The Feast of the Death of God

Christ died and then rose on “the third day” — counting the day of death itself as day 1, and the day of resurrection as day 3. Since he dies in the afternoon on Friday and rises before the women come to tend to his body very early in the morning on Sunday, Christ is only dead for maybe a day and a half, but he definitely lies dead in the tomb for one full twenty-four-hour day: Holy Saturday, today.

Liturgically speaking, God is dead today. That is not a heretical provocation, but a fully orthodox proclamation. Before Nietzsche declared that God is dead, Luther did so. According to orthodox Christology, the human and the divine are fully united in Christ, though without confusion. Christ does human things and Christ does divine things, but Christ does them all. So it is equally orthodox to say that Jesus of Nazareth created the heavens and the earth as it is to say that God had a poopy diaper. That’s the mystery of the incarnation — everything Christ does and suffers, God does and suffers. On Good Friday, God dies. On Holy Saturday, he lies dead in the tomb for a full twenty-four-hour day so that there can be no confusion about the fact that he is really dead. He didn’t survive the crucifixion and stumble out of the tomb. He died. He really died.

It’s puzzling, in a way, that Christianity does not have a carnivalesque festival on this one day when God is dead. That moment is instead displaced to Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the day before the Lenten period of reflection and asceticism that leads up to Easter. Of course, the Christian God is not supposed to be one you want to get away from. Unlike the mean “Old Testament God,” we continually hear, the Christian God is loving and forgiving. He’s not a stickler for rules. He just wants us to be our best selves. In fact, he loves us so much that he gave his Son for our salvation! Amazing. But who is he saving us from?

I did my dissertation on that question. Broadly speaking, the early Church thought that the death of Christ was saving us from the devil. By obeying the advice of the devil (cleverly disguised as a talking snake) rather than the command of God, our earliest ancestors had effectively chosen the devil as their ruler — consigning all subsequent generations to a similar servitude. By becoming incarnate in Christ, God tricks the devil into overreaching by claiming dominion over a human being who is also — surprise! — God. This breaks the demonic social contract and allows humanity to return to God’s kingdom. Over time, this narrative — rich in political possibilities — was displaced by the more familiar narrative that Christ’s death served as something like a vicarious punishment for our sins.

So in one sense, we can say that the tradition moves from saying that Christ is saving us from the devil to saying that Christ is saving us from ourselves. That stance, too, opens interesting theological possibilities. Yet there is a sleight-of-hand going on. It is not a fact of nature that our most trivial acts of disobedience — such as eating a particular piece of fruit — demand punishment and purgation, much less that they warrant something so radical as God becoming a man who is subsequently publicly tortured to death. God decided what the rules would be, and God decided that a radical solution was needed. Much as Christians want to displace the rule-obsessed God of justice onto the “Old Testament God” — so that, in some weird way, Christ is saving us from the Jews, or from having to be Jews — the reality is that the nice happy forgiving Christian God presupposes the supposed “Old Testament God.” In fact, the Christian tradition could not be more emphatic in its insistence that the Christian God just is the “Old Testament God.”

So God becomes man in Jesus Christ, God submits to the humiliation of birth as a helpless infant, God experiences the ignorance and insecurity and fear that make up a human life, God contrives to antagonize the legal authorities until he can count on being publicly tortured to death to fulfill the demand of — God. God dies on the cross to satisfy God’s demand for punishment, to calm God’s wrath. God dies on the cross to save us from God — hallelujah!

No one better captured this bizarre dynamic than Nietzsche, who writes in the Genealogy of Morals (Essay 2, section 21):

suddenly we stand before the paradoxical and horrifying expedient that afforded temporary relief for tormented humanity, that stroke of genius on the part of Christianity [Geniestreich des Christentums]: God himself sacrificing himself for the guilt of mankind [Gott selbst sich für die Schuld des Menschen opfernd], God himself making payment to himself [Gott selbst sich an sich selbst bezahlt machend], God as the only being who can redeem man from what has become unredeemable for man himself—the creditor [Gläubiger] sacrificing himself for his debtor, out of love (can one credit that? [sollte man’s glauben?]), out of love for his debtor!—

The sheer piling up of reflexive pronouns — beyond the capacity of an idiomatic English translation to convey — emphasizes how much this is God’s own affair with God. And after the delirious, incredulous joy of this bizarre moment, the next section reveals the truth: God’s payment of our debt of sin was not true forgiveness, not a clearing of the books, but a consolidation loan. He died for you, can’t you live for him? God is willing to offer you for forgiveness, and all he asks in return is your very life, your very soul. God saves us from God by binding us ever more closely to God, indebting us more profoundly to the one who sacrificed himself for us.

That’s love, right? That’s what love looks like: sacrificing yourself, so that you can emotionally blackmail the loved one. That’s what love looks like: giving up everything, so that the beloved can never leave. That’s what love looks like: playing the carrot of forgiveness off against the stick of the old regime, the supposed “Old Testament God” whose threat and demand remains the only background against which this heroic self-sacrifice can even remotely make sense. That’s love — love for the debtor who will always only be debtor, love for the debtor who now carries not just a debt of sin but the burden of having somehow caused the death of God. That’s love.

If that’s the only way God knows how to love, then I don’t want God’s love. If that’s what the death of God on the cross is meant to accomplish, then maybe we’d be better off if God stayed dead. There is a minority tradition in the West — running from Hegel and Nietzsche up to Altizer and Žižek (and maybe, I’d dare to suggest, by way of Bonhoeffer) — that claims that that is precisely how we should interpret the cross. God dies, permanently and irrevocably, leaving us alone to figure out for ourselves how we want to live our life together. That’s not the only way out of the theological impasse represented by the conventional Western account of redemption, but it is one I would urge you to consider on this Holy Saturday, when God lies mercifully dead.