Can we say ‘God died’?

If we say that God died, does this mean that he ceased to be God? Doug Wilson expounds.

One of the central tenets of the Christian faith is that Jesus died on the cross for our sins. Another is that Jesus was divine—Jesus was fully God. What is to keep us from putting these two things together in a particular way and saying, “God died on the cross”?

Actually, there is a way of saying this that would be quite appropriate, as we shall see in a moment. But there is another way of saying it that would quickly lead (within minutes) into various bad heresies. God is immortal (1 Tim. 1:17), for example, and the definition of immortal is “incapable of dying.” Wouldn’t this mean that, if we say God died, are we saying that God ceased to be God?

What is asserted about one nature can be asserted about the person.

We are accustomed to talk about the person and the work of the Lord Jesus. When we refer to his person, we are saying that he was the Messiah, fully God and fully man, united wonderfully together in one individual, Jesus of Nazareth. The work of the Lord Jesus consisted of a perfect sinless life on our behalf, and in his perfect satisfaction of God’s wrath against us in his death on the cross. But what follows from all this?

Sorting out appropriately

These were all questions that the early church had to sort out, and there were some huge controversies in sorting them out. The deity of Jesus was settled at the great Council of Nicea in A.D. 325. Except for a few outliers, the humanity of Jesus was never seriously in question.

What is asserted about the other nature can be asserted about the person.

But now, this meant there was a knotty theological problem to solve. We have one person, Jesus, and we appear to have made two particular claims about him that could lead to great confusion—and lead to great confusion it did indeed. The Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) in the next century sought to set some appropriate boundaries for us. While their determinations are not Scripture, we are fortunate that they worked through the issues as carefully as they did, and we can certainly learn from them.

What they said was this: The Lord Jesus is one person, and he is one person with two natures. Those two natures were miraculously united (in what is called the hypostatic union), but were united in a particular way that did not mingle or jumble up the natures. The Westminster Confession of Faith, following Chalcedon, said that in Jesus were “two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood . . . inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion” (WCF 8.2).

But what is asserted one nature must not be asserted the other.

Asserting carefully

What this means is that when we are speaking about Jesus formally (and carefully), what is asserted about one nature can be asserted about the person. And what is asserted about the other nature can also be asserted about the person. This is quite proper, but we must be careful.

What is asserted about one nature must not be asserted about the other. You can see why. If we attempted something like that (speaking strictly) we would very soon be trying to square the circle: Immortality will become mortality, infinitude will be finitude, deity will be humanity, and so on. As soon as we start talking that way, we should just go off and die in our sins.

So to illustrate, it is proper to say that Jesus was a certain height, and that he had black hair, for example. It is also proper to say that before Abraham was, Jesus was the great I AM (Exo. 3:14; John 8:58). It is improper to say that the great I AM had black hair.

Speaking freely

But while remembering this, we do not always have to speak so carefully. The Westminster Confession says something else that is quite helpful to us in this regard. “By reason of the unity of the person, that which is proper to one nature is sometimes in scripture attributed to the person denominated by the other nature” (WCF 8.7). Here is an example:

“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28, emphasis added).

God is a Spirit (John 4:24) and therefore doesn’t have any blood, and yet it says he obtained his church with his blood. In another place, Jesus is described as a man who came down from heaven, even though he wasn’t a man until when he got here (John 3:13). In another place we read that God laid down his life for us (1 John 3:16). These are all forms of shorthand—these are things that God did for us in and through the person of Jesus Christ.