Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Jesus' Death under Trinitarianism

One of our fine readers (we think you are all outstanding) wrote in to me and asked about how Jesus' death works within Trinitarianism. I found that question so fascinating, and so important to be answered, that I thought I'd drop everything and answer it.

[Note: if you are currently in or have come from a Church of God group, you might want to first read our article "A Primer on the Trinity Doctrine" so that you can be certain that you understand the basics of what we're talking about here. Armstrongism has a bad habit of not teaching the Trinity Doctrine accurately. That article will help to clear up some basics.]

So today I would like to discuss how Jesus' death works under Trinitarianism. We will look at some similarities that you might not have known were there, and at least one distinction. Hopefully this won't be too in-depth. I want this to be easily understandable.
And, as always when I speak on Trinitarianism, I am not demanding that anyone adopt Trinitarianism. I simply feel that the majority of Armstrongists are terribly misinformed about the doctrine and most of the issues over the Trinity really come from misunderstanding the doctrine. People really should be educated on it. Perhaps then most of these issues would be cleared up and we could have true dialogue.

Jesus Has Two Natures

From the earliest years of the church it was understood that Jesus is one being that has two distinct natures - God and man. He is truly God and He is truly man.

(ACT. 2: 30) Therefore, being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that of the fruit of his body, according to the flesh, He would raise up the Christ to sit on his throne
See that there? “According to the flesh”. Jesus was the son of David, according to the flesh. That is to say that the physical body which God the Son took onto Himself came from the descent of David. Romans 1: 3 confirms this. Romans 9: 5 also confirms that Christ, according to the flesh, that is His human nature, was descended from the patriarchs of old. These verses (and others) speak of his human nature in contrast to His Spirit nature. One God; two distinct natures.
Having two natures, or more, at one time is not unheard of.
We have two natures when we are married. We are truly ourselves but truly one flesh with our spouse. This is akin to how we also have two natures when we accept Jesus. We are truly a person in our own right, but truly one with Christ. truly in the old body that passes away, but truly spiritual with the spiritual body that is renewed daily.
Herbert Armstrong never denied that Jesus had two natures. 
"And, being DIVINE as well as human - being God as well as man, He in the person of Christ would be able to avoid sinning."
-Herbert Armstrong, "The Incredible Human Potential", 1978, p.67
Both Trinitarians and Armstrongists completely agree that Jesus did indeed have two natures.
Only The Flesh Needed To Die
God the Son took upon Himself a human nature (which was given the name Jesus). While in the flesh Jesus received and accepted worship. Thus it is not a stretch to say that, Spirit or not, even though He was in the flesh He was still to be respected and worshipped as God – because He was God… in the flesh.
In order to be a propitiation for our sins and to pay our ransom, this fleshly nature had to be more valuable than all creation. Only if the flesh was God in the flesh could this be true. The Creator of all flesh adopted flesh and was more valuable than all that He had created, even though the flesh itself was no different than any other human’s flesh. The difference is God.
This one human nature was completely satisfactory for the salvation of mankind. And that is apart from the Spirit nature of God.
This human nature was adopted specifically for the purpose of sharing in our experiences, suffering, dying, and being resurrected. The God nature, being fully Spirit, could not suffer through beatings nor be crucified. That is why a human nature had to be adopted. By man came sin, so by man had to come salvation. As God in the Spirit only, this could not be done. The Spirit cannot die. God had to adopt flesh to solve this problem. So the flesh of God was crucified for us. 

This one man Jesus was both truly man and truly God, hence why they call Mary the "mother of God" in Catholicism or "bearer of God" (Theotokos) in the Orthodox Church. She only bore the human nature in her womb, but it was the human nature of God the Son. God the Son was present in her womb and did exit that womb in the process of "birth". So she did bear God. 

As a deep thought, ponder this -- 
God the Son is one but has two distinct natures. They are distinct - the Spirit cannot be beaten and crucified while His flesh can and did - yet there is no way to completely separate the two natures because there is one Son of God. What affected His flesh affected Him at His core. What I mean to say is, even though the Spirit nature was not beaten and crucified, God the Son still fully experienced the passion. All the way down to the core of His being. We can definitively say that the Son of God suffered and died. It isn't as if He could withdraw His mind into His Spirit nature and abandon His human nature as the human nature experienced the passion. He is truly Spirit and He is truly man. He felt every moment of it. 

It was sufficient for our salvation that He put on the nature of a man, taking the human nature upon Himself (forever more), physically suffered through it, and through it experienced death and resurrection from the dead. He did not have to completely cease to exist as both Spirit and flesh for His death to be our salvation. Only the human nature had to be crucified and it was sufficient.
If you only take one thing away from everything I just said, take this: it was not necessary that God in the Spirit should physically suffer and physically die; only the flesh. The suffering of beatings, crucifixion, and resurrection of the flesh was sufficient. Both Trinitarianism and Armstrongism are in agreement on this point.

The Crux of the Issue

Herbert Armstrong said that God the Son ceased to be God in Spirit entirely and became entirely man. So, in Armstrongism, it is not that God the Son set aside His Godly authority and prerogatives, no. In Armstrongism, God the Son entirely ceased to be God in a Spirit nature, and became wholly man in nature. [This is called Ebionism by theologists. The Ebionites were Gnostics.]

The reason I reiterate this is to point out that Armstrongism and Trinitarianism agree completely that the suffering, death, and resurrection of the fleshly nature was all that was needed for our salvation. Neither system requires suffering, death, and resurrection of Spirit nature.

If anything, since Armstrong taught that Jesus was wholly man and the Spirit nature wasn't even there at the time, then this point is arguably even more true in Armstrongism than Trinitarianism.

And the reason that is so important to make clear is because an Armstrongist will take issue with Trinitarianism, pointing out that if Jesus was truly God and truly man then the God nature never suffered scourging nor died nor was resurrected, then assert this somehow disqualifies our salvation. When in reality this same thing is true of both systems. Neither one ever demanded that the Spirit nature of God the Son had to suffer, die, and be resurrected. Both only ever required that the flesh alone had to suffer, die, and be resurrected.
So what, then, is the real complaint?? In all actuality there is none. Does the fact that God the Son’s Spirit nature never was scourged and crucified in either system then disqualify His sacrifice for our salvation in just the Trinitarian system? How can it? Is that not demanding something of someone else that one doesn’t demand of their own self?

I’m certain someone would continue to plead this further, regardless of what we’ve just seen, by saying, “But if the Spirit didn’t die along with the flesh, then Jesus didn’t actually die.” This is really nothing other than a different way to state the same issue. 

The Spirit (which cannot die) never died under either scenario, so again what is the real complaint? There is none. 

Here is the crux of the issue: how we define death.

There is much more of a difference here between the Adventist doctrine of Soul-Sleep versus the mainstream doctrine of life after death than anything else. To put it plainly, the real issue here is only in two ways of understanding what death is. That the Son of God experienced death even while His Spirit nature continued on is incredibly detrimental to the doctrine of Soul-Sleep.
But that’s a discussion for another day. How to define death is outside the scope of this article.

Some Questions On Armstrong's View

Let’s pause briefly and ask about Jesus only having one nature at a time. The teaching of Herbert Armstrong on this topic leaves questions.

What, then, of God the Son's Spirit nature? What did He do with it when He put it off? Where did it go? If He is infinite, unchangeable, eternal God, then how can He simply cease to be? I’d say it’s a pretty massive change to the very fabric of reality to have infinite, unchanging, eternal God suddenly ceasing to be infinite, unchanging, or eternal. 
Was His substance absorbed by God the Father and His mind implanted into the embryo in Mary's womb? (If you really, really want to get deep into this you will find that you are giving evidence that there really is a difference between the mind of God and the substance of God, precisely as Trinitarian doctrine attests.)

Now, we all know that Spirit cannot die. It has life in itself. What’s more – it IS life. In all my years I never heard it taught in Armstrongism that God the Son "died" as a Spirit being in order to become a man and die as a physical being. But! Doesn’t ceasing to be constitute death from an Armstrongist viewpoint? How can we explain that God the Son in Spirit ceased to be when He became man, but at the same time that Spirit nature did not die? How can we define death as ceasing to be, but exclude the Spirit from death when it ceased to be? 
So, if ceasing to be is the definition of death, then God the Son in Spirit did die? Twice?? He died before He was born? Now how do we explain that God in the Spirit cannot die when at the same time we in effect claim He died in the Spirit? Is this not a massive contradiction?

If we say His Spirit nature did not cease to be, then we have to ask where His Spirit nature went. If He kept it then He is truly God and truly man at once, and we agree with the Trinitarian view. Did the Father absorb it? Then we agree two God beings can share one substance, and we agree with the Trinitarian view. But if we say His Spirit nature did cease to be, then we teach that God in Spirit can and did die, and did so before He was ever born, and thus contradict the eternal and immortal nature of God.

Now what of His nature after the resurrection? If He put off His prior Spirit nature, where did His current Spirit nature come from? So, is He now fully God in Spirit once again and not man at all anymore? Why then the missing body from the tomb? Why then the holes in his hands and side post-resurrection? Were they just for show? Is the human nature gone forever? Why then His statement that He had flesh and bone (LUK 24: 39)? So He is both man and God at the same time after all? Does that not prove that He can have both a Spirit-God nature and a human nature at the same time? Therefore it’s not a great stretch of the imagination that He should be both God and man at the same time. 

The two sides only differ by some 33 years on when this happened.
In conclusion, both Trinitarians and Armstrongists agree that Jesus had two natures: Spirit and human. Both sides agree that Jesus can and now does have both natures at the same time.  Both sides agree that only the flesh nature had to suffer, die, and be resurrected for our salvation – not the Spirit nature.

What is the difference? Armstrongism, in contradiction to its own beliefs and for whatever reason (I suppose it is a difference regarding Soul-Sleep) insists that God the Son’s Spirit nature had to die in order for Trinitarianism to be true. Mind you, they don’t demand this of their own system, only others’.
If you wonder how Jesus’ death works under Trinitarianism, the short answer is “in much the same way as it does in Armstrongism.”

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; ) Acts 17:11


Lurker said...

Well how's that for service? Three days later and I get a blog response! Seriously, though, thank you!

So if I understand correctly, in short you are saying that Jesus' death/resurrection under Trinitarianism theory doesn't require a second being to resurrect Him because His spirit component didn't die; thus he was perfectly capable of resurrecting Himself in bodily form.

I guess that does make more sense than assuming Jesus' spirit component went into hiding somewhere while he was human and then rejoined Him later. Never thought of that problem before. I think Armstrongism does teach that He was fully human while on Earth, hence the teaching that He could have sinned. Funny, you'd think that belief would lead them to be even MORE in awe of Him, and yet it doesn't.

I appreciate your treading lightly in not insisting people accept the Trinity. My spouse and I personally don't have a huge problem with it, and suspect there is something mistaken about the nature of God as we were taught, which would explain the shallow connection and serious spiritual problems the COGs seem to have. But we have been shocked at the amount of anger and loathing there is out there in the Armstrongist churches toward this teaching as we've been exploring more mainstream Christianity. As I mentioned to you before, it seems kind of silly to draw a line in the sand and labeling people false Christians over insisting we understand how our ETERNAL CREATOR exists and manifests Himself.

Keep up the great work and thank you!

xHWA said...

"So if I understand correctly, in short you are saying that Jesus' death/resurrection under Trinitarianism theory doesn't require a second being to resurrect Him because His spirit component didn't die; thus he was perfectly capable of resurrecting Himself in bodily form."

Excellent question. I didn't even think to touch on that in the post.

That Jesus raised Himself is a distinct possibility.

After all, Jesus did say "No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father." (JON. 10: 18). Pretty clear that the Son had the authority to raise Himself up. But that's not all. Recall what He said in John 2: 19 "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." Jesus unambiguously says that He will raise it up.

So, it is a distinct and very Biblical possibility that He did raise Himself up.
But the truth appears to be that it was the entire Godhead including God the Son acting in unity.

Most of the instances in the New Testament just say that "God" raised Jesus up. This could be all the persons acting in unity, and I believe it is.

The Father was included.
When we get to Galatians 1: 1 it distinctly says "the Father who raised Him from the dead". We see this less clearly stated in other places like Ephesians 1: 20. So, the Father definitely played the leading part in it.

The Holy Spirit also is included.
(ROM. 8: 11) "But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you."

So, to answer the initial question, yes Jesus was perfectly capable and apparently did raise Himself, BUT it wasn't Jesus alone. It was the entire Godhead acting in unity. (Which is how they do most things.)

xHWA said...

I will edit the post to include this conversation. It's that important to me. I thank you for the poignant and timely questions.
God bless you in your studies and pursuit of Him.

Thanks for the kind words, too. And thank you 1000x for reading our humble blog! Please tell others about us.

Lurker said...

Oh, ok. Those scriptures do seem to indicate it was a unified effort. And now I am recalling scriptures that definitely do refer to the Father raising Jesus. But now I think I am more confused about the Trinity than when I started, because I thought I understood when I really didn't.

I am starting to think that my nondenominational pastor friend was absolutely correct describing it as a "mystery" and "man's best guess" at describing how God works. He compared humanity's attempts to truly understand God's nature and manifestation to the old adage about explaining rainbows to earthworms.

Oh well. At least grace affords me the freedom to not feel I have to understand everything about Christianity perfectly.

In other news, I saw a Facebook friend participating in a group study that turned out to be based on Ellen G. White's "Steps to Christ." The paragraph quoted practically could have come out of any COG publication. To state that the COGs didn't come from Adventism, as I did for years, is laughable!

xHWA said...

Oh yes. COGs definitely came out of Adventism. Both literally by descent which we've demonstrated here several times, as well as doctrinally.
Well, Herbert Armstrong borrowed from many sources, including the Mormons, but the bulk of what he preached was his own form of Adventism.

xHWA said...

Let us know what you still don't quite understand about the Trinity doctrine and perhaps we'll work it through together. :)

I do agree with that quote about "man's best attempt". No way do we have God well understood. I mean, after all, it is impossible for finite man to understand infinite God regardless of whether or not we accept a Trinity.

DC said...

I would like to comment that I don't think it is the most precise thing (or correct) to say only Jesus's human nature suffered. The Person, who has the two natures, suffered. Natures don't suffer; persons do. His two natures are inextricably united (the "hypostatic union.")

DC said...

To Lurker:

The Trinity is certainly a "mystery," but only in the sense that it is divine revelation, and the depths of it cannot be exhaustively explored. One radio host says it well when he says the doctrine of the Trinity is one we can apprehend, but not comprehend.

That is to say, Trinitarian dogma is not just "best guesses"; they are necessarily true. But we can't comprehend the fullness of their meanings. It will blow a circuit if you try to wrap your mind around preexistance, eternity, multiple persons in one being, multiple natures inextricably joined within one person, spirit assuming flesh -- even what spirit is. We can speak of these things with certainty, but imperfectly because of the limitations of human language.

Mystery is expected when speaking of the One who is life, who is existence, who is reality. We are blessed beyond imagination that this great God fathered us, loves us, and made us to spend eternity in complete joy with Him -- if only we choose Him in return and are faithful during our earthly life.

xHWA said...

Darren, Re the suffering of the Person not the nature..

I totally agree with you that the entire Person suffered! I have no problem with that at all.
It could be argued that since there is one God and the Son is a Person in that unity, then to a degree the entire Godhead suffered.

However, the suffering I was referring to when I said His human nature suffered was the physical suffering endured by the human body of Jesus, not a general "suffering" overall (for example say, a mental anguish). I do not believe that a spirit can suffer a physical beating at the hands of a Roman Lictor.

His two natures are united in the hypostatic union, I completely agree! But they are not to be conflated. They are united in one, yet distinct.

xHWA said...

Perhaps I can put it this way to clarify what I'm trying to say re the suffering:

If "Natures don't suffer; persons do", then do you believe that natures don't die; persons do?

If the answer is yes, then you would believe that the second God the Son died in total and there was no Trinity for a few days. I cannot agree with you on this, from a Trinitarian perspective.
If the answer is no, then you and I are really in agreement here and we just need to hammer out the semantics.

The second Person of the Trinity needed a physical body (physical nature) in order to suffer a physical beating and death. The physical beating and death was endured by the Person via this physical nature. The Spirit nature of the Person cannot be beaten nor die. Although the entire Person was suffering, and I don't in any way doubt the entire Person suffered, only the human nature was subjected to beatings and death because indeed only it could be beaten and killed.

Hope that clarifies what I'm trying to say.

DC said...


Since Jesus is "fully man" as well as "fully God," then, as a man, he has (1) a human body and (2) a human soul. Just like us.

When you and I suffer as persons, it is our entirety that suffers -- body and soul. It was the same for Jesus: "MY SOUL is OVERWHELMED with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me" (Mt. 26:38); "Now MY SOUL is TROUBLED, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!" (Jn 12:27-28).

It wasn't just Jesus's body that suffered "sorrow" and felt "troubled." He suffered just like we do. In His humanity, He suffered completely. He didn't fake His total suffering, as if He could have said, "I see that I am missing chunks of flesh from this body. My nerve endings indicate severe pain during this beating, but no big deal to me -- it's only my body." Not that His suffering was limited to bodily abuse. There was also betrayal, even agony in the Garden when He prayed for this cup to pass.

If we define death as the separation of body and soul, then yes, Jesus totally died -- in the same way we die. That is to say, in His human nature, His body and soul were separated. That is NOT to say He ceased to exist, just as our own deaths do not indicate our total annihilation. So the Trinity never ceased to exist. Jesus's divine nature can never suffer. He was never at risk of losing His existence. But even His human soul did not cease to be "alive," though it was separated from His body till the third day.

Conclusion: Since the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity assumed a human nature, then when Jesus suffered and died, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity suffered and died (again recalling that "died" does not mean "ceased to exist"). To say only a "part" of Him died or suffered is to separate the two natures, which cannot be done. Thus when Jesus spits on a blind man's eyes, for example, it's not just "human" spit; it is "divine" spit, too.

PS: I suppose it is okay to say a "nature" can suffer (even though I said "natures don't suffer; persons do"), but I meant to say that when Jesus suffered and died in His humanity (i.e., His human nature), that doesn't mean a "part" of Him died, because HE suffered. HE died. As a Person.

Part of what sparked my comment was the assertion in the post that Mary, while you say "technically she did bear God," only bore the human nature of Jesus. But to that I likewise say: Mothers don't give birth to natures; they give birth to persons. No one says to a mom, "What a beauty little nature you have there!" because nature is what a person has.

In the same way, "technically" the Second Divine Person of the Trinity suffered and died (properly understood), and I think it's important to underscore this. And here's why:

It was NOT enough for Jesus's human nature -- in and of and by itself, in isolation -- to suffer and die for us. It was only efficacious because, in the Person of Jesus, humanity and divinity were fused together. Only that kind of dual-natured Person could redeem us.

PPS: My, that was a long PS. Sorry. I hope some of that made sense. I can't see everything I've written in this comment box, and I'm at a public WiFi spot, so it's hard not to be wordy right now. I'm sure I belabored some points.

xHWA said...


I want to start off by thanking you for your input. This is a fabulous discussion. I don't mind the length of your comments at all.

I agree with everything you said, except for a detail in the part about Mary. We agree that the physical nature was necessary to suffer physically, yet the entire Being suffered.
I honestly don't know why it seems like we are disagreeing, because we aren't. We're saying the same things in slightly different ways.

Glad we are in such agreement!

We are in agreement on another thing as well...

Regarding Mary, you bring up a valid point and I have thought about it.
When I said "She only bore the human nature in her womb" I had in mind that only the human nature was formed there. I think now that even though I still believe only the human nature was formed there, this is not a good definition of "birth".

I can accept that Mary did give birth to the Divine Person, but I have to qualify it by saying that Divine Nature was not formed there in her womb (the person of a normal human like you or me would have been formed there, but He is pre-existent so in His case it cannot work that way).
I would disagree with someone who claims that the eternally pre-existent Second Person of the Trinity was formed in Mary's womb (making Him neither eternally pre-existent nor God).

[For the reader who is confused as to what Darren and I are discussing, it works like this--

Mary is the woman who God chose to give birth to the Messiah. Jesus was in her womb. If Jesus is the eternally pre-existent God in the flesh (and we adamantly profess that He is) then God was in her womb. Only his human body was formed in her womb, but God was present there. A body was formed for Him there and He did take on human nature there. If we define "birth" as being present in a womb and exiting that womb into the wide world, then God has met that definition. God did take on flesh while in her womb, He was completely present there, and He did enter the world by exiting her womb through "birth". Therefore Mary did give birth to God, and this is what the Greek word "Theotokos" means. Not that the entirety of God was formed in her womb, but that He was present in her womb and left her womb through the process of "birth".

Darren and I are just thinking through particulars of this entire process, which things are probably not interesting to some people, but we find fascinating.]

I hate to dampen things a bit but I have to disagree in the part where you said, "Mothers don't give birth to natures; they give birth to persons." Mothers give birth to both our body (nature) and our mind (person) - and that is the part that I've contemplated the most since your comment.

Thanks for chatting about this with me. I hope this discussion is helpful to the readers who want to learn more about these things.

xHWA said...

I wanted to make one more brief comment.

"If we define death as the separation of body and soul, then yes, Jesus totally died -- in the same way we die."

Any person currently in Armstrongism would totally disagree with this view of death. But I want to point this out so that any reader who is only familiar with the doctrine of "soul sleep" can get a look at one way how death can be viewed apart from the doctrine of soul sleep.

DC said...


I have good news to share. The dampening of disagreement you expressed at the end of your last comment -- turns out it's not a disagreement after all!

When I said mothers don't give birth to natures, but to persons, what I meant was: not natures exclusively -- to the exclusion of the whole person. I think we agree that what comes out of the mother is an entire person, body and soul.

We also share the understanding that Mary's womb is not where Jesus's divine nature was "formed" in the sense of originated. We understand the Second Person of the Trinity has always existed and always will, even though that Person was born of Mary, a created being.

Other people are afraid to apply to Mary the title "Mother of God," because they mistakenly believe it means Mary's existence preceded God's. But no Trinitarian, no Catholic, believes or means that. The title is a way of safeguarding the profound truth that the man Jesus was (and is) God. (Ask a regular "Joe Chrisian" if Jesus is God, and oftentimes you will hear, "No, he's the Son of God.")

Keep up your good work in helping COGers and ex-COGers leave the Armstrong mentality. I left WCG/CGI and eventually became Catholic. Of course I don't agree with this site's views when they contradict Catholic teaching, but I can appreciate the difficult journey and the necessity of thinking things out when exiting Armstrongism. Your sincere service meets a sincere need out there. I will never stop praying for friends and family still ensnared by the cult of Armstrongism.

xHWA said...

Thank you, Darren!

It is good that we as faithful believers in Jesus our Lord can focus on where we agree. And where we disagree, which is inevitable, it is a blessing from God that we can do so amicably and in a spirit of peace and understanding. Building people up is so much better than tearing people down.

You're right that I have not chosen Catholicism. I would call myself an Evangelical (not the fundy kind, though). But I set my mind early on to be ecumenical rather than judgmental. My primary goal is to end all the judgment and condemnation. I've wasted too much time that sort of nonsense already in my life.
I am happy to give you the benefit of the doubt that you are every bit the Christian (and sinner) that I am, and Jesus will one day straighten us all out.

We here at ABD appreciate your prayers so much!!! Please do continue to pray for us. And God bless you.