Athanasius on the Binding of Death

From Athanasius (ca. 4th century), On the Incarnation of the Word of God:

“Death has become like a tyrant who has been completely conquered by the legitimate monarch; bound hand and foot as he now is, the passers-by jeer at him, hitting him and abusing him, no longer afraid of his cruelty and rage, because of the king who has conquered him. So has death been conquered and branded for what it is by the Saviour on the cross. It is bound hand and foot, all who are in Christ trample it as they pass and as witnesses to Him deride it, scoffing and saying, “O Death, where is thy victory? O Grave, where is thy sting?”


Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God, Chapter 9, “Conclusion”

A Disclaimer on Book Synopses

56. Athanasius concludes with some final words to Macarius, urging him to “prove” [test?] the truthfulness of this treatise “by the study of the Scriptures” which were “written and inspired by God.” The Scriptures also speak of Christ’s second coming, “when He shall come not in lowliness but in His proper glory.”

57. However, Athanasius adds this caveat, “But for the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and a pure soul, and for Christian virtue to guide the mind to grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life.”

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Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God, Chapter 8, “Refutation of the Gentiles (Part 2)”

A Disclaimer on Book Synopses

46. The idolatry of the nations began to decline after Christ’s coming. “When did people abandon the worship of idols… [and] oracles ceased and become void of meaning, among Greeks and everywhere, except since the Saviour has revealed Himself on earth?” “But now all over the world men are forsaking the fear of idols and taking refuge with Christ; and by worshipping Him as God they come through Him to know the Father also, Whom formerly they did not know.”

47. Athanasius proceeds to list examples of this cessation: the oracles of Delphi and Dordona, the deception of demons, belief in Zeus, Kronos, and Apollo, the practice of magic, regard for Greek wisdom. But because of “the soujourn of the Word” Christ is proclaimed instead of oracles, demons are driven out by the sign of the cross, Christ is “recognized as true God, Word of God, God Himself,” magic has been confuted by the Truth, and Christ through “common speech” has convinced multitudes  to despise death and look to eternal things.

48. This leavening effect of Christ is known by experience– young men who practice chastity and the “glad company of martyrs,” as but two examples. Who is He who has had such an effect on the world? Not mere man, for he has proved stronger than the ‘gods;’ not a magician, because he has destroyed the magical arts; not a demon for he has driven out demons. In light of his works, “it must be manifest and will be owned by all that He is in truth Son of God, Existent Word and Wisdom and Power of the Father.”

49-50. Christ’s works show him to be God. What man has ever formed his own body in the womb, healed diseases, restored limbs, and caused those who were blind since birth to see? What man’s death has ever caused the sun to darken and the earth to shake? “Has any man’s teaching, in any place or at any time, ever prevailed everywhere as one and the same, from one end of the earth to the other, so that his worship has fairly flown through every land?”

51. What man has ever been able to teach virginity and did not account it “impossible for human beings?” Christ has “so prevailed” in this teaching that “even children not yet of lawful age promise that virginity which transcends the law.”  Whose teaching has ever been able to penetrate into Scythia, Ethiopia, Parthia, Armenia, Hyrcania, Egypt, Chaldea– people ensalved to idolatry, magic, savagery, and demons– and preach virtue and the rejection of idols, as has “the Lord of all, the Power of God, our Lord Jesus Christ?” Cruel and murderous men who have “[come] over to the school of Christ” have laid aside their violence and “war-mindedness.”

52. Who has created such peace, except “the beloved Son of the Father, the common Saviour of all, Jesus Christ, Who by His own love underwent all things for our salvation?”

53. Did anyone ever fight against so many things as successfully as did the Saviour: the whole system of idol-worship, the whole host of daemons, all magic, and all the wisdom of the Greeks at a time when these flourished as did our Lord, the very Word of God? “[E]ven now he [is] invisibly exposing every man’s error, and singled-handed is carrying off all men from them all, so that those who used to worship idols now tread them under foot, reputed magicians burn their books and the wise prefer to all studies the interpretation of the gospels.”

54. The doubter is asked to examine these works. If they are merely human works, “then let him scoff; but if they be of God… let him recognise the fact and marvel that things divine have been revealed to us by such humble means…”

55. Athanasius concludes, “Now this is the proof that Christ is God, the Word and Power of God. For whereas human things cease and the fact of Christ remains, it is clear to all that the things which cease are temporary, but that He Who remains is God and very Son of God, the sole-begotten Word.”

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Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God, Chapter 7, “Refutation of Gentiles (Part 1)”

A Disclaimer on Book Synopses

41. Athanasius turns to Gentile critics. He asks, “[W]hat is there in our belief that is unfitting or ridiculous? Is it only that we say that the Word has been manifested in a body?” Greek philosophers argue that the universe is a body. If the Logos (Word) is present in this ‘body’ governing and sustaining it, “what is there surprising or unfitting in our saying that He has entered also into human nature? If it were unfitting for Him to have embodied Himself at all, then it would be unfitting for Him to have entered into the universe, and to be giving light and movement by His providence to all things in it, because the universe, as we have seen, is itself a body.”

42. Similarly, “A man’s personality actuates and quickens his whole body.” If someone were to argue that it is unfitting for the man’s power to be used in his toe, they would be mocked, because “while granting that a man penetrates and actuates the whole of his body, he denied his presence in the part.” It is similar to the Word’s presence and power in the incarnate body of our Lord. His special presence in a human body is perfectly in line with the fact that the Word is present throughout creation. Nor is man’s createdness out of nothing a hindrance to the Word’s incarnation, because creation (which the Word is present in) was also created out of nothing; Athanasius puts forward the proposition, “the reasoning which applies to [creation, broadly] applies to [human nature, specifically].”

43. Athanasius answers an objection: why did not the Word manifest himself by other means– the sun, moon, fire? Why incarnation? “The Lord did not come to make a display. He came to heal and to teach suffering men.” Because of this mission, He came in a manner “according as they could bear it, not vititating the value of the Divine appearing by exceeding their capacity to receive it.” Further, the sun and moon have not turned away from their created design, but man has; he has turned to worship creation as though it were God. Because of this, “the Divine goodness” took for himself a part of creation (a human body) and employed it so as to gain the attention of idolatrous-humans and turn their minds from creation back to the Creator. Athanasius makes two additional points in this section. First, the Word’s dwelling in creation does not mean that he “shares its nature; on the contrary, all created things partake of His power. Similarly, though He used the body as His instrument, He shared nothing of its defect, but rather sanctified it by His indwelling.” Secondly, this activity of the Word is not out of line with Plato’s view of the Author of the universe, that if the Author saw the universe “sinking into the state of dissolution” He would take “his seat at the helm of the Life-force of the universe, and [come] to the rescue and [put] everything to rights…” This is what the Word has done in the incarnation.

44. But why did not God simply recreate man after the fall? This is how he accomplished his will in man originally, why not again? Because the circumstances were “quite different.” God’s creative act of will brought man from a state of non-existence to a state of existence, “but once man was in existence, and things that were, not things that were not, demanded to be healed, it followed as a matter of course that the Healer and Saviour should align Himself with those things that existed already, in order to heal the existing evil.” He did this through the “instrument” of a human body, because the evil of corruption and death had been “woven” into the nature of the body, and had to be healed through the body.

45. Thus, the Word’s incarnation is entirely fitting with his being and work. Further, by accomplishing salvation through the instrumentation of a human body, he has filled “all things everywhere with the knowledge of Himself…” The various idolatries of man when filled with the knowledge of the incarnate Word, lead fallen man back to the Father.

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Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God, Chapter 6, “Refutation of the Jews”

A Disclaimer on Book Synopses

33. Having expounded the doctrine of the incarnation of the Word at length, Athanasius turns his attention to its critics, both Jewish and Gentile. Athanasius asserts, “It seems that in both cases the points at issue are the same, namely the unfittingness or incongruity (as it seems to them) alike of the cross and of the Word’s becoming man at all.” In this chapter Athanasius addresses Jewish opponents.  He argues, “Their unbelief has its refutation in the Scriptures which even themselves read; for from cover to cover the inspired Book clearly teaches these things both in its entirety and in its actual words.” Athanasius points them to passages that speak of the virgin birth (Isa. 7:14) and the messiah’s kingdom (Num. 26:5-17, 17, Isa. 8:14). “These words, then, foretell that a Man shall appear. And Scripture proclaims further that He that is to come is Lord of all.”

34. Additionally, the Scriptures prophesy of Christ’s death, and that he died not for his own sake “but for the sake of bringing immortality and salvation to all.” They also prophesy of the indignities he would suffer at the hands of the Jews. Athanasius then expounds verses from Isaiah 53.

35. Further, the Scriptures prophesy of Christ’s death by way of crucifixion, “Even this is not passed over in silence…” (Deut. 28:66, Jer. 11:9, Ps. 22:16-18). “Now a death lifted up and that takes place on wood can be none other than the death of the cross; moreover, it is only in that death that the hands and feet are pierced.” Athanasius asks rhetorically which Old Testament saint these things could have been fulfilled in?

36. Athanasius continues this line of rhetorical argument, “Then, again, what king that ever was reigned and took trophies from his enemies before he had strength to call father or mother? Was not David thirty years old when he came to the throne and Solomon a grown young man?… Obviously there must be someone, for the prophet could not have told a lie. But did any of the holy prophets or of the early patriarchs die on the cross for the salvation of all?”

37. Athanasius’s questions continue, “Again, does Scripture tell of anyone who was pierced in hands and feet or hung upon a tree at all, and by means of a cross perfected his sacrifice for the salvation of all?… Who is it, then, of Whom Holy Writ thus speaks? Who is there so great that even prophets foretell of Him such mighty things? There is indeed no one in the Scriptures at all save the common Saviour of all, the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ.” Athanasius sees in the advance of the Gospel through Egypt in his day, the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, “for at no other time have the Egyptians ceased from their false worship save when the Lord of all, riding as on a cloud, came down here in the body and brought the error of idols to nothing and won everybody to Himself through Himself to the Father.”

38. Athanasius then cites OT passages that refer to the ingathering of the Gentiles (Isa. 65:1-2) and miraculous healings (Isa. 35:3-6). “When therefore did these things happen, unless when the Word of God Himself came in the body?”

39-40. In response to these points, Jews will maintain that they are still awaiting the Messiah’s coming. Athanasius argues from Daniel 9:24-25 that Daniel, “signifies the actual date of the Saviour’s coming as well as His Divine soujourn in our midst.” Athanasius’s argument is that the plundering of Jerusalem and the cessation of dreams, visions, and prophecy have happened in accordance with the coming of Christ. “When did prophet and vision cease from Israel? Was it not when Christ came, the Holy One of holies?” Jerusalem, with all its types and shadows, stood until “Essential Righteousness” came. But upon his coming, Jersualem’s function as well as that of the prophets was completed and “sealed.” Athanasius then points to other passages that prophecy that the kingdom of the Jews would stand until Christ’s coming (Gen. 49:10; Matt. 11:13; Ps. 118:27). This concludes his refutation to the Jews.

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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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Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God, Chapter 5, “The Resurrection”

A Disclaimer on Book Synopses

26. After accomplishing the “salvation of the world” through his death on the cross, He did not allow his body to “linger” in the grave but raised it up on the third day, “impassible and incorruptible, the pledge and token of His victory.” He could have risen sooner, but this might have cast doubt on the reality of his death. He could have waited longer, but some might have forgotten, and so doubted that it was the same body as died on the cross. Rather, with news of his death “still ringing in [people’s] ears” he arose in the same body, showing his power over death.

27. Prior to Christ’s resurrection, “even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all who believe on Christ tread it underfoot as nothing.” “Death has become like a tyrant who has been completely conquered by the legitimate monarch; bound hand and foot as he now is, the passers-by jeer at him, hitting him and abusing him, no longer afraid of his cruelty and rage, because of the king who has conquered him. So has death been conquered and branded for what it is by the Saviour on the cross. It is bound hand and foot, all who are in Christ trample it as they pass and as witnesses to Him deride it, scoffing and saying, “O Death, where is thy victory? O Grave, where is thy sting?”

28. As additional proof of Christ’s victory over death, Athanasius points to martyrs, even boys and girls, who did not fear the approach of death because of faith in the cross of Christ. Athanasius challenges the unbeliever “to embrace the faith of Christ” and “come to His teaching.” When he does this, “he will see how impotent death is and how completely conquered.”

29. Because of “the soujourn of the Saviour and the death and resurrection of His body,” Christ has become the “Archvictor over death and has robbed it of its power.” His disciples’ lack of fear of death stands as a daily “monument” attesting to his resurrection. “Doubt no longer, then, when you see death mocked and scorned by those who believe in Christ, that by Christ death was destroyed, and the corruption that goes with it resolved and brought to end.”

30. As additional proof of the resurrection, Athanasius points to those “all over the world” who are accepting the Faith and becoming obedient to Christ’s teaching. Athanasius’s logic runs as follows, “Dead men cannot take effective action; their power of influence on others lasts only till the grave. Deeds and actions that energise others belong only to the living.” Repentant sinners, the advance of the Gospel– “This is the work of One Who lives, not of one dead; and, more than that, it is the work of God.”

31. Athanasius then challenges that, “those who disbelieve in the resurrection have no support in facts, if their gods and evil spirits do not drive away the supposedly dead Christ.” Rather than drive Him away, they “become dead at Christ’s presence.” This is to say that multitudes are turning from pagan religions to Christ when he is preached to them. “Shall we call Christ dead, Who effects all this?” “No room for doubt remains, therefore, concerning the resurrection of His body.”

32. While this argument may not convince some, it is consistent with the fact that the invisible God is known by his works. To reject necessarily this kind of argument, Athanasius argues, would require one also to reject the laws of nature [which are also invisible, but have a clearly visible ‘effect’ in the world]. “[I]t is manifest, then, and let none presume to doubt it, that the Saviour has raised His own body, and that He is very Son of God, having His being from God as from a Father, Whose Word and Wisdom and Whose Power He is.” 


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