Did God abandon Jesus at the cross?

When Jesus was dying on the cross, he quoted the first line of Psalm 22:

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?

I’ve heard teaching that at this moment, God the father turned away from the Son, abandoning him. This idea has been supported by the lyrics of a popular hymn that says:

How great the pain of searing loss –
The Father turns His face away,
As wounds which mar the Chosen One
Bring many sons to glory.

However, when Jesus quoted the first line of Psalm 22, he was actually doing a typical rabbinic practice where the rest of the Psalm was being referred to in the same breath. They didn’t have chapters and verses in those days. Instead, by quoting the first line of a Biblical passage, the listeners would be primed to mentally ‘download’ the rest of the passage to get the full meaning.

So if we look at Psalm 22, there’s a clear progression from asking for God’s presence (Ps 22:1, 19), to seeing his presence (Ps 22:21), and acknowledging that God never hid his face (Ps 22:24), and an assurance that those who seek God surely find him (Ps 22:26).

In fact, verse 24 explicitly says:

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.

My question is: are we right to say that the Father turned his face away from Jesus when he was in the cross?


Hi @alison,

You’ve raised an excellent but challenging question!

It’s not just you (or me) that’s puzzled by it. For instance, Dr. William Lane writes in his commentary on Mark, “But about three o’clock in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice those shattering words borrowed from Ps. 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is the only saying from the cross recorded by Mark, and it is one of the most difficult to interpret.”

(One apologetic sidebar, however. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary on this passage notes, “The saying is surely authentic, since it is unlikely that the church would have invented a saying in which Jesus expresses utter forsakenness by God.” That is, this phrase provides further evidence that - whatever else you believe about Jesus - there’s an excellent historical reason to believe he died on the cross).

A gifted Trinitarian theologian, Dr. Fred Sanders, writes,

Not even in the darkest ages of modernism did the situation ever quite degenerate into Trinity versus atonement; rather the two doctrines have tended to thrive or wilt in unison…Calibrating them to each other is a major task for any systematic theological vision, and expounding them in due proportion is a true test of any theologian’s sagacity (Fountain of Salvation, 86).

He goes on to heighten the drama, noting,

In fact there seem to be only two such complex mega-doctrines at work in the Christian theological system: Trinity and atonement. These are thick descriptions of who God is on one hand, and what God does on the other. The being and act of God seem to practically exhaust the scope of Christian doctrine between them, without remainder and without any definite boundary between them (ibid, 89-90).

Sanders then works through a few proposals about how these two doctrines are to be connected. Specifically to your question, though, he writes:

Since the atonement requires the Son to suffer in his human nature on our behalf, an influential tradition of modern theology has affirmed that there must be something like suffering in the divine essence. And since the atonement requires the Father to give his Son over, some theologians conclude that there must be the transcendental possibility of divine self-abandonment in eternity, perhaps as a breach or gap between the Father and the Son.

Jürgen Moltmann has been the most significant advocate of rejecting the classical doctrine of divine impassibility in favor of a radically cross-centered, radically Trinitarian doctrine of divine suffering, “the pathos of God.” Moltmann asserted that “the theology of the cross must be the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the Trinity must be the theology of the cross. He even described the cross as the event of God’s self-abandonment in history (ibid, 96-97).

I think this gets to the main issue: through Moltmann and others, popular Christian teaching and songs teach that the cross involved divine suffering.

But this falls outside of historic orthodoxy.

That said, let’s work through the meaning of the Cry of Dereliction itself in greater detail (“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”). It’s found in both Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46.

In the New American Commentary by Dr. James Brooks, he raises a view that he doesn’t ultimately find compelling:

On the other hand, the practice sometimes was to cite only one verse but to do so as a means of referring to a larger passage. If that were the purpose in the present instance, the reference would be to all of Ps 22. Taken as a whole, it is not so much a complaint of abandonment in time of trouble as it is an expression of confidence that God will deliver from trouble.

While he prefers another perspective, I actually think this is the preferable interpretation, as the Triune God is necessarily, always one, and cannot by any means be separated.

Additionally, Dr. Craig Keener, noting the cultural background of the time, writes, “The first line would evoke this whole psalm of the righteous sufferer—and its hope of divine vindication.”

Here’s the takeaway: If we take the Cry of Dereliction in this sense, then it is actually a Cry of Confidence in God’s faithfulness to deliver!

Practically, consider the implication of taking it this way: If Jesus can remain faithful to God, even on the cross, this gives us a model for enduring our own suffering with a trust in God.

I think Dr. Luke Stamps, a professor at Anderson University, puts it well,

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.”

Likewise, Dr. Matt Emerson provides three helpful parameters for thinking about the cross:

  1. Trinitarian: Anything we say about the cry of dereliction needs to retain the oneness of the Godhead, both with respect to rejecting any ontological or relational division between Father and Son and with respect to affirming inseparable operations. The cross does not produce division between Father and Son, and it is not only the Father who acts in the crucifixion. It is appropriate to talk about the Father pouring out is wrath, but, according to the doctrine of appropriations, ascribing an action to one person of the Trinity does not deny that the other persons are acting inseparably. It is not only the Father that pours out wrath; the Son and the Spirit, as the other two persons of the one God, also pour out the one wrath of the one God.

  2. Non-Nestorian: Anything we say about the cry of dereliction needs to retain the oneness of the person of Jesus Christ. He is one person with two natures, divine and human, and he goes to the cross as one person. In other words, the Son cannot die in virtue of his divinity, but by virtue of the hypostatic union we can also say that God dies on the cross in virtue of his humanity.

  3. Messianic: Anything we say about the cry of dereliction needs to retain the covenantal and therefore relational unity between God and his Messiah. Psalm 22 is a lament psalm that ends with a confession of covenantal hope. Jesus in quoting Psalm 22 is doing so (most likely) metaleptically, i.e. quoting one line of the psalm but assuming its entire context. Jesus’ lament comes in a covenantal context, a context in which he is the Messianic Son chosen by YHWH to deliver his people Israel by suffering on their behalf. God pours out his wrath on Jesus, yes, but as his anointed Son who suffers in his people’s place.

Dr. Brandon Smith makes the same kind of argument:

As mentioned above, human nature doesn’t cease to exist in death; rather, the body perishes but the soul/spirit lives to God. Jesus’s human nature—like ours—still existed in his death, because the soul/spirit is immortal and thus the human nature still lives in/not in the presence of God. If Jesus’s human nature died/ceased to exist for three days, this would indicate not only a death of his soul, but also a split in his person—only half of Jesus would exist for three days while his body was in the tomb. We need to affirm, then, that the human soul/spirit of Jesus remained alive (thus, his nature did not die), but that he experienced a real human death like all of us: body in the ground, soul/spirit with the Lord. And his resurrected body, like ours one day, was raised imperishable and he now lives as the God-man who will never die again.

On the whole, it’s very disappointing to see so many theologians, preachers, and musicians talk about God being divided on the cross. If sin can divide God and break the fellowship between the Father and the Son, then the cross is no longer good for our salvation. Actually, it would reveal that sin has the power to break God apart.

While the motivation of this preaching and singing is good (“God really cares about you!”), the end result is confusion and insecurity: at one point in time, sin defeated God.

In conclusion, while Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) may initially seem to imply a rupture in the Trinity, a closer examination suggests a different interpretation.

By quoting Psalm 22, Jesus is actually expressing messianic confidence in the face of suffering, trusting that God will ultimately deliver him. We gain confidence in this interpretation because it is faithful to the historic Christian understanding of the Trinity as inseparable and the hypostatic union of Jesus’ divine and human natures.

On the cross, Jesus bore the weight of our sin as the God-man, but the Father did not literally abandon him, as that would divide the Trinity and undermine Christ’s saving work.

Even as we plumb these depths as best we can, Jesus’ cry still reveals the profound mystery of the cross.

Ultimately, I hope these quotations and the links to their books and articles help us think clearly about Good Friday.

In Holy Week - as at all times - we can be grateful not only to Jesus, but for the unified, saving work of the one, Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I hope as we continue to think this through with clarity, we will gain wholehearted confidence in our worship of God.


my head hurts!!


Hi @Carson ,
Thank you for your response and for sharing some very interesting references! I really appreciated the range of scholars you quoted.

Whilst I’ve seen the idea subtly in some worship songs, I’ve never heard this teaching stated so blatantly until you shared this quote. It is one that doesn’t sit comfortably with how I’ve understood the Trinity so far (not that I claim to be very knowledgeable on it). And yet, as you say, it’s crept into our general theology at some level through subtle songs. Sanders refers to this as a ‘modern’ theology. Does this mean that this viewpoint has not be held by any significant orthodox theologian in the prior 20 centuries?

I could get behind this idea ‘that “the theology of the cross must be the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the Trinity must be the theology of the cross’, if the ‘theology of the cross’ was defined differently. Here, Moltmann gives his own definition of the theology of the cross: God’s self-abandonment in history. It almost feels like he’s begging the question in concluding that the Trinity has an eternal quality of ‘divine self-abandonment’. It’s like he’s saying:

  1. The Trinity has the eternal quality of divine self-abandonment
  2. The theology of the Trinity must be the theology of the cross
    Therefore, the theology of the cross is God’s self-abandonment

Have I over-simplified his meaning a bit? However, if the definition of ‘theology of the cross’ was more how Dr Matt Emerson described it in the quote you shared further on: ‘The cross does not produce division between Father and Son,’, I think i could agree with Moltmann’s overall statement.

Dr James Brooks highlights the point I was trying to make, however, unlike him, I do find it compelling. I do not think it a problem that the overarching theme of Psalm 22 is a confidence in God’s saving hand. I think that could be applied very nicely to the entire plan of salvation.

Coming back to the quote by Emerson:

I think this theology reflects a more rounded look at Jesus in the whole of scripture. What I mean is, we see in Revelation the depiction of Jesus not as a meek and mild sacrifice on the cross, but as the judge, wielding a sword! :crossed_swords: Here, in executing judgement, he wields his wrath on all unrighteousness and evil. So, coming back to this ‘modern theology’ of divine self-abandonment, I get a feeling it doesn’t reflect a pan-Biblical depiction of Jesus. Even in understasnding a moment as specific as when Jesus cries out on the cross, we must not forget the bigger picture that scripture gives us of Christ, and therefore, the Trinity.