I am sure you have heard that when Jesus cried out in a loud voice from the cross saying “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:33-34; Matthew 27:45-46) that this was when God the father turned his back on Jesus because as He bore the sins of the world and God could not face Him. People as notable as William Lane Craig have asserted as much:
While I understand the sentiment behind the unbelievable treatment of Jesus, I find the interpretation unwarranted, implausible, and incoherent.
It is Unwarranted
No where in the passages (either Mark or Matthew) do the gospel authors communicate that God turned his back on Jesus because the sin of the world was laid upon Christ. While this idiosyncratic interpretation is not Un-Biblical (goes against anything the Bible directly states) it seems to be Non-Biblical (the Bible does not say that God turned his back on Jesus at anytime in scripture). Non-Biblical is not problematic in any orthodox sense (leisure suits are not mentioned in the Bible but they do not violate any Biblical principle), but to state that God turned his back on Jesus is simply not found in the Bible, thus it is Non-Biblical.
It is Implausible
The Protestant Reformers set forth a principle of scriptural interpretation to govern biblical hermeneutics. It is sometimes called the analogy of faith. R. C. Sproul explains:
we are to interpret Scripture according to Scripture. That is, the supreme arbiter in interpreting the meaning of a particular verse in Scripture is the overall teaching of the Bible.
Applying this interpretative principle to this passage, you will not find other scripture stating that God turned his back on Jesus thus resulting in Christ crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If we want a scripture to enlighten our understanding of Mark 15:33-34 and Matthew 27:45-46, we should turn to Psalm 22. Interestingly, verse 1 of Psalm 22 is the line, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Ironically, Craig provides insight to the despairing cry of Jesus:
This is thought to be the moment at which, so to speak, God the Father turned His back on His Son and allowed him to experience the separation from God that is sinners’ just desert for sin. This seems plausible; but upon reflection second thoughts arise. In the first place, once one realizes that what Jesus is doing here is reciting the words of Psalm 22, which is the prayer of God’s righteous servant in distress, then a very different perspective emerges. Far from showing Jesus’ alienation from God at that point, his praying Psalm 22 seems to show his deep reliance upon God at this bleakest moment of his life. Moreover, a little later he prays, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23.46). Here he addresses God as his Father.
Psalm 22, in a general sense, is a psalm written about a person who is crying out to God to save him from the derision and torture of his enemies, and then thanks God for saving him in the last ten verses. Given the salvation of the person in the latter part of the psalm, it is not a cry of despair, but a cry of help, in which God rescues. God has vindicated Jesus, not abandoned him. As Psalm 22:24 declares “For he has not despised or abhorred the torment of the oppressed. He did not hide his face from him, but listened when he cried to him for help.”
It is Incoherent
Not only is the interpretation of God turning his back on Jesus on the cross unwarranted and implausible, it is incoherent. Given the doctrine of the Trinity, Jesus, who is fully man and fully God, it is metaphysically impossible for there to be a separation in the Trinity. If God had to turn his face or back away from Jesus (obviously metaphorically speaking) then Jesus would have to turn away from himself, because he is God. It would be metaphysically impossible for there to be a rift in the Trinity.
Apologetic Value of “My God, My God”
One of the values of interpreting Mark 15:33-34 in light of Psalm 22 is apologetics. I find the most warranted, plausible, and coherent understanding of Jesus’ cry as a declaration to those who are standing at the foot of the cross. In essence, Jesus is NOT looking UP crying out to God in despair, but looking DOWN to those surrounding him and citing the first line of Psalm 22. Why is he citing the first line? Because he is telling the listeners to read that psalm. David E. Garland in the NIV Application Commentary to the Gospel of Mark states that, “Without chapter and verse divisions in the Hebrew Scriptures, specific passages were cited often by the first verse or key phrases.” It is like when a person sings the first line of a song and everyone knows the song they are singing.
Why is Jesus telling those at the foot of the cross to read Psalm 22? Because it has prophetic declarations for the coming Messiah.
Verse 16 declares, “For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced by hands and feet.” This is a perfect description of what is happening to Jesus as he cries out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” David, who wrote the psalm, did not have his hands and feet pierced, but Jesus, hanging on the cross, certainly had. This is described hundreds of years before Roman crucifixion had even been invented.
Notice verse 17 and 18: “I can count all my bones-they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” Jesus is declaring, read Psalm 22, it is a messianic psalm, I am the fulfilling this prophecy in your presence, so you know that I am the messiah.
This is evidence of Jesus being the Christ, the Son of the Living God as Peter pointed out in Mark chapter 8 when Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?” Jesus is pointing to the evidence that it is true, He is the Christ (the anointed one), the Son of the Living God. Josh and Sean McDowell elaborate in their recent book Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life Changing Truth for a Skeptical World on the Old Testament prophecies of the messiah fulfilled in Jesus Christ:
The numerous and pervasive instances in the Old Testament of description and detail that correspond to the life of Jesus are like threads in a tapestry that is gradually filled in to reveal him as the Messiah. Put another way, the Old Testament can be compared to a jigsaw puzzle. The numerous pieces remain puzzling until they are assembled enough to fill out the intended picture. In the same way, the Messianic references in the Old Testament remain puzzling until patient study begins to reveal them as a picture of the person of Jesus Christ. The New Testament is thus the decryption key for unlocking the meaning of the Old Testament Scriptures.
The words of Peter recorded by Luke resonate clearly when one contemplates the fulfilled prophecy of Christ: “But the things which God announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets, that His Christ should suffer, He has thus fulfilled” (Acts 3:18)
Resources on Fulfilled Prophecy:
“55 Old Testament Prophecies about Jesus” The Jesus Film Project, Jan 4, 2018