Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

19 Dec 2017

“We should shrink in horror from the idea that God actually died on the cross.”


…so said the late R. C. Sproul in a timely and succinct blog post just last year. Sproul was a master of theological summary, and it is only fitting that we remember him for this service to the Christian Church in the wake of his recent departure.

Despite Sproul’s bluntness on this matter, support for the heresy of theopassionism (sometimes called theopaschitism or theopaschism) is on the rise in blogs and hymns and other media. So prevalent is this heresy in contemporary Christianity that, in the words of Michael Ward, it has become the “new orthodoxy” (“Theopaschitism,” in Heresies and How to Avoid Them, 61). By saying this he means that this heresy is no longer being taught accidentally (which is easy to do), but deliberately and defensively. It’s high time to stop this trend. It’s serious. Very serious.

That Christ, the theanthropic God-man, died on the cross is undisputed. What is at issue here is whether God himself died on the cross. And the answer is—and must be—an emphatic “no.” To suggest that God died is (1) to deny at least three of God’s attributes (viz., impassibility, immutability, and immortality), (2) to create a Trinitarian breach so great that Tritheism is unavoidable, (3) to make the miracle of incarnation unnecessary, and finally (and this is what makes it a heresy), (4) to render the whole Christian system inoperative such that, if it is true, we remain in our sins to this day.

One searches in vain for Scriptures that say that God died. Some come close. Acts 20:28, for instance, speaks of “the church of God which he purchased with his own blood.” The strength of the argument is weakened by a textual variant so significant that the new Tyndale House version of the Greek NT has opted for the word kurios rather than theos, a reading that quite eliminates this verse as evidence for theopaschitism. But even if we retain the latter reading (which carries a “C” rating in UBS5), we are made immediately aware that God did not shed his own blood (after all, he hasn’t any), but rather the blood that was prepared for him in the incarnation. In no sense can this verse be taken to suggest that God died.

Christ suffered not as God, but as human (indeed, that was what was necessary—he had to suffer as we suffered). He felt God’s wrath in his humanity. We might even go so far as to say that God knew death through his humanity. But God did not die.

With Sproul, I do my charitable best to “give an indulgence” for ignorance in this matter, and continue to encourage this response. But the epidemic nature of this error has become vexing. It really must be stopped.


8 Responses

  1. Fred Moritz

    Baptists granting indulgences is funny! Well written post. And to think of Wesley:
    “Amazing love, how can it be,
    That thou, my God should die for me.

  2. Kit Johnson

    I suppose that a defender of Wesley would say that he’s not actually saying that the divine nature died, but instead that the “God-man” died. But is the line potentially misleading? Should we change it when we sing it in our churches?

  3. Mark Snoeberger

    While Wesley is not here to interview, I suspect that you are right, though I’ll always wonder (because he said otherwise).

    You are, of course, correct that in his one theanthropic person Christ could use “I” to describe the experiences of both his natures. He could truly say “I don’t know,” “I thirst,” and “the Son of man will suffer and die”—affirming ignorance, want, suffering, and death—but it would be very, very wrong for us to conclude that his divine nature suffered the loss of its omniscience, aseity, impassibility, or immortality. In the same way, Christ could truly say, “Before Abraham was I am,” but it would be very, very wrong for us to deduce from this the eternality of his human nature.

    Christ, being one indivisible person, could speak for both of his natures, but in so doing, he never conflated those natures. Hence the Chalcedonian gloss, “Neither divide the person nor confound the natures.” Saying that God died is a glaring example of confounding Christ’s natures.

    Because it’s an easy mistake to make, indulgence is appropriate; still, I wouldn’t just ignore it. Otherwise heresy may become woven into the theology of the people of your church. And that’s exactly what I think is happening in modern hymnody.

    1. Mark Snoeberger

      Following Jones, I agree that Sproul was incorrect when he said that “the atonement was made by the human nature of Christ.” Atonement is made by persons, not natures. Still, Sproul remains correct in his main point, viz., that the indivisible person of Christ made atonement by suffering and dying in his humanity, not in his divinity.

      So while I believe Jones makes an important correction, I still recoil in horror at the thought that God died.

  4. Paul Himes

    Dr. Snoeberger,
    I trust I can trouble you for some more of that “indulgence!” I confess that I am not a systematic theologian, not even close, so no doubt there’s some things I’m totally missing here. I’ve read Sproul’s post that you link to, and I confess I’m confused by his definition of “death,” among other things (“If the being of God ceased. . .” this seems to imply that death is the cessation of existence?)
    1. First, how are we defining “God”? Do we, of necessity, mean “all members of the Trinity in their unity?” If so, then obviously the Trinity did not die on the cross. Yet would it not then also be inappropriate to call any of Jesus’ actions something that “God” did? Was Thomas technically inaccurate when he addressed Jesus as “My Lord and my God” (since He was only addressing the God-man, Jesus)? Would it then be inappropriate to speak of anything Jesus did as something that “God” did? Would it be inappropriate to say “God incarnated”? I’m thinking here of 1Tim 3:16, using the critical text for the sake of argument, where the pronoun hos would seem to point back to theos about a dozen words previous–thus “God . . . Who was revealed in flesh.”
    2. I understand that we want to avoid suggesting that the divine nature was changed. Yet surely would we not also want to avoid suggesting that the man dying on the cross, whom Thomas called “My Lord and my God” was not “God”? [Forgive me if I’m totally misunderstanding the point here]
    3. Contra Sproul [if I understood him correctly], death is not the cessation of existence. Rather, death is the separation of the spiritual part of man from the material part–an aberration, to be sure. So the issue is not, “did God cease to exist” but rather, “did God experience the separation of the physical body He incarnated in from His spiritual essence,”, which goes back to the question, can we accurately say that “God incarnated”? For me, a negative answer to that question would necessitate a negative answer to the question “Did God die?”, but that would bring us back full-circle to the issue of how are we defining God.
    4. Granted, generally in the NT “God” is used in reference to.”God the Father” (overwhelmingly so, in the NT–Acts 3:15 is one of many, many examples). But does this automatically mean that “God” cannot be in reference specifically to the Son in distinction from the Father? (After all, “Theos” by definition is not a proper name since it can be pluralized, though I wouldn’t be too surprised if occasionally in the LXX it could be a stand-in for the divine name like Kurios often was). In addition to the two examples mentioned, we might note the Granville-Sharp construction of, e.g., Titus 2:13, as well as (if one prefers the critical text), John 1:18–Jesus as the monogenēs Theos.
    Anyways, if I’m just totally missing the point, I apologize (and hoping your first poster, my old systematics prof Dr. Moritz, whom I highly respect, is not rolling his eyes in disbelief at my comments!) But more clarification would help, starting with a definition of “God” and “died.” For my part, I have tended to be a bit more flexible in that any member of the Trinity could be called “God” even in regards to their specific roles (thus, e.g., “God convicts of sin” even when I specifically mean the Holy Spirit).

    1. Paul Himes

      I just read Kevin DeYoung’s article “Divine Impassibility and the Person of Christ in the Book of Hebrews” (WTJ vol. 68.1) and I understand a little bit more the issue, but I’m still frustrated by the lack of definition of “God.” For example, he states, “The passibility of God cannot be assumed from the passibility of Christ, first of all, because the nature of the incarnation implied some sort of ‘change’–in this case a temporary change of status (being made for a little while lower than the angels)–what we see in Jesus will not equal to what we see in God. The Son of God took on human flesh and blood to do that which he could not do as God” (Page 50 of the article).
      DeYoung does not actually define what he means by the term “God” in the article, from what I saw, but if he means “the divine essence,” then surely we all agree with him. “The Son of God took on human flesh and blood to do that which he could not do by means of the divine essence/His role as God/or ‘merely’ God” would be a statement I could agree with. In other words, suffering on the cross is not something God could do without the incarnation. Yet in the zealousness to combat Theopaschiticism, the language almost makes it sound like Jesus ceased being “God,” and that’s why I’m confused. If “God” is the one “who was manifested in the flesh,” then would that not imply that the term “God” can be used to refer to what one particular member of the Trinity accomplishes without necessarily implying the divine essence or the entire Trinitarian God-head?
      I apologize for the imprecise language–I’m not a systematic theology.

  5. Mark Snoeberger

    Paul, you’ve hit on some good questions. It is true that God, through the humanity that was added to him, in some sense understands birth, death, ignorance, and localized existence in ways that he could not apart from the incarnation, but it seems impossible (even scandalous) to conclude therefrom that God was born or died, or lost his omniscience and omnipresence. These go too far.

    And you’re right that death for God is ill defined in Sproul. That’s part of the larger problem. God cannot die in any of the three classic senses we find in Scripture. So in what sense did God die if, in fact, he died? Is it some fourth sense that suspends the Trinity? The tension grows.