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)

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23 responses to “Did the Father turn His face away?”

  1. Nick says :

    Hi there,

    From what you’ve said regarding Psalm 22, a main proof text for Penal Substitution, I think you will enjoy this Article which discusses the Bible’s term “Atonement,” which, sadly, many have never examined.

    • Ben Trigg says :

      Thanks Nick – though I didn’t specifically reject the idea of Penal Substitution, rather I was saying that around this kind of idea, the one in question (Father turning face away) has emerged. Thanks for the pointer to the blog post.

  2. Mike Heili says :

    I like this question and I like your thoughts. I was wondering if you might consider this in your thinking. There is a term in Biblical Theology called Anthropomorphic: it is when God gives Himself human attributes, or speak of Himself as if he has hands, feet, eyes, mouth and face so on. It was a way that God spoke of Himself with the intention of making Himself relate-able to those whom He was communicating (humanity). Later He does take it one step farther and becomes a human, but this is not what we are talking about at this point.

    Anthropomorphic terminology by the way is not acceptable to the Jews of old, or the Muslims. As believers and non-believers even agree, there is an attribute called Omnipresent; God is everywhere and there is not a place that He is not in this natural world. We believe in Christianity that God is present in all places at all times. So if God turned His face away from Jesus, did He not see Jesus hanging on the cross for whatever amount of time He had turned His face? Of course He could see Jesus on the cross, EVEN if He turned His head…Why? Because God is Omnipresent. So does that mean God has eyes in the back of His head? NO! It means that Gods face is spoken of as a reality to Jesus, does not mean that in reality…God’s face was turning from Him. But it was a simple description so that people could understand what was happening in the exchange of righteousness and sin. God turning His head away from Christ who was made sin, can and does now turn His face toward sinners like you and I.

    Now as to turning away of the head…literally! I love how you like to pick things apart. I do to! I would like to hook up some day on the internet/email some time and see what is going on in your head. My head works the same way.

    Now about the word FACE…I have studied the word face in the bible, all 340 of them or so and here is what I find about FACE…not all of it, but what pertains to the central theme of your questions and statements about God turning His face. In numerous places throughout the Bible, it talks about God’s face. When God turns away His face from the sin, it means that this is an expression of alienation, being forsaken, rejected, cursed, wrath, anger, judgment, a turning away because of our sins. If someone is going to teach it as literal when concerning Gods Spiritual Face…will have to bring up Anthropomorphic.

    I;m with ya brother…there was NO literal turning of Gods face from Jesus in the Literal sense.

    • jim henderson says :

      It is like you read my thoughts. My simple first question was going to be “what does God’s face look like”. Thank you for this.

      Jim Henderson

  3. Ben Trigg says :

    Thanks for your comment – I really appreciate helpful suggestions and thoughts! (As opposed to the other kind of comment you often get online which is usually decidedly less tasteful, or open.)

    Anthropomorphism is an interesting phenomenon, and one about which I’m undecided as to whether to take too seriously when I’m reading the Bible. Sure, it seems an obvious thing to take into consideration, and quite clearly God is ‘other’ than us, He is ‘Spirit’ (John 4) etc., taking on a human form in Jesus, rather than always having had it, of course! But I feel it is necessary to take God seriously when He uses ‘bodily’ terms of Himself, not simply so that we read them as “well something’s going on but you’d never understand so I’ll say it’s my nostrils flaring just so that you have something to think about”, but a genuine “I have a nose and my nostrils are flaring even if the concepts of a ‘nose’ and ‘nostrils’ are different from what you think they are!” I tend to think of God’s ‘bodily parts’ as being sufficiently similar to in function if not in form as ours, yet even more intensely so.

    Therefore if you think of someone’s face (and especially someone close) you get a warmth when you see them, and feel a kind of presence when their face comes very close. Well, when we worship and start to feel a kind of ‘warmth’ and a ‘presence’ it is because God’s ‘face’ is coming near – in a very real way it is similar to the effect a human’s face has on us, only far more so, EVEN THOUGH there is not a physical form of God’s face involved!

    Admittedly this is where it all gets a bit subjective as not all Christians talk in very intimate language about relationship with God (which I think is a shame). Fundamentally though I hope that lays out my feelings about Anthropomorphism – so yes, I recognise it is a kind of way of talking about how God describes Himself, but we need not step too far away from these descriptions as He doesn’t demand any more of us than to know that He DOES in fact have a face, ears, nose, eyes, mouth, head, beard, feet, hands, and more besides (all listed in the OT), even if these things are far MORE real, even though LESS physical than our human counterparts!

    Hope this makes sense! As it pertains to the subject of the blog… perhaps we could make an Omnipresent argument but again I feel differently from many Christians about how much emphasis is made about God being Omnipresent and unless He asked it to be taken into consideration at all times or at least in the case of the cross, we would have reason to do so, but thinking as I can of maybe only one or two verses in the Bible which speak of God’s omnipresence, I’m not sure how much we can paintbrush it across all our theology.

  4. chrishudgins says :

    Great distinction, mate! I was reading through Psalm 22 and came to verse 24. I had to do a triple-take! I’d always thought that the Father turned away from Jesus if only to keep from looking at how Sin was being personified in the very body that God had been personified (2 Corinthians 5:21). Obviously there’s some mystery as to how that happened, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that the Father turned his face away. And verse 24 is so explicit that I’m actually pretty shocked now at how I’d never been taught otherwise!

  5. Paul de Gastyne says :

    I’m very pleased to find this discussion. I likewise do not agree that the Father turned His face away but instead was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself (2Cor. 5:19). If the Father did turn away from the Son it makes it easy for us to doubt His goodness/love to us. God is Holy, for sure, and we in our sin may not approach Him, but He showed His willingness to approach us as Immanuel (God with us), to die for us (while we were yet sinners), and take us in (adoption) “in Christ.”. I agree that we need to “get right” the nuances of the Scriptures and in particular the preaching of the Cross. So when did Christ become “sin for us?” Was it for a few minutes on the cross, when some suppose the Father had to turn, or was it when He took on “sinful flesh” and as Oswald Chambers puts it “our heredity to Sin”? Back to 2Cor. 5 in verse 16: “though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more.”
    No separation, no having to “go to Hell” for our sakes. Some take on mistaken truth and create others which lead men astray. Speaking of words on the cross “…to day shalt thou be with me in paradise” rings a bell. Men have used these wrong understandings ( interpretations of Scripture) of God to “lower Christ,” and raise themselves up, instead of rightly being related to our Redeemer. I welcome any feedback!

  6. Scott says :

    Ben, I see that I am late to the discussion as these post are a few years old. I have been dealing with this same question for years. I have always rejected the concept of the Father turning His face away. As you said, it is becoming part of believer’s core belief. If we say something long enough people will buy into it.
    This concept has been called “the mysterious separation”, or the “divine departure.” Our point is this (those of us that do not own this position) that if there was a departure or separation then there ceases to be a true Trinity. The Trinity by definition is un-dis-solvable, or indissolvable . I don’t even know if those are proper terms, but you know what I mean. I often go to Is. 53:11 “As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied…” See it (ra-ah) behold, fix His eyes upon, cast His gaze at.
    The temptation is to say that the Father looked away because Jesus became a sinner, or that my sin was placed upon Jesus at the cross (2 Cor 5:21). We must understand that at NO point did Jesus become a sinner. He was, is, and always will be infinitely holy, pure, and separate from sin. What then happened at the cross? Penal Substitution – He stood in the place of sinners. He took my guilt. My sin was not dripping from Him. The guilt of my sin was placed upon Him. He stood in my place at the judgment. Because He was not a sinner even in the hours of judgment, the Father did not have to look away. In fact, the Father set, fixed, locked His gaze upon the Son. Let me ask you, when you are disciplining your son, do you look away as you inflict the judgment? I know. Poor example.
    We do sing Townend’s song, but we take the liberty to change a few words. We sing, “How deep the pain of searing grief, the Father fixed His gaze upon,” or something like that.
    I have dealt with Ps 22, but I will discuss that at another point since I don’t even know if you are still discussing this topic. I would love to share those thoughts with you.

    • Ben Trigg says :

      Thanks for your comment, Scott. I’ve been tempted to replace the line with “The Father knew the agony” but that doesn’t do justice to all that was going on in the Trinity at the cross!

      This is a major topic. I wrote this some time ago, and I think now I would take a different angle; instead of the apologetic, defensive approach, much deeper study needs to take place around the Trinity and atonement. I’m aware that Jürgen Moltmann might have done something around this in The Crucified God; apart from that I don’t know who else has written around that – plenty I’m sure!

  7. Suzanne Smith says :

    Again, I’m entering this conversation late, but I just want to thank you. Your insights are very helpful and refreshing. This ‘broken Trinity’ view is so pervasive. I would recommend Thomas H. McCall’s Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why It Matters.

  8. Neil Richardson (@neilmrichardson) says :

    Psalm 22 isn’t the only Messianic Psalm. See also 27:9; 30:7; 44:24; 69:17 and most particularly 88:14: “Why, LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me?” The Father did turn His face away from the sin-bearing God-man The Lord Jesus Christ who was made a curse for us lawbreakers (Galatians 3:13). As has been pointed out, verse 24 of Psalm 22 can apply to The Lord Jesus’ relationship with His Father at the completion of His work, hence His return to the use of the appellation ‘Father’ when He commits His spirit to God. Jesus was only cursed for the six hours (or perhaps three, from the time of the eclipse) on the Cross, and after He had finished His work, His fellowship with His Father resumed. Aside from this, the Psalms are a mixture of David and his divine Son. So, there are things in Messianic Psalms which clearly do not apply to the Messiah, such as the confession of sins in 40:12. I am confident the Scriptures teach the Father did turn His face away from His Son during the wrath-bearing period of His crucifixion only and this is how we can reconcile verses 1 and 24 of Psalm 22.

  9. Al Sandoval says :

    All great arguments.
    Coming from a non-academic background I offer this.
    Can it be that seeing his son so brutally tortured and yet restraining His hand from anialating us (as any other father or mother would understand) He was painfully hurt. Too hurt to watch. This is the one He called, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

    Police came to my house one night and had us all come out one at a time with hands raised. I was first. Sad sight to see my sweet parents and others come out as if they were criminals w raised hands. But when my beloved 12 yr old nephew (whom I love as a son) came out w’ hands raised and then escorted to sit down w’ hands behind his back, I instinctively turned my head away. I couldn’t bear to watch even though he was not harmed. If that sight had hurt me as deep as it did, I can’t imagine what God felt having to endure watching that and restrain his hand.
    Note: there was no criminal activity in our house and the officers left after verifying. And they were professionally polite.

  10. Nee says :

    I always thought that the greatest sacrifice of God was the ‘Separation’ at the cross. So what exactly did Jesus/God sacrifice for us?Jesus did die, but was soon resurrected.
    And what exactly is the death that happened? God never dies!

    • Ben Trigg says :

      Good questions. I’ll perhaps try to answer them in a follow-up post I’m hoping to write very soon, but Jesus’ willingness to suffer such violence at the hands of the authorities can’t be overlooked in searching for a ‘real’ sacrifice at the cross. Furthermore, whether we think the Father’s face was turned away or not, his willingness too to enter into the experience of God-forsakenness should capture our attention as well. God was in Christ experiencing God-forsakenness. That right there is a deep sacrifice.

  11. Trevor Mason says :

    I’m almost shocked by this….
    You say if God forsook Christ because of sin, then he will us too??? No no no! God forsook Christ so that He will NEVER HAVE to forsake us! That was the entire purpose!

    When Christ was forsaken by the Father, their separation was not one of nature, essence, or substance. Christ did not in any sense or degree cease to exist as God or as a member of the Trinity. He did not cease to be the Son, any more than a child who sins severely against his human father ceases to be his child. But Jesus did for a while cease to know the intimacy of fellowship with His heavenly Father, just as a disobedient child ceases for a while to have intimate, normal, loving fellowship with his human father.

    • Ben Trigg says :

      Yeah I don’t think you read me right, I wasn’t saying that. In this old post, I’m simply challenging the commonly-held belief that the Father ‘turned his face away’ when the crucial text, Psalm 22, explicitly states otherwise. Thanks for your comment.

  12. Jennifer Darcy says :

    I’m so glad to have stumbled onto this article. While I’ve always loved singing, “How Deep The Father’s Love For Us,” that particular line never did sit well with me although I couldn’t articulate a reason. I won’t pretend to comprehend Jesus’ atonement for me; perhaps with finite human comprehension it is simply impossible. But, I’m so glad He did! Thanks for the article – “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”

  13. Jonathan says :

    Well argued. Your first point loses a bit of impact in light of John 20:17, where Christ does indeed refer to the Father as His God. However, I don’t think you need a uniqueness assertion to aid the point that a quote of Psalm 22 is being made. Good post.

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