Reading History: Athanasius answers Why the Cross?

As we approach Easter, it seemed fitting that we read some early views on the cross.  Who better to start with then Athanasius, a fourth century bishop of Alexandria. He was, after all, known for writing letters around Easter. The most famous is the 39th Festal Letter. Written in 367 it is widely considered the earliest list containing all 27 books of the New Testament (see this post for a possible earlier list). He was also at the Council of Nicea. Around 318, he wrote what may be his most famous work, On the Incarnation.

That opening chapter of the work clearly states it’s purpose:

You must understand why it is that the Word of the Father, so great and so high, has been made manifest in bodily form. … He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men.

Later in the work, Athanasius examines the question: why crucifixion?

The rest of this post contains portions of chapter 4.19-25 from CCEL.

Thus it happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished. Death there had to be, and death for all, so that the due of all might be paid. Wherefore, the Word, as I said, being Himself incapable of death, assumed a mortal body, that He might offer it as His own in place of all, and suffering for the sake of all through His union with it, might bring to nought Him that had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might deliver them who all their lifetime were enslaved by the fear of death.Ikone_Athanasius_von_Alexandria.jpg

“Well then,” some people may say, “if the essential thing was that He should surrender His body to death in place of all, why did He not do so as Man privately, without going to the length of public crucifixion?

The death of men under ordinary circumstances is the result of their natural weakness. They are essentially impermanent, so after a time they fall ill and when worn out they die. But the Lord is not like that. He is not weak, He is the Power of God and Word of God and Very Life Itself. If He had died quietly in His bed like other men it would have looked as if He did so in accordance with His nature, and as though He was indeed no more than other men. But because He was Himself Word and Life and Power His body was made strong, and because the death had to be accomplished, He took the occasion of perfecting His sacrifice not from Himself, but from others.

Here, again, you may say, “Why did He not prevent death, as He did sickness?” Because it was precisely in order to be able to die that He had taken a body, and to prevent the death would have been to impede the resurrection.

The supreme object of His coming was to bring about the resurrection of the body. This was to be the monument to His victory over death, the assurance to all that He had Himself conquered corruption and that their own bodies also would eventually be incorrupt; and it was in token of that and as a pledge of the future resurrection that He kept His body incorrupt.

Death had to precede resurrection, for there could be no resurrection without it. A secret and unwitnessed death would have left the resurrection without any proof or evidence to support it.

Again, why should He die a secret death, when He proclaimed the fact of His rising openly? Why should He drive out evil spirits and heal the man blind from birth and change water into wine, all publicly, in order to convince men that He was the Word, and not also declare publicly that incorruptibility of His mortal body, so that He might Himself be believed to be the Life? And how could His disciples have had boldness in speaking of the resurrection unless they could state it as a fact that He had first died? Or how could their hearers be expected to believe their assertion, unless they themselves also had witnessed His death?  … Or how could the end of death and the victory over it have been declared, had not the Lord thus challenged it before the sight of all, and by the incorruption of His body proved that henceforward it was annulled and void?

But if any honest Christian wants to know why He suffered death on the cross and not in some other way, we answer thus: in no other way was it expedient for us, indeed the Lord offered for our sakes the one death that was supremely good. He had come to bear the curse that lay on us; and how could He “become a curse” otherwise than by accepting the accursed death? And that death is the cross

3 thoughts on “Reading History: Athanasius answers Why the Cross?

  1. The resurrection doesn’t have any “proof or evidence to support it.” That is, unless you choose to believe things just because someone wrote them down. In which case why not believe Heracles fought a Hydra and Odysseus stabbed a Cyclops in the eye? And then who do we believe? The resurrection accounts are utterly incompatible when read in parallel.

    And how do we know Jesus proclaimed his death and resurrection openly? Again, because someone (Mark) wrote it down. But would a person who knew the future be human? How could such a person avoid the charge that this is all just some cosmic game with all created things as pawns caught in the middle of it? If Jesus knew he’d die and rise then its all a fix. We are being asked to take this seriously?

    • Andrew,
      You list of a host of questions touching on numerous aspects of theology, from the incarnation, to foreknowledge and determinism. But I will briefly address one statement that you made:

      The resurrection doesn’t have any “proof or evidence to support it.”

      Before starting, I have to imagine that most of what I say here is not going to be new. You are after all reading an obscure blog on theology, so I assume that you are well read on the topic. But, I will try to provide some thoughts anyway.

      If the proof or evidence you seek is an irrefutable scientific explanation for how the resurrection happened then you are right. There really isn’t any. As a one time event, the resurrection, much like the origin of life or the beginning of the universe, can’t be recreated in a lab nor described with a scientific formula. Science is great at explaining the natural laws of the world around us. However, the resurrection, as a singular event, was meant to defy death and the natural order. It was meant to show that Jesus was indeed the Messiah he claimed to be.

      This doesn’t rule out science as being part of the discussion. However, it just admits that science can’t prove, or disprove for that matter, the resurrection. It can only tell us that rising from the dead is an extra-ordinary claim that defies the laws of nature and has no natural explanation.

      We really must treat the resurrection as a historical event. Like any other event we have to present evidence and make a case for it occurring. But even here, we are only proving something is reasonable. There is no way to prove with absolute certitude that this unique event occurred some 2000 years ago.

      I will not attempt to present an air-tight case at this late hour in the comment section of a blog. But there are numerous historical facts that raise questions that can all be answered by Jesus’ resurrection. Given that most scholars accept that Jesus of Nazareth was a first century teacher who was crucified and died, then why didn’t the disciples find a new Messiah after Jesus’ death like all of the other followers of failed messiahs? Why did his followers report seeing him in bodily form after his death on the cross? Why did his followers change the Jewish ideas of what the coming kingdom was going to be like? Why do they spread this news in the face of ridicule and persecution? Why does Christianity very early consistently make as its central claim the fact of the resurrection?

      If you are interested in this more, I recommend this article (link) and this lecture both by NT Wright (link)

      Of course, if one rules out any possibility of God, the supernatural, or the miraculous then of course the explanation of a resurrection as the answer to these historical questions will be impossible to accept.

      But Wright reminds us at the end of the lecture:

      it is always possible for anyone to follow the argument so far and to say, simply, ‘I don’t have a good explanation for what happened to cause the empty tomb and the appearances, but I choose to maintain my belief that dead people don’t rise and therefore conclude that something else must have happened even though we can’t tell what it was.’ That is fine; I respect that position; but I simply note that it is indeed then a matter of choice, not a matter of saying that something called ‘scientific historiography’ itself forces us to take that route.

  2. Pingback: Reading History: Justin Martyr answers Why the Cross? | Dead Heroes Don't Save

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s