According to McCall, “God against God” theories of the atonement imply (or explicitly teach) that God’s Trinitarian life was ruptured on Good Friday. And yet, McCall argues, God could not turn his face away from the Son, because the Father is one with the Son. “To say that the Trinity is broken—even ‘temporarily’—is to imply that God does not exist.”
Late last week, just in time for Good Friday, Christianity Today published an article entitled “Is the Wrath of God Really Satisfying?” It was written by Thomas McCall (professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), presumably as a distillation of the arguments he makes in Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why it Matters (IVP, 2012). As a Christian (and pastor and professor) who believes in penal substitutionary atonement—that Christ died in our place to assuage the wrath of God—I found McCall’s article helpful in places, but also confusing and misleading. After reading it several times, I’m still not sure if McCall is trying to undermine penal substitution, rescue it from abuse, or avoid it altogether.
At the very least, given the timing and the title, the article felt like a poke in the eye to the millions of Christians who believe that Good Friday is good precisely because Christ was stricken, smitten, and afflicted by God for our sake.
The main burden of McCall’s piece is to show that some popular preaching on the cross is at odds with orthodox Trinitarian theology. According to McCall, “God against God” theories of the atonement imply (or explicitly teach) that God’s Trinitarian life was ruptured on Good Friday. And yet, McCall argues, God could not turn his face away from the Son, because the Father is one with the Son. “To say that the Trinity is broken—even ‘temporarily’—is to imply that God does not exist.”
While I’m not convinced that Christ bearing the wrath of God implies a Trinitarian fissure, McCall is right to warn against misreading the cry of dereliction in literalistic fashion, as if the first person of the Trinity was coming to blows with the second person of the Trinity. Whatever else it might mean, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” does not mean that the eternal union of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was interrupted. We should be careful not to speak of the Son suffering in complete absence from the Father, or speak as if the Father was disgusted with his Son on the cross.
As usual, Turretin explains the matter—in this case the “punishment of desertion” (Matt. 27:46)—with careful precision. The desertion on the cross was not “absolute, total, and eternal (such as is felt only by demons and the reprobate), but temporal and relative.” Likewise, the desertion Christ experienced was not with respect to “the union of nature,” nor “the union of grace and holiness.” Neither was Christ deprived of the Father’s “communion and protection.” Instead, God suspended “for a little while the favorable presence of grace and the influx of consolation and happiness.” In other words, the Son’s “sense of the divine love” was “intercepted by the sense of divine wrath and vengeance resting upon him” (Elenctic Theology 13.14.5). Whether McCall would approve of that last line or not, clearly Turretin meant to affirm Christ’s forsakenness in a way that avoids any notion of Trinitarian rupture.
Incidentally, although McCall dings R. C. Sproul for his explanation of Christ’s accursedness, it seems to me Sproul was trying to make the same point as Turretin: “On the cross, Jesus entered into the experience of forsakenness on our behalf. God turned his back on Jesus and cut him off from all blessing, from all keeping, from all grace, and from all peace.” This sounds more like withholding “the favorable presence of grace” than a Trinity-busting Father-Son brouhaha.
Scream of the Damned
McCall is also concerned that some popular notions of the cross turn Christ into the damned of God. To be sure, we must be careful with our language. The Son of God experienced the horrors of damnation, but he was not himself damned. It would be better to say that Christ’s sufferings were hellish or that he bore the weight of eternal punishment than to say that Christ entered the place of the damned.
Again, Turretin is helpful:
As he is properly said to be damned who in hell endures the punishment due to his own sins, this term cannot be applied to Christ, who never suffered for his own but for our sins; nor did he suffer in hell, but on earth. Still there is no objection to saying that the Son of God was condemned for us by God, just as elsewhere he is said to have been made a curse and malediction for us. (Elenctic Theology, 13.16.10)
Does this mean Sproul was wrong to speak of “the scream of the damned”? Granted, the phrase is provocative and easily misunderstood. It’s not a phrase I would use, but we should remember—and here I’m using McCall’s own quotation—that Sproul said it was “as if a voice from heaven said, ‘Damn you, Jesus’” (emphasis mine). Sproul’s use of the phrase was homiletical/metaphorical more than technical/analytical, although I see McCall’s point (and Turretin’s).
How Does This Work?
The CT article makes clear what McCall does not believe about the cross:
There is no biblical evidence that the Father-Son communion was somehow ruptured on that day. Nowhere is it written that the Father was angry with the Son. Nowhere can we read that God “curses him to the pit of hell.” Nowhere it is written that Jesus absorbs the wrath of God by taking the exact punishment that we deserve. In no passage is there any indication that God’s wrath is “infinitely intense” as it is poured out on Jesus.