What kind of “God” could die? If you think about it and apply your common sense, a God is something perfect, eternal, present to everything, lacking nothing. That which we call “God” cannot suffer anything, much less death.
Yet, we are fast upon the day when our God, the One in whom we profess our faith as Christians, did just that — He died. Perhaps many of us have lived so long with this belief that it has become so commonplace that the insult it poses to common sense has long been buried.
In proclaiming the death of God, Saint Paul, the first great evangelist, was met with responses of “foolishness” from the Greeks and “scandal” from the Jews (1 Corinthians 1.23). Both groups could not conceive of an absolute God, a Creator of all that exists, Himself passing out of existence.
The Greeks, of course, were very familiar with the gods of Hesiod and Homer, the gods who behaved as arch-humans with extraordinary, but not absolute, powers. But the Christian God was in the tradition of the God of Moses, the jealous God, the One God who exposes all other gods as mere idols.
Yes, the death of God posed a radical break in theology for both Jews and Greeks. The Greeks, by the time of Christ, had a well-established philosophical concept of the “Perfect Good,” the all-encompassing, whose goodness all finite things enjoyed by participation.
The supreme actuality of Aristotle and Plato contained the perfection of all forms that conferred nature upon existing things and made them intelligible to our minds. If such a God died, wouldn’t the world cease to exist? Wouldn’t all minds go dark just a moment before that ending?
For the Jews, their Yawheh God was the “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 13.4). How could that God become the “I AM WHO I AM UNTIL I AM NOT”?
Yahweh was mighty, magestic, ineffable, clouded in mystery, the “terrifying mystery,”or mysterium tremendum as described by Rudolph Otto in The Idea of the Holy, 1917. The God who created the world and brought the Jews out of Egypt could not be conceived as destructible. Yahweh was the slayer, not the slayed. Yet both Peter and Paul were telling their fellow Jews otherwise.
The Jews had the advantage of Jesus of Nazareth arriving as a Jewish prophet, speaking in their native language, citing their holy books as proof of his claim to be the Messiah. Many believed Jesus while he lived, especially the Sunday he entered Jerusalem fanned by palm leaves.
But fewer believed when he was put on the Cross, declared dead by the centurions, and placed in the tomb of Joseph of Arimethea. All but one disciple had fled, and only the three Marys made their way to the tomb.
The God who died to both Jews and Greeks seemed like the ultimate oxymoron, an absurd self-contradiction. And if His death had been final, they would have been right to view the death that way. But His death was not final. Death was real, but it was not final. Death was followed by life, not just any life but a life raised out of death itself, a resurrection.
The proclamation of God risen from death may, to some, have made the Christian claim even more nonsensical, but, in fact, this new life made the death intelligible to those who believed. The death of God, as He Himself had explained, was for a purpose, a sacrifice for all humankind, a new offer of salvation to a race fallen away from God’s original justice, the grace of His creation.
God’s risen-ness was proof that His promise was kept — through the death of God, humankind was saved from the final death, towards which they had been marching for millennia.
But there remained the problem of reconciling the God of the Jews and the Greeks with the God who died and who was risen. If this is the true God, then what does it tell us about His perfect being, His absoluteness, and His finality?
Obviously it reveals something missing from the Greek conception of the “Supreme Good”, and even from Yahweh God, but much less so. What was missing was the perfection of the personal God, the God as person, the Triune God sharing love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In other words, from the perspective of Greek theology, all bets were off. How to conceive of God was fundamentally changed because the very notion of perfect being and actuality had changed. No longer would the perfect be described in abstract terms of the “unmoved mover” or the “Supreme Good.” The Christian God was perfect in His Love, which can no longer be described only as perfect Being or Existence. Christians have more to say, which was proclaimed to the Jews, God’s personhood now fully revealed to them.
It would fall to the early Apostolic Fathers, then the Patristic theologians, and finally to the Medievals to meld the faith of the Church with the tradition of philosophical reason. At its core, this was the attempt of “faith seeking understanding,” the fides quaerans intelluctum of Saint Anselm, to describe the perfect being of God in terms of His love. Why? Because the death and risen life of God gives clear testimony to a being that loves; Who is Love.*
The philosophers themselves have always said that very few words can properly be spoken of God — oneness, simplicity, eternity — but with the death and life of God, with Good Friday and Easter, what can be said of God becomes even more problematic. Once God is fully revealed as a Trinity of Three Persons, made one by their shared love, our words about Him become more personal, too. God loves me, forgives me, saves me, and “watches over me” (Psalm 121.5).
The lesson to be learned from this is not intellectual; that would contradict the logic of the Passion and Resurrection. The lesson is personal: What we seek in this life, our perfection or actualization in philosophical terms, is the love as exemplified by the God who died for us and rose to life for us. Of all the theologians, Saint Paul came the closest when he wrote in Philippians 2.7 that Jesus Christ “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.”
In other words, the incarnation itself was just the first step in the self-emptying (kenosis) of the God who died. The next step was the total self-sacrifice of the cross — Jesus Christ “made himself nothing.”
When we wonder what God wants for our lives, how we can become better persons, the answer to ponder is the love of God, manifested to us by his first humbling Himself and then giving Himself on the cross, for us all.
*Leading Christian theologians have always acknowledged the necessity of mysticism. This is often called the Augustinian tradition, but it’s found in Aquinas and all the great Thomists up to Jacques Maritain’s magisterial Degrees of Knowledge (1st edition, 1932), which ends with knowledge by mystical union in Saint John of the Cross.