The Cry of Dereliction
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Do you hear Jesus’s words? Can you see what is happening in the very heart of the Trinity? For the first time in history, the bond between Father and Son is torn apart. The Trinity is broken, in order that you and I might be saved. This might be the comment of an enthusiastic evangelist on Good Friday.
Or perhaps it’s the counselor trying to give hope amidst the wreckage of a broken marriage: Even the eternal love between the Father and Son was shattered for a while at the cross. There’s hope there for your own reconciliation.
You can probably multiply—or at least imagine—a host of similar cases. The “Cry of Dereliction,” as it’s come to be known (Jesus's quoting of Psalm 22), has been a source of wonder and speculation in equal measure. Ultimately, however well-meaning the above examples might be, and indeed however gracious the Lord may be in using our feeble efforts for his purposes, pastoral care and evangelistic zeal are not strengthened by poor theology. So what can and can’t we say about this cry?
The Undivided Trinity
First and foremost, we must not say that the Trinity was torn apart. We might list many reasons why “breaking the Trinity” takes us beyond the bounds of Biblical orthodoxy, but let’s focus on just three.
Firstly, to do so would be to undermine the Bible’s teaching on the unity of the Godhead. There are not three “gods” all closely related and deeply in love with one another who all act as one. There is one God (Deut. 6:4), and this one God is not made up of three “parts”—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—as if you need to add all three together to get the whole. No, Father, Son, and Spirit are of one substance, all fully possessing the same divine essence. There is no possibility of separation because this one substance is indivisible. There is one God.
Then we must remember that God does not change (James 1:17, Mal. 3:6). To imply that one Friday afternoon in the first century the Trinity, for a few hours, became a “binity-plus-one” is, among other things, to make God a creature subject to the changes and constraints of time. But God does not exist as bound by time and space. God in himself does not move from Monday to Tuesday to Wednesday like we humans.
Finally, we might remember that God cannot suffer. He is impassible. While it’s not straightforward to proof-text this doctrine with a couple of Bible verses, it grows out of Scripture’s teaching on God’s unchangeable nature and his self-sufficiency. As Calvin puts it, “Surely God does not have blood, does not suffer, cannot be touched with hands.”1 Nothing can harm him, nothing can diminish his joy, nothing can tear him apart. Thank God!
So whatever “forsaken” means, it cannot be a supposed rupture in the Trinity. Where might we turn instead?
Christ the God-Man
Let’s begin with the incarnation. God the Son took to himself a real human nature. Not just a body or a “skin suit,” as I once heard a preacher say. He took on full human nature. Jesus, therefore, has a real human mind, a real human heart, a real human soul.
Whatever suffering he experiences is in this true human nature. Hebrews 2 makes just this point:
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.—Heb. 2:14
Because we are flesh and blood, Jesus had to “partake” of the same flesh and blood in order that he might die for us. In his divine nature this was impossible. His suffering had to be human suffering, not just because God cannot suffer, but in order that he might justly represent us. As Hebrews 2 continues:
He had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.—Heb. 2:17–18
Jesus “had to” be made like us in order to make propitiation for us. It was in his human nature that he endured the suffering necessary for our salvation. This suffering is still the suffering of the Son of God, of course. There is no Jesus Christ, the man, who is not God the Son. But it’s important we understand that all his suffering—including his wrath-bearing, justice-satisfying death—is suffering according to his human nature. Again, there is no tearing apart of the Trinity, but rather God the Son suffering in the flesh.
Into the Darkness
But still we’ve said little positive about the meaning of the cry. Matthew sets the context:
Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—Matt. 27:45–46
Jesus was crucified at the third hour, roughly 9 o’clock in the morning (Mark 15:25). But it was from the sixth hour to the ninth hour that darkness covered the land: midday to 3pm. The darkness lets us know that God has come in judgment. As Amos had foretold,
I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight.—Amos 8:9
Darkness is a sign of God’s judgment falling. Think of the ninth plague on Egypt. But darkness also conceals. There is a sense in which exactly what happened during those three hours will always be hidden from us. We cannot know—thank God—exactly what Christ experienced. It’s tempting to think that some doctrines are mysterious (like the Trinity, or how God’s sovereignty relates to human responsibility) and others are straightforward or easy to grasp (like the cross). But God shrouds the climax of Christ’s work in darkness, and while there is plenty we can and should affirm as to what transpired, we should never pretend we have completely fathomed it.
Can we at least carry a flickering candle into the darkness? Yes, I think so. What will we see? What will the cry reveal to us?
Not the separation of Christ’s humanity from his divinity. The incarnation is never reversed. Although in death Christ’s human body and soul are separated from each other, his body buried, and his soul in paradise, both remain united to his divine person.
Nor will we see a man losing faith. Here is a man who still knows his God: “My God, My God . . .” and knows his psalms. The cry is the first line of Psalm 22, and as is well known, the first half of that psalm describes the suffering of Christ in remarkable prophetic detail. But from verse 22 the tone changes. We move from darkness to light, from death to resurrection:
You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen!
I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.—Ps. 22:21–22
Surely Jesus has not lost faith even as he cries out in the darkness. He knows he will not be utterly abandoned, that resurrection and joy will follow.
There is no tearing apart of the Trinity, but rather God the Son suffering in the flesh.
Some are content to leave matters here. Christ is acknowledging in anguish that he will not be spared death, all the while trusting that resurrection will come. But I think we might tiptoe a little further. The Puritan Thomas Goodwin is a faithful guide and representative of many in the Reformed tradition. Goodwin explains that as coming under the curse means (in part) being cut off from all comfort from God, this is what Christ must have experienced. It is not that God stopped supporting Jesus, still less loving him. How could he not be delighted in his Son at the climax of his work (John 10:17)? Rather “only in respect of joy and comfort in and from God’s face” was Christ cut off.2
Christ bore the wrath of God at sin in his soul and body. During this time he stood in dual relationship to God. As Son, he knew by faith that God delighted in him—as indeed God continued to do. But as mediator, standing in our place, he knew God’s wrath at sin. Here is Goodwin one final time:
Christ might look upon himself as a Son, and natural Son, and so beloved. He might look upon himself as a Son, and a Son performing obedience to his father, even in suffering the wrath, and never pleasing him more than now . . . yet . . . as a surety for sinners, and so punished, and in that respect he might apprehend God for the present angry, and full of wrath against him.3
Christ’s confidence that God was “for him” as Son and faithful servant, and that God was “against him” as substitute and representative (surety), were both expressed in that one cry: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” The cry doesn’t tell us everything about the atonement or what Jesus suffered, but it does reassure us that he has gone into a darkness we will never face.
- Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion II.XIV.2
- The Works of Thomas Goodwin, Volume 5 (Reformation Heritage Books, 2006), 279.
- Ibid, 283.
Jonty Rhodes is the author of Man of Sorrows, King of Glory: What the Humiliation and Exaltation of Jesus Mean for Us.
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