“If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for Him” ~ C. T. Studd
“Amazing love! How can it be, That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?” ~ Charles Wesley
“Being the followers of God, and stirring up yourselves by the blood of God, you have perfectly accomplished the work which was beseeming to you.” ~ Ignatius of Antioch
“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” ~ St Luke, Acts 20:281
If Christianity is true, then God died. This is fairly easily established from some premises that Christianity accepts:
1) Jesus Christ is one and only one person, and that person is truly God.
2) Jesus Christ died.
3) Therefore a person who is God died.
Then we just add one further premise which is obviously true:
4) If a person who is truly God died, then God died.
And thus we conclude (from 1-5):
5) Therefore God died.
There is a direct parallel to the question of whether or not Mary the mother of Jesus was theotokos, the mother of God or the “God-bearer.” Any orthodox theologian should be able to sympathise with the concern that this can, if taken a certain way, have heretical implications (implying that God had a beginning), while understanding that if it is understood in the intended manner, its denial has heretical implications.2 But it is actually rather simple. For if Mary is the Christ-bearer, the mother of Jesus, and if Jesus is truly God and truly man as orthodoxy demands, then of course Mary is the Mother of God, because the person that she bore is truly God. She is the mother of a man and the mother of God, while being the mother of only one person (setting aside the question of how many other children Mary might have had, if any), because this one person is really a human being and is really God (this is just what it means for a person to have a complete human nature as well as a truly divine nature).
Similarly, there is a natural reluctance on the part of some to say that on the cross God died because the statement can be (but should not be) construed to mean that everything that is God died. This would be heresy, for it would imply that the Father and the Holy Spirit died. But to deny that God died is the same kind of error as claiming that Mary did not give birth to God. Jesus is only one person, that person is truly God, and if anything at all died on the cross, it was a person. So God died.
To say that Jesus’ human nature died but not his divine nature is problematic for a couple of reasons. In the first place it just doesn’t make sense. Natures do not do anything, including die. To have a human nature is just to have all the properties required to be human. There is more than one way to think about this, but whatever we mean we should not think of Jesus’ human nature amounting to a human being all by itself, otherwise Jesus is just the co-operation of a human person and a divine person, which is the heresy called Nestorianism. Persons have a nature, and it is persons that live and die (and think, feel, believe etc). In the second place, even if we could overlook the heresy of making Jesus’ human nature into a personal entity all by itself capable of dying, to say that Jesus’ human nature might die while the divine nature did not would amount to a separation of the human and divine natures in Christ, which is precisely what Christological orthodoxy sought to deny as a possibility. It was the Gnostic heresies, rather than Christian orthodoxy, that portrayed the victim on the cross as only human, while the spirit of Christ was untouched by such base suffering (leaving the human Jesus to cry out that he had been abandoned, even by the Spirit of Christ), for God cannot become human, let alone suffer.
Consequently, so long as we maintain that Jesus is only one person, that dying is something done by persons and that Christological orthodoxy is correct to maintain the distinction but inseparability of Christ’s human and divine nature, then we are left with no choice other than to affirm that God, in Christ, died.
In addition to being heretical, to deny that God really died has unjust implications. For God to take a third person – a person who is not God but a bystander – and subject him to death as an atoning sacrifice is unjust. It is akin to me robbing a third party in order to wipe your debt to me rather than paying it myself or absorbing the loss.
You may find it very hard to find a way of expressing the idea that God died in a detailed manner that does not pose problems for orthodoxy. I am not saying that it cannot be done (in fact I think it can be done). But whatever the correct formulation, it will be hard. As a short-cut to the answer, in lieu of doing the hard thinking required, you might be tempted to join those who, before engaging in this thinking, decide that the task is probably impossible and therefore the answer not worth figuring out. As a result, the proposition that God died is branded heresy and dismissed without any mental effort. This happens. But it is wrong.
If you do not believe that on the cross God died, you should probably reconsider which religion you subscribe to, because it is not Christianity.
- Any concerns raised about the possibility that this statement in Acts should be translated as “with the blood of his own” or “with the blood of his son” can at least in part be met with the response that so many of those who would feel it improper to speak of the death of God on the cross are also those who take the translation here to be the appropriate one and who are suspicious of the alternatives as concessions to liberalism. [↩]
- That the term is taken by many, predominantly in the Catholic tradition, to be one that tells us who Mary is, is unfortunate in my view. The intent behind this term was to stress that Jesus is really divine. [↩]
- Nuts and Bolts 012: Kenosis
- Divine Timelessness and the Death of Jesus
- Brian Leftow on “One Person Christology”
- Physicalism and the Incarnation
- A (genuine) Generous Orthodoxy
- Let this cup pass from me: A Good Friday reflection