Here’s an excellent post from Fred Sanders on what Christians mean when they say, “God died on the cross.” It almost sounds wrong to say, right? But no, Sanders unpacks what we mean when we say it. It may rub our Muslim friends, or agnostics who want things simple, the wrong way. But it does represent what really happened. But then…that doesn’t mean that it means what people might initially think it means. It doesn’t mean, for instance, “God ceased to exist.” So what does it mean? Sanders:
In one of his hymns, Charles Wesley wrote: “O Love divine, what has thou done! The immortal God hath died for me!” This is a bold thing to say, because it claims so much: “God . . . died.” The Bible itself says it that bluntly in a few places, such as Acts 20:28, “God purchased the church with his own blood.” This is how the voice of faith speaks when it confesses what God has done. This is a good Christian sentence. When theologians get hold of stark, paradoxical statements like “God died,” they have an instinct to clarify what is being said. They do not want to remove the shock or the force (that would be very bad theology), but they do want to make sure that the true paradox rather than something else is being communicated. They want to rule out misunderstandings that either take away the shock, or substitute for it the fake shock of logical incoherence.
For example, it is possible to think “God died” means something like, “just as there is a human death for humans to die, there is apparently a divine death for God to die, and that is what happened at Calvary.” But the analogy is nonsense. Death is a concept that only works inside of the context of a creation. You need finite, contingent existence to have its eclipse or dissolution in death. “Divine death” as the analogue of “human death” is probably not even a coherent idea. It seems to belong to the category of “neat tricks you can do with language,” by combining any adjective with any noun: square circle, blue height, quiet toddler, cold heat, divine death. When you remove the chimera of a properly divine death, you can see that “God died” means that God experienced the only kind of death there is to experience, and that is creaturely death. How could that have happened?
This is precisely where Chalcedonian categories come into play, and rather than stripping away the poetic power of Wesley’s words, the incarnational theology of Chalcedon, so to speak, put the poetry into the poetry. According to the Chalcedonian explication of the incarnation, the Son of God took into personal union with himself a complete human nature, and thus existed as one theanthropic (divine and human) person. He did not cease to be God, but he took up human nature into hypostatic (personal) union with himself. He made that humanity his own, and in that appropriated humanity he appropriated real human death. He died the only death there is to die, our death.
It is worth noticing, by the way, that in stating the incarnation in this way we have implied one of its presuppositions, the doctrine of the Trinity. In the sentence “God died,” the subject, “God,” has to mean “the second person of the Trinity, God the Son.” Each of the three persons is God, but they are distinct persons standing in interpersonal relationship to one another. The Son is not one third of God, or the Son part of God, or the nice version of God, but just God. God (the Father) so loved the world that he gave his only Son, and thus God (the Son, one of the Trinity) died on the cross. Chalcedon already provides us with Christology in trinitarian perspective, and makes no sense without presupposing the Trinity.
So with all the elaborate distinctions in place, the sentence “God died” can also be said in this longer form: “The eternal second person of the Trinity, God the Son, took into personal union with himself, without confusing it, changing it, dividing it or separating it from his eternal divine nature, a complete human nature through which he experienced death.” It is no surprise that Charles Wesley did not set that longer sentence to music. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the longer sentence is precisely what he meant by the shorter one. To the suggestion that he could have meant anything else by it, Charles Wesley would have replied that, being an orthodox Christian and no heretic, he could not possibly have intended anything else. Furthermore, there is no trickery and no sleight of hand in that expanded paraphrase of “God died.” The longer sentence is what the shorter sentence means, and both sentences are true precisely insofar as they mean each other.
Still, a temptation does lurk here. The temptation is to feel disappointed by the longer, Chalcedonian sentence, as if something has been taken away, dissolved into too many distinctions, or spun into insubstantial refinement. The danger lies in hearing the longer sentence as if it meant, “Half of a third of God had a bad weekend.” But that is not what it means. It means that God died, and it means it in the only way that Christian theology can possibly mean it. The trick is to hear the longer sentence as meaning the same thing as the shorter sentence, and not to feel cheated by it. The trick is never to hear that third sentence (“half of a third of God . . .”) echoing behind the others in your mind. Only the conceptual categories of Chalcedonianism, taken together with their proper trinitarian context, can banish such unworthy notions from Christian theology and doxology. This set of distinctions have always functioned within Christian thought to enable it to retain the power and precision of the longer and shorter sentences, the immediate utterance of the believing heart and the accuracy of the catechized understanding.
God did not take the easy way out, or save us in a way that leaves him untouched by the depth of human suffering. We can be confident that the Almighty One went to the uttermost limits to accomplish our rescue.
God died on the cross! Charles Wesley certainly knew the value of the incarnational and trinitarian conceptual framework, because when he sang “O Love divine, what has thou done! The immortal God hath died for me!” he immediately paraphrased it in terms of the second person of the Trinity’s vicarious action on our behalf: “The Father’s coeternal Son bore all my sins upon the tree.”
There’s a lot to think about there, but it’s food worth chewing for while.
I’ve found one more way of framing this discussion to be pretty helpful for my own thinking. It goes like this:
Did Jesus die on the cross? Yes.
Is Jesus God? Yes. In that he is God the Son (as Sanders says).
So God died on the cross? Yes.
But how could God, who lives forever, ever die? Isn’t that a contradiction? No, because Jesus as God did not cease to live or exist when he died, anymore than any human ceases to exist when they die. What happens when a human dies is not the cessation of existence, or even the cessation of experience or consciousness, but the separation of the soul (the immaterial) from the body (the material). Again, death is not cessation, but separation. Since a human being is only considered fully “alive” when he is a fully enfleshed spirit (with the immaterial and material aspects in union), any human who has experienced the separation of the two is in the category of “dead.” And when Jesus died, the immaterial aspect of who he was was separated from his material aspect (his body). In other words, Jesus experienced human death. (As Sanders says, creaturely death is the only kind of death there is.)
That’s it. God experienced the separating of the material and immaterial aspects of human nature. In other words, God died.
And, as Wesley knew, that is something to sing about.
So let’s do it. See you on Friday.