Caravaggio_-_La_Deposizione_di_CristoDavid Murray recently offered provocative blog post asking, “Was Jesus Still God in the Tomb?

He opens it in this way:

Was Jesus God in the womb? Was Jesus God in the tomb? You probably answered yes to the first question, but hesitated to do so over the second, didn’t you? Although it’s brain-bursting to think of God as an embryo, it’s brain-numbing to think of God as a corpse.

You can read the whole thing here as David sets forth his reflections on this.

It seems to me, however, that the piece could use some tightening and nuancing as we experience iron sharpening iron over this crucial—but at times confusing—issue of Christology. The point is not criticism as an end in itself but a means of growing together in our knowledge of Christ and his work and how to best express these glorious truths.

Toward that end I enlisted the assistance of Stephen Wellum, professor of Christian theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and that author of a forthcoming Christology in Crossway’s Foundations of Evangelical Theology series (which I expect to become a standard work). His reflections on David’s piece are as follows:

Reflecting on the incarnation and how God the Son adds to himself a human nature, and making sense of the metaphysics of the incarnation, is not an easy task. Great minds have reflected on these truths, and in the end our doing so is the glorious task of faith seeking understanding. We must carefully remain within the biblical givens and the theological reflections of the church, especially as reflected in the Church’s confession as represented by the Chalcedonian Definition. Even though Confessions are secondary standards they helps set the parameters by which we carry out our theologizing of such important truths. Dr. David Murray is to be commended for helping us once again reflect upon and wrestle with the incredible and glorious truth of the incarnation, and anything said in response and disagreement must not be taken as not appreciating what he has sought to write in this post. However, in light of Scripture and the Chalcedon Confession, I find a number of points confusing and it is to these points I now turn.

1. The Language of God in the Incarnation

Dr. Murray’s use of language regarding the incarnation, though legitimate in most places, needs more precision in order to avoid misunderstanding.

For example, he asks: “Was Jesus God in the womb? Was Jesus God in the tomb?” (my emphasis).

Later he says, “Although it’s brain-bursting to think of God as an embryo, it’s brain-numbing to think of God as a corpse” (my emphasis).

In another place he says, as we think of Jesus in the womb we struggle with such truths and think to ourselves, “God cannot become a microscopic collection of cells.”

My problem with how Dr. Murray has made these statements is that they are misleading if there are not some careful distinctions made. Even though Scripture can talk in a similar way to Dr. Murray—e.g., Acts 20:28  affirms that God bought the church with his own blood, referring to the blood of Christ—one must be careful in the use of God without qualification. Let me explain further. When we use the word God we mostly think of God in his entire being. Thus when we read Dr. Murray write, “God is a corpse,” it is easy to think that he is saying that somehow in the death of Christ, God in his entire being has died, which I don’t think he is saying. In order to be more precise in (1) how we speak of the incarnation, (2) how we use the word God, and then (3) how we apply this language to Christ’s death, it is better to say that God the Son was in the womb, God the Son died—not God without qualification. In the incarnation it is God the Son who becomes incarnate (not the Father and Spirit) and in the death of Christ, it is God the Son who dies (not God without qualification). Once again, I have no doubt that Dr. Murray would agree with this, yet in his provocative language, he opens the door to a lot of unnecessary misunderstanding.

2. The Language of Hypostatic Union

Another example of confusion in Dr. Murray’s language is how he talks about the hypostatic union.

Classical Christology, grounded in such a statement as John 1:14, makes it clear that it is the Word or the person of the Son who adds to himself a human nature which consists of a body and soul. As a result, the Son, not the divine nature of the Son, subsists now in two natures: (1) his divine nature which he shares with the Father and Spirit, and (2) his human nature, which is his own.

In a couple of places, I read Dr. Murray as saying that the human nature of Christ was united to his divine nature, yet later on he says the opposite, which is confusing. For example, he says, “His [Jesus’] human soul still united to His divine nature” (my emphasis) or in another place, “While His [Jesus’] human soul was separated from His body, His divine nature was separated from neither and never will be. His divine nature was as united to His lifeless body on earth as it was to His glorified soul in heaven.” It is on this basis that he says that as we go into the tomb and see Jesus’ body in the grave, we are to say “God is a corpse” and “That dead body was still God and therefore deserving of our worship.”

However, this way of stating the hypostatic union is incorrect. The divine nature of the Son did not add to himself or unite himself to a human nature; instead it was the person of the Son who forever subsists in the divine nature and who now adds to himself a human nature. In this latter understanding, which is the confession of the Church, how we view Christ’s body in the tomb will be slightly different than Dr. Murray suggests, but before I turn to that point, I do want to note that later in his blog, he rightly quotes the Westminster Confession which correctly notes that Christ’s two distinct natures were inseparably joined together in one person. What this tells me is that Dr. Murray’s statement of the incarnation and particularly the hypostatic union needs more clarification and precision.

3. The Pre-Glorified Body of Christ

We now come to the issue of how we are to think of Christ’s body in the tomb prior to his glorious resurrection. Do we say that as we gaze on Christ’s lifeless body that “God was a corpse” or “God was in the tomb” or that we should bow down and worship the dead body of Christ?

Obviously these are not easy issues, but I would not state it just as Dr. Murray has stated it. Instead, I would say the following. On the cross, God the Son incarnate died. How do I say such a thing? On the basis of the communicatio idiomatum: whatever is true of the natures may be predicated of the person and since it is the person, not the natures, which lives and acts, it is legitimate to say that on the cross God the Son died. But what exactly does this entail metaphysically speaking? I do not think it entails that the person of the Son or the divine nature dies in the sense that the Son does not continue to act, live, and rule. What it does mean is that the Son experiences death in and through his human nature so that the person of the Son experiences a separation of his human body and soul. As a result, Christ’s human body is now temporarily separated from him and put in the grave, while he, as the person of the Son, continues to subsist in his human soul and his divine nature. If we think about our death, assuming a duality to our nature, when we die we as persons continue to exist in and through our souls, but our human bodies are placed in the grave and there is an abnormal separation in our human nature of body from soul. In a similar way, in and through his human nature, this is what God the Son experiences. During this time, God the Son is still fully human because he continues to subsist in his human soul, yet he experiences for this intermediate period a separation in his human nature as he awaits the full union of his body and soul at the resurrection.

Is it legitimate then to say that when we enter the tomb, “God is a corpse” or “God is in the tomb”? I would not state it this way. What I would say is that the human body of God the Son is in the tomb even though he, as the Son, continues to live, rule, and sustain the universe. One has to be careful, as noted above, not to give the impression that somehow God is dead (when he is not) nor even that God the Son is now a corpse (which he is not). What is dead is the human body of Christ which has been temporarily separated from his human soul and which in less than three days will be reunited so that our Lord Jesus Christ, in his glorified human nature, will be seen.

Conclusion

No doubt these issues are difficult and ultimately they should lead us to worship and adoration. However, one must be careful how we speak of such glorious realities. I appreciate Dr. Murray’s reflections on the incarnation and Easter, but I disagree with how he has stated it and some of the confusions inherent in his discussion.

May we all be led to a greater appreciation and love of our great Savior, who not only took on our humanity but also in love and obedience to his Father’s will, and in love for us, experienced the horror of death in and through his humanity, in order to become our glorious all-sufficient Savior and the great high priest of the new covenant.

Print Friendly
View Comments

Comments:


12 thoughts on “Was God Really in the Tomb as a Corpse?”

  1. This is a complicated matter, and it is one that many reformed teachers and pastors who addressed previously (in both better and worse ways!). I thought Stephen Wellum did a good job of trying to steer between Nestorianism and monophysitism. I would have liked to see how his account differs, as it seems to, from say R.C. Sproul (http://www.ligonier.org/blog/it-accurate-say-god-died-cross/) and John Samson (http://www.reformationtheology.com/2011/08/the_lord_jesus_christ_one_pers.php).

    That’s what David Murray seems to be reacting against, and it is important that our Christology appropriately navigate between these views. Thanks for an interesting discussion.

  2. Joe Rigney says:

    In reading Aquinas this year, I found his succinct explanation of this matter helpful. In his discussion, he is seeking to explain the meaning of the Apostles’ Creed, when it affirms that Christ, the God-man, was crucified, buried, and he descended into hell. (*Note: for Aquinas, “hell” should be understand more like Hades or Sheol, where the Old Testament saints dwelt prior to Christ’s resurrection, not like the place of final punishment / lake of fire.)

    In what sense was Christ buried in a tomb (“sepulcher”), if he was still seated at the right hand of God in heaven, and if he descended into Sheol (“hell”) to rescue the Old Testament saints?

    From Compendium of Theology, Chapter 229

    http://dhspriory.org/thomas/Compendium.htm#229

    “In Christ three substances, the body, the soul, and the divinity of the Word, are joined together in one person. Two of these, the soul and the body, are united to form one nature. Accordingly at the death of Christ the union between body and soul was dissolved. Otherwise the body would not have been truly dead, since death of the body is nothing else than the separation of the soul from it.

    But neither soul nor body was separated from the Word of God, as far as union with the person is concerned. Human nature results from the union of soul and body; hence Christ could not be said to be a man during the three days of His death, when His soul remained separated from His body by death. However, as was shown above, on account of the union of the human nature with the Word of God in one person, whatever is said of the man Christ can rightly be predicated also of the Son of God. Consequently, since the personal union of the Son of God both with the soul and with the body of Christ remained in death, whatever is said of either of them could be predicated of the Son of God. Hence the Creed asserts that the Son of God was buried, for the reason that the body united to Him lay in the tomb, and likewise that He descended into hell, because His soul descended.

    We should also recall that the masculine gender designates a person, and that the neuter gender designates nature. Thus in speaking of the Trinity we say that the Son is another person (alius) than the Father, but not that He is another thing (aliud). Accordingly, during the three days of His death the whole (totus) Christ was in the sepulcher and in hell and in heaven, because of His person which remained united to His flesh reposing in the tomb and to His soul which was emptying hell, and which continued to subsist in the divine nature reigning in heaven. But we cannot say that the whole (totum) of Christ was in the sepulcher or in hell, because only a part of the human nature and not the whole of it was in the sepulcher or in hell.”

  3. Great post – I had not yet read Dr. Murray’s but will go and do so. This is actually a question I have hurt my brain trying to consider many times, particularly around Easter (as well as Christmas) when I hear sermons that state that Jesus’ quoting of Psalm 22 shows us that God literally forsake the Son so that we would never have to experience that forsaking of the Father when we put our faith in Christ. I struggle to see how we reconcile such statements with a Chalecedonian understanding of Christology, for it makes no sense to understand the eternally existing Trinity separating (even for three days), especially in light of verses like 2 Tim. 2:13 among many others. Is is theologically accurate to say that God literally forsook the second Person of the of Trinity or do we need to understand Jesus’ quoting of Ps. 22 in a different way, viz. revealing His deity to those listening to Him on the cross who would have understood His reference?
    Love any help/insight.

    1. John Botkin says:

      Wesley, did you mean “three hours” instead of days? As I understand it, the atoning work (which might be called a “forsaking” from God) was only for three hours on the cross. When he died, Jesus proclaimed “It is finished.” So, assuming for the minute he was forsaken, he would experienced the joy of the Father’s presence upon death. Just my 2 cents.

      1. Wesley says:

        John –
        I’ve not heard this interpretation of Jesus being forsaken for just three hours before. If all that Jesus needed to do was accomplished before He died, then why did He need to remain in the grave until the third day? Why not just get down from the cross once all that was needed to be accomplished was accomplished?

    2. Paul Dirks says:

      Hey Wesley. I think the traditional explanation (at least that I’ve often heard) of Christ’s cry of dereliction is incorrect. I don’t think the Father forsook the Son at all. I think Jesus is a good exegete and understands Ps 22:1 in it’s context. Some people present Jesus’ cry in almost complete contradiction to a faithful interpretation of Ps 22:1. I believe the Father was very present as he poured out his wrath upon his Son. I believe in that moment he loved and was pleased with his Son as much as at any time before or since. I believe both the Son’s sense of abandonment and the Father’s hand of discipline in the punishment have analogue’s to our experience of both those things.
      Feel free to push back, brother.

      1. Ross Macdonald says:

        Hi Paul,

        Certainly we would shrink from postulating any separation within the divine Godhead, but is it possible to speak of God ‘forsaking’ the human nature of the Son as He bore the imputed sins of the ungodly (cf. Gal. 2.20)? This would at least harmonize the imputation of our sins to the Savior even as His active Righteousness is imputed to us (dep. on the interpretation, cf. 2 Cor. 5.21). It seems to me the immediate context of the psalmist certainly fits your view, but we should see that psalm as ultimately prophesying of Christ’s suffering and the joy that was set before Him (Ps. 22.22ff; cf. Heb. 12.2). This would mean that the Son – the Word, through the Spirit, ordained this word through the psalmist only to take on flesh and fulfill it. Christ, crying out 22.1, was not only citing this Scripture which in the counsel of eternity He had foreordained, He was fulfilling it – in fact, in the midst of the Father’s forsaking of the Son’s sin-bearing humanity, He is worshipping the Father with it and clinging to its promise.

        I’d love to read your thoughts on this brother.

        SDG,

        Ross

      2. Wesley says:

        Paul –
        great to see you here bro. As for me, I guess I struggle with saying that the Father did not forsake the Son “at all.” I think I ‘m more comfortable at this point in saying that the Father did forsake the Son in some sense; just not, perhaps in the sense that people seem to draw form Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 22, as it seems to, again, ignore a Chalcedonian understanding of Christology that could not work otherwise. I think Ross MacDonald may have something there in pointing to 2 Cor. 5:21 (and I would also include 1 Peter 2:24) in that we need to do something with Jesus literally “becoming sin” and bearing our penalty (which for Jesus is not simply dying but includes bearing the penalty for our sins) else we lean outside of orthodoxy into perhaps a Docetism or Nestorianism. I am much more comfortable – as I can explain how hypostasis works about as well as I can explain the Trinity – stating that Jesus bore the penalty for our sins, which would include the forsaking by the Father as it does for all who reject Christ, but in a way in which is mysterious and not ultimately explainable. Maybe some might see that as a cop out, but I look at it more as a humble orthodoxy that seeks to balance what we do know with what has not been revealed to us this side of glory.

  4. Johnny says:

    Great article! Really teased out the nuances well!

  5. Adam Omelianchuk says:

    If Jesus was a corpse, then Jesus was identical with his body. But Jesus is also identical with the Son of God. Therefore, by the transitivity of identity, the Son of God was identical with a human body. But the Son of God existed before the time the human body existed. Therefore, Jesus was not (nor ever could be) identical with his body.

    It seems that Murray’s post is seriously confused.

  6. Diana Williams says:

    This may be tangential to the present discussion, but as I understand it, the post-death pre-resurrection body of Jesus was different from any other in that, because He was sinless, it never started to decay. Acts 2:31. Is this correct?

  7. David Murray says:

    Thank you, Justin and Stephen, for your helpful, careful, and constructive interaction with my brief post. The charitable tone and detailed content clearly demonstrate our shared desire to grow in the knowledge of Christ and in our skill in expressing the glorious truth about him.

    I appreciated very much the way Stephen began his comments – we are treading in deep and difficult waters that many have erred in. My post was brief and meant to be more meditative, suggestive, and thought-provoking than an exhaustive Christology of the Son of God in the tomb. Stephen has certainly gone into a lot more detail than I did.

    Stephen is right, I was not talking about the entire being of God when I spoke of God being in the tomb or God being a corpse. As Stephen says, I was using “God” to speak of God the Son, in the same sense as Paul did in Acts 20:28. I think it’s possible to misunderstand what I wrote, and for someone to conclude that I was speaking about God in His entire being (Father and Spirit) being in the tomb, but I don’t think it’s very likely.

    I must admit I’ve struggled to understand Stephen’s second point. The crux of his argument seems to be his statement: “The divine nature of the Son did not add to himself or unite himself to a human nature; instead it was the person of the Son who forever subsists in the divine nature and who now adds to himself a human nature.”

    If the only point at issue is my speaking of “the divine nature of the son” instead of “the person of the son who forever subsists in divine nature” I’m fine with that. In my own mind and certainly in the rich Scottish Presbyterian tradition I’ve been brought up with, there is no difference between the two apart from one being more complicated than the other. Or maybe I should say, the former is more appropriate for a blog article or a sermon, and the latter more appropriate for an in-depth Christology.

    Or maybe Stephen is explaining how the hypostatic union came about, how it started, in which case, his language is better. However, I was not speaking of how the hypostatic union began, but rather describing the union as it was at the time of the crucifixion.

    So, thus far, I think we are more or less in agreement.

    We do disagree on the third point. Stephen does not believe we can speak of the body of Christ in the tomb still being God. He says that “Christ’s human body is now temporarily separated from him and put in the grave, while he, as the person of the Son, continues to subsist in his human soul and his divine nature.” If that is correct then Stephen is right, no one could rightly worship the body of Christ in the tomb as it had no connection with the person of the Son during these days.

    However, I don’t think Stephen is correct here, and I would argue that historic confessional theology would also disagree with him. There is the Westminster Confession Chapter 7.2 that I quoted in the article: “Two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person.” (Unless Stephen would say that Christ’s human soul was only being referred to here. The statement does refer to “whole” and “perfect” natures, though.)

    But the Belgic Confession Article 19 is even clearer: “So then what he committed to his Father when he died was a real human spirit which left his body. But meanwhile his divine nature remained united with his human nature even when he was lying in the grave; and his deity never ceased to be in him, just as it was in him when he was a little child, though for a while it did not show itself as such.”

    I remember one old Scottish theologian illustrating it as follows: “When Christ died, He voluntarily separated his human soul from his human body on the cross, but both remained united to His divine person even while in the tomb. It was like a great warrior taking his sword from it’s sheath. Though the sword and sheath were separated from one another, both were still united to the warrior, and both were reunited when he sheathed his sword again.

    Not a perfect illustration, of course, especially when trying to teach about such an awesome mystery, but I do think it can be a helpful way for our tiny minds to understand at least some of the mystery.

    I deeply appreciate the interaction, Justin and Stephen, especially the level of detail and precision that is not too common in the blogosphere! I will endeavor to give fuller statements in future that will not allow so much scope for confusion or misunderstanding. I want to become better at expressing these great truths in an accessible way. This has certainly helped me to that end.

    It’s a beautiful subject that, as Stephen says, leads us to greater appreciation and love for our Savior, even if we disagree on some lesser points.

    THANK YOU BOTH!

Comments are closed.

Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

Justin Taylor's Books