Many Jehovah's Witnesses appeal to Habakkuk 1:12 as a proof-text that Jesus could not be God. The passage, they point out, promises that God will not die. Since Jesus died, He cannot be God. This argument not only faces a flaw within the verse itself, more importantly, it fails to understand the biblical teaching that Jesus was both fully God and fully man. Jesus could live a human life and die a human death without impugning the immortality of His divine nature because His divine and human natures are distinct. When we understand the miracle of the incarnation, there is no conflict, and the Jehovah's Witness argument falls flat.
The Textual Issue
The verse on which the Jehovah's Witness argument relies reads:
"Are You not from everlasting, O Lord, my God, my Holy One? We will not die. You, O Lord, have appointed them to judge; And You, O Rock, have established them to correct," (Habakkuk 1:12).
Or, in the Jehovah's Witnesses' "New World Translation:"
"Are you not from everlasting, O Jehovah? O my God, my Holy One, you do not die. O Jehovah, you appointed them to execute judgment; My Rock, you established them for punishment," (Habakkuk 1:12, NWT).
Note the key difference between these two translations. The NASB reads "we will not die," whereas the NWT reads "you do not die." In the former, the passage is a promise that God, in His unchanging faithfulness, will preserve His people. In the latter, it is a statement that God Himself will not die. So, which is it?
The majority of Hebrew manuscripts read "we will not die." The Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures often cited in the New Testament and used by early Christians) also has "we will not die." The Latin Vulgate holds this reading as well. The copy of Habakkuk among the Dead Sea Scrolls has a gap at this phrase,1 however the scrolls also include a commentary on Habakkuk, the contents of which clearly indicate that the text read "we will not die."2
Not surprisingly, this is also the reading found in prominent English translations including the KJV, NKJV, NASB, and ESV, as well as the Old English translations all the way back to John Wycliffe. It is the reading in the Messianic Jewish "Tree of Life" version, and even the New World Translation includes a footnote pointing out that "we shall not die" is a plausible reading. The evidence strongly supports the idea that this verse doesn't actually say that God will not die, which makes the Jehovah's Witnesses case tenuous at best before we even get to discussing the actual argument!
Having noted this, there is a minority scribal tradition that does say "You will not die," and the Jehovah's Witnesses are not the only ones who believe this is the original reading. Popular Christian translations like the NIV, NRSV, and HCSB all prefer "You will not die." So, for the sake of argument, let's assume that this is, in fact, the correct reading. That still doesn't prove the Jehovah's Witnesses point.
The Death of Christ and the Immortality of God
It is important to note that, while Jesus is 100% God, He does not exhaust all that God is. The Father did not become incarnate in Christ. Neither did the Holy Spirit. Only the eternal Son, the uncreated Word, the second person of the Trinity took on flesh.
"Although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross," (Philippians 2:6-8).
God the Son took on a human life and so could die a human death, but His death represents the death of that human life, not the death of the everlasting nature of God. The Father did not die. The Spirit did not die. Indeed, the eternal, divine nature of the Word did not die. The humanity He took upon Himself died. He came in flesh, and in that flesh He died and rose again, but that speaks of the initial mortality of the human nature He took on. It does not make finite the infinite and immortal divine nature of God.
To say that God cannot do this, that God cannot enter into His creation while remaining divine, is to limit the power of God. God, in His eternal and divine nature, is immortal and cannot die, but this does not mean that God cannot take on a human life and then have that human life endure human death. It is perfectly logical that God could do this without one saying that God, in His eternal divine nature, "died." The Word, which was eternally both "with God" and "was God" (John 1:1), also "became flesh and dwelled among us," (John 1:14). This is the miracle of the incarnation.
This is not some new, philosophical concept invented late in Church history. It is the logical conclusion that comes from examining the Scriptures as a whole regarding who Christ was and what He did. Ignatius of Antioch (35-108 A.D.), one of the earliest Christian writers after the New Testament, wrote to a fellow Christian pastor:
"Look for Him who is above all time, eternal and invisible, yet who became visible for our sakes; impalpable and impassible, yet who suffered on our account; and who in every kind of way endured suffering for our sakes," (Ignatius, Epistle to Polycarp, Chapter 3).
Some longer manuscripts even read:
"who was before time, yet appeared in time; who was invisible by nature, yet visible in the flesh; who was impalpable, and could not be touched, as being without a body, but for our sakes became such, might be touched and handled in the body; who was impassible as God, but became passible for our sakes as man; and who in every kind of way suffered for our sakes,"
In either version, we have a clear, early understanding that Jesus was both God and man. As God, He was untouchable and impassible, yet in taking on a human nature, He could suffer and die on our account. As the ancient Latin Christian writer Tertullian wrote:
"Now although Christ is God, yet, being also man, 'He died according to the Scriptures,' and 'according to the same Scriptures was buried.'" (Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul, Chapter 60).
In this way, there is no contradiction in the idea that God is immortal, that Jesus is God, and yet that Jesus tasted of human death.