In his book The Crucified God, Jürgen Moltmann famously suggested that Mark’s Gospel, with its recording of Jesus’ cry of dereliction—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—provides us with the only theology that can speak to “protest atheism,” the kind of atheism that says, with Ivan Karamazov, “God may exist, but given that God has permitted such horrific suffering to occur in the world, I don’t want to have anything to do with God. I respectfully return my ticket.” In other words, Mark gives us a God we can believe in because he tells us about Jesus’ doubt and loneliness and abandonment.
Moltmann drew on Elie Wiesel’s story (found in Night) of the dying boy in Auschwitz, hanging from a gallows. Someone in the crowd witnessing the execution said, “Where is God?” And another voice replied, “He is there, hanging on that gallows.” God is dead, in other words. Or if God is not dead, he deserves to be. Moltmann takes that story and says, in effect, “Yes, that is exactly right. God has come to Auschwitz, through his death in Jesus Christ. God has suffered with us. God has died with us.” Only such a God—only a God who suffers—can be believed in.
If you wish to read the Gospel of Mark that way, then many people, Moltmann included, think that you need to marginalize Luke’s Gospel. Hans Urs von Balthasar, while, in my view, treating these issues far more subtly than Moltmann, saw this clearly. Luke’s Gospel has no cry of dereliction. Instead of screaming out in agony, Luke’s account has Jesus’ final words as: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” And therefore, it seems, Luke’s Gospel isn’t as well suited as Mark’s is for meeting the challenge of protest atheism. Here’s von Balthasar: “Christ’s cross… must not be rendered innocuous as though the Crucified, in undisturbed union with God, had prayed the Psalms and died in the peace of God.” In other words, we cannot continue to allow Luke’s version of the story to be read alongside Mark’s as though a harmonization were possible. At least, not anymore. Not after the Holocaust.
How should one respond to this approach? I still remember stumbling across, several years ago, a critique of Moltmann and von Balthasar’s reading of Luke’s crucifixion account that stopped me in my tracks. This is from the biblical scholar Walter Moberly’s book The Bible, Theology and Faith:
[O]ne should not so romanticize the process of moral and spiritual struggle that the Lukan depiction of Jesus as one who maintains apparent serenity and trust amidst suffering is downgraded; as though an anguished and in some ways vacillating struggle for faith is intrinsically superior to a steadily trusting faith; or as though a steadily trusting faith did not involve its own kind of moral and spiritual struggle.
That last line—and the possibilities it opens up for thinking about doubt, anguish, and perseverance—is, for me, the memorable one: a steadily trusting faith may involve its own kind of moral and spiritual struggle. What might that mean?
Moberly’s reading suggests that when Jesus prays “Into your hands I commit my spirit,” that is not a Pollyannaish serenity talking but is rather a trust born out of the struggle of Gethsemane, so that even as Luke narrates that moment of faith, the account of Jesus’ sweating drops of blood on the previous night (Luke 22:39-46) hasn’t been left behind. Read that way, Jesus’ apparently unwavering faith entails, rather than masks or downplays, his agonizing struggle. And if that interpretation is at all along the right lines, then Luke’s portrayal may have its own message to speak to the Ivan Karamazovs of the world.