“The death of God”

11 Oct

In the last week, there has been a challenging interchange amongst the members of the Jürgen Moltmann discussion group about the death of God.
This is not about the 1960s idea that ‘God is dead’. It’s  about whether it makes any real sense to say (as Moltmann seems to say) that in Jesus of Nazareth God actually experiences death.
Moltmann’s book The Crucified God is one of the most celebrated recent works which really shifted the ground in theology, towards the idea of a suffering God.

So much previous thought left God afar off, unable really to enter into the pain of our life in the world.
But what did that mean about Jesus? That he was not really God, or that he did not really suffer.

Can God enter into death?  Does God suffer death?   Or is there some profound truth here, about the way death itself is to be understood, in the light of God and God’s self-giving in Jesus?

Here is part of what I contributed to the discussion:

As I understand Moltmann, he would not say that God has suffered
death. But he does say that the Father suffers the death of the Son.
This idea, first well articulated in 'The Crucified God' led John
Macquarrie for example to say that Moltmann had not really set himself
free from the monarchical monotheistic idea of God, since there remains
something of God —some 'substance', is it—that remains aloof from the
suffering world, the suffering of the Son. (This, in a review of CG, in
the journal 'Expository Times').

I think this criticism is mistaken.
Moltmann does not say that death happens to God. Rather his thought
suggests that God happens to death.
Death is taken into the life of God, and as Paul's theology suggests,
death itself is changed by the encounter of God (in Jesus) and death.

One of Moltmann's favourite expressions for God is 'the living God'.
Living is not something God does. Living is what God is. God is the
eternal power of living. God is life, creative life. The living God
encompasses all that is. In this sense God suffers it: God allows it
space to be; here Moltmann draws upon the kabbalistic spirituality and
the ideas of 'zimzum', to suggest the way God allows even evil and
death space, room in God's world. God also allows the death of the Son.
In the unity of the trinity, beautifully represented by the many
paintings of the 'mercy seat' — one of them is reproduced in 'Humanity in God',
albeit only in black and white. Here the father holds
the cross, where the Son suffers and dies, while the dove of the spirit
rests, hovers between, and holds them together. Death is not outside
God. Death does not encompass God. God encompasses death, with the
power of God's living, creating, loving, redeeming, even dying.
So God takes death into Godself, as God takes sin into Godself, and
transforms both.

2 thoughts on ““The death of God”

  1. Death is one of those things I struggle with about God’s creation. We think of death in almost entirely negative terms. If we remove the suffering aspect of it (and even sometimes if we don’t), I’m not convinced it’s a bad thing, or something that God did not intend. You only have to look at the way a tree’s leaves die, break down and feed other plants and animals, or the way the food chain works, to see that death is often a necessary path to life. And it seems that this is not necessarily just a way of redeeming death or putting a positive spin on it, but part of the way the world was intended to work. What does that mean for our death, and even for the death of God?

  2. Moltmann also makes distinctions between how the Son and the Father experience Calvary. The Father suffers death and the Son suffers dying. The Father did not die and nor can the Son experience his own death – only dying. I’d be interested to hear what thoughts some have on Gunton’s critique of the suffering God – that it confuses Creator and creation and presents God as a passive fellow-sufferer who is acted upon rather than acting and objectively overcoming death and transforming it forever. Can Gunton’s critique of process theology be applied to Moltmann? That suggesting that God is a passive fellow-sufferer makes God unable to judge present evil or to give an eschatological hope of the future transformation of the cosmos in Jesus.

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