You Asked: Does the Father’s Wrath Upon the Son Sever the Unity of the Trinity?

Editors’ Note: Send your theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions to along with your full name, city, and state. We’ll pass them along to The Gospel Coalition’s Council members and other friends for an answer we can share.

Thomas A. from Birmingham, Alabama, asks:

How do I explain the wrath of God toward Jesus and his separation during this time of suffering for our sin and not separate the Godhead?

We posed the question to Matt Jenson, associate professor of theology at the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University.


What a fantastic question! Really, it’s a question that already begins its own answer. That is, however we explain what’s happening in the death of Jesus, we need to do so in such a way that upholds and honors the triune God who redeemed us.

Tom McCall has recently written a short book that is about as good you can get on this topic. In my review of it, I wrote of the need to hold together,

(1) the triune God’s perfect, loving unity in (2) his radically self-giving gift which entails (3) the eternal Son’s profound suffering in the flesh for us and our salvation. If we only have (1) and not (2) and (3), we end up in a triumphalism foreign to the victory of the cross. If (3) doesn’t entail strife between Father and Son, it still entails deeper suffering than I have ever known-possibly deeper suffering than anyone has ever known.

The trick here is to seek analytic clarity without plucking out the mystery of the cross. “We murder to dissect,” Wordsworth wrote. Woe to us if we perform the same procedure on the mystery of our salvation.

In the first few centuries, the theological battle lines were drawn with reference to the deity of Christ. Just how was he related to the God of Israel? What was the church doing when he worshiped him and baptized and prayed in his name? In the last couple centuries, attention has turned to the humanity of Christ. If, with Gregory Nazienzen, we confess that “the unassumed is the unredeemed,” we need to confess the Son’s assumption of humanity and all that it implies.

Why Forsaken?

That’s the context. Now apply that context to Jesus’ anguished cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; Mk. 15:34) Let’s take Jesus at his word; he is forsaken by God at the cross. It’s true that these are the first words of Psalm 22, in which the speaker entrusts himself and his cause to God; and Jesus could have spoken or implied the entire psalm. Maybe, that is, he is uttering a faithful prayer of trust in dire circumstances. Or maybe he is speaking in his role of representative, taking on words that surely fit the sinful people of Israel, and indeed all of sinful humanity.

Then again, Jesus said other things from the cross. Only Matthew and Mark record the cry of dereliction. Luke tells of his intercession for those who crucified him (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”) and his committing his spirit to the Father (Lk. 23:35, 46). In John, Jesus gives his mother into the care of one of his disciples, says he is thirsty, and utters his final words: “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30).

All of these angles on the crucifixion offer us a Jesus faithful to the end. Still, there’s that part about being forsaken. What can he mean? Here’s what we know: The eternal Son, whose life in the Trinity is happy beyond imagining, became incarnate, subject to all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and outlandish sinners. He was mocked, misunderstood, manhandled, and mangled. His family didn’t get him, and his closest friends sold him out. Despite his perfect faithfulness to his Father and God, he ended up being nailed to a cross to suffer public humiliation and death.

God didn’t make him do this. The Father sent the Son (Jn. 3:16), and the Son gave his life freely (Jn. 10:17-18). So the cross is at once the low point and the high point of Israel’s history—and indeed, of human history. It is the low point as the final outcome of sin, wherein the Creator of the universe suffers a shameful death at the hands of, for the sake of, and instead of his creation. It is the high point as the perfection of human obedience, with Jesus being found faithful unto death, even death on a cross. His moment of greatest humiliation is his moment of glorification.

King and Lord

A few verses after Matthew records Jesus’ cry of forsakenness, he records the centurion’s response to Jesus’ death: “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matt. 27:54) Here the centurion gives witness to Jesus as King and Lord, one closely tied in to the ways of God with the world. Despite, or perhaps in light of having seen the wrath of God poured out on Jesus, the centurion responds that Jesus is God’s Son. Maybe the simplest answer to the question of how the Trinity is not broken at the cross is to recall that the Father sent his Son and the Son laid down his own life freely—that is, that both Father and Son gave all for the world at the cross.

Consider God’s wrath poured out on Christ as the deepest display of Trinitarian love the world has ever known. The God who is love (1 Jn. 4:8) is only ever loving in himself and in relation to his creation. His anger, then, is the form his love takes when it runs into sin. In his wrath, God fights sin and judges sinners. But how does he fight sin? By taking the place of the very sinners he judges. As Karl Barth put it, Jesus is the Judge judged in our place.

Note that, too—Jesus is the Judge. If we read the crucifixion as a bit of good cop/bad cop and ascribe those roles to the Son and the Father respectively, we drastically confuse the issue. We have to be much more careful when we parse this in Trinitarian terms. While Jesus does suffer the wrath of God in taking our place and submitting to the painful consequences of sin, he embodies God’s wrath against sin in cleansing the temple and promises to come again on the last day as judge of the living and the dead. Nor is the Father the stern disciplinarian; can you possibly imagine a greater, more costly gift than giving up your Son to save your enemies? God didn’t even make Abraham do that.

When the Father turned his wrath on the One who bore the sin of many at Golgotha, the Son was crushed for our iniquities; and it is by his wounds that we are healed (Is. 53:5). Far from being the scene, then, of the Trinity’s dissolution, the cross is the Trinity’s demonstration. We find Father, Son, and Spirit working in concert for the salvation of the world. We find the Father so loving the world that he gave his only-begotten Son to death, even death of the cross. We find the Son freely giving his life away, drinking the dregs of sin and death in loving solidarity with a sinful, suffering world and, wonder of wonders, holding all things together even as he lay lifeless in the tomb. And we find the Spirit, the one who hovered over the waters at creation and over Mary’s womb at Jesus’ conception, the one who signaled the Father’s good pleasure at Jesus’ baptism and empowered Jesus for ministry, sustaining him in his last breath and in his death.

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  • Hamish Blair

    This echoes the Old Testament idea of sacrifice – as the blood runs down the mercy seat it is as though God is taking the punishment the Israelites deserved, on himself.

    In Australia and elsewhere (UK recently) there have been some leaders who describe the Father punishing the Son as “cosmic child abuse”.

    This reflects a failure to understand that both God the Father and God the Son are part of the same triune deity. If the Son is not of the same being as the Father – then yes, I can see how you might arrive at this conclusion.

    So no surprise that a mis-understanding of what is going on at the cross (sin dealt with, death defeated, reconciliation for us sinners now possible) means that sin is not taken seriously, and all sorts of behaviours now become “acceptable”.

    And then teaching about God simply becomes one of “his love” – without teaching what he loves. Like the fact he loves purity (and we aren’t pure); he loves what is right (and we transgress, doing wrong), he loves truth (yet we embrace error) etc.

    So a proper understanding of the Trinity is key to Christianity and godly living.

  • Nathan George

    I have a question about God’s eternal nature and the separation between Father and Son on the Cross. Since God is an eternal being and sees all points in time at the same time, we often see this as an argument supporting an eternal hell as a just punishment for us whose sin is ever before God. It’s also used as an argument for the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice in that the supreme worth of Christ and His sacrifice is ever before the eternal God. That said, how would you address the separation of the Father and Son at that moment being in the eternal view of God yet there is also an eternal unity within the Trinity.


    • earl maier

      This is why we say it was the humanity of Jesus that died on the cross. His divine nature cannot die or suffer. So keep in mind that it was The Man (nature) Jesus and not His divine nature which died.

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  • danny

    “Separation” has always been my big issue with this topic. I constantly hear that the Father and Son were “separated” momentarily on the cross, or that their fellowship was broken, or that the Father “turned his back” on the Son. I’ve never seen biblical proof that any of these descriptions are appropriate, and really Trinitarian supremacy seems to suggest none of these things possible. Thoughts?

  • Sara

    Jesus quotes Psalm 22 (in Hebrew!) as proof that he is fulfilling the prophecy of the crucifixion. He is not crying out to God at this point – some people even believe he was singing!

    Compare ALL of Psalm 22 to the events of the crucifixion. God did NOT forsake him! “For 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.” (Psalms 22:24 NIV84)

    • danny

      Your thought is noted in the above article, and mostly rejected by scholars in history (although not entirely). The general consensus has been, for the most part, that Jesus was quoting the Psalm not simply to quote, but to also convey the same sense of feeling that the Psalmist conveyed. In other words, the quote was an appeal to communicate the reality of his experience.

  • Dwayne

    A thought.

    I think we can all agree that what makes it possible for the Eternal Son to experience any genuine forsakeness and/or separation from the Father was the Son’s taking human nature upon himself, right? In other words, it is the Eternal Son’s assumed created nature that is the context of his suffering and/or separation, not his uncreated nature. Post-Incarnation, the Eternal Son is one uncreated person with two natures (uncreated/created). So, the real question is this: Immediately post-Incarnation, is the Eternal Son’s personal experience **exhaustively limited** to his assumed human nature?

    If we say that the Son’s personal experience is exhaustively limited to his assumed human nature immediately post-Incarnation, then we’d have to say that the Son actually ceases to reciprocate the Father’s love in the Spirit as a blastocyst in Mary’s womb. This, in effect, annihilates the Trinity. (It is quasi-Apollinarianism to say that a group of pre-embryonic cells in a woman’s womb has the personal capability to recieve and reciprocate the Father’s love!)

    However, if we say that the Son’s personal experience actually **transcends, yet includes** his assumed created nature post-Incarnation, then we can say that the unity of the Uncreated Trinity is never broken…even as the Eternal Son fully experiences genuine forsakeness and/or separation from the Father through as a human being.

  • Dwayne

    Short version from above:
    The answer to the question of whether or not the Trinity is severed at the Cross is directly related to whether or not the Trinity is severed at the point of Incarnation itself.

    • danny

      The early church played with those ideas, and mostly rejected that Jesus’ experiences could be said to stand alone in either one nature or the other, but not both. Pulling the dual natures of Christ apart too far is like pulling the distinctiveness of the persons of the Trinity apart too far.
      Also, on the cross he seems to be having genuine communion with the Father on the cross – “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” – among other such communing statements. He doesn’t seems to be separated by God in those statements, and certainly doesn’t seem to have had the Father turn his back on him. Should we suggest that on the cross Jesus went back and forth between “human” and “deified” experiences?

      • danny

        Although I guess it must have worked that way with death. His humanity died, but certainly not the second member of the Trinity.

        • Dwayne

          Exactly right. The Eternal Son experienced death in and through his humanity, but obviously not through his transcendent, uncreated nature.

      • Dwayne

        I would agree with you, Danny, that the communion with the Father never ceases on the Cross as displayed by Jesus giving his spirit over to the Father, though he definitely experiences isolation and despair. My point was simply that the same reason that the Eternal Son was never severed from the Father on the Cross is the same reason he was never severed from the Father in the womb: Christ’s two natures as Incarnate Word of God the Father by the Spirit.

  • Renfro

    Three Things:

    1) We must be careful to define propitiation as “wrath aversion,” not “wrath exhaustion.” Propitiation means wrath is turned away, not exercised. Passover: God doesn’t kill the Passover lamb, the Israelites do. If God wanted to show that propitiation was wrath exhaustion, it seems the Israelites would have tied up the lamb outside the house for the night, so God would come by and kill the lamb instead of the firstborn. But this is not what happens. Neither does “wrath exhaustion” equal redemption. Those Egyptian families that lost their firstborn under the wrath of God did not have the right to participate in the Exodus. So God did exercise wrath on the unredeemed, but He did not exercise wrath on the redeemed. Clearly, exercising wrath does not equal redemption. In the same way that God did not kill the Passover, we should not think that God killed Christ our Passover.

    Notice also that in a ritual sacrifice, it is always the sinner/offer that kills his own sacrifice, not a representative of the offended party. See Leviticus 1:5, 1:11, (burnt offering) 3:2, 3:4, 3:13, (peace offering) 4:4, 4:14, 4:24, 4:29, 4:33, (sin offering). The priest only slays the animal if it is a corporate sacrifice for the congregation (of which he is a member), and he does this after slaying a sacrifice for his own sins.

    Justice does not demand that an offended party exercise a commensurate offense to that which he has received. If I gouge out your eye, I do not burden you with the obligation to gouge out an eye. So we need to make sure we avoid vicarious punishment systems that are organized to satisfy such an obligation because justice does not require it. It is unseemly of divine justice and the character of God.

    2) The event of Psalm 22 is clearly not that of a sinner in the hands of an angry God, but a godly man in the hands of sinners. God is not raining down fire and brimstone on Jesus on the cross. The literal wrath of God is at Jesus’ disposal, as he has the opportunity to call down 72,000 angels on his torturers and does not do it (the ultimate propitiation: “Father forgive them”). Nor is the cry of dereliction unique to Jesus. David cried it first, and he wrote it in a corporate format, which means many others spoke it when they felt like God was far from them.

    3) We will do far better if we frame the atonement and justice relationship in terms of restitution rather than retribution. The logic runs thus: Because of God’s gracious covenant, justice requires restitution (the reparation of that which sin has destroyed) for damages done to innocent parties (start with Num 5:6). Humans have totally and severely damaged themselves through sin. God desires to enact restitution for these damages, but humans are not innocent, they are guilty, so how can a just God enact restitution for guilty sinners? God Himself provides the innocent party by sending His Son Jesus Christ, who voluntarily suffers all of sin’s destruction at the hands of all humanity on the cross. Jesus thus merits the right of restitution for all of sin’s destruction through the power of His resurrection. Those sinners who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, participate in Jesus’ death, will also participate in His resurrection. The gospel, then, is not that “God tortured and killed Jesus instead of us,” but that “God’s covenantal promises to repair the world from sin (OT) are fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus (NT).” See Acts 13:30.

    • danny

      “yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.”
      Isaiah 53:4b

      “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief;”
      Isaiah 53:10

      It sure sounds to me like God is the one killing the passover lamb – this one anyway.

      • Renfro

        Hi danny,

        Thanks for your response. In regard to Isaiah 53:

        1) I affirm that it was the will of the Lord to have Jesus crushed. The contention is over what it is that crushed Jesus: human sin, or God’s active wrath? I think the Scriptures are clear that it is human sin. But what was the intention of God in having the Son crushed? I think it was similar to that of Abraham when he was about to slay his own son, Isaac. We can say that Abraham was about to slay Isaac, strike Isaac, and pierce Isaac, but surely we wouldn’t say that Abraham was about to “satisfy his wrath” or “punish” Isaac. Just as it would be unseemly to ascribe “satisfying wrath” and “punishment” to Abraham’s intention in the slaying of his son, so it would be unseemly to ascribe this to God. We are better off agreeing with John Calvin, who said, “We do not, however, insinuate that God was ever hostile to [Jesus] or angry with him. How could he be angry with the beloved Son, with whom his soul was well pleased? Or how could he have appeased the Father by his intercession for others if He were hostile to himself?” (Institutes 2.16.11)

        2) Verse 4 “Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God and afflicted” is framed as a false perception that verse 5 corrects, “BUT He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities.” He was pierced by human sin and for the sake of human sin. And the phrase “By his scourging we are healed” especially does not conform to the theory of Penalty Substitution. The logic of PS would be “By his scourging we avoid being scourged.” But the logic of the text is, “Jesus is scourged so that those who are scourged by sin can be healed from their scourging.” The scourging is participatory, not substitutionary. Jesus’ suffering is “substitutionary” in the sense that he suffers sin and death as an innocent party (thereby meriting restitution and healing in the resurrection), whereas we suffer sin and death as a guilty sinners. The thief on the cross in Luke 23:41 has it exactly right, “We indeed suffer this condemnation justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” But neither of these texts supports that Jesus suffers and dies so that Christians wont suffer and die. Christians do suffer and die, but they do so as participants in Christ.

        Jesus suffers all our sin against him as an injustice, so that the satisfaction of justice in the resurrection would demand the reversal and renewal of all sin’s destruction. It is just as Jesus says in Isaiah 49:4, “I have spent my strength in nothing and vanity (crucifixion), yet surely the justice due to me is with the Lord, an my reward with my God (resurrection.” Justice is satisfied in the resurrection, when Jesus is restored as rightful king over heaven and earth. It is as He said when he was roaming around Narnia as a giant, magical, unsafe yet good Lion, “When a willing victim who knew no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the table would crack and death itself would work backward.” (By the way, I suppose if you read that book with Penalty Substitution in mind, then the White Witch must represent God the Father, and I highly doubt that was CS Lewis intention in the allegory).

        • danny

          It wasn’t his will to “have” him crushed, it was his will to crush him. And the Abraham issue doesn’t comply, there is typology there, but it is my opinion that you are taking the typology way too far in equating Abraham and Isaac with the death of Jesus. Abraham wouldn’t speak of satisfying wrath because he wasn’t dealing with sin and wrath against sin, God was.
          Also, I agree with Calvin, God wasn’t mad at Jesus. But he was angry with sin, and that sin was placed on Jesus, so God’s wrath against that sin was punished on Jesus – thus the great exchange.
          In your second point your playing with the language, but not making an argument based on the language.

          • Renfro

            “But he was angry with sin, and that sin was placed on Jesus, so God’s wrath against that sin was punished on Jesus – thus the great exchange.”

            It sounds like you are using an “offense atones for offense” paradigm that is Buddhist rather than Biblical. Justice is not a Balance of Offenses. Biblical Justice is recompense according to God’s covenantal promises, that is, restitution for the innocent and retribution for the guilty (see 2 Thess 1:6-7 for one example). But retribution does not atone for sin. If Bob gouges out Steve’s eye. Steve cannot achieve atonement for the offense by gouging out Bob’s eye. Steve is still seeing in 2-D. The offense is atoned for when Steve receives restitution (a new eye) or some sort of compensation. Nor is Steve burdened with the obligation to gouge out someone’s eye in order to atone for the offense. So punishment does not atone for sin. Rather, as Proverbs 16:6 says, By lovingkindness and truth iniquity is atoned for” and “love covers a multitude of sins,” 1 Peter 4:8.

            There is no point in our sin being “transferred” to Jesus. If Jesus became a sinner in any sense, He would cease to be righteous, which means He would fail to claim the covenantal blessings by which sin’s destruction is undone, thus He would lose the right to be “raised from the dead in the blood of the eternal Covenant” (Heb 13:20), and he would fail to secure the inheritance of eternal life that he bestows on us by the shedding of his blood (Heb 9:15-22). Jesus “became sin” in the sense that all of human sin can be credited as contributing to the one crime of putting Jesus’ to death. No matter how great a sinner’s sin might be, no sin is greater than his murder of Jesus. By dying on the cross, Jesus became humanity’s one great sin, the crucifixion of their rightful king and the destruction of God in man. But the cross is also where Jesus forgave humanity’s one great sin, and we receive this forgiveness when we confessing our one great sin (participating in his death), and repent of this sin (participating in his resurrection).

  • Hamish Blair

    Remember Hebrews 9:22 “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (ESV)

    • Renfro

      Hi Hamish,

      Thanks for the response. Hebrews 9:15-22 has nothing to do with punishment, and everything to do with inheritance. The shedding of blood signifies the bestowing of a covenantal privilege (in Jesus’ case, eternal life). The necessity of Jesus’ death is outlined clearly in verse 15 as redemption (which means payment, not punishment) and verses 17-18 further explain that in order for covenantal privileges to be bestowed the one who originally secured the covenantal properties must die. Example: I don’t receive my grandfather’s inheritance until he is dead. Jesus forgives us by bestowing upon us (in his blood) His righteousness, and His covenantal blessings based on this righteousness: resurrection to eternal life.

      Forgiveness therefore, is not displaced vengeance, in which we pardon our offender from having to face punishment because the punishment was faced by someone else. Forgiveness is resurrection, that is, based on our offender’s remorseful acknowledgement that his offense has broken our relationship, we agree to restoring (resurrecting) the relationship with our offender.

  • Kenton

    I think there are a host of problems that result in this very question being posed. As some have noted already, one of these is the problem with stating that Christ bore God’s wrath, something that actually is not said anywhere in Scripture. Christ bore our sins and their punishment (that is, suffering, exile, and death). He did not bear God’s wrath as Scripture defines God’s wrath (his active wrath that will come upon the world).

    The second problem is a direct result of what I believe to be a gross misunderstanding of what it means for Christ to be “fully God and fully man” (again, terms that Scripture no where uses). If Christ only suffers partially, if he only dies partially, then in fact he does not truly suffer at all, and he does not die at all. This is the problem presented with the doctrine of two natures (which despite its claims to a Christ of full humanity and full deity, treats the Son of God as partially divine and partially human). But in fact, Scripture does not present a Christ of two natures, but of one. Christ truly bears the sins of the world in his body, and he truly, fully dies. Otherwise, his death is not real. Nor can it be said that he truly humbles himself as a lowly man if he actually doesn’t really come down to earth (but remains in heaven). No. Rather, Christ truly becomes man and he truly dies on the cross and he is truly raised from the dead by the Father and he truly ascends to heaven and is truly seated at God’s right hand and he truly becomes the heir of God. Otherwise the Scripture doesn’t mean what it says.

    The third problem is in how we define what occurred on the cross. Clearly, there was a sense in which Christ was separated from the Father. But there is a sense in which he remains the Father’s son even while on the cross. I think if we took a step back and stopped viewing this in terms of hypostatic union, we’d be able to understand why both could be true. The “separation” is not at all a separation in terms of relationship. Christ remains the Son of God even while on the cross. In fact, it is only the maintenance of that relationship that makes Christ’s death especially atoning. What Christ experiences on the cross is the exile and suffering and shame and separation that the author of Psalm 22 expresses in his own suffering. Christ is given up by the will of the LORD to sinners and violent men, and it is in this that he feels forsaken and abandoned. But as the author of Hebrews states, it was through the eternal Spirit that Christ offered himself up to God as a pure sacrifice. So Christ can both say, Father forgive them, and he can say, Into your hands I commit my spirit. Remember what Asaph says in one of his psalms: I have never seen the righteous forsaken, nor his offspring begging for bread. Christ is forsaken in this same way, but not in terms of his own righteous standing as God’s Son.

    Fourth, this is minor, but I highly doubt that the centurion on the ground was saying to himself, “Look at how this man takes God’s wrath upon himself!” Not at all. Rather, if you take the synoptic Gospels’ words into account, where Matthew and Mark say “Son of God”, Luke says, “righteous man”, implying that there is some overlap of meaning to these words. The affirmation is a testament to the worthiness of Christ as the righteous dying for the unrighteous, not a revelation that Christ was bearing God’s wrath or was God (that the centurion would have meant this by his words is not likely). Rather, what the term “Son of God” in the context of his words means is that Jesus was truly righteous and innocent and just, deserving not death but glory and honor. And it also means that the title “Son of God” describes Jesus’ righteousness and right standing with God. He is righteous as God’s son. And so Jesus bears our sins as God’s Son, not as a disconnected, abstract object of wrath.

  • kyle

    I think the distinction between the economic and immanent Trinity is the clearest explanation for HOW the Father forsook the Son on the cross. And Jesus dying as the type of the bronze serpent, as sin, is the clearest explanation of WHY the Father forsook the Son (John 3:14, 2 Cor 5:21).

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