Did Jesus endure separation from God on the cross?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

(Click here to read Monday Musings ... the place where I discuss the thinking that went into this article.)

Question: Was Jesus separated from God on the cross? Include some references, please.

Answer: Greetings friend. Thank you for asking a question that probes the very nature of God! You see, nearly every orthodox theologian understands that God is holy. But there’s a saying out there that this holiness demanded separation from his Son — although only for a moment — when Jesus bore our sins on the cross.

Well… you’ve asked the right question about this: does this separation theory have any scriptural warrant? But we must also ask, does this idea have any extra-scriptural warrant? Because to get the whole picture of God, we sometimes need to step outside of Scripture and consider his physical revelation (Romans 1:18-20). But also, we should test all our ideas using Philosophy and Natural Theology to see if they are logical and/or plausible… all the while making sure that our postulations about separation don’t contradict his written revelation.

I was taught this separation theory as a young Christian. The idea was that since Jesus became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21), God had to separate from him during the sin transfer. The rationale is since God is infinitely holy (or maximally holy… or holy-like-no-other-[and-none-of-us-knows-what-that’s-like]…), he can’t even be in the presence of sin.

So, here’s my first challenge: Who says? Who says that it is a characteristic of God’s holiness to limit how God interfaces with sin on any level… let alone demanding separation from his Son? Not me — that’s for sure! … and not the Bible… and not Natural Theology.

Even before I was philosophically conversant, I didn’t understand how an omnipotent being could be restrained from “doing” something (… but you pick your fights). Now I just state boldly that there is no compelling reason to believe the separation theory.

In fact, I use the separation theory as an example of eisegesis. We commit eisegesis when we bring external ideas into the Scripture rather than letting the Scripture speak for itself. It’s opposite is called exegesis, and with exegesis we let the Scripture speak for itself — primarily and whenever possible.

So, what’s at the heart of this exegetical fallacy that we’ve been calling the separation theory? People have this notion that God’s holiness is debilitating for God — and “debilitating” is not too strong a word when someone asserts that God “can’t” do something. But not only does the separation theory have little scriptural warrant, it fights against some plain (and fundamental) truths about God. Namely, that God is omnipresent, and that God exists as a Trinity.

The verse usually cited to support the separation theory is Habakkuk 1:13. “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing… ” but there are a few problems with using this verse. First of all, there is just this one verse… and we should have a few more before we toss over God’s omnipotence by saying that he is incapable of doing certain things.

Second, interpreting that verse in a way that supports the separation theory flies in the face of the biblical narrative where God is constantly beholding evil, dealing with evil — and even creating evil! (Isaiah 45:7).

Third, this is Habakkuk’s musings on what God can or cannot look upon or tolerate. It does not teach what God can actually look upon or tolerate — and new readers of Scripture should take a warning here: the Bible contains dialogue where people are saying things that are not factually correct (or theologically helpful!) The speeches of Job’s friends (which go on page after page!) come to mind here.

Fourth, not every biblical utterance bares on “theology proper.” Theology proper is the study of God per se… and that’s what’s in focus here — the very nature of God. The Habakkuk verse gives us some data… but this data is neither convincing, sufficient nor corroborative when it comes to the separation theory.

Don’t get me wrong, though. I think people’s motives are pure with the separation theory. They want to emphasize God’s holiness — and so do I! But look at the cost: the Trinity is redefined to accommodate a break in its eternal essence, and God’s omnipresence goes on the chopping block.

So, what does this Habakkuk verse tell us? It shows what Habakkuk thinks is God’s attitude towards evil (— and I think he’s onto something here!) But it does not teach that God is ontologically restricted from being present with either sinners or with sin. Besides, if God were so restricted, I’d be at a loss to understand how salvation could even occur!

Now, I realize that the separation argument says that Jesus lived with and died for sinners… and that’s not a problem. It’s the Father who “cannot” be in the presence of sin… and I get that. But other than that Habakkuk verse, I do not know where they purport to find support for this idea in the Bible. As such, I have no verses to give you as you requested.

For the sake of argument, though, let’s agree with the separationist and say that Jesus was separated from God for a moment on the cross. That has two problems. First, it blows apart the Trinity — the definitive Christian doctrine — because there would be this one moment where the three persons were not in eternal fellowship. In my opinion, breaking the eternal unity of the Trinity breaks the Trinity itself.

Second, it blows apart God’s omnipresence; it insists that there was a time and a place where God could not be… and I repudiate the idea that such a time and place exists. You see, for God to be truly omnipresent, he must be in all possible places at all possible times — and all at the same time! So, God exists truly and fully in every time and place… and he is not diluted in this process.

Now, Jesus died at an actual time and place in history, and this has implications for God’s omnipresence. Not only does God’s omnipresence require the Father to be at that time and place where Jesus died, but it also requires him to do so continually… as his nature demands for all other times and places. If this is not true, then God is not omnipresent.

As such, I present to you a dichotomy: God was either with Jesus truly when he died — and that therefore, that utterance on the cross could not have been Jesus declaring that God was not with him — or God is not omnipresent.

I can’t live with the latter, and I find no compelling biblical reasons to put a restriction on the being who — by definition — cannot be restricted. So, since I find no biblical warrant to support the separation theory, I call it arbitrary. In my opinion, it’s just a saying out there in the world… one that causes people to stumble theologically.

Now, I realize that God “cannot” be any place illogical… like a non-existent place. But not only is his being in the presence of sin logical, God has a plan to address sin logically. He handled sin before the foundations of the world (1 Peter 1:20) without offending his holiness. What this means is that his holiness makes him rare… but it does not make him rarefied. In fact, he’s just the opposite. He is imminent (Jeremiah 23:23) — within creation or outside of it.

But he is not just imminent. He became one of us (Philippians 2:7). The second person of the Trinity took on flesh and dwelt here on earth. But here’s the thing: during his sojourn in the flesh, the second person of the Trinity was still in constant unity with the Trinity because of the hypostatic union… which is phrase we use to designate the unique way that Jesus was both human and divine at the same time.

So when Jesus said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), he was not talking about being of one mind… although that was also true. He was talking about the essence of their existence… that their different persons were a single unity. This is an ontological distinction. There is no moment inside or outside of eternity when this was not true of Jesus and the Father… even when Jesus uttered the words, “Why have you forsaken me?”

Those are the opening words of Psalm 22, by the way… a well-known messianic Psalm. So, which seems more likely to you: was Jesus quoting David to tell the world that God was not omnipresent? Or was he telling the whole world that he was the Messiah? I’d say the latter, and here’s why.

Scripture was not broken up into chapters and verses until sixteen-hundred years after Jesus made that utterance. So, when a rabbi in Jesus’ time wanted people to scroll to (or to consider) Psalm 22, he would say something like, “Go to, ‘My God my God why has thou forsaken me’” not, “Go to Psalm 22.” The phrase that Jesus uttered was shorthand for, “Let’s consider the whole Psalm.”

Now, the religious establishment understood that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah (Mark 14:61-62)… and it was people like them — people who understood the Jewish messianic expectations —  who were among those present at the cross… and people like those knew exactly what was going on when Jesus evoked that Psalm.

Therefore, the final statement of his earthly ministry was not this sad and confusing statement that the Father had somehow abandoned him. Instead, it was Jesus declaring that he was the fulfillment of Psalm 22… which, in my opinion, is a better (and more logical) way to interpret the ending of the greatest story ever told.

I pray all this helped you. God bless you.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article on separation — consider doing so at the following link: 20191014 Was Jesus separated from God on the cross?).

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