Tragedy and Salvation

“It is in affliction itself that the splendor of God’s mercy shines, from its very depths, in the heart of its inconsolable bitterness.  If still persevering in our love, we fail to the point where the soul cannot keep back the dry, “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, if we remain at this point without ceasing to love, we end by touching something that is not affliction, not joy, something that is the central essence, necessary and pure, something not of the senses, common to joy and sorrow: the very love of God.”

–Simone Weil

Theologically, the latent power and millenia-long appeal of Christianity might largely be found in acceptance of genuine tragedy, precisely because human living is intimately familiar with the tragic; part of what it means to be human is to contend with tragedy. This is why Christ’s death on the cross, preceded by a cry of lamentation and forsakenness, can be so incredibly powerful and resonant, even for non-believers. True appreciation of this aspect of Christianity might be necessary in order to unlock its saving power.

The Seven Last Words from the Cross are seven expressions traditionally attributed to Jesus as he hung on the cross. They all derive from the gospels in the New Testament, and all have since become important aspects of Christian liturgy. Three of these expressions are found in Luke, three are found in John, and one is found in both Mark (the earliest gospel) and Matthew. The Seven Last Words are below:

Luke 23:34: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”

Luke 23:43: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

John 19:26–27: “Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother.”

Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

John 19:28: “I am thirsty.”

John 19:30: “It is finished.”

Luke 23:46: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

All these expressions are theologically rich and especially poignant and sobering as canonical records of Christ’s final suffering hours. There is only one expression, however, that is found in more than one gospel, and that is the Word of Abandonment, found in both Mark and Matthew: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

New Testament scholars are not in agreement regarding the degree of historical authenticity of these statements as being confidently attributable to Jesus, partly due to the fact that all of the gospels were likely authored decades after Jesus’ death (and most of them several decades); that most of the expressions are each found in only one particular gospel; and because there are potential reasons and agendas that can be illustrated for why one gospel author included certain expressions but left others out. However, there is probably more agreement about the authenticity of the Word of Abandonment than any other expression. In fact, in both Mark and Matthew, these are the only words Jesus utters on the cross before he dies.

Of course, this cry of despair from Jesus has a precedent as well. This was King David’s cry in Psalm 22, and in fact several portions of this Psalm have been cited by Christians from Christianity’s beginning as being prophetic of the crucifixion. Some even go so far as to say that Jesus did not in truth feel abandoned by God, but that his recitation of the first line of this psalm was merely a fulfillment of prophecy, as were the other seven expressions.

However, many others, including some non-Christians, have pointed to the power of these words, uttered by Christianity’s divine Messiah. Slavoj Zizek, for example, a militant atheist and philosopher of culture, has said that the inherent power of Christian theology is summed up in these very words, as Christ, the divine Son of God, cries out in horrified wonder that the Father whom he loved most abandoned his child beloved above all others in his most desperate hour. Zizek insists that the radical power of Christianity lies in the core concept that in these hopeless words God himself becomes an atheist. In other words, Christianity becomes the only religion in the history of the world in which God abandons God, fleeing from his own Creation, which in the beginning he had called, “Good.” But Zizek sees this as a good thing, a retroactive answer to Nietzsche’s stinging rebukes of Christianity, which, according to Nietzsche, had enslaved the world to its values and morals. Instead, says Zizek, the climax of the Christian story is God’s abandonment and death, thereby freeing humankind to develop its own values and build its own destinies and make of itself what it willed. That there was a resurrection, that Christians have always, after the fact, insisted on the continuing presence and power of God, are simply traditions, accepted by each successive generation. But the real power of Christianity is revealed in the final death throes of its would-be Savior.

I largely agree with Zizek here, though for very different reasons. However, he is wrong about Christ becoming an atheist on the cross. Just as King David’s cry in Psalm 22 was not one of loss of belief, neither was Christ’s cry on the cross. Such words could only come from souls faithful to the death, those who cannot but believe, and therefore despair in those moments of God’s absence. Had Christ lost his belief in God and abandoned his relationship with his Father, his words would have been very different. Instead, this was a cry of one who had an intimate, loving, and very real relationship with God and was therefore deeply pained by God’s absence. This was the cry of the believer, whose fidelity to God is as much a part of him or her as any other aspect of identity and personality. This was not the cry of the atheist.

Nevertheless, Zizek is right to point to the uniqueness and power of this part of the Christian story. Yes, resurrection would follow 3 days later; we celebrate this triumphant aspect of of the Christian story and point to the comfort it brings to the faithful that death is not the end. But how genuine, how meaningful, would Jesus’ cry of “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” be if Jesus was certain of his own resurrection following his ordeal? If he knew of the relief and glory that awaited him, why would he cry out in true despair before death overtook him? As Terry Eagleton put it, “If Jesus’ death was a mere device for rising again in glory, then [his cry on the cross and his death] was no more than a cheap conjuring trick….Jesus lived the destitute condition of humanity all the way through, pressed to the extreme limit….therefore his death is genuinely tragic because his death seemed to him a cul-de-sac, as his despairing scriptural quotation on the cross would suggest.”

Similarly, my contention is that Jesus couldn’t have been certain, that he genuinely wondered where God was and why he seemed to have been abandoned. And it was in that moment that Christ became my God, the universal God, the God not merely of creation but truly the God of humanity. It was the final piece of the mortality puzzle, that feeling of genuine forsakenness and aloneness that made him one of us, one with us. Christianity landed like a hydrogen bomb in these its founding figure’s final words, a lament-cry of doubt and longing that offered no comfort or hope before death silenced him. Even Christ’s resurrection would be a singular event, an event that the rest of humanity is still waiting to experience. This makes the resurrection the event of the Not Yet. While we live anchored to this earth we live always in the shadow of that Not Yet. In my view there is indeed something universally powerful in a religion that insists on genuine tragedy, mirroring and affirming the lives of countless billions that have passed through the veil into unspeakable suffering and affliction. This aspect of Christianity is resolute in its insistence on the truly tragic, which is the only thing that can make any future triumphal peace truly meaningful and lasting. For those reasons it’s imperative that we be more aware of the crucial necessity of making a space, both individually and in community, for that universal lament, that soul-shaking familiarity–and thus salvation–of “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”


Jacob is in a doctoral program in Philosophy of Religion and Theology at Claremont Graduate University.

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