As part of my study of pre-reformation theology, I am reading Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word, which is a great little primer on the Christian faith. (If you get the Popular Patristics edition, you get the Introduction by C.S. Lewis which alone is worth the price of the book.) One thing that has puzzled me, however, is Athanasius’ emphasis on the Incarnate Word’s incorruptibility. A theme of the book is that the Word became incarnate in order to reverse the effects of the fall and restore corrupted creation to an incorruptible state. So far, so good. But at times Athanasius seems to assert that Jesus’ body – though real and susceptible to, say, hunger (p. 51) – was nevertheless free from all corruption and sickness (pp. 49, 51). He even seems to imply that his body would not have worn out from old age and died unless he had been violently killed, as through crucifixion (p. 50). Here’s an example:
“The death of men under ordinary circumstances is the result of their natural weakness. They are essentially impermanent, so after a time they fall ill and when worn out they die. But the Lord is not like that. He is not weak, He is the Power of God and Word of God and Very Life Itself…. How could He fall sick, Who had healed others?” (p. 51).
If I am correctly understanding him, I think Athanasius is on shaky ground here. The incarnation means that God the Son became like us in all aspects of our experience as humans in a fallen world except sin (Hebrews 2:17). While Jesus himself was unfallen and sinless in the world, I don’t see any reason to think he was immune to the effects of living in a fallen world (such as sickness). He was not invincible. At times he was very, very weak (cf. Luke 22:44). I imagine that if he had been crucified at age 60, rather than 30, he would have gotten a few gray hairs. I imagine that, from time to time, he got the flu. I imagine he got headaches, stomach aches, sore muscles after exercising, aches and pains, coughs and runny noses. As a teenager, I imagine he got growing pains. I imagine – living as he did before dentists and toothpaste – that he perhaps got cavities or had teeth fall out. Perhaps his eyesight was not 20/20 his whole life (not many peoples’ is). And so forth. This is the glory of the incarnation – he became fully like us.
Hebrews 5:7-9: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.”