Athanasius the Great’s theological classic On the Incarnation contains passages that explain eloquently the significance of Christ’s death on the Cross. In this blog posting I highlighted certain phrases to bring to the reader’s attention important themes in Athanasius’ exposition on Christ’s death in § 20.
Universal salvation: Christ died for all that all men might be saved. No limited atonement here! The early Church then and the Orthodox Church today emphasizes God’s philanthropia – his love for the human race.
Incarnation: Through the uniting of the divine Word with a mortal human body Christ destroyed death. The God-Man died on behalf of all; the goal here was “the death of all mankind” and not his own individual death (§ 22). Death was incapable of containing the infinite Life of the divine Word and so was “blown to smithereens.”
Release from Satan: As a result of Adam and Eve’s sin all humanity became enslaved to Satan who had the power of death; so when Christ died on behalf of humanity he paid in full the ancestral debt owed to the devil and when Christ destroyed death he nullified the devil’s number one weapon.
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.
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.”