As we contemplate the death and resurrection of our Lord this Easter, it seems appropriate to reverently address one of the most difficult questions posed regarding the incarnation of the Son of God. If Jesus Christ is God, how could he have truly died, since God cannot die? The dilemma seems to be that, if Jesus really died, then he could not truly be God, but if he didn’t truly die a real death then how did he redeem us from its sting and victory?
The first response is that it is precisely because God cannot die, and death was the necessary provision for the sins of the world, that God had to become human. In the divine wisdom, there was no other way (Isa 63:3–5; Matt 26:39, 42). To ask how Jesus could die if he was truly God is to pose the wrong question; God could not die unless he “became” Jesus. Here it is important to distinguish between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Father did not take on flesh and die. The Holy Spirit did not take on flesh and die. It was the specific task of the Son to become incarnate (Heb 10:5), experience all the frailties and limitations of humanity (Heb 2:17–18), overcome sin in the flesh in which it normally reigned (Rom 8:3), and bear the sins of the world in a cruel and humiliating death (John 1:29; Isa 53). It is simplistic to assert, “because Jesus is God he could not die;” this is to argue from the entrenched presupposition that he is not God, and that we are in a position to define what God can and cannot do. But the Bible says that Jesus is God (Mark 2:5–12; John 1:1–2, 14; 20:28; Rom 9:5; Phil 2:5; Heb 1:3; 2 Pet 1:1; Rev 22:13) , and the Bible says that Jesus truly died and was raised (Mark 15:44–45; Acts 10:39; Rom 5:8; 6:3–8; Phil 2:8; 1 Thess 4:14; Rev 1:18), therefore it happened. I could leave it there, but I won’t, because despite the antagonism and scepticism that sometimes lies behind it, the question of “how” the incarnate God could die is still a valid one.
The God-man Jesus Christ existed from his conception when the immortal Son took on flesh (Gal 4:4; John 1:14) and it is the unified God-man who suffered and died and rose again. I think it is essential to keep this in mind when we talk about “God” dying. It is God incarnate who died, the God who took on flesh (John 1:14; Rom 8:3; Col 1:22; 1 Tim 3:16; Heb 2:14), not God as he dwells in light everlasting, immortal, invisible. The incarnation of the Son involved Deity taking on true and full humanity, in all points yet without sin (2 Cor 5:21; Heb 2:17; 4:15; 1 Pet 2:22; 1 John 3:5). If the Saviour hadn’t been human he could not have experienced temptation, learned obedience and reliance on the Father, suffered and justly died on our behalf. The incarnation involved a change; an addition of human attributes to Deity in a process of humbling as described in Philippians 2:5–8. It was a relinquishing, not of his divinity per se, but of the “riches” and rights of his divinity. As God-man he could experience things that as God he could not. Now, some people baulk at this, as if to say God cannot be so “insufficient” as to “need” the added extras of humanity, but this misses the point. It’s like the “Can God make a ‘square circle’ or a stone too heavy for himself to lift?” paradoxes. God cannot do these things because they are against the very natural principles he has established. And according to his spiritual principles, which are just as real as physical laws, he cannot look upon sin or cross the divide that sin has made between God and humanity in any other way than the incarnation and still be true to his holiness (Rom 3:26). God has said that he must be true to himself, and in this sense he is unchanging in his holiness and moral perfection (Ex 33:6; Psa 105:8; Mal 3:6; Jas 1:17). Those are limitations! But what wonderful limitations!
The incarnation was definitely a step down for God the Son, a humbling to the uttermost. He did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45; Phil 2:6–7). The incarnation was the result of God’s love, not the cause of it (John 3:16–17). To satisfy his justice, sin needed to be atoned for and in God’s divine scheme this means death. Because in his love he sought to propitiate his own wrath against sin, he determined to become human and take this death on himself (Rom 3:25; 5:8; Heb 2:17; 1 John 4:10).
So, if the incarnate Son truly “died,” what did this actually mean for him, experientially? Before we can attempt to answer this, we must first ask, what is death? Death is the opposite of life. Eternal life, the life of God himself, is contrasted with death and with “perishing.” (John 3:16, 36; 5:24; Rom 6:22-23; 1 John 5:11-12). Sin separates us from God (Hab 1:13; Isa 59:2; John 3:36; Rom 1:18; Eph 5:6) and to continue “in sin” (unforgiven, apart from the means of reconciliation in Christ) means eternal separation from God, i.e. death (Psa 6:5; 88:3–5; Ecc 9:10; Ezek 18:20; John 8:24; Rom 6:23). So if Jesus truly died, which Scripture insists he did, then he must have experienced this separation from the Godhead. This is evidenced by his cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46) and in Paul’s explanation that Christ was “made sin for us” who “knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21). He suffered as the righteous for the unrighteous (1 Pet 3:18), he bore the sins of many, and with his stripes we are healed. Peter says, in a clear reference to Isaiah 53, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1Pe 2:24). Our sins, which he bore, separated him from his Father, something he had never before experienced. This would have been the most extreme agony of the cross. Christ suffered alone, bearing the sins of the world and propitiating God’s wrath. What this dreadful severing was like is unimaginable for us, and the Scripture can only provide a glimpse of its horror, as the unnatural darkness eclipsed the shaking earth.
Death entails the loss of life functions and the decay of the body, plus the experience of “death” for the human soul. Jesus’ life functions ceased on the cross. The unique person Jesus Christ ceased to breathe and move, his heart stopped and he felt the pain and thirst no more (John 19:33-35). His body was taken down from the cross, wrapped and prepared for burial and entombed. Thus ends the life of every man… but for Jesus it was different. His flesh saw no corruption and he was not left in the grave, as the written word had promised (Psa 16:10; Acts 2:25–31; Luke 24:5–6).
What about his “soul,” his consciousness? Peter in Acts 2 proclaims that it was Jesus’ soul, (psyche) that was not left in Hades, as does Psalm 16 which he quotes. Jesus is the resurrection and the life; he is the giver of life, the Lord of life and he holds the keys of death and of Hades (John 1:4; 5:26; 10:17–18; 11:25–26, Acts 3:15; 1 John 5:20; Rev 1:18). He has life within himself and to those who believe on him he grants eternal life. In fact, he says they already have eternal life, they will never die, will never perish (John 3:36; 5:24; 6:40, 47; 10:28; 1 John 5:11–13). Jesus’ death was not the “perishing” punishment reserved for the wicked! (John 3:16; Rom 6:23) Jesus consciously passed from death to life, because he is life. It was impossible that death could hold him. The separation wrought by our sins could not be sustained. It was finished, the work was done, he died to sin and lives evermore (Rom 6:10; Rev 1:18).
Likewise, the believer receives eternal life by gift from the Life-giver himself. Those who believe in Jesus will never die, they will not perish, they will not be separated from God. In Luke 23:42–43, Jesus promises the penitent, desperate, trusting thief that the same day (semeron, today) he would be with Jesus in paradise. The word “paradise” only appears three times in Scripture; here, in 2 Corinthians 12:3 when Paul refers to an ecstatic experience of being caught up to the third heaven, and in Revelation 2:7, with reference to the Edenic tree of life. The thief did not spend the weekend in the rock tomb; where was he “with” Jesus? In Philippians 1:21–23 Paul expresses his desire to depart and be with Christ, in contrast to remaining in the flesh and continuing his profitable work. In 2 Corinthians 5:1–6 he contrasts living in the body as if it were a temporary dwelling, a tent, with his ultimate destiny being reclothed with an eternal “house.” His final destiny is not to be unclothed (i.e., without a body, which was the Greek expectation of immortality) but to be “clothed upon” with a new house, described in 1 Corinthians 15 as the resurrection body. But this will not happen until the resurrection and judgement, so there remains a period of “unclothing” during which the believer is still “with Christ.” This is what theologians refer to as the “intermediate state” for the believer, between their physical death and the resurrection when the mortal is clothed with immortality (1 Cor 15:52–53). It must be a state of continuity, for Jesus promised eternal life as a present possession for believers. The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life. There is a contrast here, between eternal life as intrinsic to Jesus and as gifted to believers, and the eternal death, the awful separation, the “perishing” that awaits those who reject him. But separation of the soul’s eternal life from the decaying body is not the ultimate destiny of humanity, by the grace of him whose soul was not left in the grave, and whose own resurrection occurred within three days. Scripture clearly teaches that the ultimate expression of eternal life is with bodily resurrection at the Saviour’s return (Luke 14:14; 20:36; John 11:24; Acts 24:15; 1 Cor 15:12–23, 36–54; Heb 5:2).
Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Word made flesh, experienced a true death, dying for our sins “according to the scriptures.” While he was bearing our sins and suffering for them under the wrath of God, destroying them utterly, he was separated from the Father. But within a few world-changing hours he was able to cry triumphantly, “It is finished!” and his work was absolutely complete. The temple curtain having already been torn, he could then entrust his spirit (pneuma, breath of life) to God (Luke 23:45–46). He was no longer separated, no longer abandoned. His body died and in his humanity he experienced what believers who possess “eternal life” experience at death and in that sense he was still with the Father, along with the repentant thief, “in paradise,” awaiting the resurrection. For Christ of course, whose body saw no corruption and was not deserving of death, that resurrection came within three days. Beyond that Scripture tells us no more of this period of time. But we can be confident that, whatever the union of divinity and humanity in Christ entailed, it was a true union, fully human, fully divine, fully united, in order to effect our salvation through his death and resurrection and that his death was genuine. What went through his conscious mind from the cross to the grave to resurrection morning we can only respectfully acknowledge as beyond our ability and right to know.
The Bible is silent regarding the intimate details of Jesus’ self consciousness and what his deep communion with the Father was like. We simply wouldn’t comprehend it this side of seeing him as he is (1 John 3:2). We know that the Son was in eternal loving relationship with the Father, that they mutually indwell each other, know each other and are of one mind (John 1:18; 14:20; 16:28; 17:5, 21–23). But we stand at a distance, mute, ignorant, ashamed, as we contemplate Jesus’ blood shed on the cross, his inert form laid in the tomb, the stone rolled across. We are unable to comprehend how it “felt” or what Father and Son “experienced” in those awful few hours, but we believe that Jesus died and rose again, in those three days that changed everything.
I have not discussed the controversial doctrine that proposed Jesus “descended into hell” between his entombment and resurrection, which was first expressed in a modified form of the Apostles Creed c390 AD and traditionally upheld in various forms by the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches. It is largely rejected in evangelical circles and has dubious scriptural basis. A good explanation and critique of it may be found in Millard Erickson, Christian Theology 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 706–709.