A 40-something father dies of a brain tumor leaving behind a wife and three children.
Where are you, God?
A school shooting. The shooter is dead, and some students are injured while others are killed.
God, why didn’t you stop this tragedy on behalf of the families of both the shooter and victims?
A vibrant 20-year old Bible college student is tragically killed in an automobile accident.
God, why didn’t you protect her?
A child experiences ongoing sexual abuse.
God, doesn’t this bother you?
A small toddler has cancer.
Don’t you care, God?
Apparent abandonment . . . by God.
In my last four blogs I have included thoughts about abandonment, blame, shame, and the atonement. I have noted that the sense of abandonment is an interpretation of another’s action . . . of an unmet expectation of presence. I posited that the tyranny of blame and the sense of shame may find healing in Jesus Christ, or we may say, in the atonement. In this blog, my final blog prior to Easter, I continue with a related subject during this Lenten season: being apparently abandoned by God and God’s response through the atonement.
I recognize that as a Pentecostal, one who emphasizes a theology of the presence of God, this subject may appear to be oxymoronic. However, if I am going to be true to the Pentecostal upholding of Scripture (of which Pentecostals have a high view); if I am going to be Christocentric (which Pentecostals are); and if I am going to be genuine to human experience (a central feature of Pentecostal theology), then it seems I cannot avoid talking about a scripture in which Jesus experiences being apparently abandoned by God.
Being apparently abandoned by God. It is a fear that is common to humanity whether acknowledged or not, implicitly or explicitly. We see it explicitly exclaimed in Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” We, then, see this experience validated and normalized by Jesus from the cross when he shouted with a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (see Mt 27:46 and Mk 15:34). In that moment, Jesus normalizes our longing for God to intervene and our seeking for answers concerning God’s providence. In that moment, Jesus’ cry from the cross is an embracing of humanity’s question that has echoed down through the centuries, both before and after Jesus’ time on earth.
However, it is interesting to me that when we talk about atonement, some of the more well-known theories do not lift up this sense of being apparently abandoned by God. For instance, many of us are probably aware of the story Paul Harvey told each year during Easter about a boy who captured a sparrow in a birdcage, and the preacher offered to buy the birdcage with the sparrow from the boy; however, what you may not know is: this story is an allegory for an atonement theory called Christus Victor theory [for those of you who are unfamiliar with this story, see http://paulharveypodcast.libsyn.com/s01-e12-ph-paul-harvey-the-easter-story-the-boy-and-the-bird-cage ]. In a Star Wars fashion of light against dark, the Christus Victor theory relates the cross to a battle between God and the powers of evil. A scriptural foundation for this model is Mark 10:45 that speaks of the Son of Man’s life paying a ransom for many; thus, Christ’s death becomes a payment to the devil for humans who are death’s prisoners. The devil, believing he will become more powerful, unsuspectingly receives Christ’s death as payment and then is astonished by Christ’s resurrection, which defeats the evil one. The resurrection, then, demonstrates that Christ is victorious over evil, namely sin, death, and the devil [see Joel Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts, 118-125].
Another view of atonement is the Satisfaction theory, which is based upon a medieval world of lords and vassals in which a lord protected the vassals under him and in turn the vassals honored the lord. Here, sin is seen when humans who do not bestow the honor to God that is owed to God; therefore, in order for this sin to be forgiven, it must be punished so that God maintains God’s honor. This penalty or debt, however, can be paid only by a sinless human who must also be divine. As a result, out of love for humanity, the Godhead planned for Christ to die on our behalf (it is important to note that God did not force Christ to die), and Christ chose to honor God by dying to save us [see Joel Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts, 126-131].
While these theories are important in our understanding of God’s love for humanity and helping us form Christian theology, how is it relevant for the one who is suffering? For the one who wonders in the face of pain, “Where is God”? Where is the answer for this persistent question, as embodied in Philip Yancey’s book titles, Where Is God When It Hurts? and The Question That Never Goes Away?
Thus, if we were to be honest, this question endures inside our hearts which may be seen in the variety of ways humans respond to this explicit or implicit question. Sometimes people turn inward to find the answer, “What did I do wrong?” A related response is also detected when another tells the inquirer: “It is your personal sin or your lack of faith,” or as declared from bumper stickers, “If God seems far away, who moved?” in which the intended response is obvious—it’s not God. Sometimes the answer is seen by rejecting a belief that God exists, and at other times the answer appears in refusing to admit the question exists. Sometimes the answer entails a continued belief that God may exist but with a qualification: God is not involved in the affairs of this earth—we are abandoned to our own devices. Other times the person embraces a belief in God and God’s participation with humanity while embracing the unknown and humanity’s finitude.
It is of these words of Jesus that renown theologian Jürgen Moltmann argues, “All Christian theology and all Christian life is basically an answer to the question which Jesus asked as he died. The atheism of protests and of metaphysical rebellions against God are also answers to this question” [The Crucified God, 4].
Interestingly, Jesus’ cry on the cross is a reverse of Genesis 3:9 in which God calls out, “Adam, where are you?” and today it is the cry of humanity, “God, where are you?” In Jesus, these two questions meet. Jesus is both fully divine and fully human, so Jesus embodies both the question of humanity and the call of God to humanity while being the answer to both questions. So while Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” Jesus also embodies the answer to that question in that he is both fully human and fully divine. He is God searching for humanity. He is humanity searching for God. He, then, becomes the answer to both questions: I am here.
Similarly, Jürgen Moltmann, considers both the presence and the absence of God to be within the divine-person Jesus Christ. Moltmann theologizes that Christ is Emmanuel, God-with-us, but at the same time is forsaken by God in his crucifixion; therefore, in Christ’s crucifixion, the disciples beheld the divine being abandoned, while in Christ’s resurrection, they peered upon the “nearness of God in the god-forsaken one” [Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology, 198].
Herein lies our hope. Jesus is human’s answer to God’s question, “Where are you, Adam?” Jesus is God’s answer to the question, “Where are you, God?”
He is Adam’s response to God when we feel shame. We may feel shame, both healthy and unhealthy, which causes us to believe God has abandoned us. We may believe we are too sinful for God to embrace us. Thus, when God calls out, “Where are you,” like Adam, we may try to hide; however, Jesus responds in our stead: Here I am.
He is God’s response to our fear of being apparently abandoned by God. Because he is human and because he was resurrected and ascended, humanity is in God, in Christ; thus, we are in the divine life because of the atonement, which includes not only his life, death, and resurrection, but his ascension as well. We are theologically ascended with Jesus Christ, wrapped up in the eternal complete love of the triune Godhead. Because Jesus is divine, humanity is present with God in the person of Jesus Christ.
As a grief support group facilitator, many times I have heard someone say, “I now get it when someone dies who is close to you now that I have lost someone close to me. I now regret how I previously responded to others who were mourning.” Jesus’ cry from the cross is not necessarily about God now getting it. It is about we, as humans, now knowing God gets it. We may be rest assured that God suffers alongside us in the person of Jesus Christ; we may be rest assured that our sufferings are in the divine life—they are in the very throne room of God. God is present with us, and we are present with God.
I leave you with this:
Therefore since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help (Hebrews 4:14-16).
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