The Darkness that Came Upon the Land

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This blog is from Derek Thompson’s free eBook, Achieving Atonement (download PDF or ePub). The devil tempted Jesus three times in the wilderness and these temptations were repeated in his final hours.


The devil’s third temptation, to gain the world in return for worshipping Satan (Matt 4:8-9), offered Jesus success in his mission of saving the lost and doing so without suffering or risk of failure. But for Jesus, good ends do not justify evil means. Besides, the devil is a liar and Christ put no credence in his offers.

With Jesus helplessly nailed to the cross, Satan demonstrated his power and caused darkness to come over the whole land: “From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.” (Matt 27:45). In the gospels, darkness is characteristic of the devil’s realm (e.g. Matt 4:16; 6:23; 8:12; 22:13; Luke 1:79; 11:34-36; 22:53; John 1:5; 3:19; 8:12; 12:35, 46). Conversely, John called Christ “the light of the world” (John 8:12). Of course, light and darkness are used metaphorically and the Old Testament even has God hidden in darkness and thick clouds (Ps 18:11). God is a spirit and his holiness makes him unapproachable by sinners, which can be expressed by light or darkness according to the context. The darkness at the crucifixion was not descriptive of God’s holiness but was a subterfuge of Satan to arouse fear and awe of his power and tempt Jesus to abandon his intended mission.

Traditional atonement theories assume the darkness that came over the land signified God turning away from his Son because he bore humanity’s sin. Whether a solar eclipse caused the daytime blackout is immaterial. Integral to the penal substitution theory is the teaching that atonement could only be achieved if Jesus was rejected by God on the cross. The theory presumes darkness implies God’s judgement. Even the feminist theologian Kathryn Tanner (2004, p. 36) who was critical of the traditional theories said, “The cross is the final act of divine humiliation, or the inter-Trinitarian act whereby the second person of the Trinity is abandoned by the first.”

Scripture does not say the darkness implied God rejected his son. The surrounding text in Luke’s Gospel offers no explanation (Luke 23:44). Matthew and Mark follow the mention of the darkness by the cry of Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But even this provides no conclusive proof of a break in fellowship between Jesus and God.

No doubt Satan used the darkness to make Jesus think God had turned against him. This deception added strength to the devil’s temptation for Jesus to take up his offer. Hence, Jesus response of quoting the first line of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22:1; Matt 27:46; Mark 5:34) is a reference to the whole of Psalm 22. It is inconceivable that Christ would ask God such a question. Moreover, he addressed God as “Father” when he prayed, so here Jesus is not praying but declaring Ps 22 back at Satan.

Ps 22 expresses faith in defiance of suffering and death: “To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him” (Ps 22:29). This is because “… dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations” (Ps 22:28). The psalm is a denial of the penal substitution theory’s contention that God turned his face away from his Son. Psalm 22:24 says “For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.” Scripture says of God, “he will not fail you or forsake you” (Deut 31:6b & 8b; similarly 1 Kgs 6:13; Isa 41:17; 42:16; Neh 9:31), so Jesus would expect his followers to take his quotation in that light.

Furthermore, if God would forsake his Son, Christians could not be certain God would not forsake them. The argument that God forsook Jesus to save humanity is not sufficient. If God’s nature is such that he could forsake the Son of God for any reason, he might forsake humanity for some other reason.

Christ rejected the devil’s offer. The Son of God did not come to save Satan’s kingdom.

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