Who is God? And what is man? What is wrong with man such that he needs to be “saved?” Is there more than one way of explaining this? The issue of salvation, of how man is brought back into a proper relationship with God, has been the primary concern of Christianity since its very inception. Christ himself begins His ministry with the proclamation, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” More to the point He said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Jesus proclaimed that something was happening (“at hand”) that required people to make a distinct change (repent) and to believe the good news of what God is doing (“believe the gospel”).
One of the earliest accounts of this story, given in a reflective way, is found in St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation (ca. 324 A.D.). It is amply supported in Scripture but, being removed by two hundred years, it gives us a perspective on how the early community was reading Scripture as a whole.
St. Athanasius begins by pointing to the creation of the world by God through His Word (the second person of the Trinity). He notes that everything that was made was created good, because God is the fountain and source of all goodness. He notes that man had been given a singular favor above all else – “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.” (De Incarn. 1.3). He notes that God also warned us to guard the grace given to us by keeping his commandment – a “single prohibition” – not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and of evil. He warned us that “if we went astray and became vile, throwing away our birthright of beauty, then we would come under the natural law of death and live no longer in paradise, but, dying outside of it, continue in death and in corruption.” (1.3)
The saint continues his story:
Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore, when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good. By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that Likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt. (1.4)
This then was the plight of men. God had not only made them out of nothing, but had also graciously bestowed on them His own life by the grace of the Word. Then, turning from eternal things to things corruptible, by counsel of the devil, they had become the cause of their own corruption in death; for as I said before, though they were by nature subject to corruption, the grace of their union with the Word made them capable of escaping from the natural law, provided that they retained the beauty of innocence with which they were created. (1.5)
But God was not willing to leave us held in bondage by corruption and death. Thus God the Word willingly took on himself our human nature and entered into death itself that he might destroy death.
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 in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all. You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwells 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 them 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. (1.9)
For by the sacrifice of His own body He did two things: He put an end to the law of death which barred our way; and He made a new beginning of life for us, by giving us the hope of resurrection. By man death has gained its power over men; by the Word made Man death has been destroyed and life raised up anew. That is what Paul says, that true servant of Christ: ‘For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. Just as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive,’ and so forth. Now, therefore, when we die we no longer do so as men condemned to death, but as those who are even now in process of rising we await the general resurrection of all ‘which in its own times He shall show,’ even God Who wrought it and bestowed it on us. (1.10)
I have quoted extensively from St. Athanasius to share the clarity of his vision and to illustrate his perception of the nature of our salvation. Salvation, for St. Athanasius, is a movement from death to life. And this movement is brought about through our union, our solidarity with Christ. This is the Orthodox faith.