Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Death of God - What It Is and What It Isn't

I remember being in session one day, with Dr. Sanders. We were talking about the Incarnation, and what it means for us to say that "God died" in the death of Jesus. And he said something so incredibly simple that I'm amazed that I haven't heard it since.

I can't remember his exact wording, but essentially, it boiled down to this: When we say that God, as Jesus, died, we mean no less - but also no more - than that the Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity, experienced the human phenomenon that is known as "death."

That's what we mean. And this stands against attempts to either minimize or over-emphasize what happened on the cross.

Jesus died. The God-Man, the being that is at once fully God and fully man, experienced death. The Son of God's spirit was separated from his body. The body of the second Person of the Trinity ceased to live.

That is death, and he experienced it in its fullness. He didn't "kind of" die. And it is especially and particularly not the case that the "human half" experienced death while the "God half" did not. To go down that road is to split Christ into two, to commit some sort of Nestorianism or Arianism. It is, eventually, to wind up with a Savior who is neither God enough to accomplish anything, nor man enough to matter.

But it works the other way as well. Because there are some who, desiring to emphasize the greatness of God's sacrifice and self-giving, will talk of the death of God as some sort of divine death, a deicide, even a separation from his divinity. Such speakers will talk of the Trinity being broken, even a temporary eradication or cessation of the second Person.

That did not happen either. The second Person did not somehow cease to exist or become not-God, because none of that is included in what "death" is. None of that is included in what the Bible means when it talks about death. Remember: The Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Christ accomplish what they accomplish because it's God sharing in our experiences...not God sharing in some super-special God experiences.

This is important to remember, if for no other reason than avoiding confusion during Easter! But it's also important for another reason: That in desiring to give praise to God, we might actually commit blasphemy. Take it away, Karl Barth!

"The more seriously we take this, the stronger becomes the temptation to approximate to the view of a contradiction and conflict in God Himself. Have we not to accept this view if we are to do justice to what God did for man and what He took upon Himself when He was in Christ, if we are to bring out the mystery of His mercy in all its depth and greatness?"

Barth rhetorically suggests that if we are to really grasp what God did for us, we must take Christ's death, his cry of dereliction, as far as possible: Take it to the point of contradiction and conflict in God Himself! But, he continues, there is a danger in this.

"But at this point what is meant to be supreme praise of God can in fact become supreme blasphemy. God gives Himself, but He does not give Himself away. He does not give up being God in becoming a creature, in becoming man. He does not cease to be God."

And why is this important?

"If it were otherwise, if in [this condescension] He set Himself in contradiction with Himself, how could He reconcile the world with Himself? Of what value would His deity be to us if--instead of crossing in that deity the very real gulf between Himself and us--He left that deity behind Him in His coming to us, if ti came to be outside of Him as He because ours? What would be the value to us of His way into the far country if in the course of it He lost Himself?"

Here it is, in a nutshell: In dying, Jesus defeated death. He didn't lose Himself in it. He experienced the human phenomenon known as death, and in doing so he broke its power. (to loosely paraphrase Athanasius,he lured Death to him and then snapped his freaking neck). If you try to expand that, to make Jesus experience some sort of super-special God death, you aren't actually praising him: You'e naming him not-God.

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