Here is how Jesus’s death is described in Mark 15:33-39:
33 And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” 36 And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
There are many unbelievable things that happened in this short span of time. First, there is unusual darkness throughout the land — until 3 p.m., a time usually filled with light. This is pretty amazing in itself.
Then, when Jesus dies, his very death is unusual. Death by crucifixion was a particularly brutal form of capital punishment, meant to inflict the largest amount of pain. The person being crucified would not die of being nailed to the cross, or of anything else to do with the flesh. The person being crucified would die of not being able to breath — the burden of constantly having to lift up his body to breathe would ultimately drain his strength, so that he could no longer breathe. This would usually take a long time — some people took as long as several days to finally die. But Jesus died very quickly, only hours after he was nailed to the cross. And when the gospel writer Matthew describes Jesus’s death, he says that Jesus “yielded up his spirit.” Someone could not just kill Jesus. He had to allow himself to die. This makes his very death unique and special.
The curtain of the temple, too, was torn in half, from top to bottom. What it symbolized is particularly encouraging: God is no longer only accessible when the priest does his sacrifices on behalf of everyone else on the Day of Atonement; now, it is by the atonement of Jesus on the cross that God is accessible to all people. We can all come into God’s presence.
Even the Roman centurion confesses belief in Jesus. Doubtless he had seen many crucifixions before without proclaiming the victims to be sons of God. But he does so with Jesus. That shows that, at least for this man, there was something unique and special about Jesus’s death.
But the part that I am always most drawn to in this passage is where Jesus, in deep anguish, cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” For many, these words are so shocking, so different, that we feel it impossible to accept them, that Jesus could not have meant what he said, and we just move on. How could God, the Father, have abandoned Jesus, his beloved Son?
And indeed, many people, including many scholars, have tried to explain this verse away, to say that Jesus was just talking about something else. Some say Jesus was just quoting the Psalms, specifically Psalm 22, which ends in hope. However, if Jesus wanted to quote from a Psalm, why would he choose that one? If we wanted to fulfill a prophetic word that conveyed hope, there are many nicer Psalms he could have chosen. But He chose Psalm 22. That can’t explain it.
Others think Jesus is simply mistaken. God did not actually forsake Jesus — Jesus just felt that way because of the level of pain he was enduring. But I find this quite presumptuous and almost blasphemous — we certainly could not have known the situation as well as Jesus himself did. He was the God the Son — if anybody would know how the Father felt about him, it would be Jesus. That doesn’t explain it either.
How, then, are we to understand Jesus’s cry? Simply, I think Jesus was telling the truth — he was actually and literally abandoned and forsaken by the Father. Not only was Jesus physically punished by being tortured and killed in a very gruesome way — he suffered spiritually as well. On the cross, Jesus, who had the most intimate relationship with God the Father, experienced actual separation from him. The Father abandoned the Son.
Why would God do that? Second Corinthians 5:21 says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” And Galatians 3:13 says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”
These aren’t just words. Though Jesus never sinned, he became sin, and received the divine, cosmic, unfathomable punishment that all of us, collectively, deserved for all time. Jesus was actually cursed, all so that we would not have to be cursed. Jesus experienced separation from the Father, so that we would not have to. Jesus was abandoned so that we would not have to be. Jesus experienced all that we deserved so that we, unrighteous, sinful creatures who continually fall away from God, could be declared righteous.
“Not until we understand his abandonment by the God and Father whose imminence and closeness he had proclaimed in a unique, gracious and festive way, can we understand what was distinctive about his death,” says theologian Jürgen Moltmann. “Just as there was a unique fellowship with God in his life and preaching, so in his death there was a unique abandonment by God.” Until we understand that Jesus, the Son, was truly abandoned by God, the Father, we will never understand the fullness of Jesus’s death. And until we understand the fullness of Jesus’s death, we will never grasp why the Good News that Paul proclaims in Ephesians 2 is so good: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”