Two days before Good Friday, Al Hsu posted a provocative piece in the online version of Christianity Today entitled, “He’s Calling For Elijah! Why We Still Mishear Jesus”. Hsu’s article has gone viral among evangelical Christians. He opens his essay by asking the following questions:
“Is God the kind of God that turns his back on his Son?” “Does God abandon those who cry out to him?” “How could God forsake the perfect God-man, the only one who has ever served him perfectly?” “Because if Jesus was truly forsaken by God, what’s preventing God from forsaking any of us?” “How could we ever trust him to be good?”
Hsu spent the rest of the article answering these questions, but his answers may surprise you: “God did not turn his back on his Son.” “He did not forsake the perfect God-man.” “He did not pour his wrath out on Jesus Christ as he hung on the cross.”
Hsu’s argument focuses heavily on cultural perceptions of the Christian faith and how our global culture has shifted in recent years. Truth claims about Christianity have become passé, pragmatic claims have proved insufficient to deal with suffering that marks virtually everyone’s experience, and questions related to authenticity—spawned mostly by postmodernism—have proved inadequate. The question that is foremost in today’s world is whether the Christian faith is good.
Hsu’s answer to these questions is that the old Reformed view of the cross looks too much like child abuse; and, if the Father turned his back on Jesus, then the Trinity is broken. And this understanding of the gospel—the view held by Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Spurgeon, Barth, and a host of Protestant theologians for five hundred years—is bad. And if bad, then it is also false.
Hsu then focuses on the cry of dereliction from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He points out that the Gospels don’t unpack the meaning of the cry, and that for us to see it as God turning his back on Jesus is to read into the text. Hsu makes the argument that when the ancients quoted a verse, they meant the whole passage in which it was found to be understood. In the case of Psalm 22, that would mean that we should reflect on the whole psalm to grasp Jesus’ meaning. It is true that, often, the context from which a verse was quoted was in view, but not always. Hsu uses Luke 4.18–19 as proof, where Jesus reads Isaiah 61.1–2a in the synagogue in Nazareth and declares, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Ironically, this is one of the clearest passages to demonstrate that the whole context of the Old Testament text was not in view. The Lord stopped short of reading the rest of Isa 61.2 (“the day when our God will seek vengeance, to console all who mourn” [NET]), which most interpret as referring to the Second Coming of Christ. In other words, Jesus stopped short of quoting the whole verse because he wanted his hearers to understand that only the first part was fulfilled in his first coming.
Hsu camps on the whole of Psalm 22 as what Jesus meant when he quoted the first verse from the cross. But in doing so, Hsu makes certain assumptions that are questionable. First, although he claims that the whole psalm is in view, he seems to be saying that the whole psalm—except verse 1–is in view: “Here is direct refutation of the notion that the Father turned his face away from the Son”; “Jesus is not saying that God has forsaken him. He’s declaring the opposite. He’s saying that God is with him, even in this time of seeming abandonment, and that God will vindicate him by raising him from the dead.” In other words, Hsu argues that Psalm 22.1 should be understood to mean that God only seemed to abandon his Son. However, if God did not abandon him, there are a host of verses in this psalm that would serve Jesus’ purposes better (e.g., Ps 22.24: “For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him”).
If Jesus didn’t die in our place, if he didn’t receive the full force of God’s wrath against sin, then what did he accomplish on the cross? For Hsu, the point of the cross was for us to know that we are not alone in our suffering. And he is bold enough to say, “there is nothing in Scripture that says that the Father rejected the Son.” This might come as quite a shock to the majority of Christians who have held otherwise throughout twenty centuries.
As Hsu admitted, the Gospels don’t unpack the meaning of the cross. We must turn elsewhere to understand its full import. The Gospels tell us the what. The New Testament letters, especially those by Paul, tell us the why of the cross.
Paul was a Pharisee’s Pharisee, and before he met the Lord on the road to Damascus, he was white hot at Christians’ claims. They had the audacity to claim that God had blessed Jesus the Nazarene by raising him from the dead. Paul understood the implications, if this were true: If Jesus had been raised from the dead, then the Old Testament—the only Bible in existence at that time—was no longer infallible; and, Paul couldn’t have that. The key text that drove his theology was Deuteronomy 21.23, “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (NIV). For Paul, it was impossible that God could have blessed Jesus by raising him from the dead, because he had cursed him by hanging him on a tree. Therefore, when the apostles began to proclaim that God had raised Jesus from the dead, Paul had to act. However, he was confronted by the ascended Lord from heaven on that dusty road to Damascus, and then confronted with two seemingly irreconcilable truths: The Bible was infallible, yet God had raised Jesus from the dead. Paul spent the next three years alone in Arabia, unraveling this paradox. He must have spent that time studying the Bible and connecting the dots. “How could I have missed this?” he must have thought. In any case, Paul emerged with a clear understanding of the gospel: Jesus Christ died in our place, suffering under the wrath of God, to pay for our sins. Thus, his resurrection from the dead was the proof that God accepted his payment on our behalf. Continue Reading →