Who Died on the Cross?

Who Died on the Cross? November 17, 2020

Who Died on the Cross?

This is really “part 2”—following my immediately preceding blog essay “Can God Change without Changing?” There I answered in the affirmative. I do not believe in God’s immutability or impassibility or simplicity—as those attributes are often explained in the literature of traditional Christian theism. Of course I believe in them in my own way, a way which I consider more biblical than the way they have of often been described in traditional theological literature.

For example, Anselm of Canterbury wrote that God cannot feel compassion because that would conflict with his being immutable and impassible. What, then, do we mean (he asked) when we talk about God’s compassion? Only that WE feel compassion when we contemplate God’s mercy.

Behind traditional Christian theism is “perfect being ontology” which assumes and asserts that there is no potential in God; God is “pure actuality without potentiality.” That is what I deny. But I also deny that God is pure potentiality without actuality. God is both; both are “in God.”

The crux of the matter, for me, comes down to this: Who was it who died on the cross of Calvary? Yes, of course, everyone will say “Jesus Christ.” But my question is, did GOD die on the cross? Then many people get nervous and want to back away from any answer. Or, some traditionalists will say “No, because God cannot die.” I affirm, together with Luther and a host of recent theologians (viz., Moltmann, Jüngel, Jenson, von Balthasar, et al.) that GOD died on the cross.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

Now, please know that here I am talking to people who believe that Jesus Christ was and is God incarnate, not merely a man with perfect God-consciousness or “God’s deputy and representative,” etc. Why are you reluctant to say that God died on the cross if you believe that Jesus Christ was God’s Son, God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity eternally equal with the Father and the Holy Spirit as to his and their deity?

I can only think of two reasons. First, many people think of the word “death” as referring to cessation of existence. But, of course, that cannot be what Christians mean by “death.” It certainly is a cessation of this earthly existence as we know it between birth and bodily death, but it is not the end of being in existence. Second, many people have been taught that God is incapable of death because God is by nature immortal and immutable and impassible (even if those last two words are not used).

Some of the ancient church fathers, under the spell of Greek metaphysics (perfect being ontology) were wary of saying that God died on the cross even though they believed that Jesus Christ was God the Son. There was the danger of “Patripassionism”—the heresy that the Father died on the cross (a view tied to Modalism). There was also the perceived danger of lessening God’s transcendence so some of them, at least, talked about the Son of God, God the Son, experiencing death through the human nature that he “took on” in the incarnation. But they held back from saying that God died on the cross.

This set the trend for traditional Christian theism that has undergone radical revisions since at least I. A. Dorner in the mid-19th century. I talked about him in the previous blog post as the first Christian theologian that I have discovered who dared to teach that God’s immutability is qualified. He called it “ethical immutability” and argued, cogently, to my way of thinking, that God’s eternal character cannot change but that God can change in his relationships with creatures and that time and history have real affects on God’s life experience. To put it bluntly, God experiences new things through his interactions with creatures within history. Dorner even went so far as to suggest that God learns as he goes along with us in history.

I regard this radical alteration of the doctrine of God—away from traditional theism toward what is now being called “relational theism”—one of the most important transitions in 20th and 21st century Christian theology. We have finally broken the shackles of classical theism, perfect being ontology, and begun to realize that a perfect being, such as God is, being love, can voluntarily experience death and it is no heresy now to say that on the cross God died.

Of course, I have to deny the radical theological claims of the “death of God” theologians of the 1960s such as Thomas Altizer who seems really to have meant that on the cross God committed suicide and ceased to exist as a separate being from humanity. That’s nonsense, heresy, and even apostasy.

Still, I want to stop being mealy-mouthed about the cross and say it outright—on the cross when Jesus died God died. Not all of God, of course, and so some embrace of the social Trinity is implied. But I don’t see how to escape that if you believe (as I certainly do) that Jesus Christ was God the Son. God the Son died on the cross—and went on living, triumphing over death by dying. He was raised by God to a new form of bodily existence fit for heaven—as we will be.

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