 54
"The greater the sin, the greater the mercy, the deeper the death and the brighter the rebirth.” - C. S. Lewis
"This story...has the very taste of primary truth." - J. R. R. Tolkien

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Forsaken Son of God

But this triumphant atonement was very costly to God – the payment was very great. It was not just the horrific death by crucifixion and the unimaginably painful flogging. It was not just the humiliation of God being crowned with thorns and hung up on a tree to be mocked and ridiculed. It was in being forsaken by the Father. Jesus’ greatest suffering was expressed when he cried out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” 1 In this fallen world we have tasted the pain and grief of broken relationships, but “we cannot fathom…what it would have been like to lose not just spousal love or parental love that has lasted several years, but the infinite love of the Father that Jesus had from all eternity” (Tim Keller, The Reason for God, p. 29). We now come to the third question: what happened between the Father and the Son when Christ went to the cross? Here too we will find a paradoxical beauty in richly contrasting truths.

For a time, Christ emptied himself of many of his attributes as the eternal second person of the Trinity and became limited, dependent, as a creature. More than that, Christ became a sin offering (2 Corinthians 5:21), one accursed in God’s eyes (Galatians 3:13). In bearing sin (an offense against God and wholly contrary to his nature), did God become what God is not? It may seem so, but this is a contradiction in terms and therefore impossible. As described earlier, the wages of sin were imputed to Christ such that it was as if he was the sinner, but Christ himself was and is the definition of perfection and holiness. Yet he was accursed. It was as if the second person of the Trinity had been the worst of sinners, as if he had raised his fist in the face of God and rebelled! The Son, like the Father, is holy and worthy of glory, yet on the cross he is simultaneously a sin offering, worthy of ultimate suffering and death! You might say that God in Christ very nearly became all that is opposite to his nature and character, all that God is not! Very nearly a contradiction, but not quite – what a mysterious paradox!

God the Father, being just and holy, based his actions on his character when he turned his face on the sin that the Son took on and thus turned away from the Son himself. If God the Father had been near to the Son in his suffering, he would not have shown a just hatred and abhorrence of sin and evil for what it was, and thus he would not have been honoring to his own sinless and holy character. God could only be honorable and true to himself by deserting the Son on the cross. And thus, the Son was cut off from the Father, separated and forsaken as an object of wrath,2 and this cutting and dividing of Father from Son within the Trinity is also against the very essence of his unity in the being of God.3 Again, God, although acting in every step from his own character, is for a moment almost not himself. For God to nearly become not-God is the paradox of all paradoxes. Again we see that strange mysterious tension or contrast between different facets of what happened on the cross.

1 Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34. These words are a quotation of Psalm 22:1. In this psalm, which has often viewed in some sense as messianic, the psalter cries out in sorrow and anguish amidst his sufferings and persecution, but he ends in hope, praising God. One would expect the Jesus of the gospels, who knew the Old Testament so thoroughly, to know the context of the verse he was quoting. “Jesus probably has in mind the remainder of the psalm as well, which moves on to a cry of victory (Psalm 22:21-31)…surely he knows why he is dying, for this was the purpose of his coming to earth” (Michael J. Wilkins, commentary on Matthew 27:46, ESV Study Bible). Furthermore, “Jesus knows why he is experiencing God-forsakenness, just as he knows his death will not be the end of his story” (Hans F. Bayer, commentary on Mark 15:34, ESV Study Bible).

2 This does not mean that the Father’s wrath replaced his love for the Son. With a being as great and incomprehensible to mere human minds as the Triune God, we must leave open the possibility that the Father still loved the Son in some manner, despite directing his wrath towards him and his hatred towards the sin he bore, and that the Son still loved the Father, despite feeling forsaken by him. We would be hasty to assume that God’s emotional life is like ours. On the contrary, we should expect that the Triune God would experiences emotions (and thought) on a wholly different level, beyond our understanding. See John Piper, “The Infinitely Complex Emotional Life of God, The Pleasures of God, p. 72.

3 What this may mean for the Spirit, whom Scripture seems to describe as the personification of the love and union between the Father and the Son (see “The Trinity in Redemptive History”), I am not sure. Perhaps the Spirit too suffered in some way because the bond between the Father and the Son from which the Spirit proceeded was under strain for a moment. Indeed, it would seem that the whole Trinity must participate in the Son’s suffering because the whole Trinity very nearly becomes that which it is not, namely, persons divided from one another rather than united in love.

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