The Unity of the Trinity

The Sad Backdrop

"Why did God have to kill his son and abandon him on the cross?" 

This is a question that I've been asked earnestly many times over. There was a time when I asked that question myself. 

As this Agnolo Gaddi painting makes clear,
the Father and the Spirit NEVER
abandoned the Son.
The simple and true answer of course is that God the Father did NOT kill or abandon his beloved Son. 


We human beings killed God in the flesh, the only begotten Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity. On that Friday we dare to call good, we poured upon him the worst of our venom, hate, self-righteousness and scape-goating. Then we abandoned him to the grave and walked away.

Being infinite and all loving, the entire Godhead absorbed all of that, transforming it into love and freely forgiving each of us. This completely defused the whole scapegoat mechanism and death itself was defeated and began unwinding at the cosmic level. This almost covert operation is slowly being realized in our world, kind of like the receding of a glacier. 

Of course...  it is hard for us humans to realize that this process is happening. Even Death and the Devil, like a severed wasp sucking jam, have yet to fully realize the dreadful thing that has happened to them.

In spite of this, the slow train of God's salvation of the entire universe is coming around the bend and the Holy Trinity has been in complete union during the entire operation. Every part of it. The suffering, the crucifixion, the resurrection, and every part of Jesus life was in some sense participated in by the Father and the Spirit.

Nevertheless, the misguided notion that God the Father had to unload all the wrath generated by our wrong-doing upon His Son in order to fulfill some sense of divine justice is quite widespread. I've heard it from the pulpit a handful of times myself. While some trace it back to St. Anselm of Canterbury (11th century English Archbishop), it is not my intent to lay the blame at anyone's feet for this teaching which can be put forth in such a debilitating manner. 

I am however forced to address it over and over with those in my care, those whom I call my people. My people (the incarcerated in mind and body, those recovering from addictions and those still out there with no recovery) are especially vulnerable to the dark side of this teaching. My experience with them uncovers deep wounds and abandonment from their earthly fathers time and again. It is indeed understandable how easy it is to transfer that broken view of fatherhood onto God the Father.

A Corrective Lens

Instead of pointing fingers at responsible parties, I'd prefer to focus on the good that is happening now. In fact it gives me great joy that many strains of the Christian faith are rallying to correct this unbalance and are striving to undo the damage it has done to the vulnerable; those with abandonment wounds and/or damaged father relationships. 

Almost in concert, these various Christian traditions remind us that Jesus repeatedly declares that He and the Father are one in scripture. Scripture also diligently displays the unity of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son. The Holy Trinity is absolutely indivisible. There is therefore no way we can really make sense of God the Father pouring out wrath on the Son or the Holy Spirit for that matter.

The first time this hit home personally was as I was watching a strange film called "The Shack". In it the main character (Mack) spends a weekend with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit each in 'human' form, something like Abraham when he hung out with the three angelic visitors. I'm told that it was the first film ever that dared to depict the Holy Trinity personified in such a manner.

Showing nail prints in the wrists of God the Father
perhaps goes too far, but it sure makes a point...
Eventually Mack gets around to asking Papa (God the Father) the question I mentioned above. Papa responds by making it clear that He never left His Son on the cross. Papa raises his sleeve and shows Mack nail prints in his own wrists.

Now I know this is probably a combination of artistic license and hyperbole. In fact, my theologian friends point out that such overstatement veers into Patripassianism and early Christian Modalism; errors that don't distinguish enough between the three persons of the Godhead. 

Yet this admittedly odd movie opened my eyes to the great reality that God the Father and God the Holy Spirit in some sense suffered with God the Son throughout His earthly life, especially during the passion.  God the Father and the Son are one in the unity of the Holy Spirit!

In the book version of The Shack, Mack presses further by asking Papa how any such unity can possibly be true. After all, Jesus himself cried out the opening words to the song we call Psalm 22 from the cross: "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!?"

The Shack version of Papa simply insists that He never left Jesus, but other writers pick up the truth from there. In an eccentric and tiny treatise called "Jesus Sang On The Cross" Dr. Randy Johnson points out that Jesus was a Rabbi. Rabbi's and their followers typically knew the Jewish song book by heart.

Rabbi Jesus, in true teacher form to the very end, utters (let's be real, singing during crucifixion is pushing it a bit far, it is hard enough to gasp for breath) the first line to Psalm 22 not just because he feels abandoned but to actually get his tiny congregation (remember at least three of his faithful followers were there and heard his every word) to bring to mind the entire rest of the song.

As any one who has read or sang this Psalm knows, the first part unfolds in great detail all the suffering that Jesus is going through right before their eyes.

However a point strangely missed in Dr. Johnson's book is that the last part (verses 22 and following) turns to praise. Verse 24 is especially noteworthy and runs precisely counter to the opening lines:

"For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help."

The rest of the Psalm runs in a similar vein declaring how God keeps his promises and how all the nations will worship God and people yet to be born will proclaim his goodness.

The point is, his tiny flock wouldn't have missed the implications of the ENTIRE song which they perhaps mumbled in choked tears at the foot of the cross and pondered later in reflection. Jesus was essentially saying, yes it looks bad, I feel abandoned, but I'm not. My Father is good and keeps His promises and NEVER leaves us. Have faith. Remember the song and be encouraged.

The Power of Images

Now all of this takes a loooooonnnngggg time to explain in words, while as I mentioned above, a single  short movie clip conveyed it in a deeper and more effective way.

That one powerful scene effectively wiped away years of bad teaching for me.

Why aren't such truths more widespread in images, books or film?

Upon investigating images of the Holy Trinity, I found dozens of images in European Churches that depict the Father, Son and Holy Spirit suffering together at the cross (like this Botticelli on the left). Other images (see below) depict the Trinity after the crucifixion.

Yet I ask again, why are they not more widely spread? Why do we never see such images in Churches in the United States for example?

I don't know.

But I do know that at least the images on these prayer cards will always accompany me when I lead services in jail or prison. They will also be at the ready any time a sponsee of mine in recovery veers into the error of painting God the Father as some sort of wicked child sacrificing tyrant.

So Much From the Dutch (and Italians)

This is because these two Dutch masterpieces (and the Italian Gaddi at the top of this page) capture the essence of the unity of the Trinity.

Vermeyen's masterpiece is like
a Fatherly Pieta of sorts.
The Trinity by Agnolo Gaddi (top) almost needs no explanation. Though Father and Spirit didn't experience nails and scourging, they were just as present and suffered every bit as much as Jesus' mother Mary suffered from seeing her beloved son in such undeserved anguish.

This unity is also easy to see in Vermeyen's Holy Trinity where God the Father, clearly grieving, holds his dead son after the crucifixion with the Holy Spirit (which was just exhaled from the Son) hovering over them both. They have all three clearly experienced the Son's suffering together as one. God after all is the very essence of compassion (compassion literally means 'suffer with').

But how do we see any of this in Rembrandt's rendering of the Prodigal Son?

Well, if you know the story, Jesus is being criticized for welcoming sinners and eating with them in Luke Chapter 15. His story of the lost sheep and lost coin are simple enough, God cares about those who've lost their way, and "the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10).

However the story of the lost son is specifically intended to call out his critics who claim to be good and upright while they accuse Jesus of being wayward because he hangs out with the dregs of society.

If you take time to read the story remember that the lost son represents ALL of us, including every one of Jesus' self-righteous critics. The Father figure is God the Father and the older son personifies the Pharisees perfectly and believe you me, they knew it. Jesus was blatantly accusing them of pettiness, heartlessness, self-righteousness, pride, resentment, and more and they were surely very aware of it. 

Furthermore, and please don't miss this, Jesus is also making it painfully clear that he himself is the GOOD older brother who being completely aligned with the tender mercy of the Father seeks out his lost brother and brings him home! What a beautiful picture of God the Father with the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit of Love! (And what an irritation to the Pharisees who now had yet another reason to dispose of Jesus.)

Alignment With Our Mission

These images can preach without words. However, I'll be honest, both tears and words flow freely and joyfully as I explain them to others. I wish images like this were available to all and perhaps then less words would be needed. My experience is that people need very little help "getting it" when they take time to really look at them and ponder them.

For our part on the farm, we hope to sow these seeds of love, light, joy and compassion as widely as possible. They will certainly accompany me as I visit jail and work with my fellows in recovery. They will also be in every Visio Divina display that God sees fit in helping us distribute through your generosity.

   <<--Previous image   

   Next image-->>   

Remember, all produce on the farm is freely given
and never for sale. All donations to the farm
are tax deductible as we are a registered 501(c)(3).

If you've been blessed by our produce and would
love to make sure others get blessed too,
use the 'Donate' button below to pay it forward.

Fiscal Transparency / Produce Distributed

Contact Farmer Fred by clicking the ‘View Web Version’ 

link below. A form will appear in the right column 

when you do this which you can fill out to email him.

(This note is for phone browsers.)