As a ‘blasphemer’, Jesus was rejected by the guardians of his people’s law. As a ‘rebel’ he was crucified by the Romans. But finally, and most profoundly, he died as one rejected by his God and his Father.
CG, p. 153
In a previous post, The “Historical Jesus” is a Crucified and Dead Jesus I shared from Chapter 4 of CG, “The Historical Trial of Jesus”. In this chapter Moltmann wrestles with the historical questions relating to the question of why Jesus died. The first two should sound familiar enough to anyone who knows the narrative:
1) Jesus and the law: ‘The blasphemer’ (Jesus was continuously at odds with the keepers of the law among his own people).
2) Jesus and authority: ‘The rebel’ (Jesus was perceived as a threat to those in power).
These religious and political elements that led to his death are important to understand and very relevant today. But for Moltmann, the most profound question surrounding Jesus’ death is based on the cry of Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Moltmann calls this aspect of the crucifixion:
3) Jesus and God: ‘The godforsaken’
Throughout CG Moltmann explores how the cross of Christ serves as “the foundation and criticism of Christian theology”. How we interpret Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross cuts to the core of this approach. Everything we say about God must make sense in light of the cry of the dying Jesus for God. As Moltmann states in the opening pages of CG:
Jesus died crying out to God, ‘My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ All Christian theology and all Christian life is basically an answer to the question which Jesus asked as he died. The atheism of protests and of metaphysical rebellions against God are also answers to this question. Either Jesus who was abandoned by God is the end of all theology or he is the beginning of a specifically Christian, and therefore critical and liberating, theology and life. The more the ‘cross of reality’ is taken seriously, the more the crucified Christ becomes the general criterion of theology. The issue is not that of an abstract theology of the cross and of suffering, but of a theology of the crucified Christ.
CG, p. 4
There have been many others who have who died as blasphemers, and many more who have died as rebels perceived to be threatening by the powers. But for Moltmann at least, we begin to see what was truly unique about Jesus’ death only when we understand his experience of utter abandonment by the God he called Father.
The splendour of his life and the horror of his death can be understood only on the basis of that by which and for which he lived. The two Zealots who were crucified with him may have ‘broken down’ and ‘failed’, but the cause for which they had lived and fought was to them inviolable and could not be destroyed by any death. They could die in the consciousness that the coming world judgment would vindicate them. But as we have shown, for Jesus, according to his whole preaching, the cause for which he lived and worked was so closely linked with his own person and life that his death was bound to mean the death of his cause. It is this which makes his death on the cross so unique. Other men, too, have been misunderstood and brought to disaster by the failure of men to understand them. Prophets, too, have been cursed as blasphemers by their own people. Many brave men have been executed by crucifixion and worse tortures. None of this distinguishes the death of Jesus from other crosses in the history of human suffering. 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.
Why did Jesus die? He died not only because of the understanding of the law by his contemporaries or because of Roman power politics, but ultimately because of his God and Father. The torment in his torments was this abandonment by God. It leads us to understand, in the context of his life itself, what happened on the cross as something which took place between Jesus and his God, and between his Father and Jesus. The origin of christology, the purpose of which is to say who Jesus is in reality, consequently lies not in Jesus’ understanding of himself or in his messianic consciousness, nor in the evaluation of him by his disciples, nor solely in his call to decision, which might imply a christology. It lies in what took place between Jesus and his God, between that ‘Father’ and Jesus, in what was given expression in his preaching and his actions and was literally ‘put to death’ in his abandonment as he died.
CG, p. 148-149
Jesus died with us and for us – the godless and the godforsaken – and fully experienced the human horror of being without God and abandoned by God. We are all blasphemers and rebels. The situation of fallen humanity is characterized by sin, death, injustice, suffering. In many ways, this world is not a blessed one but a godforsaken one. Jesus entered fully into our situation. When we understand Jesus’ experience of godforsakenness in trinitarian terms, this abandonment can only be seen as “enmity between God and God“.
The abandonment on the cross which separates the Son from the Father is something which takes place within God himself; it is stasis within God-‘God against God’-particularly if we are to maintain that Jesus bore witness to and lived out the truth of God. We must not allow ourselves to overlook this ‘enmity’ between God and God by failing to take seriously either the rejection of Jesus by God, the gospel of God which he lived out, or his last cry to God upon the cross.
As a ‘blasphemer’, Jesus was rejected by the guardians of his people’s law. As a ‘rebel’ he was crucified by the Romans. But finally, and most profoundly, he died as one rejected by his God and his Father. In the theological context of his life this is the most important dimension. It is this alone which distinguishes his cross from the many crosses of forgotten and nameless persons in world history. In his conflict with the law it was possible to speak of a ‘misunderstanding’ on the part of the Jews. In the political conflict of his crucifixion as a rebel it is customary to speak of a ‘misunderstanding’ on the part of the Romans. But is it possible to speak of a ‘misunderstanding’ in the theological context of his abandonment by God? If so, either Jesus must have misunderstood God in his preaching, or God must have misunderstood Jesus at the end of his life. But in view of his message concerning God, his abandonment on the cross cannot be interpreted as a misunderstanding unless Jesus is to be explained as a liar, or God as non God.
CG, p. 151-152
By entering into the situation of abandonment, Jesus reminds us that we are never alone even in the worst of our sufferings. There is no amount of human pain or estrangement that Jesus is not familiar with. As A.N. Whitehead put it: “God is a fellow sufferer who understands” (cited by Moltmann in several places). Many of us have undergone suffering for which there is no explanation, and no amount of theologizing will provide comfort for our pain. A few months ago, my friend Wyatt wrote to Moltmann to ask how to care for those who have had stillborns in light of CG, and received a powerful response (if you missed it, you can read that letter here). CG reminds us not to offer theological explanations for our suffering, but to proclaim the presence of the suffering Christ. And then we may also take some comfort in knowing that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will also raise us.