Did God Leave Jesus on the Cross Prior to Jesus' Death?
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). These famous words, uttered by Jesus on the cross, have been a source of confusion for many. Some people interpret this to mean God left Jesus on the cross prior to His death. For example, after quoting Matthew 27:46 in his book If ye Know These Things,Oneness adherent Ross Drysdale writes:
It was while Christ was on the cross, as the sins of all humanity were being laid down upon Him (Isa. 53:5), as death was fast approaching, that the Godhead withdrew from His body. This was necessary in order for Christ to die. For Christ could not die if the Father remained in Him. … [A] Holy God would have to, out of necessity, withdraw from that body. The Father, had remained in Christ up to the very moment of death. ... The eternal Spirit of the Father remained with the Son during the crucifixional offering. Then as the moment of death arrived, the Father withdrew and Christ felt something he had never felt before— the Father had left the human Temple he had lived in for 33 years. Christ had never experienced this before. Yes, He had felt the Father radiating through Him in the Mount of Transfiguration. But this was new. No wonder He cried out in surprise, “My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me?” A few seconds after that a second spirit came out of Christ, the one that comes out of all us when we die, The Human soul - for he was a man also.
I think this understanding is multiply flawed. It presents us with a Jesus who was not God for at least a few moments, if not a few days. The union of the deity and humanity of Christ was not metaphysical and indissoluble, but volitional and soluble. Jesus is not a human nature personalized by the divine person as Christians have traditionally maintained, but an ontologically independent human person who is capable of existing wholly on His own, independent of the divine person. As such, Jesus qua Jesus is not God, but a mere man in whom God dwelt in a special way. But surely this is not grounds for thinking Jesus is God. Having someone indwell you, and being that someone are entirely different things. The first is a relational association while the latter is an ontological/personal identity. One who is not something in their very identity can, at best, only be near that something. Jesus may co-habit the same body as God, but He cannot be God because He does not share in God’s personal identity. In like fashion, God may co-habit the same body as Jesus, but He cannot be man because He does not share in Jesus’ personal identity. For Jesus to be God — meaning to have God’s nature — requires that His person be singular, and that singular person be identified as YHWH Himself in metaphysical union with human nature. Anything less, such as a phenomenological and relational union, will not do.
The second problem is related to the first. If the Father left Jesus on the cross prior to His death, then Jesus sacrifice was not efficacious for sin. What makes Jesus' death efficacious is not merely His sinlessness, but His divine identity. If God was not present in Christ when Christ died for our sins, then Jesus’ death is of no salvific value to us. Second Corinthians 5:19 informs us that it was God in Christ who reconciled the world to Himself. Similarly, the author of Hebrews declared that Jesus offered His body through the Spirit (Heb 9:14). If God had withdrawn from Christ prior to Christ’s death, these affirmations would be false.
Thirdly, if God would have withdrawn from Jesus prior to Jesus’ death, then Jesus would have ceased to exist. An incarnation of God (rather than a mere indwelling of God in an independently existing human person) means that the deity and humanity of Christ were as inseparable as the genetic influence of a mother and father is inseparable in their offspring. Just as no human being could exist if all that was contributed to his existence by either his father or his mother were removed, so Jesus could not have existed apart from the deity contributed by His Father and the humanity contributed by His mother Mary.
If God did not leave Jesus on the cross, then what did Jesus mean when He asked God why He had forsaken Him? Jesus quoted the words of David in Psalm 22, so Jesus' statement must be understood in the context of its meaning in this psalm. David said, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?” (Psalm 22:1, italics mine) David wasn't claiming the Lord had truly forsaken him in either a spiritual or metaphysical sense. David merely felt as though God had forsaken him because He was not offering David any noticeable assistance during his time of distress (See also vs. 2, 4-5, 11, 19, 24). Likewise, Jesus was not claiming God had literally forsaken Him in a metaphysical sense, but only in an emotional sense. The Father was not offering Jesus special assistance during this emotionally and spiritually tragic time in Jesus’ life. Jesus felt alone on the cross. His cry demonstrates the reality of His human emotions, not God’s withdrawal from His body.
Of course, it was possible for God to separate from Jesus’ body, and He did so at the point of death. What happened to Jesus is no different than what happens to us when we die: our spirit separates from our body. Likewise, the Spirit separated from Jesus’ body at the point of death. Does this mean Jesus’ body was not God’s body for three days? No. Just as our body is still our body after we die, Jesus’ body was still God’s body after He died. And just as we will be rejoined to our bodies, God was rejoined to His body at the resurrection: the spiritual element of Christ’s person that survived death was reunited with the physical element of Christ’s person that had succumbed to death.
For further reading see Did the Divine Spirit Leave Jesus on the Cross?
1. Ross Drysdale, If Ye Know These Things, chapter 11; available from http://web.archive.org/web/20040823144424/mikeblume.com/drysd11a.htm; Internet; accessed 23 November 2010.
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