Q&A with Dr. William Lane Craig
My question is one I have never been able to get a clear answer on. When Jesus died on the cross, did God die? That being, did the essence of Jesus actually die?
This question really bothered me after hearing the song "And Can it Be?" There's a line in there towards the end of the chorus "Amazing Love! How can it be that Thou my God shouldst die for me? Amen?"
I've never really been able to get a clear and concise answer to this question and there seems to be some differing opinions among theologians as to the nature of this question. Pastor John MacArthur seems to think God did die because Jesus is God. But R.C. Sproul on the other hand disagrees and believes that God cannot die.
I don't see how it's possible that God could actually die. For if God were to die then He wouldn't be a necessary Being. But this is impossible because God must be necessary by definition. So when Christ died on the cross, was it just the human part that died?
Dr. Craig responds:
I couldn't resist your question, Jesse, since it appeals to my favorite hymn, the magnificent "And Can It Be?" by Charles Wesley. I urge anyone who knows only praise songs and choruses to listen to this hymn and contemplate the wonderful lyrics about God's amazing love.
Your question is one that also troubles our Muslim friends and is therefore very urgent. Fortunately, the historic Christian church has addressed this question clearly.
The Council of Chalcedon (451) declared that the incarnate Christ is one person with two natures, one human and one divine. This has very important consequences. It implies that since Christ existed prior to his incarnation, he was a divine person before taking on a human nature. He was and is the second person of the Trinity. In the incarnation this divine person assumes a human nature as well, but there is no other person in Christ than the second person of the Trinity. There is an additional human nature which the pre-incarnate Christ did not have, but there is no human person in addition to the divine person. There is just one person who has two natures.
Therefore, what Christ said and did, God said and did, since when we speak of Christ we're talking about a person. For that reason the Council endorses speaking of Mary as "the mother of God." She bore the person who is a divine person. Unfortunately, this language has been disastrously misleading because it sounds as though Mary birthed the divine nature of Christ when in fact she birthed Christ's human nature. Mohammed apparently thought that Christians believed that Mary was the third member of the Trinity, and Jesus was the offspring of God the Father and Mary, a view which he rightly rejected as blasphemous, though no orthodox Christian holds it.
To avoid such inevitable misunderstandings it is helpful to speak of what Christ does or how he is relative to one of his two natures. For example, Christ is omnipotent relative to his divine nature but he is limited in power relative to his human nature. He is omniscient with respect to his divine nature but ignorant of various facts with respect to his human nature. He is immortal with regard to his divine nature, but mortal with regard to his human nature.
You can probably see now where I'm headed. Christ could not die with respect to his divine nature but he could die with respect to his human nature. What is human death? It is the separation of the soul from the body when the body ceases to be a living organism. The soul survives the body and will someday be re-united with it in a resurrected form. That's what happened to Christ. His soul was separated from his body and his body ceased to be alive. He became temporarily a disembodied person. On the third day God raised him from the dead in a transformed body.
In short, yes, we can say that God died on the cross because the person who underwent death was a divine person. So Wesley was all right in asking, "How can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?" But to say that God died on the cross is misleading in the same way that it is misleading to say that Mary was the mother of God. So I think it better to say that Christ died on the cross with respect to his human nature but not with respect to his divine nature.