Having recently written on Jesus’ cry of forsakenness from the cross, I was pleased to see this piece by Al Hsu at Christianity Today that likewise argued against the view that God the Father actually turned his back on Jesus the Son as he hung on the cross. With Hsu, I take the whole of Psalm 22 to be the determinative factor in interpreting Jesus’ quote from the first verse of that very Psalm: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Even with this agreement, I want to be clear that I think Hsu is unhelpfully accommodating to those who charge that the crucifixion of Jesus is divine child abuse.
Dan Wallace thinks so as well, if not more so, and recently wrote a response to Hsu criticizing him for going soft on a penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement. Wallace seems to take the reality of the Father’s abandonment of Christ on the cross as necessary to a penal substitutionary view of atonement. I affirm Wallace’s commitment to penal substitution, a doctrine to which I too am committed. I also want to affirm that Wallace has made many positive contributions to contemporary Christian theology, not least with regard to our understanding of the textual reliability and the language of the New Testament. His work has been a great benefit to me and has informed the way I read the scriptures. His books have probably taught me as much about New Testament Greek as any. I appreciate Dan Wallace and his work. However, I find his response to Hsu to be problematic four at least four reasons. So, having written on the view that Wallace is here criticizing, I offer these points in response:
1. As I said, Wallace suggests that God turning his back on Jesus is essential to understanding the death of Jesus as taking the penalty of human sin on himself. I want to assert that the penalty for sin is death (Rom 6:23), Jesus most assuredly suffered this penalty, the benefits of which are applied to those who believe in him. Where does scripture say that the penalty of sin is God turning his back?
2. I find Wallace’s argument to be insufficiently trinitarian because he seems to take the wrath of God to be exclusively the wrath of the Father (click here for more on this). However, the gospels present a different picture. In Matt 25:31ff., it is Jesus himself who bestows blessing on the sheep and executes the just wrath of God’s judgment against the goats by consigning them to eternal fire (25:41, click here for more on this). Jesus seems to think the role of judge against unrighteousness falls to him. Thus, the wrath of God is not merely the wrath of the Father, it is the wrath of the triune God, which means it is also the wrath of the Son. If the wrath of God means forsaking the Son, then the Son must in wrath forsake the Son, which is nonsense. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is the judge who takes the penalty that his own judgment requires upon himself for our sake. No self-abandonment necessary.
3. This point flows out of the previous one. I find Wallace’s method to be flawed as well. He goes primarily to the letters of Paul to explain the gospels. But we know that good inductive hermeneutic method gives primacy to the book-as-a-whole as the most significant context for exegesis. That is not to say that Paul was wrong; he wasn’t. Neither is it to say that Paul does not inform our readings of the gospels; he does. It is to say that Wallace needs to attend first to the views of the particular gospel writers of sin, judgment, atonement, and divine wrath as they relate to the words of Jesus that those same gospel writers record from the crucified Jesus before correlating that with Paul. What Wallace neglects is what I’ve attempted to do in #2 above, though only as a start.
4. Since we’re talking about Paul, I finish by saying that I see no reason that any of the Pauline texts to which Wallace appeals must require that we take the Father to have turned his back on Jesus. Was Jesus cursed for us? Yes. Does that necessarily mean God turned his back on Good Friday? I don’t think so. The curse is death, not abandonment. And was Jesus “handed over”? Certainly he was, but it is far from clear that being handed over for crucifixion is the same thing as being abandoned by God. Wallace would have to do extensively more work to persuade me that the penalty is not only death but divine abandonment as well. The series of proof-texts he provides are insufficient.