“For the Word, realizing that in no other way would the corruption of human beings be undone except, simply, by dying …” (Inc. 9). St Athanasius the Great knows this to be true, not through philosophical reflection or even biblical exegesis, but by the fact of the death of the divine Son on the cross. Given that the Son has subjected himself to the torment and humiliation of the crucifixion, this must mean that the only solution to death was nothing less than the death of God. The horror and glory of the solution implies its necessity. The death of death could only be accomplished by God taking to himself a body and enduring the death of man.
Athanasius traces the biblical narrative, beginning with the primeval myth of paradise and concluding in the passion and resurrection of the Christ—and yet not concluding, for the story continues in the life of the Church, which awaits the return of its glorified Lord. Within the narrative the doom of humanity is grounded upon God’s command to Adam: “From the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat. On the day you eat of it, you shall die by death” (Gen 2:17). Adam’s disobedience immediately provokes divine judgment. Humanity loses the grace of immortal life and plunges into wickedness. In Athanasius’s view, we are so constituted that there can be no neutral ground, no middle state of being in which we can live our lives: we are either ascending to God in love or we are descending into narcissism and nothingness. This dynamic structures the human condition. The rapid and terrible descent into evil marks human history. The Adamic curse hangs over humanity. When death entered the world, writes Athanasius, “human beings died and corruption thenceforth prevailed against them, becoming even stronger than its natural power over the whole race, the more so as it had assumed the threat of the Deity against them through the transgression of the commandment” (Inc. 5). Against the power of death, man is helpless. He cannot restore himself to eternal life nor extricate himself from his slavery to disordered desire and the fear of annihilation—hence the necessity that the Creator himself should personally enter the narrative and transform it into a narrative of salvation. The eternal Son becomes Jesus of Nazareth and offers his death as a sacrifice for all. The Word dies that death may die; the Word dies that man may live. The great Alexandrian theologian advances a construal of atonement that is simultaneously representative and substitutionary. In the Incarnation the eternal Son lives and dies and rises again, on our behalf, in our stead, for us and with us.
How can the death of God be the death of all human beings? How can it fulfill the “law of death”? For St Athanasius the answer to these questions is principally determined by the apostolic witness:
One may be convinced of these things by the theologians of the Savior himself, taking their writings, which say, “For the love of Christ constrains us, as we judge this, that if one died for all, then all died; and he died for all that that we should no longer live for ourselves but for him who died and rose” from the dead, our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Cor 5.14-15). And again, “We see Jesus who, for a little while, was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the passion of death, that by the grace of God he might taste death on behalf of all” (Heb 2.9). Then, he also points out the reason why it was necessary for none other than the God Word to be incarnate, saying, “For it was fitting that he, for whom are all things and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings” (Heb 2.10). Saying this, he means that it was for none other to bring human beings out from the corruption that had occurred except the God Word who had also created them in the beginning. And that the Word himself also took to himself a body as a sacrifice for similar bodies, this they indicated saying, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of them, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is the devil, and might deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Heb 2.14-15). For by the sacrifice of his own body, he both put an end to the law lying against us and renewed for us the source of life, giving hope of the resurrection. For since through human beings death had seized human beings, for this reason, again, through the incarnation of the God Word there occurred the dissolution of death and the resurrection of life, as the Christ-bearing man says, “For as death by a human being came death, by a human being has come also the resurrection of the dead; for as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive” and those which follows (1 Cor 15.21-22). For now we no longer die as those condemned, but as those who will arise do we await the common resurrection of all, which God, who wrought and granted this, “in his own time will reveal” (1 Tim 6:15; Titus 1.3). This therefore is the first cause of the incarnation of the Savior. (Inc. 10)
At first glance it might seem that Athanasius understands the fulfillment of the “law of death” in forensic or juridical terms—there is a penalty that needs to be paid and God pays it for us—but after reading through the De Incarnatione a couple of times during the past month, I believe that such an interpretation is mistaken. Athanasius’s soteriological reflections are not motivated by a concern for the satisfaction of justice. The penalty prescribed by God in the garden is not assigned for the purpose of retributive, or even remedial, punishment. It symbolizes, rather, the natural consequence of human disobedience: to break fellowship with God, and to thus separate oneself from the only source of life, is to fall into natural mortality. Eternal life is not something that we possess naturally; it is something that we can only enjoy by grace in communion with our Creator.
For Athanasius, the aspects of “nature” and “grace” are both constitutive of the human being as created by God, “nature” referring to the whence of creation’s being, which is also an intrinsic orientation to nothingness, and “grace” to the reality of its establishment in being through the Word. It might seem that Athanasius lays extreme stress on humanity’s fragility, which indeed he does. But it would be a mistake to construe this as a “pessimistic” account of the human condition. Ultimately, it is a conception of the human being as an entity whose existence is radically gifted. Precisely because its whole being is gifted, humanity has no hold on being apart from that irreducibly radical gift. The reality of its being nothing apart from the gift of participation in God is humanity’s nature, or physis. That it does exist, and even shares in the life of God himself, is due to the grace, or charis, that reflects the divine philanthropy. (Khaled Anatolios, Athanasius, p. 42; also see “The Nothingness of the World“)
The plight of man is ontological and thus only an ontological solution will suffice. Athanasius, following Scripture, employs commercial, juridical, and sacrificial language by which to speak of the saving work of Christ; but the significance of this language within De Incarnatione is determined by the ontology of death and resurrection. What is needed for salvation is not the legal rescindment of the law of death, much less the propitiation of divine wrath (as suggested in some Protestant versions of the atonement). What is needed is the re-creation of human nature, and this re-creation can only occur if the Word dies in the flesh. All must indeed die—such is the divinely ordained curse of mortality. The miracle of the cross simultaneously effects this universal death and accomplishes the transfiguration of man. “And thus it happened,” writes Athanasius, “that both things occurred together in a paradoxical manner: the death of all was completed in the lordly body, and also death and corruption were destroyed by the Word in it. For there was need of death, and death on behalf of all had to take place, so that what was required by all might occur. Therefore, as I said earlier, the Word, since he was not able to die—for he was immortal—took to himself a body able to die, that he might offer it as his own on behalf of all and as himself suffering for all, through coming into it ‘he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage‘ (Heb 2.14-15)” (Inc. 20).
In my previous article “Substitutionary Atonement” I noted Athanasius’s response to the query whether human repentance would have sufficed: man repents, God forgives, God returns man to paradise. Why not? “If then there were only offence and not the consequence of corruption, repentance would have been fine,” Athanasius explains (Inc. 7). Hence the real problem is not the transgression. The real problem cannot be resolved by apology or repayment of debt. The real problem is human nature. The real problem is death. Athanasius returns to this topic near the conclusion of De Incarnatione. Why couldn’t God have simply fixed everything “by a nod only,” just as he did when he created the world ex nihilo? Athanasius replies: “Formerly, when nothing at all existed, only a nod and an act of will was needed for the creation of the universe. But when the human being had once been made, and necessity required the healing, not for things that were not, but for things that had come to be, it followed that the healer and Savior had to come among those who had already been created, to heal what existed” (Inc. 44).
St Athanasius then offers his most compelling analysis of the atonement:
Next, this must also be known, that the corruption which has occurred was not outside the body, but attached to it, and it was necessary that instead of corruption, life should cleave to it, so that as death had come to be in the body, so too life might come to be in it. If, then, death had been outside the body, life would also have had to be outside it. But if death was interwoven with the body, and dominated it as if united to is, it was necessary for life to be interwoven with the body, so that the body putting on life should cast off corruption. Otherwise, if the Word had been outside the body, and not in it, death would have been conquered by him most naturally, since death has no power against life, but nonetheless the attached corruption would have remained in the body. For this reason, the Savior rightly put on a body, in order that the body, being interwoven with life, might no longer remain as mortal in death, but, as having put on immortality, henceforth it might, when arising, remain immortal. For, once it had put on corruption, it would not have risen unless it had put on life. And, moreover, death does not appear by itself, but in the body; therefore he put on the body, that finding death in the body he might efface it. For how at all would the Lord have been shown to be Life, if not by giving life to the mortal? And just as straw is naturally destroyed by fire, if anyone keeps the fire away from the straw, the straw does not burn, but remains fully straw, straw fearful of the threat of fire, for fire naturally consume it. But if someone covers the straw with much asbestos, which is said to be fireproof, the straw no longer fears the fire, having security from the covering of asbestos. In the same way one may talk about the body and about death. If death were kept away from it by a command only, it would still be mortal and corruptible, according to the principal of bodies. But that this should not be, it put on the incorporeal Word of God, and thus no longer fears death or corruption, having life as a garment and corruption being destroyed in it. (Inc. 44)
As Athanasius understands the atonement, nothing less than the Word’s historical inhabitation of human nature would have truly provided the remedy for sin. An external word or act would have affected us only externally. It would have left untouched our mortality and decay. The cure must be worked from the inside. God must take the sickness into himself and heal it through the alchemy of incarnation. God must experience death on the cross, putting death to death. Only through the death and resurrection of the Incarnate One can humanity be raised to glorified existence. God weaves eternal life into the body of death precisely by purifying, vivifying, and transfiguring the garment of our humanity. God must become man that man might become god.
St Athanasius later returned to this theme in his Contra Arianos. Even if Christ was a creature, so his opponents asserted, God could still have undone the curse of death merely by speaking his absolution. But this would have been unfitting, Athanasius responds:
Moreover, one may see the fitting rationale of what happened in this: If he had spoken and undone the curse, merely in accordance with his capacity to do so, the power of he who thus issued the command would have been displayed but humanity would nevertheless have remained as Adam was before the transgression, receiving grace externally and not having it mingled with the body. For such was Adam when he was placed in paradise. In fact, perhaps humanity would have become worse because it had by now learned to transgress. So, this being the situation with humanity, if it were again deceived by the serpent, there would be again a need for God to command and undo the curse. The need would then become limitless, and humanity would remain none the less in slavery and liability to sin. Forever sinning, it would be forever in need of pardon and it would never be free. Being, on its own, mere flesh, it would be forever defeated by the law through the weakness of the flesh.
Yet again, if the Son was a creature, humanity would have remained none the less mortal and not united to God. It was not a creature that united creatures to God, for in that case this creature would be itself in search of one to unite it to God. Nor would a part of creation be the salvation of creation, that part itself being in need of salvation. To prevent this, God sent his own Son who becomes the Son of Man by taking created flesh, so that he may offer his own body to death on behalf of all, since all were sentenced to death but he was other than all. Henceforth, the utterance of that sentence is fulfilled, insofar as all have died through him—for “all have died” in Christ (2 Cor 5:14)—and henceforth all can be freed through him from sin and the curse that comes from it and may truly remain forever as risen from the dead and as putting on immortality and incorruptibility. For, as has been often demonstrated, when the Word put on the flesh, he brought about the complete eradication from the flesh of every bite of the serpent and the repulsion of any evil that had sprung up from the movements of the flesh and the annihilation of the death which follows upon sin. (Ar. 2.68-69)
A mere word, a mere lifting of the condemnation, would not have provided the definitive and lasting solution that was needed. At best, it would only have reset history and returned humanity to paradise, with the same vulnerabilities that Adam suffered, thus resulting in an infinite process of disobedience-punishment-forgiveness-restoration. A more radical solution was necessary. And that solution was Pascha … is Pascha.
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb bestowing life.