Did God Die on Good Friday?
And what does controversy over the Virgin Mary have to do with this question?
The term “Easter egg” is used metaphorically to refer to a hidden message, joke or feature incorporated into a movie, computer program or other media entity for users to stumble across and appreciate.
There’s something at once ironic and appropriate about this term in connection with a Google Easter egg — a sort of “Good Friday Easter egg” — I came upon some time ago when I happened to Google the words “God died.” Google’s own results feature proposed the following identifying information for this search:
Pretty cool, huh? Alas, this “Good Friday Easter egg” is now apparently defunct. (Please bring it back, Google people!)
God’s not dead — but God did die on Good Friday. This way of speaking about Jesus’ death is uncontroversial among Catholic and Orthodox Christians, and generally also in the historic Reformation churches (those in the Lutheran, Calvinist and Anglican traditions).
In fact, most Evangelicals and other Protestants will agree with statements like “God died for our sins” — until they realize what this entails for one of their hot-button issues: Mary, acknowledged by Catholics, Orthodox and the historic Reformation traditions, but generally not by many Evangelicals — as Theotokos or Mother of God. (This was never a problem for me personally, by the way. My theological background was initially Reformed, and we had no problem calling Mary Theotokos.)
A few months ago I had a discussion with an Evangelical Christian that went precisely this way. He affirmed, repeatedly, that God died for our sins, until I pointed out that if it’s right to say that God died, then we must also say that God was born; and if God was born, then his mother is the mother of God.
At this point my Evangelical friend developed cold feet. Although he is entirely orthodox on the Incarnation and the dual natures of Christ, the paradoxical consequences of the Incarnation, particularly around the notion that Mary gave birth to God, gave him pause about the appropriateness of this manner of expression. “If I said that ‘God’ died for my sins,” he began, “I was being careless, because that is not what I believe.”
This, I think, is unfortunate. I don’t think my Protestant friend was being careless at all. I think he was talking like a Christian — the way Christians, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant have talked for nearly two millennia, from the New Testament to classic English hymnody.
One can say if one wishes that Charles Wesley was “being careless” when he wrote, in the magnificent hymn “And Can It Be that I Should Gain?”, the awesome lines:
Amazing love! How can it be
That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! How can it be
That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
And again, in “O Love Divine, What Hast Thou Done”:
O Love divine, what has thou done!
The immortal God hath died for me!
One can say Isaac Watts was being careless when he wrote, in “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”:
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ, my God!
One can say Martin Luther was being careless when he wrote:
God did not derive his divinity from Mary; but it does not follow that it is therefore wrong to say that God was born of Mary, that God is Mary’s Son, and that Mary is God’s mother...She is the true mother of God and bearer of God...Mary suckled God, rocked God to sleep, prepared broth and soup for God, etc. For God and man are one person, one Christ, one Son, one Jesus, not two Christs.”
But the testimony of sacred scripture isn’t so easily dismissed. And one cannot read this Evangelical terminological delicacy into scripture without tying oneself in exegetical knots.
The Testimony of Scripture
The Bible very seldom says in so many words “Jesus Christ is God.” For the most part, we have to be willing to follow the implications of the language to see what the authors are really saying.
It’s possible, of course, to try to avoid the implications of this language by reinterpreting titles such as “Son of God,” “Lord” and so forth to refer to something other than divinity. Arian-type sects such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons do it all the time.
Still, if we’re willing to follow the implications of the language, it’s pretty clear that it’s correct to say that Jesus is God. And it’s equally clear that the death of Jesus is the death of God in the flesh.
One can try to dance around it — but only at the cost of dancing around the deity of Christ itself, by resorting to the same sorts of exegetical dodges that Arian-type sects utilize to deny Jesus’ divinity.
For instance, when St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12, “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit,” all orthodox Christians recognize what Arian heretics deny, that Paul uses Kurios as a divine title, like the Hebrew term Adonai (“Lord”) used in place of the divine Name when the Hebrew scriptures were read aloud.
But when St. Paul writes one chapter earlier, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26), my Evangelical friend must shift gears and perhaps say something like “Well, in this case ‘Lord’ doesn’t refer to Jesus’ divine Lordship, but only to his human authority” — a move he was already willing to make with Elizabeth’s acclamation of Mary as “the mother of my Lord” (Luke 1:43). This is a dangerous precedent.
He will also have to reinterpret the phrase “Son of God” to refer to something other than Jesus’ divine Sonship when St. Paul writes: “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Romans 5:10).
Can “His Son” (i.e., God’s Son) be reinterpreted to refer to something other than Jesus’ divine Sonship? I suppose, if one is bent on it. Angels are sons of God. We are all sons of God. There are other interpretive possibilities also. But would any orthodox Christian, reading the term “God’s Son” anywhere else in Romans, interpret it as anything other than a reference to Christ’s Divine Sonship?
For instance, when Paul describes God “sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin” (Romans 8:3), are Evangelicals in any doubt that this refers to Christ’s Divine Sonship? Do they really want to go on to say, “But when he talks three chapters earlier about ‘the death of His Son,’ that’s not a reference to Christ’s divine Sonship, but to something else”?
Then there’s St. Peter’s affirmation: “You killed the Author of life, but God raised him from the dead” (Acts 3:15).
The Greek term here translated “author,” archegos (from arche, meaning “beginning” or “first cause”), means “originator,” or perhaps “prince” or “captain.” It appears four times in the New Testament, always in reference to Jesus. The writer to the Hebrews clearly uses it in the sense of “originator” in Hebrews 12:2, calling Jesus “the archegos and finisher of [our] faith” (i.e., the originator and completer, the beginning and the end). He also calls Jesus “the archegos of salvation” (Hebrews 2:10), i.e., the source or originator of salvation. Then there’s Acts 5:31: “God exalted him at his right hand as Archegos and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” Note that Jesus is archegos in heaven at the right hand of the Father.
Do Evangelicals really want to try to contrive some sense in which Jesus is the “archegos of life” without reference to his divinity? They could always follow the Watchtower translation and render this “the Chief Agent of life” (whatever that means), although I don’t know what the best Greek experts would say about this.
If we follow the usual translation, “You killed the Author of life,” and if “Author of life” is, as I would argue, a transparent circumlocution for “God” (chosen for irony: the Author of life put to death!), then Peter is pretty straightforwardly saying “You killed God.”
The Lord’s death. The death of God’s Son. The Author of life killed. One can tie oneself in knots trying to avoid it, but it’s there for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
Obviously when Christians say “God died” we don’t mean that God ceased being God, or that the divine nature suffered any kind of harm or diminution. Jesus Christ, true God and true man, suffered and died in his humanity, not his divinity.
Yet Jesus, while he has two natures, is one person; and whatever is done by or happens to him is done by or happens to a person, not a nature. It might be fair to say that Jesus forgave sins by virtue of his divinity. Yet when he forgave sins, he forgave sins; they were not forgiven by a nature, but by a person, the one person Jesus Christ.
Likewise, while the divine nature knows neither fatigue nor hunger, when the scriptures speak of Jesus hungering (in the wilderness) or sleeping (in the boat), they do not say “His human nature hungered” or “His body slept,” but that Jesus hungered or slept.
The danger of ignoring or neglecting this singularity of personhood uniting the divine and human natures is the heretical error known as Nestorianism, which treats Jesus as a human person united to the divine person of God the Son (see CCC §466) — i.e., making him a juxtaposition of two separate persons rather than God become man. (Whether Nestorius himself, the fifth-century archbishop of Constantinople condemned in 431 by the ecumenical council of Ephesus, actually embraced the heresy named after him is an important historical question, but the heresy itself is clearly contrary to the historic Christian faith.)
Christians have long recognized that pondering the mystery of the Incarnation, of God become man, leads to glorious paradoxes, highlighting the shocking, mind-blowing force of what God has done. To worship Jesus is to worship the God-Man, true God and true man. We worship him because he is God, but it would be wrong to say that the one we worship is not a man. We can thus say that we worship a man, a man who is God.
We say that God became a man, i.e., a human. Of course, Jesus started life as all men do, as a zygote and then an embryo, a fetus and a baby. Can we then say God became a zygote, an embryo, a fetus, a baby? Yes.
And if God became a baby, then God was born. And if God was born of Mary, then Mary gave birth to God; she is the bearer or mother of God. (This manner of ascribing anything pertaining to Jesus to the one Word Incarnate, and thus speaking of them with reference to either of his two natures, is called “communication of idioms.”)
In addition to the textual evidence from the Bible, there’s the simple logic that follows from acknowledging two simple truths:
1. Jesus is both God and man.
2. Jesus died on the cross.
From these two premises, without adding anything, we can say:
3. The one who died on the cross is both God and man.
4. One who is both God and man died on the cross.
If this makes some uncomfortable, we can further clarify thus:
5. The one who died on the cross [in his incarnate humanity] is both God and man.
6. One who is both God and man died on the cross [in his incarnate humanity].
However, the statements remain equally correct with or without the bracketed clarifying phrases. And these statements remain true even if we highlight only one of Jesus’ natures, instead of both:
7. The one who died on the cross [in his humanity] is man [and God].
8. The one who died on the cross [in his humanity] is God [and man].
9. One who is man [and God] died on the cross [in his humanity].
10. One who is God [and man] died on the cross [in his humanity].
Drop the bracketed clarifiers, and you have these statements, equally true when properly understood:
11. The one who died on the cross is man.
12. The one who died on the cross is God.
13. One who is man died on the cross.
14. One who is God died on the cross.
And that’s the ball game. If it is true to say “The one who died on the cross is God,” then to the question “Who died on the cross?” we can answer “God.” If we can say “[One who is] God died on the cross,” then we can say, “God died on the cross.”
This doesn’t need to be a point of contention between Christians. It probably wouldn’t be as big a deal for many Evangelicals, but for excessive sensitivity around the ancient, ecumenical Marian title of Theotokos, mother of God.
This Good Friday, as we remember our Evangelical brethren in the petitions for “our brothers and sisters who share our faith in Jesus Christ,” let us pray that our Lord draws us all deeper into the mystery of the Incarnation, and of the love of our God who died for us all.