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Jesus' "Cry of Dereliction" and Psalm 22

Dennis Bratcher

Matthew 27:46 And about three o'clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Mark 15:34 At three o'clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Sometimes "traditional" interpretations of familiar biblical passages have a long history in the Church, but may not be good interpretations. Sometimes it is a case of later theological doctrine used as a filter to interpret difficult biblical passages rather than understanding the passage within its own context.

One "traditional" interpretation of Jesus' so-called "Cry of Dereliction" from the cross is such a case.  It explains the cry of Jesus as a statement of reality related to Jesus' role in atonement.  From this perspective, at his death Jesus took upon himself the sins of the world to redeem humanity (Isaiah 53:4-6 and 1 Peter 2:24).  Yet God is too holy to look upon sin (Habakkuk 1:13a). In the presence of so much sin, God could not bear to look upon Jesus and so turned his face away from Jesus as he died. So Jesus' cry, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?", reflects the reality of this turning away and abandonment by God.

Yet there is something disturbing in this interpretation.  Everywhere else in Scripture we are told that God is with us (Isa 41:10, Matt 28:20, etc.), that he will not abandon us in our time of trial (Isa 43:2, etc.), and that he will be "a very present help in trouble" (Psa 46:1). So, in spite of all the lofty theological claims, the question remains:  why would God abandon Jesus at his hour of most desperate need? The question is even more pressing when we realize that neither of the Gospel texts say anything about God abandoning Jesus because of sin. This silence suggests that there is better avenue of interpretation.

The traditional argument works from the first half of Habakkuk 1:13:

Hab 1:13 Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing . . .

This becomes blended with some of the dualistic assumptions of Greek thinking that prevailed in the early Church. These assume that deity cannot have contact with evil since they exist on two radically different levels of reality (the same assumption easily leads into docetism, the idea that Jesus could not have truly been a human being; for a brief summary of some implications of dualistic thinking, see Body and Soul: Greek and Hebraic Tensions in Scripture). The result is assuming that Jesus' cry from the cross is a statement of reality, and then trying to explain that reality in logical/systematic terms based on doctrine.

Some things to consider:

1) If one reads the entire verse of Habakkuk 1:13, especially in the context of the whole book, it becomes clear that 1:13a is a sarcastic or ironic statement.

Hab 1:13 Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?

The first statement is presented in this superficially pious way precisely because it is not true. It is a rhetorical construction that provides a counterpoint for the prophet's complaint.  This is the basis of the entire prophetic complaint, that God is, indeed, looking upon, or tolerating, wrongdoing and evil, first in the situation within Judah and secondly in the world situation in which Babylon is about to invade and destroy the Southern Kingdom, "those more righteous than they."

2) Dualistic assumptions about the nature of God are not a truth or reality, only a particular way to talk about God within certain cultural, intellectual, and historical contexts. They are not true given different assumptions and different contexts. That means that they are highly culturally and historically conditioned based on certain perceptions of the nature of reality. Most people today are no longer dualists, although ironically (and problematically) we tend to retain theological formulations that depend on the truth of those dualistic assumptions.

3) Jesus' cry quotes the opening line of Psalm 22, a lament psalm (see Patterns for Life: Structure, Genre, and Theology in Psalms).  Lament psalms are not about reality, but about experience and feelings. They are a form of prayer that directs the most profound emotion and pain to God. Sometimes laments even encompass hatred (Psa 137) or hopeless despair (Psa 88). As such they provide a way, a structure or a form, in which to express such profound feelings, all within the parameters of relationship with God.

4) Since Jesus was fully human, the pain and agony of his ordeal was very much real (while I don't especially like the graphic violence of Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ, it does depict the humanity of Jesus quite well). Jesus was a first century Jew who would be quite familiar with lament psalms and their function as prayers. Within first century Judaism, such a cry would have been a natural response to such horrific pain, not as a statement of reality or theology, but as an expression of emotion and experience.

5) There is nothing anywhere in either of the accounts of Jesus' cry from the cross (Matt 27:46, Mark 15:34) that refers to Jesus taking upon himself the sins of the world. In both accounts the immediate context is the mocking and taunting of Jesus by those around him. The emphasis is not only on the suffering of Jesus but also his near total isolation and abandonment by humanity. We must take the biblical text seriously without reading into it doctrine and thereby forcing it to say what it does not say. Reading any kind of atonement into the narratives at this point is eisegesis based on later doctrine.

Conclusion:  Jesus' cry is not about reality, but about feeling and emotion. It does not describe anything about God, and so cannot be the basis of any theology about God or atonement. It does depict Jesus as a human being, dying in agony and abandoned by humanity. In that moment he even feels abandoned by God. Yet, in a move typical of lament psalms, he still cries out to God. The irony is that in his feeling of abandonment, he still cries "my God." 

It is not a positive cry of Faith. It is a visceral response from the depths of human suffering. Yet it is a cry that turns to God. That tells us something important about what it means to be a human being.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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