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In 1945, in Germany, during the jostling of US Army units across the Rhine, two GIs chanced to meet. My dad, in the 12th Army Group, had come in through Normandy, and Chuck Terpstra, in the 7th Army, came up along the Rhône.

Both soldiers were Christian Reformed, my dad from New Jersey and Chuck from Iowa. They hit it off, they got themselves into the same unit, eventually roomed together at Calvin College, and both went into the ministry. Chuck stayed CRC but my dad joined the RCA. They kept in touch (and argued) through calls to urban ministry, and we visited. After Chuck’s retirement he became my spiritual director. Our bonds were deep.



We were discussing the best parts of the Heidelberg Catechism, and Chuck grinned and asked me, “Why was Jesus buried?” I took the bait. “To show that he was really dead,” and we both laughed, and Q&A 41 became our private joke.

Look, that’s just not why we bury people and that’s not how we prove that people are dead. And yet, to be fair, Our Lord would not have been buried unless he was truly dead, really dead, dead dead.

Dead, Dead, Really Dead

How dead? Well, according to many, not totally dead. You know about the “Harrowing of Hell.” It’s in some of the Church Fathers, and Caedmon sang about it, and Dante had Virgil report it. The belief is that Our Lord “descended to Hell” in order to “preach to the souls that were in prison” (I Peter 3:19), thereby to liberate the Old Testament saints for Heaven. It’s a wonderful tradition, and I remember being thrilled when I first learned it, but I don’t believe it (not that Catechism Q&A 44 is more convincing). The tradition depends on the combination of bad equivalencies in translation with an attempt to solve the problem of I Peter 3:19.

Another answer is that Our Lord slept. Certainly the image of death as “sleep” is common enough in the Bible. Is this more than a metaphor? Martin Luther, for example, held to the doctrine of “soul-sleep,” although Calvin opposed it in his Psychopannychia: The Soul’s Imaginary Sleep between Death and Judgment.

But isn’t it true that both answers, the Harrowing of Hell and soul-sleep, assume that Our Lord did not truly die, that only his body died? Don’t these mean that his human soul was still alive and still united to his divine nature, such that in his soul he was able either to “sleep” or to depart from his dead body and journey to hell to harrow it?

What I want to say is that if it’s true that Our Lord died only in his body, and not also in his soul, then we should not proclaim that “Christ has died” as a Mystery of the Faith—not on the same order as “Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” not unless Our Lord was totally, completely dead in body and soul.

But then so many Christians do not believe it is true of us ourselves, so why should it be true about Our Lord?

So many Christians believe that when we die it’s only our bodies that die, while our souls live on—because our souls are naturally immortal. (It’s not just Christians who believe this.)

The Immortality of the Soul?

It’s remarkable to me how widespread is the assumption that “the immortality of the soul” is a core Christian doctrine, and that it’s the key to the doctrine of eternal life. I doubt that most people think through this, but if it’s true that the Lord Jesus had an immortal soul just like us, then he did not fully die upon the cross, and he was not truly dead, despite his being buried. Sorry, Q&A 41.

In St. Matthew’s report of the crucifixion, he writes that Jesus “breathed his last.” St. John reports that he “gave up his spirit.” Does this mean that Our Lord’s immortal soul flew off somewhere, whether to be with God, or to be in Paradise, or to descend to hell? Or did he die in body and soul?

The Hebrew belief was that the human soul was not immortal, that the soul is in our breath.  “Breathing his last” and his soul dying are the same thing. The soul and body live and die together.

Granted, Hellenistic ideas must have been creeping into the Jewish world by the time of Our Lord, but even an Epistle as late and as far removed from Palestine as First Timothy clearly states that only God has immortality (I Timothy 6:16).

I don’t want to overstate it. The Hebrew belief in Sheol entailed some dwindling unconscious afterlife, and Sheol became “Hades” in the Septuagint, which is why it is thoroughly adequate for the Apostles Creed to be translated as “he descended to the dead” instead of “he descended into Hell.”

But it is not overstating if I report my firm belief that when Our Lord was murdered on the cross, he truly died, in body and soul, and he was so dead that there was no power in him to raise himself up again—he had to be raised by the Holy Spirit.

Did God Die?

Well then, does this lead us to say that God died? Because in the person of the Lord Jesus, his two natures, divine and human, can never be separated, so that whatever Our Lord suffered in his human nature he also suffered in his divine nature. Maybe at yesterday’s Good Friday service you sang, with Isaac Watts, that “God the mighty maker died for man the creature’s sin.” But how can God be killed? For God to die would entail a negative power that was greater than God!

As usual with questions of Christology, we have to manage contradictions. If Our Lord’s two natures can never be separated, neither can they be mixed. We dare not attribute the mortality of Our Lord’s human nature to Our Lord’s divine nature. In that sense, God did not die when Jesus died. But that leaves the question of what the Second Person of the Trinity was doing when then the Lord Jesus lay truly dead in the grave?

What I believe is that God rested. It was the Sabbath Day. I believe that God rested, did nothing. No sleeping, no harrowing of hell, no managing cyclones in the Pacific, no dealing with the moons of Jupiter, no checking up on the Andromeda galaxy, no attention to Tiberius in Rome. God rested on the Seventh Day. The Lord Jesus was truly dead in his human nature and rested in his divine nature, and in his person so did “all of” God. God rests, the court rests, the crown rests, it is finished, the great work is done, everything is still, the judgment waits for the verdict, and the verdict will come tonight, just before dawn.

But the defense doesn’t rest. If this is the end, if this is all there is, then God might as well be dead to us. If God allowed this innocent to die this way, then to hell with God. And God does not defend God’s self. God doesn’t answer the argument, God relents to it, God yields to it, as if, yes, it is that bad.

The disciples had no right to this defense, because they betrayed and denied and deserted Our Lord. But the women did not desert him. While the men went hiding in their fear and guilt, they women stayed with Jesus. Not that they raised the argument, but they grieved, they wept, and they went to the tomb.


J. S. Bach gave us that marvelous chorus Wir Setzen Uns for the women sitting and weeping. It closes the St. Matthew’s Passion. It is prefaced by the lullaby Mein Jesu Gute Nacht, (My Jesus, Good Night) in which Bach is as affecting as anything by Puccini. The performing style in this link is from fifty years ago, and we’ve learned so much since then about lightness and texture in performing Bach, but the voices are good, and a translation of the lyrics is there for you. The Lutheran Bach seems to assume soul-sleep, but the emotions are valid for us all. We need to let God rest, and give us time and space to do our grieving and our weeping.

And, oh yes, although I do not believe in the immortality of the soul, I certainly confess my faith in the “the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting,” and for tomorrow morning, “I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

Daniel Meeter

Daniel Meeter is pastor of Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York.

12 Comments

  • Yes! We do need Holy Saturday, to give space and time to do our ‘grieving and
    weeping,’ to ponder and process all the ideas and emotions raised by what happened on Thursday and Friday, before we break into the joy of the resurrection .
    Thank you, Daniel.

    Kathie

  • Jared Ayers says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful and probing piece, my friend.

    Have you ever read the “Holy Saturday” portion of the Easter oratorio NT Wright wrote? It captures the same idea that you describe here- God “resting” as Jesus of Nazareth lay dead on Holy Saturday…

    “Now the Word had fallen silent, and the water had run dry,
    The bread had all been broken, and the light had left the sky;
    The flock had lost its shepherd, and the seed was sadly sown,
    The courtiers had betrayed their king, and nailed him to his throne.

    O sabbath rest by Calvary, O calm of tomb below,
    Where the grave-clothes and the spices cradle him we did not know!
    Rest you well, beloved Jesus: Caesar’s Lord and Israel’s King,
    In the brooding of the Spirit, in the darkness of the spring.”

    • Daniel J Meeter says:

      Hey Jared, thanks for writing. I like the “brooding” and the “darkness of the spring.” Unfortunately the first stanza reminds me too much of King Crimson, and I’m betting that Tom Wright knew their music.

  • Rich Rienstra says:

    Dan: Here is a prayer of Pastor Philip. F. Reinders in “Seeking God’s Face :Praying with the Bible Through the Year.”

    “Forsaken God, you really did die. The cross waa no theater or mere metaphor; you weren’t whisked away badly injured yet alive. You set out to save and you went all the way to death, fulfilling God’s justice and truth, fully paying for my sin. And so today, between the cross and the resurrection, I wait for your salvation to dawn again in my life. Amen (HC 40-41) pp.326-327

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Daniel, for your speculation as to what happened at and after Jesus’ death. You join with a great crowd of witnesses, even Christians, who speculate without a shred of objective evidence, as to what happened to Jesus or happens to anyone at death. As to the objective and scientific evidence, death is the end. So you can come up with any pretense you want, but it doesn’t really make any difference. Based on the infallibility of and the apparent divinely inspired Scriptures of the multitude of religions, it’s anyone’s guess what happened at death for Jesus or for anyone. But thanks, Daniel, for adding your speculations. If science is wrong, I guess we’ll find out when we get there. Will our speculations now make any difference as to what actually happened to Jesus or to us when death comes?

    • Daniel J Meeter says:

      Well, I don’t for a minute believe that science is wrong. And that’s exactly the point. Science is right about death and its finality. But science is never fully predictive. Real scientists know that. Science cannot predict Singularities. And I believe (though of course you need not) that what happened there at the tomb was a Singularity. Like the coming into existence of life itself, which is an impossible reversal of entropy. The “pretense” of the popular “scientific” notion of the spontaneous generation of life in the primordial soup has been demonstrated as chemically and mathematically impossible by two (non-believing) British quantum-biologists (see their book, Life on the Edge.) There is not a “shred of objective evidence” for this wide-spread “speculation” of the origin of life, and yet that’s deemed to be somehow scientific. Geese and ganders.

      • RLG says:

        Daniel, what you suggest as a false claim of science, that of a “spontaneous generation of life in the primordial soup,” is a theory. It’s not proven fact, but more a matter of speculation. And there are many other theories as to the origins of our earth and of life. I’m quite certain that few scientists would claim this primordial soup theory as proven fact, if any would. As you have said, yourself, there is not a shred of objective evidence for this wide spread speculation of the origin of life. So, also, there is not a shred of objective evidence for the life of Jesus after his crucifixion. It’s a matter of speculation. And there are many theories, including Christian, as well as secular, as well as yours. But they are theories, speculations. Thanks, Daniel.

  • Bob Fretz says:

    Dan, I completely agree with you… our body and soul are one. I listen to people during their remembrances at funerals speaking about how now their parents are dancing together in heaven (no mention of God or resurrection) and that they will be waiting for the rest of the family. Over the years I have come to expand on the idea that everything Jesus did before his death was an expression of his faith. Remember, he emptied himself of everything, including his divinity even unto death. Now, I truly believe, that the first time Jesus experienced himself as the 2nd person of the Trinity was when he woke up in the tomb. Pre-death we, like Jesus, live completely in our trust in God. When we die we do so in trust of God’s promise fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus. Have a Happy Easter.

  • Steve Van't Hof says:

    Well, I for one (maybe the only one) am completely baffled. The proof texts cited in Q&A 41 do not seem to support your supposition that when Christ was crucified “…he truly died, in body and soul…” And, if your explanation of “breathed his last” actually means his soul died as well why then state that Christ merely “…rested in his divine nature…”? If his soul was truly dead why then describe the Second Person of the Trinity as resting? It almost sounds as if He were partaking of a little “soul” sleeping!

  • Norman Steen says:

    Thanks Dan. Holy Saturday – the Moravians call it “The Great Sabbath,” which fits nicely with some of your thoughts.
    On the other hand there are some texts that have traditionally been paired with Holy Saturday, aids to help us think deeply into what it meant for Jesus to be buried in a tomb.
    Lamentations 3: 54 & 27 –
    “I called on your name, O Lord, from the depths of the pit; you heard my plea…
    …It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.
    Psalm 4:8 – I will both lie me down and sleep,
    for thou alone, O Lord, makest me dwell in safety.
    Micah 7:8 – O my enemies, exult not over me. I have fallen, but shall rise again.
    Though I dwell in darkness, the Lord is my light.
    Psalm 62 – In God alone is my soul at rest. My help comes from him.

    If I dutifully pray these prayers and think of Jesus in the tomb – hmm…
    I guess I prefer to think of Jesus sharing in God’s Great Sabbath, resting in the tomb, awaiting salvation.
    And, isn’t it true that the dead, the really dead, the dead dead, are in communion with God also?

  • Ann says:

    I had never heard of the “Harrowing of Hell” until I joined the Episcopal Church and saw the famous icon of Jesus lifting (Adam & Eve I believe) out of hell. Something about it struck me as true… but more in a theological way. I never thought of it as something that literally happened. Sometimes I think we get caught up in whether something literally happened in order for it to be true. There is a truth that exists beyond the literal. That’s certainly how I experience life anyway.

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