We recently put our dog to sleep. Born an excitable and aggressive animal with chronic diarrhea and an unstable temperament, we poured far more money into Chloe (as she was named) than we could afford, and would have spent even more to save her: if her salvation had been possible. It was not.
In the final week of her life, Chloe’s hair fell out, her appetite and strength faded, her hips stiffened, and her behavior grew erratic and violent toward our children. Twice she attacked our oldest son (whom she loved) and we were fortunate that the boy was strong and quick. For the safety of our children, we put her down, albeit with great sorrow and sadness.
Unfortunately for Chloe, we were able to guess at the cause of her sickness only after she was euthanized. A month after her death, we encountered a German Shepherd whose ill-health so perfectly resembled hers as to make it plain that Chloe likely became aggressive because she was crazed from starvation due to an acute enzyme deficiency. It was heartbreaking to realize a bit of powder mixed with her food might have saved Chloe—if diagnosed before she was too far gone into dangerous aggression. Only God knows for certain.
I wonder whether we might have saved her if one of us could have become a dog for a week. We could have run with Chloe to identify the causes of her pain and better understood nearly imperceptible tippers for her aggression. Every person in the family would have volunteered to become true dog—man incarnate as dog—to save Chloe. We would not have scorned the shame. Why? Because all of us loved that German Shepherd puppy.
How does the death of a dog in the 21st century relate to St. Athanasius, a fourth century bishop who refuted the idea that Christ was not really God? Here’s how. Athanasius’ treatise On the Incarnation refuted Jewish denials that Jesus was the expected Messiah and Greek philosophical doubts that divine being could in any way became a human person.
Athanasius demonstrated that the life of Jesus was prophesied in the Old Testament and discussed the moral necessity that the Creator of the world must also renew it. He writes that the Incarnation of God as man was a necessary act of God given the reality of human evil. That is, God had to become man to save man from sin and death.
Athanasius argues that human wrong-doing placed two options before God. He either could uproot mankind and begin again (since a morally perfect being cannot forever endure moral evil) or ignore his own eternal character by allowing evil to continue. Of course, the latter is not really possibly since God cannot deny his own goodness. He who has lived in utter love, justice, and truthfulness from all eternity can hardly become an atheist or moral relativist.
Nor could God ignore the problem, allowing evil to gain an eternal foothold in creation. After all, if it is foolish for veterinarians or dog owners to pretend an unsafe animal poses no threat to family and friends, then it is utterly impossible for God to pretend evil is good and that a world filled with death is alive. Man’s sin presented God with what Athanasius termed a “divine dilemma”: God could either euthanize the human race or deny his own character.
Of course, to put the human race down in its beginning—like a diseased dog—would have been far from glorious. The world is a lesser place without our dog and I always will miss her. My family wept when we ended Chloe’s life and it pains us still to consider how many romps in the snow or football games with our sons (she loved to chase punts) were lost.
How much more sorrowful it would have been for God to destroy the human race: to abort before its birth every good deed and brave act, every great book and every wild adventure. Shakespeare would not have existed, nor Abraham Lincoln, nor Dutch painting, nor Gothic cathedrals. There would have been no French baguettes.
Whatever world God subsequently recreated, it would not have been this one (even if it was a close replacement) and God himself eternally would have pondered the good that was lost. A trillion eons into eternity, he would have remembered the world that never was—to his own regret and shame. As Athanasius framed it, “indifference to the ruin of His work before His very eyes would argue not goodness in God but limitation.”
Faced with the impossibility of ignoring his own moral perfection or the reality of human evil, God ordained an effective solution: he himself became man to redeem mankind. Of course, God did not become man to understand human suffering in the same way I might have become dog to understand Chloe since he perfectly knows who we are and what we need. God became man to show us the path to life and provide a remedy for our illness.
During the period Chloe grew ill and subsequently was euthanized, my daughter and I were reading Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. While many lessons exist, the clearest one to me is the following: while I learned too late how Chloe might be saved, God planned the renewal of humanity from eternity.
Dogs that we are, God becomes one of us to take our lethal sickness into his own body and die so we could live. I would not have died so Chloe could live, nor would I have permitted my wife or children to do so. But God sent his son—very God of very God as the Nicene Creed teaches (a creed inspired by and even attributed to Athanasius)—to die so anyone who believes in him might live. That is truly good news.
Jeffrey E. Ford earned a Ph.D in European History from the University of Wisconsin—Madison. He currently resides and writes in Virginia.