Sunday, January 25, 2009

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

In response to several thought-provoking comments raised in a recent post, my thoughts here are intended to touch on the reason, or reasons, why Christ uttered that never-to-be-forgotten cry, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34). My thoughts are based, in part, on the explanations and teachings found in “The Infinite Atonement,” by Tad R. Callister (now Elder Callister of the Seventy). If you haven’t read this book, I strongly recommend it, and promise that you will gain many new insights into the Atonement.

While in the Garden of Gethsemane the Savior’s state of mind, physical body, and spirit reached such a point that an angel from heaven came “strengthening him” (Luke 22:43). Elder Bruce R. McConkie suggests it was “mighty Michael [Adam]” (“Purifying Power,” pg. 9). As a God himself, was he so weakened that he now needed strengthening? Perhaps Adam was there to console the Savior, to comfort and support him, or to bless him.

In stark contrast to the Garden experience, no angel was to be found at the cross. Instead, it appears that the Father’s presence was withdrawn completely. Brigham Young taught that at this moment of crisis, “the Father withdrew Himself, withdrew His Spirit, and cast a vail [sic] over him” (Journal of Discourses, 3:206).

This raises the underlying question, “Why was it necessary for God to withdraw his spirit?” Well, the answer may lie in the response to another question: “What happens with God’s Spirit when we sin?Answer: It withdraws, of course, as our spirit becomes estranged or separated from God. Thus, as the Savior assumed the infinite sins of infinite worlds and all their attendant consequences (including the empty feeling we all get following sin) it appears that God’s Spirit naturally withdrew.

Yet, God's Spirit withdrawal seems to be a required part of the Atonement:

11 And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.
12 And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.
13 Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance. (Alma 7:11-13)(emphasis added)

If this withdrawal of God’s Spirit had not taken place it would have been impossible for the Savior to know “according to the flesh” the attendant consequences of sin as experienced by those for whom he suffered. As a result, the Savior would be unable to “succor his people according to their infirmities” since he would not be able to fully relate to the common sinner.

The last trace of God’s healing light withdrew, to let the unrestrained effects of evil run their full course. No longer could the Father’s Spirit remain in the presence of infinite evil, now being assumed by the very one who embodied infinite goodness. At that point, the Son of Man, acutely alone in the fullest sense of that term, cried out in a moment of ultimate pathos, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ No one could claim he was spared any consequence of sin. There was no softening of the blow. He descended beneath it all” (“The Infinite Atonement,” Callister, pg. 143)(emphasis added).

In one of the most touching sermons I have ever read, Elder Melvin J. Ballard also commented on the Father’s decision to withdraw his Spirit and not rescue his son:

God heard the cry of his Son in that moment of great grief and agony, in the garden when, it is said, the pores of his body opened and drops of blood stood upon him, and he cried out: ‘Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me.’

I ask you, what father and mother could stand by and listen to the cry of their children in distress, in this world, and not render aid and assistance? I have heard of mothers throwing themselves into raging streams when they could not swim a stroke to save their drowning children, rushing into burning buildings, to rescue those whom they loved.

We cannot stand by and listen to those cries without its touching our hearts. The Lord has not given us the power to save our own. He has given us faith, and we submit to the inevitable, but he had the power to save, and he loved his Son, and he could have saved him. . . . He saw that Son finally upon Calvary; he saw his body stretched out upon the wooden cross; he saw the cruel nails driven through hands and feet, and the blows that broke the skin, tore the flesh, and let out the life's blood of his Son. He looked upon that.

In the case of our Father, the knife was not stayed, but it fell, and the life’s blood of his Beloved Son went out. His Father looked on with great grief and agony over his Beloved Son, until there seems to have come a moment when even our Savior cried out in despair: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’

In that hour I think I can see our dear Father behind the veil looking upon these dying struggles until even he could not endure it any longer; and, like the mother who bids farewell to her dying child, has to be taken out of the room, so as not to look upon the last struggles, so he bowed his head, and hid in some part of his universe, his great heart almost breaking for the love that he had for his Son. Oh, in that moment when he might have saved his Son. I thank him and praise him that he did not fail us, for he had not only the love of his Son in mind, but he also had love for us” (Sermons and Missionary Services of Melvin J. Ballard [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1949], 151-155)(emphasis added).


Hans said...

Good post. A relevant question as a follow up. When we are referring to God's Spirit withdrawing from Jesus, who are we referring to? Are we referring to The Holy Ghost as a Spirit sent from God or are we referring to the Father himself? Did the Father visit Jesus as a Spirit even though he was flesh and bones?

Anonymous said...

I have a problem believing that the Father of all creation would need to be "taken out of the room." If anything I see him looking on with great love and excited about the salvation of all of His children. I do not buy into the idea that the Father and those beyond the veil see death and suffering as a bad thing like we do. They see this life as a transient thing.

Jeremy said...

Interesting take, Anon. As an eternal being, God certainly does see this life as transient. But he is also our Father who loves each of us beyond anything imaginable. I believe we experience a small portion of this love by becoming fathers (and mothers) ourselves. If you have children I'm sure you can agree that there is a loving bond that unites each of us to our Heavenly Father. How much stronger would that bond be for His Only Begotten in the flesh?

"Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee" (Isa. 49:15)

I don't pretend to assert Elder Ballard's thoughts as doctrine, for there is no evidence of that. Yet, there is no doubt in my mind that the Savior suffered severely in a manner that our finite minds cannot possibly comprehend. Being eternal, however, our Father could certainly understand the infinite suffering borne by His Son.

I refuse to believe that our Father in Heaven observed this suffering - which "suffering caused [Christ] . . . to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that [he] might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink" (D&C 19:18) - and failed to feel any empathy or emotion whatsoever.

In full comprehension of Christ's intense suffering, our Father allowed it to transpire, as Elder Ballard stated, because "he had not only the love of his Son in mind, but he also had love for us."

Thanks for your viewpoint.

Hans said...

For what it's worth, remember what Jesus said in D&C 133:50, or more specifically what he will say:

"And his voice shall be heard: I have trodden the wine-press alone, and have brought judgment upon all people; and none were with me."

My interpretation, for what it is worth, is that he had no help on the cross. This means that the influence of his Father left him. He could not see him nor feel his influence. Perhaps the Father was watching or was hiding (speculation by any of us), but Jesus was alone in the most painful sense of the word. In his most lonely moment, he made it possible that we be not lonely in ours. I think that is the essence of the Ευαγγέλιο, the greatest part of the Gospel.

Nate said...

Good post Jeremy. While in the realm of speculation, I can see it both ways (Anon and Jeremy's). On one hand you have a being with an eternal perspective who could maybe see past the temporary, whereas you also have a being that is acutely aware of exactly how bad the Atonement was (and I'd imagine that God would never wish that on someone...even if He knows it needs to be done).

Still, what sticks out to me in this instance of the Atonement is the feelings Christ apparently felt when he was withdrawn from the presence of the Father...I don't even recognize when the spirit withdraws (not until much later anyway).

I remember I once told my dad that I thought it would be cool to be a patriarch. He replied "I think it would be cool to be worthy enough to be a patriarch."

This is the kind of thought that I get when I contemplate Christ's display of emotion here...if only I could get to a point that I was good enough that I could feel these emotions (not that I want to feel them after that).

Doug Towers said...

The way that Mark's gospel presents these occurrances is that Jesus made the statement about God leaving him, and then he gave up the ghost virtually immediately. Matthew also gives this same list of events.

It also reads to me as if this forsaking occurred at that very instance that Christ made the statement. Else why say it then? Therefore it suggests that Heavenly Father was with him for part of the time on the cross. So the question becomes, why be there for part of the time? I believe that the reason he left was that had he not done so Jesus would not have died for, at least, a very long time, if at all.

This idea suggests that Jesus asked the question, got the answer by the Holy Ghost and then knew it was time for his spirit to leave his body. And thus he did so.

Jeremy said...

Doug, you pose a thought that hadn't previously crossed my mind. In sum, you believe that Christ may have gleaned life-giving power from his Father, and once that power withdrew, Christ immediately gave up the ghost.

I respectfully disagree, however, since Christ clearly had power to lay down and take up his own life, irrespective of the Father.

"I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father" (John 10:17-18).

Nate said...

I may be misunderstanding Doug's point because I don't see it as saying what Jeremy said...

But it does make me wonder, how would Jesus know that it was finished and he did indeed have power over death? I imagine He could not have completely had it before the atonement (except through the father).

I would think that the knowledge either came to Him as an answer to that question (as Doug points out), or he realized for himself that he now had the ability to lay down his life of his own accord.

Maybe it took the Father leaving and withdrawing His influence to really count as Jesus laying down His own life.

--sorry if my thoughts seem scattered...there are too many flashing across my mind to type coherently.

Anonymous said...

I am the same Anon as before and I do not know how to enter the forum yet.

I think it is clear that we do not know all things. I am eternally grateful for the atonement and look forward to the day that we will have all things made known and hear the words of Christ from his own mouth. I have enjoyed “The Infinite Atonement” by Callister. I especially love the part where he discusses the fact that the Atonemnet covers not just this earth but all the worlds in the cosmos. How wonderful it is that we may now return to our Father because of Jesus Christ.

Jeremy said...

Nate, in another reference to Callister's book, Elder Callister teaches that the Savior's suffering for sins was not solely confined to the Garden, but may have extended to the cross. He supports this assertion with the words of several GA's.

That said, I would venture to guess that Christ knew it was "finished" when the suffering on the cross for our sins, infirmities, etc., eventually ceased.

An answer to some of your thoughts may be found in this verse:

"For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself" (John 5:26)

Christ said this years before he actually gave his own life and took it back up.

Nate said...

Anon: you can click name/url and leave a name (without entering a url). Or you can just get a blogger account on You just use any email address and it is free.

Russ said...

Oh, I was blind, but now I see. Thank you Nate. signed, formerly Anon.

Doug Towers said...

You have misunderstood my point a bit Jeremy. I don't doubt that Christ gave up his life by his own action. We all entered our bodies by free will, and we can all leave them at any time by the same free will.

What I was presenting was that Heavenly Father left him, to demonstrate that it was time for Jesus to leave his body. While Heavenly Father was there Jesus was just going to stay alive.

In regard Christ suffering on the cross for our sins, he suffered in the garden for our sins. When such terms are used about the cross it isn't that suffering on the cross was required. It is that death was required, as the atonement had wrecked his body in the garden doing the suffering. So the suffering he went through on the cross was to cause his death. Therefore, in effect, he suffered on the cross for our sins.

By this death all are saved from death by resurrection. If we examine the sacrifices done in the OT we notice that each person placed his hands upon the head of the sacrifice done outside the temple but still in Jerusalem. They were told that their sins were passed to the sacrifice. This is symbolic of the sacrifice done in the garden. But then an additional sacrifice was done outside Jerusalem for EVERYONE. So the only point of the sacrifice done outside Jerusalem (on the cross) was to make resurrection possible (which required death).

Additionally he set an example in how he died.

Jeremy said...

Thanks for the clarification, Doug. Now I see your line of reasoning.

I would be interested to know what you meant by "Additionally he set an example in how he died." Please elaborate.

Doug Towers said...

What I meant by him setting an example in how he died, is that it was a terrible death. Had he just been shot with an arrow (for example) we could consider that we may be asked to endure some worse death than he had to suffer.

While it is possible to suffer a more agonizing death, it isn't likely that we would be called upon to do so. And if so it wouldn't be too much worse.

So we have him for an example in suffering such a death for what he knew to be the right thing to do.