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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
What happened to the divine nature of Jesus while He was in the tomb?
For years I’ve been asked to address this question, but I have been reluctant to answer it. Why? The Scripture does not provide a clear answer. This means that whatever I say will border on speculation. Let me observe that first, this question has been discussed by the Christian church, and second, I will move from what we know to what we cannot clearly affirm (this is where the danger lies). Theology often deals with speculation; it tries to fill in our gaps of knowledge based on the knowledge we have.
1. Christ’s Descent Into Hades: The Christian church has speculated concerning Christ’s experience while He was in the tomb. This was based to some extent on the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. What happened to the spirit/soul of Jesus while He was dead? To answer this some early Christians developed the teaching of Christ’s descent into hell. According to it, during the three days Jesus’ body was in the tomb, His soul was preaching to the souls of those incarcerated in hell, perhaps offering them the opportunity of salvation. There was never a clear consensus concerning what He was specifically doing there or to the results of His mission to the underworld.
The point is that there has always been interest in this issue, and it was partially approached through the concept of the immortality of the soul.
2. State of the Dead: The Bible does not support the idea of the immortality of the soul. When a person dies he or she loses consciousness, and nothing survives in any form. This would suggest that Christ’s human nature experienced death the way we experience it; that is to say, no part of His human nature survived His physical death. At the moment of the resurrection He did not have to summon the soul or the spirit from heaven to join His dead body.
This implies that we have to limit our question on the role of the divine nature of Jesus while He was in the grave. He certainly descended into the tomb (Matt. 12:40; Acts 2:24, 25; Eph. 4:9; Rev. 1:18).
3. Unity of the Two Natures: We know that through the Incarnation the Son of God united His divine nature to a human nature and this union is eternal (John 1:14; 1 Cor. 15:25-28). In other words, the union of the two natures is permanent and unbreakable. If this is correct we can suggest (notice that this is a suggestion) that the two natures remained united even in the grave. The human nature died while the divine did not. It did not die because it is impossible for God to die.
Can we say more than that? Of course we can (we are now moving to the realm of speculation). I would suggest that because of the union of Christ’s human nature with His divine nature, which could not die, He was able to experience in a unique way what happens when humans die.
Remember, death is the penalty for sin; and it may be that the Son of God was in the tomb for three days as a result of assuming responsibility for our sin and guilt. His separation from God remained while He was inside the tomb. This separation ended when the Father addressed the Son and He came out of the tomb through the power of the divine life that was in Him by nature and that imparted life again to His human nature.
4. Divine Nature Rested: Even though the Son of God was in the tomb as a result of taking our place, His divine nature rested. This is suggested by His shout of triumph on the cross, “It is finished!” (John 19:30) before He expired. His work of redemption had come to an end and now the grave was a place of rest, not conflict. His victory over evil powers and sin was assured. Creation was followed by divine rest; now redemption or re-creation was also followed by divine rest. The human nature rested in the sleep of death while the divine rested in the full assurance of victory. The specific nature of that rest remains a mystery. One thing we know for sure, His resurrection opened the doors of the grave for us.