Dying Deities, Part 1: Did God Die for Our Sins?
by Richard W. Coffen | 9 August 2019 |
Devotees of various historic religions have supposed that certain gods have descended to the underworld (the realm of the dead; compare the Hebrew she’ol) but then later reappeared.
Historical documents support such myths, although some controversy exists as to whether such fabled ancient experiences really paralleled what Judeo-Christians would consider death and resurrection as described in both Testaments.
Baal of Canaan—Ancient Canaanites referenced Baal’s demise and reappearance. He was responsible for both faunal and floral fecundity. Apparently, when Canaanite farmers experienced droughts, which happened all too often, they assumed that Baal had died—killed by a rival. Returning rains (biblical “latter rain”) demonstrated that he had sprung back to life.
Tammuz of Mesopotamia—Certain ancient Mesopotamians believed that Tammuz (a.k.a. Dumuzi), a pastoral and agricultural deity, died, but his demise was temporary. He reappeared. His worship is mentioned in cuneiform tablets dating back to 2600 and 2334 B.C. “Tammuz was basically viewed as the power in the grain, dying when the grain was milled.” Ezekiel 8:14 mentions women who wept for Tammuz.
Adonis of Greece—A popular idea maintained by Greek women had it that Adonis, yet another fertility deity, regularly died during the winter but returned to life in the spring. Thus, withering vegetation could make a comeback. Worshipers believed that Zeus, persuaded by one of Adonis’ lovers, would keep Adonis in the realm of the dead for only half a year. “The central idea of the myth is that the death and resurrection of Adonis . . . represent the decay of nature every winter and its revival in spring.”
The Christian Doctrine
These myths I here relate not to divulge some purported similarity to Christian belief, as so many authors do, but to the contrary—as will soon be seen—I wish to highlight a significant difference.
Pagan Influences—Speculatively, though perhaps with some legitimacy, post-biblical church leaders who had been influenced by Greco-Roman ideology, in addition to other pagan ideas, began to speak of the Judeo-Christian God [YHWH] as dying—on Calvary’s cross. You may even have heard certain Seventh-day Adventist preachers proclaim that God died for us. They aren’t, of course, unique in this regard. Other Christians have asserted the same.
Christian Theological Dissent—Not all Christians, however, make such a claim. Respected evangelical theologian, the late R. C. Sproul, called into question the theological validity of the hymnic assertion: “How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”
Sproul reasoned that “if the being of God ceased for one second, the universe would disappear. It would pass out of existence, because nothing can exist apart from the sustaining power of God. If God dies, everything dies with Him. Obviously, then, God could not have perished on the cross [emphasis mine].”
The apostle Paul appears to have seen matters similarly. He avoided talking about a dying deity. He insisted in 1 Timothy 6:16 that the Judeo-Christian deity is immortal. Need I stress the obvious that anyone immortal cannot die?
Ellen G. White’s Input—Affirming that God didn’t die shouldn’t have us decrying an imaginary heresy that refutes God’s death on the cross. Our prophet insisted that divinity did not die on the cross. She wrote of the crucifixion that “Humanity died; divinity did not die.” “Deity did not die. Humanity died.”
Unlike superstitious forebears of millennia past who believed that their deities died and later reappeared alive, we who take Paul and White seriously refrain from affirming that our Judeo-Christian immortal God (YHWH) died on Calvary’s cross. Affirming a dying God who is inherently immortal entails a logical contradiction!
Didn’t the Son of God Die on Calvary?
What, then, can we aver by means of a rationally cogent theology that doesn’t contradict itself? We can state with accuracy that Jesus, son of God, was crucified and died. Furthermore, we believe that he returned from the grave—alive! Shouldn’t we infer from such an affirmation about Jesus, son of God, that deity did, indeed, die?
In Scripture, the expression “son[s] of God” refers to various categories of beings: (1) a nonearthly vocal chorus singing at Creation (Job 38:7); (2) Adam the biblical urhuman (Luke 3:38); (3) angels or, say some, godly humans who impregnated women (Genesis 6:2, 4); (4) attendees at the divine council (Job 1:6; 2:1); (5) a specter perceived (exclusively?) by an idolatrous king (Daniel 3:25); (6) those who have accepted Jesus (John 1:12); (7) Spirit-led believers (Romans 8:14); and, of course, (8) Jesus of Nazareth (Luke 1:35; John 3:18).
When serving as an exclamation of Jesus, “son of God” was enunciated by (1) Satan (Matthew 4:3), (2) demons (Mark 3:11), (3) Nathanael, a prospective disciple (John 1:49), (4) frightened, superstitious fishermen (Matthew 14:33), (5) a distraught sister upset that Jesus had let her brother die (John 11:27), (6) satanic-inspired mockers (Matthew 27:40; John 19:7), (7) a pagan centurion (Mark 15:39), and (8) the first and last Gospel writers (Mark 1:1; John 20:31). Oh, Jesus called himself “son of God” (Luke 22:70, 71; John 5:25; 9:35; 10:36; 11:4; 19:7).
As 21st-century Westerners, we need to understand that in the Bible “son of God” most often denoted either godly or creepy individuals. It was not necessarily an ontological statement about any dual nature that Jesus might have had.
Didn’t Christ Die on Calvary?
When we affirm that Christ died on the cross, aren’t we implying the death of God as an atoning sacrifice?
First, we must recognize that the word Christ is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew term (māshȋach) transliterated into English as Messiah. Both terms mean “anointed one.” The assumption is that the anointing conferred “the sense of special selection and empowerment” resulting from divine action. Christ = Messiah = Anointed One = Appointed One.
Second, Scripture nowhere advances the concept that the terminology “anointed one” is an ontological assertion of inherent divinity. The term implied nothing about the innermost nature (natural—humanity or supernatural—divinity) of the person. Rather, it served as a figure of speech concretized from a corporeal ritual of olive oil dribbling onto one’s head and oozing down the beard (Psalm 133:2).
Third, Scripture pronounces various individuals as anointed ones—messiahs (originally a descriptive noun and not a proper name): (1) Hebrew priests (for example, Exodus 29:29), (2) Israelite kings (for instance, 2 Samuel 19:21; 22:51), (3) Hebrew prophets (for example, 1 Chronicles 16:22), (4) the pagan king Cyrus (Isaiah 45:1), (5) a heathen ruler of Tyre (Ezekiel 28:14), and, of course, (6) Jesus Christ, which descriptive morphed from being a label to a proper name (Matthew 1:16; Luke 2:11). Today we might say that such a person has been authorized or dispatched by an important authority figure, particularly God himself.
Among the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as in the sometimes (to us) bizarre apocryphal and pseudepigraphal writings composed between the Testaments, the person bearing the designation messiah was not regarded as ontologically divine. The authors of this literature spoke of a coming political messiah and a future priestly messiah. However, neither of these anointed leaders was considered deity. Such a belief would have been anathema for hard-core monotheists!
Jesus Not Alone a Messianic Figure—During the first century, various radicals were regarded as messiahs. (Some specifically laid claim to the appellation; others simply fit a certain pattern of “messianic” behavior). Today, we regard these self-appointed leaders as rabble rousers. However, at that time, they attracted a following of true believers.
Here’s a list of those we know about: (1) Theudas, referenced in Acts 5:36, had about 400 devotees; (2) “The Egyptian,” mentioned in Acts 7:24, 28, had 30,000 followers; (3) Menahem ben Judah the Galilean, founded the Zealots; (4) another Galilean, his name Judah, is mentioned in Acts 5:37; (5) Judas, son of Ezekias, was leader of a band of desperados from Sepphoris, neighboring city to Nazareth; (6) large, strong, good-looking Simon, slave of King Herod, triggered a revolt; (7) Athronges, a shepherd, proclaimed himself to be king; (8) another Menahem, about whom we know practically nothing, attracted followers; (9) John of Gischala fired up some Jewish revolutionaries during the first Jewish-Roman War, which ended badly for the Jews in A.D. 70; (10) Simon son of Giora hid in the hills, from whence he proclaimed freedom for all slaves and bonuses for those who were free; (11) in A.D. 48-52, Eleazar ben Dinai and coconspirator Alexander took revenge on Samaritans in the town of Gema, these Samaritans had killed many Jews at a festival in Jerusalem; and (12) there may have been more prior to the well-known messianic claims of Simon ben Kosiba (bar Kochba), whose revolt (A.D. 132 to 135) Rabbi Akiba supported.
Uniqueness Where?—Despite our usual Christian assumptions about the distinctiveness of Jesus of Nazareth, clearly “our” Christ/Messiah was one among an active group of revolutionaries, most of whom were his contemporaries. All met violent deaths—as did our Jesus. Aside from Jesus of Nazareth, these messianic figures, as far as we know, felt no compunction to claim divinity. They also willingly lost their lives for their causes as did Jesus.
“But,” you might inject, “God’s death on Calvary was a miracle!” Really? By this line of reasoning, when in the world to come we have immortality, we will still be subject to death and can and, possibly, will die. Is that what you believe? Furthermore, miracles may boggle the mind, but they don’t eviscerate the inherent meaning of a given word such as immortal. Boggle the mind? Sure. But they don’t vitiate the legitimacy of deductive logic.
So, if your God’s name is YHWH and not Baal, Tammuz, or Adonis, then he did not die c. A.D. 30 on a cross in the vicinity of Jerusalem. That the man known as Jesus of Nazareth did die was affirmed earlier. In a future piece, I hope to explain the significance of Jesus’ death to 1st-century believers, as well as why it now remains significant for 21st-century Christians.
- For instance, 1 Kings 17:17ff and 2 Kings 13:20, 21; Luke 7:11ff and John 11:1ff. ↑
- Https://www.britannica.com/topic/Tammuz-Mesopotamian-god). He became identified with the fluctuation of vegetation and so was apparently considered to be “a dying and resurrecting deity” (http://mesopotamia.enacademic.com/124/DUMUZI). ↑
- Https://www.britannica.com/topic/Adonis-Greek-mythology. ↑
- “And Can It Be?” by Charles Wesley. ↑
- Cited https://www.crosswalk.com/blogs/christian-trends/can-god-die-and-did-he-truly-die-on-the-cross.html. ↑
- According to the Gospel of John, Christians presently have (John used the present tense) eternal life. Nonetheless, we who now have everlasting life can and do die. As careful students of the Word, we must differentiate between having eternal life now and obtaining immortality in the future. (See John 3:36; 4:14; 5:24; 6:40, 46; 1 Corinthians 15:53, 54.) ↑
- Selected Messages, book 1, 301. ↑
- SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 5, p. 1113. ↑
- Members of The Jesus Seminar did not regard such words as having been authentically spoken by Jesus. Romans 1:4 asserts that at the Resurrection Jesus was denoted or appointed to be “[a] son of God in power.” It is unclear that the terminology about Jesus being denominated a powerful son of God is an ontological asseveration that he had become divinity. ↑
- Willem A. VanGemeren, New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, vol. 2, p. 1126. ↑
- Http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12416-pseudo-messiahs; https://www.shema.com/counterfeits-a-study-of-israels-false-messiahs-346; https://www.douglasjacoby.com/wp-content/uploads/2005/03/Mess.Movements.pdf. ↑
- By the way, there were at least 15 men by the name Jesus who lived about the same time as did Jesus of Nazareth. That name was not particularly special. (See https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/the-name-of-jesus). ↑
- The Hebrew word translated “miracle” is môpēt = a wonder and portent—in short, an extraordinary event; the Greek words rendered “miracle” are dúnamis = an act of power and sēmeȋon = a sign of power—an act that leaves one in awe. Both words surely imply that the referenced act leaves someone with a dropped jaw. ↑
Richard W. Coffen is a retired vice president of editorial services at Review and Herald Publishing Association, and writes from Green Valley, Arizona.