Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”, that is to say, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” – Matthew 27
How disturbing those words are! And not just when one considers the suffering behind them; no, the theological implications of them are disturbing as well. These words have always particularly troubled me. If Christ is God, then how can God accuse God of forsaking God? Do these words not imply that Christ is not God? And beyond their meaning, why would the authors of the Gospels, who doubtless understood the implications of these worlds, include them in their works at all?
What does it all mean?
In considering this, let us ask ourselves two questions. First, what is the nature of God? Second, what is our relationship to God? To the first we may answer: the nature of God is perfection – God is omniscient, omnipotent, intelligent and wise literally beyond our ability to contemplate. To the second we may answer: God not only created us, but God will judge us. We will be rewarded or punished – harshly, eternally – based upon this judgment. But here we reach a problem; one that may not make itself apparent at first. The problem is that in some sense perfection is, in itself, an imperfection, or at least a limitation. There is one thing that a perfect being cannot be, and that is imperfect.
I am reminded of an episode of the 1980s revival of the Twilight Zone in which a professor (played by Sherman Helmsley, late of The Jeffersons) inadvertently makes a deal with a demon (played by Ron Glass, late of Barney Miller and eventually to appear in Firefly). The professor finds that there is one loophole by which he may be released from his deal. He will be permitted to ask the demon three questions, which he must answer honestly. At the end of this, he may ask the demon one final question, which he must answer, or assign him one task, which he must perform. If the demon cannot answer the final question or perform the task, the professor will be released from his bargain. Having asked the first three questions, which probed the extent of the demon’s powers, including determining that there was no point in space to which he could send the demon from which he could not return, the professor assigned him a task:
At which point the demon disappeared in a puff of smoke. The professor had been smart enough to use the demon’s own degree of perfection against him by assigning to him a task that required imperfection. The demon, who could effortlessly and instantly find his way from any point in space to any other point, literally couldn’t get lost. A neat trick, and one that illustrates the counterintuitive imperfections of perfection.
Not only that, but a perfect being cannot even truly understand what it is to be imperfect. On an intellectual level, perhaps He can – but not really, not firsthand. Thus, one wonders, what makes a being who is incapable of experiencing true weakness, doubt, and hopelessness qualified to judge a being who not only can, but very often does? What can He know of what an imperfect being might do out of desperation when lost in the depths of the sort of despair that He can never truly comprehend? How can He condemn us for succumbing to a weakness that He is as incapable of experiencing as the demon in the story was incapable of getting lost?
After all, He cannot experience that level of despair firsthand – or can He?
This, I believe, is the true meaning of these words, which were the culmination of the passion of Jesus Christ. Not long after this, Christ died – but why only then? Why was it necessary for Him to live and suffer on the cross long enough to say them?
It is because only then, having been driven to such despair as to believe that God the Father had abandoned Him, that Christ really understood what it meant to be imperfectly human – terrified, alone, hurt, weak, desperate, confused, and left doubting that a loving God was there for Him.
And it was in that moment that the Christ became truly qualified to judge the souls of men.