The Atonement – The Death of God

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The atonement entails the whole History of God’s redemptive acts in Israel where He makes Personal Promises to them, I will be your God and you shall be my people, which are brought to reality in the Incarnate life of Jesus Christ from birth throughout His life and reaching its culmination in His death, resurrection and ascension to the Father. Israel is described as the womb of the Incarnation. It is also the womb of the atonement this apocalypse or unveiling is in the whole life of the Person and work of Jesus Christ. It is God who acts and takes the initiative towards humanity every step of the way throughout history to bring about a union and communion of humanity with God in Jesus Christ.

The particular part of the atonement I want to deal with in this note is the question as to whether or not God died. Can deity Die? How are we to regard the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross? These are fundamental questions that have to be tackled with great care so as not to misconstrue the knowledge given to us by the only means given. The precise knowledge of God is revealed in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh. This is one of the most intriguing events carried out by God. We have what is defined as the Wholly Other who has come to be with those who are contrary to Himself entirely by His loving freedom. In addition, He came in our form as a human being indwelling in all its hallmarks of sin and death. Yet, He was not stained by these hallmarks. It is important here that we take the event of the Incarnation at its face value. God became so human and so like us that it came as an overwhelming shock to the Jewish community that such a man would make such extraordinary claims with the paradox of incredible miracles. This man has come from God because the miracles indicate it to be so, but how can this sort of Christ be God?

We are in a position where we can be so locked in to the divinity of Jesus Christ that we forget how human He was. We sometimes forget that the very acts of the human being Jesus Christ of Nazareth was also the very act of God. There is the tendency to want to divide the most shocking events of the life of Jesus from His divinity and try and give some other explanation for the event. When it comes to the death of Jesus Christ, there are tendencies to want to lay down a clear demarcation between the death of Jesus’ humanity and the question of whether or not His divinity touched death. It is right here that we have to take great care that we do not venture to far into what death meant for God. We are still just mere witnesses of this event as it has been relayed to us by the writers of the New Testament. However, in reading what the saw and heard, we can stand with them and see and hear what they saw and hear what they heard.

When it comes to the death of Jesus, an integral part of the gospel is the fact that Jesus died and God rose him from the dead, ‘. . . one died for all and therefore all died, (2Cor 5:14). What we have to take into account is you cannot separate the humanity of Jesus from His divinity and try and determine what part of Jesus Christ died. There is only one nature of Jesus of which the human nature and the divine nature are presented in the Incarnation as ‘One Person’. God came to us in Jesus Christ as ‘One Person,’ in union and communion with the Godhead, Father, Son and Spirit. Not only do we have of the same being with the Father and the Spirit but we have Jesus as having the same being with His humanity. The Person, work and speech of Jesus Christ is God in Person, God at work and God speaking in Person. There is no disjunction between God of God, Light from Light in the very humanity of Jesus Christ. When we say Jesus was born, we can also say God was born. The difference here is God went from His eternal form of existence into a human eternal form of existence while remaining who He is in Himself as He has always been with the Father and the Spirit.

The only way we can hold together the universal act of saving grace in Jesus Christ is to hold a firm lock on the homoousion (of the same being) between the Father and the Son. This makes every single act of Jesus’ acts that heal, forgive, reconcile and redeem the entire human race the act of God in Person towards us. The act of Jesus Christ are acts of God working towards us and for our sake. The act of Jesus Christ is the act of God towards us that does something to us from the inside out undoing everything that opposed God and giving humanity the best opportunity to embrace the loving embrace of God in this One Human Being. We lay the significance of the unity of God and humanity in the Person of Jesus Christ at the highest level. Throughout the life of Jesus Christ we maintain this unity not only between the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ, but also the unity in Being with the Father as well as the unity of their Being with the very beings of humanity.

This unity is brought to its greatest tension in the suffering of Jesus on the Cross, the Passion. The real human suffering experienced by Jesus Christ is intrinsically connected to who He is as God from God, Light from Light. The Human Person of God bore the full brunt of humanity’s fury where they carried out the greatest sin of all and that was to kill God! They chose the most cruel method of torturous death of crucifixion including a severe beating and flogging. The God Priest also becomes the Priest who provides the offering and the offering He provides is nothing less than Himself. God was crucified! God suffered and then God died. The Deity of Jesus Christ died. We stand with those very first witnesses and see what they saw. They saw God dead on a Cross! They saw Jesus Christ, God of God, Light from Light, dead on the Cross. As much as we may be so tempted to do, it is right here that we must maintain the unity of Person of Jesus Christ as God and man. At its face value, it is right here where we see the camaraderie of God towards humanity where He will allow the fate of every single fellow human being to befall Him. God was put to death!

This was the view of Gregory Nazianzen in his Easter oration as quoted by T F Torrance in Trinitarian Faith p. 142. I will put it with what Torrance also said;

“Nicene theology had no doubt about the fact that unless the death of Christ on the Cross was the vicarious act of God himself in order to effect atoning reconciliation in the ontological depths of our creaturely existence, then what took place on the Cross would have been in vain. Only if God himself were directly and immediately engaged in the passion of Christ could it be the vicarious means of redeeming and liberating creation. ‘God crucified!’ That is what Gregory Nazianzen in and Easter oration once declaimed as a ‘miracle.’ ‘We need an incarnate God, a God put to death, that we might live. We were put to death together with him, that we might be cleansed; we rose again with him, because we were put to death together with him; we were glorified with him because we rose again with him. Atoning reconciliation would be utterly empty of content, had not God the incarnate Son, true God from true God, suffered and died for us on the Cross.”

What we have to ask here is the question of whether or not death separates us from God. Even in death we have to maintain the unity of being and act in the God-human in Jesus Christ but more importantly we must maintain the unity in being of Jesus Christ with the Father, even in death. The resurrection is proof that even in death the bond of unity between the Son and the Father remains intact. Yes, God did indeed die but death could not hold Him down. As far as the death of God witnessed in Jesus Christ, it is here we must take great care not to speculate as to the nature of death and how it impacted on Jesus Christ as God and also how it might have impacted the rest of the Godhead. The nature of God as Unity in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, one Being three Person is out of reach of human understanding.

We can be so hard pressed to think otherwise than the God who died as the man Jesus Christ. The sake of the gospel is under threat if we withdraw from this fundamental truth and to justify such a move is utterly foolish. We can ask questions as to how death might have impacted the entire Godhead but we must refrain from trying to answer such questions. There is such ontological union between the Father, Son and Spirit and interpenetration that it is possible there may have been an impact on the whole Trinity but this is something which is hidden. What is revealed to us however is the fact that God died on the Cross in solidarity with the fate of every single human being that ever existed. This death was as real for God as it is real to every human being. God makes this as personally real to us as it is to Himself and this we will know for ourselves. If we keep this intact then the utterly staggering Good News of the Gospel becomes as real to us as it is real to God who rose from the dead where we share in this truth.

In rising from the dead, the whole human race has risen with Him. Such an overwhelming act of kindness and generosity is displayed where the Resurrection of God is also our resurrection. This directs the whole of the human race to her ultimate goal of our most exceeding great reward which is none other than God Himself. In the twinkling of an eye, we will be transformed from this way of being into the divine way of being. We will become like Him, live like Him, see like Him and know like Him (but we will not be Him). There will be no fear, no tears in a place where we will be truly the children of God, son and daughters sharing in the Sonship of Jesus Christ with the Father by the Spirit.