On April 8th 1966, Time magazine shocked the American public with their Easter issue, provocatively titled, “Is God Dead?” The issue explored a recent movement in theology known as “The Death of God.” The movement found its roots in both modern thought and the modern experience, particularly the atrocities of two World Wars. In his classic work, Night, Elie Wiesel gives a harrowing, firsthand account of the Nazi death camps. In one particularly painful scene, an emaciated boy is hung from the gallows. But he is too light. To the horror of all who are forced to watch, he slowly suffocates, writhing in the merciless pangs of death. Someone cries out in disgust, “Where is God?” A voice from within young Elie answers: He is there, hanging from the gallows.
Philosophically, the movement takes its lead from the writings of Fredrich Nietzsche. Most memorable perhaps is his mad man parable in The Gay Science, in which a strange prophet announces to the modern village:
God is dead. … And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent?
Nietzsche may have made it famous, but he didn’t coin, “God is dead.” He borrowed it from a line of thinkers before him, tracing a hundred years back to the intellectual behemoth, Georg Wilhelm Fredrich Hegel. Hegel wrote of God’s death as a pervasive sense of dread, an experience of the loss of God in the world; in his words, as “the abyss of nothingness … the feeling on which rests modern religion, the feeling that God Himself is dead, (the feeling which was uttered by Pascal …, ‘Nature is such that it marks everywhere, both in and outside of man, a lost God’)…”
You ever feel like God is lost? In the wilderness of the world, fallen silent, unseen – vanished from the horizon. As cultural observers of the past two centuries have noted, this is the feel of our post-enlightenment world. But the evocative phrase wasn’t coined by Hegel either. “God is dead” appears in a hymn written by a 17th century Lutheran poet named Johann von Rist, singing the mystery of Christ’s crucifixion:
O sorrow dread!
Our God is dead,
He paid our great redemption.
Jesus’ death upon the cross
Gained for us salvation.
In Swinburne’s pagan lament, Hymn to Proserpine, he cites Epictetus’ line: “You are a little soul, carrying around a corpse.” In becoming man, the Infinite took on a little body and a little soul, finite breath in our fragile cavity (John 1:1-4, 14). In his humanity, the inextinguishable Light of men was overshadowed by death (1:5). The Eternal suffered immensely one Friday afternoon. He who fills all things bowed his wounded head. Nailed to a cross, his erratic heartbeat slowed to a faint pulse, and then stopped. At the ninth hour, his chest raised in one final, excruciating moment, and the Inexhaustible exhaled his last. In Joseph’s tomb, the infinite spirit no longer carried but rested in a corpse. On that Good Friday and Holy Saturday, God was dead.
Of course the Almighty cannot die! Omnipotence will not be quelled. What powers in heaven, on earth, or under the earth could threaten for a moment, “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light”? Divine impassibility has been the confession of the church catholic through the centuries. But for modern man an impassible God is simply insufferable. How can such a detached deity be of any relevance “after Auschwitz”?
And yet an absolute transcendence is the only hope for those of us fastened to the immanent frame – including the man fastened to Golgotha’s gibbet.
I attended a funeral recently, and had the holy occasion to see the body in the casket. It was, as all bodies prepared for viewings are, unnaturally hued – powdered flesh tones with a faint, blueish tint and waxy sheen. His face, vibrantly imaging the living God just days before, now set by loving hands to an artificial calm, a simulated countenance of peace. A question leaped in my chest: how can Christ redeem this painted man?
The great 4th century theologian, Gregory of Nazianzus once wrote of Christ’s incarnation: whatever is not assumed is not healed. The Son of God assumed not only the frail, wriggling fingers and toes of a newborn, but the cold, stiff limbs of a cadaver. As Irenaeus earlier argued against his gnostic opponents, Christ recapitulates the entire course of human existence, from the cradle to the grave.
Nearly a century after Gregory, Leo the Great wrote of this mystery: “the Lord of the universe took upon him a servant’s form shrouding the immensity of his majesty, impassible God did not disdain to be passible man, nor the immortal to be subject to the laws of death.” In Christ, God is born. In Christ, God dies. The Inviolable became victim; the Incorruptible suffered decay.
In assuming our death, he suffers all of its ignominious and revolting dimensions. In the hiddenness of the grave, the carcass of Christ stiffened in rigor mortis, his blood congealed black, his limbs gray and inert, his wounds open and festering. He descended into the dead, we confess in the received creed, speaking of “not only the pains of death but also his utter disgrace – the seeming victory of those pains – while he was held down in the grave until the third day, lying as it were, under the oppression of death.”
But even dead, God does incalculably more than all man’s strivings and collective works. In the silent grave, he is infinitely more potent, more alive, than we’ve ever been. God’s slumber is more awake than man’s most vivid moments, his highest consciousness. It is our corpse that meek soul carried. And having assumed our death, he heals our mortality.
He didn’t sleep in death, then. He knew its terrors, unmitigated by blessed oblivion. He fully fathomed its dreaded depths. He was awake in our sleep.
Though he dies, yet he lives; and in his dying, all will be made alive.
We don’t see it now, this secret opus Dei. We just see death. Silence. The gaping void of the pit. The abyss of nothingness. But there is God – on the gallows, hanging from a tree, nailed to a cross, laid to rest in Joseph’s tomb. Whatever isn’t assumed isn’t healed; and the worst has been assumed. There in the world’s abyss is our Lord, trampling down death by death! He who filled the ravenous grave has swallowed it up once and for all, and joined his immortal nature to ours.
Thou hast conquered, indeed, O pale Galilean; the grey world buds green from thy breathless tomb.