The first film is last spring’s Noah starring Russell Crowe (#4 on Jason’s Man Crush List). I watched it with my boys until the scene just after the Flood when things felt like they were about to get a little rapey on the boat and I pressed pause.
Just before that scene, though, after the many waters have come and you can hear the agony of all those creatures great and small dying a terrible death outside the ark, my youngest son, who’s got at least a dozen storybook versions of this same story in his bookcase, said aloud, as though an epiphany:
‘God doesn’t seem very nice.’
No wonder God promises never to do such violence again.
Reading Athanasius’ account of the incarnation, it hit me that the way we often speak of the cradle and the cross would have God break that post-Flood promise.
If Jesus is born in order to suffer the punishment we deserve, as we so often sing and say, then doesn’t God- at least symbolically- renege on his promise never to flood the earth again?
How is God killing all but a few of creation by water substantively different than saying Jesus was tortured the torture all of humanity deserve in God’s eyes?
Is it just a matter of quantity versus quality? Is God off the hook because he only kills Jesus this time?
Or can we surmise that when God forswears flooding he also rejects crosses? Rejects ‘redemptive violence?’
Noah and these thoughts came to mind because in §6 of On the Incarnation I was struck by the different tenor with which Athanasius speaks of the Word’s coming.
Due to the corrupting nature of death, Athanasius writes that the creation made by the Artificer was disappearing; in fact, you could follow Athanasius’ logic and argue that prior to the incarnation ‘humanity’ no longer existed.
But such is what God had said would happen: ‘If you eat of the fruit of the tree…you will surely die…’
Athanasius notes that it would be ‘monstrous’ if God, Goodness itself, turned out to be a liar. Once set in motion, Death spread inexorably, not as a punishment, but more like a disease that infection’s allowed to set in.
If it would be monstrous for God to be proved a liar, Athanasius also argues it would be ‘unseemly’ should God prove neglectful. ‘Neglect reveals weakness,’ Athanasius posits, ‘and not goodness on God’s part.’
If the Artificer let his creation dissolve into ruin and nothingness, then it would be better had he not made us in the first place, for ‘…it were not worthy of God’s goodness that the things he made should waste away.’
If we deserve restoration as God’s creatures, if God must restore us if he is to be worthy of his goodness, then the question turns from one of why to how.
How is God to restore us?
By our repentance?
While Athanasius doesn’t dismiss the value in repenting, repentance itself does not protect the veracity of God’s words in the Garden. Death is the problem. God said we would die and our repentance can’t undo death.
What’s more, repentance does not set us on a permanent course back to incorruption. We can’t say we’re sorry all the way back to Eden.
As Athanasius puts it, ‘…repentance [does not] call men back from what is their nature- it merely stays them from acts of sin.’ Put differently, ‘I’m sorry’ from creatures who are now less than creatures doesn’t cut it.
Death, which prevents us from living a fully human life, a life in God’s image, is the problem.
The only way to restore humanity then is for a true human life to be lived. For a true human life to suffer death and, in dying, triumph over death. This is a key different between Athanasius and many popular notions of cradle and cross.
For others, the incarnation is instrumental; it’s simply the means by which God gets to the end of the story- the cross- where the suffering Christ can elicit our repentance.
For Athanasius, the incarnation is the means and the end in itself. The Word taking flesh is like the antidote for which resurrection from death is the full and final cure.
To reference the promised second movie, the Word taking flesh is like Aslan’s rumored arrival in Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Aslan’s landing in Narnia alone begins to melt the White Witches’ snow long before the Christ-like lion suffers death on the stone table.
His coming alone initiates healing.