The Day God Died
How could God die? If there is any concept that our minds cannot accept, this must surely be it. If one takes the word death to mean “ceasing to exist,” then it is definitely impossible for God to die. God is the only being who has indestructible life in himself; he has always lived, and he will always live. That life can never be taken from him. If ceasing to exist is what death is, then God cannot die.
But ceasing to exist is not what the Bible means by death. Instead, the sort of death that people have been subject to since the Fall has two aspects to it—physical death and spiritual death. Physical death is the separation of the soul from the body as the body ceases to function, and spiritual death is alienation from God as a result of sin. If this is the human problem that God needs to solve by Christ’s death, then to say that Christ has died is to say that he died in these ways—spiritually and physically.
So we need to get “ceasing to exist” out of our minds and instead to divide the question of how God could die into two parts.
First, how could God the Son die physically? Certainly physical death is not something that is possible for God, because God is not physical in and of himself. To say it differently, physicality is not a characteristic (or attribute) of God. Therefore, it is clear that prior to the Incarnation, when God the Son was nothing but divine and therefore exclusively spiritual rather than physical, he was not capable of physical death. But just as certainly, the human nature that he took upon himself at the Incarnation included the characteristic of physicality. Indeed, such physicality is the most obvious idea conveyed by the word flesh in the statement “the Word became flesh.” Since God the Son now had a human nature, and thus now had a physical component, it meant that he (not just the human nature) was now capable of physical death.
And so it follows that a large part of the reason for his taking a human nature on himself was so that he could die physically. To say this the way the church fathers did, God the Son did not physically die as God; he died as man. But still, the person who died physically was God the Son.
But what about spiritual death? Surely here we hit a brick wall of impossibility? Perhaps not, because we need to recognize that the early church’s way of speaking of Christ as God and as man applies to his spiritual death as well as to his physical death. When one considers the Son of God in his eternal state as God, in terms of his eternal fellowship with the Father and the Spirit, then it is not possible for that relationship to be broken. As God, the Son cannot be alienated from the other persons of the Trinity. But when one considers this same eternal Son in his postincarnate state as man, then in terms of this human condition it is possible for him to be estranged from the Trinitarian fellowship.
To say this another way, one of the consequences of our sin is that we are estranged from God (this is what spiritual death means), and undoing this consequence requires that someone else must take upon himself that alienation from God—someone else must die spiritually in our place. That person can only be an infinite human being who is sinless and himself in fellowship with God. Therefore, in order for us to be restored, the Son in his human, postincarnate state must be alienated from God. This is what it means for God the Son to die spiritually. Again, let me emphasize that this does not mean he is alienated from the Father and the Spirit as God, but somehow the eternal Son is alienated as man, in the humanity that he took upon himself so as to accomplish our salvation.
The Place Where Logic Fades
With this in mind, let us turn to Jesus’ anguished cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” At this moment, as he hangs on the cross, God the Son is suffering the full weight of God’s wrath toward our sin, yours and mine. The Father has loved his one and only Son from all eternity and still loves him now, considering the Son as God. Yet somehow, in this moment, the Father is also turning away from that Son, forsaking him because of the sin that the Son, considered as man, is bearing in place of us. The Son, considered as man, is alienated from the Father (and the Spirit as well, although Jesus does not mention him in this passage).
Again, we must emphasize that this alienation comes about because God the Son has, in his humanity, been immersed in the consequences of our human sin. God the Son is not estranged from the Father as God. Instead God the Son is so alienated as man. But nevertheless, the person who is alienated from the Father at this moment is God the Son. Why? Because this and only this could serve as an appropriate sacrifice to undo your estrangement from God, and mine.
Here the teaching of the Christian faith most seriously stretches the bounds of what we can possibly fathom. How could God the Son be at once both sharing in the eternal fellowship of the Trinity and estranged from that fellowship? We do not know how this could be possible, and the Fathers’ expression “impassible suffering” was an attempt to convey the paradox of the Cross. In fact, Cyril of Alexandria was fond of saying that here, when one reaches the limits of one’s ability to understand, one should “adore the mystery in silence.”
This is the place where logic fades and reverent wonder replaces it. But if this moment is the most unfathomable moment in history, surely it is also the most terrible and yet the most wonderful moment in history. In the anguished days leading up to this event, Jesus tried to prepare his disciples for it by saying, “Now is the Son of Man glorified” (John 13:31). Of this moment the apostle John wrote, “This is love.” Why glory? Why love? Why does the Bible use such wondrous words to describe such a terrible event? Because here we see God’s presence with us. Here we see God’s love for us.
We often say that true love is sacrificial, and it is. But what happened in that moment was beyond sacrificial. In order to bring us back into the fellowship between the persons of the Trinity, those very Trinitarian persons agreed that God the Son would suffer as man under the wrath of God. That wrath should have fallen on us. That estrangement from God should have been ours—indeed it was ours, for we already were alienated from God. This is not just a great example of God’s love or of his glorious presence with us. This is the definition of love, of glory. The Father and the Spirit were willing to be somehow distant from the incarnate Son (again, considered as man, not considered in his deity) in order to be gloriously present with us. They turned away from the Son in order to turn toward us in love.
It was at this moment that God’s love toward us was defined, not merely exemplified. This is the central moment in human history, and the proclamation of what happened in this moment is the central message the Christian faith has to offer to the world. It is a message that you have heard many times in the simple statement, “Christ died for you.” But have you really heard it? Have you heard this message in all its terrible, majestic, glorious truth? If not, then now is the time to hear it anew, and in hearing this message anew, to peer into the depths of God’s love for you.
Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and author of Life in the Trinity (InterVarsity Press, 2009), from which this article is adapted with permission.
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