When Did Jesus Decide to Die?

“For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father” (John 10:17-18).

If Jesus were any other man, we might interpret his words as a strong, albeit exaggerated, expression of his understanding of his prophetic mission. But if Jesus is the One the whom the Evangelist John portrays—the eternal Word through whom the world has been made—then his words take on deeper meaning. Death does not come to Jesus against his will; he embraces it, in free and whole-hearted assent to the will of his Father. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his flock. “When did Christ lay down His life?” asks St Augustine. “When it pleased the Word. For sovereign authority resided in the Word; and therein lay the power to determine when the flesh should lay down its life, and when it should take it again” (Tractate on John 47.11).

We might speculate, as many have done, on the precise coordination of the divine and human wills of the incarnate Christ in his temporal surrender to death; but everyone agrees that Jesus, with both his divine and human wills, consented to the cross. Surely Jesus anticipated his death when he set his face to Jerusalem. After Peter confesses him as the Messiah and Son of the living God, Jesus shares with his disciples that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Peter dares to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord,” prompting the terrible rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matt 16:21-23). The doctrine of the Incarnation, however, does not compel us to believe that the historical Jesus needed to make conscious decisions to set aside his divine attributes, as if each morning he thought to himself, “Today I will allow myself to be hungry.” Ultimately, the Lord’s decision to suffer passions and death is made at that eternal “moment” when he decided to live a human life under the limitations of finite existence. The realization of this decision is then worked out in history. The total commitment of Jesus to the will of his Father is decisive: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). So identified is Jesus with his mission that the Seer names him “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8).

John Meyendorff observes that we should not think of the Incarnation as involving “several distinct divine decisions; one for the Incarnation itself, another for each of Christ’s actions, and the final one allowing him to die” (“Christ’s Humanity,” p. 26). The idea of multiple divine resolutions, one following upon another, makes little sense when thinking of the eternal Godhead. There is simply the one eternal determination and act of God to assume humanity for the redemption of the world. “The Cross was not an alternative,” Meyendorff explains, “which the Logos chose in the course of his earthly life. Accepting mortality (in order to overcome it) was the very goal of the Incarnation” (p. 27). The divine decision to become a man who suffers passions, temptations, and eventually death ontologically grounds the humanity of the Word:

The death of “one of the Holy Trinity in the flesh” was a voluntary act, a voluntary assumption by God of the entire dimension of human tragedy. “There is nothing in Him by compulsion of necessity; everything is free: willingly He was hungry, willingly thirsty, willingly He was frightened, and willingly He died” [John Damascene]. But—and this is the essential difference between the Orthodox and the Aphthartodocetae—this divine freedom of the hypostasis of the Logos did not limit the reality of His human condition: the Lord assumed a mortal humanity at the very moment of the Incarnation, at which time the free divine decision to die had already been made. (Byzantine Theology, p. 160; my emphasis)

If Jesus is the Word made Flesh, then the entirety of his life, concluding in crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, must be interpreted as grounded and lived in freedom. How can we speak of the necessities of fallen existence externally imposing themselves upon Jesus, when he foreknew and freely embraced these necessities in eternal decision? Nothing is imposed; all is accepted in freedom and joy. From the very first moment of enfleshment, the human will of the Savior exists in perfect harmony with his divine will. There is no autonomous human subject in Jesus to protest the limitations and sufferings of his life, no autonomous human subject to be imposed upon. There is only the one hypostasis of the divine Son living as a human being in history. Vladimir Lossky meditates upon the singular freedom of the God-Man:

[Choice] does not exist in Christ other than as divine liberty: but one cannot predicate free-will of God, for the single decision of the Son is kenosis, the assumption of the total human condition, total submission to the will of the Father. The proper will of the Word, His human will, submits to the Father, showing by human means—which are not oscillations between “yes” and no,” but “yes” even through the “no” of horror and revolt—the cleaving of the new Adam to his God: “Father, save me from this hour. And yet, it is for this that I have come to this hour; Father, glorify Thy name” (John 12:27-18). “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass far from me. Yet, Thy will be done and not mine” (Matt. 26:39). Thus the very attitude of Christ implies freedom, even though St Maximus denies him free-will. Freedom is not an everlasting choice that would estrange the Savior; neither is it the constant necessity for Christ each time to undertake a deliberate choice to submit His deified flesh to the limits of our fallen condition, such as sleep and hunger; for this would make Jesus an actor. Freedom here is regulated by the unique personal consciousness of Christ: it is the definite and constant choice to assume the unwholesomeness of our condition, even unto the ultimate fatality of death. It is the choice, consented to since eternity, to allow all that makes our condition, that is to say our fallenness, penetrate His self at depth; and this depth is anguish, death, descent into Hell. (Orthodox Theology, pp. 107-108)

I note especially the unity of Christ’s dual wills and depth of his descent into the humanity’s fallenness.

In Jesus: Fallen? Fr Emmanuel Hatzidakis censures Meyendorff’s interpretation of Jesus’ voluntary assent to death. The Saint Vladimir’s Seminary theologian, he says, has missed the critical point—namely, the salvific necessity of the cooperation of the Son’s human will with his divine will in everything that he accomplishes on our behalf. Hatzidakis quotes St John of Damascus: “For it was in both natures that He willed and accomplished our salvation” (De fid. orth. 3.14; his translation). On this basis he claims that that the incarnate Son must have restrained the operations of his divinity by his human will: “There was a continuous act of voluntary self-repression on part of Christ’s human will, because every act, bodily or mental, done by Christ is done with the cooperation of His human will” (p. 198). I’m not sure how to make sense of this “continuous act of voluntary self-repression.” Perhaps it becomes more plausible if we connect it to the Maximian notion that Christ did not possess a gnomic will or the scholastic notion that the soul of Christ enjoyed the beatific vision. I don’t know. Hatzidakis believes that unless we posit a voluntary assumption of the innocent passions in time, Christ is reduced to being a creature whose destiny is predetermined by divine fiat. His sufferings are necessitated and forced upon him. All he can do is bear them. “In Christ the consequences of the fall are not forced upon Him, as they are with us; He accepts them in His human will, in complete voluntary obedience to the divine will” (p. 177). Hatzidakis thus presents us with the picture of Jesus having to consciously repress his divine powers in order to take upon himself the postlapsarian passions. We recall Hatzidakis’s claim that in his human nature Jesus is immortal and impassible. Only by his human self-determination, in subjection to the divine will, does the Son permit himself to suffer the infirmities of fallen existence. “The voluntary assumption of the blameless passions associated with the fallen state of humanity, Hatzidakis writes, “requires the cooperation of His human will” (pp. 132-133). I find myself nodding and shaking my head at the same time. Of course the Word’s kenotic immersion into fallen existence involves the cooperation of his human will. Without it he would not be living in history humanly. Meyendorff fully agrees; indeed, with St Maximus he highlights the significance of “the final human acceptance by Christ of that which was necessary for the salvation of humanity: as God, He willed it at all times, but His human will, real only in time, had to give the ultimate answer before He drank the Cup” (“Christ’s Humanity,” p. 30). But Hatzidakis is making a stronger claim. The fact that he can appeal to patristic support (we noted the opinion of St Sophronius’s in an earlier article), as well as the support of a modern theologian like Georges Florovsky, doesn’t stop me from wondering whether his views permit a genuine, full-blooded Incarnation. Meyendorff’s presentation would at least seem to have Occam’s razor working for it.

Does Hatzidakis’s picture of the incarnate Christ do justice to the New Testament witness? Perhaps the Fathers can be plausibly interpreted along the lines Hatzidakis advances (though his patristic citations do not support his thesis as unambiguously as he thinks they do); but by my reading his thesis does not mesh well with the Gospels. Where do the narratives state or even intimate that the man Jesus needed to suppress his immortality, impassibility, and omnipotence? That sounds more like Clark Kent than the Jew from Nazareth who “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb 5:8). What the New Testament does speak about is the Son’s identification with sinners. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” St John the Baptist tells his cousin. Jesus answers: “Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness” (Matt 3:14-15). 

We need to clarify the voluntariness of the Word’s assumption of humanity. Sergius Bulgakov addresses the topic in his book The Lamb of God. I quote him at length:

Here we encounter the doctrine of the “Aphthartodocetis” or “Phantasiasts” (one of the branches of the monophysites, headed by Julian of Halicarnassus and Gaianos of Alexandria). Whereas Eutyches denied the consubstantiality of Christ’s body with the human body, the Aphthartodocetics denied their identity with respect to state. According to this doctrine, Jesus’ body, free of sin, corresponded to Adam’s body before the Fall and was therefore free not only of all corruption but also of sinless passions. If in the grave His body did not know decay (see Acts 2:31), this means that incorruptibility was inherent to Him from birth in virtue of His hypostatic union with the Logos. It does not mean, however, that His human needs and sufferings were only illusory; the Logos voluntarily, “economically,” permitted them for Himself; His human needs and sufferings are not the result of a natural necessity. In this sense, Christ’s entire earthly life is a permanent miracle. The logical accent falls here on the rejection of the naturalness of Christ’s human life and, as a result, on the voluntary character of every act of this life (the “activists” considered even the Lord’s body to be uncreated).

One of course cannot deny the general idea that the Logos assumed the human essence voluntarily. However, such an “occasionalistic” conception, according to which all acts of human life are expressly permitted by the divine will without being naturally conditioned, is incompatible with the idea of authentic divine incarnation, which loses here its ontological as well as soteriological meaning. Christ assumed flesh in order to live in it, not to act upon it from outside by a series of external impacts, as it were. … However, a general question remains: What was the real difference between the human nature in Christ and that in men? This difference is externally manifested in the fact that the Lord’s body in the grave did not know corruption, in contrast to the natural properties of the common human essence. The Aphthartodocetics justly felt that there was a special problem here: Incorruptible in actu in death, was Christ’s body not incorruptible in potentia during His life? And in this case, how should one more precisely understand this incorruptibility? The human essence of the new Adam, free of original sin in virtue of the conception without seed from the Holy Spirit, approaches the essence of the first Adam before the Fall. It is an exaggeration to consider the New Adam’s human essence to be free of the need for food and sleep, to be free of fatigue, and so on. It had not yet become a “spiritual body” but was only a “natural” and even an “earthly” body (see 1 Cor. 15:44-47). However, Christ’s body did not know sicknesses, which are already the beginning of death; nor did it know natural mortality (“for God made not death” [Wisdom of Solomon 1:13]), although He did not yet possess active immortality. Before the Fall, Adam’s body too was free of corruption, although it did not know the active victory over corruption. If the Lord’s body were identical in all its properties with the body of the first Adam, in conformity with the doctrine of the Aphthartodocetics, it would really have differed from our body; and the salvation of man by Christ’s assumption of our essence would have remained unrealized. …

Thus, being sinless Himself, He took upon Himself the consequences of sin as the common infirmity of life in the world and in man. In this He did not separate Himself from humanity but fully assumed the human nature, including all the consequences of this assumption (contra the Aphthartodocetics). To be sure, this assumption of the human nature was voluntary, a feat of sacrificial love; but once it was accomplished, as “the descent from heaven,” the life of the human nature in the God-Man attained its full force. He appears as the New Adam in His humanity. This humanity of His is free only of that with which the Incarnation is incompatible (i.e., of sin in all its forms and varieties, original and personal, natural and voluntary). But His humanity is not liberated from those infirmities that were the inevitable consequences of the Fall, including the possibility of knowing death. It is precisely these infirmities, generalized in death, that must be overcome if salvation is to be attained. In His sacrificial feat, the Son of Man does not separate Himself from the common human nature and from the common human fate. He makes them His own in order to become the Author of life, the New Adam. … In conclusion, we must say that Christ, in His humanity, cannot be directly identified with either the original Adam or the fallen Adam. Instead, He forms a living bridge between the two and raises them to a new and immortal human life. (pp. 288-289, 291)

When Bulgakov states above that the assumed nature of Christ did not know “natural mortality,” he seems to be referring to vulnerability to sickness, as two pages later he explains that though Jesus was free from natural death, he was subject to violent death: “the potentiality of death (although not in the form of sicknesses) was present in His humanity, taken from the Virgin; otherwise, He would not have been able to die, even by the violent death on the cross” (p. 291). I have to wonder about the exegetical foundation of this distinction. Even if Jesus privately shared with his disciples that he had never been sick a day in his life, does that authorize us to infer that the deification of his human nature had rendered him immune to disease? Can Acts 2:21 bear such weight? But Bulgakov’s critical point about the voluntariness of the Word’s assumption of mortality and the innocent passions, I think, stands. If we interpret this voluntariness as Jesus needing to intentionally and constantly repress his divine attributes in order to permit himself to experience human life under the conditions of passibility, mortality, and finitude, then his historical existence becomes a “permanent miracle” and bewilderment. Acknowledging that the divine Son embraces in eternity the conditions of fallen existence in no way diminishes the salvific significance of his human obedience to his Father; but it does highlight the necessity to distinguish, as Dumitru Staniloe suggests, two indivisible stages in the descent of the divine Son: the eternal decision of the Son to become incarnate and his historical appropriation and experience of human suffering. The latter is implied in the former, says Staniloae, “because God did not become man to suppress the content of our humanity. He took upon Himself our sufferings to overcome them from within” (The Experience of God, III:51). How did Jesus consent to the Incarnation and assume the sufferings of the human condition? By being faithful to the historical mission entrusted to him by his Father.

Hatzidakis’s dyotheletic logic drives him to a conclusion as revelatory as it is confused: “Christ gave his consent to incarnate with his human will, as well as his divine will” (p. 128). By dogmatic definition, however, Jesus cannot have assented with his human will to the creation of his human will: his human will belongs to his human nature and is thus the product of the Incarnation itself. The inhomination of the Word is the precondition for all of the Word’s temporal consentings and doings. Before God could humanly will anything, he first had to become Man. As John Damascene reminds us: “But his human will had a beginning in time and was itself subject to natural and irreprehensible passions” (De fid. orth. 3.18).

Upon this blunder rests much of Hatzidakis’s polemic against the Postlapsarians. “Western theologians understand that at His incarnation the Son of God assumed our fallen human nature by the pre-eternal fiat of the divine will, common to all three divine persons. Even when they refer to a voluntary assumption of the fallen human nature, they do not involve the human will of Christ. A few Eastern Orthodox scholars abandoning the clear tradition of the Church follow this deviant course” (p. 176). As an example Hatzidakis quotes two sentences from Patrick Reardon’s book The Jesus We Missed: “God’s Son assumed, not simply human nature, but the existential burden of human experience. His was to be a full and felt solidarity.” He then critically comments: “Christ’s destiny was therefore predetermined by the divine fiat. All He had to do was to understand the divine will and submit to it” (p. 177). I’m sitting here wondering, what’s the problem? When the Son became Man, did he not adopt as his own the creaturely mode of obedience to the God of Israel? If he had not, not only would he not have been fully human, but he would not have been our Mediator and Great High Priest. Filial obedience is what the trinitarian life of God looks like when translated into history.

The problem, I suspect, flows from a misunderstanding of the relationship between eternity and time, between divine predestination and human freedom. As a result Hatzidakis sees divine decisions as heteronomous constraints upon the person. Jesus is not really free if God has placed him in a situation to which he has not consented. Consider this passage:

Those who say that, “The voluntary nature of [Christ’s] death is part of the kenosis of the Logos’ assumption of human nature, not a separate act of will in changing an inherently immortal human nature to a mortal one at the time of the crucifixion” [Valerie Karras], would be hard-pressed to answer the following objection: If Christ’s death was necessitated by a pre-eternal decision of the divine will alone, before He assumed the human nature, then all was predetermined before Christ was nailed to the cross; then all was decided without the participation of His human nature, through a free act of His human will. This would be equivalent to not having a human will at all, if all the decisions concerning the oeconomia were foreordained by a divine fiat. Christ would not be a free participant in the salvation of man in His humanity. He would continue to remain passively submitted to His fate, without being able to truly exercise his free will. …

The problem is that postlapsarianists are monoenergists. Like the Nestorians of old, who, although they believed in two hypostases in Christ, accepted one operation or action (ἐνέργεια) in Him, Postlapsarianists, likewise, attribute the decisions of Christ to the divine hypostasis alone, with the humanity assumed by the Lord following servilely, more as an instrument of the divinity than as a willing and active participant. In their understanding the divine hypostasis foreordained that Christ was to die, and thus the divine order was carried out by means of the body He assumed, as if He were an automaton or a marionette; as if the humanity of Christ were simply the instrument of the divine will. In that case, all the decision making would be done by God with His almighty will. The human mind, will and body simply obeyed. (pp. 131-133)

We may quickly dismiss Hatzidakis’s misrepresentation and caricature of Postlapsarian theologians. Folks like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance are not crypto-Apollinarians. There is a problem here, but it’s a problem inherent to the Chalcedonian two-natures model (see, e.g., Christopher Beeley’s provocative reading of the patristic tradition, The Unity of Christ). All who affirm the absolute sinlessness of Jesus find themselves in the same boat of explaining how Jesus may be said to enjoy genuine human freedom. St John of Damascus is as vulnerable to the charge of making the humanity of Christ a passive instrument of the Word as Karl Barth, whom Hatzidakis singles out as an egregious offender. The mystery resists analysis. Yes, Barth speaks of the Word assuming fallen human nature. Perhaps he is wrong to do so, perhaps not. In either case he cannot be justly accused of either Nestorianism or Monoenergism (see Barth’s affirmation of Monotheletism in Church Dogmatics, I/2:158, and Paul Dafydd Jones, The Humanity of Christ). And the same may be said of Kallistos Ware, John Meyendorff, and Thomas Torrance, whose views I have reviewed in this series.

Returning to the Hatzidakis citation—the author argues that if the atoning death of Jesus (and presumably the Incarnation itself) was ordained in eternity, apart from the consent of his human will, then Jesus is reduced to an automaton, condemned to follow the heteronomous orders of the holy Omnipotence. I do not see why this conclusion follows. Whether we are talking about the Logos asarkos or the Logos ensarkos, we are still talking about the same divine hypostasis. It’s not as if the Incarnation caused the Second Person of the Trinity to split into two subjective centers of consciousness.

But even more important is Hatzidakis’s confusion about eternity and time. That God has eternally determined to be the man Jesus of Nazareth does not and cannot infringe upon his human freedom. It could only do so if divine predestination were understood as happening “before” what happens in time. Jesus would then have no choice but to follow the script. Life would be fate. But this is to take the “pre-” in predestination literally. There are no “befores” and “afters” in the eternal life of God. When we plan something, we first think out the plan and then we execute it; but no such temporal caesura exists in the timeless mind of the Trinity. The divine planning is its execution. Predestination doesn’t occur before anything or after anything or even simultaneously with anything. God doesn’t first determine to create the world and then determine to become incarnate and then determine to die on a cross and then determine to rise from the dead and then determine to return in glory. They are all one thing in the God who is his eternity. Hence all of the anxiety about divine fiats and foreordination is misplaced. It’s not as if Jesus arrives on the scene and thinks to himself, “What a rotter! It looks like Dad has already decided that I have to die on a cross, and I didn’t even have the opportunity to agree to his plan. I so hate pre-eternal destination.”

What then does the Orthodox Church teach on the Word’s assumption of human nature, fallen or unfallen? I’ll give Met Hilarion Alfeyev the last word: “There can be only one Orthodox answer to the question of which nature Christ inherited from Adam: the same nature that needs healing” (Orthodox Christianity, p. 286).

(Return to first article)

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3 Responses to When Did Jesus Decide to Die?

  1. Julian says:

    I wonder if the clue to understanding the two wills and natures of the Lord is in his words to Peter: “…the spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.” Was Jesus speaking from personal experience? Was is it that the human will of Jesus submitted to the divine will of Jesus, but the divine nature of Jesus was needed to overcome the weak fallen human nature of Jesus?


  2. elijahmaria says:

    Something seems to be slightly off in this and it shows up in Julian’s comment pretty clearly. Christ is one divine Person. He never ever becomes a human person. Therefore if there is a real humanity to emerge then the Christ must by necessity empty His divine self, or make room for, a human nature incarnate in a divine person. That is His real condescension is it not?


  3. Note X Note says:

    14 AD seems an appropriate response if one regards the customary Jewish age of thirteen to be the responsible age for Decalogue adherence. On another thought,the age of a non-citizen at which an execution warrant from Pilate would be acceptable to the crowd. Interesting though, the first age could have been a persons decision where the second was subject to Roman law or divine requirement. I can see the argument that the decision was made prior to 14 AD. However, I pose this question: In 1 AD,was this the first time Jesus ( strictly by that name ) could have decided?


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