I’ve begun a pursuit, a wrestling over this question: Why did Jesus have to die on the cross and what did his dying mean, create, cause, etc? I’ve read articles, study notes, and commentaries, and now have begun reading some books, ancient and modern, about the subject.
I began reading Athanasius’ persepective on the subject by suggestion of C.S. Lewis as well as Renovare’s 25 Books Every Christian Should Read, which starts its list with On the Incarnation (their list is categorized by date). Lewis listed it (cited in the intro to my copy of On the Incarnation) as one of the most influential books he has read.
I’ll attempt to pick apart Athanasius’ ideas here though citing the perceived purpose of life, the problem thwarting that purpose, and the solution or remedy for such.
For Athanasius, the purpose of human life is to dwell with their maker and to live a happy and blessed life in light of that knowledge.
The problem: humanity sinned, turned away from God. They defiled their own soul so completely that they not only lost their apprehension of God, but invented for themselves other gods of various kinds. This, of course, would prevent the true purpose of human life – that is, knowing and dwelling with God.
The result of the human rebellion was the declaration of the curse: you will die. By cutting themselves off from life with God, from knowing God, humanity thus cuts themselves off from life and the source of life, which is to say, the Divine Word, the logos.
It would have been unthinkable, Athanasius states, that God would go back on his declaration of the curse. It would have also been unthinkable that beings which once shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption.
The solution: death needs to be dealt with. How so? Athanasius posts that repentance does not cover this, for repentance can surely reverse an action and an instance, but it is powerless toward changing an overall disposition, a nature. So while we make small, help-to-the-moment situational changes, our disposition is ruined – we are against God by nature, propelled by our own selves on a trajectory toward death. This trajectory would tear apart all humanity and all creation if left unchecked, unresolved.
So, what needed to happen, by Athanasius’ belief, is that the Divine Word which caused all life to be and sustains life as it is, needed to take on human flesh, and die, absorbing that curse of death. This happens in the person of Jesus, whom John’s Gospel cites as being that very Word of God. The Word is fully God and fully man. When he dies by his own will and purpose, the Divine Word takes that curse of death with him. Yet, because he is the Divine Word, death does not keep him dead, but rather, he rises to life, bringing life and hope to all humanity. Because that curse has been defeated, it has been killed, it has been taken to the grave itself, and it no longer threatens humanity, now there is hope and life.
Being the Divine Word, that which/who sustains and holds all life together, Jesus as man and God would be a fully sufficient exchange for all, since all are held together and given life by him. In essence, all of life was at the cross. All of humanity’s life-driving, life-sustaining force died on the cross, yet rose again.
Now, all men are clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection, states Athanasius. Death’s curse has been destroyed – we are now capable and drawn to restorative relationship with God the Trinity. As we once knew only death, now we are becoming alive and aware of the Presence of God, the Love of God, the Power of God.