The creatio ex nihilo is inconceivable. We cannot think nothing. We cannot conceptualize nothing. We cannot imagine nothing. Nothing is neither a something nor the emptiness between somethings. Nothing is not the “stuff” from which God has made the world. Nothing is nothing, sheer non-existence, absolute nihility. Ancient philosophers found the concept absurd, as do contemporary cosmologists. Yet early Christian theologians found it necessary to invoke the inconceivable in order to properly elucidate the relationship between the world and Jesus Christ.
According to St Athanasius of Alexandria, creatures are constituted by an inherent propensity to return to nothingness. They are marked by a poverty of being. This is their nature. Nature (physis) “thus represents the radical dependency of the creature on the One who brought it into being, and apart from whom it is powerless to sustain itself in being” (Khaled Anatolios, Athanasius: The Coherence of his Thought, p. 55). Only by the grace and solicitude of the Word is it preserved from collapsing back into nothingness. The world may thus be said to be both “outside” of God (existing outside the divine essence) and “within” God (subsisting within the divine goodness and power). Even the Word’s assumption of a human body in the Incarnation does not obviate the divine transcendence but rather establishes it:
For he [the eternal Word] was not enclosed in the body, nor was he in the body but not elsewhere. Nor while he moved that [body] was the universe left void of his activity and providence. But, what is most marvelous, being the Word, he was not contained by anyone, but rather himself contained everything. And, as being in all creation, he is in essence outside everything but inside everything by his own power, arranging everything, and unfolding his own providence in everything to all things, and giving life to each thing and to all things together, containing the universe and not being contained, but being wholly, in every respect, in his own Father alone. So also, being in the human body, and himself giving it life, he properly gives life to the universe also, and was both in everything and outside all. And being made known from the body through the works, he was not unseen even from the working of the universe. (Inc. 17)
Created being therefore exists in a condition of total passivity; but for humanity this passivity is qualified and nuanced. Created in the divine image, created to know God and to enjoy perfect communion with the Son and through him with the Father, humanity has been entrusted with the task of actively maintaining its participation in the Uncreated. Khaled Anatolios elaborates:
We have already had occasion to see that, for Athanasius, creation’s very creatureliness (its physis) is characterized as an ontological poverty which renders it intrinsically susceptible to reversion to the nothingness whence it came. With a view to creation’s inherent ontological lack, the Word’s sustaining beneficence is often described in terms of a “protection” that allows creation to “remain” or persevere in being. The participation of the cosmos in the power of God is described in a way that emphasizes God’s activity and the passivity of the universe. … With regard to the relation between God and humanity, however, the matter is rather more complex. … The crucial difference is that humanity is ordained not only to receive and manifest this power, and not only to receive and manifest it consciously, but most crucially, it is ordained to receive it actively. That is, humanity is charged with the responsibility and the fundamental vocation of persevering in its receptivity to divine grace by an active striving. Athanasius describes humanity as not only protected and maintained by the Word, but also as charged with the task of consciously assenting and clinging to this protection and maintenance. Thus, the “added grace” bestowed upon humanity comes with the condition that humanity itself maintains its accessibility to this grace. Its “likeness” to God is simultaneous with the vocation to strive to retain that likeness: “so that as long as it preserved this likeness it would never depart from its conception of God or abandon the company of the holy ones, but holding on to the grace of the Giver, and also the proper power of the Father’s Word, it might rejoice and converse with God, living a life free from harm, truly blessed and immortal” (Gent. 2). (Coherence, p. 59)
For mankind, therefore, the condition of creaturely passivity is conditioned by free choice, without however diminishing the fundamental posture of passivity. “Humanity’s special position,” continues Anatolios, “is that of being ordained to actively maintain its own passivity” (p. 61). This is one of the principal themes of De Incarnatione:
And knowing again that free choice of human beings could turn either way, he secured beforehand, by a law and a set place, the grace given. For bringing them into his own paradise, he gave them a law, so that if they guarded the grace and remained good, they might have the life of paradise—without sorrow, pain, or care—besides having the promise of their incorruptibility in heaven; but if they were to transgress and turning away become wicked, they would know themselves enduring the corruption of death according to nature, and no longer live in paradise, but thereafter dying outside of it, would remain in death and in corruption. This also the Divine Scripture foretells, speaking in the person of God, “You may eat from all the trees in paradise; from the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat. On the day you eat of it, you shall die by death” (Gen 2:16-18). This “you shall die by death,” what else might it be except not merely to die, but to remain in the corruption of death? (Inc. 3)
Alluding to the story of original paradise, Athanasius cites the warning of God not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He characterizes this warning as a divine law: to turn from the Creator is not only to die but to enter into a condition of death. Sin must inevitably result in the expulsion from paradise.
Thus, then, God created the human being and willed that he should abide in incorruptibility; but when humans despised and overturned the comprehension of God, devising and contriving evil for themselves, as was said in the first work, then they received the previously threatened condemnation of death, and thereafter no longer remained as they had been created, but were corrupted as they had contrived; and, seizing them, death reigned. For the transgression of the commandment returned them to the natural state, so that, just as they, not being, came to be, so also they might rightly endure in time the corruption unto non-being. For if, having a nature that did not once exist, they were called into existence by the Word’s advent [parousia] and love for human beings, it followed that when human beings were bereft of the knowledge of God and had turned to things which exist not—evil is non-being, the good is being, since it has come into being from the existing God—then they were bereft also of eternal being. But this, being decomposed, is to remain in death and corruption. For the human being is by nature mortal, having come into being from nothing. But because of his likeness to the One who Is, which, if he had guarded through his comprehension of him, would have blunted his natural corruption, he would have remained incorruptible, just as Wisdom says, “Attention to the laws is the confirmation of incorruptibility” (Wis 6:18). And being incorruptible, he would have lived thereafter like God, as somewhere the Divine Scripture also signals, saying “I said you are gods, and all sons of the Most High; but you die like human beings and fall like any prince” (Ps 81:6-7). (Inc. 4)
Athanasius confronts us with the utter irrationality of human iniquity. How could man turn from the Good to lesser creaturely goods? Why would he freely reject Life and embrace death? It is as if man, with the entire world illumined by the sun, should close his eyes “and imagine darkness where no darkness exists, and then walk wandering as if in darkness, often falling and going down steep places, thinking it was dark and not light—for, imagining that he sees, he does not see at all—so, too, the soul of man, shutting fast her eyes, by which she is able to see God, has imagined evil for herself, and moving therein, knows not that, thinking she is doing something, she is doing nothing. For she is imagining what is not, nor is she abiding in her original nature; but what she is is evidently the product of her own disorder. For she is made to see God, and to be enlightened by Him; but of her own accord in God’s stead she has sought corruptible things and darkness” (Gent. 7). Such is the folly and madness of sin. It is the free choosing of unreality and delusion over reality and truth. Sin makes no sense. It can only be described as a surd.
In choosing self over God, man brings upon himself two consequences: nullity and death and the loss of the deifying knowledge of the Creator.
And so man was expelled from paradise. Cherubim and a flaming sword now bar the way to the tree of life.