Thursday, April 13, 2017

Did God Die on the Cross? How to Discuss Catholicism with Non-Believers. (A Dialogue)

Recently, I had an extended online conversation with a non-Christian (specifically a baha’i) on the nature of Christ, centered around his questions on whether Christ is God and what the implications of a Divine Christ would be in light of the Crucifixion. 

Below follows, not a transcript of the conversation, but a “Platonic dialogue” inspired by it (and other such conversations I’ve had). Enjoy!

BERNIE THE BAHA’I: You believe that God became man and died, as a sacrifice for our sins, correct?

CHARLES THE CATHOLIC: Yes, that’s the essential claim Christianity makes. In fact, it’s the one thing that all Christians agree with and that all non-Christians dispute. You could almost define “Christianity” as the affirmation of that one statement.

BERNIE: So, Christians believe that humanity killed God?

CHARLES: “Humanity” is an abstraction. As such, “humanity” can’t do anything, including killing God.

BERNIE: If humanity didn’t kill God? How was God’s death a sacrifice?

CHARLES: “Humanity” didn’t kill God; individual men did, specifically the Roman authorities under Pontius Pilate at the insistence of the Sanhedrin.

BERNIE: These men killed Jesus?


BERNIE: And you believe Jesus was God?


BERNIE: And Christians believe that Jesus is not only God, but also entirely human?


BERNIE: So the Romans killed the human Jesus not the Divine Jesus?

CHARLES: No. Jesus was “entirely human,” but He is also entirely God. Killing Jesus (because Jesus = God) is killing God.

BERNIE: But Divinity can’t be killed, so the human body of Jesus died on the Cross, not Jesus’ divinity…

CHARLES: It wasn’t merely the “human body” of Jesus that died on the Cross, but the person Jesus Christ who died. That person is a Divine person, hence God died on the Cross. 

There aren’t two Jesuses, one Divine and another human, but one Person, Jesus Christ - who is both fully human and fully Divine.

BERNIE: So Christians believe that men killed God?


BERNIE: Then creation was Creator-less for three days?

CHARLES: No, that doesn’t follow.

BERNIE: But you just said God was dead…

CHARLES: God the Son died on the Cross, but God the Father and God the Holy Spirit did not.

BERNIE: I thought you Christians were monotheists.

CHARLES: We are. God is supra-personal, He exists in three persons who are all one God. This isn’t a case of Christians not being able to do math, for we don’t claim that God is one person who is three persons or three gods who are one God. Rather, we recognize that God transcends our ordinary experience. In the created order, one being equals one person, but on the Divine level one being (God himself) is three persons. Whether or not you believe that, you must recognize that there’s no contradiction inherent in our position, it certainly is possible.

BERNIE: I don’t want to digress too deeply into the Trinity, that might be best left for another conversation. 

CHARLES: If you’d like to read more I highly recommend Frank Sheed’s classic work Theology and Sanity, which contains one of the simplest, clearest explanations of the Trinity that I know of. You can get if on Amazon (and support this blog at no additional cost) by purchasing it HERE .

BERNIE: I’ll check that out. But I think you have another problem that the Trinity can’t get you around.

CHARLES: And that is?

BERNIE: If Jesus is Divine (and thus eternal) how can his death be a sacrifice? An eternal being knows no sacrifice, that would be a contradiction. 

CHARLES: Jesus is eternal in His divine nature, but He is mortal in His human nature (though Resurrected His human nature is now immortal). He suffered and died through His human nature, but it was still God (in the Divine Person of the Son) who suffered and died. In fact, being the perfect man, Jesus would have suffered immeasurably more than you or I if we underwent the same torture.

BERNIE: Wait a minute. You just said “there aren’t two Jesuses, one Divine and another human, but one Person, Jesus Christ - who is both fully human and fully Divine” now you are dividing Jesus in two, when it suits your argument. 

CHARLES: This might require looking a little more at the Trinity…

BERNIE: Dodging the question? 

CHARLES: Not at all, just giving you fair warning. 

In God there are three distinct persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each Person is fully God (not just a part of God), each fully posses the Godhead. Each has the full Divine nature.

BERNIE: So the Father has the Divine nature, as does the Son, and the Holy Spirit? That’s what you are saying, they are each divine? So God has three faces He shows us…

CHARLES: No. The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, but the Father isn’t the Son or the Holy Spirit, etc. Each person is distinct, although each has the full Divine nature.

BERNIE: How can that be?

CHARLES: Do you have a complete human nature?




CHARLES: Am I you? 

BERNIE: No, but that gives us three gods, like we are two people.

CHARLES: In the finite created order you’d be right, but God transcends that. Would you agree that God is perfect?


CHARLES: In every way? He has every possible perfection?


CHARLES: And God is immaterial, He isn’t bound by time or space?

BERNIE: Yes, of course.

CHARLES: Then there can’t be three Gods, for there is nothing to separate one perfect immaterial God from another one. You and I are not one because, while we both have human nature, we occupy different space, are made of different matter and have different imperfections. None of this can distinguish one God from another, thus all three possessors of the Divine Nature must be one God

BERNIE: And you claim one of these persons became a man?

CHARLES: Exactly. At the Incarnation, the Second Person of the Trinity (God the Son) took on a human nature. 

BERNIE: So one of the members of the Trinity became human instead of being divine and was killed…

CHARLES: No, God the Son didn’t replace His divine nature with a human nature. Christianity isn’t a Brother’s Grimm fairy story where a man loses his human nature, takes on a frog nature, then later gets back his human nature. God the Son added a human nature without losing His Divine nature. If He completely abandoned His first nature to become a man, it wouldn’t be God who became man as God the Son would have ceased to exist entirely.

BERNIE: So you’re saying that God the Son, Jesus, has two natures? One human, another Divine?


BERNIE: Why would God want a human nature?

CHARLES: Through His Divine Nature Jesus can do all the things that are possible for God to do (create, control the weather, rise again, heal people, etc.) Through His human nature Jesus can do all the things that a man can do (suffer, die, get hungry, get tired, etc.) But it is one person, a Divine Person, who is doing all these things. Thus God, in the Person of God the Son, died on the Cross through His human nature.

BERNIE: God, in His Divine nature, is all powerful, right?

CHARLES: Of course.

BERNIE: Then why would taking on a human nature allow Him to do things He couldn’t do in his all powerful Divine nature?

CHARLES: Dying, being hungry, getting tired, etc are not “things to do” in the full sense. They are results of our imperfections, they are the result of things we can’t do - live forever, expend energy without consuming calories or stay awake permanently. God, in His Divine nature, is perfect and thus doesn’t wrestle with the consequences of imperfection as we, with our imperfect human natures, do.

BERNIE: Was it Jesus who died or just his human nature?

CHARLES: This brings us back to where we started. Natures are abstractions, they can’t do anything. Natures are what things are, not who they are. They provide the ability to do things, but can’t actually do anything themselves. 

BERNIE: I’m not sure I follow…

CHARLES: Think of unicorn nature.

BERNIE: But there are no such things as unicorns…

CHARLES: Yes, but even imaginary things have natures. What something is and whether something is are two different questions. 

Would this be a description of a unicorn: a woman whose lower half is a fish’s tail?

BERNIE: No, that’s a mermaid.

CHARLES: Exactly. I’ve described “mermaid-nature” even though the category “mermaids” is existentially empty. The fact that you can distinguish between non-existent things shows that even they can have natures. A nature merely answers the question, “what is it,” not “is it.”


CHARLES: Now can our mermaid swim underwater?

BERNIE: Yes, if she existed.

CHARLES: Right, but as there is no who in which mermaid nature actually subsists then there is no mermaid to actually swim. 

BERNIE: Because a nature can’t do anything, it is only the persons with that nature that do things.

CHARLES: Including dying.

BERNIE: Okay, but wasn’t the human nature of Jesus also fully Divine? Doesn’t that follow from your belief that Jesus was both Divine and human?

CHARLES: No, Jesus’ human nature isn’t Divine. That would be impossible (if Jesus’ human nature were Divine it wouldn’t be a human nature, it would be a Divine nature). A nature can’t be human and Divine, but a person can have both a Divine and a human nature.

BERNIE: Jesus has a human nature and a Divine nature; the first makes him a man, the second God. That’s what you are saying?


BERNIE: So when Jesus’ human nature was killed, the Divine nature was also killed, which brings us right back to our contradiction - an eternal nature dying.

CHARLES: Remember our principle, natures can’t do anything, only persons can. Natures don’t die, persons do. Jesus the Divine person died. This death was possible because Jesus has a human nature, and persons with a human nature can die. Persons can be killed, natures can't. When Jesus was killed, because Jesus = God, God was killed.

I know this can be a bit confusing, as the great Dante Alighieri once wrote,
madness it is to hope that human minds 
can ever understand the Infinite 
that comprehends Three Persons in One Being. (Purgatory, 3:34-46)

BERNIE: Basically, you’re saying “this is a mystery, just believe it?” Why should I believe what makes no sense?

CHARLES: I didn’t say it makes no sense, just that it can be confusing and that we can never fully understand God (in fact, St. Augustine used that as a proof of the truth of Christianity, if you can fully understand your god, it isn’t the real God, but a creation of your mind). 

BERNIE: What can we make sense of in this then? It seems all a muddle to me.

CHARLES: We can understand the basic distinctions which make this doctrine intelligible. I’ve gone over some of that ground before here on the blog (see: How Can God be Three and One? Can’t Christians do Math?). The secret here is to keep the distinction between nature (what something is) and person (who someone is) clear in your mind. Jesus is one person, one somebody, but is both God and man, two somethings. The one person (God the Son) died, which was possible because of one of the things He is (a man). 

BERNIE: This still makes no sense to me.

CHARLES: Maybe an analogy, albeit imperfect, might help?

BERNIE: Maybe.

CHARLES: Consider an author like William Shakespeare. Shakespeare is the creator of the Verona of Romeo and Juliet. As an author he can't directly interact with the characters he creates, however, could he take on a “fictional nature” by entering the plot as Shakespeare-the-character?

BERNIE: Yes, I suppose he could write a Shakespeare character.

CHARLES: And could that character do what the author couldn’t? He could, for example, leap between Mercurio and Tybalt during the duel, saving Romeo’s best friend, but dying on Tybalt’s blade? 

BERNIE: Yes, certainly.

CHARLES: Thus, Shakespeare could, by taking on “a second nature,” enter the world of his creation and thereby do what, in his "authorial nature", was impossible - be killed by his own character?

BERNIE: It would seem so.

CHARLES: Christianity merely posits an undeniable claim in addition to our analogy.

BERNIE: What is that?

CHARLES: That God is at least as powerful as Bill Shakespeare.

BERNIE: But Shakespeare isn't really hurt when "Shakespeare-the-character" dies. It's all pretend. Are you saying God just pretends to die, like Shakespeare the author pretends to be killed by Tybalt?

CHARLES: I said the analogy was imperfect. Shakespeare can only pretend to enter his play; the real Shakespeare sits unharmed at his desk regardless of what happens to Shakespeare-the-character. God, however, can really enter into a real world and thus really suffer and really die. All of this is made possible by His assumption of a real human nature. 

BERNIE: Shakespeare’s world is a fiction, but God’s Creation is real.


BERNIE: So Jesus didn’t sit unharmed in Heaven as His “human body” was killed like Shakespeare in our analogy? You’re saying God really died? It wasn’t just the body that Jesus took on that was killed? Men actually killed God? Why would God allow that to happen? It makes no sense.

CHARLES: God became a character in his own drama to set the plot straight - the plot we had entirely messed up. It would be as if you saw your children playing a game wrong and decided to get down on the floor and make sure they had a happy ending. God cares that much for us. He loves us that much. So much in fact that St. Paul can say,
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil 2:5-8)
And St. John can sum up Christian theology by writing, “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8).

BERNIE: I’ll have to check out that book you recommended. What was the title again?

CHARLES: Theology and Sanity by Frank Sheed. You might also grab a copy of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis while your at it. 


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