Christ the Antidote

I have a longer post in preparation with some thoughts on the theory of retributive punishment, but I wanted to share what I think is a helpful word picture (pun intended!) derived from St. Athanasius' classic On the Incarnation of the Word that can help understand why it was necessary for Jesus to suffer and die, without that suffering and death being penal, i.e. a punishment inflicted upon him.

According to Athanasius, the ultimate goal of the incarnation of the Word was to purge human nature of the corruption of sin and revive it. But human nature could not be cleansed of corruption from the outside: renewal had to take place from within. The only being with the kind of life which could renew the life of the human creature was the Word. Thus the Word took on a body and allowed that body to suffer all the consequences of sin, including death, so that the Life of the Word could then neutralize and destroy them entirely.

A helpful way to think about Athanasius' argument is in disease terms. Imagine a healthy person deliberately exposing himself to a deadly disease, knowing that he has the vitality and strength to neutralize it and thus produce an antidote. To do so the person has to actually suffer from the disease. It is painful for the body to go through the systems as the immune system furiously develops the antidote (it goes without saying this analogy should not be pressed too far!), but ultimately the disease is completely neutralized, the person springs back to health and can now 'infect' others with the antidote.

Jesus suffered death so that he could destroy it and infect us with life. He is truly the Great Physician.


J.D. the Views you are developing are a lot closer to the Orthodox chruch, I think. I find that interesting.
Ken Pulliam said…

Both Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance take similar positions, but the interesting thing is that they maintain that Jesus had to assume a post-fall human nature. In other words, he had to be incarnated in a fallen human nature in order to redeem it. He could only redeem what he assumed.
Ken Pulliam said…
It was Gregory of Nazianzus in his critique of Apollinarianism who said: For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole.
Layman said…
You keep saying that retributive justice only applies in a fallen world. I'm curious which system of justice you think applies to a post-fallen world? Certainly not rehabilitative.

More to the point, what is this proposition supposed to prove given that any theory of atonement is dealing with a fallen world?
Anonymous said…

If retributive justice is the best we can do in a fallen world, an accommodation to our hardened hearts, it seems to me that God's solution is not to perpetuate it, but to transcend it. When Christ endured without protest all the calumnies of sinners against himself, he neutralized them. He absorbed the best (or rather the worst) that human sinfulness could throw at him without paying back evil for evil. When two antagonists are continually exchanging blow for blow and then suddenly one of them refuses to strike back, what can the other do? Especially if the one who refused to strike back is not ultimately destroyed or beaten down regardless of what the other does. The cycle of violence is broken, and the other antagonist can either accept the reconciliation offered or continue to helplessly try to provoke the other, to his own shame (again, this is just a partial picture).

But as for the postfallen world, obviously this reconciliation is only for those who will accept it. For those who do not, who continue in their scornful, violent, retributive ways, what else is there to do but to consign them to destruction? As the author of Hebrews wrote, if we keep on sinning after being offered reconciliation, there is no more sacrifice for sins, but only judgment.

I think this is what Jesus was getting at when he said that we would be judged by the measure with which we judge. To refuse God's offer of forgiveness is to believe that one can earn salvation on one's own merits, which is to say that one is (falsely) confident that one can stand before the judgment seat and be acquitted (this is our only basis for judging others as well). Well, if we insist on choosing judgment over forgiveness and mercy, we will invariably fall short and then what can we fall back on?

I'd rather not call my view of justice rehabilitative, because that is too narrowly focused on what happens to the offender. I call it restorative because not only does it involve the repentance of offenders, but restoring to those who were wronged what they lost. If these two conditions are met, and God can ensure that no one will ever hurt or destroy again in all his holy mountain, then I see no need for further punishment of wrongdoing.

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