Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God, Chapter 4, “The Death of Christ”

A Disclaimer on Book Synopses

19. The works that the Savior did in a human body were intended to point fallen man to God. This is equally true of Christ’s death, “Even the very creation broke silence” through darkness, earthquakes, and awe-struck men, confessing “that He Who suffered thereon in the body was not man only, but the Son of God and Saviour of all.” His death was not incidental to his mission, but “the very centre of our faith” and “no less than by his other acts” reveals God to man.

20. Just as the Son alone could (again) make man incorruptible, renew the Image of God, and give knowledge of the Father, so also he alone could pay the “debt” and “settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression.” This is the second reason that the Savior became man, to settle this debt through his sacrificial death in a human body. Through this sacrifice, “He showed himself mightier than death, displaying His own body as the first-fruits of the resurrection.” Athanasius explains that though he already dealt with this theme, it is better and safer to repeat it too much than not enough.

21. Because Christ has died, “we who believe in Christ no longer die, as men died aforetime, in fulfillment of the threat of the law,” and by “the grace of [his] resurrection… we may obtain thereby a better resurrection.” Athanasius then begins to interact with objections concerning the nature of Christ’s death on the cross. First, why could he not have died a more honorable, private death, instead of a public, humiliating crucifixion? If he had died privately, say in his bed, “it would have looked as if He did so in accordance with His [weak] nature.” This would raise questions about his ministry. “How could He fall sick, Who had healed others?” Objection: “Why did He not prevent death, as He did sickness?” Because it was “precisely” in order to die that he was incarnated. Also, “to prevent the death would have impeded the resurrection.”

22. Objection: It would have been better if He had “avoided the designs of the Jews” and death altogether. But this would have been “unfitting.” The Savior “waited” for death because he had come to put an end to it and provide an “offering on behalf of all.” Further, his death was not an “individual act of dying” but the death by which death is destroyed. Athanasius says that “the supreme object” of the Savior’s coming was to accomplish the resurrection for us; so, it would have been “unfitting” for Him to die privately, as though sick, because this would cast doubt on the meaning of the resurrection.

23. If he had hid himself, died privately, and then emerged saying he was resurrected, he would have appeared to be “a teller of tales.” “A secret and unwitnessed death would have left the resurrection without any proof or evidence to support it.”

24. Objection: Even if he must die publicly, why did he not choose a more honorable death and avoid the ignominy of the cross? This would have suggested that his power over death was limited to a certain kind of death, thus casting doubt on the resurrection. So, He allowed death to come to Him in the form of His enemy’s choosing. “A generous wrestler, virile and strong, does not himself choose his antagonists, lest it should be thought that of some of them he is afraid. Rather, he lets the spectators choose them, and that all the more if these are hostile, so that he may overthrow whomever they match against him and thus vindicate his superior strength. Even so was it with Christ.”

25. Meanwhile, Christians ought not to doubt the significance of death on the cross. It was necesary for him to be “hanged on a tree” so that he would bear the curse of sin, break down the wall of seperation between Jews and Gentiles, draw all people to himself, overthrow “the prince of the power of the air” (by dying, hanging in the air), and open the gates of heaven. He did not do these things for Himself, but for us.

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