Unravelling the Trinitarian confusion on the death or survival of “God” on the cross
by Ibn Anwar BHSc. (Hons)
Standard Trinitarian theology teaches that in the incarnation of Jesus he existed in two natures—divine and human. These two natures are inseparable in the incarnation in the Son of God who is the second person of the Triune Godhead. Thus Jesus was the Son of God with two natures simultaneously, that is, human and divine. Almost all Christians of every denomination today believe that Jesus was crucified and died on the cross. The question that has remained controversial and without a clear definite answer regarding Jesus’ alleged crucifixion amongst Christians is the nature of Jesus’ death on the cross i.e. did he die only in his human nature or both natures together? Did God actually die on the cross? Logically, the answer should be yes (credit is due to Dr. Shabir Ally for the following formula):
A. Jesus is God
B. Jesus died
C. Therefore, God died.
Most Christians however will be horrified at such a conclusion, frown upon it and will normally counter that God did not actually die. That which died on the cross was really just the flesh. The problem with this apologetic position is that it separates the two natures of Jesus as taught in traditional Trinitarianism. Theologians have described this excuse as Nestorian in kind which was declared a heresy by the Catholic church centuries ago. Saint Cyril in his twelve anathemas against Nestorius as proposed and accepted at the Council of Ephesus stated:
“If anyone does not confess that the Word of God suffered in the flesh and was crucified in the flesh and tasted death in the flesh and became the first born of the dead, although as God he is life and life-giving, let him be anathema.” 
The twelfth anathema (denunciation) describes God as experiencing and tasting death. Thus the Council of Ephesus would not have entertained the idea that the suffering underwent by Jesus on the cross was exclusively experienced by the human nature/flesh and the divine untouched. The celebrated Archbishop Fulton Sheen who was a notable Catholic theologian and voice in America said in a meeting in Dublin, Ireland:
“You ask, for instance, “Did God die on the Cross?” The answer, happily, is Yes — as I have said the first answer is usually right. But if you go on and ask “What happened to the universe while God was dead?” nearly all abandon the great truth to which they have just assented, and explain that it was not God who died on the Cross but the human nature God the Son had assumed: which roughly is the Nestorian heresy, condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431, one year before St. Patrick landed for the conversion of your ancestors and mine. The true answer, you may say, sounds not so very different from the heresy: need we bother the young with technical distinctions of this sort? But upon this distinction our redemption depends and the young are quite capable of seeing the distinction, and of rejoicing in it.”  (bold emphasis added)
But there is no shortage of dissenting voices among other Christians. Calvinist theologian and pastor, R. C. Sproul is one such individual who rejects and denounces the notion that God truly died on the cross:
“We should shrink in horror from the idea that God actually died on the cross. The atonement was made by the human nature of Christ. Somehow people tend to think that this lessens the dignity or the value of the substitutionary act, as if we were somehow implicitly denying the deity of Christ. God forbid. It’s the God-man Who dies, but death is something that is experienced only by the human nature, because the divine nature isn’t capable of experiencing death.” 
It should be noted that in the above one detects some confusion on Sproul’s part. Though he rejects the idea that God actually died, he affirms in the same paragraph that the God-man died. If the God-man died then God should have experienced death too unless Sproul considers it valid to break the two natures and separate them which we have already seen is antithesis to Trinitarianism.
In his book Discovering the God Who is Sproul writes:
“If God is immutable, can he die? The obvious answer is no.” 
It would seem that Sproul does indeed affirm that God did not in fact die on the cross.
A Catholic apologist who claims to be a lecturer in philosophy at a university denies the claim that Jesus’ divinity in any way experienced death:
“This is not a matter of argument, but a dogma of the Church. Not only ‘only the human nature of Christ died’ but only his body died. Death means death of the biological body. The human soul of Christ (which has a human will and a human intellect) did not die, nor can it die. It “descended unto dead, and on the third day rose again” upon uniting with His body.” 
In this Catholic apologist’s mind God did indeed die but only in his human nature as he says, “here is my position: There is no question that God died, but it doesn’t mean that the Divinity of Christ also died. God died only in his human nature.”
The Methodist theologian Charles Wesley had no compunction however, to declare in his hymn that the immortal God died (bold emphasis mine):
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!
Calvinist theologian Dr. Francis Nigel Lee who is Professor of Systematic Theology and Caldwell-Morrow Lecturer in Church History at the Queensland Theological College opposes the idea of a dying God and vehemently criticises Wesley’s suggestion that the immortal God died:
“Wesley the Arminian later resurrected Theopaschitism. A few ill-chosen lines in his otherwise great hymn And can it be?, reveal this heresy. Here are those lines. (1) Amazing grace! And can it be – that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”; (2) “’Tis mystery all! The immortal dies”; and (3) “Emptied Himselfof all love.”
The fact is, however, it was not God but Wesley who died! God did not die – because He cannot die (First Timothy 1:17 & 6:14-16). To claim with Wesley that “the immortal dies” – is like claiming that God Who is Light could become darkness (contra First John 1:5b).” 
Centuries earlier the father of the Reformation, professor of systematic theology Martin Luther opposed the idea that it was only the man that died and affirmed that God too died in no uncertain terms in his comments on John 3:16:
“Someone might ask: “How is it possible for the Son of man to save us and give us eternal life?” Another might ask: “How could God allow his only Son to be crucified?” Certainly it’s reasonable to say that the Son of Man died on the cross, but to say that a man can give us eternal life doesn’t make sense. It also doesn’t seem reasonable that God would let his own Son die for the world. But we must remember that when we speak about Christ, we are not speaking about a mere human being, but one person with two natures—human and divine. All of the characteristics attributed to these two natures can be found in this one person, Jesus Christ. Therefore, we can say that the Son of Man created heaven and earth, and we can also say that the Son of God created heaven and earth. We shouldn’t divide Christ into two separate natures, as the heretics do. They claim that it wasn’t the Son of God, but only Mary’s son, who suffered and died for us.
This passage, however, clearly states that God gave his Son for the world. When Christ was handed over to Pilate to be crucified and was led by Pilate to the judgment hall, Pilate took hold of the hand of not only a human being, but also God. That’s why Paul said that if the people of Jerusalem had known, they wouldn’t have crucified the Lord of glory—the one all creation adores (1 Corinthians 2:8). Therefore, it was not only the Son of Man, but also God’s Son who was conceived by Mary, suffered and died, was buried, descended into hell, and was raised again from the dead.” 
Christian Chinese evangelist preacher Witness Lee affirms the death of God on the cross in his book The Crystallization of the Epistle to the Romans:
“Also, Christ’s flesh, His humanity, was the incarnation of God, so when this humanity was dying on the cross, God was also there. Hebrews 9:14 shows that Christ did not die on the cross merely as a man. He also offered Himself to God by the eternal Spirit. The eternal Spirit was with Him and strengthened Him to die.” 
Elsewhere, in his The History of God in His Union with Man Lee writes:
“In John 8:26 the Lord Jesus said, “He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone.” God the Father sent Christ, but the Lord said that He who sent Him was with Him. When the Son came, the Father came with Him. When the Lord Jesus was traveling on this earth, he was traveling with the Father. He said that the Father had not left Him alone. Thus, when He was praying in Gethsemane, the Father was there. When He was dying on the cross, He was dying there with the Father. Jesus the Man was dying on the cross with God. Charles Wesley wrote a hymn with a line that says, “Amazing love! how can it be/ That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?” (Hymns, #296). This means that our God died for us. When Christ died on the cross, that was God dying for us. Christ died with God because God never left Him alone. Even in His crucifixion, God was with Him.”  (emphasis added)
What we see in the above is not only an affirmation that God died on the cross, but it would also seem that Witness Lee is conflating the Father with Jesus and is implying that the Father experienced death with Jesus on the cross. In Lee’s zeal to affirm God’s death on the cross he has inadvertently committed the heresy known as patripassianism,that is, the notion that the Father suffered or died.
Lutheran theologian Dr. George Murphy affirms the theological understanding conveyed by the Catholic apologist cited above that God in a way did experience death, but His divinity or divine nature was precluded from any suffering.
“In spite of these common assumptions about divine immutability, impassibility, and imperishability, Christians have said that in some real sense God suffered and died on the cross. Early in the second century Ignatius of Antioch spoke of this as”the passion of my God,” and about a hundred years later Tertullian wrote,”It is a part of the creed of Christians even to believe that God did die, and yet that He is alive for evermore.”
The theological tradition interpreted the claim that God is truly present in the human Jesus with the idea that two natures, divine Word. The accompanying doctrine of communication of attributes in the personal union then allowed properties of either of the two natures to be spoken of in connection with the person of Christ. Mary could be said to be theotokos,”God-bearer,” even though the divine nature did not have its beginning in Mary’s womb. In a similar way it could be said that the crucified was”one of the Holy Trinity,”even though the divine nature was not nailed to the cross.” 
Though Murphy affirms that God died on the cross he denies that the divine nature was in any way harmed. How is it meaningful to say that God died but His God nature did not die? If one affirms that only the human part dies and not the divine part then one is splitting them in two and as Archbishop Sheen stated this is akin to Nestorianism. Reiterating the same view as Murphy’s a popular Christian website writes:
“His body really did die. The Roman soldiers made sure of that. They were experts at killing people.
Jesus Christ’s physical body was 100-percent human, not just part human. Our bodies can die, and so could his. When we die, our physical body dies, but our soul and spirit remain. They are eternal; they never die. The same is true of Jesus Christ. His physical body died, but his inner self is eternal and did not die.” 
Contradicting Murphy and the others, another Lutheran theologian Carl E. Braaten writes:
“We hear the same idea in a Lutheran hymn: “O great distress! God himself lies dead. On the cross he died, and by doing this, he has won for us the realm of heaven.”
What then have we learned from Luther? (1) The meaning of the word “God” is determined by its reference to the person of Jesus. (2) When Christians think about God in connection with jesus, it must be remembered that this person was crucified, so that God must henceforth be encountered in the cross of Jesus Christ. (3) The death of Jesus was not an event that affected only his humanity, but also his divinity. Hence it is necessary to say, from a Christian point of view, that God died on the cross and not only a human being.”  (emphasis added)
According to Braaten the one that suffered and died on the cross was not only the human Jesus, but also the divine Jesus.
Witness Lee in fact affirms that both divine and human natures died:
“The death of Christ on the cross was all-inclusive. Not only did man die there, but God also died there. God died on the cross in order to be released…God in Christ died on the cross.
Our wonderful Jesus is God and man; He is a God-man. When He died on the cross, both God and man died there…It is not a small thing that Jesus died on the cross, because when Jesus died, God died in him and man died in him.”  (emphasis added)
In the above discussion we may list down the various views that we have seen as follows:
1) God did not die at all.
2) God died which was experienced only by His human nature.
3) God did not die. Only his human flesh did.
4) God died in both human and divine nature together.
5) God died as experienced by both the Father and the Son.
Many a time it is commonplace to hear Christian apologists accusing Muslims of being uncertain as to what exactly happened on the cross according to our Islamic tradition. They would point to the fact that our traditions suggest multiple different personalities being crucified in Jesus’ stead. We concede that in our classical commentaries there are various different ways of interpretations regarding Jesus’ alleged crucifixion. What many Christians fail to realise is that they have an even more fundamental problem in their traditions namely who and what exactly died on the cross? Even amongst Trinitarians as we have seen completely divergent and contradictory views are posited regarding who exactly was the one that suffered on the cross. Is it more blasphemous to say that someone else was crucified other than Jesus or to say that God Himself truly died when most agree that He is immutable and can never die? Is there anything worse than a false witness against God’s being? How does one reconcile the idea of God dying with the clear verse that denies any possibility of God dying in 1 Timothy 6:16 which states that “He alone can never die, and he lives in light so brilliant that no human can approach him. No human eye has ever seen him, nor ever will. All honor and power to him forever! Amen.” Benedictine monk Antoine Augustine Calmet in the Calmet’s Dictionary of the Bible states under the entry on immortality, “God is absolutely immortal; he cannot die…Holiness is the root of immortality, but God only is absolutely holy, as God only is absolutely immortal. All imperfection is a drawback on the principle of immortality: only God is absolutely perfect; therefore, only God is absolutely immortal.”  Professor of Divinity, John Brown in his A Dictionary of the Holy Bible writes under the entry on immortality, “that which doth not and cannot die. God is immortal , and only has immortality; he hath life in and of himself, and is infinitely secure against death, hurt, or ruin of any kind, 1 Tim. i. 17. vi. 16.”  Trinitarian semantics gymnastics will not resolve the issue as we have seen in the discussion. Their word games only confound their predicament further and complicate matters even more leading them to drastically contradictory views.
We will close our discussion with the following footage which is an excellent and practical example of Trinitarian bewilderment:
Trinitarian confusion abounds and persists. We bear witness that the Creator of the universe is Everlasting and can never die.
 Anon. (n.d.). The Council of Ephesus – 431 A.D. Retrieved from http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Councils/ecum03.htm#Twelve%20Anathemas%20Proposed%20by%20Cyril%20and%20accepted%20by%20the%20Council%20of%20Ephesus
 Sheen, F. J. (1953). Are We Really Teaching Religion?. Retrieved from http://ewtn.com/library/HOMESCHL/TCHREL.HTM
 Sproul, R. C. (2012, March 23). Did God Die on the Cross?. Retrieved from http://www.ligonier.org/blog/it-accurate-say-god-died-cross/
 Sproul, R. C. (1995). Discovering the God Who is: His Character and Being, His Power and Personality. Ventura, California: Regal. p. 112
 Anon. (2012, December 18). Exposing and Refuting the errors of Isahel Alfonso. Retrieved from http://catholicposition.blogspot.com/2012/12/exposing-and-refuting-heresy-of-isahel.html
 Lee, F. N. (n.d.). Did God Die on Calvary?. Retrieved from www.dr-fnlee.org/docs4/dgdoc/dgdoc.pdf
 Luther, M. (2005). Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional. James Galvin (ed.). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.
 Lee, Witness (1994). The Crystallization-Study of the Epistle to the Romans. Anaheim, California: Living Stream Ministry. p. 29
 Lee, Witness (1993). The History of God in His Union with Man. Anaheim, California: Living Stream Ministry. p. 15
 Murphy, G. L. (2003). The Cosmos in the Light of the Cross. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International. p. 40
 Anon. (n.d.). If Jesus is God, how could he die? If Jesus died on the cross, then how can he be alive today?. Retrieved from http://christiananswers.net/kids/ednk-jesusalive.html
 Braaten, C. E. (2011). Who is Jesus? Disputed Questions and Answers. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. p. 96
 Lee, Witness (2000). Enjoying the Riches of Christ for the Building Up of the Church as the Body of Christ. Anaheim, California: :Living Stream Ministry. p. 10
 Calmet, A. A. (1830). Calmet’s Dictionary of the Holy Bible, Vol. 1. London: Holdsworth and Ball. p. 729
 Brown, J. (1816). A Dictionary of the Holy Bible, Vol. 2. Albany: R.C. Southwick. p. 18