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?