4th century theology of Athanasius still fresh today.


Originally published March 18, 2016

Why did Jesus have to die? For years, this puzzled me. I could get on board with the idea that I fell short of God’s perfect standard. But why did Jesus need to die? Couldn’t God have just forgiven me? Like some sort of Spiritual write off?

One of the best explanations I have ever read for this comes from a fourth century bishop named Athanasius in a work he produced entitled “On the Incarnation.”

From the beginning, Athanasius provides a treatise on Jesus’ presence in creation, his incarnation as a man, and his necessary death for the reconciliation of humanity.

Athanasius establishes that Jesus, who created all things, is the same being who renewed the world. In arguing against the Epicureans, the Gnostics, and Plato, Athanasius uses some of his counterarguments in an attempt to further solidify his Christology. For instance, Plato’s idea of God fashioning things from pre-existent matter is used by Athanasius to argue that such a view demotes God from Creator to mere craftsman and that the matter itself was necessarily created by God. From that creation, man was created in a sinless state but had the volition to sin. When mankind fell, it forever tarnished the relationship between man and God. And the sin of man spread throughout all of creation. People began to turn their attention to other things which God had created instead of on the Creator Himself.

In the second chapter, Athanasius gets into a salvific dilemma about how God can reconcile His glory with man’s sin. “It was impossible; therefore, that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of Himself.” It is not because of any intrinsic value of man, but God’s own nature called for a means of restoration. It will later be argued that to not provide this means would have led to a superfluity of the creation of man in the first place. For man to be created solely for damnation with no hope of salvation would mean that God was ultimately not creating man for Himself. But God could not simply forgive man arbitrarily because this would again have contradicted his perfection as the Lord had already established a prelapsarian injunction which humanity had willingly disobeyed.

Possible options are speculated as to what God might have done. Mere repentance could not go quite far enough because it wasn’t about merely avoiding a particular sin. It was about being sinful in itself. In doing away with death and corruption, Jesus became a man to conquer those enemies. It couldn’t have been a man who did this because even the most pious men were ultimately sinful. As a result, Jesus was the only means of redemption. The God who had already been intimately involved with creation and the sustenance of the world was also the only means of salvation. While creation itself provided evidence for God’s existence, Athanasius argues that if teleological observations could have had a perfecting quality, that man would not have fallen in the first place. Instead of men recognizing the glory of God through creation itself, in sin, man instead made idols of other elements of creation.

It could not have been merely Christ coming to earth. He needed to die. To give people reason to believe in Christ’s dominion over creation, and in order to give a reason for a faith that would end the death which was caused by sin, Jesus needed to personally rise from the dead. It couldn’t have been natural. Jesus needed to be witnessed dying, so that his risen state could bring men to faith in God.

Among his conclusions, Athanasius argues that the transformation which Jesus has had on so many lives is a testimony to the truth of his resurrection. “Does a dead man prick the consciences of men, so that they throw all the traditions of their fathers to the wind?”

The concluding chapters focus on more in depth refutations of common worldviews. To Judaism, he argues that the Old Testament called for a Messiah, and it called for that Messiah to be martyred. Athanasius next turns his attention to making various apologetic arguments for non-Jewish readers, opposed to believing the gospel.

At times his Christological claims sound as if written by Paul. At other instances, his matter of fact, street smart logic and gripping analogies seem more modern, perhaps as if they could have been written by C.S. Lewis. I felt like the modern elements seemed most vivid in the apologetic arguments about the transformations in the lives’ of the people who knew Jesus and their willingness to risk everything in proclaiming the truth of his resurrection. At certain points, I found this volume to be laborious. But once the flow of his argument was established, I thought this book seemed much more approachable. Even though the writing presents a long argument, I also felt that Athanasius did a good job, at points, of summarizing the main points that he had made.

For the time in which it was written, I appreciate the systematized approach to some extremely complicated (but also important) issues. While Athanasius will not convince everyone to his line of thought, I felt that this was a great book in terms of answering the “why” Jesus needed to come. Therein lays the significance of this book. I feel that the “why” question  is so easily taken for granted.

It’s easy to acknowledge people sin and to say that Jesus needed to die for our sins. But as if in an infantile mentality, I feel it’s so easy to keep reducing the question with “but why?” Why did things have to be as they were? Why couldn’t God simply forgive man? It’s one thing to explain why the incarnation Jesus was an option. With Athanasius, the undertaking was a more structured argument as to why it needed to happen and why it was the only way for reconciliation. In trudging through the difficulties of making the incarnation of Jesus tangible, Athanasius gave the world a true work of brilliance.

Josh Benner is the associate pastor at Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Fergus Falls, Minnesota and has a Master of Divinity from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He enjoys writing about faith and culture. He lives with his wife Kari in Minnesota.