Slowly Reading St Athanasius: Staring Death, Corruption, and the Nothing in the Face

by John Stamps

Christ is risen! The very best gift Eastern Orthodoxy can offer to the rest of Christendom is that we know how to say “Christ is risen!” with joie-de-vivre and supreme panache.1 We refuse to broker a deal with death. We name death for the great evil that it is. Because of that, for forty days we can sing con brio about Jesus’ triumph over death and the grave, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs, bestowing life.” Truly He is risen.

If we don’t speak about Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection from the death on the third day with clarity and conviction, none of the rest of what St Athanasius says here about evil and non-being/Goodness and Being is going to make any difference or yield tolerable sense.

As you might have noticed, St Athanasius is not very systematic.2 He constantly repeats himself. He says he is going to talk about Incarnation. Then he launched into a prolonged discussion about Creation. Now the entire discussion is brought to a screeching halt with the densest and most terse definition of evil I’ve ever encountered: “Evil is non-being, the good is being, since it has come into being from the existing God” (De Inc. §4).

Then St Athanasius rinses and repeats.

The great Coptic theologian George Bebawi calls this use of repetition and looping by St Athanasius “a concentric style of writing.”3 To make sense of De Incarnatione, we repeatedly loop through the circles of Creation, Fall, and Incarnation. This style of writing is a bit confusing at first. But the loops create a cumulative effect on the careful reader. For example, Athanasius doesn’t discuss evil in a vacuum. You will look in vain for an abstract or theoretical discussion of evil. You slowly start to realize what St Athanasius says about evil is carefully and concretely interrelated with what he says about Creation and Incarnation.

We’re now ready to unpack what St Athanasius has to say about evil.

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 (κενωθέντας/kenothentas) 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 (κενωθήναι/kenothenai) 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). (De Inc. §4)

The bolded sentence is surely the world’s most brusque and abrupt definition of evil ever made by a major theologian. It might also be one of the most unexpected. It summarizes key arguments spread throughout the earlier work, Contra Gentes, especially §7. St Athanasius expected us to have already read and digested it. And for that I apologize. So we’re going to play catch-up ball. Let’s huddle up.

Remember that St Athanasius has been engaged in a running duel with the Dualists. This is yet one more shot: “So since this view of theirs seems unsound, we must present clearly the truth of the church’s knowledge,4 that evil neither came from God nor was in God, nor did it exist in the beginning, nor has it any independent reality” (Contra Gentes §7).

This is an amazing assertion by St Athanasius. What does the church know about evil? The church knows this one truth — evil is non-being, evil is non-existence, evil is not a substance, evil is a great absurdity. Evil looms large as a horrific force, yet evil has no existence of its own. We need to unpack this.5

As usual, Meijering elegantly summarizes the dilemma the church faces when we try to describe evil: “Either God is not the Creator of all things or He is the Creator of evil as well, if God is the Creator of all things and evil is a substance.”

St Athanasius has eloquently argued up to this point, Yes, God is the Creator of all things. No surprise there. Everything that God makes is good. No, God did not create evil. No surprise there either. God didn’t create evil when He created the heavens and the earth. God didn’t create evil when He created the earth or animals or human beings. God did not create evil when He created the angelic beings. Now the last point is a surprise. No, evil is not a substance. Evil is not a thing. Evil lurches and jars us back into non-being.

What Creation does for good, evil strives with all its unholy might to un-do. Goodness creates, evil un-creates. Goodness creates the universe and fills it with being. But evil negates everything it can. It works to dissolve God’s good creation back into non-being. Evil is our great downward slide into nothingness.

Evil is not part of Creation, not one chunk, not even one atom. That means, for example, that matter is not evil. Bodies are not evil. Most important of all, the human body is not evil. Embodiment is not evil. Immortal souls don’t “fall” into bodies as punishment for their sins (Phaedrus 248c).

Evil is not a zero. At least zero has a placeholder. Evil has no such proxy. It is naught.

Evil is a shadow. It is that dark shape that is formed when light has been blocked out. It’s a jagged tear in the fabric of the universe.
What is the metaphysics of a shadow?
What is the ontology of a hole or a rip?
The metaphysics of evil is The Nothing, The Nada. Karl Barth calls evil “das Nichtige,” because everything sounds more ominous in German.

We can go further. Evil is not the absence of Good, but the outright rejection of the Good. We don’t pull out our eyes and blind ourselves like Oedipus, nothing so drastic. Instead we do something more incredibly stupid. We simply shut our eyes to the Good. We play the nihilist version of “Marco Polo” or “Blind Man’s Bluff.” We all scrunch our eyes down tight and pretend we can see. The sun’s light still shines. But we don’t see the light simply because we refuse to see it. We have stupided ourselves.

But they were like someone who closes his eyes when the sun is shining and all the earth is illuminated by its light, and imagines darkness which does not exist, and then wanders about missing his way as if in the dark, often falling and stumbling over precipices, thinking it was not light but dark, for he thinks he is looking, but does not see at all. In similar fashion the soul of men, shutting the eye through which it could see God, imagined evil, and moving therein did not realize that, although it thought it was acting, it does nothing at all, for it was inventing non-existent things. And it did not remain as it had been made but appeared such as it had defiled itself. (Contra Gentes §7)

This is a startling analysis of Evil. We don’t exactly create evil ex nihilo. Instead we blindly imagine evil ex nihilo. We invent non-existent things.7

We have reversed Plato’s famous cave. At least in the cave we saw shadows dancing along the wall. Now we don’t even see shadows. We see nothing. We refuse to see. We have shut our eyes to the sunshine. We pretend our self-imposed blindness is sight. We delude ourselves that we do see. We spurn the light that would illuminate our paths. Our self-inflicted blindness is sheer stupidity. If only we would open our eyes, we’d stop our self-inflicted injuries at once. We wouldn’t fall down manholes. We wouldn’t trip over sleeping dogs. We wouldn’t blindly march over steep cliffs to our destruction. All because we refuse to open our eyes.

Christian theologians love to speak of Christ’s kenosis. Christ Jesus, being in the very form of God, begrudged His rightful divinity not one bit, but emptied Himself to become a human being. And boy howdy, did He empty Himself. Not just becoming any human being but He became a slave, dying the tortuous death reserved for slaves, criminals, and traitors — crucifixion on a cross.

Evil parodies Christ’s kenosis:

When human beings became emptied (κενωθέντας/kenothentas) of the knowledge of God and had turned to things which exist not … then they became emptied (κενωθήναι/kenothenai) also of eternal being. (De Inc §4)

We can intensify Fr John Behr’s most excellent translation here. Human beings didn’t just become bereft. We were completely emptied out.

In the kenosis, the Word of God emptied Himself of what properly belonged to Him for our salvation. But not us. We suffered a double kenosis of evil. Neither knowledge of God nor eternal being properly belonged to us. Both were gifts on loan. When we rejected God, we were emptied into Death, Corruption, and Self-Inflicted Annihilation. It’s like we owned two bottles filled with the most excellent vintage red wines — one filled with knowing God and the other filled with eternal being — and we simply poured them out on the ground out of sheer spite. And the only being that remains for mortals if you spurn eternal being is the existential possibility of non-being. Our invention is horrifying. It’s pure nihilism.

Postmoderns are way more afraid of God than they are afraid of the Nihil. California nihilism surfs around the edge of the Abyss and pretends we’re not terrified. Cheerfully idiotic NorCal oblivion is thinkable. God is not. Some indeed slip and fall into destruction. But we continue our ménage à trois with Death and the Abyss. What else can you do when you no longer believe in your heart of hearts that God is good and He loves mankind? We are terrified. We are scared shitless of tumbling into the Nihil, the Nada. But if we mask our fears and anxieties with more and better diversions, the terror of the Nihil goes away, at least for a while anyway.

I’m reminded of the old waiter in Ernest Hemingway’s classic short story, “A Clean, Well Lighted Place.” What do you do when you can’t sleep at night? What do you do when life is emptied out of its meaning, if you don’t even have a wife and a warm bed to go home to? You try to feed the existential bulldog as best you can. But you can only hold him off so long. He keeps on growling, wanting to be fed. But how do you feed the Nothing? Maybe you even try to pray. But you can only pray blasphemies. Hemingway’s omniscient narrator observes:

What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread, It was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada. Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee. He smiled and stood before a bar with a shining steam pressure coffee machine.

Why read Martin Heidegger when you can read a really good Ernest Hemingway short story? “The light is very good,” Hemingway solemnly intones like God in Genesis. But apparently it’s not good enough to stave off the nada. Drinking strong coffee in a clean and pleasant cafe is a short-term fix at best. Death, Corruption, and the Nothing stare us in the face.

The second best gift we can offer our non-Orthodox brother and sisters in Christ is the Orthodox funeral service. We will let the mortician apply lipstick and makeup to corpses. But we steadfastly refuse to sugarcoat and prettify Death. We pray with great sobriety St John of Damascus’s sobering hymn:

Alas! What an agony the soul endures when from the body it is parting; how many are her tears for weeping, but there is none that will show compassion: unto the angels she turns with downcast eyes; useless are her supplications; and unto men she extends her imploring hands, but finds none to bring her rescue. (Tone 2)

Needless to say, we Orthodox don’t do “Celebrations of Life” during the funeral service itself. We’re not killjoys. We can toast and cheer the life of the recently departed all we want afterwards in the fellowship hall. But during the liturgy itself, the priest holds the floor. He soberly reminds us Death is the last enemy and certainly not to be trifled with. But God the Father has offered us the sure and certain promise that, with His Son, He will raise us from the dead.

We’ve talked plenty about Corruption, Death, and the Nothing in §4. St Athanasius and Mere Christianity have forced us to. If we don’t understand evil, then we won’t understand our wondrous salvation enacted by the Word of God’s incarnation. It’s my best practice to conclude with a de rigeur C.S. Lewis quotation. Here Lewis dots all the i’s and crosses all the t’s about creation ex nihilo and the only truly plausible Christian response to evil.

If you do not take the distinction between good and bad very seriously, then it is easy to say that anything you find in this world is a part of God. But, of course, if you think some things really bad, and God really good, then you cannot talk like that. You must believe that God is separate from the world and that some of the things we see in it are contrary to His will. Confronted with a cancer or a slum the Pantheist can say, ‘If you could only see it from the divine point of view, you would realise that this also is God.’ The Christian replies, ‘Don’t talk damned nonsense.’ For Christianity is a fighting religion. It thinks God made the world—that space and time, heat and cold, and all the colours and tastes, and all the animals and vegetables, are things that God ‘made up out of His head’ as a man makes up a story. But it also thinks that a great many things have gone wrong with the world that God made and that God insists, and insists very loudly, on our putting them right again. (Mere Christianity, p. 37)

In the next installment, there is no more hemming and hawing by St Athanasius. No more clearing our throats. No more procrastination. We’re actually going to start discussing the Incarnation. Why did the Word of God become incarnate? Wait and see.

 

Footnotes

[1] You’ll have to wait until the conclusion for the second-best gift.

[2] Nor am I.

[3] George Bebawi, “St. Athanasios: The Dynamics of Salvation.” Sobornost 8 (1986): 24–41.

[4] I corrected Robert Thompson’s most excellent translation in this spot. He wasn’t paying attention in §7 (“we must present clearly the truth of the church’s teaching…”). He simply copied-and-pasted his translation from §6. Copy-and-paste errors happen to the best of us.

[5] If you came to St Athanasius after reading St Augustine’s Confessions (for example, 3.7.12), the treatment of evil in De Incarnatione might surprise you a bit. Athanasius doesn’t argue that evil is a privation or absence of the good (privatio boni or steresis agathou). George Bebawi observes, “In fact Athanasios nowhere refers to evil being the absence of good. He does constantly speak of evil as non-existence or non-being, but this is based on his understanding of the true nature of man, and it is not merely an anti-Manichean definition.” I double-checked Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione, but I couldn’t find any place where evil is defined as the absence of good. Peter Leithart apparently couldn’t find it either (Athanasius, page 185). It’s an interesting omission.

[6] The first definition of naught in Merriam-Webster’s, not the second.

[7] I’m going to expand on humans inventing evil in §5. I’m putting yet another stake into the ground here.

(Go to “Incarnation of the Word”)

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7 Responses to Slowly Reading St Athanasius: Staring Death, Corruption, and the Nothing in the Face

  1. “Evil is non-being.”

    I didn’t know that St. Athanasius had said that – I haven’t read nearly as much of his writings as I should someday read! I have repeatedly argued that in a similar context – God is Creator of all things, and all God makes is good, therefore evil MUST be a non-thing. What’s strange is how this statement is sometimes misunderstood – as if it were the dualism which it is exactly is NOT.

    It’s nice to know that’s another of the things St. Athanasius wrote (over a thousand years ago)!

    Liked by 1 person

    • johnstamps2020 says:

      Hi Raina,
      The absolute firmness of St Athanasius about the nature of evil startled me too. It’s the way that Athanasius said it. That is, this is what we the church ***knows*** about God and evil at the very core of her being. This is the stone cold sober truth.

      And Alexandria is the intellectual center of the Roman world at that time. When Athanasius says this is what we ***know***, then I similarly wondered — is that what Antioch knew? Is this what Rome knew? Is this what Jerusalem knew?

      And in my own dating of these two books by St Athanasius, Constantine’s city didn’t even exist yet. I think St Athanasius wrote these two books around 318 AD as a precocious, very young man, pre-Nicaea, pre-Nicene council of 325 AD. [N.B. I agree with Meijering about the early dating of these two books; most everybody else thinks these books were written later because they’re incredulous a young person is capable of such deep theology. Meh.]

      Sixty or seventy years later, St Augustine of Hippo comes to roughly the same conclusion that evil is not a substance — “for God evil does not exist at all” — via Neo-Platonism (as described in his Confessions, VII.19). This view everyone knew in Alexandria about evil wasn’t apparently taught in the North African Bible Belt city of Thagaste.

      Anyway, thank you so much for your comments. And keep plugging away at St Athanasius during the pandemic. Maybe he can make a guest appearance in your next novel.
      Sincerely,
      John

      Liked by 3 people

      • Yes, I wouldn’t go for the argument “it’s incredulous a young person is capable of such deep theology,” either. What does that have to do with anything? God can give knowledge to the young just as well as to the old.

        Before I can plug away at St Athanasius I have to get my hands on his works which I haven’t done yet. I’ve read mostly bits and pieces here and there.

        I’m not sure how the genres I tend to enjoy writing would allow a guest appearance from someone like St Athanasius… If I ever do historical fiction, that could be a possibility.

        Liked by 1 person

        • johnstamps2020 says:

          – One of your characters could do time travel back to Alexandria! (OK, maybe not)

          – Well, there are other reasons I don’t think De Incarnatione is a later work. He doesn’t mention Arius. He doesn’t mention the homoousios from the Nicene Creed. For that matter, he doesn’t mention the 325 AD council of Nicea or its creed. He doesn’t mention Constantine.

          – So buy a copy of St Athanasius “On The Incarnation” and let the wild rumpus start! You’re getting in on the ground floor. Just the C.S. Lewis introduction alone is easily worth the price of the book. And if you read any Greek or are interested in Greek, St Vlad’s Press also publishes a version with Greek-English on facing pages.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Thanks for the link! I’ll check it out.

            I’ve heard of “On the Incarnation” before and thought it sounded interesting. What I read in the article above about how it’s written – working through creation, sin, all sorts of things – makes it only more interesting. That kind of approach makes complete sense to me.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. johnjlamb says:

    Evil seems more like anti-being than non-being, a disruption rather than a mere absence.

    Non-being seems good, the pristine womb out of which everything is born.

    If non-being is evil, why is an essential part of holiness always abiding in one’s nothingness?

    Liked by 1 person

    • johnstamps2020 says:

      – I agree, well, at least in part. Evil is not just non-being, evil is anti-being. Stay tuned to §5. Coming to Eclectic Orthodoxy soon, but perhaps not soon enough. Two weeks maybe? There’s one more piece in the pipeline.
      – But ***before*** God created the heavens and the earth, all things visible and invisible — insofar as we can use a temporal world like “before” — there wasn’t non-being. There was just God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Non-being only becomes possible when (there’s yet another temporal term) being has come into existence. I hope that isn’t too garbled or incoherent. But I think it’s true. FYI, everything I know or think I know about these matters comes from steal… I mean… leveraging “Philosophy for Understanding Theology” by my former philosopher professor, Diogenes Allen. It’s truly a great read. Out of principle, buy the Second Edition.
      – “The pristine womb” – sounds to me like Plato’s receptacle in the Timaeus i.e. the Craftsman/Demiurge is our father and the receptacle is our mother. And hopefully without sounding obnoxious (for I mean no offense), I don’t think a “pristine womb” is how Mere Christianity has typically thought about Creation. If I was trying to come up with an analogy, it’d be a “blank slate” – before there was a slate and before there was even a blank.
      – Can you comment further on “abiding in one’s nothingness?” No context for that comes to mind. Maybe because it’s Tuesday.

      Liked by 1 person

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