When I joined the Eastern Orthodox church, I gained a different perspective on the mystery of Jesus' crucifixion and his suffering. Before, I'd looked at Jesus' suffering as an index of how severe our sins were and how much suffering was necessary for the Son of God to go through to balance our sin. Then I found that the early church looked at it differently.
In the writings of Athanasius of Alexandria, written in about 320 or 321 A.D., is a whole passage on the incarnation. In it, he talked about the mystery, the question of why Jesus had to die the way he did. What it comes down to is this: "The Son of God came to destroy the works of the devil" (1 John 3:8). He had to die in order to go into the lair, the domain of the evil one, the devil, in order to destroy the devil.
Theoretically, Jesus could have died by any means. Why couldn't he have died in bed? Why couldn't he have died of old age, or of an illness? St. Athanasius said that because Jesus was going into a contest against the evil one, he was like an athlete, allowing his challenger to choose the mode of contest. So Jesus didn't choose how he would die. He let evil be the one to choose.
And of course evil chose the very worst death that could possibly be. Athanasius said Jesus couldn't have died of old age or sickness, or all alone. It had to be a public death so people could see him die, and he had to be demonstrably dead so there would be no question that perhaps he just fainted and then came back. This was the will of God.
Athanasius depicted all the details of Jesus' suffering as the evil one's expression of hatred against the human race rather than the wrath of God, for example, or the cost of our sin. This suffering was what the Lord had to endure to go into the domain of the evil one, and the price of that was death.
One of the great mysteries is that because of Jesus' incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, and through the work of the Holy Spirit, we can begin to approximate Christ's mind and predict his ways to a certain extent. We can grow to apprehend and to understand the mind of Christ. Just as Jesus, after his resurrection, opened the disciples' minds so they could understand the Scriptures, he opens our minds and helps us understand as we begin to gain the mind of Christ. We can better understand the meaning of his incarnation and crucifixion, and as we do so, we want to know him more and more.
We pursue knowledge of God because we hunger for him. Humans have a built-in desire to communicate with God and with each other. This desire can be muted if we think only about personal pleasures and our concerns and our worries. Instead, we should pursue God. We should hunger to know him better, though he is veiled in mystery. Our hunger for community, for love, and for interaction with other people is the reason one of the worst punishments is a sentence to solitary confinement. We're not meant to be alone; we all have a great inner burning bush that is our desire to be in communion with God. We need one another, and underlying all of that is our profound hunger to be in communion with God.
So Jesus' incarnation is as important as his crucifixion. His becoming part of the human race is where our salvation begins, and continues through his going in human form into the realm of death. That was how he was able to set the human race free.
Frederica Mathewes-Green is a contributing editor for Christianity Today and a movie critic for Christianity Today Movies, as well as an author and "Khouria" (spiritual mother) of Holy Cross Orthodox Church near Baltimore, Maryland.
Amy Simpson is managing editor of Gifted for Leadership, a freelance writer, and author of numerous resources for Christian ministry, including Into the Word: How to Get the Most from Your Bible (NavPress). www.AmySimpsonOnline.com