Why did Christ say “My God, why have You forsaken Me?” What is the main characteristic of hell? by Fr. Gabriel Wissa

November 6, 2019

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; One God, Amen.

Today, I am attempting, God willing, to answer 2 vital questions at the same time. These questions are “Why did Christ say on the cross ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?’” and the second question is “what is the principal characteristic of hell.” In the process, we will have to define the true meaning of the terms life and death. We will answer these questions through the teachings of St. Athanasius, St. Gregory the Theologian and St. Cyril of Alexandria—these are considered three of the most important theologians by the entire Christendom.


Most people consider the physical location of heaven and hell as being the main difference between the two. This idea assumes that heaven is above and hell is below and God is present in heaven above and is not present in hell below. Heaven and hell being above and below could be a subject for another video but one of the objectives today is to realize that God is also in hell. Psalm 139 says: “If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. And Revelations chapter 14 verses 9 and 10 show that if anyone worships the beast, he shall be tormented in hell in the presence of God. God is therefore clearly in both heaven and hell. The main characteristic of hell cannot therefore be the absence of God. That is why we say that God is omnipresent or God is everywhere. We will park this point on the side for now and we will come back to it later. Now, we need to define the meanings of the terms life and death. In the Coptic Rite, in the Reconciliation prayer of the liturgy of St. Gregory the Theologian, we refer to the Son of God as follows: “O You, THE BEING, who was and who abides for ever, the Eternal, co-essential, co-enthroned, co-creator with the Father who for the sake of goodness only brought man into existence out of nonexistence, and put him in the Paradise of joy.” This eternal BEING who was and abides forever is the Source of Life itself. St. Athanasius says: “He is still Source of life to all the universe…” That Source of Life is capable to create from nonexistence to existence. The Fathers definition of existence, here, is a communion with God, Who is the Source of Life. Nonexistence is therefore the lack of communion with This Source of Lifewho is THE BEING. That is why St. Athanasius says: “For the transgression of the commandment was making them [humans] turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. So sin or transgression leads to nonexistence. Of course, we understand that sin does not make the person disappear. So nonexistence, here, does not literally mean seizing to exist. If it did, then there would be no such thing as hell. Nonexistence means no communion with God, Who is THE BEING Himself. In other words, everything that exists, exists in this Being. And anything outside this Being is nonexistence. So nonexistence means spiritual death, which happens when the person is separated from God. Someone could be spiritually dead, but continues to live on earth in the body or he can still exist in the spiritual realm but he lives in a state of death. That is why it is called, in John 5:29: “the resurrection of condemnation. It is a resurrection but of condemnation. A life of spiritual death. So death means a lack of communion with God.  


So, if one separates from this BEING, who is the Source of all good things, He will naturally die. That is what St. Athanasius says: “But if they [humans] went astray and became vile, throwing away their birthright of beauty, then they would come under the natural law of death and live no longer in paradise, but, dying outside of it, continue in death and in corruption.” It is the natural law of death. He also says: “But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of deathfor it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good.” Since God alone exists, if I separate from Him, I inevitably die. Then he says “evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good. Meaning, evil itself does not exist but it is the lack of good. Like cold is the lack of heat; chaos the lack of order; darkness the lack of light, cursing the lack of blessing and death the lack of life. So death is a natural consequence of separation from God. But God uses this natural consequence as a penalty as well. When St. Athanasius says ‘penalty,’ he does not mean punishment out of retribution because God is angry. We covered this in a previous video called “Can God be wrathful” to which we will put the link in the comments section below. One of the reasons God punishes on earth is to lead us back to repentance and therefore He put this penalty that whomever will separate from Him will indeed die. This penalty is what St. Athanasius calls the Law of Death and this Law of Death has to be fulfilled if God is to remain true. Because God is all-knowing, or omniscient, He already knew that Adam and Eve will sin. This was not a surprise to Him. God being above time knows it all, this is what we refer to as the foreknowledge of God. And, since God knows it all, God cannot not change His Mind. Changing His Mind would imply receiving new information and therefore Him not knowing everything, which would ultimately mean that He is not God. That is why St. Athanasius says: “It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die.” But St. Athanasius also says: “It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing and, besides that, such indifference to the ruin of His own work before His very eyes would argue not goodness in God but limitation.” In other words, if God changes His mind and humans don’t die then He is not God because He does not have Foreknowledge and He is therefore limited. By the same token, if God let’s the creation die, then God is incapable of saving or He is not good because He does not care or both. Of course, this is also unacceptable. God is good and capable and cannot go back on His word. Then, what was He to do? 


So, in summary, since God is THE BEING, the Source of Life, he who separates from Him dies the spiritual death. Spiritual death does not mean seizing to exist but it is the lack of communion with God and it is both a natural consequence and a penalty. This penalty must be fulfilled; not because God is angry, as some Christian denominations believe. But, because God does cannot go back on His word; yet, He still loves us and is capable of saving us. It is out of sheer love for us that He saves us to use St. Athanasius’ words. This is when we turn to St. Cyril of Alexandria, he says the following: “We had become accursed through Adam’s transgression and had fallen into the trap of death, abandoned by God. [Here, he exclaims that through sin, there is a spiritual separation from the BEING and therefore there is death and there is a curse which is the lack of blessing] Yet all things were made new in Christ and our condition was restored to what it was in the beginning. It was entirely necessary that the Second Adam … that is Christ … should free that nature of man from judgment, and once again call down upon it the heavenly graciousness of the Father. He would undo our abandonment by His obedience and complete submission: “For He did no sin” but the nature of man was made rich in all blamelessness and innocence in him, so that it could now cry out in boldness: My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me? Understand that in becoming man, the only begotten spoke these words as one of us and on behalf of all our nature. It was as if He was saying this: The first man has transgressed. He slipped into disobedience, and neglected the commandment he received, and he  fell under judgement. But you Lord [God the Father] have made me [God the Son] a Second beginning for all on the earth, and I am called the Second Adam. In me you see the nature of man made clean, its faults corrected, made holy and pure. Now give me the good things of your kindness, undo the abandonment…’” Since the natural consequence and penalty is ultimately spiritual death, which is separation from God. Christ being unlimited, on behalf of all of us, suffers the abandonment on the cross for our sakes. In other words, He suffers the spiritual separation for our sakes. He bore the curse for our sakes. This abandonment was fulfilled in His humanity only, not in His Divinity. Now, if you look at Romans 6, verses 3-10, you will discover that each one of us when we are sacramentally baptized we participate in the cross, burial and resurrection of Christ. And, therefore, this law of death that should be applied to us as well, since we have sinned, is personally fulfilled in our respective baptisms. So, this answers the question of what happened on the cross and why Christ said those words; but, it also answers the question of what is the main characteristic of hell. Having understood that God is also in hell and having understood that death means nonexistence which means not being in communion with God, it becomes obvious that the main characteristic of hell is this spiritual separation from this BEING who is the Source of Life. And that is precisely the ransom that God paid on our behalf on the cross. He became the curse for us. He suffered the spiritual separation and give us the Grace of Baptism so that we don’t have to be separated from Him in hellLet me be very clear; though, I am in no way implying that hell is an ok state to be inThe lack of communion with God is extremely painful. I would even say, in my humble opinion, it is as bad as a lake of fire and therefore I am not surprised by the Biblical language used to describe hell.  


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