Did Jesus die in despair?
Updated: Apr 16, 2022
Did Jesus die in despair? Moments before his last breath the dying Jesus summons up his rapidly-ebbing strength to shout “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” That is “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) These are shocking words which we can so easily pass over in our reach for his resurrection victory. True, he was quoting from one of the Psalms, Psalm 22 which concludes with an assertion of victory, but even so it begins with a cry of anguish: “Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.” These are the words of a man who is dying in utter despair, “like one from whom people hide their faces.” (Isaiah 53:3). A whole series of German theologians, beginning over a century ago with the missionary doctor, Albert Schweitzer, have argued that Jesus experienced the cross as total failure, complete abandonment by God. More recently, Rudolf Bultmann (quoted by Pete Grieg in his book, God on Mute) considers that at this point, Jesus was experiencing a complete collapse of faith and meaning. The definitive work here has to be by Jürgen Moltmann in his provocatively named book, The Crucified God, born of the firestorm of Hamburg. He writes: “People’s eyes can be opened to the truth if they remember that at the centre of the Christian faith stands an unsuccessful, tormented Christ, dying in forsakenness.” For the cross to work, so to speak, Jesus has to die as one of us. Of course, we are up against a profound mystery here, that Jesus is both human and divine. But as the Athanasian creed makes clear, we are not talking about a mixture of his two natures, one part God/the other part man. Jesus is wholly God and wholly man, beyond our comprehension. The New Testament is unequivocally clear, that when Jesus died on the cross, he died as one fully human, someone just like me. As one New Testament writer teaches: “Since the children are made of flesh and blood, it’s logical that the Saviour took on flesh and blood in order to rescue them by his death.” (Hebrews 2:14). Again if Jesus was to die for us, he had to die as one of us. Albert Camus gives us a crucial insight: “The agony would have been easy if it could have been supported by eternal hope. But for God to be man, he has to despair.” This day Jesus endured this same collapse, despair, doubt, rage and loneliness which has afflicted humankind. The early Christian centuries were bedevilled by the false teaching of Docetism, that Jesus only appeared to suffer and so was untouched by human suffering. He only seemed to be man; his humanity was an illusion. Christ was so divine that it was inconceivable that he could have been human. In contrast the Gospel is unsparing: in no way did Jesus have some, so-to-speak unfair advantage over us. The Word actually did become flesh. The blood he bled on the cross was real blood, as John bears witness in his gospel. Whatever, what Jesus experienced on the cross was utterly terrifying. Moreover, as the prophecy in Isaiah foretells “Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer.” (Isaiah 53:10). He suffers at God’s hand. “A curse on the land,” to quote the apostle Paul. (Galatians 3:13.) And shockingly, beyond our understanding, Jesus became sin and alienated from God. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us.” (2 Corinthians 5:21), as Paul depicts the horror of Golgotha. For this was no ordinary death, no routine crucifixion, appalling as is this cruel method of execution. Christ plumbed the deepest depths of suffering beyond our reckoning. “We may not know, we cannot tell, what pains he had to bear,” wrote Mrs Alexander. Surprisingly the Gospel writers focus his suffering not at the cross as you would expect but at Gethsemane the previous evening as Jesus anticipates the cross. “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42). Jesus was utterly horrified, aghast at the suffering which awaited him. Luke underscores the depth of Jesus’ anguish by telling us that his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. Furthermore, Jesus needed help, such was the weight of his distress. “An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.” (Luke 22:43). Simply, the cross of Jesus is too awful to contemplate. As W.H. Auden reflects “Christmas and Easter can be subjects for poetry, but Good Friday, like Auschwitz, cannot. The reality is so horrible it is not surprising that people should have found it a stumbling block to faith.” And yet, we can never say to God” “You have no idea what it is like!” Whatever suffering we may observe or even experience ourselves. As Corrie ten Boom, whom we mentioned the other week, a woman who endured Ravensbrück, could exclaim: “There is no pit so deep God’s love is not deeper still.” So today, Good Friday, is a day for those who are in despair, who know themselves to be failures, beyond the reach of God’s help. If so, hold onto this: God himself has been there in Jesus.