Can God Die? Did God Die?
Updated: Feb 20, 2018
It was Christmas and the church I pastor, Trinity Baptist Church of Orange, was attempting to do something for the community. We decided to do one of those live nativities, you know the kind I'm talking about, don't you? Live people playing the roles of the characters who witnessed the birth of Jesus or those who dropped in for a visit later. Essentially, whatever you would typically see in an ordinary nativity on your mom's fire mantle during the month of December. But played by real people. That's the idea and I like it. It helps make a distant event real.
The person in charge of our live nativity asked me to prepare a short devotion, always a dangerous request for any pastor. Most pastors I know, including me, like the sound of our own voice. "Connect Jesus' birth to Jesus' death," she said.
I'm good at taking orders, so I set out to write a "short" devotional. At some point in what I said, I used a statement that I had picked up from one of my professors at Truett Seminary. This professor's area of expertise was Patristics, the study of the theology of the Early Church Fathers. I had taken several classes with him, the one in which I discovered the statement was Early Christology. The statement was:
"Can God die? No. Did God die? Yes."
If ever there is a loaded statement, this is it! Two months pass. A church member, whom I love dearly and am good friends with, asks me about the statement. Specifically he asks me if it was an Orthodox statement or not. We discussed it and I held to the understanding that it certainly is. He returned to me the next Sunday and said, "All of the commentaries I read say you're wrong."
How do we deal with the cross? How do we handle the fact that Jesus died? Something happened on the cross, there's no denying it, but what? We all know that Jesus had two natures, one human and one divine. Which one died? If only the human nature of Jesus died, then how are we saved? The death of a human cannot atone for anyone's sin. If the divine nature died, how is that possible? God cannot die, or else he would cease to be God, right? There must be more to the mystery!
And then I stumbled upon a short essay I had written nearly two years ago in a seminary class. I found it helpful, or at least stimulating.
So this one is for you, nameless Trinity church member! I hope that you find it helpful, or in the least stimulating, as well.
The Paradox of Jesus and Kenotic Theology
One of the most difficult parts of the Christian doctrine to understand and the most debated throughout Christian history is the God-man Jesus. The debate seems to revolve around one major question: How is it that Jesus is, at the same time, both God and human? In chapter twelve of “Dogmatics: Volume II,” theologian Emil Brunner launches us into a discussion that has been ongoing for 2,000 years. “The great controversies – which later on became so terrible – about the doctrine of the Two Natures were all fought over this simply, yet profoundly mysterious truth.” 1
Is he God in a human body (Apollinarianism/Subhumanism)? Is he half divine and half human (Nestorianism)? Is he only a human who was given a divine spirit, but was taken from him on the cross (Adoptionism/Gnosticism)?
In the centuries following Jesus' and his apostle's deaths, Christian discussion seems to be heavily dominated by these questions. The traditional way of weeding through these issues is by utilizing the labels “heresy” and “orthodoxy.” However, modern historians are now dropping these labels all together and, instead, are speaking of multiple Christianities, rather than a clear cut Orthodox party and the heretics that opposed them. In this work, I will attempt to discuss one of these so called “heresies”, Nestorianism, the problems that it created, the “orthodox” response to it, and how Brunner's theology might be able to address the problem by utilizing aspects of kenotic theology.
Nestorius (381 C.E. – 451 C.E.) was reacting to Apollinarianism, which claimed that Jesus was not fully human – he was simply God in a human body. He attempted to explain how Jesus could be both God and man by assuming that Jesus must naturally have two natures. This would explain, therefore, all of Jesus' actions. The human nature gets hungry, the divine nature feeds five thousand with a few fish and loaves of bread.
So far so good. Nestorius still remains within the bounds of the hypostatic union (two natures, one person) and the later developed Chalcedonian Christology. The problem arises, however, when he begins to use the word “person” in a dualistic since as well. According to Nestorius, not only does Christ have two natures, but he also has two persons. This lands the theologian in hot water.
So why the overemphasis on the duality in Christ's nature and subject? Nestorius is attempting to protect one major thing throughout his Christological work – the divine attributes of Christ, especially immutability (unchanging) and impassibility (unfeeling). For Nestorius to explain this he concluded that Jesus must have both two natures as well as two persons. Otherwise when it comes to his suffering, we are only left with one option – the divine in Christ suffered right along side of the human. Based on his philosophy and understanding of God, Nestorius could not accept that Jesus was changeable or capable of experiencing suffering.
The “orthodox” response to Nestorius came from Cyril of Alexandria, who rejects the two person hypothesis of Nestorius' teachings, so much so, that it appears he creates a contradiction in Christ. “Cyril confesses Christ incarnate as retaining fully divine/impassible nature, but he simultaneously wishes to confess Christ's suffering and work as something undertaken and experienced by none other than God the Son.” 2
The question that results is: How can God suffer impassibly? This seems like a sheer contradiction and it creates an enormous problem for Soteriology (the study of salvation).
If only the humanity in Christ suffered, then God did not die for us and therefore he did not save us.
However, if the divine in Christ died along with the human, then that implies a change in God. How can the Cyril and the “orthodox” party make their claim then, that the divine nature suffered impassibly? Suffering and dying imply change. For Cyril and pals, they go to where most theologians go when they're in a corner - it's a matter of mystery. Their answer is a paradox in the least and a contradiction at the most. It is ultimately unsatisfying to many.
Orthodox Christology official answer is: Can God die? No. Did God die? Yes.
I like the statement, but the "orthodox" explanation of it is highly unsatisfying. Couched within this whole discussion of Jesus' divinity and humanity are many other questions, such as: What did Jesus know about himself and when did he know it? The “orthodox” party claimed that Jesus did not change in his divinity in any way. He retained all of the divine attributes. In the incarnation he simply “assumed” or “took on” human nature, but no change occurred in the process to his divine nature. And this is where they lose me.
According to this view Jesus, as a baby lying in the manger, not only knew he was God, but also was omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient. However, how do we justify this with passages like Luke 2:52 which says, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.” This passage is obviously incredibly difficult to interpret in light of immutability. What does it mean for God to increase in wisdom? Surely the word indicates a change of some kind. When did Jesus know that he was divine? At birth? Was he endowed with all of the divine attributes and powers even as a infant lying in the manger or as a child working alongside Joseph?
Again, I like the statement, but the orthodox explanation appears, to this writer anyway, deeply unsatisfactory. Is there another way to correlate Jesus' humanity and divinity?
Insert Emil Brunner. In chapter twelve of “Dogmatics: Volume II,” Brunner launches into a massive discussion on the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ that helps address these questions. He begins first with Jesus' humanity. In this part of the chapter, Brunner raises several intriguing or controversial thoughts, depending on how you see them. One of these thoughts is on the knowledge of Jesus. Brunner asks, “Was the knowledge of Jesus limited by human conditions? In the light of the evidence given us in the Bible we must answer decidedly: 'Yes'.” 3
Luke 2:52 has already been mentioned above, but other passages are equally intriguing. Brunner points to Mark 13 and Matthew 24 as examples as well. “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father (Matthew 24:36, NRSV).” As the second member of the Trinity, how is it that the Father knows something that the Son does not?
However, there is also scripture that points in the opposite direction as well. For example, Jesus seems to know that Peter will betray him. How do we correlate these two scriptures? Does Jesus know or doesn't he know? As mentioned already, Cyril and the “orthodox” response, through numerous debates, will ultimately answer these questions in terms of the dual nature of Christ. The human nature of Christ didn't know, but the divine nature of Christ does know. But the problems created by this line of reasoning are unconvincing when it comes to his death.
Which nature suffered on the cross? Which nature died? Can God die? Did God die? Who saves us on the cross?
What I admire about Brunner is his way of not getting into philosophical speculation about such things. For the most part, he sticks with the narrative of the New Testament and develops his theology from that. At this juncture, I believe that Brunner hints at something, but doesn't really develop it, and this something may really help satisfy these questions. This something is kenotic theology.
The word kenosis means “emptying." In simplistic terms, the idea is that in the incarnation Christ emptied himself of his divine attributes (omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, etc.) The controversy within kenotic theology was over whether Christ had possession of or use of his divine powers. 4 If one said that he had possession, but not use, then no self-divestment (self-emptying) occurred. But if he had neither possession nor use, then it would mean that the Logos lost his divinity.
The main kenotic theologian was Gottfried Thomasius. Thomasius created two categories of divine attributes – absolute and relative. In the absolute category he put things like freedom, eternity, holiness, and love. But in the relative he put things like omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence.5
For Thomasius, if God divested himself of his absolute attributes, then he would cease to be God, but his relative attributes were expendable.
The other kenotic theologians agreed that Christ willingly gave up these attributes and that he gradually regained power of them as he developed. “Thus the divine powers are not simply lost, but only temporarily suspended, to be regained during the self-actualization process of the incarnate God-man.” 6
Brunner never comes right out and admits that he has a kenotic leaning. But he does hint at it in that chapter. “Jesus in Gethsemane prays that this Cup may pass from him. Jesus at prayer places Himself on the level of those who are limited in their knowledge of future events. Jesus would not be True Man if this were not the case.” 7
However, Brunner believes that any attempt to fully explain exactly how Jesus is fully God and fully man is a fool's errand. “Must not every attempt to define the 'togetherness' of divinity and humanity in the Person of Jesus Christ break down?” 8 The answer is, yes! And this is the major sin of all so called “heretics.” They attempted to clearly define a mystery and it lead them into “heresy”.
Brunner prefers to allow the narrative of the New Testament speak for itself, rather than infusing it with Greek Philosophy, the great sin of many Early Church theologians. The narrative suggests that if we are to take the claim that Jesus is a man truthfully, then we must admit that he had some limitations on himself. If these passages suggest that he grew in wisdom or that he didn't know the future, then we must admit that perhaps Jesus did indeed “empty” himself of some of his divine attributes and self-understanding.
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8, NRSV).”
In my estimation, the theology that Brunner expounds, which is somewhat derived from kenotic Christology, helps us answer the paradox of Christ's dual natures. It seems to help explain that statement (Can God die? No. Did God die? Yes.) more satisfyingly. It seems to me that the only way to make sense out of this mystery is to allow for the fact that for Christ to really be what scripture says he is, he must have limited himself in some aspects.
1. Emil Brunner, Dogmatics: Volume II, 357
2. David Wilhite, The Gospel According to Heretics, 148
3. Emil Brunner, Dogmatics: Volume II, 324
4. Robert Williams, I A Dorner : The Ethical Immutability Of God, 7
5. Ibid., 7
6. Ibid., 7
7. Emil Brunner, Dogmatics: Volume II, 324
8. Ibid, 358