Masaccio’s Trinity, Psalm 22 and The Shack

Gary and Cathy Deddo, God, the Bible and The ShackWe’re planning to see the movie version of The Shack this weekend. Ted Johnston offers helpful comments on his blog, The Surprising God. Meanwhile, I’ve written about Paul Young and The Shack in a number of posts here:

One of the common evangelical criticisms of The Shack is voiced in a review of the movie on Plugged-In:

“Another theologically problematic moment comes when Papa tells Mack that He did not abandon Jesus on the Cross, despite the fact that Jesus Himself said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Papa’s statement in the film fails to recognize that Jesus not only carried mankind’s sin, but, according to 2 Corinthians 5:21, Jesus actually became sin. Because God the Father is holy, when Jesus took on humanity’s sin at Calvary, the Father did forsake Christ (until redemption was accomplished soon thereafter).”

This unfortunate misinterpretation of Jesus’ cry of forsakenness on the Cross has become widespread in evangelical circles, despite the fact that it seems to contradict the doctrine of the Trinity and the historic, orthodox Christian affirmation that redemption was a Triune act involving each member of the godhead.

Many evangelicals encounter this misinterpretation in one of my favorite hymns, How Deep the Father’s Love for Us, by Stuart Townend, in the line “The Father turned his face away….” Scroll down for a revised version of the lyrics (appended to the end of this post), which substitutes “He in our place, forsaken” for this problematic line. When in congregational singing we would come to this line, I used to just stop singing for a moment, but now I sing this alternative and more biblical phrase and hope anyone around me who hears it will pause and give it a second thought. (In the same way, we brought up our children to sow anarchy at Christmas when singing “Away in a Manger,” for instead of “no crying he makes,” we all join our voices to sing loudly “what a squalling he makes!”)

Without diminishing the mystery of the passion of the Son of Man upon the Cross, the Bible itself indicates explicitly that the Father did not “turn his face away” at that dark hour: “he has not hidden his face from him” (Psalm 22:24). Whatever judgment and godforsakenness the Son experienced, in some mysterious way, they shared it together. The Father and Spirit were with him, at great cost to themselves as well.

Consider the entirety of Psalm 22. Mary and John and perhaps others who heard Jesus cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” recognized in this prayer the opening line of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?” (Psalm 22:1; cf. Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46) By recording this first verse of the Psalm, the gospel writers invoked the context of the entire Psalm. Jesus prayed his way through the whole Psalm on the Cross, from within our darkness and forsakenness, all the way to “it is finished” and “into thy hands I commit my spirit.” Mary’s presence at the Cross added poignancy to the prayer of verse 9. The agony of crucifixion is captured in verse 14: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint.” The gospel writers crafted their accounts of Christ’s passion in full recognition of verses 16-18: “they have pierced my hands and feet— I can count all my bones— they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” By verse 25, the struggle of Gethsemane is fulfilled – “not my will, but thine” (Luke 22:42); “I have come to do thy will” (Hebrews 10:7,9; Psalm 40:7-8); and “My vows I will perform” (Psalm 22:25). Verse 24 provides the counterpoint response to Jesus’ cry from the Cross: “For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him.” (Psalm 22:24) The Father did not turn his face away. Perhaps the writer of Hebrews had the verses at the end of the Psalm in mind (vs. 24-31) when he affirmed that Jesus endured the Cross “for the joy set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). The Psalm ends with the final word from the Cross: “he has done it (Psalm 22:31),” or “It is finished (John 19:30).”

Redemption was a Triune act, where “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Christ and the Father have the same heart. Jesus came to change our minds about God, not God’s mind about us. Christ’s sacrifice was not to appease the Father like a pagan ablation. They were together with one aim and heart from start to finish, for us and our salvation. Hebrews 9:14 indicates that Christ offered himself “through the eternal Spirit” on the Cross. So the Holy Spirit was united in the work of the Cross as well. The whole Trinity was on a rescue mission, working in sync, to save us from death and sin.

Masaccio, TrinityOn my first trip to Florence, I set out to walk from my room in the historic old part of the city – (thanks, Hotel Davanzati) – to Santa Maria Novella, a 13th-century Dominican church. My first mission, before turning my thoughts to any of the official business I was there to conduct, was to see for myself the masterpiece of The Trinity by Masaccio. In the Galileo’s World exhibition (see the Art and Astronomy Walking Tour), I recounted the story of Renaissance art and linear perspective from Leonardo to Galileo. Masaccio’s 1425 fresco appears in practically every art history textbook (or in this short Khan Academy video) to represent the birth of linear perspective.

But Masaccio’s Trinity also beautifully captures the Triune character of redemption. It represents what transpired as Christ was praying Psalm 22, from verse 1 to the last. C.S. Lewis wrote that

“God’s presence is not the same as the feeling of God’s presence, and He may be doing most for us when we think He is doing least.”

This was nowhere more true than at this moment. Jesus – in our place, forsaken – cannot see the Father, but the Father is closely present, behind him, and holding him up, sustaining him through it all. The Spirit, as a dove, descends toward the Son, renewing his spirit, sustaining him through it all. There is no turning away from the Son by the Father or by the Spirit. (Click on the image, if necessary, to see the Spirit in the painting.) As Christ bears the full extent of our guilt and alienation and becomes sin in our place, they do not shrink away. Their holiness does not require them to turn their backs upon The Great Sinner on the Cross, suffering and repenting in our place. To the contrary, to the Son upon the Cross, in our place and on our behalf, the Holy One of Israel draws near:

For this is what the high and exalted One says—
he who lives forever, whose name is holy:
“I live in a high and holy place,
but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly
and to revive the heart of the contrite.”
(Isaiah 57:15).

The divine communion of love held fast, unbroken by the agony of the Cross. That communion held together, absorbing all the worst poison that fallen humanity possessed. Together, they defeated all the forces of evil that threatened to separate them, rather than allowing their communion to be broken.

The love of the Triune God portrayed by Masaccio is now extended to us in Christ, even in our broken and alienated state (Romans 5:8). He brought us with him, even through death, into that circle of love that has never been, and now could never be, broken. Even though we cry, “God, why have you forsaken me?”, we are included in him within that love (Romans 8:31-39).

“We must be quite definite about the fact that in the Lord Jesus Christ God himself has penetrated into our suffering, our hurt, our violence, our sinful alienated humanity, our guilty condition under divine judgment, and even into our dereliction. ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Behind that cry of Jesus on the Cross there is a mysterious movement in the divine Triunity, a counterpoint between the pathos in the crucified Jesus and the pathos in God. The cry of Jesus in dereliction was followed by another cry, ‘Father into thy hands I commend my spirit.’ There on the Cross at the deepest point of our relations with God in judgment and suffering the incarnate Son of God penetrated into our pathos in such a profoundly redemptive way that in the very heart of it all, he brought his eternal serenity or ἀπάθ∊ια to bear transformingly upon our passion.” Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons (T&T Clark, 1996; Amazon, iBooks).

For every mass-marketed portrait of Jesus that hangs in an evangelical church, let Masaccio’s Trinity awaken our imaginations to rethink our presumptions about redemption, and recover a deeper and more orthodox appreciation of the Trinity. The interactions between Papa, Jesus and Sarayu in Paul Young’s The Shack help us in a similar way. Masaccio’s Trinity and Young’s Shack are both, in their respective ways, pointers to the mystery of Psalm 22:24, that the Holy One of Israel drew near to the man of sorrows upon the Cross, and even now draws near to each of us in all our darkness, pain, guilt, grief and sorrow. He does not turn his face away. Triune love will meet and sustain us in our own shack.


So I have high hopes for the movie. The only problem the Plugged-In review mentioned that causes me alarm is the music Papa was enjoying: in the movie apparently it’s Neil Young; in the book it’s Bruce Cockburn. Oh no! Heresy!


How Deep the Fathers Love for Us (Stuart Townend, revised)

How deep the Father’s love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His Only Son
To make a wretch His treasure

How great the pain of searing loss
He in our place, forsaken
As wounds which mar the Chosen One
Bring many sons to glory

Behold the man upon a cross

My sin upon His shoulders

Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice

Call out among the scoffers

It was His love that held Him there

Until it was accomplished

His dying breath has brought me life

I know that it is finished

I will not boast in anything

No gifts, no power, no wisdom

But I will boast in Jesus Christ

His death and resurrection

Why should I gain from His reward?

I cannot give an answer

But this I know with all my heart

His wounds have paid my ransom

Why should I gain from His reward?

I cannot give an answer

But this I know with all my heart

His wounds have paid my ransom


As he entered the main living area, he heard the sound of a familiar Bruce Cockburn tune drifting from the kitchen and the high-pitched voice of a black woman singing along rather well: “Oh, Love that fires the sun, keep me burning.”
William P. Young, The Shack



Update 1/19/19: Peter Mill has relayed another theological improvement to the hymn: James Henderson, he reports, switches the first line of the fourth verse from ‘It was my sin that held Him there’ to ‘It was His love that held Him there.’ This change (already made in the revised text above) emphasizes the divine freedom of Christ’s love, rather than implying that we in any way could make him do anything.

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5 Responses to Masaccio’s Trinity, Psalm 22 and The Shack

  1. jack magruder says:


  2. Pingback: A Desert Parable, The Tree of Life, and The Shack | Kerry's loft

  3. in says:

    I like this hymn also. I actually prefer hymns than contemporary Christian music, so I’d occasionally go to another church where I knew they only sang hymns in, because I missed listening to them.

  4. Peter Mill says:

    Awesome post, Kerry, as I have already told you on the Grace Communion Seminary forum (and thanks again for allowing me to turn this into a sermon). Of course The Shack is often dissed as poor theology, it’s 100% Trinitarian and therefore the best theology in my unhumble opinion. Your reference to this great novel (and now movie) reminded me of the scene where Papa reveals (s)he has the same nail scars as Jesus, saying, “Don’t ever think that what my son chose to do didn’t cost both of us dearly. Love leaves a mark. I never left him and I never left you.”
    Unfortunately I am going to have to leave you now as my course work is calling, but I won’t leave you alone. Here’s a nice reflection in the same vein, from Pastor Brian Zahnd: “The crucifixion is not what God inflicts upon Jesus in order to forgive, the crucifixion is what God in Christ endures as he forgives.”

  5. Dave Robinson says:

    Neil Young vs. Bruce Cockburn… Two good Canadian lad’s, can’t be bad!

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