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Demons gathered in the darkness. The grieving sun hid its face. Lightning rent the clouds, thunder threatened the distant hills, and the earth heaved and groaned. Shattered nature waited, all its forces poised on the fulcrum of a single, fading life. “My God!” A tortured voice demanded, more terrible than the thunder, more unnerving than the quaking earth. “My God?” the same voice again, inquiring, then imploring, “Why have You forsaken Me?” The Man of the ages, asking the question of the ages.

When Nazis gas innocent men, women, and children at Dachau; when angry tribesmen hack to death their unarmed neighbors in Rwanda; when terrorists blow up a school bus and incinerate children, we want to cry out,  “Where are You, God? Why have You forsaken us?” Where is God in such circumstances? God is exactly where He was when Jesus died.

The Bible teaches that God is omnipresent—present everywhere. “You know when I leave and when I get back; I’m never out of your sight. . . . I look behind me and you’re there, then up ahead and you’re there, too—your reassuring presence, coming and going. . . . If I flew on morning’s wings to the far western horizon, You’d find me in a minute—you’re already there waiting!”1 We may not sense God’s presence, but He always sees us. That was true when Christ hung on Calvary, as well. Perhaps Jesus lost sight of His Father, but the Father never lost sight of the Son.

God hides His face from sin

In mercy, God hides His face from sin, not because He cannot abide sin, but because sin cannot abide in His presence. Though our sin is repulsive beyond our imagining, Christ accepted our sins as His own. And, sinful though we are, “ ‘in him we live and move and have our being.’ ”2 God can abide sin, but sin cannot remain in the presence of God.

Revelation pictures the lost, those who have clung to sin, crying for the rocks and the mountains to conceal them from the Lamb, because, in their sin, they cannot abide His presence. Paul tells us that Jesus became sin for us. The psalmist, seeking mercy, asked God to “hide your face from my sins.”3 So God answered the psalmist’s prayer—and also our prayers for forgiveness—by hiding His face from the One who became sin for us. Jesus experienced the consequences of carrying our sin—separation from the Father.

This separation devastated Jesus because never before had His connection with His Father been broken. Until then, Jesus and His Father had maintained constant communication. Christ referred to this connection repeatedly. Just the evening before the Crucifixion, Jesus had declared that He and His Father were One.4 Jesus only did what He saw His Father doing; so deep and constant was their communion that Christ could repeatedly say, “the Father is in me, and I in the Father.”5 So it came to be that upon the cross, bearing the guilt of all humanity, abandoned by His human disciples, Jesus experienced separation from the Father for the first time. Our sins He could bear without a murmur of complaint, but separation from the Father caused Him to cry out in agony. Imagine how the Father suffered, watching the scene.

Doctors diagnosed the son of one of my dearest friends with cancer when the boy was less than two years old. Sitting with my friend while his son endured many hours of surgery and treatment, I could hardly tell who suffered more, father or son. How much more the perfect Father loved and suffered as He watched His beloved Son in agony. And the Father knew that hiding His face caused His Son the greatest pain. From the foundation of the world, Father and Son had agreed to this drastic remedy for sin. In sparing us from the penalty of sin, neither the Father nor the Son spared themselves in the least.

Psalm 22, which begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” later reassures the sufferer: “He has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.” In quoting from this psalm on the cross, Jesus expressed His anguish while at the same time affirming His faith that His Father “[had] not despised or disdained” the Son’s suffering.6

God desires reconciliation

When Adam repudiated God’s authority, he breached the loving relationship between himself and God. No longer could they meet and commune in the cool of the day, as they had since creation. God always wanted to heal the breach in order to return us to loving fellowship, but we did not want that healing, because, as Paul reminded us, “[We] were alienated from God and were enemies in [our] minds.”7

David W. Augsburger, professor of pastoral care and counseling at Fuller Theological Seminary reminds us that “authentic reconciliation requires movement by both sides, the offender and the offended. Both contribute, both grow, both reopen the future.”8

God, the spurned party, desired to reconcile, but we humans, having become “enemies in our minds,” refused to cooperate. The psalmist confirms the problem: “The Lord looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.”9

Rather than let us go, Jesus volunteered to become a human forever, to take our part, to reconcile for us. Imagine! Even when we refused to be reconciled, God did not give up on us. God reconciled us while we were still His enemies!10 Jesus became a human; and on the cross, He accepted our guilt. Taking on the role of the offender, He could then reconcile us to God. And that’s the final piece of the puzzle as to where God was when Jesus died.

The Father hid His face, fully aware of the pain it caused, so that Jesus could experience the separation that sin entails and fulfill the wrongdoer’s role. Though unseen by Christ, the Father actively engaged with the suffering Son. For God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ.11 Both the wrongdoer, represented by Jesus, and the wronged Father, willingly endured Their hour of greatest suffering in order to reconcile lost humanity in Themselves.

How can we verify this? Both Matthew and Mark record Jesus’ cry, “Why have You forsaken Me?” Both accounts next relate that someone gave Jesus some sour wine. Christ then cried out once more in a loud voice, and breathed His last.12 John’s account also mentions the sour wine and the loud cry, but John, the only disciple actually on Calvary that day, tells us that when Jesus received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished.”13

But this was no cry of resignation. As our Representative, Jesus experienced the agony of separation from the Father. In that anguish, He cried out the words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”14 Yet He realized that this separation was part of the process of reconciliation. How can we know? Because the same psalm declares of God, “He has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.”15 And with that realization came the certainty that His task—the one for which He was born, and for which He came to this world16—had been completed.

So as Jesus finished His task in triumph and breathed His last, He heard in His mind the words of the last verse of Psalm 22: “They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn—for he has done it,” and realizing He had done it, He proclaimed in victory, “It is finished!“

Where was God when Jesus died? Where He always is.

As one poet aptly put it, “Behind the dim unknown, / Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”17 Behind the darkness, beyond the thunder, unmoved by the quaking earth, answering unseen the anguished cry, God was in Christ, reconciling the world—and you and me—to Himself.

1Psalm 139:3, 5, 9, The Message. 2Acts 17:28. 3See Revelation 6:16; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Psalm 51:9. 4See John 10:30; 17:10. 5See John 5:19; 10:38; 14:10-12; 17:21. 6Psalm 22:24. 7Colossians 1:21. 8David W. Augsburger, Helping People Forgive (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), p. 166. 9Psalm 14:2, 3. 10See Romans 5:8. 11See Romans 5:10; 2 Corinthians 5:18, 19. 12See Matthew 27:50; Mark 15:37. 13John 19:30. 14Psalm 22:1. 15Psalm 22:24, emphasis added. 16See John 18:37. 17James Russell Lowell, "The Present Crisis."

Ed Dickerson writes from Garrison, Iowa.

Where Was God When Jesus Died?

by Ed Dickerson
From the April 2005 Signs