When Jesus Was an Atheist (Psalm 22)
Reflections on Psalm 22
According to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive, America has witnessed 255 mass shootings in 2019. The tidal wave of grief crashing over our nation brings in a host of questions: why did this happen? What can we do to stop it?
For many individuals who hold to faith of some variety, those questions ascend to divine levels. Why did God let this happen? Why didn’t he stop it? Does he really care? Is he even there? As we ask these questions, we feel the pricking pain of silence. The tightlipped heavens seem to look back at us with cold disregard as if to imply, “Figure it out for yourself.” Is God absent?
When the silence of suffering crushes our hearts, atheism seems the best offering. If pain nourishes reality’s root, what room is there for a divine gardener and the watering of his love? Jesus himself felt the pang of this prospect. When he gasped for air on the cross’s transecting beams, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). Known as the cry of dereliction, this questioning plea dives to the depths of Jesus’ sense of abandonment on the cross. In that moment Christ didn’t believe that God was absent. Belief at least has the hope of being proved wrong. Certainty, however, is the crippling weight of unalterable reality. Jesus knew God’s abandonment as an indisputable fact. For those agonizing moments he breathed his last breaths, Jesus was the truest and only real atheist the world has ever known.
The one who had danced in perfect unison with God from eternity past was torn from his Father. Christ became an orphan. Why would he give himself up for adoption? What would propel someone to suffer physical torture, humiliation, isolation from God, and ultimately death? You, me, and anyone who has misused the breath God gave us.
Our sin and our suffering nailed Jesus to that cross. The one who was fully God and fully man executed as a common criminal was the ultimate result of our rebellion. Christ drank the full draught of our evil and pain, and drained it dry. As his cry of dereliction reached God’s throne, the Father opened the seemingly silent heavens to give us the answer to our pain: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
Evil exacts a price. It evokes tears, mars beauty, and invites death. It seems to be the very hand turning the pages of our story. The end of our narrative, however, does not include this antagonist. Death by crucifixion was not the conclusion of Jesus’ passion. After the grave’s repose claimed him for three days, God raised him from the dead. Because Christ is alive, we can know with confidence that our sin will die and our suffering will eventually cease. Because Jesus became an atheist on our behalf, we can know every day that God is with us.
Footsteps—putting feet on our faith
1. What kind of pain are you experiencing today?
2. What is your response to your pain or the suffering of others?
3. How does Jesus impact that?
Dear God, you are passionate in the truest sense of the word. You embrace my suffering and weep with the same tears that stain my face. In some ways, you feel it more deeply than I do. In response, you gave your Son to the death I deserve. In his passion, I find life and freedom. In Christ I pray, amen.