If Jesus was God Incarnate, Did God Die on the Cross?

A basic doctrinal truth held by all orthodox Christians—including Catholics and evangelicals—is that in Jesus Christ God became incarnate in human flesh (Matthew 1:16-25; John 1:14; John 20:26-29; Romans 8:3; Philippians 2:4-8; 1 Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 10:5).

Even though Scripture clearly describes the passion of Jesus Christ, many Christians are unwilling to acknowledge that the divine Son of God suffered and died for our sins. While they affirm that Jesus Christ was truly one human/divine person, they say it was only Christ’s human nature—not His divine nature—that suffered and died.

But if God was truly incarnate in Jesus Christ, how could only Jesus’ human nature suffer the agony, separation, and death described in the Gospels? If only Christ’s human nature experienced suffering, agony, spiritual and physical death, how can we speak of a true incarnation; and how can we be assured of the infinite value of His suffering and death on our behalf?

The Bible makes it clear that we could not be saved if Christ Himself hadn’t borne our sins on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:13; Hebrews 9:28). In AD 325, the Council of Nicaea strongly affirmed the deity of Jesus Christ, realizing that our salvation depends upon the incarnation. If Jesus Christ were not both truly God and truly man, His death couldn’t atone for our sin. Only God would be capable of the infinite sacrifice necessary to the sins of the world. (See the ATQ articles, Is it necessary to have a clear understanding of Jesus Christ’s deity in order to be saved? and How can it be morally right for Jesus Christ to die for our sins?)

One of the most fearful truths taught in Scripture is that physical death is not the greatest evil. The greatest evil is “the second death” (Rev. 21:8). Spiritual death is the second death. It is separation from God.

What Jesus dreaded when He said “Let this cup pass from Me” (Matthew 26:39) could not have been merely death by crucifixion. Other martyrs have faced equally horrible deaths with composure. Nor could it be a premature death in Gethsemane at the hands of the devil. Our Lord said that this cup came from God—“Shall I not drink the cup which My Father has given Me?” (John 18:11). Moreover, Jesus expressly declared that He wouldn’t die until He voluntarily laid down His life. He said, “I lay down my life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again” (John 10:17-18).

Scripture makes it clear that the Son of God suffered most when He was experiencing separation from the Father. This “cup” is the agony of hell Jesus had to endure on the cross. It was the experience of God’s wrath, as in Psalm 75:8, “For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup, and the wine is red; it is fully mixed, and He pours it out; surely its dregs shall all the wicked of the earth drain and drink down.” On the cross, God made His Son “who knew no sin to be sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21). He poured upon Jesus Christ His wrath against all sin, causing Him to endure the desolation of hell. This sense of abandonment began to sweep over Jesus in Gethsemane. On the cross, it finally caused Him to cry out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46). The cup that Jesus dreaded, therefore, was the abandonment by God, which makes hell, hell.

Although most classical theologians taught that Jesus Christ suffered only in His human nature, a distinguished minority, including Ignatius of Antioch, Tertullian, Martin Luther, A. H. Strong, Jurgen Moltmann, and D. A. Carson, disagree. Charles Wesley wrote:

And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain?
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

’Tis mystery all: th’ Immortal dies!
Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore;
Let angel minds inquire no more.

He left His Father’s throne above,
So free, so infinite His grace!
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race.
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For O my God, it found out me!

Scripture itself speaks of God’s capacity to suffer (e.g., Judg. 10:16; Jer. 31:20; Hos. 11:8). Isn’t it presumptuous to assume that the Creator knows less of suffering and emotion than His creatures.

Perhaps the assumption that Jesus Christ’s divine nature couldn’t experience suffering and death is based on faulty reasoning rather than Scripture and reality. Any argument used against Jesus Christ’s divine nature experiencing death can be applied against the incarnation itself. How could the eternal God be incarnate in a time-bound, finite man? How could the eternal God set aside His omnipotence and omniscience? We don’t doubt these things, so why should we doubt that in some sense the second person of the Trinity suffered and died on the cross of Calvary?

While we raise these questions, we acknowledge the need for humility No one should assume they have an absolute answer to this question any more than they can pretend to understand the Trinity or the incarnation.

 

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One thought on “If Jesus was God Incarnate, Did God Die on the Cross?

  1. Dan,

    Thanks for tackling this very difficult topic. I appreciate the care you took in explaining the answer. I wanted to respectfully make a few comments. As a whole, I agree with you, Jesus Christ the God man died on the cross. I won’t labor the point, but more explanation really needs to be made on what exactly we mean by death. I mean the cessation of life—specifically, the departure of the immaterial from the material. This Jesus Christ the God-man suffer. But there cannot be any talk of “who kept the universe going?” Just as we are not extinguished at death, Jesus did not cease to be at death. So, I agree but must qualify.

    I want to take issue with some of what you wrote though, particularly as you wrote, “Perhaps the assumption that Jesus Christ’s divine nature couldn’t experience suffering and death is based on faulty reasoning rather than Scripture and reality.” This is just not true. It is a different logic from yours, but very logical none-the-less. The theologians whole wrote on this were deeply philosophical and logical. They were also steeped in and submitted to scripture. Indeed, it was their reverence of scripture and scriptures God that caused them to write about impassibility. You are also not fair in excluding the context of their remarks. It was in the context of the cultural understanding of “the Gods.” Roman and Greek gods were very passionate and this angry, vindictive, jealous, capricious, lustful, petty, etc. They sought to distance the understanding of God’s “passions” from these passions. In addition, they sought to make clear that God is not compelled by outside forces. God is not moved, but is the mover. He does not feel love and then act in love—He is love. What he does demonstrates to us what love is. The theologians were seeking to make sure we understood that God’s characteristics, such as love, are unchanging because they are part of His nature—part of His will. God loves; He does not feel love. This means that the passages in scripture that describe God’s emotion are put there to give us the only picture we would understand, but must be see through the words of Isaiah, “My thoughts are higher than your thoughts.” When we say God did not suffer on the cross, we mean that God is unmoved by suffering in the way we are moved by it. He responds to our need because He is love and love responds to the needs of the beloved. More could be said, but I thought it was a unfair characterization.

    You go on to make some of your own illogical and unsupported assertions. You wrote, “Scripture makes it clear that the Son of God suffered most when He was experiencing separation from the Father. … He poured upon Jesus Christ His wrath against all sin, causing Him to endure the desolation of hell. This sense of abandonment began to sweep over Jesus in Gethsemane. On the cross, it finally caused Him to cry out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46). The cup that Jesus dreaded, therefore, was the abandonment by God, which makes hell, hell.”

    This is nothing but conjecture and none of your citations support the strength of your assertion. What makes it so “clear that the Son of God suffered MOST when He was experiencing separation from the Father?” Where do you see anything about suffering most? Where do you find that there was a separation? Both of these ideas are presuppositions placed on top of these texts, or read into these texts. We call this isegesis. Where do you find that Jesus endured the “desolation of hell?” What tells you the cup He dreaded was abandonment by God? Are not these ideas you have brought in? I would suggest they are themselves based on faulty logic and not sound biblical exegesis.

    Forgive me if I bring up one more point that fits this category of “faulty logic.” You wrote, “One of the most fearful truths taught in Scripture is that physical death is not the greatest evil. The greatest evil is “the second death” (Rev. 21:8). Spiritual death is the second death. It is separation from God.” You are correct that the second death is worse as it a life in hell. But please look again at the Rev. passage; it speaks not of some spiritual death or spiritual punishment, but of a real physical punishment to resurrected people who have not trusted Jesus. In other words, this last death will be an eternal living in the place of punishment not a spiritual dying. The idea of spiritual death usually put forth in association with Christ’s suffering is based on faulty logic.

    Again, forgive the length, accept my respect, and thank you for your time.

    Hudson Russell Davis

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