In the midst of the tumultuous 4th century, God raised up a smart and holy priest from the church of Alexandria, Athanasius. Near the beginning of his long career of defending the orthodoxy of the Church, he wrote a little book, On the Incarnation, vigorously defending the core truths of the Gospel: the divinity of Christ, the humanity of Christ, the logic of the cross, the historicity of the resurrection, etc.
There’s one argument that Athanasius makes for the Christian faith that is very peculiar, at least to our modern ears.
“[T]hey who disbelieve in the Resurrection afford a strong proof against themselves,” he writes, “if instead of all the spirits and the gods worshipped by them casting out Christ – who they say is dead – Christ on the contrary proves them all to be dead.” (31) The dead have no power, he explains, yet Christ is daily changing people’s lives, so he can’t be dead. The pagan gods and goddesses, on the other hand, “show themselves dead at the presence of Christ, their pomp being reduced to impotence and vanity.”
Then he provides concrete proof that Christ is truly alive and more powerful than pagan gods: “[B]y the Sign of the Cross all magic is stopped, and all witchcraft brought to nought, and all the idols are being deserted and left, and every unruly pleasure is checked, and every one is looking up from earth to heaven…” (31)
In other words, evil flees from the Sign of the Cross, therefore Christ really is Lord.
Athanasius repeats this argument throughout his work:
– “Here’s one proof of the divinity of the Savior: what mere man or magician or tyrant or king was ever able by himself to engage with so many, and to fight the battle against all idolatry and the whole demoniacal host and all magic? […] For the same gods the pagans used to worship, they are now deserting, and the one who they used to mock as one crucified, him they worship as Christ, confessing him to be God. And they that are called gods among them are routed by the Sign of the Cross…” (53)
– “Whereas formerly demons used to deceive men’s fancy, occupying springs or rivers, trees or stones, and thus imposed upon the simple by their juggleries; now, after the divine visitation of the Word, their deception has ceased. For by the Sign of the Cross, though a man but use it, he drives out their deceits.” (47)
– “Demons, so far from cheating any more by illusions and prophecies and magic arts, if they so much as dare to make the attempt, are put to shame by the Sign of the Cross.” (55)
– “And let him come who would test by experience what we have now said, and in the very presence of the deceit of demons and the imposture of oracles and the marvels of magic, let him use the Sign of that Cross which is laughed at among them, and he shall see how by its means demons fly, oracles cease, all magic and witchcraft is brought to nought.” (48)
– “Now if by the Sign of the Cross, and by faith in Christ, death is trampled down, it must be evident before the tribunal of truth that it is none other than Christ Himself that has displayed trophies and triumphs over death, and made him lose all his strength.” (29)
So why is the Sign of the Cross so powerful? Because it represents Christ’s total victory over the unholy triad of Satan, sin, and death.
Demons are real and are active in the world. Scripture warns us, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5.8)
But Christ has overcome it all. So to every dark place in this world, let us confidently bring the power of his cross.