In the devil class, we noted out a strange feature of the New Jerusalem as portrayed in Revelation: the kings of all nations come to pay tribute there. It seems that we are to envision the continued existence of the system of “the nations” in the Kingdom of God — and that God’s glory somehow requires glorification, not just in general as Agamben points out, but specifically from the rulers of this world. This trope has deep roots in the prophetic expansion of the Deuteronomistic paradigm, an expansion that made YHWH an actor on the world stage. Even when God is using a pagan ruler as a mere tool, the glory of that ruler seems to contribute to God’s prestige — all the moreso when God ultimately rejects and punishes that ruler, showing himself to be the true sovereign.
It is in this context that we must understand Athanasius’s On the Incarnation. This might seem surprising, because in many ways the text renders the Last Judgment an awkward afterthought, instead emphasizing very this-worldly concerns — Christ’s victory over idols, over pagan oracles, over the fear of death, over sensuality, over violence…. These strangely “empirical” proofs of the reality of the resurrection take priority over Athanasius’s metaphysical musings about the corruptibility of the flesh, and indeed, one almost gets the impression that God sets himself a hard problem (how to fix human corruption while nonetheless remaining true to his word that humans must suffer death for their disobedience?) so that it will be all the more awesome when he solves it. At every step, Athanasius emphasizes that God in Christ is as strong as possible, as glorious as possible, an insistence that is all the more striking when he tries to “spin” his death on the cross as the greatest possibly glory rather than as a mark of the deepest shame.
The text was most likely written before Constantine’s conversion, but it seems that such an event is a logical outgrowth of the general scheme Athanasius lays out — after all, what could be more glorious than for the ruler of the unprecedentedly large and powerful Roman empire to testify to Christ’s divinity and victory? The development of Christianity into an imperial religion was not the only way it could have played out, perhaps, but it was also not arbitrary. Desire for recognition on the world political scene is built into the apocalyptic paradigm within which Christian theology traces its idiosyncratic path.