Forsaken: Did God the Father kill Jesus on the cross?

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

“Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”

“I and the Father are one.”

Wondering how these three verses of Scripture fit together? I often have. Cognitive dissonance finally got the better of me, and I decided I should try to think through this one a little more deeply. To that end I read Thomas H. McCall’s Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why It Matters (InterVarsity Press, 2012). Here, on Magnificent Monograph Monday, I offer a review of the book. (Thanks to IVP for the free review copy, in exchange for an unbiased review.)

First, the very short summary of my review, if you want to cut to the chase and head off and do something else after this next paragraph.

McCall tackles some difficult questions: “Did God forsake Jesus [on the cross]? Did the Father turn his back on the Son in rage? Was the Trinity ruptured or broken on that day?” His answers and arguments are rooted in Scripture, the history of interpretation of that Scripture, and are consistently compelling. McCall really helped me through my own struggles to grasp some of these questions, leading me to a fuller understanding of the life of the Trinity and the relationship between its persons, particularly in terms of what happened on the cross. And he spells out the implications of his assertions beautifully. God is not divided, he concludes, but God–all of God–is for us. So we can rejoice and rest secure in that. Five stars, no doubt.

McCall writes “not for other scholars…but for pastors, students and friends–indeed, for anyone genuinely interested in moving toward a deeper understanding of God’s being and actions.” Forsaken is heavy theological lifting for a non-scholar (and not lightweight for a scholar, either), but the effort is well worth it. McCall answers some very common questions people ask (or are scared to ask and should ask) about the Trinity, also showing ramifications for our relationship to God.

Forsaken has four chapters. Each asks a theological question, addresses it, then concludes with some theological assertions to avoid, some to affirm, and why it matters.

The first chapter asks, “Was the Trinity Broken?” Here McCall discusses the theological concept of “dereliction,” or the idea that Jesus was abandoned by God on the cross. Recent theology notwithstanding, McCall makes a strong Scriptural case that God the Father did not forsake the Son on the Cross. Understanding Psalm 22 as an “interpretive key” to Jesus’ death, McCall writes:

No, the only text of Scripture that we can understand to address this question directly, Psalm 22:24, says that the Father did not hide his face from his Son. To the contrary, he has “listened to his cry for help.”

Not only that, the author argues, but if God truly had forsaken Jesus, why would Jesus bother–after his cry–to say, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”? Jesus “prefaces his last words with a sense of deep relational intimacy: Jesus addresses his ‘Father.'”

In chapter two McCall asks, “Just what are we to make of the biblical witness to the wrath of God? Is it opposed to his love? Is it a ‘dark side’ to God that is inconsistent with his holiness or with his mercy?” He makes a pretty hard-to-argue-with case that “the biblical witness does not set love and wrath in opposition to one another.” McCall, I thought, was at his best in this chapter when he highlighted multiple New Testament references to wrath–not only the wrath of God generally, but Jesus’ wrath specifically. So there’s no Old Testament God=wrath, New Testament God=mercy conclusion to be drawn from the Bible. The author utilizes the theological categories of divine impassibility and simplicity to show that “wrath” as God exhibits it is not what we might envision in human anger; rather, it is an expression of holy love.

McCall’s third chapter asks whether God’s divine foreknowledge means that God killed Jesus, since he knew it was going to happen, could have stopped it, but didn’t. “God’s plan was to use the death of Jesus for his purposes and for our good,” but God himself did not cause the death. As Acts so often makes clear, McCall points out, “The apostolic proclamation of the gospel places the fault and blame on the sinners who are responsible for the death of Jesus.”

Chapter four articulates a robust theology of justification (forensic; instantaneous; by which I enter into the life of God) and sanctification (separation unto God; progressive; by which I grow in communion with God). Page 145 and following has a brilliant interpretation of Paul’s famous Romans 7:14-25 passage where he (seemingly) wrestles with sin.

One difficult implication of this book for me as a worship leader (and coach of worship leaders) is that, if McCall is right, we may be singing some not-quite-right theology in two well-known songs. “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” has a line that says, “The Father turns his face away.” And the song “In Christ Alone” says, “…till on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” McCall addresses these two claims head on and (in my opinion, successfully) refutes them. The Father did not turn his face away (see the block quote above). And to say that God the Son mollified the wrath of God the Father is to bifurcate the Trinity in some unorthodox ways. (!)

I’m not sure if it’s generally accepted for a book reviewer to admit to shedding tears when reading a review copy. (Objectivity! Right?) No matter. McCall’s concluding postscript (“A Personal Theological Testimony”) moved me to tears, as he recounted the difference “the trinitarian gospel” made for him and his family as they processed the death of his father.

Getting the theological details of the Trinity right (as best we can!) matters. It matters for our understanding of God, our relationship with him, and for all of life. In the life and truths of the Trinity–properly understood, and I think McCall a good guide here–there is great comfort. We see a God who, as McCall says, is for us. We find a God who has granted us victory over sin and death, making it possible for us to enter into communion with the triune God of love.

You can find Forsaken here at the IVP product page or on Amazon.

6 thoughts on “Forsaken: Did God the Father kill Jesus on the cross?

  1. This sounds like a brilliant book. Thanks for reviewing it.

    I come from a church background that has traditionally snubbed the idea that God forsake Jesus on the cross, but some of us still sing “How deep the Father’s Love for Us”. I do, in fact! I believe I first sang it before I knew it was from a background that believes God forsook Jesus. How I sang/sing it is by seeing the line about the Father turning his face away in relation to the sadness of what was happening to his son, like he’s turning away from the horror that people were inflicting on the son he loves.

    In other news, recently I’ve begun to realise that the line in the psalm, ‘why have you forsaken me’ was not originally about God leaving the psalmist, but about God not “showing up”, so to speak, to rescue the psalmist from bad guys.

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