For Athanasius, Christ’s death is necessary in as much as God, having promised that death would be the result of sin, could not go back on his word. The divine prohibition, once spoken, could not simply be revoked without impugning the veracity of God. What was to be done? Being incapable of rescinding the curse, God took upon himself true humanity through the incarnation of the Word and died in our stead. “For by the sacrifice of his own body, he both put an end to the law which was against us, and made a new beginning of life for us, by the hope of the resurrection which he has given us.” And again, Christ died in order that “the law involving the ruin of men might be undone, (in as much as its power was fully spent in the Lord’s body, and had no longer holding ground against men, his peers).” In the death of Christ, the legal hold over humanity is broken; the curse is defeated. Christ, through his sacrifice, has banished “death from [humanity] like straw from the fire.”
Yet more needs to be said. Athanasius’ view of the cross moves beyond legal satisfaction, and is ultimately concerned with ontological renewal. What is important to observe here is that Athanasius’ understanding of the cross is centered on resolving the fundamental issue of man’s condition—his deficient ontology. While Christ dies to satisfy humanity’s legal debt, the satisfaction of the debt is only a necessary first step in addressing the deeper issue of ontological corruption.
For the Word, perceiving that not otherwise could the corruption of men be undone save by death as a necessary condition, while it was impossible for the Word to suffer death, being immortal, and Son of the Father; to this end he takes to himself a body capable of death, that it, by partaking of the Word who is above all, might be worthy to die in the stead of all, and might, because of the Word which was come to dwell in it, remain incorruptible, and that thenceforth corruption might be stayed from all by the grace of the resurrection. Whence by offering unto death the body he himself had taken as an offering and sacrifice free from any stain, straightway he put away death from all his peers by the offering of an equivalent. For being over all, The Word of God naturally by offering his own temple and corporeal instrument for the life of all satisfied the debt by his death. And thus he, the incorruptible Son of God, being conjoined with all by a like nature, naturally clothed all with incorruption, by the promise of the resurrection (On the Incarnation, 9)This passage captures the essence of Athanasius understanding of the cross. For Athanasius, Christ’s death has an ontological—rather than legal—payout. To be sure, Athanasius understand the need for the legal debt to be satisfied, but the satisfaction of the legal debt is only significant in that it clears the way for the resolution of humanity’s more fundamental problem. For Athanasius, the “fruit of [Christ’s] . . . cross . . . is the resurrection and incorruption,” not primarily the legal forgiveness of sins. In fact, Athanasius makes virtually no reference to the forgiveness/remission of sins throughout the vast majority of his writings. And tellingly, at the single point in On the Incarnation where Athanasius does mention the “remission” of sins, he equates/conflates it with spiritual regeneration. Athanasius’ soteriological paradigm isn’t concerned about clearing a legal debt, but rather about securing ontological renewal—a renewal typified by bodily and spiritual resurrection. This is not an insignificant observation. It is this facet of Athanasius’ paradigm that, more than any other, moves the resurrection theme toward the center of his soteriology.
Further adding to the emphasis of ontology over legal concerns is Athanasius’ soft voluntarism. For Athanasius, Christ’s death as a legal substitute is only required in as much as God freely chose to connect disobedience with corruption and death; there is nothing inherent within the nature of God that requires legal payment for sin. But the ontological barrier between God and humanity is not a matter of the divine choice; rather it flows of necessity from the very nature of God and humanity. God is infinite and immutable; man is finite and mutable (and now fallen). It is this necessary ontological barrier, not primarily the contingent legal barrier, that represents the greatest soteriological challenge. For Athanasius, the curse is broken most fundamentally, not in the sense that a legal debt has been paid, but in that the effects of the curse—ontological corruption toward non-being—have been abrogated by cross. It is the removal of the corruption of sin itself—not just its guilt—that drives Athanasius understanding of the cross.