“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46) and divine abandonment as ontological axiom
The God Christians worship is no unmoved mover. He experiences the pain of sin, suffering and death.
Biblical passages like 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Hebrews 2:10 report that God in Christ came face to face with the dark mystery of the severe underside of His own creation. The author of Christian atonement has to confront and absorb into Himself that for which the world required atoning for, that is, sin in its full and fully severe nothingness and negation.
Such a vulnerable juxtaposition of Being with anti-Being was constitutive of soteriological effectiveness: There was no other way to effect the salvation of the world other than for God to embrace what is not God.
Alan Lewis (2001) carefully delineates this paradox of a God who takes on death as part of his being and in so doing is given fully to us yet does not for this reason cease being God; indeed God’s true immutability is revealed in remaining God whilst being subject to change, condescension, self-humiliation and opposition (p.194).
This view of God in which God’s very being is continually constituted and redefined through trauma, opposes theologies whose axiom of the impassability of God rejects in principle any change in the divine being whatsoever. Theologians who hold to such a view of divine immutability generally refuse to emphasize the abysmal gap between the death and resurrection of Christ, implying that for Christ to die is already and immediately for Him to manifest eternal life; ‘the death that the Logos dies is a showing, within a death-dreaming cosmos, of that utter ecstatic self-giving which is eternal life itself.’ (Milbank 2003, p. 100). Christ’s death, according to Milbank, is nothing more than the manifestation of that event which is the flip-side of everything opposed to death. In that case, was there really a death at all? Trauma is thus denied a role, let alone one rooted in ontology.
A key Biblical verse here is Matthew 27:46, where Jesus cries, ‘My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?’
Fiddes (1989) notes that the historical forsakenness of Jesus possesses a decisive effect on the doctrine of the atonement, in that the cross must mean that, ‘the alienation and brokenness of the world enters right into the relationships that form the being of God’ (p. 57). There is no other God than the one who has suffered the loss of his son (Fiddes 1989, p. 58). Alan Lewis (2001) even asks us to encounter and reflect on the increduility of Jesus’ accusation against his father, of God’s abandonment by God, of the fact that the Son of God has died in company with the godless (pp.54–55).
It is thus ironic that the chief proponent of radical orthodoxy, John Milbank (2003), denies that Christ was truly abandoned (as in Matthew 27:46); it was only an apparent abandonment, not a real one (p.100). Like Milbank, Gerald Bray (2012) asserts that the cry of Jesus on the cross (Mark 15:24, Matthew 27:46) is not proof at all of divine abandonment but the very opposite, of victory and praise (pp. 585–586). Bray concludes that Jesus’ cry was an expression of, ‘a relationship with the Father much deeper than what we commonly find in most people’ (p. 586).
My verdict on Bray’s analysis here is that he is right in what he affirms but wrong in what he denies. He correctly notes the intensified relationship with God that a verse like Psalms 22:1 (spoken in a time of great pain) suggests but, crucially, misses the radical possibility qua mystery that the relationship of Son to Father can be rendered stronger via a fragmentation in their love. Bray’s (2012) concern to protect both the doctrine of immutability and impassibility (pp. 149–153), two axioms derived entirely and dubiously apart from the Gospels, makes it impossible for him to see any value in divine trauma.
To reiterate, Christ’s abandonment by His Father is the traumatic sine qua non which both expresses the depths of God’s love for the world and realizes His victory over the sacrificial forces unleashed upon it. A Biblically responsible Christian narrative, whilst never downplaying the mystery of a heavenly hope, insists that such a hope can be spoken of only within the context of injustice, negativity and despair; joy and the lordship of Christ takes place in and through sickness, death and sin (Lewis 2001, p. 67).
This is a theology which refuses a strong distinction between glory and shame, between life and death, perhaps even God and non-God. Christ’s abandonment by God, the very absence of divinity, is constitutive of God’s resurrection power and presence. Whilst the resurrection of Jesus ensures that his death is not the last word of his ministry, it cannot be said that death is rendered irrelevant. Lewis (2001) writes that ‘(God is) present-in-absence, and absent where most present; alive in death, and dead when most creative and life-giving.’ (p. 87).
Christ’s suffering was not merely a problem to be overcome but was the very means through which he eventually triumphed; death and resurrection belong together, not apart (Lewis 2001, p. 89).
 There are many works dealing with divine suffering. At least three which I have found helpful are Fretheim (1984), Lewis (2001) and Pinnock (2001).
Bray, G., 2012. God is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology, Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway.
Fiddes, P., 1989. Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement, London: Darton Longman & Todd.
Fretheim, T., 1984. The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective, Minneapolis: August Fortress Publishing.
Lewis, A., 2001. Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday, Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Milbank, J., 2003. Being Reconcilied: Ontology & Pardon, London: Routledge.
Pinnock, C., 2001. Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness (Didsbury Lectures), Michigan: Baker Academic.