Studying the atonement can be mind numbing. We all generally believe that Christ died for our sins. That is the common ground. The difficulties reside in the details. How does Christ’s death translate into forgiveness of sinners? Why did the Father accept the Son’s sacrifice in our stead? What exactly was accomplished at the cross? Did Christ literally “pay the price” for our sins in a quantitative way? Was Christ truly “punished” for our sins, or did He just “suffer” for them? Was anyone actually saved at the cross, or did the cross provide for salvation?
We could add many other questions. I personally believe that the penal satisfaction view of the atonement has the most explanatory power. That does not mean that it perfectly represents the Biblical revelation of Christ’s atoning work. It would appear to be quite arrogant to believe that a certain view of the atonement perfectly captures all that the Bible has to say on the subject.
Some Calvinists believe that Arminians cannot consistently hold to a penal satisfaction view of the atonement. I believe that such an assertion is due to a misunderstanding of Arminian theology and I will deal more with that subject in a future post.
The purpose of this post is to get a little discussion over a teaching that has often attached itself to the penal satisfaction view. Did God the Father turn His back on the Son at the cross? Was Jesus literally separated from the Father when the sins of the world were laid on Him? When Jesus cried out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” was he truly forsaken at that point?
I have heard many claim that Christ was truly separated from the Father at this time and that this separation was a necessary part of the atonement process. F. Leroy Forlines makes the interesting claim that the temporary separation of an infinite being (like Christ) from the Father was compensatory to the eternal suffering of finite beings. In other words, humans owe an eternal debt because we have offended an eternal God. Since we are finite, the only way to pay an eternal debt is to pay for it forever (hence the doctrine of eternal punishment in hell). Christ perfectly suffered in our stead on the account of His eternal nature. For the eternal Son to suffer separation from the Father([if even for a moment) serves as a substitute for the eternal suffering of finite beings who owe the debt of sin to an eternal God. This is a very interesting way to look at it.
Forlines, however, never stops to ask or answer the very important question: “Can there ever be real separation within the triune God?” This is the question which I think cannot allow for this type of understanding of penal satisfaction. I cannot at this time accept any interpretation of the atonement that would cause a rift in the trinity. I would love to hear your thoughts on this.