The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and others have said: “God is dead.” I have never studied their works in detail, but I imagine that they mean that the concept of God is dead – that it no longer has any relevance or influence in the modern world.
A long time ago, when I first read this sentence, my initial reaction was: “Of course.” Nietzsche’s sentence, when properly understood, expresses a profound Christian truth. After all, a Good Friday hymn says: “Oh, sorrow dread! God’s Son is dead!”
Note, however, that this death of God had a time limit. It occurred on Good Friday and terminated on Easter Sunday, when Jesus rose from the dead.
The concept of the death of God may puzzle you, since God is immortal and cannot die. The explanation lies in the mystery of the Incarnation.
After the Son of God became man, he was true God and true man in one person. He then had both a divine nature and a human nature. This state of affairs continued after His resurrection from the dead and His ascent into heaven. Jesus never experienced any excarnation.
In the person of Jesus, the divine nature and the human nature were not mixed together to form an intermediate entity. Both his divine nature and his human nature were complete and remained intact.. However, the two natures were perfectly united with one another in a personal union, so that Jesus was one undivided person.
How can two incongruent natures enjoy such a personal union? The answer lies in the communication of attributes. The human nature of Christ shares in His divine attributes, and His divine nature shares in his human attributes.
Accordingly, while suffering and death is an attribute of the human nature of Christ, these attributes are communicated to His divine nature. That is to say, His divine nature shares in these attributes, so that Jesus suffered and died as one person. As a result, it is correct to say that the second person of the Holy Trinity suffered death.
Is it also correct to say that God was dead when Jesus suffered and died? The ancient church correctly rejected patripassianism. God the Father did not suffer and die, nor did the Holy Spirit. However, let us take a brief look at the mystery of the Trinity.
The Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Spirit is God. Nevertheless, they are not three Gods, but only one God. Each person of the Trinity possesses the entire divine essence. According to human logic, this is impossible. We think that one plus one plus one equals three, but when dealing with the Trinity, one plus one plus one equals one. We believe this even though we cannot understand it.
Accordingly, Jesus possesses the complete divine essence. As it is written (Colossians 2: 9), “In Him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.” So the sufferings and death of Christ was communicated to the complete divine essence. God was truly dead.
How did this affect the Father and the Holy Spirit? We do not know the complete answer to this question, but two principles help us to some extent.
First of all, the internal works of the Trinity are divided among the three persons. For those who know Latin, the formal statement of this principle is: “Opera ad intra sunt divisa.”
An example of an internal work of the Trinity is the eternal begetting of the Son by the Father. This is a work of the Father alone. The Son and the Holy Spirit do not do any begetting. Likewise, procession is a work performed only by the Holy Spirit. He proceeds from the Father and the Son.
Secondly, all three persons of the Trinity take part in God’s external works. The formal statement of this principle is: “Opera ad extra sunt indivisa aut communia.”
An example of an external work of the Trinity is the creation of the world. The creation was effected not only by the Father, but also the Son. The Son of God is the Word, and as the evangelist St. John tells us, “All things were made by Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made (John 1: 3).”
As far as the Incarnation and its aftermath are concerned, neither the Father nor the Holy Spirit became flesh or died on the cross. However, both had a share in this work of salvation. The Father sent his Son to save the world, and the Holy Spirit works faith in the hearts of men, so that they enjoy the benefits of what Jesus Christ has done.
I cannot list any references because I did not do any research, except to find out who invented the sentence: “God is dead.” However, special credit is due to my college and seminary professors, especially the late Professor Meyer and the late Professor Vogel, both of whom taught at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in Mequon, Wisconsin.
I found a doctrinal article on a webpage of the Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, to which this hyperlink will direct you. On the basis of this article, I made a minor changes in the two Latin sentences quoted above. I think that the way I originally wrote the sentences was good, but I decided to change it.