Did the Father turn His face away?
Stuart Townend has written a number of great hymns which have gained widespread usage across the church in the last few years. One of them is called “How deep the Father’s love for us” which speaks of the cross and the power of it for us. It’s a good song, but one that a number of us in Ichthus (and I know a few others too) take issue with because of one line built on a famous bit of classic evangelical theology.
How deep the pain of searing loss
The Father turns His face away
The line describes the pain of the cross, and then goes on to state that the Father turned His face away from His Son, something that many in evangelicalism believe. I had a friend just the other day talk about it as though it’s completely central and Biblical, and crucial to the idea of atonement. But is it? I’m not so sure. This will sound blasphemous to some. But with a brief run down of some of my reasons I hope people will hear what I mean (even if they still do not agree).
On the cross, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” This famous line quotes Psalm 22:1, a prophetic psalm which proceeds to envisage the sufferings of the cross with amazing clarity. This line has led to theologies being created around the idea of ‘Penal Substitution’ (which I’m not going to go into specifically, for the sake of space) that the Father and Son were somehow ‘separated’, torn apart, removed from one another, at the cross. The Father turned His face away…and so on.
On the face of it it seems right to talk in that way, using Jesus’ cry as a starting point. And as I said it has become quite a central idea to the whole doctrine of atonement in many peoples’ minds. There are issues to be addressed, like how God reacts to bearing the sin of the world, and what that looks like in the Godhead. Some would on this issue suggest that the presence of sin on Jesus implicitly necessitated God’s face being turned away (though we remind ourselves that Jesus is God, therefore correct it to the Father turning His face away) – but even then on occasion in the Old Testament God didn’t turn His face away, and stared right at the sin, seeing how detestable it was, and ready to judge it (eg. Jeremiah 16:17).
And so as I have indicated, I question the specific idea of whether the Father really turned His face away, for various reasons:
1. Jesus never addressed His Father as ‘God’ in all His years of ministry – or even before that (Luke 2:49). It was always “My Father, my Father, Father this, Father that.” He did speak of “God” when speaking to others, teaching them how to serve Him and love Him, but even that was rarer than speaking about the Father. So in this crucial moment, if I were to believe that the Father had forsaken the Son in the way that is taught, I would have thought He would cry, “My Father, my Father…” With its echo to Psalm 22 this would have had all the more poignancy, but He doesn’t. He simply cries what was already there in Psalm 22. A direct quote. Meant to hearken the minds of any hearers back to Psalm 22. To this psalm we will return in a moment. Also, each of the accounts (Matthew and Mark) record the words in a Greek transliteration of the Aramaic. Jesus wanted it to be heard specifically differently from the way He usually spoke about Father – therefore (I think) withdrawing from the notion that it would be possible to entertain the idea of Father turning His face away.
2. Having said this on the cross, there are two other occasions on the cross when He addresses Father – highlighting still further the distinction from His quote of Psalm 22. One is “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) According to the Old Testament, God would not hear the one He has hidden His face from (eg. Isaiah 59:2). How could He then forgive? Or had He not turned away at this point? When did He turn away? The other is Jesus’ final words – so if the Father had turned away, He would have had to have turned back for these words in order to heed them (and I don’t think anyone has ever doubted that He heard this final cry) – “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46) – which interestingly, quotes another psalm (31:5).
3. Various other New Testament Scriptures make it look like Father went with Jesus all the way to and through the cross. We might come to the point of Jesus making His way to the cross and say, “right, He’s having all the sin of the world put on Him, so surely the Father is going to look away now.” But to His disciples, He said in so many words, “When you all run away from me and leave me alone, I won’t be alone, because My Father is with me.” (John 16:32).
4. 2 Corinthians 5:19 tells us that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. It was a wholesale involvement with Christ in the middle. Perhaps putting this statement together with Psalm 22:1 we could suggest that “God was in Christ experiencing God-forsakenness.” An incredible mystery, but one that I think is much more Biblically grounded than the idea of the Father turning His face away from the Son (equally a mystery but also more philosophically problematic what with less Biblical grounding – can God even be separated or would that not cause everything to fall apart??).
5. Isaiah 50:4-9 is part of one of the so-called ‘servant songs’ of Isaiah and speaks (in verse 6) in terms very much prophetic of the cross (prior to the even more prophetic song in 52:13-53:12). Yet all through it is the constant refrain that “The Lord God helps me…” eg. in verse 7!
6. But in case you thought that all of the above did not quite solidify the case enough for you, and you still felt that interpreting Jesus’ one cry on the cross “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” to mean that the Father and Son were separated at the cross and that the Father did indeed turn His face away (both of which would be interpretation, not directly drawn from the text), take a look again at that Psalm to which Jesus wanted to draw the attention of His hearers, and verse 24: “He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; nor has He hidden His face from him; but when he cried to Him for help, He heard.” David might have felt forsaken, but he ultimately knew that God’s face was not really hidden from him. How could our construal be any different in applying it to Jesus?? The weight of sin caused Him to experience God-forsakenness, yet ultimately that psalm reminded Him and His hearers that the Fathers’ face wasn’t turned away, and thus He could pray, “Father forgive…Father, into Your hands…” Because when He cried to Him for help, He heard…
Now, maybe I’m being a nit-picker, but I believe in the ‘jot-and-tittle’ of the Scriptures – getting the nuances right, not rushing to conclusions, making sure we’re Biblically based and Biblically balanced. If we’re going to teach the cross, it’s fundamental that we get it right, and I would ask that we consider this case a little more carefully, for as much as we might like to sing that song and hear that line, I argue that there is nowhere in the Bible that says that the Father’s face was turned from the Son, nor are any of the attendant ‘separation’ ideas necessarily involved. Of course, God wants us to take sin and its effects seriously, and I don’t think the case for doing so is one bit maligned by questioning this particular aspect. No doubt the wrath of God is visible at the cross; it’s the fact that God-become-man is right in the middle of it that is so startling.
To me, Jesus’ highly-stylised (if we can use that word) quotation of Psalm 22:1 forces us to think of His quote in a certain light, and is especially meant to draw our attention to what is going on, NOT in that the Father’s face had at that point turned away (for presumably, Jesus WOULD have known WHY that would be, whether He liked it or not), but to draw attention to the events as described in the Psalm, and to encourage Himself and His hearers that ultimately, He has “not hidden His face from Him,” and even more beautifully, that the declaration can confidently be made, that “it is finished,” that “He has done it.” (Psalm 22:31)