What purpose does Jesus’ death serve?
This week an online acquaintance asked:
Let’s assume that Jesus was God, as the Nicean Council determined. What purpose would Jesus’ death serve?
About 318 AD, Athanasius (the future bishop of Alexandria) wrote an article called “On the Incarnation of the Word” which has become a classic answer to this question. Athanasius wrote, “He became man that we might become divine; and He revealed Himself through a body that we might receive an idea of the invisible Father; and He endured insults from men that we might inherit incorruption.”
Athanasius writes that man doesn’t exist apart from God. Man is increasingly corrupted by rebellion and alienated from God, the source of life. As a result, “as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again.” This isn’t a law in a juridicial sense, but an observation, like the observed laws of nature. Following scripture, Athanasius calls this “the law of death.”
A Person of the Godhead, whom John’s Gospel calls &rldquo;The Word,” entered the world. He prepared a body for Himself in the virgin. Then as a human He surrendered himself to death, and rose up again by divine power into new and unending life. In this way he abolished the “law of death” and returned man back to incorruption.
The nature of man is now united to the nature of God. That’s what was accomplished by the incarnation, passion and resurrection of Christ. Now humans have a capax dei, a capacity for God, and by participating in His nature, can repent and experience the righteousness, love and life of God as their own.
Athanasius’ teaching here is one of the main reasons the Nicene council later agreed that Christ cannot be other than divine. If Christ is God, of the same kind as the Father, then Christ is capable of uniting us to the life of the Godhead, by being at once God and man. Hence the image in John and in Romans of the life of God in us. If Christ is merely an angel or demigod or something other than YHWH by nature, then in Him we remain unconnected to the Creator.
If Christ is not God, then the eternal life of God is not in us.
The Arians had no Gospel that could address man’s ontological alienation from God; the Jesus of their doctrine was no more than a moral example, not a Savior.