Chapter 9: Atonement in Athanasius of Alexandria

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Athanasius (c.293 – 373 AD) holds a revered position in Church history due to the stand he took in the 4th century to defend the faith against destructive heretical views that challenged the true nature of God. In 328 AD, he became bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, three years after playing a leading role at the Council of Nicaea, convoked to define important doctrinal elements of orthodox faith. His views on the atonement, therefore, are worthy of consideration.

‘He has not Himself become a curse …’

We might begin with his letter to Epictetus (bishop of Corinth, c. 370 A.D.), in which he refers to how one should understand the curse that Paul said Christ had become at the cross, as we find in Gal.3:10-14:

 “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.”

…Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’), that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Holy Spirit through faith.” (Gal.3:10, 13, NKJ).

Athanasius wrote to Epictetus:

‘…the Word Himself was not changed into bones and flesh, but came in the flesh. For what John said, ‘The Word was made flesh,’ has this meaning, as we may see by a similar passage; for it is written in Paul: ‘Christ has become a curse for us.’ And just as He has not Himself become a curse, but is said to have done so because He took upon Him the curse on our behalf, so also He has become flesh not by being changed into flesh, but because He assumed on our behalf living flesh, and has become Man’ (Athanasius, Letter LIX.— To Epictetus, 8, A. Robertson, P. Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers1891).

When the Word put on human flesh, born of Mary, He placed Himself under the curse of the law, but kept that law perfectly without sin. He came to “fulfil” the law (Mat.3:17). The Word was made flesh in body, but not in Himself. Likewise the Word, in placing Himself in a human body under the curse of the law, was not Himself cursed. In fact, Scripture plainly states through Paul that one could never call Jesus accursed or a curse by the Spirit of God (as He was viewed by the world):

“Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed,” (1 Cor.12:3, NKJ).

Athanasius was interpreting Paul as saying that just as Jesus (the Word) was not changed in essence but had merely assumed a human body, coming only in ‘the likeness of sinful flesh’ (Rom.8:3) for our sakes, and remaining without sin, so He was not cursed in Himself, but had only the outward appearance of one who suffered the curse of the law, as He seemed when dying at the cross – though not cursed of God at all. Moreover, the Lord’s death was not according to the curse and judgment pronounced upon Adam. The body of Jesus died, but it experienced no corruption – unlike the mortal death foretold of sinful man:

“Cursed is the ground for your sake …In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen.3:17-19, NKJ).

The Lord’s human body did not suffer corruption. Though mortal and capable of death and dying, His body was not subject to death, but life – as a result of its union with the Word. Death, like sin, had no dominion over Him, for ‘…it was not possible for Him to be held by it’ (Acts 2:24, NKJ). In Christ, the judgment upon Adam and human flesh was overturned. The Second Adam conquered death for all of mankind – that all in Him should be appointed to life.

Now, by extension, and using the same reasoning as Athanasius, it may also be said that Jesus was made sin – not that He Himself was made sin, but was said to have been made so for taking on Himself the likeness of sinful flesh. He came in the likeness of sinful flesh, therefore, but was without sin. The flesh that He assumed ‘of the seed of David’ (2 Tim.2:8) through Mary was of itself mortal, such as everyman, but without the corruption of sin. So we find the like view expressed, that the whole Word had not become a curse or sin, but the body He assumed:

“For, as when John says, ‘The Word was made flesh we do not conceive the whole Word Himself to be flesh, but to have put on flesh and become man, and on hearing, ‘Christ hath become a curse for us,’ and ‘He hath made Him sin for us who knew no sin ,’ we do not simply conceive this, that whole Christ has become curse and sin, but that He has taken on Him the curse which lay against us, as the Apostle has said, ‘Has redeemed us from the curse,’ and ‘has carried,’ as Isaiah has said, ‘our sins,’ and as Peter has written, ‘has borne them in the body on the wood” (Athanasius, Orationes contra Arianos IV, Discourse II, XiX:47, A. Robertson, P. Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers1891).

Let us be clear. A body does not sin – it is the person. A body cannot be held responsible for breaking God’s law. However, by taking on a human body and suffering at the cross, Jesus suffered death, as one appearing to endure this curse under the law and was viewed as sin, though bearing in His flesh the sins of man. At the cross, He took upon His body the curse that was ‘against us’ and by the resurrection revealed that against Him it was without effect. Against the Son of Man, death had no power. His body was brutally beaten and torn – symbolic, one might say, of all human sin against God. Jesus was cursed by man and the sins etched into his flesh were the sins of man.

Jesus poured out His life for our sakes as the ‘sin offering’ , not that He was made sin. – As we find expressed in the writings of the renowned theologian, Augustine of Hippo (354-450 AD):

 ‘…therefore having no sin of His own; nevertheless, on account of the likeness of sinful flesh in which He came, He was called sin, that He might be sacrificed to wash away sin. For, under the Old Covenant, sacrifices for sin were called sins. And He, of whom all these sacrifices were types and shadows, was Himself truly made sin. Hence the apostle, after saying, “We pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God,” forthwith adds: “for He hath made Him to be sin for us who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him….“Him who knew no sin,” that is, Christ, God, to whom we are to be reconciled, “hath made to be sin for us,” that is, hath made Him a sacrifice for our sins, by which we might be reconciled to God. He, then, being made sin, just as we are made righteousness (our righteousness being not our own, but God’s, not in ourselves, but in Him)’ (Augustine, The Enchiridion, 41, P. Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers1891).

These sacrifices for sin, he explained, were called ‘sins’ by the Hebrews. It was not that He was personally made sin Himself, but that He was made a sacrifice for sin. It is interesting to note Augustine’s summarizing remark that we are not made righteous in ourselves, but in Christ - and that the opposite of this is also true. Jesus was not made sin in Himself, but in the likeness of sinful flesh, in which He became a sacrifice for sin.

‘man is by nature mortal’

In explaining the incarnation of the Word, Athanasius laid much stress on the fact that Jesus remained incorruptible. His offering to the Father was as a second Adam, without sin.

In the Genesis account, Adam was created mortal, but with the grace to live forever – by reason of the ‘tree of life’ that was in the garden, of which he could eat. This grace was removed when the judgment was passed because of Adam’s sin: ‘Now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever …God sent him out of the garden of Eden’ (3:22-23, NKJ). Mankind thereafter lived and died as any other creature, according to his mortality. The judgment upon Adam, therefore, was not that he should become mortal (for this was how man was created), but that he should be denied everlasting life. Mankind was taken away from the grace that was freely allowed him in the beginning. (For a discussion on the creation of man, see: Creation and Evolution - In the beginning …)

Man was created with a mortal nature, but was given the grace to live forever:

‘For He brought them into His own garden , and gave them a law: so that, if they kept the grace and remained good, they might still keep the life in paradise without sorrow or pain or care besides having the promise of incorruption in heaven; but that if they transgressed and turned back, and became evil, they might know that they were incurring that corruption in death which was theirs by nature: no longer to live in paradise, but cast out of it from that time forth to die and to abide in death and in corruption.’ (Athanasius, The Incarnation, 3:4; A. Robertson, P. Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers1891)

For man is by nature mortal, inasmuch as he is made out of what is not; but by reason of his likeness to Him that is (and if he still preserved this likeness by keeping Him in his knowledge) he would stay his natural corruption, and remain incorrupt…’ (Athanasius, The Incarnation, 4:6; A. Robertson, P. Schaff, 1891)

‘For God has not only made us out of nothing; but He gave us freely, by the Grace of the Word, a life in correspondence with God. But men, having rejected things eternal, and, by counsel of the devil, turned to the things of corruption, became the cause of their own corruption in death, being, as I said before, by nature corruptible, but destined, by the grace following from partaking of the Word, to have escaped their natural state, had they remained good.’ (Athanasius, The Incarnation, 5:1; A. Robertson, P. Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers1891)

Now, through the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Word Himself, a restoration of this grace has been revealed. This is the Gospel. Metaphorically speaking, therefore, Jesus – the ‘true vine’ (John 15:1) and ‘the resurrection and the life’ (John 11:25) – is Himself ‘the tree of life’ of whom all who eat, by God’s grace, may live forever.

Upon becoming incarnate, the Word assumed a mortal body no different from any other human body. However, the fact that His body was prophesied not to suffer corruption (‘For You will not leave my soul in Sheol, nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption,’ Ps.16:10; Acts 2:27, NKJ) inferred its resurrection, not that it would not die. His body was mortal in the same manner that the bodies of all men are mortal:

‘The body, then, as sharing the same nature with all, for it was a human body, though by an unparalleled miracle it was formed of a virgin only, yet being mortal, was to die also, conformably to its peers. But by virtue of the union of the Word with it, it was no longer subject to corruption according to its own nature, but by reason of the Word that was come to dwell in it, it was placed out of the reach of corruption’ (Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 20:4, A. Robertson, P. Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers1891).

‘…an offering and sacrifice free from every stain

Athanasius wrote ‘On the Incarnation’ when still a young man and a deacon in the service of bishop Alexander of Alexandria. Nevertheless, it is a work that he believed reflected the received doctrine of the Alexandrian church. The body of Jesus, he said, was surrendered to death ‘free from every stain’ in order to fulfil ‘all that was required’:

He assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all, and, itself remaining incorruptible through His indwelling, might thereafter put an end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection. It was by surrendering to death the body which He had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from every stain, that He forthwith abolished death for His human brethren by the offering of the equivalent. For naturally, since the Word of God was above all, when He offered His own temple and bodily instrument as a substitute for the life of all, He fulfilled in death all that was required’ (Athanasius, On the Incarnation, section 9, Translated by C.S.M.V., St. Th., 1944).

‘Free from every stain’, of course, refers to the impeccable sacrifice and offering of Christ’s life and body, unpolluted by sin. Assumed from the flesh of Adam, through Mary, the Lord’s body was the human vessel of the Word and capable of death, though not the Word Himself. This body would die in its mortality as a result of man’s sins, which Jesus ‘bore in His body on a tree’, as Peter remarked (1 Pet.2:24). Jesus bore the physical suffering of the sins of man in His body, not the guilt for these sins. Yet, bearing these sins, He is able to take away our sins as the One against whom all have sinned. For Jesus, as both God and Man, mediates to forgive all who turn to Him, calling on His name, in godly sorrow and repentance.

Jesus fulfilled ‘all that was required’. It was not simply the death of His human body, given as an offering and sacrifice. The body He offered up had to be free of the corruption of sin. As our High Priest, He made the offering of His life in substitution for our lives in complete and sinless perfection. This offering unto death was our debt – not a penalty. This was what man owed to God. The body of Jesus had remained ‘incorruptible’ by His very presence. It was surrendered to death ‘free from every stain’, by reason of which death had no hold upon it. The resurrection was the verification. Notice, Athanasius did not say that Jesus had surrendered His body to death to pay a penalty; he said that Jesus had surrendered Himself as an ‘offering and sacrifice’. ‘Offerings’ are not penal fines. The sacrifice He made was pure and undefiled. It was required that mankind should live and die without sin. To be acceptable to God, man had to fulfill his mortal life in righteousness. Through the ‘second Adam’, Christ, this was achieved.

The consequence of Adam’s sin, though ushering in death upon mankind, in no wise subjected the body or person of Jesus to corruption or alienation from God – as He Himself was ‘God with us’ (Mat.1:23). He was ‘the life’ and had within the power of life in union with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, His body was allowed to die in conformity to the mortality of man, according to the divine purpose. However, the body that died upon the cross was merely the temple – a distinct entity. The body was not the Word Himself, even though in the flesh Jesus, the Word, is said to have died.

As Athanasius stated:

‘…the Body [of the Word] … is not the Word Himself, but a distinct entity (Athanasius, Letter LIX.— To Epictetus, 9, A. Robertson, P. Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers1891).

The Word is by nature and essence God, though clothed with humanity:

‘…from Mary the Word Himself took flesh, and proceeded forth as man; being by nature and essence the Word of God, but after the flesh man of the seed of David, and made of the flesh of Mary’ (Athanasius, Letter LIX.—To Epictetus, 12, A. Robertson, P. Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers1891).

‘The the end of His earthly life and the nature of His bodily death’

In discussing ‘the very centre of our faith’, Athanasius wrote: ‘We must next consider the end of His earthly life and the nature of His bodily death’ (Athanasius: On the Incarnation, 4:19, A. Robertson, P. Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers1891). He then gave reasons for Christ’s death:

[...] there was a debt owing which must needs be paid; for, as I said before, all men were due to die. Here, then, is the second reason why the Word dwelt among us, namely that having proved His Godhead by His works, He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all, surrendering His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression.  In the same act also He showed Himself mightier than death, displaying His own body incorruptible as the first-fruits of the resurrection. (ibid. 20)

[...] The body of the Word, then, being a real human body, in spite of its having been uniquely formed from a virgin, was of itself mortal and, like other bodies, liable to death. But the indwelling of the Word loosed it from this natural liability, so that corruption could not touch it. 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.” (20)

Please notice that not once did Athanasius suggest that Jesus suffered death as one punished by God in our place. He said Jesus paid the debt that was owing from all. Man should live without corruption – without sin – unto death. This was the nature of the Son’s bodily death. Jesus suffered the death that is common to all, but died in faith, without sin, on behalf of all. We are required to live and die in faith, without sin. Now, in Christ, we are appointed to life. He offered in death that which we cannot, of ourselves, that we in Him should be saved. We all still die. It was not a penal debt that Jesus paid, but that offering required for our salvation, of a life and body free of corruption.

By accepting to die in the flesh, Jesus not only paid with His life all that was needed for the salvation of His brethren, but also revealed the truth of the resurrection and gave assurance of life after death through faith.

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.

(Athanasius: On the Incarnation, 4:22, A. Robertson, P. Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers1891).

To Athanasius, the monument to Christ’s victory over death was the cross (ibid. 19), by which He achieved the supreme object of His coming – that of offering Himself without spot or blemish and without any corruption, that we, in union with Him, should share in His resurrection. For this reason, He was willing to suffer a public death at the hands of His enemies:

Death came to His body, therefore, not from Himself but from enemy action, in order that the Savior might utterly abolish death in whatever form they offered it to Him. 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 whomsoever they match against him and thus vindicate his superior strength. Even so was it with Christ. He, the Life of all, our Lord and Savior, did not arrange the manner of his own death lest He should seem to be afraid of some other kind. No. He accepted and bore upon the cross a death inflicted by others, and those others His special enemies, a death which to them was supremely terrible and by no means to be faced; and He did this in order that, by destroying even this death, He might Himself be believed to be the Life, and the power of death be recognized as finally annulled. (Athanasius: On the Incarnation, 3:24; A. Robertson, P. Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers1891)

Here, we read that our Lord’s ‘death’ came, not from the Father, but from the action of His own special enemies. Even so, He did not seek to avoid what He foreknew and He did this in order to provide the perfect witness and offering, that others should be saved. Jesus fully entered into our humanity and shared in our mortality – suffering that to which men are held in fear all their lives (Heb.2:15). The body that Jesus assumed through Mary, of Adam, though mortal and able to die, was made incorruptible through the indwelling of the Word. From this, therefore, it should be evident that the judgment and penalty upon Adam – that made his body subject to death and corruption – was not imparted to the body of Christ. The Lord’s body, though mortal and capable of dying, was appointed to life and incorruption by the indwelling Word. In the view of Athanasius, as expressed above, therefore, the death of Christ came not from the penal punishment of God, as the cause of His death, but from the action of Christ’s enemies.

Jesus did not die as one guilty and punished for our sins, but as One interceding for our sins. This was the manner by which Jesus bore our sins before God – as Athanasius,  himself, understood:

[...] our Lord, being Word and Son of God, bore a body, and became Son of Man, that, having become Mediator between God, and men, He might minister the things of God to us, and ours to God. When then He is said to hunger and weep and weary, and to cry Eloi, Eloi, which are our human affections, He receives them from us and offers to the Father, interceding for us, that in Him they may be annulled. (6)

[...] Hence it is that the Lord says, ‘All things whatsoever Thou hast given Me, I have given them,’ and again, ‘I pray for them.’ For He prayed for us, taking on Him what is ours, and He was giving what He received. (7)

(Athanasius: Against the Arians,Orationes contra Arianos IV, Discourse IV, 6, 7; A. Robertson, P. Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers1891)

Jesus not only had empathy for the human condition but lifted up to God in prayer all our needs, including, of course, our need for mercy:

‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ (Luke 23:34, KJV)

The incarnation brought restoration and healing. The body He assumed was mortal in the same manner as the body of the first man, Adam, was mortal. This was how man was created. The human body is capable of death, as are the bodies of all creatures. The difference is that, by the grace of God, man can be appointed to receive everlasting life. From this grace man fell through sin and so has lived in separation from God and the life that is by His grace. Man has suffered the death that is natural to his flesh, deprived of the grace to live forever. Because of sin, therefore, man has been condemned to that which is natural to his mortality. Jesus came in the flesh of mortal man as the Son of God – ‘God with us’, having oneness of being with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Though also fully human, God’s beloved Son had no loss of divine grace or favour. The second Adam knew no corruption and lived in perfect righteousness and unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The judgment that was upon Adam, therefore, was not imparted to the incarnate Word. Jesus came as One justified of God and of the Holy Spirit; but He also came as One who would be condemned to die of man. His death was not the punishment of God. Upon the righteous, the penalty of death cannot justly be applied.

What, then, did His death achieve? The manner of the death of Jesus was foreknown and foretold of God. This is not the same as saying that it was pre-planned of God, as though God made people act in a certain way. Nevertheless, the known outcome of events was not avoided, as though something of which even God should fear. Death of the body, although terrible for man, held no terror for God. As John wrote, ‘There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment’ (1 John 4:18, NKJ) – and the love of Christ was no less perfect. Jesus allowed Himself to be unjustly taken and cruelly killed. His human body succumbed to death upon the cross. His Spirit was received by the Father. The evil powers believed they could defeat Him with insults, torments and death. How wrong and blind they were! Neither torments nor death had any power over the perfect love of God.

His death achieved completion. With His dying breath He said: ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30).

At that moment of death, the judgment of God that had come through Adam upon all flesh for sin was annulled. Mortal man once more had opportunity to eat again of the Tree of Life and live forever in oneness with God. His death brought to completion ‘all that was required’.

What God required of man was for him to be righteous – to be holy – to exercise faith and godly love, without any stain of corruption:

God has made man, and willed that he should abide in incorruption’ (Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 4:4, A. Robertson, P. Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers1891).

This was to be man’s offering to God – a life of faithful obedience to the law of love, without the corruption of sin. This was the debt that Jesus, fulfilling through the incarnation, completed for us at the cross. Irenaeus was to call our Lord’s fulfillment of this debt the ‘recapitulation’. His incarnation was as a second Adam, in holiness and without sin, whose offspring inherit everlasting life, not death.

To Athanasius, the incarnation was the key element to understanding our deliverance:

‘…the Word Himself was made flesh, and being in the form of God, took the form of a servantand from Mary after the flesh became man for us, and that thus in Him the human race is perfectly and wholly delivered from sin and quickened from the dead, and given access to the kingdom of the heavens’ (Athanasius, Tomus ad Antiochinos, section 7, A. Robertson, P. Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers1891).

The judgment on Adam had required that all should die; now it is, by the grace of God, that all in Christ should live. His life can cover our own just as the Lord prophesied through Isaiah that He Himself would clothe the faithful with ‘the garments of salvation’ and ‘the robe of righteousness’ (Isa.61:10, NKJ). All who truly believe are appointed to receive everlasting life. Mortality must put on immortality; corruption, incorruption: ‘We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed’ (1Cor.15:51, NKJ). Similarly, Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, ‘For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout …then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord’ (1Thes.4:15-16, NKJ). Although still mortal, the faithful in Christ are set free from all condemnation for sin.

Athanasius wrote that ‘…by the offering of His own body He abolished the death which they had incurred’ (Athanasius, On the Incarnation, section 10, C.S.M.V., 1944). Jesus offered up His body and thus His life for the sake of His brethren, so that they need not die. His life ‘covers over’ the lives of the faithful, by which all in Him are judged righteous and appointed to life. It is thus by His death that we might be set free from death ourselves. If in Christ we are accounted to have offered up the life God has willed for us, then life everlasting will indeed be our reward and death for us abolished.

It is written in Hebrews 9:27: ‘It is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment’ (NKJ). The New English Bible has it: ‘It is the lot of men to die once, and after death comes judgment.’ – Judgment follows death. The first death is not the final judgment of God for our sins. It is simply that to which mortal man is appointed. It is not the second death of which we read in Matthew: ‘And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell [Gr. Gehenna]’ (Mat.10:28, NKJ). In Revelation, it is written: ‘Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power …’ (Rev.20:4, NKJ). ‘The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death’ (Rev.20:13-14, NKJ). Clearly Jesus did not pay this penalty.

Man became appointed to die according to his mortality when denied everlasting life because of sin. This, as said, was the judgment that came upon Adam and all mankind. It was to this corruption of death that man was made liable. Athanasius wrote of the Word that He saw ‘death reigning over all in corruption’ and that ‘He saw also their universal liability to sin …Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men’ (Athanasius, On the Incarnation, section 8, C.S.M.V., 1944).

As previously noted, offerings are not penalties imposed as punishments. In offering His body to the Father, He did not pay a penal debt. At no time was Jesus subject to the condemnation of God, though condemned by man at His trial. By His offering, therefore, He abolished the law of death for all who live in Him.

Now, by God’s grace, there is ‘no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Rom.8:1, NKJ). The Word acted ‘out of sheer love for us,’ Athanasius remarked. He fulfilled all righteousness in our stead as the LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS, that we should be justified before God and set free to live according to the law of the Spirit of life.

The sin of Adam had brought death upon mankind, just as the Lord had said: ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’ (Gen.2:16-17, NKJ). ‘On the Incarnation’ has this focus. It was ‘unthinkable that God, the Father of Truth,’ Athanasius wrote, ‘should go back upon His word regarding death in order to ensure our continued existence’ (Athanasius, On the Incarnation, section 7, C.S.M.V., 1944). True to God’s spoken word, all die; but, God did not leave mankind without hope. To enter into life, we are commanded to live by faith. We are now invited to eat of the ‘true vine’, Jesus Christ.

Man must die. This is the stark message of Scripture. - How we die depends on our response to the Gospel. We can either ’surely die’ in our sins, or we can die in Christ. If we die in our sins, then judgment awaits – and the final death. If we die in Christ, then heaven awaits – and life forevermore. To enter life, we must first lose it (Mat.16:25) – the ‘old man’, i.e. the old self needs to die (Rom.6:4-8). Hence the figure of baptism, signifying that in Christ the old self is accounted to have died that we might be raised with Him, in the newness of the Spirit

The Son of Man allowed His body to suffer death that He should witness to the resurrection. Death was not something of which He feared. The human body of Christ was capable of dying as any other, according to its mortality, but the body is not the Word – the body ‘is a distinct entity’. The Word Himself cannot die. Yet, through the Word’s incarnation unto the suffering and death of His body, He completed all that God had required of man – perfectly, without corruption. In this, He paid all that was owing.

Athanasius wrote:

‘For there was need of death, and death must needs be suffered on behalf of all, that the debt owing from all might be paid. Whence, as I said before, the Word, since it was not possible for Him to die, as He was immortal, took to Himself a body such as could die, that He might offer it as His own in the stead of all, and as suffering, through His union with it, on behalf of all’ (Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 20:5-6, A. Robertson, P. Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers1891).

Remember, to Athanasius, God had made man mortal and had ‘willed that he should abide in incorruption’ (Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 4:4, ibid). It was God’s will that man should live out his mortal life in righteousness until it ceased. The death that Jesus suffered on behalf of all, therefore, was that of a life without corruption. By this He fulfilled the debt owing by all.

In body, we all die – nothing has changed in this respect. ‘The debt that was owing from all’, therefore, was not death – but that paid in death when Jesus offered up His life. He gave that life of holiness that we ourselves are indebted to give, if we are to be found acceptable to God – a life without any stain of corruption. This is our liability. This is the debt that we owe in the body – that He paid in full, on behalf of all who now share in His grace.

By faith, our bodies, though they die, will be raised incorruptible. Now, blessed with the assurance of the Holy Spirit, through whom we have new life in Christ, we await in the hope of the resurrection:

‘We also who have the firstfruit of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of the body’ (Rom.8:23, NKJ).

To Athanasius, it was clear that with the fall of man from grace into sin came a corruption of man’s nature which had to be addressed. However, mere repentance for past sins and forgiveness alone could not alter man’s fallen condition. Mankind was in need of regeneration – and the incarnation made this possible. Together with the justification that comes through faith in the offering of God’s Word on our behalf, is received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and new birth. Made holy by the covering atonement that Jesus has provided, all who turn to the Lord in faith receive the promise of God. The incarnation ushered in the revelation and salvation of God through Jesus Christ, giving hope of fellowship with God in a new and living way. It was a vital act of God in the creation of man in His own eternal image. Quoting from Paul, Athanasius wrote of this new life of the Spirit, in Christ, thus:

‘“But you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” [1 Cor.6:11]. …to Titus he said, “But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, not because of righteous deeds that we had done, but because of his mercy he saved us through the bath of rebirth and the renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that we may be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life”’ [Titus 3:4-7]

(Athanasius, Letters to Serapion on the Holy Spirit, Letter 1:22; cf. Athanasius, Khaled Anatolios, Routledge, 2004, p. 222; text source: Migne’s Patrologia Graeca 26:529-576).

The Letter of Athanasius of Alexandria to Marcellinus

An ancient copy of a letter, generally accepted to be genuine, from Athanasius of Alexandria to a friend, Marcellinus, on the subject of the Psalms was found bound with the Codex Alexandrinus (c. 5th century), now preserved in the British Library. The letter contains his views on how the Psalms should be interpreted, including one important passage related to the atonement.

In the letter, after quoting from Psalm 21 of the Septuagint (LXX, Psalm 22 in the Hebrew), prophetic of Christ’s sufferings, Athanasius makes mention of Psalms 87, 68, 137 and 71, also with respect to the Lord’s passion. Of course, as a commentary, his comments need to be understood from the perspective and context of the psalms in question, as intended – not in isolation. It is important for us to examine each psalm, if we are to analyse his views correctly – and not merely judge them from our own perspective without reference.

Therefore, if we consider the first psalm in the order here presented: Ps. 87 (88), we will be helped at the start by noting that it is one that Athanasius recommended for anyone faced with opposition and in need of prayer: “Let us say you stand in need of prayer because of those who have opposed you and encompass your soul, sing Psalms 16, 85, 87 and 140.” (Athanasius: ‘The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus’, p. 115, trans. Robert C. Gregg, Paulist Press, Inc., New Jersey, 1980). We should realize, of course, that when Athanasius wrote of the need for prayer ‘because of those who oppose you’, he did not have in mind the Lord, ‘Yahweh’, as one of ‘those’. – This needs to be kept in mind when considering the passage in question (faithfully translated from the Greek by eminent Bible scholar Robert C. Gregg, emphasis mine):

“In the twenty-first [22nd] it tells the manner of the death from the Savior’s own lips […]

They pierced my hands and feet. They counted all my bones. They divided my garments among themselves and cast lots for my raiment. When it speaks of the piercing of the hands and feet, what else than a cross does it signify? After teaching all these things, it adds that the Lord suffers these things, not for his own sake, but for ours. And it says again through his own lips in Psalm 87 [88], Your wrath has pressed heavily upon me, and in Psalm 68 [69], Then I restored that which I did not take away. For although he was not himself obliged to give account for any crime, he died – but he suffered on our behalf and he took on himself the wrath directed against us on account of the transgression, as it says in Isaiah, He took on our weaknesses. This is evident also when we say in Psalm 137 [138], The Lord will recompense them on my behalf, and the Spirit says in the 71st [72nd], and he will save the children of the needy, and bring low the false accuser […] for he has delivered the poor from the oppressor, and the laborer, who had no helper.”

Athanasius: ‘The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus’, p. 105, trans. Robert C. Gregg, Paulist Press, Inc., New Jersey, 1980

In the LXX, as Athanasius would have used, in verses 4 and 5 of Psalm 87 (88), we find the words ‘hos’ and ‘hosei’ : meaning as or like, and ‘as if’ or ‘as it were’, informing us that here, in the form of poetic simile and metaphor, the psalmist expressed an impression of what had seemed to have been his experience in the midst of adversity, not the literal reality. That the psalm opens prayerfully to “Yahweh, the God of my salvation” allows the reader to realize that the psalmist did not in truth believe himself to be as one forsaken and forgotten. He knew that he was not abandoned of the Almighty, but gave voice through the psalm to feelings of desperation at a time of suffering:

“I am counted with those who go down into the pit; I am like a man who has no strength, adrift among the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom You remember no more, and who are cut off from Your hand” (Ps.88:4-5, NKJ).

Certainly, the writer of the psalm knew the actual truth. The psalm begins: “O LORD, God of my salvation, I have cried out day and night before You. Let my prayer come before You; incline Your ear to my cry. For my soul is full of troubles” (Ps.88:1-3, NKJ). – The writer, although enduring troubles, endured also in prayer to God.  In Psalm 87 (88), the obvious intention was to convey the idea of feeling weighed down, as if under God’s own wrath. There is no explanation given, such as the recognition of sin and God’s displeasure. There is no suggestion of the psalmist feeling in need of repentance and correction. Yet, it is a psalm with which many who are going through trials can identify – and certainly Jesus understood those feelings Himself, from His crucifixion. ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ expresses our own feelings of despair at moments of great trial, when it can feel as though we are abandoned of God. Jesus understood our weaknesses and knew of our feelings, taking these on Himself, as Athanasius wrote.

Recognized by Athanasius, of course, is the fact that Jesus suffered unjustly and for our sake. The expression ‘pressed heavily’, as in ‘Your wrath has pressed heavily upon me’, is derived from the Greek episterizo (S# 1991), used here and in the LXX. ‘Episterizo’ is a word having a reflexive usage and can mean either ‘support’, ‘establish’, ‘confirm’, ‘prop up’, ‘uphold’ (suggestive of giving stabilizing support) or reflexively‘cause to rest on’, ‘make to lean on’ (Liddell/ Scott Lex.). The equivalent word in biblical Hebrew used here is ‘samak’ (S# 5564) and is understood similarly according to context: lean, lay, rest, or reflexively: support, uphold, sustain (Brown-Driver-Briggs).

In the Pentateuch, samak is the Hebrew verb commonly used to describe the ‘resting’ or ‘laying’ on of hands upon animals destined for sacrifice, as in  Lev.1:4: ‘He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering’ (NKJ). However, in all these instances, the verb in the Greek of the LXX is not episterizo, but ‘epistheis’: meaning ‘to place upon’- and is thus translated wherever this was believed the precise meaning. In Ezek.24:2, we can read that the armies of Babylon ‘laid’ siege to Jerusalem (NIV), but in the LXX we find simply ‘epi’: meaning that the armies came ‘upon’ Jerusalem. Elsewhere, in the LXX, when ‘samak’ is translated by ‘episterizo’, or words related, the idea is either ‘to uphold’ or ‘support’, such as: “the Lord upholds the righteous” (Ps.37:17); “the Lord upholds all who fall” (Ps.145:14); or, ‘to lean’, ‘rest’, ‘press’, or ‘lie upon’. In the Greek New Testament, ‘episterizo’ coveys the idea of ‘establishing’, ‘supporting’, ‘confirming’ or ‘strengthening’, as in: Acts 14:22; 15:32, 41; 18:23.

God’s righteous anger is directed against the wicked. Jesus also felt this anger in Himself, as ‘God with us’. Athanasius wrote: ‘he took on himself the wrath directed against us.’ (‘took on’ is translated from ‘bastazo’: ‘to take up’, ‘bear’ or ‘carry’, S# 941). Jesus ‘bore up’ God’s wrath directed at us, just as He ‘bore up’ our sins, as we read in Isaiah (Ch.53) – not as one to whom God’s wrath was applied, but as One interceding on our behalf. At the cross, Jesus prayed: ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do’ (Lk.23:34, NKJ). In so praying, He held back God’s wrath at that time.

In His ministry on Earth, Jesus not only preached ‘good tidings to the poor’ (see: Isa.61:1-2), but also proclaimed the ‘day of vengeance of our God’ – the day of retribution that will come upon the world. It is He who is the One through whom God’s wrath will be poured out: ‘He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God’ (Rev19:15, NKJ). That, by God’s grace, is yet to come.

Interestingly, in Isaiah 63:3-6, we find the prophet referring to the Lord treading out the winepress of His wrath and being ‘upheld’ and ‘sustained’ by His fury (wrath) against the wicked: “I looked, but there was no one to help, and I wondered that there was no one to ‘uphold’ (samak); therefore My own arm brought salvation for Me; and My own fury [wrath], it ‘sustained’ (samak) Me” (Isa.63:5, NKJ). In the Hebrew, the same Hebrew reflexive verb ‘samak’ is used as in Psalm 87; but is translated in the LXX by the Greek verb: ‘epeste’, meaning ‘to come upon’ or ‘to stand over’, therefore meaning: ‘My own wrath came upon Me’. Of course, there can be no suggestion in this passage of Isaiah that the Lord had ‘punished’ Himself with His own wrath. That would be absurd. The context infers that God ‘had become’ furious with the people – because of the sinfulness He beheld. So, when we read of Jesus enduring sinners and paying for crimes He did not commit, we can understand God’s wrath ‘coming upon’ Him in the same way. God’s anger is directed at the wicked – who commit cruelty and condemn the innocent – and He feels fury towards them; but the day of visitation, when He pours out that fury, is yet come. Jesus felt that anger during His ministry on Earth, as with the cleansing of the temple when He tossed over the tables of the moneychangers (Matt..21:12) – but His first coming ushered in the day of salvation, not vengeance.

This interpretation is found in the comments made by Athanasius, himself, as given above: ‘Then I restored that which I did not take away.’ [Quoting Psalm 68 of the LXX, Ps.69:4 in the Hebrew.] For although he was not himself obliged to give account for any crime, he died […]’. The word translated ‘restored’ is taken from the Greek: ‘apetinnyon’, of the verb ‘apotino’ meaning ‘to repay’ or ‘recompense’ as a penalty, for something lost or stolen. It can be rendered: ‘I paid for what I did not take or steal.’ In the Hebrew: ‘Though I have stolen nothing, I still must restore it’ (Ps.69:4, NKJ). The statement is applied by Athanasius to our Lord’s unjust penal death for crimes He did not commit. This was the penalty He unjustly paid for sin, as though a criminal suffering the wrath of God. Jesus, to onlookers, appeared to be suffering God’s wrath and the penalty of death from God as if Jesus were an abomination because of sin – but this, of course, was not the reality. The truth was the complete opposite of this. As our Creator, He was the One against whom all had sinned. As Immanuel (‘God with us’) and Mediator (1 Tim.2:5), He bore upon Himself God’s wrath against sin directed at us. As Saviour, He suffered and interceded on our behalf. Athanasius wrote that our Lord ‘suffered on our behalf and took on Himself the wrath directed against us because of the transgression’. ‘What transgression?’ one might ask. – The sin in the Garden of Eden? Was it the sin of man throughout the ages? Neither, but the sin that encapsulates all sin – THE SIN of man against God’s Son at the cross. Just as Jesus took on our sins, He also took on God’s wrath against sin. That is what an intercessor does. He lifts up our sins and asks for mercy – for ‘they don’t know what they do’ (Luke 23:34). At the same time, Jesus holds up God’s wrath – ready to fall because of man’s sin against His Son. He stands in the breach, and intercedes on our behalf. The Father acts through the Son and through the Son God’s wrath will be poured out on the wicked at the end of this world, as we know it. He mediates between man and God, loaded up with man’s sins and pressed down with God’s wrath against sin. These expressions are metaphors and do not infer that Jesus either became guilty in Himself for the sins He bore, or that He suffered the wrath of the Father directed at Himself because of sin. They express the work of our Mediator, interceding on our behalf – for our sins and our guilt against the just punishment and wrath of God. Jesus took on Himself the wrath, but it is directed at us – not at His beloved Son.

Athanasius wrote: ‘

This is evident also when we say in Psalm 137 [138], The Lord will recompense them on my behalf, and the Spirit says in the 71st [72nd], and he will save the children of the needy, and bring low the false accuser …for he has delivered the poor from the oppressor, and the laborer, who had no helper.’

Psalm 137 (138) speaks of God’s deliverance from the wrath of enemies. In the LXX, Ps.137 (138) v 7-8 in the Greek can be rendered:

‘[v7] Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you will revive me. You will stretch forth your hand against the wrath of my enemies. Your right hand will save me. [v8] Yahweh will recompense on my behalf. Yahweh’s loving kindness endures forever. Forsake not the works of your own hands.’ (WEB, modified).

The LXX suggests meaning from context. We can compare: “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay” (Rom12:19), and also Deut.32:35: “Vengeance is Mine, and recompense” (NKJ). Here, a form of the same Greek word is used in both cases, (S# 467, in Ps.137, LXX: ‘antapadosei’, as in the letter to Marcellinus) meaning ‘repay/recompense’. ‘The Lord will recompense my enemies for their wrath against me’ is what the context of Ps.138:7-8 suggests. This must also be the meaning Athanasius intended in his letter. Jesus will recompense all those who trouble and oppose us. God’s wrath will be returned upon our enemies, in compensation for their wrath against us.

Psalm 71 (Hebrew: 72), likewise speaks of the Lord’s deliverance from oppression: ‘He will bring justice to the poor of the people; He will save the children of the needy, and will break in pieces the oppressor’ (Ps.72v4, NKJ). Our salvation is not just from sin, but also from the perpetrators of sin. They shall receive their just reward. This is all that we can reasonably infer from the context.

The comments made by Athanasius with respect to these psalms cause us to consider the Lord’s work of mediation and intercession. Jesus stands in the breach and is ever ready to intercede on our behalf.



Man created with a mortal body, but given the conditional grace to live forever :

‘For He brought them into His own garden, and gave them a law: so that, if they kept the grace and remained good, they might still keep the life in paradise without sorrow or pain or care besides having the promise of incorruption in heaven; but that if they transgressed and turned back, and became evil, they might know that they were incurring that corruption in death which was theirs by nature: no longer to live in paradise, but cast out of it from that time forth to die and to abide in death and in corruption.’

(Athanasius, The Incarnation, 3:4; A. Robertson, P. Schaff, 1891)

For man is by nature mortal, inasmuch as he is made out of what is not; but by reason of his likeness to Him that is (and if he still preserved this likeness by keeping Him in his knowledge) he would stay his natural corruption, and remain incorrupt…’

(Athanasius, The Incarnation, 4:6; A. Robertson, P. Schaff, 1891)

‘For God has not only made us out of nothing; but He gave us freely, by the Grace of the Word, a life in correspondence with God. But men, having rejected things eternal, and, by counsel of the devil, turned to the things of corruption, became the cause of their own corruption in death, being, as I said before, by nature corruptible, but destined, by the grace following from partaking of the Word, to have escaped their natural state, had they remained good.’

(Athanasius, The Incarnation, 5:1; A. Robertson, P. Schaff, 1891)

In addition to the above comments on the mortality of the human body, we should take note of other comments Athanasius made on the human ‘soul’:

‘But that the soul is made immortal is a further point in the Church’s teaching which you must know, to show how the idols are to be overthrown. But we shall more directly arrive at a knowledge of this from what we know of the body, and from the difference between the body and the soul. For if our argument has proved it to be distinct from the body, while the body is by nature mortal, it follows that the soul is immortal, because it is not like the body.’

Athanasius: ‘Contra Gentes’ (Against the Heathen), Athanasius: Select Works and Letters,Part II, 33:1; ed.: A. Robertson, H. Wace, P. Schaff; Vol.IV: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers,  T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1891

Contra Gentes is considered an early work, written prior to 319 A.D. (before the Arian controversy broke out), when Athanasius was still in his very early twenties. Nevertheless, his stated view on the ‘immortality of the soul’ needs to be understood in the context of this work. He was stating the view that the human soul has existence independent of the body and that, even when the body dies, the soul does not die with it. In this sense, he referred to it as ‘immortal’. He was not saying that it had always existed or that it could not cease to exist. He, also, was not stating that the human soul is ‘immortal’ in the same sense that God is considered immortal. – Yet, when purified in Christ, the soul lives forever by the grace of God. However, it was a belief in the early Church that the souls of the wicked, condemned by God, exist only for as long as God permits:

Evangelist: ‘[…] But I do not say, indeed, that all souls die; for that were truly a piece of good fortune to the evil. What then? The souls of the pious remain in a better place, while those of the unjust and wicked are in a worse, waiting for the time of judgment. Thus some which have appeared worthy of God never die; but others are punished so long as God wills them to exist and to be punished.’

(Justin Martyr: Dialogue with Trypho, chapter 5; Ante-Nicene Fathers,Vol.1, Roberts & Donaldson, 1884)

The pagan view of a soul that can never die or cease to exist was not the view of Justin Martyr. It would also be wrong to attribute such a view to Athanasius on the basis of his comments in Contra Gentes (Against the Heathen).


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