The Eternal Cross

The so-called ‘cry of dereliction’ from the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’, is well-known and has long evoked comment from believer and unbeliever alike. Why should Jesus feel forsaken? Was this a crisis of faith? The key to our understanding of the cry of dereliction is to realize that it is actually the opening line of Psalm 22. And yet the voice of the Psalmist is not that of the unbeliever, but of the true believer, who is perplexed precisely because God has in the past shown himself to be the Deliverer of his people.

The unbeliever says, ‘There is no deliverance, therefore there is no God.’ This is what we might call the ‘theology of denial’. But there is another theology which is just as dangerous and just as wrong. This has been called ‘the theology of glory’. It does not deny that God exists, but it denies that he is to be found in places like the cross, at the point of abandonment. A truly Christian theology, however, sees God revealed in Christ. This theology is with the little party at the Last Supper, where Philip says to Jesus, ‘Lord, show us the Father,’ and Jesus replies, ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.’

But by contrast with their treatment of the resurrection, the gospels give us several pages on Jesus’ arrest, his trial, the crucifixion itself, his death and his burial. And the reason is surely simple–it is here, at the cross, where to human perception God seems most absent, that God is actually doing his supreme work.

Christians are generally aware that the crucifixion occurred as part of God’s plans and purposes. But Christians are rather less clear about exactly when God planned and purposed this. They often speak, for example, as if God had originally planned and purposed something quite different. But to make the crucifixion an afterthought in God’s planning is to make the very character of God himself something which is alterable and uncertain.

True, we talk about the incarnation as an event in history. But we cannot talk about God as he is in himself in terms of ‘before’ and ‘after’. Therefore what unfolds in history is not a process regarding God, but a purpose regarding ourselves. The crucifixion takes place at a particular moment which changes all moments – it marks the beginning of the end. But Peter says that the one who was crucified was ‘foreknown before the foundation of the world’. The significance of this is that the cross is not only an act of God, but a revelation of God.

Yet does this mean that God is in some sense always suffering? The straightforward biblical answer is clearly ‘No’. And yet the cross clearly is a permanent reality in the being of God. The proof to ‘Doubting Thomas’ that the figure standing before him was indeed the Christ was that there were still wounds in his hands and side into which he could put his fingers (John 20.24–27). The wounds were no longer fatal – presumably not even painful – but they were, if necessary, tangible. Thus although Christ is not forever suffering the pangs of the cross, neither is the cross ever excised from the being of Christ.

But the Bible adds something about pains that we also learn from experience: ‘suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character’ (Romans 53b–4a). Above all, we read of Christ himself,

For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. (Hebrews 2:10)

This is not, of course, to suggest that suffering is something to be enjoyed in itself. But if there are some things which can only be gained via suffering, then the suffering through which they are gained can be welcomed–indeed can be embraced willingly, even joyfully! The message of Scripture, and the practical meaning of the cross for us, is that suffering is the instrument of God’s will, not the thwarting of it. And suffering is particularly instrumental in building faith. The cry of dereliction from the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ is thus ultimately a cry of ‘faith seeking affirmation’. Only a true believer could feel forsaken, and only a real God could actually forsake. But in the moment, and through the event, of forsakenness, the believer is actually drawn closer to God in faith.

There is, however, one last thing to add, which is that there is an end. The cross is followed by the resurrection, death is swallowed up in victory, this world will be followed by the age to come. Then we will see what we cannot yet see, which is the outcome of all suffering. And then we will be what we cannot yet be, which is those who have come through the great tribulation, no longer experiencing our sufferings and yet being what our sufferings have made us.

Extracted from The Eternal Cross: Reflections on the Sufferings of Christ, by John Richardson, published by The Good Book Company, 37 Elm Road, Surrey, KT3 3HB, (0845 225 0880), 30pp A6, £2