Yesterday, I turned in my first paper for my History of Doctrine class. The PhD students in the class have to write five preceptorial papers and one major research paper. The readings for the paper were Athanasius’ On the Incarnation and Gregory of Nyssa’s An Address on Religious Instruction. In my paper I focused on Athanasius and Gregory’s discussion of the resurrection and how Christ’s resurrection impacts the meaning and significance of death for Christians. During my time as a local pastor, I was often frustrated by the discrepancy between what I believe Scripture says about life after death and what many people in my congregation believed about life after death. This was one of the main areas where I tried to graciously communicate the good news of the gospel, in hopes that we would allow the gospel to transform our understanding of life, death, and life after death. In any case, the paper itself follows if you are interested in reading it…
Death is Dead: The Impact of the Resurrection on the Meaning and Significance of Death in the Writings of Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa
A recent song, “All My Tears,” by the popular Christian group Jars of Clay illustrates the belief that Christians need not fear death: “When I go, don’t cry for me, In my Father’s arms I’ll be… It don’t matter where you bury me, I’ll be home and I’ll be free.” The theology expressed in this song seems to tend toward a body/soul dualism. Similar to much contemporary popular theology, this song overemphasizes going to heaven, while underemphasizing bodily resurrection (see 1 Cor 15:16). While it is beyond the scope of this paper to provide a survey of the Christian understanding of the meaning and significance of death, this paper will look at Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word and Gregory of Nyssa’s An Address on Religious Instruction, as case studies in how the later Fathers understood and interpreted the meaning and significance of death in light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Further, the paper will look for important contributions that Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa’s writing have to make to contemporary conversations about the Christian understanding of death and life after death.
The key to Athanasius’ understanding of death in On the Incarnation lies in his captivating image that through the resurrection death is not merely defeated, it is actually dead. Though on the cross Jesus did really die and death seemed to have been victorious, the reality was that the cross was not the ultimate defeat of God in Christ, but was actually God’s greatest victory. After three days in the tomb, Jesus was raised from the dead and it was revealed that it was not God in Christ who had been destroyed, but death itself had been defeated. Athanasius writes:
For that death is destroyed, and that the cross is become the victory over it, and that it has no more power but is verily dead, this is no small proof, or rather an evident warrant, that it is despised by all Christ’s disciples, and that they all take the aggressive against it and no longer fear it; but by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ tread it down as dead. (81)
Athanasius connects the incarnation with Christ’s resurrection and victory over death itself. Jesus was incarnate in order to “turn the corruptible to incorruption” (73). This means that the resurrection is not a one-time event. Jesus has created the possibility for every person to experience victory over death.
If the key to Athanasius’ understanding of the significance of death is that through the resurrection of Jesus, death is dead, he spends much of his energy applying that to the lives of fourth century Christians. For Athanasius, the resurrection means that when faced with the fear of death, or the reality of impending death, people can find hope in Jesus’ victory over death. Death no longer has the last word. The good news is that this victory over death is applicable to everyone who looks to Jesus. Christians “by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ tread it [death] down as dead” (81). Therefore, a major part of the proclamation of the gospel, for Athanasius, is the good news of the victory that in Christ, God has become incarnate and has won a decisive victory over death on behalf of humankind. Athanasius exhorts “him who is incredulous about the victory over death [to] receive the faith of Christ, and pass over to his teaching, and he shall see the weakness of death, and the triumph over it” (82).
The good news of Jesus’ triumph over death leads Athanasius to proclaim the benefits that Christ’s victory has for all who have faith in him. If Christ is risen and those who die in Christ will be raised in Christ, then Christians need not fear death’s power. Athanasius acknowledges that man is naturally “afraid of death and of the dissolution of the body”; however, what is “most startling” is “that he who has put on the faith of the cross despises even what is naturally fearful, and for Christ’s sake is not afraid of death” (82). Even more astounding is that “many who were formerly incredulous and scoffers have… believed and so despised death as even to become martyrs for Christ himself” (82-3).
Athanasius proclaims that there are witnesses to the reality that through Christ’s resurrection, death “has been brought to nought and conquered by the very Christ that ascended the cross” (83). Athanasius describes these witnesses as “leaping forward to death… not fearing its corruption… but with eager soul challenging it… for Christ’s sake electing to rush upon death in preference to life upon earth” (83). Moreover, Athanasius seems to use these descriptions of Christians who have found freedom from the fear of death as a call for conversion. One who doubts whether the Christian proclamation is true can find evidence in the lives of people who “were formerly incredulous and scoffers” and have since become so convinced of the reality of the resurrection that they have “become martyrs” (83). Using the language of the twenty-first century Church, Christians’ freedom from fear was an important tool of evangelism. People came to believe in the resurrection of Christ by the witness of those who proclaimed Christ and then laid down their lives because of their conviction that death no longer had any power over their lives.
On the Incarnation, then, describes death itself as fundamentally changed by the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. On this side of the resurrection, Jesus’ followers find that they no longer have any reason to fear death because Christ has already defeated it. And most importantly, Jesus’ victory was accomplished so that his followers might also defeat death and walk in the power of the resurrection. However, the purpose of the resurrection was not so that we could escape the curse of fleshly existence. In contrast to theologies that articulate the need to escape bodily existence, Athanasius proclaims that Jesus “bestowed incorruption upon all by the promise of the resurrection, having raised his own body as a first fruits of this” (86).
Gregory of Nyssa, in his An Address on Religious Instruction, would not seem to disagree with Athanasius’ description of the meaning and significance of death in light of Christ’s resurrection. Yet, he does offer a few different points of emphasis. Whereas Athanasius seems to focus on the results of Jesus’ victory over death and the resulting freedom that Christians have from the fear of death, Gregory of Nyssa spends more energy describing the cause or the reason why Jesus’ death and resurrection were necessary. Moreover, in Gregory of Nyssa there seems to be a tension between whether bodily existence is ultimately detrimental to one’s relationship with God, or whether it is essential to attaining eternal life with God.
Gregory or Nyssa emphasizes that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is important because it is through Christ’s resurrection that all humanity can experience the resurrection. Gregory almost seems to describe the resurrection as a holy infection that spreads from the host to the rest of the population that comes into contact with him: “Now just as the principle of death had its origin in a single person and passed to the whole of human nature, similarly the principle of the resurrection originated in one Man and extends to all humanity” (293-4). The resurrection, in Gregory’s writing, is closely connected with overcoming the problem of sin and mortality. The incarnation, then, can be summarized: “With his return from death, our mortal race begins its return to immortal life” (302). Further, in seeking to answer the question, “Why did God die?” Gregory of Nyssa again turns to Christ’s work on our behalf, revealing that Jesus was not incarnate “because he was in need of life. Rather it was to recall us from death to life. Our whole nature had to be brought back from death” (310).
In An Address on Religious Instruction, Gregory seems to wrestle with two further questions: 1) how does the resurrection bring Jesus’ followers from death to life; and 2) why is this necessary? In answering the former question, he argues that God had “a purpose in bringing death upon human nature… to refashion man once more by means of the resurrection into a sound creature” (315). This refashioning is accomplished through purification, which according to Gregory, requires a “dissolution of body and soul” (315).
For by means of death elements previously united were separated, and then once more brought together. Thereby our nature was purified by the dissolution of elements naturally united – I refer to the soul and body; and the reunion of the separated elements was free from any alien admixture (316).
The previous passage clarifies Gregory’s earlier summary of why God brings redemption about through death and resurrection, “The mystery of God’s plan with regard to death, and… the resurrection… He does not prevent the soul’s separation from the body by death… But he brings them together again by the resurrection. Thus he becomes the meeting point of both, of death and of life. In himself he restores the nature which death has disrupted, and becomes himself the principle whereby the separated parts are reunited” (294). The force of the argument, then, is that death is necessary in order to remove the stain of sin, but death cannot be the end result that God uses because death is part of the problem of sin. Therefore, in the ultimate vindication of life, God brings resurrection and new life to the body that has been purified through death of sin.
In Gregory of Nyssa’s thought, then, there seems to be an element of body/soul dualism, as death has become necessary in order for the body to be purified before it can be reunited with the soul. A difficulty with Gregory’s conception of the resurrection as a means of purification, and even sanctification, is that it could lead to the fatalistic idea that there is nothing that can be done in this life to overcome the inevitable corruptions of pre-resurrection bodily existence. Gregory seems to sense this difficulty, as he argues that we can imitate bodily death and receive the benefits of the resurrection through the sacrament of baptism: “The evil mingled with out nature is destroyed by the representation of death in the water… there is a break in the continuity of evil” (316). This comes about through “the repentance of the sinner and the imitation of death” (316). Gregory, as a result, comes to a very high view of the significance of the sacrament of baptism, “it is not possible… for a man to attain to the resurrection apart from the regeneration by washing” (317).
The writings considered in this paper from Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa show that both Fathers view the resurrection of Christ, and the future resurrection of all who died in Christ, as a key belief of Christian faith. Gregory of Nyssa would agree with Athanasius’ proclamation that through the resurrection of Jesus Christ death is “brought to nought” (83). Gregory would also seem to agree with Athanasius’ emphasis on the victory that Christians can experience over death and the consequent freedom from the fear of death that comes through Jesus’ resurrection. It is less clear to what extent Athanasius would agree with Gregory’s description of the necessity of bodily death for the sake of purification of the body so that it can subsequently be reunified with the soul. In Athanasius, the resurrection seems to function as a crucial tool for the Church’s proclamation of the good news of salvation in Christ. Gregory of Nyssa seems to focus a bit less on proclamation, instead primarily analyzing and describing why the resurrection was important. One reason for these different emphases may simply be that they were writing with different purposes. Athanasius seems to be more concerned with proclaiming the gospel to outsiders and Gregory seems to be focused on catechizing those who are already committed to faith in Christ.
Ultimately, Athanasius’ proclamation that death is dead and, as a result, Christians need no longer live in fear of death, continues to offer a vivid testimony of the relevance of Christ’s resurrection for twenty-first century Christians. Gregory of Nyssa’s explanation of the purpose of Christ’s resurrection, “to recall us from death to life” ought to continue to inform the Church’s understanding of what God has done in Christ (310). Although Gregory’s writing illustrates a tendency toward body/soul dualism, he can nevertheless remind the Church that God’s ultimate purpose for Christians is not to save them from the curse of bodily existence, but to heal them so that body and soul are perfectly and ultimately restored in the final resurrection. Both theologians insist that the Christian understanding of death starts with the importance of Christ’s resurrection and the coming resurrection of the dead. Thus, the writings of Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa have the potential to correct and reorient contemporary discussions of the meaning and significance of death.
Note: Because of formatting issues, I had to convert all footnotes to parenthetical citations. All parenthetical citations are from Edward R. Hardy, Christology of the Later Fathers, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1977). Also, sorry about the lack of paragraph indentations, I tried to get them in for awhile, but did not succeed, and needed to get back to real work…