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 Instead, it appears that the Father’s presence was withdrawn completely.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).