Would Christ have died of natural causes?

If historians agree on anything, they agree that Jesus of Nazareth did not die of natural causes. His was a brutal death, caused by flogging and crucifixion. Yes, there have been an oddball few who have maintained that Jesus actually survived his crucifixion (raise your hand if you remember The Passover Plot?) or that he never existed at all (once upon a time The Christ Myth by Arthur Drews was popular among the followers of Ayn Rand), but they are few and far between. Jesus died. He did not die by cancer or some other disease. He did not die by an internal malfunction of the body not directly influenced by external forces. He died by violence.

So let’s add the hypothetical clause: If Jesus had not died at Calvary, would he subsequently have died of natural causes, say, old age or cancer or heart disease? Would Christ have died of natural causes?

It’s not a question explicitly addressed by the Church Fathers, but Hatzidakis believes we must explore it. “Depending upon what answer is given to this question,” he comments, “it will reveal, more than any other, one’s understanding of what kind of human nature Christ had, and how He saved us. We believe it will reveal how utterly un-theological the thesis advanced by the postlapsarianists is, that Christ’s human nature was inherently corrupt and mortal, and therefore Christ would have died regardless, as all of us must succumb to the universal law of nature” (Jesus: Fallen?, pp. 212-213).

I am uncomfortable with the raising and answering of this counterfactual question. It requires us to momentarily pretend the incarnate Son did not die on Calvary, to forget what we already know by divine revelation, namely, God came into this world to die on the cross for the salvation of the world. It requires us, in other words, to step outside the biblical story. What if Judas had changed his mind at the last second? What if the Sanhedrin or Pilate had ruled differently and freed Jesus? What if, what then? Would Jesus have returned to Capernaum and lived a long and happy life, with death finally catching up to him in old age? Perhaps, like Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, he would have freely laid down his life in a final sleep, before old age had unmanned him and made him witless. But all this is unbiblical speculation. What we know is that the Word became flesh for to offer his life as a ransom for sinners. Immediately after Peter confessed Jesus as the Messiah, the Lord began to prepare his disciples: “From that time Jesus began to show 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.” And when Peter objected, Jesus firmly rebuked him: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Matt 16:21-23). The Gospel of John also reports our Lord accepting his death as divinely ordained: “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour” (Jn 12:27). Hence the question “Would Christ have died of natural causes?” appears to be ruled out by the Gospels right from the start—not because we have any special insight into the “science” of Incarnation but because we have been given to know that, unlike all other persons who have lived on this planet, the existence of Jesus is completely determined by his salvific mission. In the words of St Athanasius: “If God is born and if He dies, it is not because He is born that He dies, but it is to die that He is born” (quoted by Vladimir Lossky, Orthodox Theology, p. 110).

But let’s run with “Would Christ have died of natural causes?” and see where it leads us. As we do so, I want us to keep in the back of our minds the 6th century heresy known as aphthartodocetism. I have found it difficult to get a good historical grasp of the heresy, as it’s not much discussed in the textbooks. Aloys Grillmeier discusses it in the second volume of his Christ in Christian Tradition, but I found his presentation impenetrable. St John of Damascus briefly describes the aphthartodocetist position in his catalogue of heresies:

The Aphthartodocetae who come from Julian of Halicarnassus and Gaianus of Alexandria, are also called Gaianites. They agree with the Severians in all things, with this one exception, that, while the Severians seem to hold a difference in the union of Christ, they hold that the body of the Lord was incorruptible from the first instant of its formation. They also confess that the Lord endured suffering hunger, I mean, and thirst, and fatigue but they say that He did not suffer these in the same way that we do. For they say that we suffer these by physical necessity, while the Christ suffered them voluntarily and was not subject to the laws of nature. (On Heresies 84)

The theological leader of the Miaphysite Churches, Patriarch Severus of Antioch, vigorously opposed the views of Julian of Halicarnassus. He accused Julian of reducing the passions of Christ to a phantasy.  In 728 the Syrian and Armenian Churches united in a common statement of faith. The fourth anathema states: “If any one affirms that it was not our mortal, peccable and corruptible body, but the body which Adam had before his fall and which by grace was immortal, impeccable and incorruptible, that God the Word united to Himself, let him be anathema” (quoted by V. C. Samuel, “The Manhood of Jesus Christ,” p. 162, n. 20).

Wouldn’t it be ironic if, on the question of the “fallenness” of Christ’s assumed humanity, the Oriental Orthodox Churches have better expressed the Orthodox faith than the author of Jesus: Fallen?

(Go to “The God-Man Who Could Not Die”)

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23 Responses to Would Christ have died of natural causes?

  1. Robert Fortuin says:

    Just a brief thought, which may help us along.

    This issue revolves around the question as to the construal of death (or more broadly passibility)- is death a state of sin, or a condition due to separation from God? The former leads one to a position such as espoused by Fr Hatzidakis (for Christ to be subject to death would mean the assumption of sin), whereas for the latter the incarnation poses no such dilemma. The declaration of Chalcedon, the clarification of Cyril’s so-called battle-cry, and the affirmation of the theopaschite formula addressed this issue (albeit indirectly) during Constantinople II. In short, it denounced the view that passibility is a state of sin.

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  2. Mary Lanser says:

    How can one compare a system where there is only one divine nature in Christ, where there is no Man-God at all, with a system that speak of Man-God? It is interesting that you employ St. John of Damascus in a supporting role here yet do not mention that it is St. John of Damascus who also affirms that the Christ deifies his human nature at the moment of his conception. Again this raises the question of what is the human nature that is assumed? What is the nature of the healing that occurs? The presumption is that the pre-lapsarian Adam and Eve would not die, suffer and corrupt by nature, entirely ignoring the possibility that the pre-lapsarian Adam and Eve would not die, suffer and corrupt, by grace. Without grace all created things die.

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  3. Mike H says:

    What is one to do if they don’t quite accept physical death as something utterly absent from primordial human history…..as notbeing introduced until after the eating of the literal or metaphorical apple, but before?

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      Mike, such a position is not incompatible with the second (Chalcedonian) construal of passibility as I outlined in my comment above. Corruptibility is a consequence of separation from God, the failure of the image to find its fulfillment and completion in its Creator.

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        And here is the dilemma, as posed by Fr Emmanuel Hatzidakis: if death is a consequence of alienation of God, then Christ must have been immortal from the moment he assumed human nature, given that he cannot be alienated from God. Therefore he could not die, unless he himself willed it (with both of his natures). At least that is how I read Hatzidakis.

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        • Julian says:

          I would say that Jesus’ immortal divine nature could have kept his mortal human nature alive indefinitely. But unless a seed fall into the ground and die, it cannot bear much fruit.

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          It is a dilemma if restoration is understood to have taken place at the time of conception. This in turn creates a formidable problem in the redundancy of the resurrection.

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          • Mary Lanser says:

            There is no real redundancy with a deified Christ at the Incarnation and the Resurrection. The fact that His human nature is deified at the moment of his conception does not deify us. Not even his Life, Baptism, Passion, Death, Harrowing of Hades, Ascension and Seating at the Right Hand of the Father will deify human nature as it comes to us who are born in sin and born to sin. Frankly, I would think that such lumenaries as St. John Damascene and St. Maximos Confessor would have thought of such redundancies, if in fact they were. So again, and for the third time in this run of articles, I’ll ask “What is the nature of this “healing” that comes with the Incarnate Son of the Living God”? When the Annointed One enters the waters of the Jordan and they turn back on themselves and all creation is made new at that one ontologically unnecessary act…What does all that mean? How many of the holy fathers of doctrine or the desert, for that matter, teach that at the Baptism of the Christ, his sinful humanity is renewed?

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  4. Julian says:

    “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. 18 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)

    I would add that no thing takes Messuah’s life from him. The human nature of Jesus could not have overcome the divine nature of Jesus. The divine nature of Jesus had to willingly submit to death. So, no, Jesus would not have died of (human) natural causes, unless he chose to die in that manner.

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  5. Julian says:

    Let me add, that as a postlapsarian, I think the purpose of Jesus’ death was to put to death the fallen human nature that he had been united to, so that he could then raise it as a newly created human nature. When we are baptized into Jesus, we are baptized into his death, so that our fallen human nature will also be put to death, that we might partake of his newly created human nature.

    Jesus was put to death unjustly by the minions of Satan – the Romans – so that Satan no longer has any just claim on humanity. That is why it was important that Jesus allow himself to be crucified, instead of suffering a “natural” death.

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    • Mary Lanser says:

      He had been Baptised already by Water and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and the Father who spoke that, of Him, He was well pleased. The Trinity was made manifest. The fathers teach that all Creation was renewed in that act. The Jordan reversed it’s course. There’s nothing in that renewal that demands a death…is there? Or does Christ’s nature remain despoiled while the rest of creation is renewed?

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      • Julian says:

        I hate to think that I disagree with the fathers’ teaching, but I don’t believe that all Creation was renewed in Jesus’ baptism. I believe that he was repenting the fallen human nature that he was born with, even though he had not sinned. The Father bore witness to the fact that the Son had not sinned and did not need to repent, and the Spirit also bore witness to that fact. By submitting to baptism Jesus publicly committed himself to the same fate of death that all sinners are destined to, even though he himself did not deserve death,

        I know that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, the same river that reversed itself when the Israelites entered the promised land, but I think this is Jesus’ first baptism, just as the Red Sea was Yahweh’s first baptism when he followed the Israelites out of Egypt. It was Yahweh’s second baptism, when the Ark entered the Jordan first, ahead of the Israelites, and stopped the river, so that the Israelites could cross it on dry ground. Likewise, I think the Crucifixion was Jesus’ second baptism, where he enters first, ahead of us, so that we also may pass through death and into the promised land of life.

        Otherwise, what need is there for Jesus to die? Why not just the first baptism in the river Jordan?

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        • Mary Lanser says:

          The fact that he deifies His human nature at his conception should be enough, I would think. But the same argument used against a deified human nature also prompts us to wonder why bother with Baptism or the Transfiguration at that rate…Bring a soiled human nature to the Cross and be done with it.

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          • Julian says:

            The Baptism is Jesus’ public commitment that he will submit to sinful humanity’s destiny, though he himself is not sinful, just as Yahweh united himself with Israel when they crossed the Red Sea, in a symbolic act of repentance from the fleshpots of Egypt.

            I think the Transfiguration is to show the three disciples who Jesus really is, the divine Son of God, come in power, though for now hidden from the world.

            But yes, I think the the aim is to bring a soiled human nature to the Cross and be done with it – put it to death – so that it can be raised a new human nature that we can partake in. For if we die with him, we shall also live with him.

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  6. Julian says:

    Oops! Typo! “Messiah,” not “Messuah.”

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  7. Mary Lanser says:

    It really does not matter what any one of us think. What matters is the weight of patristic consensus and on this score the greatest weight bears on the Christ who deified his human nature at the moment of his conception.

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  8. At first thought, it seemed to me that if he had had a ‘prelapsarian’ kind of body, that then he would not have died, had not ‘The Crucifixion” or some other form of ‘murder’ taken place. But he hungered, he thirsted, he slept, wept and he bled when struck. Therefore there was no miraculous self-healing or reanimation of torn flesh while consciously existent in this [mortal] life: otherwise he could not die as if he were some kind of ‘Marvel’ character – I like ‘The Wolverine’ too, but….. – Ha! (But then again, how is his recovery from the wilderness temptations facilitated – angelically, naturally?)

    I remember having these ‘hypotheticals’ with as friend – “If Adam had tripped [prior to eating the fruit], on a rock and cut his knee perhaps, would he have healed up instantaneously and no scar ever been visible” – Ha! What were the healing parameters of let’s say ‘random injuries’ prior to The Fall? If such things could even happen? It seems as though the death of ‘Death” had to take place in his own physical body through a perfect spiritual discipline; “obedience unto death, even death of the cross” – Phil 2:8 But…. Trying to decipher and deintellectualize this; here’s where I think I’ve had a limited understanding.

    St Athanasius in “On the Incarnation” said the following –

    “The marvelous truth is, that being the Word, so far from being Himself contained by anything, He actually contained all things Himself. In creation He is present everywhere, yet is distinct in being from it; ordering, directing, giving life to all, containing all, yet is He Himself the Uncontained, existing solely in His Father. As with the whole, so also is it with the part. Existing in a human body, to which He Himself gives life, He is still Source of life to all the universe, present in every part of it, yet outside the whole; and He is revealed both through the works of His body and through His activity in the world. It is, indeed, the function of soul to behold things that are outside the body, but it cannot energize or move them. A man cannot transport things from one place to another, for instance, merely by thinking about them; nor can you or I move the sun and the stars just by sitting at home and looking at them. With the Word of God in His human nature, however, it was otherwise. His body was for Him not a limitation, but an instrument, so that He was both in it and in all things, and outside all things, resting in the Father alone. At one and the same time—this is the wonder—as Man He was living a human life, and as Word He was sustaining the life of the universe, and as Son He was in constant union with the Father.

    Not even His birth from a virgin, therefore, changed Him in any way, nor was He defiled by being in the body. Rather, He sanctified the body by being in it. For His being in everything does not mean that He shares the nature of everything, only that He gives all things their being and sustains them in it. Just as the sun is not defiled by the contact of its rays with earthly objects, but rather enlightens and purifies them, so He Who made the sun is not defiled by being made known in a body, but rather the body is cleansed and quickened by His indwelling, “Who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth.

    You must understand, therefore, that when writers on this sacred theme speak of Him as eating and drinking and being born, they mean that the body, as a body, was born and sustained with the food proper to its nature; while God the Word, Who was united with it, was at the same time ordering the universe and revealing Himself through His bodily acts as not man only but God. Those acts are rightly said to be His acts, because the body which did them did indeed belong to Him and none other; moreover, it was right that they should be thus attributed to Him as Man, in order to show that His body was a real one and not merely an appearance. From such ordinary acts as being born and taking food, He was recognized as being actually present in the body; but by the extraordinary acts which He did through the body He proved Himself to be the Son of God.”

    So from this reflection one might conclude that it was potentially more ‘postlapsarian’ in that simply being [incarnate] He sanctified the body i.e.[human kind] in such a way as to truly be [like] the ‘Second Adam’ -1 Cor. 15. So, it’s not strictly ‘obedience’ that qualifies him as a ‘perfect man’, but rather simply being ‘found in the flesh’ – or both actually. But here’s the thing. If one does this, it is then kind of setting up a Supra, Sub and Infra Lapsarian [order] which ties into the whole Calvinistic matrix of ‘predestination’. However, as someone who likes to avoid all this ‘who’s chosen kerfuffle’ and embrace a more ‘Barthian’ approach where the Triune God eternally elects, or chooses, in divine freedom, to be for humanity the God of grace and love. Therefore, in Jesus Christ, who is fully God and fully man, God is both the elector and the elected. Could He do this though successfully if he had elected post-lapsarian ‘sinful’ flesh?

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  9. Maximus says:

    Fr. Georges Florovsky:

    Julian also seemed to be a Docetist to Severus. It is true that in his polemic with Julian Severus was not unbiased. Later orthodox polemicists argued not so much with Julian as with his carried-away followers. In any case, Julian’s original compositions do not contain that coarse Docetism which his opponents talked so much about when they charged that his doctrine of the innate “imperishability” — αφθαρσία — of the Savior’s body turned the mystery of Redemption into some “fantasy and dream” (hence the name “fantasiasts”). Julian’s system of the “imperishability” of Christ’s body is connected not with his understanding of the unity of the God-Man but with his understanding of original sin, with its general anthropological premises. Here Julian is very close to St. Augustine — this is, of course, a similarity and not a dependence Ausustine. Of the Monophysite theologians Julian is closest to Philoxenus Julian considers man’s primordial nature to be “imDerishable,” “non-suffering,” “non-mortal” and free also from the so-called “irreproachable passions;” that is, weakness or the states of “suffering” in general — πάθη αδιάβλητα. The Fall substantially and hereditarily damages human nature — human nature became weak, mortal and perishable. In the Incarnation God the Logos assumes the nature of the primordial Adam, a nature which is “impassive” and “imperishable.” He thus becomes the New Adam. Therefore Christ suffered and died not “because of the necessity of nature” — not εξ ανάγκης φυσικής, but through his will, “for the sake of oikonomia — λόγω οικονομίας “through the will of Divinity,” “by way of a miracle.” However, Christ’s suffering and death were real and authentic, not an “opinion” or “apparition.” But they were entirely free, since this was not the death of a “perishable” and an “impassioned” (“suffering”) man, and since they did not contain the fatal doom of the Fall. There is still no heresy in this doctrine. But it comes close to another. Julian’s conception of the unity of the God-Man is tighter than Severus.’ He refuses to “enumerate” or distinguish the “natural qualities” in the God-Man synthesis. He even refuses to distinguish “in addition” “two essences” after union. For him, the concept of “essence” had the same concrete (“individual”) sense as the concept of “nature” or “hypostasis.” In the Logos’ Incarnation the “imperishability” of the accepted body is so secured by its tight unity with Divinity that in suffering and death it is removed by a certain oikonomic tolerance on the part of God. As Julian understood it, this did not violate the Savior’s human “con-substantiality.” In any case, however, this clearly exaggerated the “potential assimilability” of the human by the Divine by virture of the Incarnation itself. Again, this is connected with a lack of feeling for freedom and with a passive understanding of “theosis” or “divinization.” Julian understood “imperishability” of primordial human nature as its objective condition rather than as a free possibility, and he understood “impassiveness” and “imperishability” in Christ too passively. It is this quietism which violates the equilibrium of Julian’s system. He did not proceed from an analysis of metaphysical concepts. In his system one clearly senses the deciding significance of the soteriological ideal. Julian’s followers went even further. They were called “apntartodocetists” (“imperishable valetudinarians”) and “fantaslasts. These names set off well that quietism — rather than “Docetism” — which is so striking in their way of thinking. The numan is passively transformed. Others of Julian’s followers felt that it was impossible to call this transformation and impossible to call the divinized humanity in the unity of the God-Man “creatural.”

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  10. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “I am uncomfortable with the raising and answering of this counterfactual question.”

    Yet, the Fall was not necessary. So it seems possible to consider the possible ‘factualities’ of both continuing unfallen human existence and of non-salvific Incarnation into such unfallen humanity.

    Would unfallen human existence need not only sustaining but perfecting? If so, what form(s) might that perfecting take? How would it be related to the rest of (not purely intelligential) creation? And how would it be related to possible Incarnation?

    E.g., could there be a creaturely perfecting not involving theosis? But to which theosis could be superadded? And to which it was very good (though not necessary) that theosis be superadded? But, in what (if any) sense could a non-salvific Incarnation have involved a perfecting of the Humanitas without (further proceeding to) its theosis?

    How did salvific Incarnation differ from possible non-salvific Incarnation?

    I have not looked it up again (yet), but I seem to remember in Morgoth’s Ring, Tolkien imagining (which need not be to say, speculating about in a strict sense) the possibility of unfallen human persons coming into being but not then persisting co-terminously with the rest of (not purely intelligential) creation but passing out of it as by (something very like) Assumption, though without ‘death’ in any other sense than passing out of the ongoing rest of creation. But this would seem to be something distinct from, and less excellent than, theosis. Even if one imagined the perfection of such an unfallen human person in terms of some sort of epektasis, it would still be less than theosis.

    Would Incarnation be necessary for theosis in any case (given the particular form of creation actually created)?

    Could the Incarnation into the fallen creation have produced the perfection of the Son’s human body-soul-and-spirit without the death of the body, but not have been salvific so? Is the death characteristic of fallen human persons ‘one of the things’ that had to be ‘assumed’ in order for the human nature of fallen human to be ‘annealed’?

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  11. Karen says:

    On the whole, I resonate with Mary Lanser’s take on this.

    In response to David Llewellyn Dodd’s questions, it seems to me “theosis” would be the only proper descriptor of either a “perfection” of unfallen humanity or “salvation” of humanity from a sinful fallen state because theosis is the proper Telos of humanity in either case and neither is possible apart from Grace. Following the Greek Fathers as I understand their teaching on this, both describe the moving of man from his “immature” (or fallen) natural state to his perfected state through the operation of Grace. The first simply doesn’t first require purification from sin, but this is moot anyway, since humanity is fallen and all of us require both purification from sin and deification in order to attain our proper Telos in Christ (and both require God’s first uniting Himself with us in Christ via His Incarnation, according to the Greek Fathers).

    In answer to the larger question in this post, since even Enoch and Elijah, both born in sin, were translated prior to the Incarnation of Christ, without physical death, to their deified state, according to the Scriptures as a result of their walking with God, I don’t think it’s a leap to suggest Jesus’ would not have died, despite assuming human nature, had He not willed it. Are we not told even His would-be murderers could not touch Him until the appointed time? (I’m thinking of the episode in the Gospels where the mob wanted to throw Him off a cliff–was it for rebuking the unbelief of His home town?) Also, 1) reflecting on the lives of the Saints (some of whom have even subsisted for significant periods of time without eating anything but the Eucharist and with very little sleep, etc.) and 2) on the meaning of the Transfiguration (as revealing the glory of Christ’s Incarnate nature as God, not bestowing it; the Fathers’ teaching being it was the opening of the spiritual perception of Christ’s three chosen Apostles that occurred on the Mount of Transfiguration, not any change in Jesus’ true glory as God), I believe even Jesus’ assumption of the “blameless” passions was voluntary, although no less for that matter truly and really experienced by Him for our sakes.

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