I once heard a man object to the divinity of Jesus, saying that “Jesus cannot be God because Jesus died on the cross, and God cannot die.”
Have you ever found yourself pondering this dilemma? Something just doesn’t sound right when we say that God died. It’s as if we are saying that while Jesus was in the tomb the world was without God.
But a world without God is impossible. God must always exist. Existence is one of God’s attributes. Recall what God said to Moses when asked about His name: “I am who am” (Ex 3:14, Douay-Reims translation). St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica even described God as “Him who is subsisting being itself”. Existing isn’t something God does, it’s something He is.
So not existing isn’t exactly an option for God.
Even more, our existence depends on His. It is in God that “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). If God stopped existing (even for a moment), creation itself would know about it.
So how do we explain that God died on the cross? We’ll need to investigate two questions: What is man? And what is death? Let’s begin.
What is Man?
To use a simple analogy: man is like an Oreo. An Oreo is made of chocolate cookies and white frosting. Take away one of those two components and you don’t have a complete Oreo anymore.
Similarly, man is composed of two parts: body and spirit. That is, he has both a material component (his body), as well as a non-material component (his spirit). Take one away and he is not complete anymore.
Consider the second creation account in Genesis 2. We read that, “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” And after this, “the man became a living being” (Gen 2:7). First God formed man’s body, then he infused in that body the breath of life, a spirit. And it wasn’t until both came together that the first man was complete.
In his Theology for Beginners, Frank Sheed commented on this, saying that, “only in man spirit is united with a body, animates the body, makes it to be a living body” (Sheed, F. J., “Spirit.” Theology for Beginners). The two work together in an inseparable form that is man.
And here we come to one of Christianity’s most radical claims. The God who is spirit (John 4:24) took on flesh (John 1:14). As we say of Jesus in the Creed, “by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man”. By taking on flesh, Jesus acquired a human body, and His divine nature was coupled with a human nature.
It can be difficult to imagine the God of the universe taking on a human nature. And it can be even more tempting to reduce His humanity to a more comfortable and bitesize understanding. But make no mistake, He was and is just as much human as we are, similar in all ways except sin. He experienced anger (Matt 21:12-13), sadness (John 11:35), temptation (Matt 4:1-11), and yes, even death (Matt 27:50).
So when we say that Jesus died, we mean it. His death was as real as any other human’s death.
Now that we’ve looked at what a human is, we can move on to discuss what death is.
What is Death?
It’s easy to be nearsighted when we talk about death. We tend to think of it as “The End” (roll the credits). And understandably so. It marks the end of our earthly lives, and it’s a tragic event for everyone. But that view of death ignores all mention of an afterlife. As Christians, we don’t see death as the end. It’s a comma, not a period.
Consider St. Paul’s words when he said, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain… my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil 1:21,23). Though it seems like the end, death only marks a transition from this life into the next.
Death is when our spirit leaves our body, ending our time on Earth. Our spirit passes into the afterlife. Our bodies, on the other hand, remain on earth, lifeless. As it is written, “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Eccl 12:7). In Theology and Sanity, Frank Sheed describes death in these words:
A point comes—suddenly if there is violence, or by slow wearing—when the body can no longer respond to the life-giving energy of the soul. That, precisely, is death. The body unvivified, falls away into its elements. But the soul does not die with the body. Why should it? As a spirit it does not depend for its life upon the body: matter cannot give life to spirit (Sheed, F. J., “Life After Death.” Theology and Sanity).
So death is not the end at all. Separated from the body, the spirit lives on. Though St. Paul assured us that one day, body and spirit will be united again (1 Cor 15:35-44). In heaven, the Oreo will be made whole again.
Now that we’ve defined what man and death are, we’re finally ready to come back to our original dilemma.
Did God Die?
Yes, Christ died. As a true man, he was capable of dying, and He did exactly that 2000 years ago. Jesus Christ, the God-made-man and the second person of the Holy Trinity was tortured to death at the hands of Roman soldiers. Nailed to the wood of the cross, moments before His death, He cried out, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Then Jesus “breathed his last” and His spirit departed His body (Luke 23:46).
Jesus’ death on the cross was just as real as any other human death. When His body could no longer sustain life, His spirit departed the material world, leaving His body lifeless.
But does this pose any problem for a Christian? Does this sound like a dilemma?
Of course not. For three days Christ’s body was separated from His spirit. But His spirit lived on. Death no more blotted Jesus from existence than separating a cookie from its icing blots out an Oreo.
A Christian may rest assured that there is no contradiction in saying that our Savior truly died for us.