God in a Tomb

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by Gregory Anderson Love

God died.

It is the most startling of statements, surpassing even the other startling statement in the Christian faith—that God was born. That God, Creator of all things, became one of the creatures, and cried out with breath and life in a feeding stall in a cave in Bethlehem.

But the two statements are thinking along the same lines. They are companions.

God died. Christianity has always edged its way toward this truth, and mostly, looked away. Denied it. It was too awful too contemplate, and too disturbing, too destabilizing. Christianity backed away in every way it could contemplate.

But the thread remained, the awful truth.

It remained in the early church mothers and fathers, who spoke of “the great exchange,” God taking our death while giving us God’s life.

Luther picked it up, arguing for God dying on a cross, and being spat upon.

And finally, finally the argument about God’s “glory,” that God doesn’t suffer, that God cannot die, was challenged by the “theologians of the cross,” Lutheran and Reformed, from the nineteenth century on. They edged their way toward the precipice.

The nineteenth-century Lutherans suggested maybe God put divine powers aside in Jesus. Reformed theologian Karl Barth went further, and said God suffered in Christ, and took that suffering into God’s own life. In The Crucified God, Barth’s student Jurgen Moltmann insisted Barth still had held back; Moltmann said that God the Father suffered the loss of the death of the Son, and took such sorrow over death into God’s own Trinitarian life.

Finally, another of Barth’s students and Moltmann’s contemporary, the Lutheran Eberhard Jungel, had had enough. He said that God had died and was laid in a tomb. The second person of the Trinity was as immovable and lifeless as any dead thing on the Saturday after crucifixion.

It is a startling claim. For Jungel, it says that God experiences something new, something God had never experienced before. In the incarnation, the infinite God experiences for the first time what it is like to be finite, wrapped in time and space, with fingers and toes, and feet that stumble and bruise the knees, and a heart that longs for the comfort of a mother.

On Holy Saturday, the everlasting God experiences something else directly for the first time: Death. God becomes dead.

For Jungel, as with the incarnation, so with Holy Saturday, this change that God is willing to embrace is the source of redemptive hope. The Old Testament proclaims that God is the God of the living, but not of the dead. Those who died go to the realm that is beyond the presence or interest of God.

But in Jesus, this all changes. God is not only the God of the living now, but also the God of the dead. God links God’s fate with the fate of those who die and are no more.

For those who are without hope, the godless and the godforsaken, the dead, there is now this message: God is with you. You are not alone.

If the God who makes all things, who seeks to fulfill the meaning of every creature, is with you, then there is hope.

And with the raising of the dead Son on the third day, there is this promise, as Paul saw (Romans 6:3-5; Colossians 2:9-12; 3:1): We shall be raised with him, with God, to life, and to our true Joy.

Gregory Anderson Love is a Presbyterian minister who teaches systematic theology at San Francisco Theological Seminary. His most recent book, on the meaning of Jesus’s death, is Love, Violence, and the Cross: How the Nonviolent God Saves Us through the Cross of Christ.

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