Did God die on the cross? Yes, God died according to the human nature which he assumed in the incarnation; however, the divine nature did not die. Let’s unpack that.
There are three divine persons, who are:
- The Father
- The Son
- The Holy Spirit
Simply put, the divine persons are who God is. The answer to the question “Who is God?” is “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
They share one divine nature, which is:
- a spirit
Simply put, the divine nature is what God is. The Westminster Catechism asks “What is God?” and answers with a list of divine attributes: “God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”
Note that one attribute of the divine nature is that it is immortal or unable to die: God “alone has immortality” (1 Tim. 6:16), or as the NLT translates it, “He alone can never die.” Romans 1:23 likewise speaks of “the immortal God” and 1 Timothy 1:17 praises “the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God.”
The divine nature cannot die and nothing can happen to make it capable of death.
Note also that the divine nature is unchanging: “I the Lord do not change” (Mal. 3:6); “with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (Jas. 1:17). The divine nature cannot die and nothing can happen to make it capable of death.
The Hypostatic Union
When we say that the Son is “fully God,” we mean that he is and always has been what-ever God is; he has the divine nature. Once again, the divine nature is:
- a spirit
But the Son of God is not just fully God. Because the Son of God was born of the virgin Mary, he is also fully man. In the incarnation, the divine nature was united with the human nature, which is:
- a body and a soul
- limited in power
- capable of death
Jesus is fully God. Jesus is fully man. Yet there are not two Jesus’s. Jesus does not have multiple personalities. There is not a human Jesus and a divine Son of God. There is a divine-human Jesus, the Son of God. As the Chalcedonian Creed says, “[We] teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body.” The union of the divine and human natures in one person is called the hypostatic union, from hypostasis, the Greek word for “person.”
When the divine nature is united to the human nature, it does not stop being almighty, eternal, or immortal.
When the divine nature is united to the human nature, it does not stop being almighty, eternal, or immortal. That would involve change, which is impossible for God. Note this key line in the Creed: “the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved.” Jesus cannot die according to his divine nature, since its property of immortality is preserved; however, he can die according to his human nature.
We’re now equipped to answer the question, “Did God die on the cross?” The answer is Yes: the one who died on the cross was God. However, he died according to the human nature which he assumed in the incarnation. The divine nature, which he eternally shares with the Father and the Son, did not and cannot die.
The one who is God, the one who is Immortal, assumed human nature so that he could die on the cross for us and for our salvation.
The Chalcedonian Creed makes a very similar point when it says that Jesus was “born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood.” Was God born of the virgin Mary? The answer is Yes: the one whom Mary mothered was God. However, he was born of Mary according to the Manhood or human nature. The divine nature, which he shares with the Father and the Spirit, is eternal and cannot be born in time.
The Reason for the Incarnation
This means that not only is the divine nature unable to die, but its inability to die is the reason for the incarnation. In his work On the Incarnation, Athanasius explains that only through death could human corruption be undone. Yet God is, by nature, unable to die. For this reason, the Son of God assumed human nature, which is able to die:
For the Word, realizing that in no other way would the corruption of human beings be undone except, simply, by dying, yet being immortal and the Son of the Father the Word was not able die, for this reason he takes to himself a body capable of death, in order that it, participating in the Word who is above all, might be sufficient for death on behalf of all, and through the indwelling Word would remain incorruptible, and so corruption might henceforth cease from all by the grace of the resurrection. (9)
It was necessary that the man who died for us was also God, Athanasius explains, so that his death would be sufficient for all and because the divine nature guaranteed that the human nature would rise from the dead, thus conquering death. However, Athanasius is clear that it is not the divine nature that dies. God the Word dies according to the human nature which he assumed.
It was necessary that the man who died for us was also God.
Finally, note that God took to himself “a body capable of death.” Human nature is comprised of body and soul. As the Chalcedonian Creed says, Jesus is “truly man, of a reasonable soul and body.” When Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Lk. 23:46), it was his human soul or spirit which was dying, and his human body which was then buried. As the Apostles’ Creed says, “He died and was buried. He descended to the dead”—his death involves the burial of his body and the descent of his human soul. Yet because Christ’s human nature was united to the divine nature, death could not hold him. On the third day, he rose again for us and for our salvation, “so corruption might henceforth cease from all by the grace of the resurrection.”
Conclusion: Amazing Love!
For us and for our salvation, God died on the cross. Charles Wesley rejoiced in the wonder of God’s salvation:
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
’Tis mystery all! The Immortal dies!
Who can explore His strange design?
The one who is God, the one who is Immortal, assumed human nature so that he could die on the cross for us and for our salvation. Amazing love!