At the center of the Christian faith story is an abandoned, suffering Man crying out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Through the incarnation and crucifixion, God communicates his solidarity with us in our sufferings and those of the world.
Some years ago, Jürgen Moltmann wrote his well known book, The Crucified God and this essay explores his reflections on the words of Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” as recorded in Matthew 27 and Mark 15. I also include some material from his lectures given some years ago at Asbury College, along with some comments from Tom Torrance in The Christian Doctrine of God, and from Alan Lewis in his book, Between Cross and Resurrection.
In 2008, one of our teams was in the city of Gonaives, Haiti during the hurricane that devastated the nation. Back in the States I listened to the radio and read the statistics of the numbers of dead and homeless as we all do during a disaster, but it was not until Brian, our team leader, returned and shared one incident with us that the cruel reality of the hurricane hit home. Brian was looking out of his window in Gonaives and noticed a man wading through the water, dragging something on a rope submerged behind him, though the flooded street. At first he thought it was a dead animal, but then the man stopped and the body of an adolescent girl floated to the surface. She was naked, the force of the flood having stripped away her clothing, and he tied her by the rope to a fence while he went into a building. Brian had seen many dead bodies by this time, but to see this girl floating naked in the street filled him with rage and grief. He has children of his own and wanted to go out and cover her up.
The probability was that the rest of her family was buried deep in the mud and she had escaped, only to drown in the floodwater, and now be dragged like a log naked through the street.
When Brian told us the story, suddenly the statistics had a human face. But to be truthful, I think I can sleep easier with just numbers. Numbers don’t have faces and float in the street. And the naked girl, now stiff and cold does have a name, even though I don’t know it. She’s someone’s daughter, loved just as much as I love my daughters, and grieved for just as deeply as I would grieve if I lost mine. She should have grown up and gone to college, and fallen in love, and had kids. But now her father wading through the water dragging her dead body behind him cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
I often ask myself what the Gospel has to say to such fathers and mothers and all those who go through meaningless suffering, and this is where Moltmann has helped me so much. His lifelong quest has been to make sense of suffering in the light of his own experiences as a young man in the Second World War. He writes:
I remember in July 1943, watching bombs rain down all around me in my hometown, Hamburg. Eighty thousand people were killed in one week as a result of that bombing. Somehow, miraculously, I survived unscathed. To this day I do not know why I am not dead like my comrades. My question in that inferno was not ‘why is God letting this happen’ but rather ‘God where are you?’ [Are you far away from us, absent and remote, or do you share our suffering. Are you] the Sufferer among the suffering?” (Asbury pp. 19 & 26)
And it was his quest for an answer that eventually resulted, many years later, in his writing the book, The Crucified God.
I will begin with some initial remarks to set the scene, and then move on give an overview of Moltmann’s understanding of Jesus’ words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I will then use Tom Torrance and Alan Lewis to conclude by comparing the last words of Jesus as recorded in Mathew and Mark with those recorded in Luke and John.
Solidarity is a big word in Moltmann’s thinking about the cross. However, he is quick to point out that we do not have to abandon the dimension of substitution in the atonement to also include the dimension of solidarity. They are not mutually exclusive. We all recognize the importance of substitutionary atonement—the action of Christ on behalf of the guilty—however, we do not always adequately set forth the other side of the coin: Christ’s solidarity in his death with the suffering. We have seen the gospel as good news for the villain, but have not always proclaimed it equally as good news for the victim.
Moltmann wants us to see that in becoming man, God was not simply taking on human flesh, but going further in sharing in the totality of human experience, as C.S. Lewis says, “from the crib to the cross.” To embrace humanity was astonishing enough, but the social matrix in which he deliberately immersed himself is what should take our breath away. His brothers were the marginal, the outcasts, the powerless, and the suffering simply because this has been the lot of the vast majority of humankind down through the ages. And therefore these were those he made his people, those he chose to stand shoulder to shoulder with.
However it is Jesus’ solidarity with the God-forsaken in his suffering and death that is one of the unique contributions of Moltmann’s, and with this in mind, I will move on to a comparison of the last words of Jesus from the cross as recorded in each of the Gospels.
I will begin with Moltmann’s reflections on Matthew and Mark, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and then move to the comments of Torrance on Luke 23 (“Into thy hands I commit my spirit.”), and conclude with Alan Lewis on the cry “It is finished!” in John 19—which at first seems to contradict Moltmann’s understanding of the cry of Christ, which in Aramaic is “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” : “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Mathew and Mark choose to use “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” as the last recorded words of Jesus in their Gospels. And while we know that the words “It is finished!” in John, and “Into thy hands I commit my spirit” in Luke probably come after it chronologically, Moltmann makes the point that Matthew and Mark are quite deliberate in choosing “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” as our Lord’s last words. He believes they intended to highlight a dimension of the crucifixion that must not be overlooked.
Moltmann, as I have said, believes that the central problem for those who suffer is not that of why God is allowing it to happen, but of where God has disappeared to while it is happening. He therefore believes that those who go through meaningless suffering always feel abandoned by God. And for this reason it is significant that some of the ancient versions translate the “Why have you forsaken me?” in Mark’s gospel as “Why have you cursed me?” And this is how those feel who die in the death camps and gas ovens: they feel cursed and forsaken by God. (Asbury)
Therefore in solidarity with them, Jesus dies with the same unanswered question, “My God, my God, why?” on his lips. It would seem that Matthew and Mark are intentional in omitting the “It is finished!” recorded by John, and the “Into my hands I commit my spirit” recorded by Luke (It is hardly likely they were unaware of these statements). And, as we will see, the statements of Jesus recorded by Luke and John are statements made by Jesus in faith, despite the darkness of dereliction and abandonment—not because his question “why” had been answered.
And so to make the point, Mathew and Mark do not mention the words of Jesus recorded by Luke and John. They want us know that even for Jesus the “why” question was not answered. Jesus dies with the question on his lips that is the question of all those who experience God forsaken-ness and meaningless suffering. And Moltmann therefore believes at the center of the Christian faith is this cry of the God-forsaken Christ.
He is well aware of the christological issues involved in making such a claim, and goes to great lengths to cover all his bases theologically. But for more of this you will have to read him for yourself, if you have not done so already. Suffice it to say, he is a theological heavyweight and is not afraid to justify his statements by using sources all the way from the Church Fathers to the Reformers.
Complexities aside, the heart of Moltmann’s thinking is captured by his words that “on the cross, God is forsaken by God so that he can become the God of the God-forsaken.” The cross is now the gathering point for all the suffering and God-forsaken from what someone called the gnarled root of Adam’s tree. Jesus is now the brother of all those who experience the apparent God-forsakenness of meaningless suffering. In our darkness of abandonment and desolation we now find a God who was abandoned and desolate as our companion.
If God suffers with us then pain no longer has the capacity to alienate. In fact, the reverse is true: there is now a camaraderie, a fellowship, a band of brothers that emerges when we suffer simply because he has chosen to stand shoulder to shoulder with those who are victimized and in pain. And it was this that sustained Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his prison cell awaiting execution when he wrote the simple words that, “Only a suffering God can help.”
Moltmann concludes that, “He is the brother of the God forsaken and the Father of the God forsaken. [But] this is not what he became. It is what he has always been.” God’s desire is to stand shoulder to shoulder with suffering humanity is first demonstrated in the Exodus from Egypt and comes to its climax in the Exodus of Jesus from the cross and the grave.
Again, it needs to be emphasized that in his theology of the crucified God, Moltmann is not minimizing the dimension of substitutionary atonement. He is simply affirming that we need both a theology of substitution and the theology of solidarity. The cross is not only a word of hope for the perpetrator of evil; it is also a word of hope for those who have been the recipients of evil. The cross is both a word for the culprit, and for the victim.
Having dealt with the last words recorded by Matthew and Mark, to complete the picture we must also factor in the final words of our Lord as recorded by Luke and John, without which Moltmann’s perspective could easily become distorted.
As we know, John chooses to record “It is finished!” as our Lord’s final words from the cross. The words are perhaps best translated, “It is accomplished!” They probably mean that Jesus, at the point of death, is stating that he has now fully drunk the cup that the Father had given him.
It is common to use the words as an explanation of the atonement and interpret them as “It is paid!” but this is a big stretch. Theories of atonement will come in the epistles, but the narrative of the crucifixion itself does not set out to provide us with one. At most we get a hint, as we often do in John, of a double meaning. But if so, John does not elaborate. The most straightforward way of understanding “It is accomplished” is that Jesus, even though abandoned, knows that he has been faithful to finish the work the Father gave him to do.
Either way, it does not weaken the portrait of abandonment developed by Matthew and Mark, and if anything it compliments it. Incredibly, even in his forsakenness Jesus remains faithful to drink to the dregs the cup the Father gave him. John does not weaken the portrait of his death as God-forsakenness. But rather he affirms that even in the midst of it, Jesus, like Job, remains faithful to the Father, right up to the point of death itself.
By way of contrast, Luke’s choice is to make “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit”, our Lord’s last words from the cross. Again, at first glance it would seem to weaken the picture of abandonment portrayed by Mathew and Mark in their choice of “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” as our Lord’s last words. However, this would be a mistake, and in fact the reverse is true. In the darkness and horror of his dereliction Jesus refuses to deny the faithfulness of his Father—even though Satan, circumstances, mockery, and torture would indicate otherwise. In the deep darkness of desolation his words “Father, into they hands I commit my spirit” reveal that he refuses to yield. Even though forsaken by God he continues to call him Father. And in his abandonment he teaches us how we must respond in our abandonment—with the words of calm trust and childlike faith: “Father [Aramaic: Abba] into thy hands I commit my spirit.” He demonstrates that for all the God-forsaken there still remains a peace that is not dependent upon understanding, a peace that is deeper than the darkness, and a peace that can be strangely present even in the midst of abandonment. Many of God’s people in the death camps and the gulags can testify to this reality. (cf. The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom, and the biography of POW Jacob DeShazer.)
Seen in this way, the last words of Jesus in each of the Gospels each have their own unique contribution to make, but none of them cancel out the cry in Mathew and Mark that speaks of Gods solidarity with all the God forsaken in human history.
However, before concluding, it is important to note that we often overlook the fact that the resurrection, not only the cross, demonstrates the continuing identification of Christ with all the scarred and wounded of humankind. The resurrection is the resurrection of the crucified Christ. His glorified body still bears the marks of crucifixion.
And this is significant because as far as we know every other resurrection body will be perfect in every way. A friend of mine in college was horribly burned and disfigured in Vietnam. And his hope was that in the resurrection age his scars and disfigurement would be a thing of the past. And therefore we must ask if Jesus is the first fruits of resurrected humanity, the prototype of what a resurrection body will be like, why does He still have scars on his hands, his feet, his side, and his back? And the answer (in part) is that even in his resurrection glory he still desires to remains shoulder to shoulder with the totality of scarred and wounded humanity.
In his book, Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff, reflecting on the resurrection of Jesus, writes: “Put your hand into my wounds,’ said the risen Jesus to Thomas, ‘and you will know who I am.’ The wounds of Christ are his identity. They tell us who he is. He did not lose them. They went down into the grave with him and they came up with him—visible, tangible, and palpable. Rising did not remove them. He who broke the bonds of death kept his wounds.” (quoted by Paul Race in the Word Made Flesh journal, The Cry.)
And our discovery that the resurrection is the resurrection of the crucified Christ, means that even today, the invitation goes out to the wounded of the world, “Put your hand into my wounds”, and you will know who I am’.
Gregor, a teenage Jewish boy in Elie Wiesel’s novel, The Gates of the Forest, is the lone survivor of his family. He hides from the Germans in the forest and then in a cave where he meets a stranger who saves his life. He hides in a village, posing as a deaf-mute peasant boy. He hides among the partisans of the Jewish resistance. But where, he asks, is God hiding? And where can one find redemption in a world that God has abandoned?
As I have said, Moltmann believes that at the center of the Christian faith is the cry of the God-forsaken Christ. Jesus dies with the question on his lips that is the same question that is on the lips of so many in Haiti who before the hurricane had suffered so much, and now once again they suffer and are left to dig their dead little ones out of the mud.
But the Gospel means that in the midst of our God-forsakenness we can discover the presence of the God forsaken Christ. Now as the father pulls his dead daughter through the God forsaken streets of Gonaven he does not walk alone. Even there he can discover the presence of the one who, on the cross, was forsaken by God, so that he might become the God of the Godforsaken.
And while the cry of the God forsaken Christ is not all that can be said about the cross, it is something crucial for us to say in a age, more than any other, that has seen its gulags, its death camps, and gas ovens, and continues to see injustice, brutality, torture, with 24,000 children dying each day of hunger and preventable illnesses while their parents cry out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?”
We cannot answer fully the “why” question, but according to Moltmann (and he is not alone) the why question is secondary to those who suffer. When the bombs are falling on Hamburg and the hurricane is raging in Haiti the “where” question is what becomes one’s lifeline: “Lord, are you with us?” “Lord, have you forgotten us?” “Lord, do you still love us?”, “Lord, are you alongside us?” This is the essential question.
“Only a suffering God can help”, Moltmann, like Bonheoffer, asserts. And he believes that we now have the responsibility to proclaim that such a suffering God has come and lives among us. It is the crucified God, a God who is with us in our dereliction and grief, who is the good news to all those in the darkness of abandonment and God-forsakenness in the 21st century.
- Authored by Ray Mayhew, raymayhewonline.com and revised with the author’s permission by his friend Kurt Mähler, kurtmahler.com