Did God die?
This is a question on Jesus that I ask my theology class every semester, and I am invariably met with stunned silence. After some thought, many say God didn’t die.
The question is Christological, an analysis of Jesus, God made man, and obviously does not refer to Nietzsche’s death of God, a 19th-century piece of fake news whose opposite happened given the empirical vitality of religion. Nor is this about extinguishing divinity. An oxymoron. For if God exists, he gives existence to everything. And he who is Existence cannot vanish.
When Jesus died, did God die? This is a more precise rendering of this crucial question, of which for a Christian there can’t be room for doubt. For it is at the heart of what Pope Benedict calls the essential message of the great teaching of our time, the Second Vatican Council: The center of the Christian life and of the Christian year is the Paschal Mystery, Jesus’ death and rising.
To answer the question, another one helps: Is Mary the mother of God? Catholics, routinely or with piety, pray, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners!” Bible Christians know that the Bible refers to her as “the mother of my Lord,” and Lord (Adonai) means God.
But can a creature be the mother of God, her Creator? The theologian Frank Sheed explained it in this commonsensical way: Mary was not simply the mother of Jesus’ human nature, but of himself — as my mother is not the mother of my nature but of me.
Here we see a first glimpse of the mystery. There is a distinction between himself and Jesus’ nature. Mary is the mother of “himself,” not just of his “nature.”
If we think deeply enough, we realize that our soul, our spirit, could not have come from our mother, for the biological powers of human sex can’t create a superior: an immortal spirit. But yes, it is true that the woman who gave birth to us, even if only our body comes from her, is our mother. Even if our soul was created directly by God, we—our persons—started out in her womb.
The answer to the question then comes from understanding the distinction of two key metaphysical truths: nature and person, “what” I am versus “who” I am. When asked “what” I am, I reply, “I am a man — not an angel, not God, not an animal.” Man, angel, God, and animal are different “whats,” natures or modes of being. But the word “I” refers to a person: my self.
This hard fact called “person” is something people nowadays hardly appreciate. Because of positivism, a 19th-century fad that self-amputates the mind, the world only sees the legal person: the entity given rights by society. And if society today does not want to give a person rights, even if one is an immortal spirit, one is a nonentity. One can be killed in one’s mother’s womb.
Phones, cars and stars follow the law of entropy and will fall away. But not persons. A human, an angel and God are persons. Each one of these beings—with different natures—is not something but someone: a self, a conscious ego, an indestructible “I.”
And Jesus, the man-God, is also a person — an “I” who can act in two natures. His death as man, the same one we will experience, is by definition a separation of body and soul. And so, on the cross, did only a man die?
The Bible clearly states that for sinners, “Christ died.” And so the Creed traces the story of “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, for whom all things were made.” Then straightaway declares: “For us men and for our salvation, he (the same God) … became man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death …”
Surely, it was not Jesus’ divine nature that perished, for it is eternal. But yes, “he,” the divine person, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the unique “I” of God the Son, endured bloody, agonizing torture and gave up his human life. He said: “I” lay down my life for my sheep.
What do we take from this? The grandeur of God who lavishes himself for sinners, but also the grandeur of each human, of our persons, for whom God died.
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Raul Nidoy is director of personal formation at Parents for Education Foundation (Paref), which is publishing “Jesus-Centered: Best Prayers for Christians and their Families.”
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