Jesus’ Death and Burial: Did God Die?

Greg Strand – April 17, 2014 Leave a comment

During this season of the year we preach (hear) sermons and teachings on the cross of Christ. When we focus on the cross, it also means that we focus on the person of Jesus Christ, the God-man.

Preaching and teaching on Christology requires good biblical and theological thinking and careful speaking. Often when one attempts to make a point, a statement is made rhetorically to make the point. At other times, one makes a statement in such a way that it creates surprise or shock, often because it has not been considered previously so it becomes another means of teaching or correcting misunderstanding. This will often occur when one addresses teachings that are controversial or teachings; that are “deep and wide.” When we have plumbed the depths of these profound truths, we have only scratched the surface.

There is mystery in theology. This is not to claim it is illogical or mystical, but there are some things we can know, there are things we know in a mirror dimly, and there are some things that belong to the secret things of God. This does not lead to passivity in our study of biblical truth or fear. Rather it leads to conviction and humility – conviction because though we do not know, understand or speak truth exhaustively, the truth we know and speak is true truth; humility because there is so much more to God than He has revealed and that we know.

As we speak with conviction and humility, we must be careful because we can make theological mistakes on one side or another. This is especially true regarding the person and work of Christ. When we speak of these matters, we must do so anchored in the Scriptures as the absolute norm (norma absoluta), which from this foundational truth is also the norming norm (norma normans) as it is used to formulate confessions, with the confessional creeds in the supportive role to Scripture (norma normata), especially the Nicene-Constantinople (381) and Chalcedon (451), which serve as our guard rails. We must ensure we don’t end up in theological aberration, heterodoxy, or worse yet, heresy regarding these essential doctrines to the Christian faith. To this end, we humbly engage in “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum).

A recent example of this was a question asked, in rhetorical form, and answered by David Murray Was Jesus Still God in the Tomb? Though there is much to commend in his brief reply, here is what is important to read and question:

Was Jesus God in the womb? Was Jesus God in the tomb? You probably answered yes to the first question, but hesitated to do so over the second, didn’t you? Although it’s brain-bursting to think of God as an embryo, it’s brain-numbing to think of God as a corpse. . . . But was Jesus not also on a cold slab of rock in a Middle Eastern cave? Yes, He was. While His human soul was separated from His body, His divine nature was separated from neither and never will be. His divine nature was as united to His lifeless body on earth as it was to His glorified soul in heaven. . . . Christ’s body and soul, His manhood, were inseparably joined together to the divine person of Christ. Therefore if I had walked into the garden tomb and gazed on Christ’s outstretched body, I not only could have, but should have, fallen to the ground and said, “My Lord and my God.” That dead body was still God and therefore deserving of worship.

Steve Wellum, professor of Christian Theology at Southern Seminary, and author of the forthcoming book on Christology in the Foundations of Evangelical Theology series (Crossway), replied through answering another rhetorical question: Was God Really in the Tomb as a Corpse? Wellum responds broadly by focusing on “the language of God in the incarnation,” “the language of hypostatic union,” and “the pre-glorified body of Christ.”

Regarding the language of the incarnation, Wellum notes,

Dr. Murray’s use of language regarding the incarnation, though legitimate in most places, needs more precision in order to avoid misunderstanding. . . . one must be careful in the use of God without qualification. . . . When we use the word God we mostly think of God in his entire being. . . . In order to be more precise in (1) how we speak of the incarnation, (2) how we use the word God, and then (3) how we apply this language to Christ’s death, it is better to say that God the Son was in the womb, God the Son died—not God without qualification. In the incarnation it is God the Son who becomes incarnate (not the Father and Spirit) and in the death of Christ, it is God the Son who dies (not God without qualification).

Wellum then addresses the language related to the hypostatic union.

Classical Christology, grounded in such a statement as John 1:14, makes it clear that it is the Word or the person of the Son who adds to himself a human nature which consists of a body and soul. As a result, the Son, not the divine nature of the Son, subsists now in two natures: (1) his divine nature which he shares with the Father and Spirit, and (2) his human nature, which is his own. . . . The divine nature of the Son did not add to himself or unite himself to a human nature; instead it was the person of the Son who forever subsists in the divine nature and who now adds to himself a human nature. . . . Christ’s two distinct natures were inseparably joined together in one person.

Finally, Wellum addresses the heart of Murray’s question as he focuses on the pre-glorified body of Christ. Though I summarized the previous responses, I include his complete response on this one since it is vital to understand.

We now come to the issue of how we are to think of Christ’s body in the tomb prior to his glorious resurrection. Do we say that as we gaze on Christ’s lifeless body that “God was a corpse” or “God was in the tomb” or that we should bow down and worship the dead body of Christ?

Obviously these are not easy issues, but I would not state it just as Dr. Murray has stated it. Instead, I would say the following. On the cross, God the Son incarnate died. How do I say such a thing? On the basis of thecommunicatio idiomatum: whatever is true of the natures may be predicated of the person and since it is the person, not the natures, which lives and acts, it is legitimate to say that on the cross God the Son died. But what exactly does this entail metaphysically speaking? I do not think it entails that the person of the Son or the divine nature dies in the sense that the Son does not continue to act, live, and rule. What it does mean is that the Son experiences death in and through his human nature so that the person of the Son experiences a separation of his human body and soul. As a result, Christ’s human body is now temporarily separated from him and put in the grave, while he, as the person of the Son, continues to subsist in his human soul and his divine nature. If we think about our death, assuming a duality to our nature, when we die we as persons continue to exist in and through our souls, but our human bodies are placed in the grave and there is an abnormal separation in our human nature of body from soul. In a similar way, in and through his human nature, this is what God the Son experiences. During this time, God the Son is still fully human because he continues to subsist in his human soul, yet he experiences for this intermediate period a separation in his human nature as he awaits the full union of his body and soul at the resurrection.

Is it legitimate then to say that when we enter the tomb, “God is a corpse” or “God is in the tomb”? I would not state it this way. What I would say is that the human body of God the Son is in the tomb even though he, as the Son, continues to live, rule, and sustain the universe. One has to be careful, as noted above, not to give the impression that somehow God is dead (when he is not) nor even that God the Son is now a corpse (which he is not). What is dead is the human body of Christ which has been temporarily separated from his human soul and which in less than three days will be reunited so that our Lord Jesus Christ, in his glorified human nature, will be seen.

Might this commitment to biblical fidelity and doctrinal/theological precision not lead you to frustration or despair, but rather to delight – delighting in the Lord Jesus Christ and worship of Him!

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA’s Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

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