What I’m going to write here may sound controversial to some. But it is necessary that I do this. Before I plunge ahead, I think it is important to state that a Christian theology cannot talk about God’s absence in Christ without bookending the Christ-event with incarnation and resurrection. If one wants to be a Christian theologian one simply has to do so, standing on the promise of God’s presence (Immanuel) and living in the hope of the last things of which the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a harbinger. Yet, a genuine Christian theology that does justice to the existential realities of humanity, must also acknowledge the ambiguity of both promise of presence and hope of renewal. I believe, good theology will pause where others have often refused to tarry; it will linger where others have refrained to do so out of fear of the unknown.
If we take the resurrection for instance, we can acknowledge and accept the biblical account of Jesus’ rising from the dead. We can agree with St. Paul that without the resurrection the Christian faith is void, meaningless, and without genuine hope. And yet, we ask, where is the resurrection then? Christians have been waiting for 2000 years and we’re living in a world that hasn’t changed a bit. We may talk about resurrection all we want, but tomorrow we die. We die young or old, from injuries, diseases, or old age, satisfied or sad that our life never saw any dream fulfilled, in the hope of heaven or with the sole desire to escape the hell that was earth. Resurrection is not yet, they say; it awaits us, they say. But it is not here. Not now! Our existential situation belies the hope that has been given us in the eye-witness accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. It is only a hope; never a reality. And thus is it ambiguous.
The Promise of Presence
Or let’s start with the incarnation. Apparently, those who knew Jesus, witnessed truth and grace in bodily form. So much so that they understood Jesus to be the only begotten god. John’s gospel tells us that the Word that was from the beginning with God and was God became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus is then the bodily presence of God among humanity in such a way that the divine partakes in human flesh. God is one of us.
But even these beautiful words become ambiguous in the light of the cross. True, if we are to believe the gospel narratives, the people who knew Jesus either really, really liked him or really, really hated him, proof of the extraordinary character he evinced. Those who regarded him as a threat—and basically that means all those in power—managed to arrest him and get him condemned to hang on a cross. And it is to that cross that we need to turn our attention.
If we are to believe interpretations of Jesus’ death on the cross, the cross was the crux of his work. The cross provides the key to unlocking the meaning of what Jesus was all about. It is said that Jesus’ voluntary death as a criminal was actually part of a divine plan—or became een opportunity for divine love—to reconcile humanity to God. Indeed, if we want to understand the full meaning of why God became human, the cross provides the answer.
Ironically, more than anything else, that answer looks like a question mark today. Christian theologians like to revel in the atonement by way of sacrificial imagery. They prefer talk of assurance of salvation and can tell you exactly what transactions took place on the cross. But do they really know? In many of the volumes written on the cross, one simple thing is overlooked, or subsumed under determined explicatory strategies. We find it in the Aramaic words of Jesus “Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachtani,” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
If there would be a vote to determine the most important sayings of Jesus, these words would certainly not come on top. Yet, the simple cry of forsakenness on the cross upends our theologies of self-assurance and comfort. If Jesus of Nazareth is the Word become flesh, God incarnate, the indwelling Holy One among humanity’s downtrodden, how can he cry out these words? The very question reveals their importance. We must tarry and pay attention to what is happening here.
If Jesus is humanity’s assurance of God’s presence, how is it that at the crucial moment of the atonement we find this divine presence to be lacking, precisely, divinity? How can it be that at the very moment in time and space that heaven and earth meet, Jesus discovers, so to speak, his own divinity as a void, a hollow, a nothing? At the cross when God and human meet in the person of Jesus, God turns up to be a non-presence. People have ready answers: Jesus needs to suffer the consequences of our sin, they say, he needs to experience the wrath of God.
Jürgen Moltmann has a much better answer, of course. He looks at the cross as a trinitarian event in which the forsakenness of a sinful world causes a rift, an event of alienation, within the trinitarian relationship of Father and Son. Both are affected; both suffer. Moltmann is a much better theologian than I ever will be. Yet, even here I think the emptiness of God is glossed over too easily. Both the void that God appears to be at the moment of greatest need, and the absence that God’s incarnational presence turns out to be when it matters most, are too significant to ignore.
The Absentee God
It is so significant because this is also the existential experience of too many Christians who have wrestled with God and begged God to come to their aid. At the moment of greatest need, in the deepest darkness, there turns out to be a palpable nothing, a tangible absence, a harrowing bottomless depth. It is this nothing that makes people question the reality of God. It is this point of unanswered prayers, spiritual emptiness, and absence that must be named. Of course, those who do so, always find themselves on the fringe of positive organized religion. They’re not part of the official narrative of jubilations and salutations, of spiritual victory and worship to the Lord. Their story is the story of defeat and desolation, a story about the God who has left and abandoned his children.
It is highly significant that we find this same abandonment and absence in the most crucial words of Christ, words that epitomize the Christ-event as such. The God who has promised to be present is absent; absent in the incarnation, absent to Christ, absent on the cross, absent in the atonement, absent at the very moment all God’s promises matter most.
In Christ, then, we meet not only Immanuel, God with us. We also meet the absent God. The God who couldn’t even be there when humanity’s fate was at stake. In Christ, as the incarnated Word of God, we find nothing beyond Christ’s humanity.
The Hidden God
This can mean a number of things. It could mean, for instance, that Jesus was a mere human who experienced god-forsakeness like so many of us, and even more so, because of his implicit claim to unity with the Father. Jesus’ cry on the cross is then the atheism of Christ and the atheism of Christianity. But why would his cry of forsakenness be preserved in the text if his divinity was to be asserted?
Another option, one that I find much more rewarding and meaningful, is that in the presence of God, precisely at the point of closest contact between God and human being, and precisely at the moment of greatest need, suffering, and pain, God is experienced as absence. The moment of deepest human suffering is not cushioned by a comforting presence, but reinforced by a retreating void.
This does not mean God is not real, but it does mean that there is an overlap with the atheistic claim of God’s non-existence. The latter names something real; something that should not be glossed over. It also does not mean, that God doesn’t care, but rather that this caring—including the promise of God’s abiding presence—is a caring under the form of humanity. That is the concreteness that is given us, the co-suffering of God in its incarnational embodied reality. It is the God who cries out the human cry of desolation, in full solidarity with human frailty as thrown into the world: “God, why have you forsaken me?!”
We stare at a profound darkness that confronts us with a God fully hidden beyond the mangled body of Christ on the cross; a God who is not there, who, for all purposes doesn’t really exist. Christ marks, and in a way is, the absence of God. This insight opens up to a mystery; not a foregone conclusion. It is an insight the marks of which we carry in our bodies; we, who found God absent, but who, with Christ, keep asking: Why have you forsaken me?