Did Jesus Have to Die on a Cross? Athanasius’ Response (Pt. 1)

A while ago I took an atonement seminar with Oliver Crisp, among the discussions that we had, one student, Gavin Ortlund (the son of Gospel Coalition Pastor Ray Ortlund) brought up a really interesting question: “Did Jesus have to die on a cross? Could it have been a guillotine (if they had those), or could he have gotten run over by a horse, or could he have just died of old age? Would those kinds of deaths been effective for our atonement?” Up until that point I had never thought of that question. I just assumed that because Jesus did die on the cross, he had to die on the cross. I guess that is why I’m not a great theologian, I don’t think of these kinds of questions. Luckily though, somebody else besides Gavin has. Athanasius, the patristic theologian, writes about it in “On the Incarnation.”

Four Reasons Why Jesus Died on a Cross as Opposed to Some Other Way (Athanasius’ Response to Non-Christians)

Here is how Athanasius begins his discussion:

Why, then, one might ask, if it were necessary for him to deliver the body to death on behalf of all, did he not lay it aside as a human being, instead of going so far as to be crucified?

  1. It was not fitting for the Lord to die of illness. (Section 21) Could Jesus have died of cancer or tuberculosis etc (if that is even possible) and cause atonement to be made?  Athanasius says no…“For it was neither fitting for the Lord to be ill, he who healed the illness of others, nor again for the body to be weakened, in which he strengthened the weakness of others.”
  2. Jesus had to intentionally approach death in order to be victorious over it. (Section 22) Athanasius says that “it was not fitting for the Word of God, being Life, to give death to his own body by himself, so neither was it suitable to flee from what was given by others, but rather to follow it to destruction….Such action did not show weakness on the part of the Word, but rather made him known to be Savior and Life, in that he both waited for death to destroy it and hastened to complete the death given to him for the salvation of all…he accepted that death coming from human beings in order to destroy it completely when it came to his body.” Jesus’ death had to be intentional, not accidental (in the full sense of the word).
  3. He had to have witnesses (Section 25).  Could Jesus have died “away by himself privately and ‘in a corner” or in a desert place or a house anywhere at all, the suddenly appear again from the dead? Athanasius says no! “If these things had taken place in secret, how many pretexts would they (the Pharisees) have devised for disbelief? How then could the end of death, and the victory over it, be demonstrated, unless summoning it in the sight of all he proved it to be dead, being annulled thereafter by the incorruptibility of the body?” So basically Athanasisus says, it had to be a public death or else people would be able to have reasonable doubts about his actual resurrection. People might claim that he merely fainted or that it was all a hoax.
  4. Jesus had to intentionally let death attack him in order to be victorious over it. Athanasius compares Jesus’ victory over death to a wrestler’s victory. He says that if a wrestler chooses his opponents, some will be suspicious of his choices. They will say that he was fearful of some opponents and that is why he did not choose to fight those one.  A brave wrestler will allow the crowd to choose whom he will fight, that way the crowd knows the match is not “fixed” and the crowd will not doubt the wrestler’s bravery. Jesus faces death in the same way. Christ “did not contrived death, but he accepted and endured on the cross that inflicted by others, especially enemies… in order that the power of death might be completely annihilated.”

Some of these reasons are more convincing than the others. I think 3 and 4 are the strongest… but I will let you make that call.

Do you think that Jesus “had” to die on a cross (as opposed to some other way)? If so, why?


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

2 thoughts on “Did Jesus Have to Die on a Cross? Athanasius’ Response (Pt. 1)

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