“What would it mean for us to say that it was simply the human Jesus, and not God, who died on the cross?”
This was the question my professor posed to several dozen dazed graduate students as we slogged our way through a lecture class entitled Christian Theology to 451. It was a slog not only because of the early hour of the lectures, but also—more so—because the headiness of the theological debate among the church fathers made it clear to us that even those great minds—brilliant though they may have been—had been reeling with attempts to understand such mysteries, hidden from the foundation of the world, which had only recently been revealed to the Church. Our weekly readings in the Apostolic Fathers, Irenaeus, the Cappadocian Fathers all revealed the Church in her glorious infancy as she wrestled to know and love the truths that God was revealing to her.
That reading also revealed that Cyril of Alexandria would have thought I was a heretic, and the realization roused me from my dogmatic slumbers. My slumbers were those of evangelical, common-sense Biblical exegesis, which led me to think that when the Bible says glorious things of Jesus—that, for example, he is seated at the right hand of the Father—I should understand them to refer to the divine and not the human nature. And when the Bible says humbling things about Jesus—that he grew tired, hungry, and eventually died—I should understand these as referring to his human nature, and not his divine nature. “It was not God who hungered,” I reasoned, “for that would be a simple category error.” This position (which I suspect is the commonly-held position of many evangelicals) was straightforward, commonsensical—and according to Cyril, heretical.
It was a devotional point, not a doctrinal one, that sealed the death of this manner of Biblical exegesis for me (which is called, in its technical term, two-subject predication). The professor asked, “What would it mean for us to say that it was simply the human Jesus, and not God, who died on the cross?” The professor answered:
“It would mean that at the moment of the most acute suffering of the human Jesus, God abandons him. The devotional point to be drawn from this story would then be that the Christian can expect God to abandon her at precisely the moment when the human most desperately needs God. We would then be forced to believe God is with us until we suffer, and then, he leaves. And the early church reacted against that implication with anathemas.”
The temptation of life in the vale of tears is already to believe that God disregards us at the moment of our sufferings, and the earliest Christians were adamant that this temptation not receive theological warrant.
No longer, then, could I argue that it was a man, and not God, who cried “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”Once, Cyril of Alexandria wrote a response to an imaginary opponent who believed that those words were a human cry of abandonment by God with a harsh retort. The interlocutor asked, “Do you mean it would be foolish and in complete disagreement with the sacred scriptures to think or to say that the assumed man used these human expressions as one who was abandoned by the Word who had been conjoined to him?” Cyril responded simply: “My friend, this would be blasphemy, and a proof of complete madness.”1
Cyril here is to be interpreted literally; it is blasphemy to say that the action of God is to abandon humanity in suffering. It is blasphemy to say that the God who wills to be God with us only wills to be God with us in our joys, but not in our sorrows. It is blasphemy to say that the God of the Christian is one unacquainted with our griefs. Instead, according to Cyril, we must say that we die, and God dies with us. It was no mere man who was crucified, but rather, in the words of Cyril, “the Lord of Glory is himself the crucified one.”2 That is, Glory can be crucified and yet not be made less glorious thereby. God can die and yet not cease to be God.
There is certainly a great theological importance to this claim. The alternative would be that we are saved by the death of a human being, which, as Cyril knew, was impossible:
“In that case we have no longer been redeemed by God (how could we have been?) but rather by the blood of someone else. Some man or other, an imposter and a falsely-named son, has died for us. The great and venerable mystery of the incarnation of the Only Begotten has turned out to be only words and lies, for he never really became man after all. We certainly could not regard him as our Savior who gave his blood for us, we would have to attribute this to that man.”3
In addition, there is great philosophical significance to this claim. When Nietzsche’s madman proclaimed that “God is dead and we have killed him,” or when Time magazine ran a cover story asking “Is God Dead?”, neither of these were proclaiming facts alien to the Christian faith. It was the Christian faith that first informed the world that God died and that we killed him.
What the Christian faith can say that Nietzsche and Time may not is that God has a curious habit of not staying dead when we kill him.The inexplicable and unexpected rise of Christianity in the majority world during the 20th and 21st centuries, precisely when it was largely assumed that the world was secularizing and God was dead, shows that He has yet maintained his stubborn habit of “rising again on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.”
There is also great material here for the Christian’s devotional life. For example, Kant wrote a treatise on theodicy entitled The Miscarriage of all Philosophical Attempts at Theodicy. Kant concludes the work by asserting that all philosophical attempts at explaining the injustice of the world have thus far failed, and instead the Christian method of dealing with evil is, like Job, to confess the inadequacy of one’s reason: “less depends on subtle reasoning than on sincerity in taking notice of the impotence of our reason, and on honesty in not distorting our thoughts in what we say, however pious our intention.”4 If it is true that philosophical attempts at theodicy are finally all abortive, then perhaps the answer is not a proposition, but a person. We die, and God dies with us. And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us, we are not alone in the dark with our demons. David seems to take the same consolation in the Old Testament: “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not fear, for you are with me.”
The consolation of the sufferer is the fact that God does not abandon the human in her hour of most desperate need. Those who have ministered to sufferers of depression know that few, if any, propositions have the effect of assuaging the profound loneliness of those whose peace is assailed by their own minds. Those who suffer from depression know that the worst pangs of agony come not from believing false propositions, but from feeling oneself to be finally, cosmically alone.
But, if Cyril believed that “life itself came in the appearance of death,”5 then it is possible that life can still come to us looking like death. Good Friday teaches us that though we die, God dies with us. Easter teaches us that “if we have died with him, we will also live with him” (2 Tim. 2:11), or “if we have been united with Him like this in his death, we will certainly also be raised to life as He was” (Rom. 6:5). These truths are the ground of the Christian hope, but they may not be the ground of the Christian’s consolation, especially if it is true that persons and not propositions are more commonly the means God uses to bolster the martyr’s spirit. Instead, that consolation may therefore come more powerfully from the truth that Calvary teaches us: the valley of the shadow of death, whose way we all must eventually tread, already has the footprints of the God-man in it. We die, and God dies with us.