Could God save us from Annihilation without the Incarnation?


The following is a summary of a paper I wrote defending Athanasius’ view of the necessity of the incarnation. I argued that given certain definitions of God, humanity, and annihilation, it is not possible for God to save humanity from the post-mortem annihilation of the soul unless Christ becomes incarnate.

In his On the Incarnation, Saint Athanasius explains that part of the fallen human condition is the possibility that every human being will be annihilated. He writes:

because death and corruption were gaining ever firmer hold on them, the human race was in process of destruction. Man, who was created in God’s image and in his possession of reason reflected the very Word Himself, was disappearing… The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape… it was [monstrous] that beings which once shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption. [1]

The issue here is not just that the physical body of man can die; this wouldn’t be adequate for the non-existence of humanity to be an actual threat. For given the soul’s ability to survive bodily death, a human being is not in danger of annihilation in virtue of physical death.  Athanasius is thus worried about the degeneration of the soul. How can the permanent existence of human nature be secured in the face of its inescapable corruption and impending annihilation? The solution to the problem is the incarnation of the divine Word into human nature, resulting in the immortality of human nature:

Naturally also, through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection. For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all… He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled, and the corruption of death, which formerly held us in its power, has simply ceased to be. For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death. [2]

The idea here seems to be that Christ is united to all men through indwelling human nature. His taking-on human nature has made it impossible for human nature to corrupt. If Athanasius were talking about the impossibility of physical death, or the impossibility of the corruption of a person’s character, then this would be obviously false; people still die and do evil stuff post-Incarnation. Instead, he is talking about the fact that human nature’s permanent existence has been secured, in the continual survival of the soul postmortem.

A problem with this account is this: why couldn’t God just save us by willing that we persist in existence? Is God not powerful enough to do this? Athanasius has an answer to this objection. He points out that

the corruption which had set in was not external to the body but established within it. The need, therefore, was that life should cleave to it in corruption’s place, so that, just as death was brought into being in the body, life also might be engendered in it… if death was within the body, woven into its very substance and dominating it as though completely one with it, the need was for Life to be woven into it instead, so that the body by thus enduing itself with life might cast corruption off… the Savior assumed a body for Himself, in order that the body, being interwoven as it were with life, should no longer remain a mortal thing, in thrall to death, but as endued with immortality and risen from death, should thenceforth remain immortal. [3]

In order for us to be saved from annihilation, life must be intrinsic to us. And the only way for life to be intrinsic to us post-fall is for God to be incarnate. Hence the incarnation is needed to save us from annihilation.

But why couldn’t God just will to make his immortality internal to us without becoming incarnate? Surely grace entered into humanity pre-Incarnation in various ways. There was the image of God, which was a divine gift. Post-fall we still see human beings (the prophets for instance) indwelt by the Holy Spirit (in some sense at least). What makes the incarnation special? What makes it necessary for humanity to avoid annihilation and attain the grace of eternal life?

To defend Athanasius’ account, I will invoke specific assumptions about (1) God, (2) humanity, and (3) annihilation.

(1) The divine persons of the Trinity are the sources of life. From the divine essence, the divine energies are manifested through the divine persons of the Trinity. The Father uses his essential powers in certain ways. He therefore chooses how to manifest divine activities (energies) such as “being immortal”, “being loving”, “being just”, etc. Furthermore, only God is the source of life, because only God is the source of his uncreated activities.  The Son and the Spirit also uniquely choose how to act.

(2) A human soul is a part of the essence of a human being (the other part is the body). The soul is a set of powers such as “being able to think”, and “being able to desire”, etc. These powers can do various activities, or energies, such as “thinking” and “desiring”. These powers exist by participation in the logos of human nature. The logos of humanity is a divine energy that gives teleology to human nature, gives it the power to act and fulfill its telos, and causes it to tend to move towards its telos. When a human person uses free will, he or she can either correctly or incorrectly use his or her powers.

Lets also assume that Christ is united to everyone’s human nature in his incarnation; he has a univeralized human nature. Christ sums up all of humanity in himself, and thus all of humanity appropriates whatever benefits accrue to Christ’s human nature. (Granted, what this means is mysterious; it will have to be brought up in the comments or in another post).

(3) Here is an account of how annihilation might happen. In the event that human nature is misused, it corrupts. It therefore participates to a lesser degree in the logos of human nature to the extent that it is corrupted. Insofar as it participates less in the logos of human nature, the soul loses some of its natural power (for it has this power by participation in the logos of humanity). Apart from personal sin, each person’s human nature also inherits a tendency to corrupt. This amounts to a tendency toward impotence, the loss of power.

What would happen if the soul lost all of its power, by completely ceasing to partake of the logos of humanity? It wouldn’t be able to act. The intellect wouldn’t be able to perform the action of “thinking”, because there would be no intellect. The appetite wouldn’t be around to perform the action “desiring”. In fact, the soul’s loss of all power would seem to entail that it ceased to exist. As Saint Gregory Palamas says, an essence without energies has no real existence. So the risk of annihilation is grounded in this: human nature is losing its power to act, and when it loses this power completely, it becomes inactive, and therefore ceases to exist.

The combination of an inherited tendency toward corruption and the personal misuse of human nature both make the annihilation of the unaided human soul inevitable. If God tried to further supply individual people’s human natures with active power, this wouldn’t work, because human persons could still reject this offer of grace. What is needed, then, is that the connection between the logos of human nature and the powers of human nature be made permanent. The powers of human nature need to be fixed in their participation in the logos of humanity.

Given the above definitions, let us see what implications can be drawn.

If a divine person became intrinsic to human nature, then the source of life would become intrinsic to human nature; after all, the persons of the Trinity are the sources of life. Given that the source of life would be intrinsic to human nature, the divine actions can originate from within humanity. Thus, God’s action of “being immortal” becomes actual within human nature. So if God becomes incarnate, then immortality originates from within humanity. Even if we grant that the divine energies could be intrinsic to humanity prior to the incarnation, it is not possible for the source of the divine energies to be intrinsic to humanity unless God is incarnate.

Thus, as long as the Son of God remains incarnate, God’s immortality will continue to be intrinsic to everyone’s human nature. And if no created thing can dissolve the incarnation, then God’s immortality is permanently intrinsic to humanity. Thus, human nature cannot fail to participate in immortality, and therefore cannot fail to have its logos, along with the power that comes from participating in its logos. Humanity is therefore permanently able to act, and therefore incapable of being annihilated because of the incarnation.

Because God is the only source of immortality, and the source of immortality must be internal to humanity to ensure its continual existence, it is not metaphysically possible for human nature to be saved from annihilation without the incarnation. This follows from the stated doctrines of God, of humanity, and of annihilation. Our account raises a variety of questions: if the incarnation saves us from annihilation, what do Christ’s death and resurrection do? Why is the body not made immortal by the incarnation? If all human nature is saved, is it possible for there to be people that go to hell? In what sense do human beings still inherit corruption if their nature is incapable of annihilation? If the soul is incorruptible, why do some humans have morally corrupt character? What does it mean for Christ to have a universalized human nature, and how is this possible? Later posts will have to explore possible answers to these questions. However, it is not insignificant that a theological framework can be provided which (without compromising God’s omnipotence) entails Athanasius’ teaching that only the Incarnation can make life cleave to human nature and save it from non-being.


[1] Athanasius, On the Incarnation, (New York: Macmillan, 1946), 32.

[2] Ibid., 35

[3] Ibid., 80


9 Responses to “Could God save us from Annihilation without the Incarnation?”

  1. MG Says:

    (commenting on my own post; weird, I know)

    Objection: doesn’t it seem like God can supply humanity with power in a way so that they aren’t able to reject it? This wouldn’t necessarily be a personal participation in natural power. It would just be more natural potentiality, so God isn’t violating free will. If God could do this forever, why wouldn’t that be fine?

    Possible line of reply: there’s a difference between putting a band-aid on human nature and healing it. If human nature still tends towards a loss of potentiality, then it will not be in an optimal state, even if it persists in existence. Personal misuse of free will could still send humanity falling again towards non-being. Even if God picks humanity back up by giving it more power, this isn’t an ideal state for man to be in.

    What humanity really needs it to be healed, so that it is no longer constantly falling downward towards powerlessness and annihilation. This can only happen if humanity’s participation in power is fixed by making the source of God’s activities intrinsic to human nature. This will not only get rid of the problem (because humanity will never lose power again) but prevent it from ever resurfacing (because nothing in all of creation can separate us from God’s love in Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection).

    What if God eliminated corruption by divine fiat? This still wouldn’t fully heal human nature from corruption, because humanity could fall again and re-enter into a problematic state. Yes, God could keep supplying humanity with more power and make it persist in being. But again, this is far from a state of being *fully healed*.

  2. MG Says:

    Another possible line of reply: the above answer fit very well with what Athanasius has to say about the incarnation. But perhaps there is more going on. St. Maximus says the following:

    “Just as in Adam, with his own act of freely choosing evil, the common glory of human nature, incorrruption, was robbed—since God judged that it was not right for humanity, having abused free choice, to have an immortal nature—so too in Christ, with his own act of freely choosing the good, the common scourge of our whole nature, corruption, was taken away. At the resurrection of Christ, human nature was transformed into incorruption because his free choice was immutable. For God judged that it was right for man, when he did not subvert his free choice, once again to recover an immortal nature. By “man” here I mean the incarnate Logos in virtue of the fact that he united to himself, hypostatically, the flesh animated by a rational soul. For if the deviance of free choice introduced passibility, corruptibility, and mortality in Adam’s nature, it only followed that in Christ, the immutability of free choice, realized through his resurrection, introduced natural impassibility, incorruptibility, and immortality.” (Ad Thalassium 42)

    Maybe the idea here is this: human beings need to learn their lesson. They need to understand that there is no such a thing as life apart from God, and that seeking for such an impossible state has consequences. If God kept supplying humanity with power endlessly, then we wouldn’t *understand*. We would think it was possible to live apart from God.

    So God judged that humanity should be handed over to corruption so that we could experience the natural consequences of our sins. Maximus does not mean by “God judged that it was not right for humanity to have an immortal nature” that God retributively punished human beings for the evil they did. (after all, Maximus defines what judgment and punishment are elsewhere…) Rather the fall is seen as introducing corruption as the natural consequence of human sin. Instead, although God could choose to try and endlessly supply humanity with power, he does not choose to do so. This is for the purpose of upholding justice, but not retributive justice. Rather it is corrective justice. It is necessary that God correct human fault by showing us what life apart from him is like, so we will turn back to him. But he is never complicit in encouraging evil.

    God vindicates Christ in resurrecting him. He judges humanity worthy of eternal life because of the obedience of Christ. This is because humanity in Christ is indeed worthy of eternal life. For humanity in Christ is naturally indwelt by God’s life, and personally appropriates what is natural to them. This shows God’s will to humanity: that we would be personally conformed to Christ in the pattern of his death, that we might attain to his resurrection.

  3. Andrea Elizabeth Says:

    Did I miss an explanation of how Before Christ people retained a measure of graced human nature? I think it has to do with Christ not only existing in time, but above it. Perhaps they lived not only because Christ was coming, but in a sense, he had already come. Were the OT types and shadows foreshadowing or artifacts?

  4. MG Says:


    I take Athanasius’ statements about the image of God in Section 3 of On the Incarnation to be indicative of the fact that the image of God is a grace:

    “Upon them, therefore, upon men who, as animals, were essentially impermanent, He bestowed a grace which other creatures lacked–namely, the impress of His own Image, a share in the reasonable being of the very Word Himself, so that, reflecting Him and themselves becoming reasonable and expressing the Mind of God even as He does, though in limited degree, they might continue for ever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise.” (Section 3)

    I think that Athanasius probably has roughly the same view of the image of God as Maximus–that it is the logos of human nature. This fits well with the fact that the image exists in man “so that, reflecting Him and themselves becoming reasonable and expressing the Mind of God… they might continue for ever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise.” This seems to be expressing the teleology of the logoi–they give a purpose to human nature (incarnation and eternal life). It also seems to express their causal aspect, by which they enable us to accomplish this purpose.

    I agree that Christ is both in time (according to some energies) and outside time (according to other energies, as well as the essence which transcends categories of temporality and eternity). But I think the Incarnation happened at a specific point in time when the union of the divine Person of the Word with human nature decisively happened. Prior to that, the peculiar divine-human relationship that results from the incarnation did not exist.

    So I would say people lived because Christ was coming. They lived because of the divine plan for the incarnation. Humanity was predestined for this in virtue of being made in the image of God.

    Your question about OT types and shadows vs artifacts is interesting but… I must admit I am not quite sure what you’re getting at. Would you care to help me out and explain? Thanks for commenting, Andrea.

  5. coray Says:

    scio me nihil scire

    to address the question, i suppose it is because christians are not neoplatonists and rest uncomfortable with any ‘separability’ of soul and body. a man is both—this is probably wrong but—integrated the way a cake is flour and egg integrated. take egg from the cake and you’ve got egg, not half a cake. take soul from a man and you have something incomplete. this is why death stings for the christian whereas socrates could argue confidently for its benefits in expectation.

    i think you are right to argue recapitulation is indispensable to the traditional understanding of christ’s work, rather than scholastic juridical atonement. canonically Hebrews 2:14 is about this. the book to get on recapitulation and the atonement is of course gustaf aulen’s great book “atonement” which everyone on this list should read (advertisement)

  6. Andrea Elizabeth Says:


    Sorry for the delay. I went out of town. Also, I couldn’t capture the comment address for some reason so that I could be notified on my reader.

    Your answer about Christ’s incarnation at a point in time without uniting the Divine and human beforehand would make the OT types foreshadowing rather than artifact. But this makes me wonder about how OT Saints could achieve Sainthood. I suppose human nature being graced with God’s image enabled man’s will to choose God, of whom man did not receive the full revelation until the Incarnation.

  7. MG Says:


    Thanks for dropping by. I agree with everything you’ve said. Out of curiosity, have you ever read anything by Joseph Farrell? He has excellent things to say about recapitulation, such as here:

    I’ve read most of Aulen’s book before, and it was a great intro. I’ve found criticisms of his arguments wanting. When people try to argue that primitive Christian views of salvation included a Protestant understanding of justice, I just don’t see it.

    Other great biblical texts on recapitulation include:
    Romans 5
    1 Corinthians 15
    Colossians 1-2
    And of course Ephesians 1:10 explicitly talks about recapitulation

    Really, recapitulation is taught in all kinds of places in Scripture. As a framework, it manages to unify all kinds of different strands of biblical teaching about soteriology.

    I should probably clarify that the argument given above is not an attempt to prove that Athanasius’ view of the incarnation’s effects is correct per se; I’m just trying to show that his view doesn’t imply God is limited in power. But admittedly the way the Reformers and Scholastics understood the atonement is highly problematic, and the above argument may help to show that the recapitulation theory is more plausible.

  8. MG Says:


    Glad you could comment; no need to apologize for a delay.

    you wrote:

    “Your answer about Christ’s incarnation at a point in time without uniting the Divine and human beforehand would make the OT types foreshadowing rather than artifact.”

    I think I see what you’re saying. Are you trying to get at the fact that, instead of containing the effects of the incarnation before it happened (artifact) my view implies that the OT just points ahead to Christ?

    You wrote:

    “But this makes me wonder about how OT Saints could achieve Sainthood. I suppose human nature being graced with God’s image enabled man’s will to choose God, of whom man did not receive the full revelation until the Incarnation.”

    Athanasius, Cyril, and others seem to think that prior to the Incarnation, God’s incorruptibility could not be partaken of by human persons in a fixed way. We couldn’t become perfect if the incarnation hadn’t happened. I’m still trying to work out exactly why that is, but it would seem to imply that the saints of the OT did not have the same kind of access to God that Christians (and those saints, also) do now. I suspect that (as with the immortality and annihilation issue) it has to do with having the source of God’s energy of incorruptibility intrinsic to us. But I can’t exactly put my finger on why we can’t partake of incorruptibility if its source is extrinsic to us. After all, even if it comes from outside of human nature, human nature can surely appropriate a divine grace, the image of God being an example of such grace (hence the ability of the saints in the OT to have virtue). So I am puzzled, and would kind of like to figure out why this must be, so I can explain it to people better.

  9. Incarnation and Immortality « The Well of Questions Says:

    […] trackback The problem of the necessity of the Incarnation is something I touched on before here. After thinking about it for awhile, I realized that there were weaknesses in my first account of […]

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