Throughout theological history, there have been many theories set forth regarding the origin and theological meaning of human mortality.  Some, seeing mortality as the result of a departure from a pristine existence in the Garden of Eden, root the advent of human mortality in the “fall” of Adam and Eve by virtue of their disobedience of God’s commandment not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Others, especially those influenced by reflections upon the theories of biological evolution, understand human mortality as something which is the natural state of existence, the peculiar aspect which all things in the impermanent universe share in common.

For those who have read my previous thoughts on the subject, it should be plainly obvious where I come down on the issue, and I have argued strenuously that I believe it is possible to assume the latter position while still putting forward a thoroughly biblical and theologically tenable understanding of the nature of human existence in relationship to God, the problem of evil, and the ultimate purposes of God within the universe.

Nevertheless, I was extremely intrigued to come across a fairly developed argument from St. Athanasius on this very topic.  The selection from which I’ll be quoting is from his famous On the Incarnation of the Word, a book which I’ve read at least a dozen times.  That notwithstanding, this passage came as a bit of a surprise to me, so I thought I’d set down a few reflections from the great defender of orthodoxy’s thoughts on the nature of human mortality and the problem of unbecoming.

NOTE: All the quotations that follow can be found in the first chapter of On The Incarnation of the Word, a free translation of which can be found here.

Some Context

Of course, the purpose of On The Incarnation of the Word is ultimately apologetic.  In this short treatise, Athanasius follows several lines of argument in his efforts to establish a start to a fully developed understanding of the purpose of Christ’s Incarnation, and what–exactly–Christ has accomplished to secure the salvation and recreation of the human race.  I say “fully developed,” for Athanasius does not simply focus on the bare act of Atonement in describing the work of Christ; rather, his argument spans from the creation of the universe all the way through the consummation of history. His intention in establishing such an all-encompassing scope for the discussion of Christ’s atonement is ultimately to show that in all things–from creation, to Incarnation, to consummation–Christ is beginning and end, the Artificer and grand completer of the Godhead’s purposes in the universe.  As he powerfully asserts at the beginning:

…the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.

The Incarnation of Christ, therefore, is not a fluke, nor it is an alien notion, as if one should find it peculiar that the Godhead is made manifest in the flesh through the Word.  To the contrary, in Athanasius’ view, such a miracle is entirely keeping with the eternal nature and purposes of God in creation, and is therefore the most “fitting” thing that one might perceive God to do.

In the Beginning

So it is at the moment of creation that Athanasius begins his grand argument, and his fundamental principle here is clear: the universe exists because of the good will and intentional designs of the Godhead by which God has created all things through the Word.  The Epicureans, he argues, err because they see the universe as self-originated and inherently random (e.g., meaningless and haphazardly proceeding), when in fact there is Mind behind the ordering and purposing of its constituent and diverse parts.  So also the Platonists have a deficient view, for as Athanasius criticizes, they make God no Creator at all, for the Mind “behind” all things is merely an organizer of pre-existent matter.  Such a God is not worthy of the honorifics of “Maker” or “Artificer” if this God, like a carpenter, is merely capable of only shaping and crafting the raw materials which must exist independently of himself if he is to support his trade.  And finally, Athanasius quickly brushes off the Gnostics, for they erode God of any part in the creation whatsoever, adding to the story their inventions of intermediary deities who carry out the work of origination and construction of the cosmos.

In these criticisms, Athanasius is not terrifically thorough, but his point is not necessarily to a launch a full-on polemic against any or all of these philosophies of universal origination.  Rather, he raises the specter of their error in order to establish his own point: all that exists, exists because the eternal God has, through the eternal Word of God, brought it into being.  The notion of creation ex nihilo is especially important for Athanasius, for later in this work he will use this understanding to show that God’s motivations in salvation are not merely out of love or mercy. Rather, there is, for Athanasius, something of God’s honor at stake.  After all, if God has called creation out of existence from nothingness, this creation could only proceed by God’s determined and purposed will through the power of Word. For Athanasius, a Platonic understanding does not suffice in describing God’s motivations for Incarnation, for what would the Deity care if that which were merely shaped or organized were to fall to ruin?  If, however, this creation which proceeds originally and ultimately from the Divine will were to return to nothingness, would not God’s purposes in creation be shown ultimately to be vacuous of power and glory? So then, to understand God’s Word as the source and originator of all things ex nihilo is foundational for any entry into understanding the nature of the great salvation which God has wrought though the self-same Word.

Having established Athanasius’ clear insistence on the fundamental understanding of creatio ex nihilo, what does he understand to be the nature of human mortality?

The Nature of Creation

To Athanasius, the creation is brought into being out of nothingness, but is to be understood in this state as “impermanent.”  In the Athanasian theology of creation, this impermanence is circular and enduring, for even as the creation is called forth out of non-existence, so too in its impermanence it is bound, in its natural state of impermanence, to return to the same.  However, God has reserved a special state of being for the human race, and he notes that it is this special distribution of grace upon the human species that grants unto it a permanence not to be found elsewhere in creation:

Grudging existence to none therefore, [God] made all things out of nothing through His own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ and of all these His earthly creatures He reserved especial mercy for the race of men. Upon them, therefore, upon men who, as animals, were essentially impermanent, He bestowed a grace which other creatures lacked—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.

So we see that in Athanasius’ thinking, human persons are created “essentially impermanent”–there is nothing naturally distinguishing in the human species’ measure of permanence from the whole of the universe in which it finds itself.  In this way, the hope of permanence, of immortality, rests not in the manner of creatureliness, but rather in the bestowal of grace by God to the human race that enables the transcendence of the inevitable impermanence of mortal unbecoming. In other words, immortality and awareness of the divine is a gift from God to humanity, a miracle of creating-divination by which humanity is endowed with the imago dei, and is in this state able to commune with God, both rationally and immortally.

What is particularly interesting about this perspective, then, is how Athanasius applies this understanding to the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve.  While it is certainly to him the first pinnacle turning point in the experience of mortality for the human race (Christ’s recreation of humanity through Incarnation will be the second…), what distinguishes Athanasius from many modern perspectives on the Fall is that the mortality to which Adam and Eve become subject is not the advent of a state of being previously alien to the creation, but is–in fact–a manner of return to the fundamental aspect of creation from which humanity has been heretofore preserved by the grace and mercy of God:

[God] set them in His own paradise, and laid upon them a single prohibition. If they guarded the grace and retained the loveliness of their original innocence, then the life of paradise should be theirs, without sorrow, pain or care, and after it the assurance of immortality in heaven. But if they went astray and became vile, throwing away their birthright of beauty, then they 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.

In many of the modern theological perspectives of human mortality, the Fall signals the advent of something entirely new for the nature of the creation, the beginning of impermanence where immortality and pristine perfection has previously held sway.  But for Athanasius, the Fall changes nothing for creation, but changes everything for humanity’s place within it.  Thrust outside the Garden (the metaphor of God’s grace and preserving mercy), humanity is now re-integrated into the impermanence of the creation, having cast off the preserving mercy of God through their self-willing disobedience.  In this wild, untamed world of unbecoming, they become enslaved to the natural law of death, and the final outcome of this enslavement can only be the inevitable spiral into unbecoming and non-existence:

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 the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again.

An Existential Crisis

The implication of humanity’s plight, in Athanasius’ thought, is thus quite clear.  The corruption and death which humanity has been thrust into by its sinfulness is not simply an issue of “spiritual” death, or even of the prospect of an immortal existence in “hell.”  To Athanasius, the problem of the Fall is of the most profound existential crises possible.  That is, humanity is not just separated from God and heading toward an eternity of eternal torment or punishment or fill-in-the-blank.  Much more serious to Athanasius is the inevitability that the corruption which has taken root in the human existence is ultimately annihilating.  Humanity is not simply ostracized from God; it is actually going to be snuffed out into the oblivion of non-existence by the weight of its own natural impermanence, and there is nothing that it can do to fight against the tide of unbecoming.  In its sinfulness, humanity has sold itself over to the consuming power of corruption and death, and its enslavement will result in absolute and irrecoverable dissolution and destruction.

For some theological ears, these notions of “annihilation” and “unbecoming” can sound not only alien, but even heterodox.  Annihilationism, of course, is not an orthodox perspective regarding the fate of the human person, so it is difficult to discern Athanasius’ real point in these passages if one is too quick to cast judgment.  Ultimately, Athanasius is, of course, not arguing that human persons are annihilated by God. He does rhetorically stress the point of corruption and unbecoming, however, because, in his understanding, a return to non-existence is precisely the hope for humanity if God in Christ does nothing to intervene.  Over and against those who would argue for the automatic immortality of the soul as a safeguard for the persistence of human persons beyond death, Athanasius paints the grimmest picture possible of the human prospect in its enslavement to the corruption of is nature: it is enslavement from which there is no escape.  Death is a voracious, all-consuming corruption which devours all until literally no-thing is left. And Athanasius’ purpose in depicting such an extreme existential crisis is to show forth precisely how desperate humanity is for rescue, and how ultimately gracious God is in sending a rescuer for the “pitiable race,” even the self-same Word that had made all things in the beginning.

Theological Implications

While books could (and should) be written on the theological implications of this understanding, I think one of the most important is Athanasius’ insistence on the absolute dependency of the human species on the mercy and grace of God for salvation.  Even before its fall into corruption, humanity is understood by Athanasius as remaining in permanence and immortality only because of the good will and pleasure of God’s gift.  And following the descent into corruption and re-entry into the creation-cycle of death and unbecoming, humanity’s only prospect for return to permanence and immortality is the gracious rescue of the species by its beneficent creator who comes to save the day and restore the good purposes of God within creation.

Such a perspective is healthy and needed in today’s theological landscape, for I think that dualism has created something of a laziness in theological renderings of the problem of sin and death. Because our dualistic theologies presume a permanence of the human person on the basis of sheer possession of an immortal soul, the problem of sinfulness is not one of existence and permanence, but merely of experience of the afterlife.  While there is something certainly existential in this perspective, it does not reach the levels of crisis of being that Athanasius’ thinking leads us.  Salvation, in these theologies, is resolved primarily on the level of working out what God does to save us from “hell”, while Athanasius’ perspective, I think, more directly engages the problem of corruption and death which are the hallmarks of the human condition separated from God.  Athanasius’ offering also goes “all in” for the necessity of the resurrection, for apart from this recreating work of Christ by the power of God, there is ultimately no transcendence of the impermanence of the natural order of creation, and humanity can have no recourse to permanence and escape un-becoming apart from God’s gracious intervention.