The Godforsaken Messiah (Hebrews 12:2)
by Ronald Goetz
Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois. This article appeared in The Christian Century, March 19, 1975 pp. 278-279. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Markís gospel tells us that just before the very end, Jesus cried out from the cross, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" If this is true, how can he be honored as the "pioneer and perfector of our faith" (Heb. 12:2)? Was not his own faith broken in the anguish of the cross?
Some are moved to rationalize that Jesus did not mean what his words imply. We are asked to suppose that he was unbroken to the end. What appears to be absolute dereliction was not really so; Jesus was merely piously quoting the first bit of Scripture that came to his head. These words just happened, quite understandably under the circumstances, to be the searing words of the 22nd Psalm.
Surely such evasions will not do. We cannot both cling to his atoning death and explain away the terrible, spiritually crippling effect of the blows that struck him. He was broken by the blows that would have broken us, had he not been broken for us. He did not shield us with his invincible humanity like some comic-book superhero. His humanity was shattered, and he was left dead and abandoned by both God and humankind. It is sanctimonious ingratitude to fault Jesus for his cry of dereliction, just as it is naïve to seek to deny that he was indeed left derelict.
If we feel compelled to inquire into the question of blame, our gaze ought not to fall upon this innocent lamb. If we must seek those responsible, we had best turn to those who put him on the cross -- the cross which could only break him. His cry of helplessness, his shattered ruin, grew from the fact that on the cross the annihilating wrath of God and the desperate, finite fury of humankind, which up to now had been directed each against the other, were at last united against this solitary victim. His cross was the final culmination of all wrath and fury, divine and human. In it we witness a reciprocity of outrage between God and humankind. The very suggestion that God and humanity were united in the breaking of Jesus fills us with a kind of horror.
Ironically, we can accept the burden of our own guilt with almost a giddiness of heart, for we know that through the instrumentality of his death issues, strangely and wonderfully, our salvation. However, the fact that the Father himself was involved in the suffering that the Son had to bear, that the crucifixion was the result of Godís "definite plan and foreknowledge" (Acts 2:23), inspires in us, if we dare to think about so dreadful a matter, a dizzying terror.
Is God a fiend? Must he preside over the death, not only of sinful humanity, but of this one who knew no sin? Are our impending and inevitable deaths not payment enough for our finite, petty sins? Must even his Son perish before his annihilating wrath? Surely such morbid speculations crowd in upon the dark recesses of our frightened and rebellious hearts from time to time. And surely we must appreciate, if we Christians feel the frightening possibilities of Godís "definite plan," how forbidding a theology of the cross is to many who cannot or will not believe.
Yet it is our faith, and we must testify of the God who willed the cross of Christ, that this selfsame God is love. He will not let the cry of Jesus go unheeded, just as he will not shirk the burden of responsibility for the death of his Son. For he is determined finally and forever to be reconciled with the human race, and the enmity which exists can only be overcome if he takes all wrath -- his as well as ours -- up into himself.
The orthodox substitutionary doctrine of the atonement has a little trouble dealing with the fact that Jesus must bear, in our stead, the punishment due our sin. But it can never answer that nagging question: in slaying Jesus, has not humanity become all the more indebted? All the more guilty? This problem can be resolved only in the realization that in his "definite plan" God has become our accomplice, that he has determined to share our burden and, in sharing it, has infinitely lightened it.
There is another side which is too often ignored. It can be argued that humanity is in part excused for crucifying the Lord of Glory because we were ignorant. Yet at another level the rejection of the Messiah was deliberate. People sensed his lordship and, because they did, called for his crucifixion. Some of the very crowd who on Palm Sunday praised him subsequently called for his death, and every day we Christians repeat the crime. We know that he is Lord, and yet we live like his killers.
We do so not only because we are weak and blind but because we are outraged. With so much suffering in the world, why not eat, drink and make merry? How can we who are so vulnerable be expected to love and trust a God who determines to remain so hidden? The sense of outrage that caused the Christians of Europe to hang their priests during the black plagues (since they could not kill God, at least they could kill his representatives) has touched us all as we view the suffering of the innocent. Jesus was slain because people were blind to his divinity, but also because they were all too well aware of it.
Too often the church has sought to discount and redirect against suffering humanity this outrage against God. Our fury simply further establishes our guilt and the propriety of our suffering. But in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God answers otherwise. In the resurrection all enmity has been overcome in glory. There can be no further recriminations. God has taken up into himself, through the person of his Son, our human outrage. God himself has turned the other cheek. He has not rejected our outrage; he has endured it and has answered it with the risen Christ.