Did The Father Turn His Face Away?

Article by Dr. Jared Hood – (original source here): Lecturer in OT, WCF and Reformation History at the Presbyterian Theological College, Melbourne and Editor of Reformed Theological Review, Australia’s leading evangelical journal.

10 Reasons The Father Didn’t Turn His Face Away At The Cross

Christ took the penalty for our sin upon Himself; does this mean that the Father turned his face from the Son on the cross?

Psalm 22:1 is a key verse for the rejection theory. ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?’ (Ps 22:1). What does it mean? Two things. First, context is clear. Look at the parallel verse: ‘why are you so far from helping me?’ This is the issue: ‘no help’. The sufferer is asking why God doesn’t save him from his oppressors. I.e. ‘Why do you let my oppressors torment me?’ The Father gives the Son over to suffering. Psalm 22:1 is the equivalent of Isaiah’s statement, ‘It pleased the Lord to bruise Him’. In fact, the Psalm later says it: ‘You have brought me to the dust of death’ (v. 15).

Christ took the penalty for our sin upon Himself. Our penalty was eternal separation from God. Therefore, the Son must have suffered separation from God—mustn’t He? What would that mean? Is this the severing of the Triune union between the Father and Son? Is this relational, being ‘cut off from…sweet fellowship with his heavenly Father’, such that Christ was ‘abandoned by his heavenly Father’ (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 574)? What does Townend mean, saying there was ‘searing loss’ when ‘The Father turns His face away’? The Father’s anger was upon the Son, who had ‘become sin for us’, so the Father had no choice but to reject and banish the Son from His presence.

Here are 10 reasons why I don’t believe it.

The Father was never more pleased with the Son than at the Cross.

The Cross was Jesus’ ultimate act of obedience: obedience—even to the point of the Cross (Phil 2:8). If ever the Father could say, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’, it was at the Cross. The OT sacrifices were a ‘sweet smelling aroma’; how much more was Christ’s sacrifice a delight to God? ‘Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma’ (Eph 5:2).

The Cross was the Father’s plan.

Jesus was ‘delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God’ (Acts 2:23). ‘It was the will of the Lord to crush Him’ (Isa 53:9, ESV). And the Lord takes pleasure in His will. In fact, the word for ‘will’ in Isaiah 53 is chaphets, pleasure, delight. ‘Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise Him’ (NKJV). Which takes us back to point one.

The Triune union cannot be severed.

That really should be an obvious point. Father, Son and Spirit each fully and together possess the divine being or substance. They cannot turn on each other. The problem here is that some misunderstand the Trinity. The Trinity is three guys who get along really well with each other. But they’re independent enough to turn on each other, as well. This social model has made deep inroads in evangelicalism’s Trinitarian thinking, but it’s not the Bible’s God. That’s playing with tritheism.

If the Father turned away from the Son, the Son turned away from Himself.

The Father fully possesses the divine attribute of justice. The Son fully possesses the divine attribute of justice. If justice demands the Father turn away from the Son, then precisely the same justice demands that the Son turn away from the Son. Moltmann was wrong: this would not be Father against Son, God against God. This would be Son against Himself, separating Himself from Himself (or the Son’s divine nature rejecting the human nature). Of course, the perfect Son was repulsed to be treated as a criminal—it was a heavy burden to bear—but this is another matter.

The rejection theory is well meant, but it doesn’t make sense. Moltmann wanted a God who felt pain, but it only humanises Him, which leaves us all in a desperate muddle.

Was Jesus banished from God’s presence all through His earthly life?

Jesus wasn’t just ‘made sin’ at the Cross, but all through His earthly life. He was ‘born under the [curse of the] law’ (Gal 4:4). Did the Father ‘turn His face away’ from Jesus through all His earthly life?

Psalm 22:1 doesn’t say the Father rejected the Son.

Psalm 22:1 is a key verse for the rejection theory. ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?’ (Ps 22:1). What does it mean? Two things. First, context is clear. Look at the parallel verse: ‘why are you so far from helping me?’ This is the issue: ‘no help’. The sufferer is asking why God doesn’t save him from his oppressors. I.e. ‘Why do you let my oppressors torment me?’ The Father gives the Son over to suffering. Psalm 22:1 is the equivalent of Isaiah’s statement, ‘It pleased the Lord to bruise Him’. In fact, the Psalm later says it: ‘You have brought me to the dust of death’ (v. 15).

Secondly, it’s a rhetorical question. The sufferer knows full well why God does this. What’s the point of asking it, then? To express his distress. This is real suffering. He really doesn’t want to go through it. He would rather God saved Him instantly out of it. ‘If it is possible, let this cup pass from me. But not my will…’ (Matt 26:39).

Perhaps it also means, ‘It feels like you have abandoned me’ (Calvin), or ‘It’s really hard in my present circumstances to feel your closeness’ (which is a very real human reaction, isn’t it, as the extent of physical pain clouds over our spiritual senses). See Lucas Sharley, ‘Calvin and Turretin’s views of the Trinity in the dereliction’, RTR 75, no. 1, 2016.

Psalm 22 affirms that the Father sustained the Son on the Cross.
Reading the whole of Psalm 22, it strongly affirms that God sustained the sufferer. I’m particularly drawn to the participles of v. 9. ‘You are the one bringing me up, from the time of my birth, and you are the one making me trust from the time I was breastfeed onwards’. The verbs are not just about the time of being born. These are ongoing realities. See also Isa 50:7, of Jesus at crucifixion, ‘The Lord God helps me’.

The Psalm heads to the great turning point in v. 21: ‘You have answered Me’. No hint of relational abandonment in that. Put v. 24 in large letters: ‘He has not hidden His face from Him’.

Rejection would have been unjust.

Jesus became sin for us, but He was still the perfect Son of God. ‘Truly, this was a righteous man’ (Matt 23:47). The implications of this need to be honoured. To personalise this, if you were a judge, and your own innocent son valiantly stepped forward at a trial to take a criminal’s punishment upon himself, would you be angry with him and reject him?

The value of the Cross doesn’t need bolstering with a ‘rejection by God’ theory.

Christ paid our debt. Our debt was eternal death, so where is there eternal death at the Cross? It’s not enough that Christ merely physically died, is it? We are due physical and spiritual death. Therefore, we need to bolster the cost of the Cross. We need to find spiritual death at the Cross.

The ‘rejection by God’ theory looks like the answer. However, division within the Triune God is not the same as our everlasting spiritual death. The Cross simply wasn’t everlasting; it was only a few hours.

Also, this misunderstands the atonement. The atonement doesn’t need to be a tit for tat arrangement—an exact exchange, as it were. An equivalent payment, yes; an exact payment, no. ‘The payment is not precisely what is demanded in the obligation, but an equivalent’ (Turretin).

There is inestimable value in the death of God’s Son. It was God’s Son who died. The value is in the Person: God’s righteous, precious Son. And the nature of His death: a freely given sacrifice, with perfect love for us and obedience to God. That’s what makes it ‘sweet smelling’ (Eph 5:2). We’re so used to people dying, that we miss the uniqueness of Christ’s death. It was the purest life that was willingly offered.

How could we forget this, that we would need to seek the value of the Cross elsewhere? That’s enough ‘value’ to pay the sins of all God’s elect people; and for the sins of the whole world, and a thousand worlds besides, many would add. When I remember who it was who died on the Cross—not just the method of execution, and not some theory of Trinitarian disruption—that’s when I fall silent. It was the incarnate Son of God.

It’s not in Scripture.

There is no clear statement in Scripture that the Father turned His face away. If the Father-Son relationship was separated at the Cross, that would be huge. It would be the core meaning of the Cross. You would expect it to be everywhere in Scripture. But of course it’s not.

Does ‘The Father turn His face away’? ‘The Father gives His Son to die’, yes. ‘He prays, “Please take this cup from me”,’ yes. ‘He bears the full weight of my sin’, yes. But ‘He has not hidden His face from Him’ (Ps 22:24). Townend’s song is beautiful, and the metaphor admits to other meanings. I can sing it with a bit of double think: ‘The Father appears to turn His face away, by giving His Son over to execution, but actually sustains Him through His suffering’. As Jesus bore the full weight of sin, He was sustained by His God; and the Father was never more pleased with the Son.

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If the Father didn’t desert the Son on the Cross, what was the nature of His suffering?

10 reasons Jesus suffered so greatly on the Cross: His victory before the resurrection

At the Cross, Jesus engaged in battle. He acted as the man of war, the warrior. What constituted the battle for Him? How did Jesus suffer? Here are 10 reasons Jesus suffered so greatly on the Cross. The first four are suffering in the more expected sense of what was done to Him by the world and the Devil. The next four are struggles that arose because of who He is and what He was trying to accomplish. Finally come two fundamental, underlying realities without which nothing else is explicable.

I affirm these principles at the outset: (a) Jesus suffered in His humanity; the deity does not suffer; (b) Jesus was divinely sustained; (c) Jesus suffered in body and soul, but was without fault—He remained the faithful Son.

He battled physical suffering

Jesus didn’t suffer physically more than others. Crucifixions typically took days of torturous agony. The Father spared His Son from that. At the ninth hour, Jesus prayed for help (citing Ps 22:1), and at the ninth hour, the prayer was answered.

Still, ‘the terrors of death have fallen upon me’ (Ps 55:4). His pain was as unbearable as pain could be—the type of pain that typically slides into unconsciousness and death. In crucifixion, unconsciousness was relief. It brought cessation of suffering, but also cessation of struggling, which hastened death. The Romans countered by allowing sour wine—short-term kindness; long term cruelty. Jesus rejected the analgesic, intensifying His suffering, but shortening His life.

He battled shame and rejection

Scripture consistently connects the Cross to shame. Shame is what you feel when rejected by the community—the awareness of transgressing community standards and of being small in the eyes of others. With it comes isolation and other consequences.

The community opinion was unambiguous. The Sanhedrin and the Roman State condemned Him. The Sanhedrin represented the people of God, and its rejection meant Jesus had no spiritual home. Rome represented civilisation and justice. It treated Jesus as the greatest of fiends—a troublemaker, a disturber of the Pax Romana—and left him with no home anywhere in the world.

The ostracization ‘went viral’. Soldiers insulted Him. His own disciples cowered before the community’s opinion. He was unprotected, ridiculed, alone.

Yet Jesus knew He was in the right. I know what communal rejection would mean to me. Self-doubt: how could I be right, when the world tells me I am wrong? Fear: what consequences will I experience? Anger: at the injustice of it.

I do not say that Jesus doubted Himself, but the burden must have been enormous. I cannot say how the sentence buffeted against the One who was the righteous Son – such a contradiction of who He was in Himself.

Jesus was victorious, though, not just afterwards, but throughout. He turned His face towards ‘shame and spitting’, setting ‘His face like a flint. ‘And I know that I will not be ashamed. He is near who justifies Me’ (Isa 50:7). He was not intimidated, but He ‘despised’ the shame (Heb 12:2). He thought little of it! He put it in its place.

He battled the power of Satan

Jesus fought against Satan, even though submitting to Satan’s ‘hour of darkness’ (Luke 22:53). Why did Satan persist in bringing Jesus to death, for surely he knew the prophecies? At first, he tried to stop Him. ‘Get behind Me, Satan’, Jesus said to Peter. Then Satan switched tactics. This was the plan: to send Jesus to death (‘Satan entered Judas’), but to have Him succumb to fear, doubt, anger and bitterness.

‘Not my will, but thine’, but if for even a moment, Jesus had said, ‘I resent Your will’, Satan would have won. If for just a moment, Jesus had spitefully hit out at His captors, if He had failed to reach out to the thief, if He had glared at Peter with vengeful anger, Satan would have won. If just for a moment, Jesus had in His heart left the presence of God, Satan would have won.

From Satan’s perspective, the odds were good. No one in human history had come through sustained attack without being spiritually scathed. Adam and Eve gave in with barely a fight.

Jesus fought temptation in the Garden with prayer. ‘ “Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”. Again He went away and prayed’ (Mark 14:37). This is at the very heart of Jesus’ battle.

He battled the loss of the sight of God

The Father did not desert the Son. He sustained Him with faith, and many ‘tokens of blessing’ throughout (Pilate’s affirmation, Simon of Cyrene, His mother’s presence, the darkness demonstrating the hour was divine, the thief’s conversion, prophecies being fulfilled, a quick death…). But the Son had to battle to maintain His sight of the Father.

Jesus had known the full heights of communion with God. That sustained Him in the wilderness. It meant He could sleep through the storm! But at the Cross, a very human, physiological reality comes into play. As His body reacts to pain, as electrical signals light up His brain, as chemicals race around His body, there is reduced mental space for awareness of the presence of God. The temptation is to let the pain rule.

Faith remained, and union remained, but now there is a clamorous, violent grasping upon His God. Three times, He prays in the Garden. There is the ‘cry of dereliction’, but this was no mere whimper. He cried out with a ‘loud voice’, with an iron determination to take hold of His God again. ‘My God’!

What a sufferer, but what a Victor! And what a model for us when our minds cloud over and pain overwhelms. We need to shout it aloud, and place it at the very front of our minds: ‘My God’!

Jesus had trained for this, in His temptation in the desert. What is fasting? It is partly training for the soul, not merely to master the body, but to remain in union with God in the evil hour.

He battled to love

Jesus battled because He loved. Jesus wept when others wept (John 11:35), so He sensed the impending loss His disciples would experience. He knew this: ‘Strike the Shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered (Matt 26:31; Zech 13:7). He knew Peter would be sifted. He knew the tears of His mother and the daughters of Jerusalem. He knew He would not be there to comfort His distraught disciples.

Jesus battled to love. He gives, even when one would have thought He had little left to give. He prays for His disciples. He reaches out to Peter. He cares for His mother. He even reaches out to the dying thief.

He battled His own freedom

Jesus offered up His life. He had power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. Nothing happened at the Cross to which Jesus did not acquiesce. Others have sacrificed themselves; none has had such control over every movement and moment. Jesus stepped forward to be betrayed. He held Himself there to the Cross. This, despite full awareness He could call the angels to deliver Him (Matt 26:53).

He battled being the catalyst of judgement

‘Strike the Shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered’ (Zech 13:7), and Zechariah says that ‘two thirds will be cut off’. Jesus knows His death will ‘justify many’, but He also knows it will bring judgement to many more. It will bring judgement to Jerusalem—not a stone will be left in place. It will turn the world-upside down, setting family member against family member. He dispenses justice even during the event, with His words to the High Priest, and His deafening silence to the other thief. On the final day, many will be condemned for rejecting the Gospel (2 Thess. 1:8). And it brings Jesus to tears (Luke 19:41).

He battled the weight of responsibility

The Cross was the central act of history. The fate of millions weighed on His shoulders. These were the things that angels enquired into, that the prophets foretold, that was at the heart of the divine plan for the world. It was a cosmic event, an apocalyptic event, precipitating the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven. A whole new creation depended upon the outcome.

I do not mean that He feared to take the work up, but we speak of the ‘weight of responsibility’ and the ‘burden of office’. If ever those statements meant something, it was at the Cross. The burden drew on every fibre of His being.

He battled the divine sentence

The condemnation of the human court was shameful, but there was also the divine sentence. Jesus’ soul was ‘exceedingly sorrowful, even to death’, in view of the ‘cup’ of divine judgement. I don’t know how the ‘guilty’ sentence affected the Holy one, hearing at the divine bar the words, ‘You will be treated as being everything that is repugnant to You. You will become sin.’

I know what it is to be treated as righteous even though I am guilty. The imputation of Christ’s righteousness to me doesn’t make me righteous: the Spirit of God works that within in. It doesn’t make me loved: I was loved from the foundation of the world. But it is the gateway to blessing, opening the way to the personal experience of God’s love. I hang on to imputed righteousness for dear life! I delight in it.

But I cannot imagine being treated as guilty even though being righteous, entirely and only righteous. It did not make Him unrighteous. It did not make Him unloved (not even the ‘children of wrath’ for whom He was dying were unloved). But it was the gateway to the curse. Humanity can try what it may, but only the Father’s sentence opened the floodgates of suffering. He freely agreed to be the second Adam, but how repugnant still was the association with sin? How did the sentence batter His mind, heart and conscience?

Satan’s play was wide open. To Adam, and Jesus in the desert, Satan had said, ‘God withholds good things from you.’ Now he can use the more potent formula: ‘God wants to pour all evil upon You’. What was Jesus’ response? ‘Not My will, but Thine’. He was victorious against the threat! Moreover, He confidently believed that God would justify Him, raising Him from the dead. As Jesus saw it, the Cross was His glory! ‘Father, the hour has now come. Glorify your Son’ (John 17:1).

He battled the insult to His person

Jesus suffered physically—and people say, ‘That that is not enough’. He suffered the shame, but still, ‘Not enough to pay for sin’! This forgets who He is. He is the Son of God. We cannot grasp the offence to His person, position and dignity. Matthew says it: ‘all those who passed by blasphemed Him’ (Matt 27:39). The humiliation began at the incarnation: true majesty hidden by decaying flesh. At the Cross, the desecration—the outrage—was complete. By the time His captors finished with Him, He barely appeared to be human, let alone divine (Ps 22:6).

No-one else has suffered like this. He ‘endured most grievous torments immediately in His soul, and most painful sufferings in His body’ (Westminster Confession). Yet He was victorious throughout. He remained faithful, and not with a bare minimum of spiritual life, cut off from the Father. He remained in vital union with His God, with full love, trust and hope.

What assurance this brings to us. Our sins truly are covered. And what a model for us! Union with God can remain at the darkest moments of our lives. I would not use that against anyone who was overwhelmed—I know how quickly my own heart melts into fear. But can I train myself now, in the brighter days of my life, to be better prepared for the evil hour, to follow Jesus on the Cross?