St Athanasius: The Fall of Man into the Body

Harry Clarke

Humanity was originally created to rejoice in God, knowing the Father through the Son in the Spirit. In this knowledge and communion humanity would have enjoyed immortal, incorruptible life. But something went awry and a spanner was thrown into the Edenic works. Man freely turned his inner vision away from God and focused his attention on himself and the sensory pleasures of the world:

Thus then, as we have said, the Creator fashioned the race of men, and thus meant it to remain. But men, making light of better things, and holding back from apprehending them, began to seek in preference things nearer to themselves. But nearer to themselves were the body and its senses; so that while removing their mind from the things perceived by thought, they began to regard themselves; and so doing, and holding to the body and the other things of sense, and deceived as it were in their own surroundings, they fell into lust of themselves, preferring what was their own to the contemplation of what belonged to God. Having then made themselves at home in these things, and not being willing to leave what was so near to them, they entangled their soul with bodily pleasures, vexed and turbid with all kind of lusts, while they wholly forgot the power they originally had from God. (Gent. 3)

The above passage from Contra Gentes is critical for understanding St Athanasius’s understanding of original sin and humanity’s need for salvation. Sin is the turning away from the contemplation of the Holy Trinity and embedding oneself within oneself and the sensory experience of the world. It is a redirection of vision and thought, a decisive movement away from one’s proper end and good towards creatures and self. The result is a form of captivity to the body. As Athanasius phrases the matter, we have chosen that which is nearer or closer to ourselves, our physical, sensual existence. This may sound as if Athanasius is denigrating human embodiment; but in fact the opposite is the case. Embodiment is proper to human being; but it was not intended by the Creator to be the center and focus of human selfhood. Khaled Anatolios explains:

Whereas the Platonic tradition tends to portray the body as representing an estrangement from the true intelligible self, for Athanasius the significance of the body is precisely that it is “what is closest” to us and thus represents the danger not so much of self-estrangement as of self-indulgence. The body is meant to be the point of departure, as it were, for the ascent of self-transcendence. When it becomes instead the end-point of an orientation to self-indulgence, its proper ontological dynamism is inverted. … [T]he soul, instead of piloting the body in conformity with the ascent of the mind, becomes enmeshed in the desires and fears of the body, inverting the proper teleology of the human structure and replacing it with a sheer indulgence in its own undirected and self-intoxicating movement. The result is that the body also then performs actions that are “the opposite” of its natural movements of self-transcending ascent. (Athanasius, pp. 45-46)

Instead of being the platform for the ascent to divinity, the body has become “the very point of human separation from God, not because of its materiality, but because it has become an idol” (John Behr, Nicene Faith, I:177). We have made our home in the world and its pleasures; and once having alienated ourselves from our loving Creator, we find ourselves embroiled in shame, guilt, disordered desires, idolatry, violence, and death:

But the truth of this one may see from the man who was first made, according to what the holy Scriptures tell us of him. For he also, as long as he kept his mind to God, and the contemplation of God, turned away from the contemplation of the body. But when, by counsel of the serpent, he departed from the consideration of God, and began to regard himself, then they not only fell to bodily lust, but knew that they were naked, and knowing, were ashamed. But they knew that they were naked, not so much of clothing as that they had become stripped of the contemplation of divine things, and had transferred their understanding to the contraries. For having departed from the consideration of the one and the true, namely, God, and from desire of Him, they had thenceforward embarked in various lusts and in those of the several bodily senses. Next, as is apt to happen, having formed a desire for each and sundry, they began to be habituated to these desires, so that they were even afraid to leave them: whence the soul became subject to cowardice and alarms, and pleasures and thoughts of mortality. For not being willing to leave her lusts, she fears death and her separation from the body. But again, from lusting, and not meeting with gratification, she learned to commit murder and wrong. (Gent. 3)

St Athanasius’s analysis of the human condition is spot-on. Clearly he has reflected deeply, not only on the Genesis account of Adam and Eve in the garden, but on life as it is lived and experienced. For human beings sin is typically not a great Luciferian event—”Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.” It is far more subtle. It’s as simple as attending to that which compellingly attracts our attention or promises immediate gratification. What is closer to us than our bodies?

May I offer you an apple?

(Go to “The Nothingness of the World”)

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15 Responses to St Athanasius: The Fall of Man into the Body

  1. PJ says:

    Whereas St. Irenaeus saw the fall was providential, a “necessary transgression,” which allowed grace to abound through the boon of the incarnation, St. Athanasius seems to have seen it simply as a great tragedy, a supreme disruption, totally deviant. Whereas St. Irenaeus saw Adam and Eve as immature “children,” St. Athanasius seems to have seen them as perfect, utterly enraptured in the contemplation of God. What do you think of these differences, Father? Obviously, the Church by and large adopted the Athanasian perspective — especially in the west. Personally, I find the Irenaean vision more compelling — and more in accordance with what we have since discovered through the natural sciences.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Good question, PJ. I hope it generates some discussion. In his Nicene Faith Fr John Behr states a couple of times that St Athanasius is not so much speculating on primordial beginnings as he is reflecting on the human condition in light of the event of salvation and the experience of ascetics like St Antony. Athanasius cites Adam only as an example. He is not giving us “history.” But you are right, Athanasius certainly seems to have believed that original humanity did enjoy an unbroken communion with God.

      The natural sciences and the hypothesis of evolution pose a real challenge for us. As far as I can tell, Orthodox theologians, unlike their Catholic counterparts, have been hesitant to address this controversial issue. When I read internet Orthodox discussions on the original creation of mankind, I sometimes feel like we are back in the Scopes monkey trial.


    • Agni Ashwin says:

      I thought that Orthodoxy largely adopted the perspective of Irenaeus, that Adam and Eve were not perfect, had not reached the limit of human potential?


      • Agni,
        Yes, Orthodoxy teaches that Adam & Eve were created innocent & in the image of God. They were to develop into the likeness of God. When they sinned in Paradise the image of God was tarnished (although not totally lost) & the capability to develop into the likeness was lost as sin, evil & death now reigned. In the East mankind became, for lack of a better term, diseased or sick, i.e. corrupted & mortal. Christ through His Incarnation, Crucifixion & Resurrection reunited mankind with God by healing the sickness & destroying our enemy death through His Death & thereby bestowing Life. Christ suceeded in doing what Adam failed in.

        This is a very basic explanation & hopefully Fr. Aidan will jump in to flesh it out.


    • PJ;
      I do not see the “perfection” aspect in Athanasius that you do nor the “necessary transgression” in Irenaeus. Christ was not God’s fall-back-just-in-case plan, or His Plan B if Plan A failed. I am uncomfortable with your statement

      It seems evident that death has always been present, yet perhaps man was given the opportunity — at the very dawn of the species, when God first breathed spiritual fire into our animal form — to avoid spiritual death, or even physical death

      Adam & Eve were united to God before the fall as they were sinless (innocent). The separation came as the result of their sin which in turn resulted in death.

      I for the most part like your phrase “true myth” regards Adam & Eve perhaps “true allegory” might be better as I am uncomfortable with the word “myth”. I think far too many try to take the Scriptures far too linear & literal historically speaking. They then try to “prove” everything in order to “prove” the validity of the Scriptures to the sceptically-minded. The Scriptures reveal God’s truth of love & salvation of fallen mankind. They were never meant to reveal only “facts” IMO. For me there is a difference between historical truth as revealed in Scripture vs. historical facts as revealed in Scripture. In our present culture fact is equated to truth is equated to proof.

      We cannot know one way or another via scientific empirical methods that the Creation & Fall stories of Genesis happened exactly as they are written in the Scriptures–i.e. the historical facts. But by looking at the expanse & complexity of the Cosmos & the fallenness of our own lives, we can know that a Creation & Fall happened that are written about in the Scriptures–i.e. the historical truth.

      Anyway, just my two bits 🙂


  2. PJ says:

    I suppose I’ve always read the Adam and Eve story a “true myth” describing mankind’s tragic yet constant abuse of freedom, which turns his vision from the Creator to the created, and thus mires him in sin and death. It seems evident that death has always been present, yet perhaps man was given the opportunity — at the very dawn of the species, when God first breathed spiritual fire into our animal form — to avoid spiritual death, or even physical death, so long as he clung to the Word and not to the world. I don’t know … If the mystery of Christ was not so obvious in the saints, maybe I could not believe …


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Have you ever read C. S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet? Malacandra (Mars) is a planet in which the intelligent species have not fallen into sin, yet they are mortal nonetheless. But most importantly, they do not fear death, which they understand is simply a transition to a higher life with their God. Is it possible for Orthodoxy to entertain this thesis?


  3. PJ says:

    There’s an interesting line in “On the Incarnation”:

    “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. This is what Holy Scripture tells us, proclaiming the command of God, “Of every tree that is in the garden thou shalt surely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ye shall not eat, but in the day that ye do eat, ye shall surely die.”[7] “Ye shall surely die”—*not just die only, but remain in the state of death and of corruption*” (1, 3).

    “Not just die only, but remain in the state of death and of corruption.”

    As you say, perhaps man was meant to be mortal, but that death went from passage into light to passage into darkness.

    But then, why did God make man in the body to begin with, if only to die and dwell spiritually with Him? Does resurrection still make sense, if we “normalize” death, even if just a bit?


    • I think the problem here is that the thinking thus far has been in either/or scenarios. Either man was created mortal (subject to death) or immortal (without death). There is a 3rd option–potential for mortality or immortality. Orthodoxy teaches that Adam was created as a personal being with freedom to choose. We might say that Adam was to freely choose between either mortality (death) or immortality (life). Reading this morning in Lossky he states,

      “Can one say that Adam, in his paradisiacal condition, was really immortal? ‘God did not creat death,’ says the book of Wisdom. For archaic theology–St. Irenaeus for example–Adam was neither necessarily mortal nor necessarily immortal: his nature, rich in possibilities, malleable, could be constantly nourished by grace & transformed by it to the point of surmounting all the risks of aging & death. The possibilities of mortality existed but in order to be made impossible. Such was the test of Adam’s freedon. The tree of life at the center paradise & its nourishing of immortality offered therefore a possibility: thus our Christo-ecclesiastical realities, the Eucharist, which heals us, nourishes & fortifies us, spiritually & bodily. One must feed oneself with God to attain freely deification. And it is this personal effort that Adam failed.” (Orthodox Theology: An Introduction, pp77-78)

      Met. Kallistos Ware, Fr. Alexander Schmemann & Vladimir Lossky all write that to try to determine what the ramifications are regards the Incarnation & Resurrection had Adam & Eve not sinned is a pointless endeavor for us. Personally, I not only view it as a pointless endeavor, but potentially a dangerous endeavor as well. We have only experienced sin & death; therefore for the Incarnation, Crucifixion & Resurrect, are necessary for our salvation. That is enough…or rather that should be enough.


  4. coffeezombie says:

    This is a very timely post, and a wonderful reminder for those of us who, approaching the mid-point of the Fast, find ourselves beating our breast and lamenting, “Is there no steak in Paradise?!” 😀


  5. PJ says:

    Hey, I’m in the middle of Easter feasting. 😛


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