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Why Christ had to Die












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.”




  1. Chris

    Great post. Verge work of the cross is seen as substatutionary but not penal. Maybe a topic for another post is how one appropriates the benefits secured in the atonement.

    • Prometheus

      What surprises me about a complete denial of penal substitution, is that Athanasius (in the work cited) admits that death is the penalty of sin and that Jesus substitutes for all mankind – dies for all mankind. Is this not in a sense penal substitution?

      • robertar


        I’m not sure there’s a “complete denial” of penal substitution as you suggested either by me or by Athanasius. What I wanted to convey in the blog posting was that Athanasius used language that strongly suggested Christus Victor.

        I don’t deny the validity of the penal paradigm of salvation; I’m just not sure how much prominence it deserves. For example, Athanasius’ language “in place of all, to settle man’s account with death” doesn’t fit in with my understanding of penal substitution. My understanding of the penal model of salvation is that if man broke the law of God then he incurs God’s wrath and that God’s wrath must be appeased or satisfied in order for man to be saved. If Athanasius was operating from the penal model then wouldn’t the language be that Christ died to settle man’s account with God the Judge?

        So to reiterate my earlier point, as a result of my reading the early church fathers I’m not sure that the penal substitutionary atonement deserves the prominence that Reformed tradition assigns it. I believe it has valid points but I’m not sure how much prominence it deserves. I would be interested to learn from you whether or not the penal/legal paradigm is fundamental to Athanasius’ doctrine of salvation. This is a very important and complex issue. It is one that I’m researching with care to make sure that my positions are accurate and fair.


  2. Chris

    Pardon my misspellings, haven’t mastered the iphone keyboard yet.

  3. John Wells

    Efficacy of our Lord’s atonement: could everyone’s favorite villain, Adolph Hitler, have repented and pleaded for salvation in the final moments of his mis-spent life? Absolutely YES. (Thankfully, God mercifully grants forgiveness when asked.)

    Did Mr. Hitler repent? Mark me down as doubtful on this question.

    So, necessarily, there will be some who remain in God’s wrath. Hence one needs to be careful using the term “universal salvation.” (LORD, have mercy.)

    • Anastasios

      Well, if I’m not mistaken, don’t Orthodox Christians accept at least the possibility of post-mortem repentance as well? It’s only Protestants who dogmatically insist that everyone’s eternal fate is necessarily fixed at their moment of earthly death. (Read Dostoevsky’s parable of the onion for a common Orthodox view on hell).

      That being said I still think it extremely unlikely that Hitler would repent even after being resurrected, especially once he sees that there are a lot of Jewish and non-“Aryan” people in Heaven. He’d probably rather go to hell than go to a heaven filled with people he hates and considers “subhuman”. Likewise, once Fred Phelps realizes he was wrong about God hating everybody, and sees that there are people in heaven whose funerals he picketed, he’d probably choose hell too. The door is locked from the inside….

      • Anastasios

        To elaborate further, the parable of Dives and Lazarus is cited by some Protestants as evidence that the wicked will repent in Hell but it will be “too late” for them, so they will continue to suffer.

        A more common Orthodox interpretation is that Dives didn’t genuinely repent; he asked for relief for selfish reasons rather than because he’d genuinely had a change of heart. His own lack of repentance was the “great gulf” Abraham referred to, the great gulf separating Dives from Abraham and Lazarus.

  4. Chris

    I think he means a universal offer of salvation not universalism. Some will accept the offer others won’t . Thus, Christ died for all, even those who reject Him. The benefits of His death are only efficacious to those who believe. Robert can speak for himself, but I think he’s refuting the 3rd point of Calvinism.

    • robertar


      Thanks. That’s how I understand Christ’s dying on behalf of all. But I wanted the posting to be a tiny appetizer enticing people to read Athanasius for themselves. That little reference to the TULIP acronym is meant to get my Reformed friends to ask themselves: Is TULIP compatible with Athanasius’ theology?

      Wishing you and John a blessed Pascha (Easter)!


    • Greg


      Regarding the efficacy of Christ’s death, isn’t one of the points Robert is presenting the fact that Christ trampled down death by His death? Is this “efficacious” for only those who believe or for all of humanity? Do all humans automatically get to participate in the resurrection or was this only made possible by Christ’s destruction of death?

      Questions like these seem to get lost in atonement theories found in non-Orthodox traditions; leaving only the eternal destinies of Heaven and Hell in view. As Robert has mentioned elsewhere, salvation is a multifaceted/multidimensional mystery encompassing more than our eternal states of existence.

      Are we able to we say, in one sense Christ did in fact die for all of humanity, each and every one of us, including Adolf Hitler? No human being will remain in a state of “death” but will be resurrected on the last day, because of Christ’s victory over death for all of humanity.

      Our individual experience of God’s presence after the resurrection, however, is another matter altogether and is yet another dimension of God’s salvation and our participation (or lack thereof) in it.

  5. Patrick

    Outstanding Post! Every Christian should read, digest and deeply understand Athanasius’ work, “On the Incarnation”. Thanks for sharing this!

    • robertar

      Welcome to the OrthodoxBridge! Hope you get to experience the joy and glory of the Pascha Liturgy.


  6. John A

    Just a question: How does forgiveness of sins fall into this model however? If my understanding is correct: God can, and does forgive sins to anyone who repents; there are plenty of OT texts and NT examples of God forgiving apart from the necessity of a blood sacrifice. And of course, in the parable of the prodigal son, the father does not say, “Well, son I’d like to forgive you but I’m unable to and I have to go kill your older brother first”

    However, in the liturgy, we hear the priest proclaiming, “This is my body which is broken for you, for the forgiveness (or remission) of sins” and in the Paschal Homily, we have “Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave.” Can anyone explain how the death/resurrection of Christ is linked to forgiveness of sins in this model?


    • robertar


      Good question! I see salvation as a diamond with many beautiful facets. Problems arise when we fixate on just one facet and ignore the others. As I understand it there are three major issues that have to be addressed for our salvation: (1) sin, (2) the devil, and (3) death. I think some Orthodox Christians are going too far when they reject the penal model of salvation. I can understand why they would be repelled by the notion of a angry God so widely believed among Protestants.

      With respect to your question how the forgiveness of sins fits into the Christus Victor model, I would note that the Christus Victor model is grounded in God’s mercy. The forgiveness of sins is founded on divine mercy. God sent his Son to bring us back home but we need to repent of our sins. Reconciliation is a two way street; God reaches out to us and we willingly accept his offer. Otherwise, the forgiveness of sins ends up being like the “Get of Jail” card in the Monopoly game. Reconciliation, that is, the healing of a broken relationship, is key to atonement. Without an unreformed life the forgiveness of sins becomes an empty concept or a sick joke. That is why Psalm 51 interweaves repentance with the forgiveness of sins.

      Evangelicalism focuses on the solution to one particular problem: the forgiveness of sins. But I did not hear much about the problem of death. One problem I have with the penal model of salvation is that all it requires is that Christ suffer and die on the Cross. This model does not logically require Christ’s resurrection. It did not bother me much in my younger Evangelical years because my church back then did not talk much about the problem of death. It became more of an issue when I was confronted with the question: Is death a punishment from God because we broke his righteous laws? Or is death a natural consequence of our being separated from God who is truly Love and Life? I heard the argument that Christ’s resurrection was proof of God the Father accepting his Son’s atoning sacrifice but it did not seem all that compelling.

      Also, I began to rethink the problem of sin. Many Evangelicals understand sin as breaking God’s law and our becoming guilty criminals, but there is another paradigm that is just as valid. When we succumb to temptation and sin we become captive to Satan. That is why the early Church required that people renounce Satan prior to being baptized. In my former home church the pastor would ask those about to be baptized: “Do you confess that you are a sinner? Do you believe Jesus died on the Cross for your sins?” If the person said ‘yes’ to both questions they were then baptized. The pastors of my Evangelical church did not bring up the issue of renouncing Satan. They believed in the existence of the devil but this did not figure prominently in their theology. This is not surprising given that their theological roots are in the Protestant Reformation and not in the early Church. If I emphasize the Christus Victor theme, it is because it was quite prominent in the teaching of the early Church. Also, as I became acquainted with the Orthodox understanding of baptism as accepting Christ as God and King and entering into his covenant community, the Church, I saw something that resonated with my Reformed theological framework.

      In response to your closing question: Can anyone explain how the death/resurrection of Christ is linked to forgiveness of sins in this model?,” I would say: Focus your attention on the whole diamond — our God and Savior Jesus Christ — not just particular aspects like the forgiveness of sins, his vanquishing death, his rising from the dead in isolation from each other. Focus on the Person of Christ. Seek to have a holistic and integrated understanding of salvation. It was Christ the Second Adam who rebuffed Satan’s temptation and lived a life of obedience to God; here he deals with the problem of temptation and the sin nature. It was Christ the Passover Lamb who died to take away the sins of the world. And it was Christ who rose on the third day defeating death and setting us free from hell. Christ will bring us back home to the Father; all we need to do is follow Him and participate in His divine life in the Church.


    • Karen


      Adding to what Robert has said, Dr. Alexander Kalomiros, a very pious Greek Orthodox medical doctor who very deeply immersed himself in the patristic thought of his Orthodox faith, in his book, Nostalgia for Paradise, writes:

      “Remission of sins and the healing of the soul are one and the same thing. Our repentance of sins is also our remission. Repentance means the change of our heart and mind, and our coming close to God, instead of living far from Him. Remission of sins is the overturning of the consequences of having been far from our Father’s House. In other words, it is our return to His House and His embrace, and to living once again as His children. Our departure from Him was our illness and death, and our return to Him is our cure and our eternal life.”

      So the “diamond” of salvation has one facet of this healing/vivifying change within us that results from our repentant reorientation towards God, and another facet is that this reorientation towards of God of our heart and life is simultaneously our (progressive) release from sin’s power and from the concrete manifestation of that in our life (our sins and their consequences). Experientially, it is true our repentance is also progressive.

      Fr. Stephen Freeman has taught that from an Orthodox perspective the “wrath” of God is a synonym for the inherent spiritual state of human beings estranged from God which has its origin not in God, but in human rebellion against the will of God. It is another term for the suffering and evil that are the natural consequence of our collective sin/sins–not some punishment extrinsically imposed by God.

      Christ became sin for us in the sense He voluntarily assumed all the natural consequences of humanity’s sin/sins–suffering and death–and overcame them by the Resurrection–freeing us from the fear of death that, according to Hebrews 2:15, held us in bondage to sin.

      • robertar

        Thanks Karen! That’s an important point you brought up.


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