On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius
It didn’t hurt that at the time of writing Pope Francis and Redeemed Atheists I had been reading through On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius. Naturally, my thoughts have been focused on the incarnation and the resurrection of the dead for the last several weeks. I decided it would be fitting to post a review of the book.
Athanasius begins by setting forth the deity and pre-existence of Christ. Jesus is the Word of the Father and it was through the Word that all things were made. This is important to incarnational theology because it means that the creator of humanity is the same one who re-creates humanity. Athanasius eloquently explains:
The renewal of creation has been wrought by the self-same Word who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation for the one Father has employed the same agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word who made it in the beginning.”
But why does man need saving? Athanasius summarizes man’s nature in the Garden of Eden as being subject to corruption, but shielded from corruption because of their union with the incorruptible God. When Adam and Eve sinned, however, their union with God was broken and they became the cause of their corruption. At that point man began to die just as God had warned if unfaithful to his Word. Athanasius goes on to describe the level of wickedness man continued to involve himself: adultery, theft, murder, rape, war, and homosexuality. This is why humanity needed saving. The image of God on earth was “disappearing” and God’s work of creation was being “undone.”
Athanasius argues that it would have been against God’s nature to allow humanity to stay in this corrupt state. Why would God create the world in such orderly fashion only to neglect it and let it perish?
…such indifference to the ruin of his own work before his very eyes would argue not goodness in God but limitation…it was impossible, therefore, that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of himself.”
Furthermore, if God chose to redeem man through repentance alone, he would falsify himself. If repentance was all it took to make man right with God, then death would not have the dominion over man that God had established at the Fall. Repentance does not restore nature. For man to be fully restored to the divine community, death itself had to die.
Jesus, the Word of God and the second person of the Trinity, became flesh so that all humanity could die in him and consequently resurrect with him. The curse of sin was fulfilled in Christ’s death and defeated in his resurrection. Death has now lost its sting and all humanity has the promise of resurrection. Because of this, Athanasius refers to Jesus as the “common savior of all.” Every human will be raised to an immortal body regardless of their relation to Christ and the Godhead. Romans 5:18-19 can be used to support this concept:
Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.”
And Corinthians 15:22 says,
For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.”
If all humanity inherited death through Adam’s sin in the garden, then all humanity inherits life through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ. Now, some may wonder if Athanasius is teaching some form of universalism with this type of language. Though he does not address that concern in this book, we can rest assured. Elsewhere he writes:
…the last fire, prepared for the devil and his angels, awaits those who have neglected divine light. Such then is the end of the unthankful.”
The resurrection of the wicked does not mean that there is no eternal torment for those who hate God (Matt. 25:34-46; 2 Thess. 1:6-9). In fact, their torment will be eternal because they are immortal. The false doctrine of annihilationism is easily refuted – they cannot die!
Jesus Christ, the creator of the world, became man to do what no man could do. He paid the debt of death on our behalf so that those who trust in him may have joy and peace in the presence of their re-creator.
Though written in the fourth century On the Incarnation is still relevant today, especially in a world where Christians have practically forgotten about the final resurrection. Let us be grateful to Athanasius and his many contributions to the Church.