Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me? : The Unbroken Love of the Triune God in the Death of the Son

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“Why hast thou forsaken me?”—it was a seditious cry, wasn’t it?
          -Jean-Baptiste Clamence, The Fall

The crucifixion of Christ, the most renowned of all death stories, ripples ceaselessly throughout human history. Despite the increasing secularization in the Western world, many modern writers have a penchant for using crucifixion and atonement imagery in their novels and poems. Yet the manner in which they allude to the Passion encapsulates a great shift in the way that people think of  Christ’s death. His cry from the cross, in particular, has become an object of fascination for many writers. Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the iconic anti-hero of Albert Camus’ The Fall, says that “[Christ] was not upheld, he complained, and as a last straw, he was censored.” He interprets the cry of Jesus—“my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46)—as a cosmic complaint against his Father. This is why, Clamence surmises, Luke chose to leave the cry out of his gospel account. The death of Christ becomes a horrific and appalling event, in which the Son suffers at the hands of a capricious Father. His is a meaningless death that accomplishes nothing and atones for no one.

Needless to say, this interpretation is diametrically opposed to the orthodox Christian view that Jesus’ death on the cross was an act of love, both between him and his Father, and for those he came to save. While most Christians affirm this, the question still remains—what do Christ’s words on the cross mean? To what extent and in what manner was he forsaken? Thomas McCall, in his Forsaken, pushes back against the theological moves made by many modern Christians in dealing with the forsakenness of the Son. There is a tendency amongst readers of the Gospels to claim that Jesus’ “cry of dereliction” implies inner-Trinitarian separation. A common assertion is that the perfect unity between the persons of the Godhead was ruptured when Christ was forsaken, and that the Trinity was broken. This supposedly demonstrates how much God loves sinners: that he is willing to suffer the breaking of the immanent life of the Trinity for their sake. While some adherents of this view believe it preserves the substitutionary nature of the atonement, it in fact does the very opposite. McCall argues that such a view is  “not only… theologically impossible, but it would also be terrible news if it was true, [for] Jesus might be on our side, but [if completely separated from the Father] he would be lost as well.” Indeed, if the holy love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was broken at the death of Christ, then Clamence is right and the atonement truly is meaningless. One who is stripped from the Godhead cannot serve as a mediator for sinners. If the death of Christ is indeed an act of love, then there must be a way to explain the forsakenness of the Son without denying orthodox Trinitarian doctrine, while still accounting for the fact that “for our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21). Indeed, we are in need of an explanation closer to the classical Christian understanding of the “cry of dereliction.” The Son of God was forsaken—not meaning that the inner-Trinitarian love was broken, but that Christ was truly left to die by the will of the Father whom he loved, for the sinners God loved—that those for whom he died would love and know the Triune God forever.

While numerous modern Christian thinkers seek to preserve a true sense of the Son’s forsakenness by the Father, their beliefs on the matter often contradict the essential attributes of the Triune God. Jurgen Moltmann, one of the most influential Protestant theologians of the 20th Century, ...

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