Death is swallowed up in victory: The Consistency of Divine Goodness in Creation, Salvation, and the Resurrection

Reading Time: 12 minutes

By Daniel Henriquez, University of Dallas

In his apologetic treatise On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius of Alexandria aimed to demonstrate that the Word “by the love for humankind and goodness of his own Father…appeared to us in a human body for our salvation.”[1] To demonstrate this, Athanasius follows the consistency of God’s goodness as it is manifested by the Word both in Creation and in the saving action of the Incarnation.[2] The divine consistency of his goodness, as expressed particularly in its complementary manifestations of mercy and justice, provides a hermeneutical key to properly understanding Athanasian soteriology. It is the aim of this paper both to draw out the eschatological implications which may be gleaned from Athanasius’ understanding of Christ’s saving action and to demonstrate the divine consistency of goodness within these implications. The goodness of God as manifested in the eschatological effects of Christ’s saving action remains consistent with God’s goodness from the beginning since God saves all humanity from the power of death in the common resurrection and gives to each “according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor 5:10).[3]

To understand Athanasian soteriology properly it is absolutely essential to understand that “divine justice is integral, and not extrinsic” to his “ontological grammar of salvation.”[4] That is to say, Athanasius constructs his soteriology “upon a conception of the God-world relation as determined by the actualization of divine goodness precisely through the interplay of divine mercy and justice.”[5] Divine mercy and justice are not diametrically opposed as is sometimes supposed by some miscontruals of vicarious satisfaction theory. Rather, divine mercy and justice from the beginning are complementary manifestations of one and the same divine goodness. Moreover, it is essential to see that “Athanasius depicts divine goodness as intentionally oriented toward creation.”[6] We can see this aspect in relation to creation in general and to humanity in particular: “For God is good…and the one who is good grudges nothing, so that grudging nothing its existence, he made all things through his own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. Among these things…he had mercy upon the human race…[and] granted them a further gift.”[7] Thus, Athanasius understands God’s goodness both in terms of the integral complementarity of mercy and justice and in terms of its intentional orientation toward creation.

With this understanding of Athanasius’ preconceived notion of divine goodness that exists prior to creation, even if Athanasius only knows it from the divine act of creation, we can now properly interpret Athanasius’ understanding of the concrete creation of human beings. Athanasius says:

“Among…all things upon earth he had mercy upon the human race, and seeing that by the principle of its own coming into being would not be able to endure eternally, he granted them a further gift, creating human beings…according to his own image (cf. Gen 1:27), giving them a share of the power of his own Word, so that…they might be able to abide in blessedness, living the true life…And knowing again that free choice of human beings could turn either way, he secured before hand, by a law and a set place, the grace given.”[8]

Here we begin to see that divine interplay between mercy and justice in the goodness of God’s creation of humanity. Before explaining the interplay, however, we must understand that Athanasius interprets the Genesis creation accounts in light of the Neoplatonic understanding of the ontological movement from nothing into being with the difference that, for Christians, God freely and willingly creates all beings ex nihilo.[9] The creation of humanity in particular “is conceived as a movement from nothing into being, through participation in the Word.”[10] Out of his divine mercy, God granted humanity participation in his Word in order to be preserved in existence; out of his divine justice, God gave humanity a law principally in order to protect humanity’s participation in the Word, and thus, to preserve his divine mercy. With this dynamic interplay of mercy and justice in the one creative act, we see that the divine justice revealed by the law “is rendered as intrinsic to the divine act of creation and thus as constitutive of the creative manifestation of divine goodness and generosity.”[11]

Athanasius interprets the Fall and the rest of salvation history within the ontological framework of divine goodness that is evident in the creation of humanity. Completing his interpretation of the original law, Athanasius states:

“For bringing them into his own paradise, he gave them a law, so that if they guarded the grace and remained good, they might have the life of paradise…besides having the promise of their incorruptibility in heaven; but if they were to transgress and turning away become wicked, they would know themselves enduring the corruption of death according to nature, and no longer live in paradise, but thereby dying outside of it, would remain in death and in corruption.”[12]

As it happened, Adam and Eve did transgress the divine law and thus brought the condemnation of the law upon themselves. Their sin necessarily brought death into the world. Though being made for incorruptibility by their participation in the incorruptible Word, our first parents fell from this grace of participation, “received the previously threatened condemnation of death,” and consequently returned to their “natural state…[of] corruption unto non-being.”[13] Here we ought to understand incorruption as the preservation of being or life and corruption as the turn from being to nothing, from life to death.[14] Thus, by freely sinning, humanity freely turned away from the incorruptibility of life for which they were created and returned to the corruptibility of their nature which leads ultimately to death. Finally, after dying, humans remain dead. By their free transgression of the divine law which warned them about death, humans opened the door to death, “and, seizing them, death reigned.”[15]

By interpreting the Fall in terms of a corruption from life to death, Athanasius provides the “original meaning” of death and sets the economic stage for the incarnation. Later, we will examine the eschatological implications of Christ changing the original meaning of death by emptying death of its power; for now, we pause to consider why God became man in the first place. Athanasius says that “our own cause was the occasion of his descent and that our own transgression evoked the Word’s love for human beings. For we were the purpose of his embodiment, and for our salvation he so loved human beings as to come to be and appear in a human body.”[16] By becoming man, appearing in a human body, God manifests the same divine goodness that was present from the beginning of creation. To further explicate the point, we must stress that our corrupted state merely “occasioned this salvation…God’s goodness, however, prompted it. For God’s nature is everlastingly and unavoidably good.”[17] In other words, though our circumstances occasioned our salvation, God could have freely chosen not to save us from death. The fact that he freely chose to save us manifests in a new way the same goodness of God that was present at creation, the same divine goodness which begrudged nothing existence and freely gave existence to all. Thus, the goodness of God expressed in the Incarnation appears consistent with the goodness of God expressed in creation—it makes some rational sense that the Creator might become incarnate. 

Athanasius provides another supporting reason for the divine consistency of goodness between creation and the incarnation by setting up what he calls the “divine dilemma.” It is the divine dilemma, which proves only to be a dilemma in our understanding and not a dilemma for God, that explains the goodness of the incarnation by appealing to the original manifestations of divine mercy and justice. On the one hand, Athanasius says, it would be absurd if “God should prove to be lying” if man were not to die after transgressing the law; on the other hand, it would be improper if “what had once been made rational and partakers of his Word should perish, and once again return to non-being through corruption.”[18] The rhetorical question then posed by Athanasius is “what should God, being good, do?”[19] In other words, what should God who is good do, if he is to uphold both his justice and his mercy? The point, for Athanasius, is that God resolves this apparent dilemma becoming incarnate, thus proving that it was never a dilemma in the first place. The Word, realizing that our corruption would not be undone except by dying, “[took] to himself a body capable of death, in order that it…might be sufficient for death on behalf of all, and through the indwelling Word would remain incorruptible, and so corruption might henceforth cease from all by the grace of the resurrection.”[20]

In his wisdom and power, God chose to fulfill his original justice and mercy in a more perfect way by becoming incarnate and thus gave new expression to his original creative goodness. The crucifixion and resurrection of Christ can only be properly understood in this light. By taking on “a body capable of death,” the Word became obedient to the original justice of the divine law prescribed at creation. However, “being above all, the Word of God consequently, by offering his temple and his bodily instrument as a substitute for all, fulfilled in death that which was required; and, being with all through the like [body], the incorruptible Son of God consequently clothed all with incorruptibility in the promise concerning the resurrection.”[21] It is especially important to note here that, while he does treat death as a debt that has to be paid, Athanasius only sees Christ’s satisfying of the debt as one aspect of the bigger soteriological picture. “The motif that is most pervasive in his explication of the salvific efficacy of Christ’s death is…rather the more positive and active aspect of Christ’s offering himself in death to the Father.”[22] By offering “the sacrifice on behalf of all, delivering his own temple to death in the stead of all” to the Father, Christ “showed himself superior to death, displaying his own body as incorruptible, the first-fruits of the universal resurrection.”[23] Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for the salvation of all thus manifests the mercy and justice of God in a new way. In his death, Christ justly fulfills the original law threatening death and mercifully changes death’s content, and thus, death’s meaning for all humanity.[24] By his cross and resurrection, Christ destroys the power of death and efficaciously signifies the common resurrection that aims to preserve human nature’s ultimate incorruptibility.

   With Athanasius’ understanding of the saving action of the Incarnation, we can now begin to unfold its eschatological implications and to see God’s consistent goodness shining through them. We have already noted that, by his death, Christ conquered death for all humanity and thus changed death’s meaning for all. Originally, while death reigned, humans remained in the corruption of death, since they have no power to either remain alive or restore themselves to life after dying. However, when Christ died on the cross, “the death of all was completed in the lordly body, and also death and corruption were destroyed by the Word in it.”[25] Moreover, “the trophy of victory over death” which demonstrates the change in death’s meaning is “[Christ’s] resurrection being shown to all…as a pledge of which for all and proof of the resurrection in store for all.”[26] By his victory over death manifested in his resurrection, Christ, who is “the resurrection and the life,” emptied death of its power over all human beings and will raise all human bodies from corruption to incorruption on the last day (John 11:25). During Christ’s everlasting reign, humans will no longer remain in the corruption of death but their bodies will be raised incorruptible.

Although it is important to emphasize for Athanasius that Christ died “for the salvation of all” from the power of death in the common resurrection, it is nonetheless necessary to uphold that Athanasius affirms that Christ will come the second time to separate the good from the evil. He will come in glory, “no longer to suffer but to bestow thenceforth the fruit of his cross on all—[that is] the resurrection and incorruptibility—no longer judged, but judging according to each what each one has done in the body, whether good or evil, whence there is laid up for the good the kingdom of heaven, but for them that have done evil, eternal fire and outer darkness.”[27] Christ bestows the resurrection of the body to incorruptibility on all but only raises some to enjoy the heavenly kingdom while he raises others to suffer the punishment of eternal fire. To some, this action may seem contradictory: why would Jesus die to save all from death only to raise some to everlasting life? Are these two eschatological effects of the one saving action of Christ in fact consistent with one another? We must resolve this human dilemma if we are to understand the eschatological import of Athanasius’ understanding of the incarnation.

The resolution of this human dilemma can only be resolved by harkening back to the divine consistency of God’s goodness as manifested throughout the history of salvation. For Athanasius, the goodness of God that is revealed in his original mercy and justice in his creation of humanity is and remains the same goodness that is revealed in his incarnate mercy and justice in his salvation of humanity. Spelling this out, we see in both creation and in the incarnation a God whose goodness moves him towards all his creatures and especially toward humanity. By his original mercy, God preserves humanity in being by giving them a participation in his Word, which, had they remained good, would have kept them incorruptible; by his incarnate mercy, the Word takes on a human body to save humanity from the corruption which they brought upon themselves. In his original justice, God prescribes a law that is meant to protect human incorruptibility by revealing to them the possibility of their corruption; in his incarnate justice, the Word takes on a human body capable of death to die in obedience to the original law for the sake of all to perfectly establish human incorruptibility. By extension then, the eschatological manifestations of the mercy and justice of God must remain consistent with original and incarnate manifestations of the same divine mercy and justice.

The eschatological manifestations of divine mercy and justice have already been perfectly fulfilled in the resurrected Incarnate Word. Christ has forever saved all human beings from the power of death, presently manifests this in his resurrected body, and will manifest it to all in the common resurrection. The goodness of the common resurrection proves to be another manifestation of the same goodness that was manifested in creation and in the incarnation. While the resurrection of the just to life and the unjust to fire seems inconsistent with Christ’s salvific action on the cross, these resurrections actually manifest the same goodness of God in a different way. For Christ’s salvation not only delivers humans from death to incorruption, but also from sin, the cause of death, to deification.[28] Athanasius claims that the Word “was incarnate that we might be made god,” that is, that we might be deified.[29] We may only be deified if they are “incorporated into [Christ’s] body through baptism” and thus “joined to divinity through the assumed humanity.”[30] In freely believing in the grace of Christ’s bodily resurrection, those baptized into his body are made able to “obtain a better resurrection” (Hebrews 11:35). Thus, by his incarnate mercy, Christ made possible the salvation of all from sin by giving all the opportunity to share in the divine grace of his resurrected body; by his eschatological mercy, Christ perfects the salvation of the deified in his resurrected body by raising them to new life. By his incarnate justice, Christ protects the possible salvation of all by giving all the new law to imitate his love for them (cf. John 15:11); by his eschatological justice, Christ perfects the salvation of the deified who imitated his love by raising them to everlasting life in him. However, in full consistency with the created order, the good God respects the free choice of all human beings. Those who choose not to participate in the incarnate mercy and justice of God by joining the Church and living a life that imitates the love of Christ will not receive the promised grace of everlasting life but will instead receive the promised pain of everlasting condemnation.

Thus, the eschatological effects of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection appear in perfect harmony with the entire soteriological vision of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. God’s goodness once again proves to be ever the same throughout its many manifestations in salvation history. The divine interplay between mercy and justice within the ontological structure of divine goodness as illustrated by Athanasius truly provides the proper hermeneutical framework for understanding the God who actively loves us. Athanasius’ vision of salvation carried to its eschatological conclusion reveals the good God’s desire for our ultimate salvation. What remains for us now is to respond to God’s love by believing, hoping, and loving in Christ’s risen body that we, offering ourselves to the Father and being deified in the grace of Son’s body, might be raised to everlasting life on the last day.   


Anatolios, Khaled.  “Athanasius’ Christology today: the life, death, and resurrection of Christ in On the Incarnation.” In In the shadow of the Incarnation: essays on Jesus Christ in the early church in honor of Brian E. Daley, S.J. Edited Peter W. Martens. Notre Dame, 2008.

Anatolios, Khaled. Athanasius: the coherence of his thought. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Anatolios, Khaled. “The Ontological Grammar of Salvation and the Salvific Work of Christ in Athanasius and Aquinas.” In Thomas Aquinas and the Greek Fathers. Edited by Michael Dauphinais et al. Ave Maria, FL: Sapientia, 2019.

Clifford, S.J., Richard and Khaled Anatolios. “Christian Salvation: Biblical and Theological Perspectives.” Theological Studies 66, (2005), 739–769.

Kariatlis, Philip. “Soteriological Insights in St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation,” Phronema 28, no. 2, (2013), 21–34.

Pettersen, Alvyn. Athanasius. Ridgefield, CT: Morehouse, 1995.

Saint Athanasius the Great of Alexandria. On the Incarnation. Translated by John Behr. Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 2011.

[1] Saint Athanasius the Great of Alexandria, On the Incarnation, tran. John Behr, (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 2011), 1.

[2] Cf. Philip Kariatlis, “Soteriological Insights in St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation,” Phronema 28, no. 2, (2013), 26. Kariatlis notes here that, for Athanasius, the term for “incarnation” has to be understood from a perspective which includes not only the conception and birth of Jesus but also his suffering on the cross. By speaking of the “saving action of the Incarnation,” I intend to highlight the broader perspective of the term.

[3] Cf. Saint Athanasius, 56.

[4] Khaled Anatolios, “The Ontological Grammar of Salvation and the Salvific Work of Christ in Athanasius and Aquinas,” in Thomas Aquinas and the Greek Fathers, ed. Michael Dauphinais et al., (Ave Maria, FL: Sapientia, 2019), 93.

[5] Anatolios, “Ontological Grammar,” 93.

[6] Anatolios, “Ontological Grammar,” 94.

[7] Saint Athanasius, 3.

[8] Saint Athanasius, 3.

[9] Anatolios, “Ontological Grammar,” 94.

[10] Khaled Anatolios, “Athanasius’ Christology today: the life, death, and resurrection of Christ in On the Incarnation,” in In the shadow of the Incarnation: essays on Jesus Christ in the early church in honor of Brian E. Daley, S.J. ed. Peter W. Martens, (Notre Dame, 2008), 37.

[11] Anatolios, “Ontological Grammar,” 96.

[12] Saint Athanasius, 3.

[13] Saint Athanasius, 4.

[14] Cf. Alvyn Pettersen, Athanasius, (Ridgefield, CT: Morehouse, 1995), 83-86.

[15] Saint Athanasius, 4.

[16] Saint Athanasius, 4.

[17] Pettersen, 87.

[18] Saint Athanasius, 6.

[19] Saint Athanasius, 6.

[20] Saint Athanasius, 9.

[21] Saint Athanasius, 9.

[22] Richard Clifford, S.J., and Khaled Anatolios, “Christian Salvation: Biblical and Theological Perspectives,” Theological Studies 66, (2005), 758. 

[23] Saint Athanasius, 20.

[24] Cf. Clifford and Anatolios, 759.

[25] Saint Athanasius, 20.

[26] Saint Athanasius, 22.

[27] Saint Athanasius, 56.

[28] Pettersen, 105.

[29] Saint Athanasius, 54.

[30] Pettersen, 105.

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