Once again the anniversary of Christ’s death is opening up the question whether it is proper to say that God died on the cross, with good men leveling arguments at and past one another. Some argue that God, being immortal (1 Timothy 1:17; 6:16; etc.), by definition cannot die. Others, citing passages like Acts 20:28 and Galatians 2:20, which actually state that God died, conclude oppositely.
They can’t both be right, and the Bible is never wrong, so how do we achieve resolution? I’d like to suggest that the starting point for resolution necessarily begins with theological definition. What exactly does it mean for God to die? Some theses for consideration:
- All agree that when Christ died, the Second Person of the Godhead did not cease to exist, but of course death never means annihilation anyway, so this resolves nothing.
- We must also agree that Christ did not cease to be God when he died, or else his death would have no value for his people. Only an infinitely holy divinity could bring infinite value to Christ’s sacrifice. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19).
- For the same reason, we must agree that Christ’s humanity and divinity were not divorced from each other on the cross. Christ is indivisibly both God and man, with neither division of his person nor conflation of his natures.
- We must further be careful not to affirm that the Trinity itself was in breach or suspended for a period of time while Christ was on the cross. God is eternally, immutably, and indivisibly Triune, and cannot be otherwise.
- When God “forsook” Christ and poured out wrath upon him, Christ personally experienced that wrath in his indivisible person, effectively knowing death in an experimental way apart from which God could not have known it.
- This forsaking falls short, however, of an inter-Trinitarian “estrangement.” God did not viscerally hate Christ on the cross—God is impassive and incapable of such angst. Nor did they “lose fellowship” with each other (whatever that means). His was a dispassionate and judicial wrath that in no way interrupted the stream of eternal and necessary inter-Trinitarian love and delight that each person of the Trinity has in the others. Without this, again, God would not be God (John 10:17).
So may we say that Jesus the man died? Absolutely. His material and immaterial were disjoined, the former being entombed and the latter dismissed to go elsewhere.
May we say that Christ the God-man died? An equally firm “Yes.” The hypostatic union is such that the experiences of the one person can never be partitioned off into distinct experiences of his respective natures.
May we then say that the Second Person of the Trinity died? Absolutely not. God is immortal. While it might be said that God knew death by experience through the hypostatic union in a way that he could not have experienced it apart from that union, we cannot say that he died—at least not without gutting the idea of death of all its known meanings.