When Jesus died on the cross, he cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) Many have taken this cry of anguish to imply a sort of spiritual separation between the Father and the Son. Some have even gone so far as to suggest a rift in the Trinity, a break in the eternal union between the two divine persons. Here I intend to bring this interpretation into question on biblical grounds.
The Forsakenness of David
What does the cry upon the cross mean? It should be noted at the outset that Jesus is quoting the opening line of Psalm 22. By quoting the first line of the Psalm in this manner and identifying himself with the subject, Jesus is inviting us to read the whole Psalm with him in mind. Other details of the crucifixion bear this out, including the references to him being mocked (Mt 27:39-44, cf. Ps 22:7-8) and to lots being cast for his clothing (Mt 27:35 cf. Ps 22:18).
However, we should bear in mind that the Psalm, as originally written, was about king David. It certainly foreshadows the sufferings of the greater David (Christ), but if we are to take the title and authorship of the Psalm seriously, we should first engage with the original meaning in order to understand it better. And this begins with the very first line: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
In what sense was David forsaken by God? I believe the answer is unfolded in the rest of the Psalm. David was “forsaken” in the sense that he was abandoned to die at the hands of his enemies. Understood this way, the opening line functions as a sort of challenge to God not to abandon his anointed one forever. Not only is there no spiritual separation between David and God implied, but David goes on to explicitly deny such a meaning:
“For he has
not despised or abhorred
the affliction of the afflicted,
and has not hidden his face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to him.”
Given that the original meaning of the Psalm excludes the notion of a spiritual separation between the subject and God, it would seem unlikely that this is what Jesus had in mind when quoting the Psalm. A better explanation would be (as with David) to take the cry as a challenge to God not to abandon his anointed. And this cry is answered by God in the divinely orchestrated events which follow, namely the torn temple curtain, the earthquake and the many dead bodies which are raised to life (Matthew 27:51-53). These events should be viewed as vindicating acts which demonstrate that Jesus has not been abandoned and that he is truly God’s anointed son.
Judgement through Mediators
There are several other passages which are sometimes used to imply a kind of spiritual separation between the Father and the Son. There is the reference to Jesus’s death as a “cup” (Matthew 26:39, 42), which is claimed to have a background in the old testament concept of a “cup of wrath” (eg. Isaiah 51:17, Jeremiah 25:15). However, Jesus elsewhere in the Gospels uses the image of the “cup” as a way of referring not only to his own death but to the eventual martyrdom of his apostles too (Matthew 20:22-23). Unless we believe that the apostles were spiritually separated from God the Father in their deaths, we should not take the image of the “cup” to imply such a separation.
Another passage often used to imply such a separation would be the reference to darkness appearing whilst Jesus was on the cross (Matthew 27:45). This darkness is sometimes taken to imply the absence of God. However, whilst darkness could certainly symbolise divine judgement, the notion of spiritual separation is absent. In the penultimate plague against Egypt, when God struck them with darkness there was no implication that God was separating himself from the Egyptians. On the contrary, the darkness was a foreboding symbol of the judgement to come in the death of the firstborn sons of Egypt. Likewise, the land being covered in darkness at Calvary was not a sign of spiritual separation, but of the coming death of the ultimate firstborn son, the light of the world being extinguished.
We need to be careful when considering the divine judgement which Jesus bore on the cross. It was not a judgement administered directly by God, but was mediated through human agents. Just like the judgements of Israel under the old covenant mediated through the Assyrians and Babylonians, the suffering and death of Jesus was mediated through the actions of Jewish leaders and Roman soldiers. Luke puts it well in Acts when he states that Jesus, who was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” (Acts 2:23). God was at work through human agents to bring about the death of Christ for the salvation of the lost.
In summary then, Jesus on the cross bore the punishment for human sin. He became a substitute for sinful human beings and endured the suffering and death that we all deserve. However, he was never separated from the Father throughout his ordeal. Instead, he was vindicated by God the Father both in his death and in his resurrection, and thereby shown to be the Son of God and the source of eternal life for all mankind.
I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
 This is precisely what the nearby centurion and his men conclude in response to the events (Matthew 27:54).
 Note also that this “cup of wrath” judgement was a divine judgement mediated by the hands of the Babylonians.