If Jesus wasn’t truly forsaken—if he didn’t really endure the equivalent of eternal punishment on the cross—then substitutionary atonement is a legal fiction. If Jesus didn’t really suffer the pains of hell on the cross, then the infinite and eternal wrath of God is not truly propitiated. If Jesus didn’t become the object of the righteous indignation of God in our place, then we are still the objects of the eternal wrath of God.
Eighteen years ago, I heard a sermon on Matthew 27:46—Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” At one point, the minister who was preaching this message said, “Jesus wasn’t really forsaken; he just felt forsaken by his Father in his soul.” I remember sensing anger welling up within me at those words. I thought to myself, “That’s a denial of the Gospel. If Jesus wasn’t really forsaken, then I have no grounds to believe that I will never be forsaken.”
Sadly, I have subsequently come to discover that there are quite a number of Protestant theologians who have shied away from asserting that Jesus was really and truly forsaken by his Father when he hung on the cross. Nevertheless, I want to explain what we lose if Jesus wasn’t, in fact, forsaken by God when he stood in our place.
What truly happened to Jesus on the cross?
Thomas Brooks, the seventeenth century English Puritan theologian, explained why we must never downplay what truly happened to Christ on the cross. He insisted,
The more we ascribe to Christ’s suffering, the less remains of ours; the more painfully that he suffered, the more fully are we redeemed; the greater his sorrow was, the greater our solace; his dissolution is our consolation, his cross our comfort; his annoy our endless joy; his distress in soul our release, his calamity our comfort; his misery our mercy, his adversity our felicity, his hell our heaven.
Brooks then proceeded to explain exactly what happened to Jesus at Calvary, when he said,
Christ did actually undergo and suffer the wrath of God, and the fearful effects thereof, in the punishments threatened in the law. As he became a debtor, and was so accounted, even so he became payment thereof; he was made a sacrifice for sin, and bare to the full all that ever divine justice did or could require, even the uttermost extent of the curse of the law of God. He must thus undergo the curse, because he had taken upon him our sin. The justice of the most high God, revealed in the law, looks upon the Lord Jesus as a sinner, because he hath undertaken for us, and seizes upon him accordingly, pouring down on his head the whole curse, and all those dreadful punishments which are threatened in it against sin.
Jesus experienced “an objective God-forsakenness” at Calvary.
Herman Bavinck, in his Reformed Dogmatics, stated the importance of understanding that Jesus did not merely undergo the feeling of forsakenness on the cross. Rather, Jesus experienced “an objective God-forsakenness” at Calvary. He insisted,
In the cry of Jesus we are dealing not with a subjective but with an objective God-forsakenness: He did not feel alone but had in fact been forsaken by God. His feeling was not an illusion, not based on a false view of his situation, but corresponded with reality.