At the beginning of his supreme work, On the Incarnation, Athanasius explains that mankind was made according to the image of God. This theme of image, for Athanasius, is the starting and ending point for a proper theology of the incarnation and atonement. The inner logic of the incarnation and the death of Christ is, for Athanasius, connected to God’s creation of man in his own image. I want to survey Athanasius’ logic in this article.
First, Athanasius explains what is means to be made in God’s image: for Athanasius, to be created in God’s image means simply to share in God’s own life which allows man to become “like God”. Athanasius explains:
Upon them, …upon men who, as animals, were essentially impermanent, [God] bestowed a grace which other creatures lacked — namely the impress of His own image (p 3)
Athanasius calls the image of God “a grace” or gift above natural creaturely life, for mankind is “essentially impermanent”. Athanasius, along with all the early Fathers, understood that because mankind was created out of nothing (ex nihilo), they did not in and of themselves contain eternal life. Thus, God breathed into mankind a share in his own life, giving them a supernatural grace to share in his own eternal life and to be conformed to His image.
Athanasius continues by explaining just what sharing in God’s image entails, namely,
a share in the reasonable being of the very Word Himself, so that, reflecting Him and themselves becoming reasonable and expressing the Mind of God even as He does, though in limited degree they might continue forever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise (p 3)
This is an incredible insight: Athanasius explains that because the Son is the express image of God — the very Word and revelation of the Father — the supernatural grace given to man upon creation was union and a share in the life of God the Son. This share int he Son allows man to have the mind of God (1 Cor 2, Phil 2), and to “continue forever” in God’s life. Put another way, Athanasius understands the supernatural gift of “the image” to be union with the Image of God, thus being formed into His image. The end goal of mankind then was to be conformed into Christlikeness!
But man sinned, and fell. And what were the effects of that fall? Athanasius understands sin not simply as a breaking of God’s law, but as a falling away or separation from union with the Son into corruption and “non-being”. Athanasius explains:
The transgression of the [first] commandment made them turn back again according to their own nature; and 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. the presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good… (p 4)
This then, was the plight of men. God had not only made them out of nothing, but had graciously bestowed on them his own life by the grace of the Word. Then, turning from eternal things to things corruptible, by counsel of the devil, they had become the cause of their own corruption and death (p 5)
Sin for Athanasius is turning toward one’s own nature into corruption and eventually non-existence. Thus, man is born dying and decaying, and eventually “disappearing, and the work of God [is]… undone” (p 6).
But, as Athanasius explains, God did not want his work to simply “disappear”. What could He do? Athanasius concedes that God could simply offer repentance, but this would not be enough. And why? Because simple sorrow does not
recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does is to make them cease from sinning. Had it been a case of trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough (p 8).
In other words, if the problem were just about an outward transgression, repentance and sorrow for sin would have been enough. But the transgression preceded a separation of man from participation in the Son, and thus toward corruption and decay. Put more simply, the problem wasn’t merely external, but internal. Something became fundamentally wrong with man’s own nature after Adam had sinned. God therefore had to renew mankind from the inside out, and conform him once again to His own Image.
But how would God do that? How would he renew man to the image of the Son? Here we come to Athanasius’ supreme insight concerning the incarnation:
What else could [God] possibly do, being God, but renew His Image in mankind, so that through it men might once more come to know him? And how could this be done save by the very Image Himself, our Savior Jesus Christ? Men could not have done it, for they are only made after the Image; nor could angels have done it, for they are not the images of the God. The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father Who could recreate man made after the Image. (p 15)
Athanasius says that it is only the One true Image of God that could renew mankind after His own likeness. This is the impetus in Athanasius’ mind for incarnation: the Son comes into the broken down and corrupted image of man to renew it after his own likeness and sanctify it so that mankind can participate in God once again.
Athanasius continues his line of logic:
In order to effect this re-creation, however, [Christ] had first to do away with death and corruption. Therefore He assumed a body, in order that in it death might once for all be destroyed, and that men might be renewed according to the Image. The Image of the Father only was sufficient for this need (p 16)
In order for death itself to be undone, the Image assumed a human body (nature) and took into himself death and disease and defeated it from the inside out. Christ took the broken image and recrafted it according to Himself. Here we come to the genius of Athanasius’ atonement theology: The Image took our broken image and re-imaged it according to His own Image! The cross was principally an assumption of the deepest brokenness of mankind. The resurrection then is a defeat of death and a re-creation of mankind. What joy!