Would Jesus have died of natural causes? The oddity of the question becomes clear when we compare it to another: Would Abraham Lincoln have died of natural causes if he had not attended Ford’s Theatre on that fateful evening? The obvious answer is we don’t know. Perhaps another attempt might have been made on his life a year later. Perhaps he might have died in his sleep at the age of 95. The only thing we know is that he would have died, one way or the other. But matters become more complicated when we consider the question about Jesus. We hesitate to give a simple yes or not. The confession of his divinity constrains us. Not only does it seem unfitting that the incarnate Word might have grown old and feeble, eventually dying of tuberculosis, cancer, or heart disease; but it scandalously subjects him to the necessities of fallen existence. Fr Emmanuel Hatzidakis puts it this way:
Of course the Lord assumed a body capable of dying precisely in order to die—as He did. But what is our understanding about its mortality: was it mortal by necessity, or was its mortality voluntarily assumed? The Church chants, “Let us sing hymns of praise to Him who of His own free will was crucified in the flesh, suffered, was buried and rose from the dead for us,” testifying to the voluntary passion of the Lord. How would Christ’s death be a sacrifice if it were necessarily imposed on Him, if He were not completely free, especially in His humanity, to embrace it voluntarily? We have no say over our death. We are all subject to it. If Christ’s body were “like” ours, He would have to necessarily die. Notice well the gravity of the utterance: If He Had not died of violent death He would have died “like” us of a “natural” (read unnatural) death, having no choice over this matter. In his old age he would be confined to a wheelchair, then His organs would fail, “like” ours do. Judas indeed would be His best friend, allowing Him to offer “morally” His doomed life for our salvation. If we held that at His conception Christ took on a corrupt and mortal humanity, we would still be faced with the same problem: His “fate” would have been sealed, and He would have to accept it with His human will by necessity. On further point: We Orthodox emphasize free will, synergy, and cooperation. But in Christ’s case we would be denying Him those precious gifts. Virgin Mary was free to accept or reject God’s call. Christ, in His human will, would have had no real choice. In essence the hypothesis would lead us into some sort of Monotheletism and Monoenergism. (Jesus: Fallen?, p. 100)
Hatzidakis is alarmed by the picture of the incarnate Word having to endure the necessities imposed by fallen existence. The picture of an elderly Jesus confined to a nursing home, unable to feed and clothe himself, lying in his own excrement, is revolting; but is it any worse than the image of Jesus hanging on a cross in weakness and agony, struggling to breathe, his body finally succumbing to “hypovolemic shock, exhaustion asphyxia, and perhaps acute heart failure”? (“On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” p. 463). We have so sanitized Calvary we no longer feel its horror. Hatzidakis might reasonably reply that it’s not the manner of death, whether by crucifixion or nursing home, that offends him but the absence of choice. Fair enough. We’ll explore the question of freedom in a future article. Yet I do not think I am just reading between the lines when I suggest that another dynamic is also at work in Jesus: Fallen?
Throughout the history of the Church, believers have devised theological and pastoral strategies to minimize the sufferings of the God-Man, if not eliminate them altogether. Let’s call it the Docetic spirit. It seems to us neither just nor even metaphysically possible that the almighty and merciful Creator should endure torture and death. At the beginning of the second century we find St Ignatius of Antioch condemning those who would reduce the sufferings of Christ to mythological appearance:
For he suffered all these things for our sakes, in order that we might be saved, and he truly suffered just as he truly raised himself—not, as certain unbelievers say, that he suffered in appearance only (it is they who exist in appearance only!). Indeed, their fate will be determined by what they think: they will become disembodied and demonic. (Smyr. 2)
And of the Trallians he asked: “But if, as some atheists (that is, unbelievers) say, he suffered in appearance only (while they exist in appearance only!), why am I in chains?” (Trall. 10). According to the Docetists, explains Fr Patrick Henry Reardon, “the Son of God wore a semblance of humanity, like a costume, as it were, a kind of actor’s mask. Donning this mask, He ‘played a part’ in the human drama, rather like the various gods of the Iliad—or, for that matter, the biblical angels, who ‘appeared’ on earth.”
But while it’s easy to meet the Docetic heresy head-on, it’s far more difficult to exorcize the pious impulse to protect Jesus from finitude and suffering, as Hatzidakis’s patristic documentation well demonstrates. St Hilary of Poitiers speculates that while Jesus suffered the pain of crucifixion, he did so “without its consciousness”—his earthly body had a unique nature of its own (pp. 94-95). St Athanasius conjectures that the dominical body was naturally immune to illness and disease, for it would be unfitting for the one who healed disease to be subject to it (pp. 219-220, 247-248). St Maximus the Confessor stipulates that it was incorruptible and therefore, by implication, invulnerable to physical harm (p. 204). St Gregory Palamas tells us that once Jesus reached the maturity of his youth, he stopped aging (p. 221). St John of Damascus assures us that Jesus possessed all knowledge of which a human soul is capable (p. 376). (Hatzidakis therefore suggests that Jesus never laughed at a good joke. Humor, after all, depends on surprise [p. 86].) Each of these Fathers rejected the heresy of Docetism; each taught the complete humanity of the Savior; each affirmed the divine Word’s assumption of the innocent passions. Yet each also attributed to the pre-resurrection Jesus one or more qualities that seem to divorce him from humanity in ways we might deem not only soteriologically but humanly important. These Fathers, of course, go on to assert that Jesus voluntarily chose to experience hunger, thirst, fatigue, physical pain—yet the evangelical damage is already done. A dangerous gap has been created between the Jesus of the biblical story and the dyophysite Christ of dogma. We are thus left wondering whether the divine Son ever truly knew the drama and pathos of human existence, whether he ever truly became Man. The spectre of Docetism hovers over the theological proceedings.
The critical issue for Hatzidakis is the deification of humanity at the moment of enfleshment:
Although the Lord’s body was by its nature, as a created substance, subject to corruption and death, on account of being the body of the Lord who is the source of Life, it acquired qualities ordinary bodies do not possess. Because of its union with the divinity of the Logos, His body was rendered incorruptible and immortal, much as our bodies will become, when, united with Christ as members of His Body, the Church, they will be raised imperishable and immortal. Yet he voluntarily assumed passibility and mortality in order to render our bodies imperishable through His conquering of death. …
Christ’s flesh is delivered from corruptibility and mortality when the immortal Word of God created it at the very instant he assumed it. The created and finite existence of the humanity He assumed, by virtue of its union with the eternal God in the person of the divine Logos, becomes incorruptible and immortal. … If Christ were necessarily and inherently mortal it would mean that He was not God in the flesh and that He was not in personal communion with God, the source of immortality. If Christ were “fallen” He would be in his humanity exactly like us, subject to the necessity of death. …
Christ’s created humanness is in perfect communion with God, sharing his immortality. He never experienced the ontological consequence of the break of communion with God (death), with all its concomitant consequences, because upon conception He is inseparably united with divinity. The fallen state of separation and alienation from God never occurred nor could it occur in the humanness of the Incarnate God. (pp. 202-204)
When the eternal Logos joins himself to human nature in the womb of the Virgin, he saturates it with his divine energies and incorporates it into the trinitarian being of the Godhead. At that moment mortal flesh becomes immortal. “Christ did not reach deification as the Saints do,” Hatzidakis elaborates, “but was deified at the very instant of the formation of His body in the womb of the most holy Virgin” (p. 101). Dominical theosis is an abiding state, not a dynamic process. In a very real sense, Christ’s salvific work is accomplished at the Annunciation. Hatzidakis’s view immediately raises this question: What is the difference between Christ’s pre-resurrection body and his glorified body? His answer may surprise: no difference at all! Well, that’s not quite accurate. There’s a difference but only in terms of economia:
We should again emphasize that Christ is the almighty God in human flesh. He did not acquire His divine power after His resurrection; He was not rewarded by being given a glory He did not previously possess. Christ has full knowledge of His divine power even in the depth of His humiliation. At the time of His suffering the Evangelist testifies: “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands” (John 13:3). Christ was not exalted after His resurrection or ascension, for whom all the treasures of knowledge and wisdom were hidden in Him (see Col. 2:3) and the fullness of deity dwelt in Him (see Col. 2:9) since the beginning. He speaks with authority, even in His humiliation: “For this is the will of My Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:40). The “I” is that of the Incarnate Son of God, who has the power to raise people from the dead and grant them eternal life. Surely, He must have Himself what’s in His power to grant to others, immortality and life eternal, in His humanity. He declared the full authority He had received from His Father after the resurrection (see Mt. 28:18), but He did not receive it after His resurrection or ascension. …
After his resurrection the new life in its fullness is offered to us, not to Himself. With His resurrection Christ did not renew Himself; He renewed us. “Christ rose from the dead … renewing in Himself the corrupt nature of our race” [Sunday Matins, 3rd Tone]. He subjected Himself to death, not because He had to, but because we had to be freed from corruption. He assumed voluntarily what He was not, in order to renew what we were. As Christ accepted by His free human will in concert with His divine will, the “blameless passions,” that is corruptibility and mortality, likewise it was by the power of His dual will that He laid them aside after His resurrection, as no longer needed, because the plan of redemption was accomplished. After the resurrection His body is no longer subject to corruption, not because it was physically changed and rendered incorrupt and immortal by the resurrection, but because He had accomplished His mission, which was the defeat of the archenemy, the devil. …
Christ’s body was already “restored, perfect, [and] incorruptible” at His conception; it did not become glorious at His resurrection, because the body He took for Himself was like that of Adam and more glorious than his, because it was the body of God. … The body of the Lord remained the same after the resurrection. As it was firm in goodness prior to His resurrection, so it was after His resurrection. (pp. 466-468)
The resurrection, in other words, does not effect the transformation of human nature. It represents only Christ’s jettisoning of the blameless passions. At that point the benefits of the Incarnation became available to all.
If the body of Christ was always radiant in its uncreated glory, why didn’t anyone, everyone, notice? Because human beings were still trapped in darkness and sin. The grace of theosis had not yet been made universally available. Jesus could only be seen as a mere man, therefore, and not in his uncreated glory. The event of the Transfiguration is properly interpreted not as something that happened to Jesus but as something that happened to Peter, James, and John—the purification of nous and the gifting of new spiritual faculties. Hatzidakis quotes St Gregory Palamas: “At that moment, the initiate disciples of the Lord ‘passed … from flesh to spirit’ by the transformation of their senses, which the Spirit wrought in them, and so they saw that ineffable light, when and as much as the Holy Spirit’s power granted them to do so” (p. 434). Whereas Western Christians think of God as actively hiding himself in the flesh of Jesus during his earthly ministry, Orthodoxy teaches that the divine glory was always visible. We simply lacked the spiritual eyes to see:
The Transfiguration of Christ holds the key to our understanding as to what kind of human body that Christ did have and how the natural, blameless passions worked in Him. Christ allows His disciples to see Him not in a form He would take after his resurrection (as Western scholarship often sees it), but as He was “in the days of His flesh” and as He shall continue to be and appear for all eternity: God in the flesh. … If the human nature of Christ were inherently subject to corruption and death it would mean that what the disciples witnessed on Mount Tabor was a mirage, a vision planted in their brain of the glory of Christ, as it would be revealed after the resurrection. However this is not what the Church teaches. The Church proclaims that Christ was always enveloped in His glory, as our progenitors were before the fall and before God clothed them with “the garments of skin.” He replaces their lost glory with incomparably greater glory, on account of His hypostatic union. (p. 436; cf. The Orthodox Understanding of Salvation by Christopher Veniamin)
We can now plainly see why Hatzidakis puts such a strong emphasis on the voluntary submission of the human will of Christ to suffering and death. The sinless Jesus is constitutionally incapable of experiencing either. If he were, he would thereby be demonstrated to be a sinner, alienated from God and in need himself of salvation. This problem is resolved by the Lord’s free acceptance of the conditions of fallen existence: “Far from inheriting a corrupt body, on account of which the Lord would be led inexorably to death, the body assumed by the divine Logos was not subject to corruption and death. Christ lived a sinless life, therefore He could not die, unless He would lay down His life voluntarily to save the sheep that was lost” (p. 281). In my previous article I raised the question of aphthartodocetism. I am still unable to distinguish (at least in any significant way) Hatzidakis’s views on the immortality of Christ’s earthly body from the sixth century heresy propounded by Julian of Halicarnassus. The similarities are striking.
We return to the question with which we began this article: Would Jesus have died of natural causes? Fr Emmanuel Hatzidakis’s emphatic answer—no.
Are you satisfied with this answer? I am not. Not only does it force us to read the gospel narratives against their plain meaning, but it evacuates the death and resurrection of Christ of its salvific content. Pascha is projected back into the conception of Jesus, thus rendering everything that comes after in his life as soteriologically irrelevant. The resurrection becomes the merely public revelation of what God already accomplished at the Annunciation, not the death of death nor the recreation of humanity. That we end up with such a conclusion should warn us that we have made a theological misstep somewhere along the way. The Incarnation should not be limited to that single moment when the Word crafted a body for himself within the womb of Mary. God takes to himself not just a body but a history. Throughout his earthly life, the divine Son is becoming flesh, becoming the man defined by messianic vocation and a life of love and sacrifice. The patristic doctrine of the Incarnation, with its sophisticated elaboration of two natures and two wills, was never intended to replace the narrated Savior. “God’s eternal Word,” writes Reardon, “assumed not only our human nature—considered abstractly and in general—but the concrete, historical circumstances of an individual human life” (The Jesus We Missed, p. 27).
Contrast Hatzidakis’s static construal of Incarnation with the more biblical, historical, dynamic (dare I say, more Orthodox) construal of Fr John Meyendorff:
The true dimension of the humanity of Jesus can only be understood in the context of soteriology. He assumed human nature in its fallen state and He brought it to the Father in its original, transfigured form. This salvation act was done in time, not only in the sense that Jesus grew as a man, going through the normal process of human maturing, but also in the paschal sense. He was the New Passover leading Israel not from Egypt to Canaan, but from death to life: “Christ, Our Passover, was sacrificed, writes St Paul. “Passover” implies a passage from one situation to another, a radical change, salvation. The Christian Gospel tells us that this change happened precisely in the person of Christ. If he did not assume that fallen humanity which was to be saved, which was to be healed and transformed; if, as some had imagined, He was immune to disease or any death-causing event, and was destined to live indefinitely within fallen time, no true salvation or change would ontologically occur in and through His humanity. That humanity would have to be conceived only as a screen, covering a theophany, which would be seen as operating by itself, in a short of magic exercise of divine omnipotence, with the human nature ceasing to be what we are as soon as Divinity touched it. (“Christ’s Humanity,” pp. 27-28)
Indeed, the Incarnation in all its aspects was an expression of the free will of God. But God willed precisely that, as man, Jesus, since his conception in the womb of Mary, would be fully conditioned by what our human, fallen existence is: he lived in time, “grew in wisdom,” did not know, suffered, and died. On the other hand, the hypostatic union—i.e., the conception and the birth of the God-man Jesus—is not yet by itself a deification of Jesus’ human nature. Deification would have been a somewhat automatic happening if, as some have supposed, the Incarnation was simply the manifestation of a pre-existing God-manhood of the Logos, fulfilled when he became a human being. In fact, the Incarnation implied tragedy and struggle. The Creator, by assuming the created and fallen flesh, met evil and death face to face. He met and overcame these realities of the fallen world, which he did not create but only tolerated. This tolerance reached its ultimate point when the incarned Son of God accepted a human death on the cross: this ultimate point was also his ultimate victory. (“New Life in Christ,” pp. 494-495; also see Patrick Henry Reardon, Reclaiming the Atonement)
Meyendorff’s christological approach accords the events of Christ’s life and death their full soteriological power and significance. Incarnation becomes a truly kenotic act. The divine Son enters into history, taking upon himself the disease of sin and conquering death in paschal victory. And so every Easter we sing:
Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs