I’ve written plenty before about Good Friday – about the death and triumph of love, about the historical and spiritual reasons Jesus died, about whether Christ suffered so we don’t need to, and about how on earth we can call the worst day in history Good Friday. And there’s so much more that could and can be said.
Today I’d like to take a rather different approach, inspired by philosopher-theologian Pete Rollins (and when I say ‘inspired by’, I really mean ‘plagiarising’). I’d like to look at Rollins’ idea – in turn inspired by the works of mystics like Meister Eckhart and theologians like Paul Tillich – that on the cross, God became an atheist.
What on earth do I mean (or rather what does Rollins mean) by this?
Divine absence and abandonment
On one level, it’s simply a poetic and provocative way of framing what happened on the cross when God experienced the absence and abandonment of God – ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
This, of course, is an experience most of us humans know only too well, although thankfully none of us reading this will have known it under quite such horrific and hopeless circumstances as Jesus. But we have known the terrible aching emptiness of loss or bereavement, the pain of abandonment. We have known that perhaps worst of all feelings, that in our darkest hour when we need him most desperately, God apparently is not there, is not with us, is not anywhere to be found. We are alone.
So in that sense, in the moment of God’s absence, we are atheists who believe in God. Our experience is that of atheism, that God is not there, not anywhere. Yet at the same time we believe in and need and long for and cry out to that one who is not there. And on the cross, it appears, God himself underwent the exact same experience. On Good Friday, God lost God.
Giving up God for God
But there’s also another, perhaps deeper and more fundamental, sense in which God becomes an atheist on Good Friday.
On the cross, God empties himself of everything, and becomes nothing. And the very idea of God is emptied down to nothing. Our concept of God as powerful, as victorious, as in control, and even as alive and existent, is ripped up. God has died – weak, powerless, surrendered, his frail human body giving up under the terrible strain. In this moment, the atheists are right, and Nietzsche is right: ‘God is dead’. In this moment, there is no God – for God has forsaken God, and God has been killed.
Good Friday invites us – even requires us – to give up (at least for a moment) all our ideas and notions of God, to put our cherished theologies to death and watch them expire upon the cross. Good Friday empties God, strips him down to nothing. Good Friday frees him from our ideas and beliefs and wishes and doctrines and meanings to again just be God, just be I AM (or even impossibly, in that moment, I am not). Good Friday is the death of religion, the end of theology.
As humans, we have to speak of God; we have to formulate theologies and practices, beliefs and doctrines. But these are all partial and provisional, works in progress, in constant need of being remade and remodelled and at times completely discarded. God is real – is Reality, and the source of all reality – but our words and thoughts do not contain or capture him. Even the words of the Bible can only point towards him, opening up possibilities and raising questions rather than pinning down final truths.
So on Good Friday let’s lay down our idols, the versions of God we’ve constructed in our heads and hearts. And let’s wait for God to rise again, revealing himself afresh as the unchained, uncapturable, untameable (in some senses even unnameable) eternal life of the Resurrection…