"And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight. And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?" Luke 24:31-32
The famous hymn of the church “And Can it Be?” contains a line that asks a very poignant question : “How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?” Is it accurate to say that God died on the cross?
This kind of expression is popular in hymnody and in grassroots conversation. So although I have this scruple about the hymn and it bothers me that the expression is there, I think I understand it, and there’s a way to give an indulgence for it.
We believe that Jesus Christ was God incarnate. We also believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross. If we say that God died on the cross, and if by that we mean that the divine nature perished, we have stepped over the edge into serious heresy. In fact, two such heresies related to this problem arose in the early centuries of the church: theopassianism and patripassianism. The first of these, theopassianism, teaches that God Himself suffered death on the cross. Patripassianism indicates that the Father suffered vicariously through the suffering of His Son. Both of these heresies were roundly rejected by the church for the very reason that they categorically deny the very character and nature of God, including His immutability. There is no change in the substantive nature or character of God at any time.
God not only created the universe, He sustains it by the very power of His being. As Paul said, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). If the being of God ceased for one second, the universe would disappear. It would pass out of existence, because nothing can exist apart from the sustaining power of God. If God dies, everything dies with Him. Obviously, then, God could not have perished on the cross.
Some say, “It was the second person of the Trinity Who died.” That would be a mutation within the very being of God, because when we look at the Trinity we say that the three are one in essence, and that though there are personal distinctions among the persons of the Godhead, those distinctions are not essential in the sense that they are differences in being. Death is something that would involve a change in one’s being.
We should shrink in horror from the idea that God actually died on the cross. The atonement was made by the human nature of Christ. Somehow people tend to think that this lessens the dignity or the value of the substitutionary act, as if we were somehow implicitly denying the deity of Christ. God forbid. It’s the God-man Who dies, but death is something that is experienced only by the human nature, because the divine nature isn’t capable of experiencing death.
This was an excerpt from R.C. Sproul’s The Truth of the Cross. For a limited time you can get the eBook edition (ePub and Kindle) for free. Offer expires April 30, 2013.
Is it right to claim that Jesus’s death on the cross resulted in the death of God? How can the God who holds the keys to death and hell die? As Dr. Craig points out in this answer, when Christian hymns refer to the death of God, the hymnists are pointing to an event relative to Christ’s human nature and not the idea that God has somehow ceased to be.
Hello Dr. Craig,
I would firstly like to thank you for your time and your work you put into your ministry. It has greatly benefited me and has also made me want to pursue a degree in philosophy.
My question is one I have never been able to get a clear answer on. When Jesus died on the cross, did God die? That being, did the essence of Jesus actually die?
This question really bothered me after hearing the song "And Can it Be?" There's a line in there towards the end of the chorus "Amazing Love! How can it be that Thou my God shouldst die for me? Amen?"
I've never really been able to get a clear and concise answer to this question and there seems to be some differing opinions among theologians as to the nature of this question. Pastor John MacArthur seems to think God did die because Jesus is God. But R.C. Sproul on the other hand disagrees and believes that God cannot die.
I don't see how it's possible that God could actually die. For if God were to die then He wouldn't be a necessary Being. But this is impossible because God must be necessary by definition. So when Christ died on the cross, was it just the human part that died?
This is a tough question, and I would greatly appreciate it if you could shed some light on it.
Death of God
I couldn't resist your question, Jesse, since it appeals to my favorite hymn, the magnificent "And Can It Be?" by Charles Wesley. I urge anyone who knows only praise songs and choruses to listen to this hymn and contemplate the wonderful lyrics about God's amazing love.
Your question is one that also troubles our Muslim friends and is therefore very urgent. Fortunately, the historic Christian church has addressed this question clearly.
Death of God – Christ is a single person with two natures
The Council of Chalcedon (451) declared that the incarnate Christ is one person with two natures, one human and one divine. This has very important consequences. It implies that since Christ existed prior to his incarnation, he was a divine person before taking on a human nature. He was and is the second person of the Trinity. In the incarnation this divine person assumes a human nature as well, but there is no other person in Christ than the second person of the Trinity. There is an additional human nature which the pre-incarnate Christ did not have, but there is no human person in addition to the divine person. There is just one person who has two natures.
Therefore, what Christ said and did, God said and did, since when we speak of Christ we're talking about a person. For that reason the Council endorses speaking of Mary as "the mother of God." She bore the person who is a divine person. Unfortunately, this language has been disastrously misleading because it sounds as though Mary birthed the divine nature of Christ when in fact she birthed Christ's human nature. Mohammed apparently thought that Christians believed that Mary was the third member of the Trinity, and Jesus was the offspring of God the Father and Mary, a view which he rightly rejected as blasphemous, though no orthodox Christian holds it.
Death of God – Understanding death as an aspect of human nature
To avoid such inevitable misunderstandings it is helpful to speak of what Christ does or how he is relative to one of his two natures. For example, Christ is omnipotent relative to his divine nature but he is limited in power relative to his human nature. He is omniscient with respect to his divine nature but ignorant of various facts with respect to his human nature. He is immortal with regard to his divine nature, but mortal with regard to his human nature.
You can probably see now where I'm headed. Christ could not die with respect to his divine nature but he could die with respect to his human nature. What is human death? It is the separation of the soul from the body when the body ceases to be a living organism. The soul survives the body and will someday be re-united with it in a resurrected form. That's what happened to Christ. His soul was separated from his body and his body ceased to be alive. He became temporarily a disembodied person. On the third day God raised him from the dead in a transformed body.
In short, yes, we can say that God died on the cross because the person who underwent death was a divine person. So Wesley was all right in asking, "How can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?" But to say that God died on the cross is misleading in the same way that it is misleading to say that Christ died on the cross in relation to his human nature, but not in relation to his divine nature.