“Essentialist” thinking constitutes the basis of Athanasius’ soteriology. We can see this most clearly by realizing that Athanasius founds his soteriology and Christology in a description of the characteristics of human nature rather than the human “situation.” That is to say, what we predicate about human nature, qua physical beings, is the key to salvation’s necessity and content. For example, the dominant problem which necessitates the physical incarnation of the redeemer is not the disobedience of human creatures. People disobeyed beginning with Adam and continuing with great persistence and no little inventiveness in that venture. But since the Fall and its perdurance, something radical has happened. Athanasius speaks of it in a variety of ways; but anthropologically, it means that death, mortality, and corruption are no longer external to human nature but an essential part of it. Therefore repentance, while important to a proper Christian attitude, is simply irrelevant to the initial reversing of the human condition:
Now if there were merely a misdemeanor in question, and not a consequent corruption (φθορά), repentance were well enough. But if, when transgression had once gained a start, men became involved in that corruption which was their nature, and were deprived of the grace which they had, being in the image of God, what further step was needed? Or what was required for such grace and such recall, but the Word of God…”
What we have after repentance (which means turning and willing what God wills) is an obedient creature who is dying, fading, rotting away–in short, penitent corpses! However, there are those mortals who now by the grace of the incarnation have escaped the consequences of their natures and who anticipate the benefits of the resurrection. And in the Life of Antony Athanasius has given us a portrait of one–we notice at points in the tract that Antony does not age or change in physical appearance. Antony shows by anticipation the properties of that grace which in the resurrection life will reverse mortal characteristics, even as the representative body of the Logos itself experienced no decay… Moreover, Athanasius describes our human plight in the De Incarnatione in terms of the fading funeral portrait… Here the Athanasian concern goes well beyond patristic commonplaces which view death neutrally as the “debt we all owe nature,” or even beyond the usual consequence of death as punishment for sin against God. It is not just death but continuing corruption even after death which is the real problem.
Athanasius’ Logos becomes incarnate because the cosmos is dissolving (διαλύειν). It is ontologically linked to “that which is not” and therefore abides in death, not simply in the sense that we die, but in the sense that we are disintegrating (διαλύειν). It is the perishing creation, this dissolving cosmos, this world on the brink of utter dissolution, that is offensive to God’s goodness. it is bad publicity for God because it is effacing God’s works. It is not a consequence of the divine nature that the Son takes a body but a requisite of stabilizing a universe about to give God its Creator a very bad name indeed.
-Robert C. Gregg and Dennis E. Groh, Early Arianism– A View of Salvation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 177-178.