It’s that time of year again when we find people debating the Cry of Dereliction online. Just what did Jesus mean when he quoted Psalm 22 from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matt has written effectively in this space about the theological and canonical parameters for understanding this text. The trinitarian, Christological, and hermeneutical stakes have been thoroughly rehearsed.
But one aspect of the debate that also deserves attention is related to the doctrine of atonement itself. What I mean is the assumption, often articulated only in underdeveloped ways, that somehow the Father cannot “look upon sin” and so must “turn his face away” from the Son. It is certainly true that God is “of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (Hab. 1:13). But the context of this teaching is a complaint from Habakkuk that God might countenance evil people without judging them. It does not mean (and cannot mean theologically) that God somehow delimits or cordons off his omnipresence from the presence of sin. After all, “where shall I flee from your presence?” Even if I “make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” (Psalm 139:7, 8). Further, this is where we get all of the trinitarian and Christological errors: Is the Father alone so holy that he cannot look upon sin? Isn’t the Son a divine person too? Even if you make a reduplicative move that it is the Son in his humanity who is abandoned, it is still a divine person who is dying and making atonement on the cross. Saying that the cross demands that God turn away from Jesus ends up proving too much (or too little, depending on which way you look at it).
Which brings me to the point about atonement: the “Father turns his face away” approach to the cry of dereliction operates with a sub-biblical doctrine of atonement. The idea that God’s holiness requires that he remove himself from the presence of sin runs in the opposite direction of the biblical teaching on atonement. In his atoning mercy, it not that God turns his face away from sin; it’s that sin, when it comes into contact with the divinity, is thus cleansed and expiated. Consider the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). The cleansing of Israel’s guilt takes place in the burning center of God’s manifest presence among them: in the Holy of Holies. The blood of the sin-bearing victim, sprinkled on the mercy seat where God dwells between the cherubim, purifies the people from their sin. When sin comes into contact with God’s presence, he is not contaminated by it; it is cleansed by him. Only in this way can sin then be removed from the people, symbolized in the scape goat driven into the wilderness.
So, God’s presence with (and in and as) Jesus is not removed once the sins of the world are laid upon him. That would forestall the whole process. It is precisely because Jesus is a divine person, in unbroken communion with his Father (John 16:32) and their shared Spirit (Heb. 9:14), that his death can provide atonement for sin. As the late Joseph Ratzinger put it, “In his self-offering on the Cross, Jesus, as it were, brings all the sin of the world deep within the love of God and wipes it away.”