by Richard W. Coffen  |  8 April 2021  |

Holy Week and Easter are over. At church the choir’s, “The Old Rugged Cross” anthem has been shelved until next spring. The echoes of “He Lives” are already fading. Sermons about the road to Emmaus will be temporarily forgotten.

Perhaps, therefore, the time has arrived to address a sensitive theological matter that we often take for granted at this time of year.

The purpose of this essay is not to solve the ontology of Jesus of Nazareth. Christians have wrestled with this conundrum for two millennia. We often fall into the ditches on both sides of Jesus’ purported dual nature. The present objective is to point out an inconsistency of a popular perspective.

Ancient Beliefs

Devotees of various historical religions have believed that gods have descended to the underworld (the realm of the dead; compare Hebrew she’ol) and later reappeared. Ancient documents provide examples of these.

Baal—Canaanites referred to Baal’s demise and reappearance. Apparently, when farmers experienced droughts, which happened often, they assumed that Baal, the fertility deity, had been killed by a rival. Returning rain (the biblical “latter rain”) demonstrated that he had returned to life.

TammuzCertain Mesopotamians believed that Tammuz (Dumuzi) regularly died. His demise was temporary, and he reappeared. Worship of Tammuz is mentioned on cuneiform tablets dating back as far as 2600 B.C. “Tammuz was basically viewed as the power in the grain, dying when the grain was milled.”[1] Ezekiel 8:14 mentions women mourning for Tammuz, presumably because he had died. However, they wept during the wrong month![2]

Adonis—A popular Greek belief was that Adonis died during the winter and returned to life in the spring. Zeus, persuaded by one of Adonis’ lovers, kept Adonis in the realm of the dead for 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.”[3]

The Christian doctrine

Controversy exists as to whether myths of pagan gods paralleled what Judeo-Christians consider the death-and-resurrection phenomena described in both Testaments.[4] I relate these myths of deities who disappeared into the realm of the deceased and later reappeared, not to assert some purported similarity to Christian belief, as many have done.

On the contrary, I wish to highlight a significant difference.

Speculatively, though arguably with some legitimacy, certain post-biblical church leaders had been influenced by Greco-Roman ideology. They began speaking of the Judeo-Christian God [YHWH] as dying—on Calvary’s cross.

(During this present Easter season, you may have even heard a Seventh-day Adventist preacher proclaim that God died for us. Other Christians have asserted the same.)

Not all Christians make such a claim. Evangelical theologian R. C. Sproul, called into question the validity of the hymnic assertion: “How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”[5] He reasoned that “if the being of God ceased for one second, the universe would disappear. . . . Obviously, then, God could not have perished on the cross [emphasis mine].”[6]

The apostle Paul appears to have seen matters similarly. He, along with other New Testament authors, does not talk about a dying deity. 1 Timothy 6:16 insists that the Judeo-Christian God is immortal. Obviously, anyone immortal does not and cannot die![7]

Ellen White

Our prophet has made two insightful comments on this topic. First, she wrote in 1907 that at the incarnation the preincarnate Son of God was “laying aside His divinity” and “came to earth to labor and suffer with humanity.”[8] Second, she insisted that divinity did not die on the cross. “Humanity died; divinity did not die.”[9] “Deity did not die. Humanity died.”[10]

She may have penned such observations vis à vis the Arianism held by Joseph Bates, Uriah Smith, J. N. Andrews, J. H. Waggoner, and other pioneers—including her own husband. I can imagine overhearing James remonstrate: “Ellen, only God is immortal [1 Timothy 6:16]. This means that Jesus, not God, died on the cross.”

Such a perspective apparently moved Ellen White to a further conclusion about Jesus’ postulated dual ontological nature—which, by the way, is likewise unorthodox. She wrote of the boy Jesus that his divinity flashed through his humanity on occasions when he resisted the temptations made by his playmates. Likewise, she observed that the priests fled from his presence when he cleansed the Temple because they felt overwhelmed by his divinity flashing through his humanity.[11]

Wrong! Such bifurcated ontology contradicts the mainstream assertions of the creeds. The consensus avers Jesus’ ontology of oneness. The creeds affirm that Jesus had a unified being, albeit somehow consisting of divinity and humanity. Adventism agrees. Fundamental Belief Number Four states that Jesus is “forever truly God, . . . [although] He became also truly human.” This phraseology echoes the Chalcedonian Creed, which avers that Jesus was “truly God and truly Man.” Later, the Athanasian Creed asserted that Jesus was “perfect God; and perfect Man. . . . Yet he is not two, but one.”

Ellen White’s affirmations of Jesus’ proposed dual nature, with his divinity flashing through humanity, logically contradicts her kenotic theological assertion that he had laid aside his divinity at the Incarnation. Her ontological bifurcation makes Jesus a sideshow freak even more biologically outlandish than Julia Pastrana, the “Baboon Lady.”

With such confusion, little wonder that nowadays (despite the relatively recent resurgence of Arianism, which we thought had died among Adventists during the 1950s) we take for granted that God died for us. Such an assertion, however, exposes a muddled Christology. Affirming a dying God who is inherently immortal entails both logical and theological contradictions!

Didn’t the Son of God Die?

What can we aver by means of a rationally cogent theology? We can state that the son of God was crucified and died. Furthermore, we affirm that he returned from the grave! Doesn’t that contradict the declaration that God did not die? Not at all.

In Scripture, the expression “son[s] of God” refers to various beings:

  • a nonearthly vocal chorus at Creation (Job 38:7);
  • Adam, the biblical urhuman (Luke 3:38);
  • angels who impregnated women (Genesis 6:2, 4);
  • delegates to the divine assembly (Job 1:6; 2:1);
  • a specter perceived by idolatrous Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3:25);
  • Jesus’ followers (John 1:12);
  • Spirit-led Christians (Romans 8:14); and, of course,
  • Jesus of Nazareth (Luke 1:35; John 3:18).

As 21st-century Westerners, we need to understand that in Scripture “son[s] of God” was not an ontological statement about the divine nature of any being.

Christ Died on Calvary?

When we affirm that Christ (Greek “anointed one”) died on the cross, aren’t we implying the death of God as an atoning sacrifice?

First, Scripture nowhere advances the concept that the terminology “anointed one” is an ontological assertion of divinity. Rather, it served as a figure of speech concretized from a bodily ritual of olive oil dribbling onto one’s head and oozing down the beard (Psalm 133:2).

Second, Scripture calls various individuals “anointed ones.” (The Hebrew term is transliterated as messiah. It was originally a descriptive noun—an honorific—and not a proper name). For example, the Hebrew word denoted (1) Hebrew priests (Exodus 29:29), (2) Israelite kings (2 Samuel 19:21; 22:51), (3) Hebrew prophets (1 Chronicles 16:22), (4) pagan king Cyrus (Isaiah 45:1), (5) heathen ruler of Tyre (Ezekiel 28:14), and, of course, (6) Jesus Christ. For Christians, that descriptive for Jesus morphed from being an honorific into a proper name (Matthew 1:16; Luke 2:11).

Among the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as in the sometimes bizarre (to us) apocryphal and pseudepigraphal writings written between the Testaments, the person bearing the designation messiah was not regarded as ontologically divine. The authors of that literature spoke of a future (1) political messiah as well as a (2) priestly messiah. Neither of these anointed leaders was deemed divine. Such would have been anathema for hard-core monotheists!

Other Messiahs

During the first century, an epidemic of messiahs occurred. (Some of these specifically laid claim to the appellation; others behaved in ways matching anticipated “messianic” behavior). Today, we regard these self-appointed leaders as rabble rousers. At the time, they attracted a cadre of true believers. Some may have had more disciples than did Jesus of Nazareth!

Notice the following list of those historical “messiahs” that we know about:

  • Theudas, referenced in Acts 5:36, had some 400 devotees;
  • “The Egyptian,” mentioned in Acts 7:24, 28, had as many as 30,000 followers;
  • Judas the Galilean, led the Zealots, one of whom joined Jesus’ group of disciples (Matthew 10:4; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; and Acts 1:13);
  • another Galilean, Judah, is mentioned in Acts 5:37;
  • Judas, son of Ezekias, led a band of desperados from Sepphoris, neighboring city to Nazareth;
  • muscular, good-looking Simon, slave of King Herod, triggered a revolt;
  • Athronges, a shepherd, proclaimed himself as king;
  • Menahem ben Judah was a messianic claimant in the 2nd temple period;
  • John of Gischala fired up some Jewish revolutionaries during the first Jewish-Roman War, which ended badly for the Jews in A.D. 70;
  • Simon son of Giora hid in the hills, from whence he proclaimed freedom for all slaves and bonuses for those who were free;
  • in A.D. 48-52, Eleazar ben Dinai and his coconspirator Alexander took revenge on Samaritans in the town of Gema; these Samaritans had killed many Jews at a festival in Jerusalem; and
  • there may have been others prior to the well-known messianic claims of Simon ben Kosiba (bar Kochba), (A.D. 132 to135), whom Rabbi Akiba supported as messiah.[12]

A unique Messiah?

Despite our usual Christian assumptions about the distinctiveness of Jesus of Nazareth, clearly, our Christ/Messiah was one among various revolutionaries, many (if not most) of whom were his contemporaries. Most met violent deaths—as did our Jesus. Aside from Jesus of Nazareth, these messianic figures, as far as we know, did not claim ontological divinity. They also willingly lost their lives for their causes as did Jesus of Nazareth.[13] Additionally, even the name “Jesus” was not unique to our first-century Lord. Archaeologists have found the name Jesus on the inscriptions of 71 contemporaries of Jesus of Nazareth.[14]

So if your God’s name is YHWH and not Baal, Tammuz, or Adonis, then your God did not die around A.D. 30 on a cross in the vicinity of Jerusalem. That the man known as Jesus of Nazareth did die is what I affirm in this essay.

And, praise God, he also came forth from death, so that we can have hope of eternal life, too.

  1. 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).
  2. Moshe Greenberg, The Anchor Bible, vol. 22, Ezekiel 1-20, p. 171.
  3. Https://www.britannica.com/topic/Adonis-Greek-mythology.
  4. For instance, 1 Kings 17:17ff and 2 Kings 13:20, 21; Luke 7:11ff and John 11:1ff.
  5. “And Can It Be?” by Charles Wesley.
  6. Cited https://www.crosswalk.com/blogs/christian-trends/can-god-die-and-did-he-truly-die-on-the-cross.html.
  7. 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.)
  8. Review and Herald, November 21, 1907.
  9. Selected Messages, book 1, 301.
  10. SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 5, p. 1113.
  11. Desire of Ages, p. 162; Youth’s Instructor, August 22, 1895, and September 8, 1898.
  12. 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.
  13. 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).
  14. Yeshua: The History And Evolution Of Jesus’ Real Name (allthatsinteresting.com)

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Richard W. Coffen is a retired vice president of editorial services at Review and Herald Publishing Association. He writes from Green Valley, Arizona.

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